Cumberland Caverns is a popular tourist stop for its daily underground walking tour. But that tour only scratches beneath the surface, so to speak. Plan to go deeper underground on one of the overnight tours. These are true spelunking adventures that involve crawling through narrow passageways, wearing a hardhat, getting very dirty, marveling at soaring cathedral-like rooms lit only by headlamps and spending the night in a cave. Most overnight tours are geared toward youth groups, but two of the more extreme tours — Parts Unkown and Legacy Overnight — have a 16-and-up age requirement and accommodate small groups of two or more. These guided tours explore the deepest reaches of the caverns with a challenging terrain of high climbs and rope hand-lines. Check-in is in the evening, and the overnight subterranean adventure ends with a hearty breakfast the next morning. You’ll also learn about the fascinating history of Cumberland Caverns, which has been designated a National Natural Landmark. (Cumberland Caverns, $135 and up, 1437 Cumberland Caverns Road, McMinnville, Tennessee. 931-668-4396, cumberlandcaverns.com)
Bear Island is part of Hammocks Beach State Park in Swansboro, North Carolina. Ferry service has been suspended during the pandemic, so access is by kayak only.
Courtesy of Blake Guthrie
Credit: Blake Guthrie
Credit: Blake Guthrie
Swansboro, North Carolina
Hammocks Beach State Park on the North Carolina coast encompasses an uninhabited barrier island accessible only by boat. Tent campers looking for isolation on an unspoiled beach will find it here. The island contains 11 primitive campsites nestled in the dunes and spaced far enough away from each other to allow for maximum privacy. It’s easy to feel like you have the island to yourself, even more so now that the ferry service, which typically brings day visitors to the island, isn’t running due to COVID-19. Rent a kayak from an outfitter in Swansboro and paddle four miles through the inlets and salt marshes along a designated paddling trail. Time your trips with the tides to make getting to and from the island easier. The only development on the island is a bathhouse and small picnic area within walking distance to the campsites. (Hammocks Beach State Park, camping $15, 1572 Hammock Beach Road, Swansboro, North Carolina. 910-326-4881, www.ncparks.gov/hammocks-beach-state-park)
Orange Beach, Alabama
The Outpost, a primitive camping area on the 29-mile-long Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail in Gulf State Park, is located not on the beach but in the maritime forest on a large, secondary dune system. Far removed from the state park’s standard campground, it requires a 1.5- hike or bike ride from the trailhead at the parking lot to access. No need to bring a tent or firewood, though, because everything is provided. Canvas, wood-framed tents on raised wooden platforms are furnished with nylon cots and chairs. There’s an outdoor sink, a hand pump water spigot and a bathroom with a shower close by. The trails skirt large lakes and run through nine distinct ecosystems. It’s a prime spot for birding, wildlife viewing, hiking and biking. If the need for the beach arises, it’s a short bike ride away. (The Outpost at Gulf State Park, $50 per night, 3801 Orange Beach Blvd., Orange Beach, Alabama. 251-948-7275, www.alapark.com/parks/gulf-state-park/outpost-campsites)
Take a boat ride on the Mississippi River in handmade wooden canoes with Quapaw Canoe Company and experience the nation’s grandest river as few do with this out-of-the-ordinary overnight adventure. By day explore the mighty river’s backchannels, oxbow lakes and secret swimming holes. At night you’ll sleep in true primitive camping style on islands and sandbars in the river. Your guides will navigate, prepare the meals and serve as naturalists explaining the flora, fauna and history of the river. Quapaw can tailor a trip to suit your needs for any length of time and group size, but they recommend the five-day Muddy Waters Wilderness expedition for true adventurers. It runs for 101 miles between Quapaw Landing near Clarksdale down river to Greenville. It’s one of the wilder sections of the Lower Mississippi with no cities or industry along the way, and abundant wildlife. (Quapaw Canoe Company, $175 a day and up, 291 Sunflower Ave., Clarksdale, Mississippi. 662-627-4070, http://www.island63.com/clarksdale.cfm)
Dreher Island State Park offers tent-only island camping on the shores of 50,000-acre Lake Murray in South Carolina.
