Skip to site content
group travel leader select traveler small market meetings

Southern outdoors: Au Natural

Courtesy Bay Mountain Park

In Florida, the seawater laps lightly against the side of your kayak as you paddle through a salt marsh; in West Virginia, it crashes over the sides of your rubber raft as you and your friends navigate the rapids of the New River Gorge.

If you enjoy a good adventure, the natural environments of the Southern states will provide you and your travelers plenty of opportunities for exploration, ranging from gentle outdoor expeditions to white-knuckle thrills. Like many places throughout the region, Tennessee offers great hiking in mountain and woodland areas. In Kentucky, groups can venture below ground to tour the largest and most fascinating cave complex in the world. And Virginia’s coastal activities offer numerous choices for wildlife-watching and hands-on interaction.

Outdoor enthusiasts and casual admirers alike will find scenic settings to enjoy almost anywhere they go in the South. Consider these five possibilities as jumping-off points for planning your own Southern adventures.Bays Mountain Park

[ Kingsport, Tennessee ]
A slower pace prevails at Bays Mountain Park in Kingsport, Tennessee, where groups can enjoy 38 miles of hiking and biking trails within 3,550 acres of protected land. Many groups visiting the area take guided nature walks or hikes, where they may catch a glimpse of deer, bobcats, wolves and other animals that live in the area. The trails also lead to other noteworthy stopping places.

“One of our most scenic and popular hikes is to a fire tower at the top of our mountain,” said Rob Cole, operations coordinator at the park. “It was built in 1937 by the Civilian Conservation Corps and is one of the few remaining in our area. It provides a wonderful view, and people can still climb to the top of it.”

In addition to hiking, groups can take a barge ride on the park’s 44-acre lake or take part in an interpretive program that includes up-close encounters with some of the animals in captivity at the park. A 40-foot dome planetarium at the site presents a view of the night sky above Kingsport.

This month, a new ropes course opens at Bays Mountain. The course will feature high- and low-ropes elements, as well as a 300-foot zip line.

Mammoth Cave and more
[ Cave City, Kentucky ]

Beneath the mountains and hills of Cave City in western Kentucky, Mammoth Cave is the longest cave complex in the world, with more than 390 miles of known caverns and passageways and other areas yet to be explored. The sheer size of the cave, along with its variety of formations and other features, gives groups plenty of options for exciting tours.

“They offer a wide variety of tours in Mammoth Cave National Park since it has so many different passageways,” said Tim Riddle, executive director of the Cave City Convention and Visitors Bureau. “They have some that are very easy walking tours, and they go up to wild cave tours, where you can wear a spelunking helmet and get down and dirty.”

Numerous private caves nearby offer tours as well, giving visitors a look at some spectacular subterranean sights. At Lost River Caves, visitors can take a boat ride on an underground lake, where they can see and feed the blind fish that live in the water there. Diamond Caverns is known for its sparkling crystalline walls, and Onyx and Crystal Onyx Caves are said to have some of the most beautiful formations in the area.

New River Gorge
[ West Virginia]

The New River snakes its way through central West Virginia, where the water has carved out a section of the mountains known as the New River Gorge. This scenic area is nationally protected land and is nationally known for its great white-water rafting.

“They call it America’s best white water,” said Cynthia Dragan, assistant director at the New River Gorge Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It goes up to Class V rapids and beyond. It’s also a great river for beginners. There are several different areas where beginners can go, and it’s very group friendly.”

The gorge area is home to several outfitters that offer complete white-water rafting packages. Groups can take a half-day rafting trip on the upper section of the river or make a full-day excursion, which includes lunch on the river and a longer stretch of white water. For a less strenuous adventure, Hawks Nest State Park offers an aerial tram ride down to the water from the top of the gorge, followed by a jet boat tour of the river.

Coastal Adventures
[ Virginia Beach, Virginia ]

Although it enjoys a long-running reputation as a summer fun spot, Virginia Beach offers groups much more than just sand and sun. Numerous natural areas surrounding town afford opportunities to explore, and area tourism officials have created a number of adventure itineraries.

“We have what we call the eco-wildlife safari, where the group explores the undiscovered world of Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge,” said Ron Kuhlman, vice president of tourism marketing and sales at the Virginia Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau. “They’ll travel five miles into the refuge, escorted by a wildlife expert, and look for signs of bobcats, fox, deer and coyotes.”

During their time in Back Bay, participants collect seashells, chase ghost crabs and go birding in the marsh. They also learn about the many shipwrecks in the nearby waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

Another popular itinerary, Chesapeake Outdoors, sends visitors out into the ocean in sea kayaks for dolphin-watching trips.

Kayak Explorations
[ Amelia Island, Florida ]

Just off the mainland of northeast Florida, Amelia Island is an eco-conscious destination with a bounty of natural beauty and outdoor activities. The most popular experience for groups is a kayak tour through the waters of the island.

“Kayak Amelia does group eco-tours, taking you through the waters of Amelia and showing you different aspects of what we have to offer,” said Katharina Lane, spokesperson for the Amelia Island Convention and Visitors Bureau. “They’ll take you through the Timucuan Preserve salt marsh, and a lot of times you’ll see things like dolphins, manatees and sea turtles.”

Kayaks aren’t the only mode of sightseeing, though. Amelia Island is one of the few destinations in the country that allows horseback riding on the beach, and two companies in the area take groups on guided horseback expeditions.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.