Today, my home state turns 225 years, and what better excuse to round up some of my favorite road trips in Tennessee than a banner birthday like this one? After all, we’re coming up on a decade back living in Tennessee next month, and I’ve spent the majority of my life exploring its backroads, particularly these last 10 years.
Stay awhile in Memphis
If you’re arriving to Tennessee from the west, Memphis is the first place you’ll hit as you cross the Mississippi River and enter into Volunteer territory. And if you’re not planning to stay a weekend (or longer) in Memphis, let me change your mind. There are so many things to adore about Memphis: its grit, its grub and, of course, its music. Of all large Tennessee cities, this one is by far my favorite—and every trip back, I grow to love it even more.
Make the Central Station Hotel in downtown your base as you enjoy the underground music scene, parks, murals and, of course, take a stroll down Beale Street. There’s so much green space in the city and just beyond, including two state parks like the 12,539-acre Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park that borders the Mississippi River. The hardwood bottomland area features mature Bald Cypress and Tupelo swamp, and you can explore the topography via multiple walking trails like the popular dog-friendly, three-mile Woodland Trail loop.
Related post: How to Get Outdoors in Memphis This Summer
Road trip the Natchez Trace
The Natchez Trace Parkway starts just west of Nashville and winds its way down through North Alabama, then over through a good portion of the state of Mississippi. The first 100 miles of the storied 444-mile byway are situated in Tennessee, so even if you don’t have time to drive the whole thing in full, you can get a sampler of it by traveling down the Trace from Loveless Cafe to Cypress Inn at the border.
Camp at Loretta Lynn’s Ranch
In Tennessee, we have no shortage of country music stars. We also have no dearth of country music star-backed ranches or hotels, honky tonks and other entrepreneurial ventures. One of the most special ones is Loretta Lynn’s Ranch in Humphreys County, which is in Hurricane Mills outside of Waverly, and has cabins, tent sites, and RV hookups and plenty of open space to roam, horseback ride or even float the river.
Related post: Escape to Loretta Lynn’s Ranch in Humphreys County
Explore the state’s Native American history
Tennessee is one of the nine states through which the 5,000-mile Trail of Tears passes, as the first peoples were forced off the land they occupied in a mass migration toward Oklahoma and the West. The name “Tennessee,” in fact, was derived from the Cherokee village called Tanasi, and so many other places across the South took their names from Native American cultures, which carries an abiding influence in the region.
In Lawrenceburg, you can observe some of the paths the Cherokee used on their migration from Tennessee to Oklahoma along the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail. There are many places you can learn more about the origins of the nations who first called this land home through ceremonial and burial grounds like Old Stone Fort State Archaeological Park, Pinson Mounds or Shiloh Indian Mounds, as well as museums and other educational attractions like C.H. Nash Museum at the Prehistoric Chucalissa Archaeological Site and the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum.
Follow the Tennessee Whiskey Trail across the state
We’ve established that I love whiskey and bourbon. That much is a fact. But if you want the ultimate road trip that gives you country life, urban life and, most importantly, a behind-the-scenes look at the Tennessee water we all love to consume, you need not look further than the Tennessee Whiskey Trail. (Be responsible and hire a DD if you plan to imbibe.)
And while you may not have time to do a full tour of the 26 distilleries that span 600 miles across the state, if you’re flying into Nashville, you can get a good sampling of the trail by hitting up Nelson’s Greenbrier Distillery and Nashville Craft, among others, before driving down to H Clark in Thompson’s Station, looping through Jack Daniel’s in Lynchburg, then hitting up George Dickel (Cascade Hollow) and Short Mountain to close your loop.
See the sites in Franklin
If you love history, preservation and great food all rolled into one easy-to-navigate destination, Franklin is the place for you. It’s also just eight miles from Leiper’s Fork, the most darling unincorporated community with art galleries galore, as well as the iconic Natchez Trace Parkway Bridge that launched a million Instagram posts.
When I say “Franklin,” I generally mean Williamson County as you can’t come here without stopping by H Clark Distillery in Thompson’s Station, sipping wine in the prettiest vineyard at Arrington, and checking out Mill Creek Brewing Co.—in fact, might as well travel the whole Masters & Makers Trail while you’re there!—as well as the This Girl Can mural and the 31A Trail in Nolensville. Go ahead and hole up at the Harpeth Hotel for a few days while you tackle this ambitious list.
