5 Can't-miss national parks in the Southern US

The Southern U.S. hosts a handful of amazing national park adventures!

By: The Outbound Collective + Save to a List

Don't let the Western U.S. get all the credit for national park adventures! From old-growth forests, a massive cave system, coral reefs, and sparkling white sand dunes, there’s a lot to see and do in the South. Here are five of our favorite national parks in the lower half of the country!

1. Congaree National Park – South Carolina

Wooden boardwalk winding through a thick green forest in Congaree National Park.
Photo: Elyse Clark

In central South Carolina, Congaree National Park is home to the U.S.'s largest tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest. It's an ideal spot for those who enjoy hiking and paddling. There are over 25 miles of hiking trails, plus a canoe trail through Cedar Creek.

Don’t have your own canoe (or don't want to travel with it)? Rent one in nearby Columbia, South Carolina. While paddling through the thick forest growth under a vibrant green canopy, it’ll be hard not to feel like you’ve been transported into a scene from a fairytale.

Favorite adventures
Kayak Cedar Creek 
Hike the River Trail - 10-mile loop
Hike the Weston Lake Trail - 4.5-mile loop

Closest big city airport
Congaree National Park is a roughly 40-minute drive from the Columbia Metropolitan Airport in South Carolina.

2. Big Bend National Park – Texas

A blue sky fills the top half of the image while rocky mountain peaks dot the bottom.
Photo: Warren Goh

Big Bend National Park in southwest Texas encompasses the beautiful Chisos mountain range and a section of the Chihuahuan Desert. There's plenty to explore from the towering limestone cliffs of the Santa Elena Canyon, the winding Rio Grande River, and the historic pictographs of Langford Hot Springs! The views from national park adventures here are exceptional, and visitors enjoy a diverse range of landscapes from mountains, desert, canyon, river, and hot springs.

Favorite adventures
Backpack to the Southeast Rim of the Chisos - 14-mile loop
Catch a Sunset on the Window View Trail - 0.3-mile loop
Emory Peak via Pinnacles Trail - 9.44-mile out-and-back

Closest big city airport
Big Bend National Park is about a 4 hour and 27-minute drive from El Paso International Airport in Texas.

3. Mammoth Cave National Park – Kentucky

Walking path in a cave with pointed rock formations coming off the cave walls in Mammoth Cave National Park.
Photo: Paul Kestel

If you get excited about human history and rich biodiversity, consider a trip to Mammoth Cave National Park, home to the world’s longest-known cave system (over 405 miles have been mapped). This UNESCO World Heritage Site has cultural, historical, and scientific significance. The limestone labyrinth is so extensive that it is said another roughly 600 miles have yet to be explored! Check it out for yourself by lacing up your boots and hiking among the stalactites and stalagmites.

Favorite adventures
Hike the River Styx Spring Trail - 1.2-mile out-and-back
Tour the Diamond Caverns - 0.5-mile out-and-back
Hike the Cedar Sink Trail - 1.6-mile out-and-back
Hike Echo River Spring Trail - 2.2-mile out-and-back

Closest big city airport
Mammoth Cave National Park is approximately a 1 hour and 12-minute drive from Louisville International Airport in Kentucky and a 1 hour and 22-minute drive from Nashville International Airport in Tennessee.

4. Biscayne National Park – Florida

Scuba diver underwater near a vibrant coral reef with bright yellow fish along its edge at Biscayne National Park.
Photo: National Park Service

If you’re looking for a gorgeous island getaway, head to Biscayne National Park in the northern Florida Keys. This sunny seaside national park is home to coral reefs and mangrove forests by the shore. Many of its reefs and islands are only accessible by boat. If you enjoy being in the water, don’t miss out on the underwater Maritime Heritage Trail, where visitors can go to incredible dive sites and see shipwrecks. You just might spot dolphins and turtles swimming by as you scuba dive, boat, or snorkel here!

Favorite adventures (nearby)
Watch the Sunrise at the Deering Estate People’s Dock
Take a Sunrise Stroll around Matheson Hammock

Closest big city airport
Biscayne National Park is about a 39-minute drive from Miami International Airport in Florida. 

5. White Sands National Park – New Mexico

Hiker walks up a large white sand dune under a bright blue sky at White Sand National Park.
Photo: Wendy Li

White Sands National Park in New Mexico spans roughly 145,762 acres of white sand dunes (made of gypsum crystals) in the Tularosa Basin. Beyond the jaw-dropping dunes, which make for fantastic photo opportunities, the park also contains the world’s largest collection of Ice-Age fossilized footprints. 

Here, you can hike, take stunning photos, go backcountry camping, and bike on and among the unique dunes that almost look like snow-covered hills! One Outbound adventurer stated that this national park adventure is “Unlike anything I’ve experienced.”

Favorite adventures
Hike the Alkali Flat Loop - 4.9-mile loop
Camp at White Sands National Monument - 1.5-mile out-and-back
Explore White Sands National Monument - 1.5-mile out-and-back

Closest big city airport
White Sands National Park is roughly a 1 hour and 30-minute drive from El Paso International Airport in Texas.

We'd love to hear iff you go any of these national park adventures! Leave a review on the trails you hike or paths you paddle via the Outbound app and save other adventures you want to do while you’re at it.

Other national parks stories to check out:
8 Coolest under-the-radar national parks in the U.S.
10 National parks that offer free admission

Our guide to bringing dogs to national parksOur guide to bringing dogs to national parks

Cover photo: Wendy Li

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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