Top Ten Day Hikes in the Southeast

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Close-up of wild geranium in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Close-up of wild geranium in Great Smoky Mountains National Park  (Stockbyte/Getty)

10. Pedestal Rocks Loop to King's Bluff Loop
4-mile loop in Pedestal Rocks Scenic Area, Ozark-St. Francis National Forests, AK
Hike to far-reaching views, as well as up-close vantages of arches, overhangs, rock houses, waterfalls, and this trail's eponymous Pedestal Rocks. Leave the AR 16 trailhead on the first of two circuits, taking the Pedestal Rocks Loop past Arch Rock before arriving at a bluff line that offers sweeping panoramas and closer looks into the fissured rock face below. The Pedestal Rocks then appear, jutting up from the earth's floor like massive columns to support rocky overhangs. Next, take the King's Bluff Loop, which delivers endless views of the surrounding landscape. Pass a small waterfall before reaching the actual King's Bluff, a basketball-court-sized rock slab overlooking a creek. Another waterfall drops over a rock rim at King's Bluff. Beyond King's Bluff, the trail returns through woods to the trailhead, completing the four-mile hike.
Check out our profile of Pedestal Rocks—and add to it—in our Trail Finder Wiki

9. The Cathedral of Palms
6.2-mile loop in St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, FL
This picturesque trek takes place at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, where the Florida Trail meanders through a tall palm forest known as the Cathedral, so called because the interwoven palm fronds have grown together to roof a gorgeous slice of the Big Bend near Tallahassee. You can lose hours here in quiet contemplation, but this hike also visits Shepherd Spring before completing the 6.2-mile loop. The first few miles are easy, tracing closed refuge roads through woods ranging from turkey oaks to bay/gum swamps to longleaf/wiregrass hills, eventually entering the Cathedral as a single-track trail. Walk through a moist woodland that comprises maples, cypresses, magnolias, and live oaks, using boardwalks in the wettest locales. A spur trail leads left to massive Shepherd Spring. The vivid blue pool here stretches wider than a house, and you can see fish floating motionless above vents. Alligators may be sunning in the margins. Beyond the spring, enter low, scenic, and sometimes wet woods, rife with beard cane. Rise to high-and-dry pine country, completing the loop.

8. Improved Trail to Primitive Trail
4.8-mile loop in Clark Creek Natural Area, MS
Pristine Clark Creek and its tributaries offer more than 50 waterfalls and state-champion old-growth trees. Make a 4.8-mile loop through the natural area, traveling incredibly steep trails past some of these waterfalls and along spindly ridges and astride clear sandy streams—the land and waters never stay level for long here. There's even a view or two from atop the ridges, located in the Tunica Hills just east of the Mississippi River. First, follow the Improved Trail, where precipitous ravines drop from the ridge. Pass sheer bluffs and crystalline waterfalls cutting valleys amid ferns, saw palmetto, vines, and a riot of vegetation. A stilled hiker will hear waterfalls from hilltops amid a symphony of birdsong. The vast majority of cascades here are either completely off-trail or accessed via unmaintained, user-created paths that can be slippery and treacherous. Then join the Primitive Trail. At 3.8 miles, reach the father of all trailside waterfalls at Clark Creek Natural Area. It drops 30 feet over a rock lip into a half-cathedral where scattered rocks and gravel lie below. Climb hand over fist—your average Clark Creek lung-buster climb—back to the trailhead.

7. Blue Spring Loop
6.1-mile circuit in Conecuh National Forest, AL
Blue Spring is your prize on this 6.1-mile circuit in southern Alabama, where ecotones change with the hilly terrain. One minute you are in high pines and the next you are skirting blackwater streams, swamps, and ponds. The trek leaves Conecuh National Forest's Open Pond for Buck Pond and Ditch Pond, rimmed in tawny grasses. The water levels of these natural ponds rise and fall with the rains. Ahead, well-spaced longleaf pines and turkey oaks crown the hilltops. Swampy terrain border creeks and bay trees line the main channels, while tupelo trees stand silent in still waters. The environments overlap one another, forming a mosaic of biodiversity. Surmount hill country and then drop to fast-flowing, sand-bottomed Five Runs Creek, mitigated by numerous fallen trees. Join noisy Pond Creek to reach Blue Spring. The azure pool and spring vent are encircled by woods, except for the crystalline outflow stream. Your return route rises into pine-clad hills. Circle Alligator Hole, as much marsh as pond, with fallen tree trunks, grasses, beavers, and alligators. Bridge the outflow of Alligator Hole and then backtrack to the trailhead.

6. Sitton Gulch to Lower Falls to Daniel Creek
4.8-mile loop in Cloudland Canyon State Park, GA
Take a 4.8-mile loop at Cloudland Canyon State Park, trekking a rock-rimmed gorge with sheer walls, cliff lines, waterfalls, and vistas. Leave the park picnic area along the canyon rim, with near-instant views. Make a side trip into Sitton Gulch, where two waterfalls drop. Descend a near-vertical bluff, reaching Upper Falls, with a large plunge pool. Make Lower Falls via an engineering marvel of a path involving untold steps. Next, cross Daniel Creek among mountain laurel and rhododendron tangles in Sitton Gulch. Then, climb the canyon's west rim, where panoramas open from wide rock slabs. Ramble through thickets of Table Mountain pines broken by big boulders to reach a fantastic overlook at mile 2.6, taking in views of Lookout Valley and beyond to the Tennessee River to the north. The west brow of Lookout Mountain stretches northeast. Then, as you head into Sitton Gulch, the canyon narrows. The far rim's rock walls reveal their impressive geological detail. A second developed overlook discloses a tributary cutting its own gorge to meet Daniel Creek. Still another overlook exposes a view across the canyon. Return to Daniel Creek, and then ascend to the picnic area.

Published: 28 Mar 2011 | Last Updated: 8 Jun 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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