As the effects COVID-19 linger on, nature lovers continue gravitating to outdoor adventures as one of the safer activities we can engage in these days. Those who have spent the last few months enjoying warm weather activities like kayaking and mountain biking are looking at ways to continue the fun in winter. And people who have never considered it before are exploring pursuits such as quail hunting, skydiving and snowshoeing. Now is the time to bundle up and go.
Wintertime is quail hunting season and southwest Georgia is considered one of the best areas in the country for this time-honored sport. Wynfield Plantation encompasses 2,000 acres of prime quail habitat outside of Albany. In addition to cabins in the pines next to a lake, the resort provides jeeps, shotguns, experienced guides and well-trained bird dogs to sniff out and flush the covey from the underbrush. Part of the pleasure of the experience is watching the dogs do what comes naturally before the excitement of the flush. In this environment, the dogs are in command. Afterward, enjoy sitting by the fireplace in the lodge swapping bird-dog tales while sipping fine spirits. (Wynfield Plantation, hunts $350 per person and up, cabins $185 per person, per night. 5030 Leary Road, Albany. 229-889-0193, www.wynfieldplantation.com)
Beech Mountain, North Carolina
Snowshoeing may seem an unlikely activity in the South, since it requires a least four-to-six inches of snow on the ground. But at 5,506 feet above sea level, Beech Mountain, the highest municipality in the eastern U.S., receives an average of 84 inches of snow each year. When conditions are right, the town’s 30 miles of public hiking trails are transformed into winter sports trails. Buckeye Recreation Center provides the use of snowshoes free of charge for half-day outings and offers guided snowshoe excursions with advance notice. Trails range from easy to strenuous. The higher-elevation Emerald Outback trails are challenging with the reward of spectacular long-range mountain views. The town is also home to the well-known Beech Mountain Resort with downhill skiing and snowboarding, as well as a wide variety of accommodations. (Buckeye Recreation Center, 1330 Pine Ridge Road, Beech Mountain, North Carolina. 828-387-3003, beechrecreation.recdesk.com/Community/Page?pageId=10902)
Credit: Jeff Greenough. Virginia Tourism
Located in a remote section of the mountains in southwest Virginia, the Great Channels has only been accessible to the public since 2008. Formerly located on private property, it’s now part of the Channels State Forest at the Channels Natural Area Preserve. It’s a surreal-looking 20-acre sunken labyrinth of sandstone passageways offering a hiking adventure unique for the Southeast. The natural maze resembles the narrow slot canyons of the Southwest desert if they were blanketed with trees and covered in moss. Visitation is limited due to a small parking area at the trailhead leading into the forest. Camping is forbidden in the Channels State Forest, but primitive camping is allowed in the surrounding wilderness areas. (Channels State Forest, free, 4250 Hayters Gap Road, Saltville, Virginia. 434-977-6555, dof.virginia.gov/stateforest/list/channels)
Amelia Island, Florida
Get a grand view of Amelia Island and the southeastern coastline by jumping out of an airplane at 12,000 feet. Skydive Amelia Island operates on weekends throughout the winter from the island’s historic Fernandina Beach Municipal Airport. All jumps are tandem with a certified instructor strapped to you from ascent to landing. After reaching altitude, you and the instructor free fall together for an exhilarating half-minute or so before the chute opens at around 5,000 feet. Then you float to the ground while taking in a stunning vista of the Atlantic Ocean and the southern barrier islands from Cumberland Island to the north and Big Talbot and Little Talbot islands to the south before setting down in the landing field. COVID-19 protocols include regular screening of staff members and no more than two skydive passengers at a time in the aircraft. The company boasts an accident-free safety record since its founding in 1998. (Skydive Amelia Island, $199 and up, 3243 Bailey Road, Fernandina Beach, Florida. 904-718-4648, skydiveameliaisland.com)