Courtesy of The Captial City/Lake Murray County Regional Tourism Board
Prosperity, South Carolina
Dreher Island State Park consists of three islands on 50,000-acre Lake Murray connected by a bridge to the mainland. The 348-acre park’s twelve miles of undeveloped shoreline on an uncrowded section of the massive lake makes a peaceful spot for swimming, fishing, and still-water paddling excursions. Sightings of bald eagles, deer, geese, ducks, and turtles are common from the water and along three hiking trails. Anglers will enjoy the plentiful bass, catfish, bream, and crappie biting in the calm waters. The park store sells bait and tackle and has a loaner program for rods and reels. Swimming and fishing are allowed from any point along the forested shoreline. No rental services are available inside the park but nearby outfitters rent boats, kayaks, and stand-up paddleboards. Stay in villas, camper cabins, or one of two campgrounds on the water. (Dreher Island State Park. Villas $118 and up, camper cabins $50 and up, campsites $26 and up. 3677 State Park Road, Prosperity, South Carolina. 803-364-4152, southcarolinaparks.com/dreher-island)
Bicyclists enjoy a beautiful fall day on the Virginia Creeper Trail, a 34-mile bicycling, jogging and walking trail along an old railroad line in Abingdon, Virginia.
Courtesy of Jason Barnette
Credit: Jason Barnette
Credit: Jason Barnette
Fall is prime time to bike one of the nation’s premier rail-to-trail greenways, the 34-mile Virginia Creeper National Recreation Trail. The multi-use trail runs along the former rail bed of a historic mountain railway — the Virginia Creeper — between Abingdon and the Virginia/North Carolina border. It’s a scenic ride suitable for all skill levels that passes by farmlands, lakes, mountain streams and through the forest of the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. Those looking for a challenge will want to begin in Abingdon, but the more popular ride for families and pleasure bikers is to take a shuttle from one of the local bike shops to the top of the trail and cruise down the mountain. This allows more time to enjoy the mountain views and fall color. Camping is allowed in the national forest areas of the trail as long as your site is off the path and away from streams and springs. Or stay in one of the cottages offered by Creeper’s End in Abington next to the trailhead and close to the shops and restaurants of the charming downtown area. (Virginia Creeper National Recreation Trail, free, 300 Green Spring Road, Abingdon, Virginia. 276-525-4457, www.vacreepertrail.org)
One of the highest altitude inns in Georgia is the Hike Inn perched 3,100 feet above sea level on a mountaintop in the Chattahoochee National Forest near Amicalola Falls. The only way to reach it is via a 5-mile hike. It’s an off-the-grid backcountry experience where the primary attractions are the simple pleasures of a comfortable bed and home-cooked meals. The bunk rooms are small and minimal with no electrical outlets. There’s no phone at the Hike Inn, and if you’re spotted with a cell phone in a common area, you may be politely asked to put it away. The object is to unplug from modern life. It’s a hiker’s paradise with the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail nearby and many other trails to explore. Your stay includes breakfast and dinner service. Prepared to-go trail lunches are available for purchase. Day hikers are currently not allowed at the inn because of COVID-19 protocols, and social-distancing measures are in place for overnight guests. (Hike Inn, $132 and up, check in at 280 Amicalola Falls State Park Road, Dawsonville. 800-581-8032, hike-inn.com)
Rock climbers come from around the globe to navigate the soaring sandstone cliffs of the Red River Gorge Geological Area in eastern Kentucky. Located within the Daniel Boone National Forest, it’s a rugged, scenic landscape that’s home to famous climbing routes. Southeast Mountain Guides offer rock climbing and rappelling trips throughout the region for all skill levels. Novices will want to do the Via Ferrata, a .75-mile traverse along a sheer canyon wall using iron rungs for their feet and hands while clipped into a cable system. More experienced climbers can tailor trips to suit their skill levels along other routes. All guided trips are private and limited to your group and a certified expert guide. There’s no camping on site but plenty of campgrounds, cabins, lodges, and hostels are nearby. (Southeast Mountain Guides, $52 and up, March 1-Dec. 1, 1617 N. KY 11, Campton, Kentucky. 606-668-6613, https://www.southeastmountainguides.com/)
COVID-19 travel tips
- Prepare your own food if possible. If not, dine at restaurants that offer drive-thru, delivery or curb-side service.
- Use gloves or antibacterial wipes when pumping gas and using public restrooms.
- Wash your hands often. If you can’t, use hand-sanitizer that is at least 60% alcohol.
- Wear a mask when out in the public
- Maintain a distance of six feet or more from others.