Even with the influx of artificial intelligence and virtual reality, there’s nothing that compares to the real-life experience of roaming through the natural wonders of national parks.
In the Southeast, there are more than 70 park service sites ranging from less than an acre to more than a hundred thousand acres at some sites.
And these sites are no longer just places where folks pass through before heading to big city summer vacations. Over the past seven years, interest in national park getaways has skyrocketed, said John Tillison, digital creator and former Washington State National Park Ranger. In recent years, national parks’ popularity grew around the time the National Park System celebrated its 100th birthday in 2016, said Tillison, who was a park ranger for over 20 years until an injury sidelined his career. The major turning point in that growing interest: Instagram.
“Social media actually helped the national park system,” said Tillison, who runs a blog and digital platform called Park Ranger John. “People started putting their photos on Instagram, and now you’ll have people saving those images and saying ‘I have to go there.’ It changed the way people look at national parks.”
As the summer approaches, there are some must-see national parks across the Southeast to revel in. Below, learn about some of the major attractions at some of the Southeast’s most awe-inspiring parks and affordable vacation rentals available near each.
Biscayne National Park, Florida
This national park is outside of Miami, Florida, and it offers a bird’s eye view of the lively metropolitan area from the comforts of Biscayne Bay. At the bay, visitors can expect to see manatees, dolphins and more. The national park was originally created to protect the marine life of the bay
One thing visitors should know about visiting Biscayne is that it requires extensive planning, not only for lodging but the entire vacation. The park is made of more than 90% water, so it’s imperative that vacationers plan boating arrangements before heading to the Florida paradise, Tillison said.
As of this publishing, a stay for up to 14 guests is possible for around $200 or so a night this summer, according to a listing on Airbnb. The Mediterranean-style condo in Princeton, Florida, is less than 20 minutes away from the park.
Congaree National Park, South Carolina
Just 18 miles southeast of the capital city of Columbia, Congaree provides a wealth of wilderness across more than 15,000 acres. The lush trees and interesting biodiversity of the area have become such a draw that the National Park system now requires a permit for visitors interested in visiting certain areas of the park, Tillison said. The park has become known for its preserved old-growth bottomland hardwood forest — the largest one standing in the United States — and its synchronous fireflies.
A stay just 30 minutes outside of the park in Saint Matthews could cost less than $90 per night, according to one VRBO listing. The vacation rental has a hunting theme, with lots of deer memorabilia throughout the property.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee
Like Congaree, Great Smoky National Park has become known as the top location in the country to experience synchronous fireflies — it’s one of 19 species of fireflies found at the park. The park surrounds the ridgeline of the Great Smoky Mountains, which are part of the Appalachian Trail. It makes for an ideal, historic hike while visiting.
The park features a number of attractions for hikers, campers, and general nature lovers. For deer watchers, Cade’s Cove is a guaranteed observation location for furry creatures. For thrill-seekers, consider hiking Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in the state of Tennessee. With so many things to do, it’s no wonder why Great Smoky Mountains National Park had 14 million visitors in 2021; it was the most visited park that year.
For around $200 per night, a small friend group or family can enjoy the scenic mountain views at the park at one cabin listed by Airbnb. Beyond the views, visitors will love the history they experience while there, said Tillison.
“It’s amazing that at the Great Smoky National Park and many of the others, you’re not only getting nature but you’re getting history,” Tillison said. “Whether it’s the Revolutionary War, the civil rights movement, our national parks of the South have been the place where history was made. There’s so much to explore.”