Call it pandemic-inspired awareness. Ecotourism has gained popularity in recent years, with today’s attendees craving meaningful, authentic experiences. Adventures in nature offer a break from everyday stress, a chance to learn and grow, and a connection that boosts mental and physical wellness.
Ecotourism encompasses responsible and sustainable travel to natural areas, conserving the environment, and appreciating natural history and cultural heritage. It is one of a number of growing tourism sectors, including adventure tourism, voluntourism, culinary tourism, and ecotourism’s cousin agritourism. In fact, agritourism, or rural tourism, is estimated to become an almost $63 million industry by 2027, according to the U.S. Travel Association. Agritourism involves touring agricultural areas, such as farms and ranches, for entertainment and education.
Scheduling time to explore a community or natural attraction can transform a business trip into an unforgettable journey. Back-to-nature excursions and natural history outings attract attendees and can help empower local farmers, businesses, artisans, and communities. Stop and smell the flowers, gaze at the stars, sip a local wine, and hike a striking landscape in celebration of the rich diversity and cultural heritage of the South.
Davis Mountains State Park, Fort Davis, and McDonald Observatory, Texas
Texas is more than big cities and sprawling ranches. West Texas is home to a desert. The Chihuahuan Desert stretches across the region known as Big Bend Country. Davis Mountains State Park showcases stunning desert views, and its 2.6-mile Skyline Drive Trail is a paved switchback ascending 544 feet to Keesey Canyon Overlook. A renowned birding spot, the park is known as the “best little bird blind in Texas.”
A two-mile trail connects the state park to the Fort Davis National Historic Site. Fort Davis is one of the best surviving examples of a frontier military post in the Southwest. From 1854 to 1891, the strategically located fort protected emigrants, mail coaches, and freight wagons on the San Antonio-El Paso Road and the Chihuahua Trail. Visitors can explore spectacular scenic views along hiking trails and take self-guided tours of the site’s restored and refurnished buildings.
Not far away, McDonald Observatory offers a stellar opportunity to view the night sky far from city lights. The observatory houses several world-class telescopes and is an astronomical research facility operated by The University of Texas at Austin. Visitors can enjoy stargazing and solar viewing through one of largest telescopes in the world or take a guided tour of the facilities. The observatory offers astronomical views of the moon, planets, star clusters, nebulae, and galaxies.
Atlanta Botanical Garden, Georgia
Just north of bustling downtown Atlanta, Ga., lies a peaceful oasis. The renowned Atlanta Botanical Garden offers 30 acres of outdoor gardens, an award-winning Children’s Garden, the serene Storza Woods highlighted by the Kendeda Canopy Walk, and the picturesque Skyline Garden. Special programming and seasonal celebrations take place throughout the year, including a magical holiday light display.
The garden posts peak bloom times on its website and is particularly colorful to visit in spring. The annual Orchid Daze dazzles with dancing lady orchids in the Conservatory Lobby, Phalaenopsis throughout the Orchid Center Atrium, and slipper orchids in the Orchid Display House. The vibrant tropical flowers are complemented by an art installation of murals that reflect the three artists’ Iranian, Vietnamese, Hawaiian, and European heritages—along with bold floral motifs.
Another annual rite of spring is Atlanta Blooms, showcasing hundreds of thousands of tulips, daffodils, crocuses, and hyacinths. Educational programming covers container gardens, floating islands, and other methods of growing bulbs. Whether attendees have an hour or a day, planners can find a variety of itineraries for tours on the garden’s website. Or host an event onsite; the garden has numerous indoor and outdoor rental spaces.
Top of the Rock Ozarks Heritage Preserve, Missouri
Resting on a hilltop in Ridgedale, Mo., about 10 miles south of Branson, Top of the Rock is a place to surround yourself with the natural beauty and history of the Ozark Mountain region. Visitors can take guided scenic nature walks, or traverse the Top of the Rock Lost Canyon Cave and Nature Trail by electric golf cart. This 2.5-mile journey is highlighted by rock formations, waterfalls, and views of Table Rock Lake.
Top of the Rock’s new natural wonder is Cathedral of Nature, which began when a sinkhole opened on the property in 2015. Excavation crews have removed more than 1.6 million yards of earth and 108,000 loads of dirt and rock in search of a passageway amid amazing rock formations. Cathedral of Nature is now 200 feet deep and exploration continues.
Some of the oldest wonders are housed in the Ancient Ozarks Natural History Museum. Prehistoric creatures, such as the skeleton of a towering woolly mammoth, are among the stars. The museum also houses an impressive collection of Native American art and artifacts, including a wide variety of arrowheads.
