Skip to content
Please select your location:
Hiking, near Asheville, North Carolina

Exploring the great outdoors in the American South

Hiking, near Asheville, North Carolina

By USA specialist Shannon

When people first think of the American South, it often conjures images of jazz bars and aromatic soul food. But, the region is also home to mist-draped mountains, grassy marshlands, and driftwood-scattered coastlines that rival some the USA’s better-known outdoor destinations.

What I love most about the American South is that one trip can combine both culture and adventure. You might hop between honky-tonk bars in Nashville before hiking deep into the forests of the Great Smoky Mountains, or delve into the history of the Civil War in Charleston before kayaking across still salt marshes in Bluffton. It’s this diversity of experiences that makes the American South stand out.

Outdoor activities in Tennessee

Experience a classic music city by starting your trip in Nashville, then head to the mountains for an outdoor retreat.

Waterfalls & panoramic views in Chattanooga

Lookout Mountain, Chattanooga, Tennessee
Lookout Mountain, Chattanooga, Tennessee

At the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, Chattanooga offers a tempting taste of the great outdoors before you head deeper into the countryside.

A night or two in the city will suffice, and top of my list of recommendations is a trip to Lookout Mountain. You can take a trolley-style railcar that heaves up the steep, tree-lined path to the summit, or drive there yourself. Both end in sweeping views of the city and greenery below, but driving will give you more freedom if you’d like to see more of the surrounding natural beauty.

On your drive up, stop off at Ruby Falls, a plunging underground waterfall hidden deep within the mountain itself. Then, take a drive to Rock City viewpoint, where you can see seven different states sprawling out into the distance.

4x4 adventures & glamping in Pigeon Forge

Black bear, Great Smoky Mountains, Tennessee
Black bear, Great Smoky Mountains, Tennessee

Next up, the Great Smoky Mountains — a cluster of forest-shrouded peaks that rise out of a foggy blanket each morning. I suggest staying near Pigeon Forge in a glamping spot nestled in the surrounding woodland.

Each evening, you’ll retreat to a safari-style tent, decked out with many of the home comforts you’d find in a hotel. I find it’s worth opting for the stargazer tent, which gives you overhead views of the constellation-filled night sky as you snuggle down into bed. The wood-burning stove will keep you toasty as the air turns crisp in the evenings.

There are a few short walking trails nearby for morning strolls, as well as a firepit and camping games on the grounds. For more adventurous pursuits, you’ll need to drive 20 minutes to the national park.

To get the lay of the land (and cover more ground), head out with a guide in an open-top 4x4. En route, you’ll zip past forests of oak, magnolia, and maple, stop to pause beside crashing waterfalls and babbling streams, and climb to vantage points where the dense canopy stretches out for miles. If you’re lucky, you might also catch a glimpse of the region’s emblematic animal, the black bear.

Then, once you know the area better, you can hike to your heart’s content.

Outdoor activities in North Carolina

Forested mountains, all-American byways, and sweeping estates — a visit to North Carolina combines adventure and luxury.

Private hikes & Southern food in Asheville

Great Smoky Mountains, North Carolina
Great Smoky Mountains, North Carolina

The Smokies straddle both Tennessee and North Carolina, so instead of Pigeon Forge, you could base yourself in Asheville, where you can swap glamping for boutique hotels or even a stay on the grounds of the 19th-century Biltmore Estate.

By day, you can venture into the mountains, and by night, sip cocktails and dine in one of the many trendy eateries. I particularly love the Southern cuisine here, from crispy buttermilk chicken to skillet-sizzling mac and cheese to gravy-drenched biscuits (savoury leavened bread scones).

Perhaps the best way to explore the Smokies from Asheville is on a private hike. I’ll pair you with a naturalist guide, who’ll pick you up from your hotel in the city and whisk you away to the national park with plenty of snacks in tow. They’ll take you into hidden nooks that you might not find on your own and tailor the hike to your exact needs. You might choose to clamber and scramble up rocky peaks or take it easy as you photograph local wildlife in the serenity of the forest.

Halfway through, you’ll pause beneath the canopy or on a secluded viewpoint to enjoy a gourmet picnic, packed (and carried) by your guide. What I love most about this experience is that the guides are all excellent storytellers, so you’ll gain a deeper understanding of the local culture, history, and ecosystems as you hike and rest.

Scenic drives & boutique shops in Blowing Rock

Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina
Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina

Meandering lazily through the mountains, the Blue Ridge Parkway captures the best of an all-American byway: dense hardwood forests and gentle swooping valleys, plenty of lookout points for unhurried gazing, and little towns where you can stop for a rest along the way.

One such place is Blowing Rock, a tiny Highland town that owes its name to a nearby jutting rock formation that peers over John’s River Gorge. Quirky independent shops and cafes, boutique inns, and a myriad of nearby trails make Blowing Rock a great base for your road trip.

For hiking without the need to hop in a car, try the Glen Burney Trail, which is just off the town’s Main Street. It takes you down into the gorge, past waterfalls that flow over age-smoothed rocks, and along root-buckled paths. If you’d like to hike above the canopy, however, head out onto the parkway to the nearby Rough Ridge Overlook Trail. It’s a fairly strenuous uphill climb, but after the steep, rocky incline, your reward awaits: wave-like formations of mountains overlap into a sea of trees that reach far into the horizon.

Outdoor activities in South Carolina

Spend a couple of days in Charleston, strolling past brightly painted houses, sampling its gourmet cuisine, and diving into the history of the Civil War before heading into the marshlands along the Carolina coast.

Marshes & wildlife in Bluffton, South Carolina

Aerial view, Montage Palmetto Bluff
Montage Palmetto Bluff, Bluffton, South Carolina

Set within marshlands on the banks of the May River, the Montage Palmetto Bluff is my top choice for a countryside stay in South Carolina. The grounds feel incredibly remote, but, for a deeper immersion in nature, stay in one of its white clapboard cottages and choose between a waterside or forest view.

The Montage offers more outdoor experiences than you can possibly fit into a single stay. You can kayak on the still marsh waters, take nature walks to spot bald eagles and wild boars, cruise on a restored 1913 yacht at sunset, or play a round of golf surrounded by century-old live oaks.

There are also tennis courts, cycling routes, and a conservancy dedicated to understanding and protecting the natural environment. You can even take part in some citizen science by recording sightings of local species that the conservancy is monitoring.

In between adventures, there’s ample opportunity to relax at the spa or pool and enjoy warm Southern hospitality as you dine on Lowcountry-inspired fare in one of the hotel’s restaurants. Speaking of which, visit the River House restaurant in the afternoon to sip sweet tea and nibble on cookies as you get to know your fellow guests — a Southern tradition known as porching.

Best time to explore the great outdoors in the American South

To see the Smokies draped in a patchwork blanket of reds, oranges, and greens, I recommend visiting in autumn, from late October to early November. You’ll need to dress warmly in the mornings and evenings, but during the day, temperatures are pleasant. Alternatively, visit in May for warmer days and wildflower blooms, just before visitor numbers climb during the summer months.

Read more about trips to the American South

Start thinking about your experience. These itineraries are simply suggestions for how you could enjoy some of the same experiences as our specialists. They're just for inspiration, because your trip will be created around your particular tastes.

View All Tours in The American South