Cure your cabin fever with a dose of nature
By Nick Fortuna
If COVID-19 has slammed the door on your summer travel plans, don’t fret. There’s still an opportunity to salvage some memorable experiences following a boring spring spent mostly indoors.
Cities aren’t exactly bustling nowadays, cruises have run aground and most indoor attractions are out of the question. But health officials say the risk of transmission is greatly reduced at outdoor venues that allow for social distancing, so parks and other scenic, natural settings are having a moment.
It would take a lifetime to experience all the postcard-worthy parks and outdoor attractions in the Southeast, but here are four standouts.
Cloudland Canyon State Park
Rising Fawn, Georgia
Spanning 3,538 acres, Cloudland Canyon is one of the biggest state parks in Georgia, and the scenery is breathtaking. Located on the western edge of Lookout Mountain, the park features thousand-foot-deep canyons, sandstone cliffs, caves, waterfalls, cascading creeks, dense woodland and abundant wildlife. There are 64 miles of hiking trails and 30 miles of mountain-biking trails.
The most popular hiking paths include Overlook Trail (short), Waterfalls Trail (strenuous) and West Rim Loop Trail (moderate). Mountain biking is available at the newly developed Five Points Recreation Area and along the Cloudland Connector Trail. The park also offers disc golf, a fishing pond, trails for horseback riding, picnicking and overlooks.
“Cloudland Canyon is one of the most stunning natural areas in the Southeast,” said Kim Hatcher of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. “Many guests like to stay a few days so they can see it all, so the park offers camping, cabins and even glamping yurts.
“Like most parks across the region, Cloudland Canyon has been exceptionally busy these past few months. We highly recommend hiking during the week because rangers often have to limit access on weekends to ensure social distancing. Visitors should check GaStateParks.org/Alerts before traveling because we don’t want anyone to be disappointed if parking is filled to capacity.”
Blue Ridge Parkway
North Carolina to Virginia
Whether you’re traveling north or south along the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway, you’re guaranteed to arrive at a great place to enjoy the great outdoors, and many spots along the way are destinations in and of themselves. The parkway runs from Cherokee, North Carolina, to Rockfish Gap, Virginia, linking Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Shenandoah National Park.
The parkway is a popular route for motorcyclists, especially since no big trucks are allowed. The speed limit is 45 mph, allowing visitors to take in the region’s natural beauty while traveling at a leisurely pace. Popular attractions include North Carolina’s highest point, Mount Mitchell, hundreds of miles of scenic hiking trails and numerous waterfalls.
Small towns and large cities dot the parkway, offering opportunities for food, lodging and purchasing local crafts and souvenirs. Parkway picnic areas and restrooms are open, as are the overlooks, which are perfect places for a socially distanced picnic lunch or dinner, according to Tubby Kubik, executive director of the Blue Ridge Parkway Association.
Revised hours and new protocols such as a mask requirement are in place at many locations due to COVID-19, but many attractions, historic sites and lodging options are still available along or near the parkway, such as the Northwest Trading Post, the Orchard at Altapass, Mabry Mill and the Folk Art Center, Kubik said.
“Plus, there’s a new addition this year: The Bluffs Restaurant at Doughton Park, which closed in 2010, has undergone significant restoration and is currently scheduled to open sometime in August.
“While traveling, we recommend visiting sites or hiking early in the day, having an alternate plan in case the area you wish to visit is already crowded and choosing less popular trails and overlooks in order to maintain a safe distance between yourself and other visitors.”
Congaree National Park
Hopkins, South Carolina
Congaree National Park is known for its astonishing biodiversity and as the largest intact expanse of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest in the southeastern United States. As one of the less visited national parks, Congaree is a great place to experience nature without the large crowds common at many other parks, according to Greg Cunningham of the National Park Service.
Since approximately 15,000 acres of the 26,276-acre park are designated as wilderness, it’s best explored on foot or by canoe or kayak. In addition to the more than 20 miles of hiking trails, the Cedar Creek Canoe Trail is ideal for day trips and overnight backcountry camping adventures, Cunningham said. Campgrounds and the visitor center remain closed due to COVID-19, but all other areas are open, including restrooms at the visitor center and Cedar Creek Canoe Access.
“Waters from the Congaree and Wateree rivers sweep through the floodplain in recurring floods, carrying nutrients and sediments that nourish and rejuvenate the ecosystem and support the growth of national and state champion trees, the tallest of which is the height of a 17-story building,” Cunningham said. “In addition to the trees, wildlife, including river otters, bobcat, coyotes and many species of birds, live in and pass through the park.”
Tickfaw State Park
At 1,200 acres, Tickfaw State Park might not be the biggest state or national park in the Southeast, but it’s among the most biodiverse. The park includes four ecosystems, each with its own sights and sounds: a cypress/tupelo swamp, a bottomland hardwood forest, a mixed pine/hardwood forest and the Tickfaw River.
Overnight guests can go hiking at night or listen to swamp nightlife from the porch of their vacation cabin. Scheduled programs take place at the Nature Center, which has an 800-gallon aquarium stocked with fish from the Tickfaw River, and houses one of the biggest amphiumas – an aquatic salamander that looks like an eel – you’ll find anywhere. The Nature Center also has displays featuring the animals, history and culture of the area and of Louisiana.
Visitors can bicycle, hike or skate the interconnecting park roadways and take their canoe or kayak onto the Tickfaw River. The Water Playground splash pad has no standing water but sprays kids as they play on the surface. Park Manager Cody Westmoreland said the Water Playground had been getting some minor repairs in mid-July, but he was hoping to open it July 18.
“The four different ecosystems make this park special,” Westmoreland said. “You don’t want to miss the Nature Center because it’s basically the heartbeat of the park. We also have boardwalk trails that go all through the swamp, and it’s a great way to look at a swamp without getting your feet wet.”