The natural beauty and history of the region is celebrated with a seasonal Sunset Ceremony overlooking Table Rock Lake and the Ozark Mountains, complete with bagpipes and the firing of a Civil War cannon. Rental space is available at Top of the Rock and the adjacent Big Cedar Lodge.
Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Washington, D.C.
Drinks with a dinosaur? Dinner among precious gems? The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History is dedicated to understanding the natural world and our place in it. Its collection of about 147 million artifacts and specimens is the largest natural history collection in the world.
The Janet Annenberg Hooker Hall of Geology, Gems, and Minerals showcases the 45.5-carat Hope Diamond and other treasures from the National Gem Collection. Visitors can learn about millions of years of evolving species at the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins, and the new 31,000-square-foot David H. Koch Hall of Fossils houses 700 fossil specimens. Other permanent exhibits study the ocean, butterflies, plants, insects, and African history. Bone Hall highlights the diversity and unity of every major group of vertebrates with a collection of nearly 300 skeletons. A new, free mobile app called Skin and Bones enables viewers to watch 13 of the skeletons come to life through 3-D augmented reality.
After hours, the 113-year-old museum can be rented for special events and has a capacity of 2,500 people.
Visits to local farmers markets are a great way to support local artisans and farmers and enjoy fresh, healthy produce and unique crafts. Farmers markets offer a feast for all the senses and can be found in every Southern state. Here are a few:
The Old Town Farmers’ Market in Alexandria, Va., boasts it is the oldest farmers’ market in the country held continuously at the same site. So historic is the market, it is said that George Washington sent his produce from Mount Vernon to be sold there. During the peak season, more than 70 vendors offer their products.
One of the largest markets in the country, the Yellow Green Farmers Market in Hollywood, Fla., has 600 vendor booths in a 190,000 square foot state-of-the-art venue. The site includes more than 200 food and beverage stalls, artisanal crafts, live music, and classes in yoga, art, and dance. The market promotes an earth-friendly, healthy, and balanced lifestyle.
Established in 1779, Soulard Farmers Market in St. Louis, Mo., is the oldest farmers market west of the Mississippi River. Vendors sell from 147 stalls in addition to a full butcher shop, florist, spice shop, and bakery. The market carries clothing, jewelry, handmade soaps, art, and sports memorabilia and has a mesmerizing mini-donut machine you can watch make the treats hot and fresh.
The Western North Carolina Farmers Market in Asheville touts that visitors can buy agriculture products directly from farmers and food producers in an environment that celebrates the region’s diverse culture, food, and heritage. Opened in 1977, the market hosts seasonal and holiday events in addition to its regular assortment of vendors. Along with fresh seasonal produce, shoppers will find mountain crafts, plants, and locally made pickles, relishes, and specialty foods.
In addition to farmers markets, visits to farms and orchards make fun outings. Properties throughout the South offer pick-your-own produce, from peaches in Georgia to pecans in Texas and South Carolina, berries in Arkansas, and apples in Virginia and North Carolina.
Ag Reserve and The Crossvines, Maryland
Nearly a third of Montgomery County, Md.—93,000 acres—is designated as the Agricultural Reserve, a unique area of contiguous farmland. The Ag Reserve, as it’s locally known, encompasses 540 farms and 350 horticultural enterprises and has been heralded as one of the best examples of land conservation policies in the country. Visitors can hike or bike and visit farms, breweries, wineries, the Agricultural History Farm Park, King Barn Dairy MOOseum, and the McKee-Beshers Wildlife Management Area.
The Crossvines is a new venue slated to open in May in the middle of the Ag Reserve area. The Crossvines will feature a custom crush winemaking facility using local grapes and a demonstration vineyard, and visitors can tour the production facility to see wine being produced. The wines will be featured at The Crossvines’ event center and in its restaurant, which will feature dishes made from local produce. The Crossvines will be a destination for groups and events, with a banquet room, private event spaces. and two outdoor pavilions. The new venue will make a good launching point for visitors to the Ag Reserve by providing guests with a map of the area and information on farms, orchards, and attractions.
New Madrid Historical Museum, Missouri
The Great River Road National Scenic Byway follows the course of the Mississippi River for 3,000 miles through 10 states. Gatherings from Missouri to Louisiana can take advantage of orchards, wineries, organic farms, cheese factories, gardens, nurseries, tree farms, dairy farms, and farmers markets. A unique stop to learn about natural history is southern Missouri’s New Madrid Historical Museum, housed in a former saloon. There, visitors can learn about the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811 and 1812—among the most powerful in American history. The months-long series of quakes, by some measures as high as 8.8 in magnitude, began on Dec. 16, 1811. So strong was the shaking, it was reportedly felt in Washington, D.C., made church bells ring in Boston, and is said to have caused the Mississippi River to flow backwards for several hours