Can you even call yourself a Southerner if you don’t spend at least a quarter of the year griping about the heat (and don’t forget the humidity)? But during a season when the forecast seems permanently set to “scorching,” you can still find pockets of delicious coolness—and we don’t mean the blast radius around your air-conditioning vent.
A subterranean cave, a chilly river, the highest summit east of the Mississippi—these destinations are all shivery oases on dog-day afternoons. You might even need that quarantine sweatshirt.
Ginnie Springs | Florida
Florida is perhaps best known for its beaches, but locals and in-the-know visitors often prefer the state’s hundreds of freshwater springs. You won’t be able to resist plunging into the crystalline blue pools at Ginnie Springs, located about twenty miles northwest of Gainesville in High Springs and fed by 260 million gallons of natural spring water. So pure is the H2O, Coca-Cola has bottled and sold it under the brand Dasani, and the temperature below the surface never inches above seventy-two degrees—even on the most sizzling Florida day. The privately operated destination is actually a system of seven interconnected springs, and there are plenty of ways to experience it: tubing, kayaking, snorkeling, even scuba diving (the springs are pockmarked with limestone grottoes and caves, and the translucent water allows for breathtaking views). Ginnie Springs is also popular as a campsite, and both overnight guests and day-trippers should expect to see plenty of wildlife, including tortoises, alligators, even manatees.
Not a fan of camping? The Grady House Bed & Breakfast is located inside a circa-1917 Craftsman-style home right in High Springs. Visitors rave about the fresh chocolate-chip cookies served in the afternoons.
In downtown High Springs, the Great Outdoors Restaurant is known for its steaks, seafood, and decadent cheesecake desserts. Station Bakery and Cafe, a family-operated eatery, serves a dizzying array of cakes and pies, plus classic deli sandwiches.
Hoist a Cold One
Sample craft beers, ciders, and non-alcoholic sodas at High Springs Brewing Company. The brewery often hosts live music acts, food trucks, and fun events like goat yoga.
Drinks, On the Rocks
An arctic respite from the intense Florida heat
With a bar top, stools, even highball glasses carved from seventy tons of ice, Icebar Orlando bills itself as the world’s largest permanent ice bar. (The coldest parts of the establishment are kept at a glacial twenty-two degrees Fahrenheit.) Forgot your parka? An “Ice Princess” will greet you with a thermal coat and gloves. Don’t miss a photo-op in front of the fantastical ice sculptures on exhibit. Say ch-ch-ch-ch-cheese!
Chattahoochee River | Georgia
Shooting the ’Hooch, the famed 430-mile river that flows south from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Florida border, is a summertime rite of passage for Georgians. One of the best spots to float in a tube on the water is in Helen, a Bavarian-style village in northeast Georgia that looks plucked from the pages of a Brothers Grimm fairytale. Begin just north of Helen and let the Chattahoochee—whose waters stay cold year-round, rarely topping fifty degrees—gently wind you through scenic alpine forests and into the heart of town. Book a tubing trip with a local outfitter (hint: rent an extra tube for your cooler), and they’ll haul you upstream to drift for an hour or two along this natural lazy river. Nearby, sun-dappled trails weave in and out of the Chattahoochee National Forest; be sure to check out Anna Ruby Falls, a pair of cascading waterfalls that are easily accessible via a half-mile paved path. Experienced hikers can head a little farther to the summit of Blood Mountain, the highest peak on Georgia’s section of the Appalachian Trail.
One of Helen’s oldest landmarks and a popular Instagram backdrop, the Heidi Motel and Windmill Suites (yep, there’s an actual suite inside of a windmill) is delightfully kitschy. For one of Georgia’s quirkiest camping experiences, rent a circa-1970s barrel cabin in Unicoi State Park.
No visit to Helen is complete without a traditional German meal. At Hofbräuhaus Restaurant & Pub, feast on heaping portions of schnitzel or wurst served with red cabbage, sauerkraut, and spatzle.
Get a Dose of Nostalgia
Just down the road from Helen is Babyland General Hospital, the 70,000-square-foot “birthplace” of Cabbage Patch Kids. Learn the history of the beloved toy, dreamed up by local artist Xavier Roberts, and let the kids ink adoption papers for their very own baby.