Visit the Centerville Square
Minnie Pearl’s hometown of Centerville is just an hour outside of Nashville in a lush area pulsing with rivers, creek, farms and hardwood forest. With just 25,000 residents populating the entire county, Hickman County is a massive sprawl of countryside that spans 613 square miles, much of which is pastoral land.
Drive the backroads, then take a beat to enjoy the Centerville square and its many shops (note: the Minnie Pearl chicken wire bust has been moved off-site). While there, you can hit up the Piney River for canoeing or go cool off in Jackson Falls, which is just a few miles outside of the city, and of course see Whitney Herrington’s Walls for Women piece “Punch Bug.”
Related post: Visit Centerville, the Home of Minnie Pearl
Go mural-chasing in Nashville
Rarely a week goes by where I’m not emailed about my Nashville murals post; nearly half a million people have used the free map I made to navigate the street art scene in Music City. And with art continuously added to the fabric of Nashville’s public art scene—like this recent Dolly Parton beauty by Kim Radford—I update that post every month so it’s always fresh and relevant for all visiting Tennessee for the murals.
Related post: Street Art USA: The Best Murals in Nashville
Tour Dunbar Cave
Clarksville is one of my favorite towns I’ve seen flourish over the last decade, with a great distillery, some breweries and plenty of other independent businesses pop up in the downtown core. One attraction that isn’t new? Dunbar Cave. Rather, the mouth of this cave in the 144-acre state park was used as a dance floor in the early 1900s, and there’s iconography on the walls inside that dated back to 1350 AD. Plus, the well-manicured grounds surrounding the cave are just plain beautiful.
While Dunbar Cave is an easy stop off of I-24, be sure and venture into the city and take a mosey around downtown Clarksville. Warmer months are also great for exploring the 10 acres of river-adjacent property that comprise Liberty Park: a dog park, playgrounds, two miles of paved walkway, pavilions, a marina and a 10-acre fishing pond all in one location.
Waterfall-hop across Middle Tennessee
With more than 500 waterfalls of all sizes and level of impressiveness, the state of Tennessee is not lacking for places to cool off in the hot months of summer. Throw a rock and you’ll hit a waterfall or two. A few of my favorites include Greeter Falls, Rutledge Falls, Machine Falls, Cummins Falls and Burgess Falls.
Related post: Planning a Day Trip to Burgess Falls State Park
Explore the outdoors surrounding McMinville
McMinnville, a town of 14,000 people in Warren County, is just 45 minutes from where I grew up and a true hot bed of outdoors opportunities just waiting to be tapped. In fact, the Barren Fork flows right through Riverfront Park in downtown McMinnville. In the summer months, it’s one of the most popular recreational spots around thanks to its numerous put-in points for paddleboards, kayaks and canoes.
But McMinnville is also convenient to Rock Island State Park, Fall Creek Falls, Edgar Evins State Park, South Cumberland State Park and Center Hill Lake. In other words, if you’re coming to Middle Tennessee for the outdoors alone, make this your base.
Related post: Pet-friendly Hikes in Middle Tennessee
Stop into Bell Buckle for the afternoon
Blink as you’re passing the Webb School and you might miss Bell Buckle as the town essentially spans one “square” (which is more in the shape of a T) along the railroad. But make sure you don’t as this Bedford County town of just 600 residents is brimming with antiques stores. It’s also got an eponymous cafe, an excellent coffee shop and the Wellness Emporium that sells our favorite homemade kombucha.
Venture up the mountain to Sewanee
It’s hard to explain the magic of Sewanee in words; rather, it’s something you have to experience for yourself. From the moment you cross the threshold onto the Domain and release your angel—a long-time Sewanee tradition—to the time you leave again, you might just feel like you’ve stepped foot onto Hogwarts. The Gothic-style campus of the University of the South spans 13,000 acres across the Cumberland Plateau and overlooks the Tennessee Valley (drive out to Green’s View beyond the golf course or the Cross for the best views around).
