With so many travel options to consider, it is easy to overlook some of the South’s most distinctive and beautiful state parks. From a Civil War-era mill to a historic railway, the following parks contain unique geographical features and landmarks, providing nature-loving groups with an unforgettable experience.
Stone Mountain State Park
Located just below North Carolina’s scenic Blue Ridge Parkway, Stone Mountain State Park features 18 miles of hiking trails, sheltered picnic areas and a restored 19th-century mountain farm. The centerpiece of the park is a 600-foot granite dome that looms above a meadow. This unusual geological attribute resulted from a 25-mile pluton, which is an igneous rock bent upward by molten lava. With time, wind and rain wore down the terrain to reveal the smooth dome that visitors see today.
Popular activities in the park include horseback riding, hiking, rock climbing and trout fishing. The 4.5-mile Stone Mountain Loop Trail takes hikers past a towering 200-foot waterfall leading up to the summit of Stone Mountain. Visitors are welcome to tour the historic Hutchinson Homestead property at any time; the property was restored to reflect everyday life for the region’s first settlers and features a log cabin, a barn, a blacksmith shop and a meat house.
Cass Scenic Railroad State Park
Cass Scenic Railroad State Park begins in the quaint town of Cass, West Virginia, where the cottages, company store and train depot remind visitors of a time when locomotives played a central role in American culture. Originally built in 1901 to transport lumber to the mill in Cass, the Cass Scenic Railroad — with black billows of smoke pumping into the sky from the engine — takes groups through lush, untamed countryside.
As the train steadily climbs the mountainous terrain, passengers will see a re-created 1940s logging camp as well as a natural spring from which water is drawn to cool the engines. Eventually, the journey ends at Bald Knob, the third-highest point in West Virginia at an elevation of 4,700 feet. Visitors are free to walk out to the overlook and relish the sweeping view.
Groups must reserve tickets in advance and are advised to arrive several hours early to take advantage of a free guided tour through the locomotive shops and a Cass orientation film. Warm clothes are recommended, since the mountain air can be chilly.