The higher you climb, the lower the temperature
Hiking might seem like a counterintuitive way to cool off, but North Carolina’s Mount Mitchell State Park—home to dense spruce-fir forests and the tallest peak in the Eastern United States (6,684 feet above sea level)—has an average annual temperature of just forty-five degrees and even occasional snow flurries in summer. If you’re not up for a strenuous ascent to the summit, try the Balsam Nature Trail, a three-quarter-mile stroll where you can dip your fingers into an always-icy stream. Afterward, drive an hour southwest to Asheville for a frosty pint; the city is home to the most breweries per capita in the country.
Beech Mountain | North Carolina
Perched 5,506 feet above sea level, Beech Mountain (population: 528) is the highest little town in the eastern United States. That skyscraping elevation also makes it one of the coolest spots in North Carolina, no matter the season. In winter, the mountain in the state’s northwestern corner is a playground for skiers and snowboarders. In summer, when the average temperature sits around seventy-three degrees, it’s popular with hikers and mountain bikers. June through September, you can reach the Emerald Outback (a park with seven miles of trails and magnificent alpine vistas) via ski chairlift at the Beech Mountain Resort. Disc-golfers can try their hand at the resort’s eighteen-hole course, while golfers will appreciate the mild temperatures and ridgetop views at the mile-high Beech Mountain Club. Love fishing? The rivers in this part of North Carolina often converge to fill small lakes; cast for mountain trout or bass at Buckeye Lake, a ten-acre pool ringed with trees. When you’re ready to end the day, the sweeping views from 5506′ Skybar at the top of Beech Mountain Resort stretch across North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. Grab a beer and one of the Adirondack chairs on the 2,800-square-foot deck for a spectacular sunset show.
Beech Mountain is dotted with cozy cabins and chalets available for private booking. And just a short drive away near Banner Elk, the Lodge at River Run has five rustic-chic rooms and a river full of fish rushing right by its doors.
For lunch, try the expansive menu of pizzas, salads, and sandwiches at Banner Elk Cafe and Lodge. Come dinnertime, everything is made from scratch at Artisanal, a fine-dining restaurant in Banner Elk that’s open May through October.
Follow the Yellow Brick Road
The Land of Oz theme park operated atop Beech Mountain from 1970 to 1980 and featured meticulous recreations of The Wizard of Oz movie sets, including a road paved with 44,000 yellow bricks. Today, visitors can see the restored park during private tours and events, such as the Journey with Dorothy tours held each summer.
Leave blistering summer temps behind with a jaunt to one of the South’s coolest towns (all averages are annual)
Average low: 46º
Average high: 74º
Average low: 55º
Average high: 78º
Average low: 43º
Average high: 68º
Average low: 54º
Average high: 77º
Holly Springs, Mississippi
Average low: 46º
Average high: 72º
Jefferson, North Carolina
Average low: 38º
Average high: 63º
Salem, South Carolina
Average low: 45º
Average high: 70º
Mountain City, Tennessee
Average low: 40º
Average high: 66º
Cathedral Caverns | Alabama
Bring a sweater if you venture into this spectacular underground cave in Woodville; the temperature inside stays a crisp sixty degrees year round. In fact, archaeological studies show that humans have been cooling off in the cave’s passageways for 8,000 years. Once operated as a private tourist attraction, Cathedral Caverns and its surrounding acres in northeast Alabama were purchased by the state in 1987 and turned into a state park in 2000. Past the gaping entrance (128 feet across and twenty-five feet high), two miles of paved corridors are open for ranger-led tours. Along the way, you’ll see the subterranean Mystery River flowing past striking rock formations, including one of the world’s largest stalagmites (dubbed “Goliath,” it’s forty-five feet high and 243 feet in circumference). There’s also a wall of stone that resembles a frozen waterfall, a dense stalagmite “forest,” and a vast open chamber that inspired the caverns’ name. Once you’re ready to brave the heat again, let the kiddos try their hand at gemstone mining, or herd the family along the park’s five miles of hiking trails.
There are campsites at Cathedral Caverns State Park, but if you prefer an air-conditioned room, try the lodge at nearby Lake Guntersville State Park, which offers suites and cabins alongside the banks of Alabama’s largest lake.
