Florida’s Everglades and the Birmingham Botanical Gardens in Alabama have plenty of name recognition. But there are myriad other lesser-known verdant landscapes in the Southeast that offer serene sights and sounds as well as nature-based activities. Here are 10 green spaces with treasures aplenty.
Jungle Gardens on Avery Island – Louisiana
Jungle Gardens — Photo courtesy of Pam McIlhenny
Best known for producing Tabasco sauce, Avery Island is also home to 170-acre Jungle Gardens. An array of avian species is attracted to these semi-tropical gardens, most notably snowy egrets that nest here, but also little blue herons and other wading and water birds.
The plant varieties are quite diverse, from the tall red buckeye, a State Champion tree, to an immense collection of bamboo, some soaring more than 50 feet and others bearing colorful stripes. Thousands of camellias dazzle those who stroll on the woodland trail.
Little River Canyon National Preserve – Alabama
Little River Canyon National Preserve — Photo courtesy of National Park Service
Named for the scenic river-carved canyon that’s considered the deepest in the state, this preserve is on the North Alabama Birding Trail, noted for year-round bird-watching opportunities. Numerous species, from yellow-billed cuckoos to white-eyed vireos, can be spotted in the summer on the riverbanks or along the hiking trails.
The .75-mile Little Falls Trail winds down 127 rugged steps to the cascade with its lovely swimming hole, one of many in the park.
Oleta River State Park – Florida
Oleta River State Park — Photo courtesy of Crawford Entertainment
Just 30 minutes from downtown Miami, this state park is a perfect venue for kayaking along the mangrove-lined Oleta River. The park rents both canoes and kayaks that you can take on the river, into Biscayne Bay or along the Intracoastal Waterway.
This is also one of the state’s best spots for mountain biking, with some 14 miles of interconnecting single track – many for experienced cyclists – through dense forests of Australian pine and gumbo limbo trees and beside waterways where you may spy dolphins or manatees.
Merchants Millpond State Park – North Carolina
Merchants Millpond State Park — Photo courtesy of J. Wyche
To truly take in this magical landscape where Spanish moss drips from gnarled bald cypress trees, and where beavers and otters may laze along the shore, you’ll want to rent a canoe (or bring your own) and paddle the tranquil waters of the millpond. Depending on the water levels, you may also want to explore the more desolate Lassiter Swamp.
Those who prefer land-based activities can hike any of several paths, such as the 2-mile Bennett’s Creek Trail. From the boardwalk, you’ll likely notice wood ducks and pileated woodpeckers.
Sculpture Fields at Montague Park – Tennessee
Sculpture Fields of Montague Park — Photo courtesy of Chattanooga Tourism Co.
A 33-acre expanse blanketing Chattanooga’s Southside neighborhood appeals to art aficionados and parents with young children alike. Dotting the grassy landscape that’s sliced by gravel paths are over 40 large, often offbeat, contemporary works from around the world.
At this sculpture park, you can opt to picnic, fly a kite, jog or touch the massive works of art, like the vibrant crimson-hued “Red Tree.” Some, such as the cylindrical “Granite Windows,” beckon visitors to crawl or walk through.
Mistletoe State Park – Georgia
Mistletoe State Park — Photo courtesy of atadcreativeproduction
Home to Clarks Hill Lake, one of the largest lakes in the Southeast, this park has a lovely stretch of sand that’s enjoyed for its swimming and sunning options. For anglers, this park is a gem. After all, it’s renowned for its bass fishing, including striped, largemouth and spotted bass.
Among the numerous shaded trails wending through a wooded landscape of sweetgums, oaks and pines, the 6.25-mile Rock Dam Trail is challenging for mountain bikers who will have to negotiate several stream crossings.
Garvan Woodland Gardens – Arkansas
Garvan Woodland Gardens — Photo courtesy of Garvan Woodland Gardens/Julia Mann
Set along the shore of Lake Hamilton, these gardens are chock-full of botanical and architectural surprises. In the 4-acre Garden of the Pine Wind, considered one of the finest Asian gardens in the nation, oriental dogwoods and other ornamentals pepper the landscape that features a Chinese-inspired Full Moon Bridge with a circular underpass. The Evans Children’s Adventure Garden is a must-visit for its wrought iron bridge resembling tree branches, climbable boulders, and a three-story modernist Tree House.
Swan Lake Iris Gardens – South Carolina
Swan Lake Iris Gardens — Photo courtesy of City of Sumter
Spring brings a cornucopia of colors to Swan Lake Iris Gardens, thanks to the blooming Japanese irises, one of the most extensive collections of the species in the United States. You’ll also find the world’s eight types of swans, a standout feature among America’s public parks.
The variety of plants make for a stunning year-round experience. Herbs and flowers in the Chocolate Garden (such as chocolate mint) exude a chocolate aroma or bear a chocolate name or hue. In the Sensory Garden, visitors can sniff and touch the specimens that bear a distinctive texture or fragrance, like Cuban oregano.
Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest – Kentucky
Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest — Photo courtesy of Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest
Blessed with a delightful split personality, where hiking trails pass through a beech-maple forest and walking paths wend within the arboretum, this green space may be most noted for its family of giant trolls. Strolling the 2-mile round-trip Forest Giants Trail past several ponds and through wildflower-bedecked prairie lands, you’ll see the trio (mom and her kids) that were sculpted from recycled local wood.
It’s also worth exploring the monthly programs, which may include a full moon, lakefront hike or mindful walking through an edible garden.
Tishomingo State Park – Mississippi
Tishomingo State Park — Photo courtesy of Photographer Blythe Summers/Courtesy of MDWFP
Native Americans lived for millennia on the land now designated as this state park, which is named for the chief of the Chickasaw Nation. Huge sandstone outcroppings and carpets of wildflowers, such as eastern redbud, are a few of the treasures found in this park that’s intersected by the popular Natchez Trace Parkway.
Yet, peaceful experiences are abundant, such as a guided float trip along the 6-mile Bear Creek that’s wrapped in lush foliage. Or hike the popular Outcroppings Trail that passes caves where the Chickasaw once sheltered.