Nestled in the ancient mountains of the eastern United States lies the stunningly beautiful and wildly diverse Southern Appalachian region. Spanning across parts of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, and Kentucky, this area is home to some of the oldest mountains on earth, lush forests, cascading waterfalls, winding rivers, and charming small towns.
With its rich history and culture, abundant outdoor recreational activities, and mouthwatering regional cuisine, the Southern Appalachian region is a must-visit destination for any traveler looking for an authentic and unforgettable experience.
According to the Appalachian Regional Commission, the Southern area covers around 37,000 square miles and is home to millions of residents. The area is known for its biodiversity, containing over 10,000 species of plants and animals. Outdoor enthusiasts flock here to enjoy hiking, mountain biking, rock climbing, fly fishing, and whitewater rafting. In fact, the Southern Appalachian region contains substantial amount of waterways, offering some of the best whitewater rafting in the region.
If you’re planning a trip to this incredible region, here are the top ten things you simply must experience:
- Go Whitewater Rafting
The Southern Appalachian region is a whitewater rafter’s paradise. The Nantahala River in North Carolina and the Ocoee River in Tennessee are two of the most popular spots for rafting trips catering to all skill levels. And the Cherokee have a long history in the Southern Appalachian region. Today, around 14,000 Cherokee live on the Qualla Boundary in western North Carolina.
For a truly authentic Cherokee cultural experience, raft down the Nantahala River. This thrilling Cherokee rafting adventure will provide breathtaking scenery and a chance to experience the area’s history and culture.
- Hike in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
As the most visited national park in the US, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a must-see when visiting the Southern Appalachians. Spanning 522,419 acres across Tennessee and North Carolina, the park contains over 800 miles of hiking trails that wind through lush old-growth forests, alongside cascading waterfalls and rivers, and up to sweeping mountain vistas. Popular hikes include the Appalachian Trail, Alum Cave Trail, and Chimney Tops. Be sure to stop at famous landmarks like Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in Tennessee. Keep an eye out for wildlife like black bears, white-tailed deer, and over 200 species of birds.
- Drive the Blue Ridge Parkway
The Blue Ridge Parkway is often called “America’s Favorite Drive,” as it meanders for 469 miles along the spine of the ancient Appalachian Mountains. As you drive, stop to take in the sweeping vistas of endless ridgelines fading into the distance, hike to waterfalls like Linville Falls, and explore historic mountain towns like Asheville, North Carolina. Highlights include the Folk Art Center near Asheville, where you can watch traditional Appalachian craftspeople at work, and Grandfather Mountain, which has a mile-high swinging bridge. Time your drive for autumn to see spectacular fall foliage.
- Visit Asheville, NC
Known for its vibrant arts scene, farm-to-table restaurants, craft breweries, and historic architecture, Asheville is one of the trendiest small cities in the Southern Appalachians.
Stroll through the downtown’s Art Deco buildings, sample beer at Highland Brewing Company, and enjoy views from the Blue Ridge Parkway at sunset. Don’t miss the River Arts District, where you can browse artwork at over 200 studios and galleries.
- Explore Chattanooga, TN
Nestled along the Tennessee River, Chattanooga is surrounded by stunning nature and packed with fun attractions. Hike along the Tennessee Riverpark trail, visit the world-class Tennessee Aquarium, and enjoy views from Rock City and Lookout Mountain.
At night, you can check out the lively Southside neighborhood, home to hip bars and restaurants housed in historic buildings.
Also, be sure to try some Chattanooga Whiskey, tour the Chattanooga Choo Choo historic train station, and ride the Incline Railway up Lookout Mountain.
- Go Caving in TAG (Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia)
The TAG region contains over 10,000 mapped caves, providing ample opportunities for guided adventure caving. Marvel at the glittering formations in Ruby Falls Cave in Chattanooga, boat through the dark passageways of Raccoon Mountain Caverns, and crawl through tight spaces in Pettyjohns Cave.
No experience is necessary for guided tours catering to beginners. For an extra thrill, try a lantern-free tour and experience the absolute darkness of these subterranean worlds.
- Attend a Bluegrass Music Festival
Bluegrass music was born in the Appalachian Mountains, so be sure to experience some live toe-tapping mountain music at a festival. The Appalachian String Band Music Festival in Clifftop, WV, and MerleFest in Wilkesboro, NC, are two popular annual events.
In addition to bluegrass, you’ll likely hear genres like country, folk, and gospel. So, bring a lawn chair and get ready for impromptu jam sessions and clogging.
- Sample Moonshine
Moonshine has a long history in the Appalachian region, where immigrants from Scotland and Ireland brought their whiskey distilling traditions.
Today, many distilleries offer tours and tastings. Sample authentic moonshine at distilleries in Gatlinburg, TN or in Asheville, NC. Learn how moonshine got its name during Prohibition when distillers made corn liquor under the moonlight.
- Hike to Waterfalls
With abundant rainfall and elevation changes, the Southern Appalachians are filled with breathtaking waterfalls. Some of the most magnificent include Whitewater Falls (at 411 feet, it’s the tallest east of the Rockies), Grotto Falls, Ramsey Cascades, and Looking Glass Falls. Pack a picnic, put on your hiking boots, and spend the day waterfall chasing. Time your visit for spring to see waterfalls at their full power.
- Explore Appalachian History
To understand the region’s unique culture, learn about Appalachian history at places like the Museum of Appalachia in Norris, TN, and the Blue Ridge Heritage Museum in Ferrum, VA. You can also tour old homesteads like the Mountain Farm Museum in Gatlinburg, TN.
Highlights include original log cabins, demonstrations of traditional crafts like blacksmithing and basketweaving, and exhibits on the region’s music, agriculture, and folklore.
From winding mountain roads to lively cities and rushing rivers to hidden waterfalls, the Southern Appalachian region offers an incredible diversity of landscapes, activities, history, and culture for travelers to discover. Its natural beauty and charm simply must be experienced first-hand. So pack your hiking boots, grab your rafting gear, and get ready for an unforgettable adventure in the Southern Appalachian Mountains.