About thirty minutes away in historic downtown Huntsville, the award-winning Cotton Row Restaurant serves upscale American fare and seasonal cocktails. Slightly closer by, you can fill up on Southern seafood at The Docks in Scottsboro.
The U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville is where budding astronauts come to train at Space Camp each summer. There are interactive exhibits and programs for kids and adults, plus a jaw-dropping Saturn V Rocket, which sent Apollo missions to the moon.
Take a Stroll Through the Sky
You can’t beat the cross-breeze!
Traverse the Mile High Swinging Bridge, the country’s highest suspension footbridge, for panoramic views of North Carolina’s Grandfather Mountain. Just don’t look down into the eighty-foot ravine below.
Tallulah Gorge in North Georgia is a two-mile-long chasm formed by the Tallulah River and its many waterfalls. Take the Hurricane Falls Trail at Tallulah Falls State Park, and an eighty-foot bridge will lead you over the rushing water before you descend to the base of the falls.
The Gatlinburg Sky Bridge, the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in North America, is not for the faint of heart: Even the extra-wobbly middle section is constructed with glass panels. Sweaty palms aside, the swaying 680-foot bridge offers a spectacular view of the Tennessee tourist town and the Great Smoky Mountains.
Lake Lure | North Carolina
In the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains, about thirty miles southwest of Asheville, lies a major spot in chick-flick history. That’s right, Dirty Dancing fans: Lake Lure is where Patrick Swayze performed the famous “lake lift” with Jennifer Grey in the movie’s most memorable scene. With a small water park, a sandy beach, and a slide that sends you sailing straight into the shimmering, cool lake (the average water temperature at the surface stays in the low seventies), it’s also an excellent spot to weather a hot summer weekend. Rent a kayak, canoe, or paddleboard to explore the bays and inlets, or take a guided pontoon-boat tour of the 720-acre reservoir. Presiding over the horizon is Chimney Rock, a 500-million-year-old stone pillar that juts out over the landscape like a giant thumb. Climb all 491 steps (or take the elevator!), and you’ll be rewarded with stunning views of the water and surrounding mountains. Chimney Rock State Park is also crisscrossed with trails that lead you under lush tree canopies, past sheer rock cliffs, and through the cooling mists of Hickory Nut Falls, one of the tallest waterfalls east of the Mississippi.
The 1927 Lake Lure Inn and Spa hosted the Dirty Dancing cast during the movie’s filming; request to stay in the “Swayze” or “Jennifer Grey” suites to slumber within the same four walls as the film’s stars. The intimate Lodge on Lake Lure is a luxury inn with seventeen guest rooms and suites, most with unobstructed views of the water.
You can’t beat the scenery at La Strada, a popular family-run Italian restaurant with a large patio overlooking the lake. In Chimney Rock, Old Rock Cafe serves some of the area’s best burgers, sourced from local Hickory Nut Gap Farms.
Have the Time of Your Life
Thousands of Baby and Swayze fans sashay into town each August for the annual Dirty Dancing Festival. You can attempt your own “lake lift,” or just lay back and enjoy a lakeside screening of the film.
Go waterfall chasing in the Tar Heel state
With four mountain chains and 2,700 named peaks, North Carolina is home to an abundance of waterfalls. (Transylvania County, in the state’s southwestern corner, boasts 250 falls alone!) An impressive wall of water pours over a sixty-foot drop and into a clear pool at Looking Glass Falls near Brevard. Carefully wade over the rocks (they’re slippery!), and you’ll be enveloped in a powerful spray of mist. Five miles northwest, Sliding Rock is nature’s Slip-n-Slide, with a gushing stream that propels you over a slick, sixty-foot-long rock face before dropping into a seven-foot-deep pool of icy water. Near Cashiers, Whitewater River tumbles over a stunning 411-foot plunge at the upper falls, then drops another 400 feet at the lower falls across the border in South Carolina—making Whitewater Falls the highest waterfall east of the Rocky Mountains. ashevilletrails.com, adventurepisgah.com
This article appears in the Spring/Summer 2021 issue of Southbound.