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Although it stretches across more than a dozen states, Appalachia is largely unknown to most Americans, says Nancy Brown Diggs, author of “In Search of Appalachia” (Hamilton, $24.99). She says the largely rural region makes a great place to travel, providing plenty of chances to explore the outdoors while naturally keeping social distance. “I was really surprised by some of the spectacular scenery,” she says. “It’s a very welcoming group of people, and a lot cheaper than most places.” She shares some favorite discoveries with USA TODAY.

Abingdon, Virginia

The 34-mile Virginia Creeper Rails-to-Trails path lets visitors “coast across bridges and trestles, through fields and woods,” Diggs says. (Photo: Jason Barnette, Jason Barnette)

A quaint downtown on the National Historic Register is only one reason you’ll want to visit this town near the Tennessee border. There’s also an elegant grand hotel, a professional theater company and the 34-mile Virginia Creeper Rails-to-Trails path.  “You can coast across bridges and trestles, through fields and woods,” Diggs says.

More information:   visitabingdonvirginia.com

Huntsville, Alabama

The SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule that returned from the International Space Station in August hearkens back to the capsules that took the first generations of astronauts into space. You can see one such spacecraft at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. (Photo: Alabama Tourism Department)

Home to literally thousands of rocket engineers, this town artfully combines science with culture. Its immensely popular U.S. Space & Rocket Center museum highlights the accomplishments of NASA workers and astronauts, while Lowe Mill, one of the nation’s largest private arts centers, features hundreds of makers working in studios in a converted century-old factory. “Huntsville’s a study in contrasts,” Diggs says. 

More information: huntsville.org

New River Gorge National River Park

West Virginia

West Virginia’s Lower New River challenges whitewater rafting enthusiasts with Class V rapids, while the Upper New River is tamer, with Class I-III water. (Photo: NPS photo)

There’s no shortage of excitement around this surging mountain river, with Class V whitewater rapids in the lower section, and a bridge walk that stands more than 875 feet about the water. (There are tamer, Class I-III rapids in the Upper New River.) “There are ghost towns, old mining towns and so much history,” Diggs says.

More information:  nps.gov/neri

Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area

Tennessee and Kentucky

Although Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area isn’t as well known as the Great Smoky Mountains, the scenery is even more spectacular, says Diggs. (Photo: NPS photo)

This 125,000-acre preserve offers plenty of ways to explore Appalachian heritage. “It may not be as well-known as the Smokies, but it’s much more spectacular,” Diggs says. Along with outdoors activities, visitors explore the village of Rugby, Tennessee, on the edge of the park. And in Stearns, Kentucky, the Big South Fork Scenic Railway takes passengers to the Blue Heron Coal Camp, a ghost town managed by the National Park Service.

More information:  nps.gov/biso

Meadowcroft Shelter

 Avella, Pennsylvania

Visitors can watch a blacksmith forge red-hot iron in Meadowcroft’s 19th century historic village. (Photo: Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Historic Village)

People have been hanging out in the Appalachians for longer than you could imagine. This 19,000-year-old rock ledge shelter preserves one of the earliest sites of human habitation in North America. “For years it was a secret,” Diggs says. Today it’s possible to tour the area, along with a reconstructed 16th-century Monongahela Indian settlement at Meadowcroft Shelter and Historic Village, located about 35 miles west of Pittsburgh.

More information:  heinzhistorycenter.org/exhibits/meadowcroft-rockshelter

Cloudland Canyon State Park

Rising Fawn, Georgia

“Beyond the canyon, you can see forever,” says Diggs. (Photo: GaStateParks.com)

Diggs was surprised to find a stirring outdoor panorama just two hours from Atlanta with a 1,000-foot-deep canyon, waterfalls and overnight accommodations in yurts and cabins. “It was such a surprise. I had no idea Georgia had anything like that,” she says. “Beyond the canyon, you can see forever.”

More information: gastateparks.org/CloudlandCanyon

Hocking Hills State Park

Logan, Ohio

Rock House, located halfway up a 150-foot cliff, is a large tunnel-like formation that once sheltered Native Americans. (Photo: Amy Weirick)

This state park wows Diggs with its spectacular arches, caves, and tunnels. A paved walkway leads into Conkle’s Hollow, a canyon with grottoes and cliffs with a waterfall at the end. While Rock House, located halfway up a 150-foot cliff, is a large tunnel-like formation that once sheltered Native Americans. “It really stirs your imagination. It’s like Middle Earth.”

More information:  explorehockinghills.com

Highlands, North Carolina

Disregard the advice of ’90s R&B trio TLC and go chase waterfalls in Highlands, North Carolina. (Photo: Greg Newington)

This upscale vacation town not only offers elegant shops, spas, and fine dining, but spectacular mountain views. Located on a plateau at an elevation of 4,118 feet and surrounded by the Nantahala National Forest, it offers an escape from summer heat. “It’s a resort town in a lovely location,” Diggs says. There’s also nearby golf and waterfall hikes.

More information:  highlandschamber.org

Berea, Kentucky

Berea, Kentucky, is known for its folk art and crafts. Many studios welcome visitors, and shoppers will find treasures at the Kentucky Artisan Center off Interstate 75, south of Lexington. “ (Photo: KentuckyTourism.com)

Home to Berea College, this town has long played a special role in the region. It charges no tuition; instead, all students participate in work-study programs. It’s also known for its folk art and crafts. Many studios welcome visitors, and shoppers will find treasures at the Kentucky Artisan Center off Interstate 75, south of Lexington. “It’s a beautiful setting and people are quite friendly,” Diggs says.

More information:visitberea.com

Chautauqua County, New York

Chautauqua isn’t all high-brow lectures: The lake provides ample opportunity for physical fun. (Photo: TourChautauqua.com)

If you’d like to vacation with U.S. senators, Pulitzer-Prize winners and research scientists, this tiny western New York town is for you. The Chautauqua Institution brings together visitors for summer lectures, discussions and workshops. Although programming’s moved online this year due to COVID-19, visitors can still get a day pass to visit the historic grounds, and also explore the surrounding county. “It’s a beautiful part of the country. There’s rolling green grass. You can wade in the creek and slide down waterfalls,” Diggs says.

More information: chq.org and tourchautauqua.com

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