The holidays are right around the corner, and that means it won't be long before we're ringing in the start of another new year. While you're setting your intentions and making resolutions for 2023, go ahead and add "travel more" to your list of to-dos. Let 2023 be a year of exploration and start right in your own backyard. From snow-capped mountains and rolling pastures to white-sand beaches and winding rivers, the South is filled with postcard-worthy destinations just waiting to be discovered . The best thing about traveling in the South? You don't have to break the bank or stray too far from home to find your version of paradise. Oh, and you'll always be able to order a glass of sweet tea. Our editors are itching to hit the open road and explore the beauty of the South, but the places they're dying to visit might surprise you. Here, we spill the beans on 12 Southern hidden gems at the top of our 2023 travel bucket lists.
Mammoth Cave, Kentucky
When people think National Parks, Utah, Montana, and California may be first to come to mind. But Southerners should acquaint themselves with the magic of Mammoth Cave National Park. The park in west-central Kentucky is built around the world's longest cave system . You can explore above ground via hiking trails that traverse the park's almost 53,000 acres, then take a guided underground tour to see incredible rock formations tucked into dark corners of the massive cave system. Renting a canoe to paddle the Green River is also high priority.
Graham, North Carolina
North Carolina's Research Triangle cities of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill get plenty of visitors each year. But our editorial fellow Hallie Milstein is thinking outside the box—or should we say outside of the triangle—and can't wait to take a trip to nearby Graham, North Carolina. Spend a weekend strolling Graham's walkable downtown. Catch a movie at the historic Graham Theater, check out an art gallery inside a historic Queen Anne Revival-style house at Alamance Arts, and spend a leisurely afternoon over brunch at Press. The Country Hash Crepe is a meal and a half that's totally worth the calories.
Once a sleepy Southern town, this city of more than 150,000 is located smack-dab in the middle of Georgia and is predicted to be the center of attention come 2023. Our staff is particularly interested in visiting during cherry blossom season for the 41 st anniversary of the city's Pinkest Party on Earth . D.C. is already famous for their bountiful blushing blooms, but did you know that Macon has more than 350,000 Yoshino cherry trees to D.C.'s 3,800?
The Virginia Creeper National Recreation Trail
Fall foliage and fresh autumn air are top of mind for Assistant Homes Editor Cameron Beall. The 34.3-mile rail-to-recreation trail in southwest Virginia near the North Carolina border runs through Abingdon and Damascus County and ends just past Whitestop Station in the Mount Rogers National Recreation Trail. Beall says she several of her friends biked the Virginia Creeper Trail with their families growing up. It's been at the top of her travel wish list ever since.
Cumberland Caverns, Tennessee
There's not a lot going on in McMinnville, Tennessee (located halfway between Chattanooga and Nashville), but it's absolutely worth a visit thanks to Cumberland Caverns . Curiosities run deep inside the cavern that's filled with underground rock formations, waterfalls, and sparkling pools. Choose your adventure level from easy to extreme, then be sure to stick around for a concert. The acoustics and experience of seeing a live show in an underground cave propel this destination to the top of our must-visit list.
Synchronous Fireflies at Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina
Our senior staff writer Meghan Overdeep is always in the know when it comes to the latest and greatest things to see and do in the South. So when she mentioned the synchronous fireflies at Grandfather Mountain as an experience she couldn't wait to have, we were all ears. The natural light show is put on by the Photinus carolinus species of firefly, which synchronize their lights in late spring or early summer in order to find a mate. For years it was believed that the Great Smoky Mountains was the only place to catch the spectacle, but now the Tar Heel State is in on the secret, too.
Ever since Associate Digital Editor Kaitlyn Yarborough let us in on the Texas Hill Country's best-kept secret, we've been chomping at the bit to get ourselves to Utopia. And with a name like that, we're expecting big things. Sandwiched between Lost Maples State Natural Area and Garner State Park, the postage stamp-sized town is ideal for going off the grid in the inviting company of brilliant autumn color. We're dreaming of our fall escape already!
Dismals Canyon, Alabama
Head out after dark to see ancient caves come alive with an iridescent blue-green glow. It may sound like a scene ripped straight from Avatar, but it's actually a rare natural phenomenon caused by a unique type of glowworm called dismalites. There are only a few places on earth to see the wonder: Australia, New Zealand, and the town of Phil Campbell in northwest Alabama. The only way to see the dismalites is on a guided night tour during certain months of the year at Dismals Canyon National Natural Landmark . Pro tip: Spots are extremely limited, and tours can only be booked via phone. Your best bet at seeing the glowing critters is to reserve a cabin or campsite on the property, as guests get first-priority for tour times.
Greenville, South Carolina
The cat may be out of the bag when it comes to the wonders of this South Carolina city on the rise , but our Senior News Editor Rebecca Baer still has the charming destination high on her list. Greenville is big enough to have plenty to see, do, and eat, but small enough to not feel like you're trapped in the chaos of a bigger city. Says Baer, "The growing town has so much to offer from coffee shops to bookstores to the free outdoor art walk, it feels like a wonderful weekend getaway."
Duck, North Carolina
Families along the East Coast visit the towns dotting North Carolina's Outer Banks, year after year. With an all-purpose boardwalk spotted with restaurants, cafes, and shops, plus endless views of the Currituck Sound and Atlantic Ocean, Duck is the hidden away Outer Banks gem of our dreams. If you haven't experienced the area's natural beauty and welcoming locals, it's time to plan your trip.
You may recognize the name of this Virginia coastal city from your holiday dinner table, but there's a lot more to explore here than the origins of your Christmas ham. Yes, it's the birthplace of the beloved Smithfield ham, but it's also a lively Hampton Roads outpost waiting to be discovered. Stroll through the idyllic Main Street, where you can stop into local shops, take in the historic architecture (there's everything from Colonial to Victorian gingerbread styles), and sip on local wine, brews, and spirits. Shoutout to our Virginia-born editorial fellow Mary Alice Russell who was kind enough to share her favorite weekend getaway with the rest of us.
If you want to go somewhere that embodies the spirit of a happy-go-lucky beach town, Matlacha (pronounced mat-la-shay) is your place. The tiny fishing village in southwest Florida is known for its crazy kaleidoscope of colors, which you can soak up while walking around the flip flop-friendly hamlet. Snap a couple pictures for Instagram, then do as the locals do and get out on the water. Drop a line and try to catch dinner, or take a leisurely paddle around the Matlcaha Pass. You're on island time now.