Across the 24-mile-long Lake Pontchartrain Causeway Bridge from New Orleans, an area known as the Louisiana Northshore seems a world away from the city. The Northshore contains an ecological treasure trove of wildlife preserves with fields, forests, trails, swampy wetlands and bayous. Outfitter Bayou Adventure rents bikes, kayaks and paddleboards for solo exploring, but it’s recommended you take a guided tour from a local who knows the greenways, blueways and wildlife before you venture out on your own. The most popular tour is the Sunset Paddle down Cane Bayou to watch the sunset over the lake before heading back upstream by headlamp in the gathering dark to see the so-called “amphibious glitter.” That’s what they call the hundreds of pairs of green and red eyes of the land and water critters looking at you as you make your way through the bayou. Cane Bayou borders Fontainebleau State Park where you can stay in a pier cabin on stilts over the waters of Lake Pontchartrain. (Bayou Adventure, Sunset Paddle $55, 28178 U.S. 190, Lacombe, Louisiana. 985-882-9208, www.bayouadventure.com. Fontainebleau State Park, cabins $150 and up, 62883 LA 1089, Mandeville, Louisiana. 888-677-3668, www.lastateparks.com/parks-preserves/fontainebleau-state-park)
Credit: Gabe Hartwig
For those who crave the outdoors but also need big-city amenities close at hand, Big Cypress Lodge offers an Outdoor Adventure Package that includes activities at 4,500-acre Shelby Farms Park 15 miles from the hotel. The outdoor-themed lodge bills itself as a “wilderness hotel” in the city, housed inside the 32-story Bass Pro Shops Pyramid on the banks of the Mississippi River. The rooms are built to resemble tree houses and hunting camp accommodations with porches overlooking 100-foot cypress trees and ponds with alligators. There’s also a shooting range, an archery range and an open-air observation deck with panoramic views of the river and the city skyline. But the real outdoor action happens at Shelby Farms Park. The park has 40 miles of trails for hiking, biking and horseback riding, more than 20 small lakes for fishing and paddling, and a treetop obstacle / zipline course. You can also see a herd of buffalo roaming on a 50-acre range, a rare sight in the Southeastern U.S. During the holidays on select nights there’s a drive-thru light show at the park called Starry Nights. (Big Cypress Lodge, Outdoor Adventure Package $230 and up, includes $40 voucher for rentals and activities at Shelby Farms Park. Transportation to the park is not included. 1 Bass Pro Drive, Memphis, Tennessee. 800-223-3333, big-cypress.com)
Credit: Wayne Eggleston
Murrell’s Inlet, South Carolina
Go beyond the beach on South Carolina’s Grand Strand with a salt marsh paddling tour by day and walking through a 9,000-acre woodlands garden festooned with holiday lights by night. Black River Outdoors gives guided eco-tours of the tidal creeks and marshlands around Murrell’s Inlet. Wintertime is prime time for birders because of the number of migrating species in the region. There’s also the chance of seeing dolphins and sea turtles where the inlet meets the ocean. All tours are now private and the guides practice social distancing. Afterward, nearby Brookgreen Garden’s Nights of a Thousand Candles runs from Thanksgiving weekend to the end of the year from 4-9 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday. Bruce Munro’s Field of Light exhibit has been extended and is included. Tickets must be purchased in advance of your arrival. (Black River Outdoors, salt marsh tour $40 and up. 843-546-4840, blackriveroutdoors.com. Brookgreen Gardens, Nights of a Thousand Candles $25, 1931 Brookgreen Drive, Murrell’s Inlet, South Carolina. 843-235-6000, www.brookgreen.org/events/nights-thousand-candles-2020)
Some of the best mountain biking trails in the Southeast can be found in Alabama, and the best trail of them all, according to many expert riders, is the BUMP Trail at Oak Mountain State Park, named after the group that built and maintains it. The website Singletracks currently rates the nearly 20-mile trail No. 1 in the state and No. 18 in the world. Also known as the Red Trail, it was deemed an Epic ride in 2010 by the International Mountain Bicycling Association, which cited the challenges of the ride as well as the ridge-and-valley scenery. The loop trail sports varied terrain skirting one of the park’s four lakes before ascending the mountain for a long run along a ridgeline and then taking a steep, winding descent. There are many other trails for intermediate and novice riders, too, making Oak Mountain a good option for families with riders of all skill levels. Lakeside cabins are available in a remote, tranquil area of the park. At nearly 10,000 acres, Oak Mountain is Alabama’s largest state park with a multitude of year-round outdoor activities, including a treetop nature walk, an archery range and an award-winning public golf course. (Oak Mountain State Park, $5 gate admission, cabins $136 per night, two-night minimum. 200 Terrace Drive, Pelham, Alabama. 205-620-2520, www.alapark.com/parks/oak-mountain-state-park)
COVID-19 travel tips
- Prepare your own food if possible. If not, dine at restaurants that offer drive-thru, delivery or curb-side service.
- Use gloves or antibacterial wipes when pumping gas and using public restrooms.
- Wash your hands often. If you can’t, use hand-sanitizer that is at least 60% alcohol.
- Wear a mask when out in the public
- Maintain a distance of six feet or more from others.