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10 of the best backcountry adventures in the Deep South

Whether on four wheels, underwater or on horseback, the wild backcountry of the American Deep South has a wealth of outdoor adventures to discover.

By Joe Sills
Published 17 Sept 2021, 06:05 BST, Updated 22 Oct 2021, 20:22 BST
Lake Charles, Louisiana, where a seven-mile network of canals and swamps offer ample opportunity for bass ...

Lake Charles, Louisiana, where a seven-mile network of canals and swamps offer ample opportunity for bass fishing.

Photograph by AWL Images

Southern folklore claims that so dense were the old forests of the New World that a squirrel could travel from the Atlantic coast to the Mississippi River without ever touching the ground. Today, pockets of that wilderness still remain, waiting to be explored by travellers paddling, pedalling and perusing their way through a land of legends. From the beaches to bayous, these are the best ways to adventure through the Deep South.

1. Mountain Bike Coldwater Mountain, Anniston, Alabama

At Coldwater Mountain, adrenaline junkies can traverse more than 20 miles of dirt trails. A pair of gravity runs and single-track routes like Bomb Dog, Goldilocks and Oval Office highlight this hidden Alabama gem. Nearby Wig’s Wheels rents bikes and provides transport to the trails for $45 (£32) per day.

2. Canoe camp in the Okefenokee Swamp, Folkston, Georgia

Remote campsites lie hidden beneath the canopies of Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp. This mesmerising wilderness is a wildlife wonderland of sandhill cranes, alligators and black bears. Motorised boats are banned from the wilderness at night, leaving the evening soundtrack to Mother Nature. Overnight trips require a permit from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which offers group canoe trips from $15 (£10) per person per night. Reservations can only be made by calling 00 1 912 496 6331.

3. Scuba dive an aircraft carrier, Gulf Shores, Alabama

Hover over the helm of a Cold War-era aircraft carrier near Gulf Shores, Alabama. In the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, the 888ft USS Oriskany awaits. This marvel of 20th-century engineering is now the largest man-made artificial reef in the world. Divers must hold an advanced open water diver certification and have at least 20 dives under their belt to undertake the journey. Expect to pay around $220 (£160). facebook.com/downunderdiveshop

4. Cycle the Tanglefoot Trail, New Albany, Mississippi

This 44-mile rails-to-trails route winds beneath sweet gum trees, through the stomping grounds of pioneering musicians like Bukka White, Sam Mosley and Bob Johnson while retracing the footsteps of explorer Meriwether Lewis and author William Faulkner. The self-guided tour is bookended by bike rentals in Tupelo and an overnight at Trailhead Bike and Bed in the town of Houston. The Union County Library offers free bike rentals in New Albany.

5. Cruise the Carolina coast, Isle of Palms, South Carolina

Glide through the marshes of the Lowcountry atop a jet ski. Just minutes from downtown Charleston, South Carolina, this epic aquatic adventure puts travellers behind the helm of their own personal watercraft for encounters with wildlife like herons, dolphins and even sharks. Private trips are available for parties of three or more, starting from $150 (£108). unchartedsociety.com

Swamp tours in Louisiana can offer sightings of owls, alligators and snakes.

Photograph by Getty Images

6. Take a swamp tour to Honey Island, Slidell, Louisiana

In the swamps outside New Orleans, rumours of a mysterious creature called the Honey Island Swamp monster have circulated for decades. Even if you don’t glimpse the fabled beast on your journey, you’re still likely to see a vast array of wildlife — including ibis, owls, alligators, minks and snakes — on this narrated nature tour. Rates start from $25 (£18) per person. 

7. Kayak Okatoma Creek, Seminary, Mississippi

Free-flowing, family fun awaits at Okatoma Creek. This easy-going stream meanders through hardwood forests and over a series of waterfalls in the state’s south. Though shorter runs are available, the eight-mile journey beginning in Seminary hits three waterfalls and numerous rapids over the course of around five hours. Kayak rentals start at $30 (£22).

8. Explore off-road in a classic overlander, Lookout Mountain, Georgia

Drive a classic Land Rover in the Blue Ridge Mountains when you book a tour with Vintage Outfitting. This start-up is the brainchild of Lookout Mountain locals who want to create off-road camping adventures below the canopies of Appalachia. Vintage Outfitting has a fleet of well-maintained vehicles and support trucks. Rates start from $350 (£255) per night.

9. See Saint Helena Sound by horseback, Saint Helena Island, South Carolina

The ruins of an 18th-century church mark the route to St Helena Island, South Carolina, where travellers can trot on horseback beneath oak trees and gallop along a forested coast. Equestrian school Camelot Farms has a stable of horses for trail rides. A two-hour coastal ride costs $125 (£90) per rider, while a single hour on the 70-acre plantation costs $75 (£55) each.

10. Go Bass Fishing in the Bayou, Lake Charles, Louisiana

Louisiana is home to some of the most biodiverse waters in North America — most of which can be fished for sport. Grosse Savanne Lodge takes guests on guided bass fishing expeditions through seven miles of freshwater canals and swamp near Lake Charles. Onsite accommodation is plush and meals feature Creole-style cooking with crawfish, shrimp and the catch of the day. An overnight stay and guided fishing trip costs $550 (£400) per person.

Published in the October 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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