Alabama once again dominated the SEC in football on their way to another appearance in the BCS Championship. They are the favorite to win yet another National Championship. Alabama would not be number one in another poll. If you took the top SEC football schools for adventure travel, Alabama would rank rather poorly.
Pairing college football with adventure travel
When I was in college at the University of Tennessee, after another loss to Alabama at home, I visited the Great Smoky Mountains the following Sunday. Many Alabama football fans were touring the mountains. It occurred to me that pairing a road trip with a college football game and nearby adventure would be a great idea. In fact, I did just this a couple weeks ago with a visit to my alma mater, a trip to the Great Smoky Mountains, and I took in the Tennessee vs. Kentucky football game.
Here are the rankings for SEC football schools as well as the closest best adventure travel opportunity. I make no bones about it that being a University of Tennessee graduate, I am highly bias. It is about time the University of Tennessee is number 1 at something. If you have a problem with my bias, then create your own blog and make your own rankings. I am a little unfamiliar with the mid deep south. I have not spent much time in Mississippi and Alabama. Part of this is on purpose, but if you disagree with some of these selections, please comment in the section below the post.
Top SEC schools for adventure travel
University of Tennessee – Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The crown jewel of the national park system in the east is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It is routinely ranked as one of the most visited national parks thanks to its proximity to the eastern seaboard. Despite the crowds, it is very easy to escape to complete solitude thanks to hundreds of miles of backcountry trails. The famed Appalachian Trail cuts the park in half and is the boundary between Tennessee and North Carolina. The park is only one hour from Knoxville and is visible from Neyland Stadium on clear days.
The park is also a heaven for road trippers. This is one reason why it is so popular. There are tons of waterfalls, mountain overlooks, heritage sites, day hikes, and wildlife accessible and spotable from the car. Take an 11 mile drive around Cades Cove and visit Abrams Falls, and watch for bear and deer. Just one of the driving highlights in the park. If you do not have your own car then try an RV Rental in The Great Smoky Mountains.
2. University of Georgia – Okefenokee Swamp
I visited the Okefenokee Swamp for the first time two years ago, and I am hooked. The swamp has an indescribable beauty to it. Many do not consider a snake, spider, and alligator infested marsh as scenic, but the Okefenokee is a national, southeast, and Georgia treasure. I spent three days paddling the swamp, and I only saw three people the entire time, and this is when I paddled past the put-in at he Stephen C. Foster State Park to get to my campsite. The “c” in Stephen Foster is definitely for canoe.
The first two days I saw no one, and I saw more bears and bobcats than people. I saw one bobcat and one bear as well as hundreds of alligators. I camped on a chickee, which is a raised platform above the swamp. Before I went to bed, I scanned the swamp below and saw 16 set of glowing alligator eyes. This kind of experience is not for everyone, but it sure was for me.
3. University of Arkansas – Buffalo National River
The Buffalo National River flows freely for 135 miles and is one of the few free flowing rivers in the lower 48 states. The Buffalo is so scenic and beautiful that it was the first choice when the park service began naming national rivers. The Buffalo River has held this distinction since 1972. The highlight of the Buffalo River is its remoteness and the huge riverside bluffs. Some sections of the river contain some fun class I-II rapids although these can only be run when the water levels are high.
4. University of Missouri – The Ozark National Scenic Riverways
The Ozark National Scenic Riverways consist of the Current and Jacks Fork Rivers. The closest town and base for these rivers is Eminence, Missouri. These rivers are so beautiful and can be characterized by crystal clear water, picturesque bluffs along the river, golden gravel bars, and tree covered bluffs in the distance. The rivers resemble the Buffalo, but not as spectacular in scenery and not as remote. The best time to visit is off peak as the rivers are extremely crowded in the summer, but amazingly calm and peaceful during the week in the fall and the spring.
I canoe poled these rivers this last September. The gravel bottom makes them perfect for this activity. I have been coming down to paddle these rivers for decades, and I will definitely be back soon.
5. University of Florida – Scenic Florida rivers
Florida has a great network of scenic rivers to canoe and kayak that are close by Gainesville. The Weeki Wachee, the Ichnatucknee, the Suwanee, the Wekiva, the Santa Fe, and the Withlacochee to just name a few. Ocala National Forest is nearby and a paddle up Juniper Springs is an unforgettable experience.
Related: Weeki Wachee canoe adventure
6. University of Kentucky – Red River Gorge
A few hours drive from Lexington and you run into the beautiful Red River Gorge Area. The area also consists of the Natural Bridge State Park and the Daniel Boone National Forest. The three areas link together creating a large swath of green forest, which is perfect for backpacking, kayaking and canoeing, camping, and road tripping. I visited the area a few years ago and did some ziplining, which was a blast flying over scenic gorges and forest.
7. Vanderbilt University – Big South Fork National Recreation Area
On the Kentucky and Tennessee border a few hours north of Nashville and Knoxville, one can find the Big South Fork National Recreation Area. This area was created by the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River and lies along the Cumberland Plateau. The highlight of this park is the many amazing views of the river atop bluffs. Many miles of backpacking trails are perfect for both day and overnight hikes. The Big South Fork is also a national river, with rafting and whitewater canoe and kayak possibilities.
Related: Big South Fork day hikes
8. University of South Carolina – Congaree National Park
A quick glance on google maps shows that Congaree National Park is just a short drive from Columbia, South Carolina and the University of South Carolina. This national park might rank higher on this list if I have visited, but I have never been. I have heard good things about it, but I have yet to explore. If you have been and know a little bit about it, please feel free to comment.
9. LSU – Atchafalaya National Wildlife Refuge
If this was a ranking of top party schools in the SEC, LSU would be near the top thanks to its proximity to New Orleans. This is not about the party but about the adventure travel. LSU is along the Mississippi River and a network of marshes and swamps. Nearby Baton Rouge is the Atchafalaya National Wildlife Refuge. Their website touts it as a mix of scenic bayous, oxbow lakes, swamps, and bottomless hardwood forests. They also claim it is a great place to canoe, fish, bird, and enjoy the scenery.
This national wildlife refuge claim to fame was it was the epicenter for the hunt for the famed ivory-billed woodpecker. A deer hunter reportedly spotted the thought to be extinct bird in the 1970s. This was never confirmed, but the fact that the area is remote and wild enough to be the center of the search shows it has great adventure travel possibilities.
10. Texas A&M – Sam Houston National Forest
An hour away from Houston and close to Texas A&M is the Sam Houston National Forest. The 128 mile Lone Star Trail winds through this national forest and lays claim to National Recreation Trail status. The Sam Houston National Forest holds several lakes and rivers, so paddling, swimming, and fishing is on the menu. Swimming is allowed at the Double Lake Recreation Area.
Tied for last – University of Mississippi, Mississippi State, Auburn, and Alabama
All four of these universities are landlocked in the middle of Alabama and Mississippi. Each university has a national forest nearby, but nothing as interesting as any of the top 8-9 schools on this list. If you are looking to match a college football game with outdoor adventure, stick to the top five if you can. I would like to visit Congaree and Atchafalaya myself, but I have no interest in furthering my research near the bottom five schools.
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