Many people think you have to travel far and wide to see stunning geological marvels. However, we believe you don’t always need to hop on a plane to see the planet’s most spectacular sights. We’re convinced there are delightful destinations in your very own backyard. We’ve created a list of 15 lesser-known natural wonders you should take the time to see, and several of them might be just a short car ride away!
1. Mammoth Cave (Kentucky)
Did you know the world’s longest discovered cave system resides in the middle of Kentucky? With over 400 miles explored, Mammoth Cave tops the list, and according the National Park Service, there could still be about 600 miles left to explore!
If you ever have the chance to visit Mammoth Cave, there is something for everyone, even those who don’t want to venture underground for a cave tour. You can camp, fish, hike, and ride horses.
2. Cahaba River Lilies (West Blocton, Alabama)
Traveling through Alabama in May or June? We have the perfect scenic detour for you! Each year on the Cahaba River, Cahaba lilies bloom in the middle of the water, and it’s a truly breathtaking sight.
According to the Cahaba River Society, this special aquatic plant only grows in three states (Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina), and the flowers require swift flowing water and plenty of sunshine to flourish. Typically, you can see the blooms from mid-May to mid-June, but we recommend asking a local before making the drive in case the window changes slightly. So, pack up a picnic lunch and some swim trunks and enjoy the beauty one hour outside of Birmingham.
3. Crater of Diamonds (Murfreesboro, Arkansas)
Our next destination is a place you could strike it rich! That’s right, we’re talking about The Crater of Diamonds, a place where you can dig for these precious gems. According to the Arkansas State Parks website, “more than 33,100 diamonds have been found by park visitors since the Crater of Diamonds became an Arkansas state park in 1972.” In fact, the largest diamond ever discovered in the United States (named “Uncle Sam”) was unearthed in this very volcanic crater, and it came in at a whopping 40.23 carats.
Children (<6), FREE
Children (6-12), $6
4. Lake Ouachita (Arkansas)
Known for its beautiful, undeveloped coastline and for boasting 40,000 acres of some of the cleanest, clearest water found at any lake in the United States, Lake Ouachita is a source of joy for outdoor thrill seekers. Every year, people flock to Arkansas’ largest lake to swim, kayak, fish, bike, scuba dive, and more! If you visit during the right time of year, you may even get to see the rare freshwater jellyfish!
5. Palo Duro Canyon (Canyon, Texas)
The United States’ second largest canyon calls the Texas Panhandle home. Just outside of Amarillo, the “Grand Canyon of Texas” started forming about 1,000,000 years ago, and according to Texas Parks & Wildlife, the walls of the canyon go back 250 million years! You can drive or bike through the canyon, camp, pick a hike, or take a horseback ride as you explore the precariously balanced rocks, flora, and fauna present at this geographic marvel.’
Children (<12), FREE
6. Congress Avenue Bridge Bats (Austin, Texas)
Perhaps the coolest attraction in Austin is the Congress Avenue Bridge. “What’s so special about a bridge,” you might wonder. After all, the city is full of barbecue joints, live music, and outdoor activities. Well, this particular bridge is home to the largest urban bat population in North America.
Each evening from late March into early fall, swarms of Mexican Free-Tailed bats fly out from under the bridge to feast on 10,000 to 30,000 pounds of insects, according to Visit Austin. Late in the season, approximately 1.5 million bats will emerge every time the sun goes down. This is definitely a show worth seeing if you’re in the Lone Star State.
7. Hot Springs National Park (Hot Springs, Arkansas)
In 1832, the United States Government designated this area as “Hot Springs Reservation” in order to protect these precious natural resources, according to the National Park Service website. This early version of the National Park model did its job because nearly 200 years later, visitors can enjoy all the things the springs provide. There is no shortage of activities to enjoy, but if you’re on a tight schedule, at least fill up a bottle to taste the spring water. If you have more time to spend in the city, you can hike the park’s trails before washing off at one of the famous bathhouses.
8. Atchafalaya Basin (Louisiana)
If you’ve never spent a day down on the bayou, you might be surprised to learn it’s a beautiful place with stunning scenery. The Atchafalaya Basin is the most sizable river swamp in the United States, and it’s home to hundreds of species of wildlife, according the Atchafalaya Heritage Area. When you arrive in south Louisiana be sure to take a swamp tour, chow down on some crawfish and watch a sunset. If you do those things, you’ll never forget your time in Cajun Country.
