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Have you ever visited a place and, upon learning its history, viewed it through a lens of deeper meaning? Or maybe the place is so inexplicably beautiful that it conjures emotions like humility, wonder, and compassion without explanation. Both of these scenarios — learning about a place and experiencing the raw beauty of it — lend opportunity for reflection and introspection. Maybe we are consumed with a childlike sense of wonder. Maybe we reconnect to an ancestral past. Maybe we are simply reminded of life’s bigger picture. Here are three Southern destinations steeped in natural beauty and historical mystery to visit on your next road trip.

  • Tom’s Wall, Florence, Alabama
  • Mammoth Cave National Park, Mammouth Cave, Kentucky
  • Angel Oak, Charleston, South Carolina

3 Awe-Inspiring Southern Destinations

Tom’s Wall | Florence, Alabama

13890 County Road 8, Florence, AL 35633
Hours: Daily, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Admission is free, but donations are appreciated

This intricate and massive wall of hand stacked stone in Northeast Alabama is one man’s tribute to his great-great-grandmother, and the story is unlike any other. In the late 1830s, a young teenage Yuchi girl named Te-lah-nay was living near the Singing River (known today as the Tennessee River). This coincided with a dark time in American history when more than 60,000 Native Americans were forcefully removed from East to West — The Trail of Tears. When Te-lah-nay and her sister were discovered by soldiers and forced to walk to Oklahoma, she listened for singing waters that would lead her back home. Knowing she could die if she didn’t escape, Te-lah-nay left on an extremely difficult walk back to Alabama. During the five-year journey, she thoroughly journaled the obstacles and perils on her way back to the Singing River.

Tom's Wall in Florence, AL, a majestic Southern destination

This is just one of the tranquil spots along the path of Tom’s Wall to sit and meditate. Image: Chris Chamberlain

In the 1980s, Te-lah-nay’s great-great-grandson Tom Hendrix visited the Yuchi people and they helped translate her journals. Though he had heard her stories many times recounted by his grandmother, Te-lah-nay’s granddaughter, speaking with the tribe and treading them firsthand moved Tom in a profound way. During a conversation with a member of the Yuchi tribe, he was told “All things shall pass. Only the stones will remain.” Tom started building this wall, which you experience walking on pathways with stacked stone, as much as six feet wide, on either side. This massive structure is found just off the Natchez Trace, across the street from a cornfield.

After pulling stones from the Tennessee River for move than 30 years, and creating this wall stone by stone, Tom’s completed monument is something many people visit to admire as well as find spiritual peace. It stands the largest un-mortared rock wall in the United States and the largest memorial to a Native American woman. There are stones from more than 120 countries in the wall and each one represents a step of Te-lah-nay’s journey, and the shape, height and width of the wall represent the different obstacles she encountered.

A visit to the wall is emotional and inspiring on so many levels. It’s the perfect reminder of the importance of continuing to tell, remember and celebrate the stories of our ancestors and that human compassion conquers all.

RELATED: 48 Hours in the Shoals, Alabama’s Unassuming Treasure

Mammoth Cave National Park | Mammoth Cave, Kentucky

1 Mammoth Cave Pkwy., Mammoth Cave, KY 42259
The park is open 24 hours a day, but cave services are limited after 5 p.m.
Tours vary in cost and must be booked in advance here.

“The human experience of Mammoth Cave reflects one of humanity’s most potent emotions: wonder. The dark depths of a pit or passage trigger inborn questions — where does that go? How far? Is anything in there?” reads a post on the National Parks Service website. The first human entered Mammoth Cave more than 4,000 years ago fueled by curiosity, and after the discovery of minerals, primitive miners excavated the magnanimous caverns for nearly 2,000 years before the cave fell quiet again. At the end of the 18th century, European settlers rediscovered Mammoth Cave, spurring inspiring and strange stories about their underground adventures. Surveyors have already mapped more than 400 miles of limestone passageways below ground, making it the largest cave system in the world by far. The coolest part? The true size of this cave remains unknown. Scientists hypothesize that 600 more miles of caves could exist. The mystery of the cave doesn’t stop at its prehistoric age and unimaginable size, though.

Majestic Southern destinations: Mammoth Cave

Mammoth Cave is now one of the 24 UNESCO World Heritage sites in the U.S., and it has been named an International Biosphere Reserve in an effort to conserve its diverse animal and plant life. Several of its 130 animal species are only found in Mammoth Cave, like the endangered Kentucky cave shrimp. Image: NPCA

“What is most intriguing about Mammoth Cave is its ability to sustain life in the depths of its mysterious core … Entering Mammoth Cave is like entering a layer of the earth’s skin,” limestone expert Brian Coia recalls in his musing of Mammoth Cave. This is because of the symbiotic relationship between what is above and what is below; a convergence of the past, present and future. From those first torch-bearing Native Americans to this weekend’s park visitor, the fabric of Mammoth Cave’s story continues to be woven. The cave is a feast for the senses and a profound place for spiritual introspection. Whether you descend deep into the subterranean ecosystem or you admire things from above, there is truly no better place to spur wonderment than Mammoth Cave.

Cedar Sink Trail at memmoth cave

If tight, constricted spaces aren’t your thing, more than 80 miles of trails cross Mammoth Cave’s lush grounds. Hike Cedar Sink Trail (pictured), horseback ride, spot the wildflowers, wild turkeys and white-tailed deer that populate the park, or fish and canoe in the gorgeous Green River. Image: Hiking Project

RELATED: 8 Underground Adventures You’ll Only Have in the South

Angel Oak | Charleston, South Carolina

3688 Angel Oak Road, Johns Island, SC 29455
Hours: Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m to 5 p.m.; Sunday, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.
Admission is free, but donations are appreciated

While there is some debate about the actual age of Angel Oak (you will hear guesses ranging from 500 to 1,500 years), it is thought to be one of the 0ldest living things east of the Mississippi River. Towering 65 feet tall (the size of a six-story building) and 25 feet around, the branches weave a canopy that provides more than 17,000 square feet of shade. The tree’s branches are bigger than most trees’ trunks and are so heavy and large that some of them drop to the ground, a characteristic of only the oldest live oaks. Over the centuries, Angel Oak has survived numerous hurricanes, floods, earthquakes and lots of human interference. Weaving under and around its massive boughs, it is difficult to imagine this colossal tree was ever just an acorn.

Majestic Southern destinations: Angel Oak in Charleston

While some people think the tree is named for its heavenly, otherworldly characteristics, it is actually named after the estate’s previous owners, Justus and Martha Angel. Image: Visit Historic Charleston

The tree seems to envelop you in a hug as you meander under the expanse of branches. The dangling leaves cast an intricate blanket of twinkling shadows on the ground below. Some branches are so large they rest on the ground, sleepy from centuries of life. All of the tree’s accolades and superlatives are impossible to comprehend without visiting Angel Oak in person. Give yourself the time to be awed by this natural wonder that has withstood the test of time and weather against all odds. This is a place to reflect, to hug, to discuss. What parts of your own family tree inform your life today? And what will remain when you are gone? Angel Oak’s perseverance puts a lot into perspective. We, too, can weather the storms that come our way.

We hope we’ve ignited some transformative exploration in the South’s own backyard this year! What other inspiring spots would you add to this list?

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