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Stoney Bayou Pools
For a slice of the Panhandle’s wild side, head to St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge for a 7.6-mile hike around East River Pool. Head out in early March and circle the forested salt swamps; great blue herons nest here, and ibis and white pelicans migrate through the marsh. On warmer winter days, spot alligators basking in the sun on fallen trees. Trip ID268215
Views of back-to-back ridges and weathered Blue Ridge peaks stretch into the horizon on this 5.5-mile loop in the Chattahoochee National Forest. Follow rhododendron-lined creeks while treading in the footsteps of Cherokee and Creek Native Americans, warring tribes that sparred here 400 years ago. Your battle? Climb 1,500 feet to the summit, and relish your peaceful victory. Trip ID311986
Smoky Valley Lake Loop
This six-mile hike on the 3 Bridges and 4 C’s Trails in Carter Caves State Resort Park passes through Shangra La Arch before climbing 200 feet for views over the 45-acre lake. Lunch on the wooden bridge at mile 3.5, where cascades spill into Tygarts Creek. Trip ID547038
Nantahala Headwaters Loop
Spend three days hiking 24 miles around the source of the Nantahala River, a U-shaped drainage created by the Nantahala and Blue Ridge Mountains. Start hiking on the Appalachian Trail and camp atop Mt. Albert for crystal-clear Milky Way impressions. On night two, pitch your tent on 5,498-foot Standing Indian, a treeless bald steeped in Cherokee lore—and killer sunset views. backpacker.com/nantahalaTrip ID 969102
West Rim Trail
Get an altitude adjustment at Cloudland Canyon State Park on this 4.6-miler. Start on the canyon rim and drop into a notch laced with falls. Next, switchback 200 feet to full spreads of the 1,100-foot-deep gorge. Soak up sky-high views before circling back. Trip ID429473
Old Rag to Big Meadow Loop
Want to see the quieter side of 3,291-foot Old Rag? So did Daryl Solomon. The Philly resident pioneered this 32-mile peakbagging loop. Start on day one with the park’s iconic summit and finish day four with Robertson Mountain (3,296 feet). Make camp in lesser-traveled, waterfall-rich hollows and shelters. Trip ID509970
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Longest Cave System
Mammoth Cave NP
Payoff Its 390 miles of explored passages make Mammoth Cave longer than the world’s second- and third-longest caves combined. Starting 10 million years ago, and continuing today, two underground rivers (Styx and Echo) carved this labyrinth of horizontal tunnels, vertical shafts, and cavernous chambers within a 600-foot-thick layer of 350-million-year-old soluble limestone.
Time The park (100 miles southwest of Louisville) attracts a third as many visitors in March as July. Plus, the cave maintains a constant, 54°F temp no matter what the weather’s doing outside.
Place To protect the cave and prevent lost visitors, the park requires you to go with a ranger. Try the five-mile, six-hour Wild Cave tour ($48; weekends at 9:30 a.m.) to straddle canyons, stare into the blackness of the 200-foot-tall Cathedral Domes, and slither through nine-inch-high slots. nps.gov/maca