Spend a morning on the lake at Tims Ford State Park
Tims Ford is my turf, being just beyond my hometown, and where I grew up going for lake days. Straddling two counties—Franklin and Moore—this sprawling reservoir has a few marinas (we typically use Holiday Marina) from which you can rent boats and other equipment for a day spent exploring the nearly 250 miles of shoreline. If you like to golf, you can book a round at Bear Trace right on the lake’s perimeter.
Related post: Twin Creeks Marina: Tims Ford Lake’s Newest Hotspot
Camping in Pogue Canyon
In Fentress County just outside of Jamestown, you’ll find Pickett CCC Memorial State Park and the adjoining Pogue Creek Canyon State Natural Area. This is one of my favorite under-the-radar state parks not only for the otherworldly rock formations but also the fact that it’s the first state park in the Southeast to achieve International Dark Sky designation, meaning you can camp under the stars and not worry about light pollution ruining your view of the Milky Way.
Stop for lunch in the charming town of Sweetwater
Sweetwater is a new obsession of mine, and true to its name, it’s the sweetest little town in East Tennessee, just an hour north of Chattanooga and not far off of I-75. We have a new mural in town by Kim Radford that’s worth the photo opp, but I also recommend having a coffee at Cup Runneth Over, lunch at Vittorino’s Cucina and dessert at the creamery. If you’re headed toward the mountains, Sweetwater is a great jumping off point to drive the scenic 43-mile Cherohala Skyway, which starts in Tellico Plains and ends in Western North Carolina.
Hit up a game weekend in Knoxville
Knoxville is glorious any time of year; the summer months are my favorite thanks to all the water features, but if you’re a sports fan—or even if you’re not!—you can’t miss the chance to check out Neyland Stadium during football season in all its glory.
Knoxville is a great bookend to the state, because where Memphis has grit and underground music, Knoxville has a very compact and walkable downtown paired with an excellent urban outdoors scene. It’s also just 45 minutes from the Smoky Mountains, so you can do a two-for-one stay: first, the pulse of a city, and then a completely peaceful respite in Townsend at the entrance to the national park.
Related post: Knox Rocks: Your Weekend Guide to Knoxville, Tennessee
Get to know Downtown Maryville
Not even a half an hour from Knoxville is Downtown Maryville with its curated collection of shops like the Village Tinker, Dandy Lions and Roost, jam-packed with gorgeous furnishings and home décor, in addition to dining spots like Bluetick Tavern and an impressive greenway and trails system. There’s also a massive Walls for Women mural at the entrance of the downtown on the side of Bike ‘N Tri that you can’t miss.
Hole up in a cabin in the Peaceful Smokies
When we go to the Smokies, I love staying in Townsend or nearby close to Wears Valley for the peace and solitude. In recent years, however, I’ve also discovered the magic of Little Arrow Outdoor Resort, just a stone’s throw from the entrance of the park. Using Little Arrow as your base, you can float down the Little River—renting gear nearby from Smoky Mountain Outdoor Center—bike the loop at Cades Cove or make use of any of the many trails crisscrossing the area.
Related post: Plan a Summer Trip to the Smoky Mountains
Hit up Dollywood
You didn’t think I’d take the opportunity to talk about Tennessee and not mention our state’s patron saint of all things good, did you? My girl Dolly Parton is not only a huge champion of literature, music, art, tourism and hospitality, but her eponymous park is just a really good time for the whole family. Even if you’re in East Tennessee and not traveling with kids, I must insist that you make a detour to Dollywood.
Related post: Planning a Trip to Dollywood with Friends
Take a Walls for Women road trip
We currently have eight Walls for Women murals in eight cities across the state that celebrate the 19th Amendment centennial through creative expression by female artists, and we’ll have another couple joining the fold this summer. This handy map below outlines all murals our nonprofit DMA has installed to date.
What are your favorite Tennessee road trips? Leave them in the comments so I can add to my own Tennessee bucket list!
For more Tennessee road trips and travel tips, see these posts:
- The Best Day Trips from Nashville
- How to Get Outdoors Safely in Memphis
- Indulge in a Smoky Mountain Staycation
- The Best Remote Getaways in Tennessee
- Drive the Natchez Trace Parkway through the Hills of Tennessee
- Learn About Black History in Memphis from This Woman-Owned Tour Company