The Southeast is steeped in a diversity of ecosystems, geology, and human history. From waterfalls and rock formations to ancient civilizations, here are some regional state parks worth the extra drive.
Cheaha State Park, Alabama
Nearly 2,000 feet above the valley floor, Cheaha State Park is a forest island in the clouds. This wilderness of granite outcroppings and old-growth forest includes the highest point in the state (2,407 feet) and marks the southern border of the Appalachian Mountains.
There’s no shortage of activities in the park. Climb the summit tower for a view above the clouds. Hike and mountain bike. Swim, fish, and paddle on the 5-acre lake. Soak in a cliffside pool filled with mountain spring water. Meander through two museums and a nature center, which tell stories of the area’s natural history, the Creek Nation and the Civilian Conservation Corps. (CCC).
Where to Camp
There are three entrances, but due to narrow and windy roads, the best RV access is via the Talladega Scenic Drive (Alabama Highway 281). Two campgrounds include 77 sites with electricity, water, and sewer hookups; picnic tables; grills and/or fire rings; and access to a bathhouse. There’s also a primitive campground, which sits on the site of a 1930s CCC camp, plus lodge rooms and cabins.
Other amenities include a restaurant and store with souvenirs, food, and camping necessities. The park and campground are dog-friendly and open year-round, but the steep roads may be icy in the winter. Reservations are recommended during the summer and can be made online.
Petit Jean State Park, Arkansas
You don’t have to be a devoted rock-head to be awed by the geology at Petit Jean State Park. Beyond the obvious majesty of a 95-foot waterfall, hiking trails wind through geometric-shaped rocks, into caves with Native American pictographs, and past hidden pools with mossy walls.
Beyond geology, a 100-acre lake keeps kayakers and anglers occupied. Most of the infrastructure, including the lake, lodge, and stone cabins, was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. in the 1930s. Pay a visit to Petit Jean’s gravesite to learn the tragic love story of the park’s 18th century French namesake and view part of the Trail of Tears National Historic Site from the Stout’s Point overlook.
Nearby attractions include the Museum of Automobiles, the Arkansas River, and the town of Morrilton.
Where to Camp
There are 125 campsites near the lake, 35 with water, sewer, and 50-amp hookups (26 of which are pull-through sites); and 50 with water and 30-amp hookups. Both have access to a bathhouse. Reservations are recommended during the summer, especially on weekends, and can be made online.
There are also lodge rooms, cabins, yurts, a restaurant, and a gift shop. Dogs are allowed in the campground and throughout the park. The park and campground are open year-round, but can have snow and ice in winter.
Florida Caverns State Park, Florida
When you want to escape the heat but still play outdoors, Florida Caverns State Park is an oasis of 65-degree air within 10 acres of underground limestone-karst geology. Topside, there are hiking, biking, and equestrian trails, a 35-foot-deep swimming sinkhole called the Blue Hole, and floating trips along the Chipola River, where you’re likely to see herons, alligators, and beavers.
The park was once hidden within a thick canopy of trees, but in 2018, Hurricane Michael, a Category 5 storm, destroyed more than 90 percent of the forest. While that may be off-putting for a visit, it’s interesting to see how the natural areas are recovering.
Cave tours are available daily in the summer and Thursday through Monday during the rest of the year. Most tickets are first-come, first-served, but a few can be reserved. Boat rentals are also available through the gift shop-museum, and the boat ramp is accessible for private small boats as well.
Nearby attractions include Lake Seminole, Blue Springs Recreation Area, and the town of Marianna.
Where to Camp
The Blue Hole campground has 38 campsites, 32 of which have electricity, water, and sewer hookups; a picnic table; and an in-ground grill fire ring. There’s also an equestrian camping area with stables and three RV sites that include all of the amenities except a sewer hookup— there’s a communal dump at the entrance. Both camping areas have access to the bathhouse. Pets are allowed.
The maximum RV length is 32 feet at Blue Hole and 40 feet at the equestrian area. Reservations are recommended and can be made online. If you’re bringing a horse, you’ll need proof of a negative Coggins test.
Kolomoki Mounds State Park, Georgia
A 57-foot-tall temple mound towers over the meadows of Kolomoki Mounds State Park. It’s one of eight ceremonial and burial earthwork structures in the park, built by Native Americans around 1,600 years ago. You can hike to the top and learn more about the culture of the Woodland Period mound builders at the museum.
Beyond archaeology, there is boating and swimming on two lakes, 5 miles of hiking trails, a sandy beach, fishing dock, geocaching, a playground, and miniature golf. Kayak, canoe, and pedal-boating rentals are available on-site, and private boats with a 10-horsepower motor or less are also allowed.
Where to Camp
The campground has 25 sites with 30-amp electric, water, and a picnic table. Six are pull-through sites, and some have fire rings. It’s smart to reserve a site (available online) during the summer, especially if you want one that backs to the water. There are also three primitive sites and one hammock campsite. Pets are welcome at campgrounds, and the park and campground are open year-round.
Chewacla State Park, Alabama
From CCC camp ruins to state-of-the-art mountain bike features, Chewacla State Park has plenty of activities to keep your curiosity satisfied. Hiking trails circle the lake, follow creeks, and lead to a waterfall and an abandoned water tower. Singletrack biking trails wind through the forest, rolling over boardwalks, berms, and the 92-foot-long Hank/Graham Bridge.
For something more relaxing, there’s fishing, swimming, and non-motorized boating on the 26-acre Lake Chewacla. Rockhounds also appreciate the outcroppings of gneiss, dolomite, quartzite, and marble. While this park can be sleepy in the offseason, its proximity to Auburn University also brings crowds, especially during weekend sporting events.
Nearby attractions include the Southeastern Raptor Center, the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art, Kreher Preserve & Nature Center, and the city of Auburn.
Where to Camp
The campground has 36 reservable sites (available online) with water, electric, sewer, and satellite TV, plus 10 primitive sites and 1930s CCC stone cottages. There are two loops, each with a bathhouse, plus a small store selling firewood, ice, and snacks. Most of the sites are nestled in the trees with decent privacy; however, only a few are pull-throughs. Dogs are welcome, and the park and campground are open year-round.