9. The Cumberland Gap (Kentucky, Tennessee & Virginia)
The original gateway to the west sits where Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia meet. The Cumberland Gap is a natural break in the Cumberland Mountains that has allowed people to go west, well, for as long as people have been going west in this part of the country! With paved roads and nice tunnels, it’s easy to lose sight of just how important this geographic marvel was throughout history. But if you’re ever in the area, take moment to pull over at one of the overlooks and marvel at the geological processes that led to this wonder.
10. Cumberland Falls
While it might not quite be Niagara Falls, Cumberland Falls is often referred to as the “Niagara of the South.” The curtain of water stretches 125 feet across and plummets approximately 65 feet. If the sheer size and power of the falls isn’t enough to wow you, we think a moonbow might. While you may have seen a rainbow at another waterfall, a moonbow only occurs during nighttime when a full moon is present and specific conditions and features are present. Cumberland Falls checks the necessary boxes, meaning it’s one of the only places in the world to see a moonbow, according to the Kentucky State Parks website.
The moonbow might be the main attraction, but there are plenty of other activities to enjoy if you have kids that can’t stay up late, you visit at the wrong time in the month, or the full moon is obscured by clouds.
11. Tallulah Gorge (Tallulah Falls, Georgia)
At nearly 1,000 feet deep, Tallulah Gorge is an iconic canyon in the eastern United States. For a relaxing day with the family, bring binoculars and look at all the wildlife as you stroll the paved paths around the canyon. For the more adventurous traveler, there’s a swaying suspension bridge that sits high above the rocks in the river and gives you a perfect vantage point of the waterfalls below. You can even obtain a permit and be one of the lucky 100 people a day that Georgia State Parks allows to hike to the gorge floor if you’re searching for a more exclusive experience.
$5 per vehicle
12. Ichetucknee Springs & River (Florida)
Most people visit Florida for the seemingly endless miles of beaches, but this hidden wonder rests in one of the most landlocked parts of the entire state. Ichetucknee Springs and the Ichetucknee River have been treasured for thousands of years according to Florida State Parks, and they’re still wildly popular today. The highlight of the park is tubing down the six-mile stretch of river, either from the northern most point or by launching from points further downstream. If you’re interested in the area’s marine life, you can snorkel or scuba dive (as long as you’re certified) at the beautiful Blue Hole Spring. Have a family reunion or birthday approaching? This could be the perfect spot for you!
Single occupant vehicle, $4
Vehicle (2-8 passengers), $6
Pedestrians, cyclists, & additional passengers, $2
13. Dismals Canyon (Phil Campbell, Alabama)
This is by far the most misleading name on the list because there’s nothing depressing or gloomy about Dismals Canyon. It’s a network of narrow passages, mossy boulders, waterfalls, wildlife, plants, and natural bridges. The 1.5-mile hiking trail will take you around the canyon floor where you can explore all the evidence of 300 million-year-old geological events, according to the Dismals Canyon website. Visiting the canyon during daylight hours provides you with incredible views, but a nighttime tour gives you a chance to see Dismalites, the canyon’s famous inhabitants. These little bioluminescent creatures are found in only a few places on the planet, and they start to glow at sunset in one of nature’s best light shows.
If you want to take a trip to Dismals Canyon, be sure to check out their entrance fees which vary based on age, group size, and time of day.
14. Outer Banks (North Carolina)
This list wouldn’t be complete without the Outer Banks, a group of barrier islands spanning 130 miles off the North Carolina coast. That 130-mile stretch is packed full of incredible opportunity. You can visit pristine, uncrowded beaches. There are lighthouses, the highest sand dune on the east coast, deep sea fishing, and so much more! The Outer Banks are even the birthplace of flight, and there’s a national memorial in to prove it. The Wright Brothers literally changed the world forever from right here!
15. Angel Oak Tree (Johns Island, South Carolina)
Nobody is exactly sure how old the Angel Oak Tree is, but most estimates put it between 400 & 500 years old, meaning it has survived numerous storms and floods. The tree is staggeringly large. It stands at 65 feet tall, has a circumference of 28 feet, shades an area of 17,000 square feet, and has a branch that stretches 187 feet, according to Atlas Obscura. If you are traveling to Charleston, South Carolina, this tree is worth a short trek to see.
We know you’re probably eager to start exploring now, but before you get on the road, it’s worth checking to see if your insurance coverage is what you want and need. Give us a quick call (1-877-GO-DIRECT) or come in to one of our convenient locations; we’ll make sure you’re ready for your next adventure.