This year — and beyond, honestly — I am striving to keep my travels stateside, simple, and out in the beautiful wide-open spaces. Places to which I can drive or hop on a non-stop Southwest flight are calling my name. As temperatures rise, destinations with exhilarating outdoor offerings also rise … to the top of my travel list. To awaken the outdoor adventurer in you, I’ve rounded up a few trips I’ve done and some I’m looking forward to. From a secret tree-laden beach to a wild river oasis to a downhill railroad bike trail, here are five off-the-beaten-path outdoor destinations, plus ideas for lodging and dining after a day of activity.
5 Outdoor Destinations Off the Beaten Path
Meet Florida’s Equestrian Paradise and Blue Lagoons | Ocala, FL
In central Florida, just south of Gainesville, you’ll find an unexpected outdoor paradise and the country’s largest equestrian complex. World Equestrian Center is a sprawling 380-acre estate in Ocala, FL, with The Equestrian Hotel at its heart. Just under a year old, the boutique hotel has multiple dining options, a spa, pool, and in-the-action access to all the equestrian excitement.
The lively Saturday night competitions welcome thousands of dressed-to-the-nines spectators to the Grand Arena to watch the majestic horses. But you don’t have to be a horse person to enjoy the splendor of Ocala. Nearby, Silver Springs State Park is a national landmark whose crystal-clear natural spring water is perfect for wildlife spotting, kayaking, paddleboarding, and glass-bottom boating. After a day outdoors, explore Ocala’s downtown weekly farmer’s market, public art, and lively food and beer scene.
Find “Boneyard Beach” on Bulls Island | Charleston, SC
Twenty miles north of the city, Bulls Island is one of Charleston’s best-kept secrets and a must-visit for outdoor lovers. This lush, unique island is the largest of the four barrier islands that comprise the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge. Uninhabited and basically untouched, the six-and-a-half-mile sanctuary is a nature lover’s paradise with its world-renowned assortment of plant and animal species. You can only get to Bulls Island by ferry or private boat tour, and Coastal Expeditions operates both. On the ride over, it’s almost sure you’ll encounter pods of bottlenose dolphins plus lots of fascinating tidbits from your tenured captain.
Bring a backpack with snacks, plenty of water, bug spray, waterproof shoes, and towels for a picnic on the beach. The island has a network of trails that go from the brackish water — where you arrive, all the way over to the Atlantic Ocean side. As you trek through thick, jungle-like vegetation, you’ll see alligators (we saw dozens of baby ones!), the potential snake, some deer, colorful flora, and so many birds. Named for its massive “bones” of the island’s old trees, the secluded Boneyard Beach is worth the walk. Give in to your urges to climb, and plan to take some feed-ready photos. On the way back to Charleston, book a room or stop for a bite at Mount Pleasant’s chic Post House Inn.
Bike the Virginia Creeper Trail | Abingdon, VA
Y’all, this is a must. Growing up, I went to Tennessee’s Roan Mountain State Park every year with a dozen families from Charlotte. We’d beg the adults to tack on a Virginia Creeper Trail expedition at the end of the trip. Beginning in Abingdon, VA, and winding through Damascus, VA, to Whitetop Mountain near the North Carolina border, this is probably the most famous rail-to-trail in the U.S. — it joined the Rail-to-Trail Hall of Fame by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy in 2014. The 34-mile railroad-turned-multi-use trail is gently downhill, so it’s suitable for all fitness levels and ages, and the scenery is, put simply, extraordinary. When you book the popular one-way bike ride from Whitetop Station to Damascus, the outfitter company gives you all the bike gear you need and a ride to the top.
After you turn in your bikes, Abingdon is a great place to stay and play. Get a beer at the funky Wolf Hills Brewing Co. with a fun outdoor area for kids and yard games, and check to see what’s playing at the famous Barter Theatre. Virginia’s oldest bar, The Tavern, is an Abingdon fine-dining staple. Quaint B&Bs are everywhere in the area — many in old Victorian houses. Check out A Tailor’s Lodging and White Birches Inn.
Raft the Chattooga River | The Georgia & South Carolina Blue Ridge
The Chattooga River is one of the South’s most lauded whitewater rafting spots. This states-spanning river was federally protected in 1974 by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, forever protecting its unmatched scenery. The Chattooga begins in southern Jackson County, NC (near Highlands/Cashiers) and flows between Oconee County, SC, and Rabun County, GA. It’s got two distinct whitewater rafting sections — Section III is known as “Mild & Scenic,” with lots of swimming holes, gentler rapids, and a Class IV grand finale known as the famous Bull Sluice rapid.
Your all-day Chattooga River trip is punctuated with lunch along a stunning stretch of river or at the base of Long Creek Falls. Both Wildwater and Nantahala Outdoor Center offer five- to six-hour trips starting at about $100 per person. For fabulous food and lodging options, you’ve got Clayton, GA, Long Creek, SC, plus the nearby towns of Walhalla, Seneca, and Mountain Rest to choose from. Book the ultra-luxe, two-person Bella Luna Luxury Treehouse, go rustic at the Chattooga River Lodge and adjacent Willie’s Tavern restaurant, or book a larger waterfront rental on Airbnb or VRBO.
Explore The World’s Largest Whitewater Center | Charlotte, NC
Don’t stop reading at the word “whitewater” — that is honestly just the beginning of the world’s largest man-made whitewater complex. Located just northwest of bustling Charlotte, NC, the U.S. National Whitewater Center’s (USNWC) 1,300 woodland acres boast a wide variety of outdoor activities for all ages and thrill-seeking levels. Water lovers have whitewater rafting and kayaking, flatwater kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, and deep-water solo (rock climbing without ropes above a deep pool!). More terrestrial-minded people can enjoy rock climbing, ziplining, ropes courses, walking, hiking, or mountain biking on the more than 50-mile trail system.
The USNWC has a packed lineup of events throughout the year like outdoor festivals in spring/summer, ice skating in the winter, an art-centric sculpture trail and events, themed running races, and more. After a day of exploring, enjoy craft beers and bites at River’s Edge and Pump House Biergarten overlooking all the action. For where to stay and hang in Charlotte properly, here’s a whole article at your service.
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