Autumn is the perfect time of year to explore everything the Volunteer state has to offer, from incredible music to history, culture, food, and jaw-dropping natural beauty.
From Memphis to Nashville, from Chattanooga to the Great Smoky Mountains - and so much more - Tennessee's highways offer gorgeous vistas, welcoming cities and towns, and an array of activities for every member of the family. Here, three Tennessee road trips every traveler should take.
Experience Unique Music and Culture: Memphis to Nashville
In Memphis, jump-start your autumn excursion with a cup of java and a pumpkin duffin - a cake-donut-muffin hybrid - at Bluff City Coffee, before heading to the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel. The site of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 assassination now chronicles the Civil Rights Movement through films, artifacts, oral histories, and interactive media. The world-renowned museum is connected to the Lorraine Motel where a powerful exhibit shares Dr. King’s last hours, his iconic speech “Mountaintop” and Room 306 where he was staying April 4, 1968. The National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel is also one of 10 Tennessee sites located on the U.S. Civil Rights Trail.
For audiophiles, the stretch of the Americana Music Triangle’s Gold Record Road that runs from Memphis to Nashville (aka “Beale to Broadway”) is especially fertile. Start at Sun Studio, where Elvis recorded his first song; then follow in the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s footsteps to his home, Graceland, where you can see the famous “Jungle Room,” the Racquetball Building and the pool room. Visit Elvis’ Memphis where you’ll encounter Elvis’ extensive car collection, hundreds of artifacts including jumpsuits in Elvis The Entertainer Career Museum and even his airplanes. Stroll down Beale Street, the epicenter of African-American jazz and blues culture in the early 1900s, where the music and dancing never stop from the clubs and venues lining the strip. Visit the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, the world’s only museum dedicated to the genre. The Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, created by the Smithsonian Institution, dives into Memphis’ global influence on music from the 1930s to today. Wrap up with a guided tour of the Gibson Guitar factory where skilled luthiers make some of the best guitars in the world right in front of your eyes. Jump on Highway 40 and head east until you reach the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center in Brownsville, where a mecca of Tina Turner memorabilia is housed in the one-room schoolhouse she attended as a child; the Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll grew up in Nutbush, not far away.
Back on the road, it’s just under 30 miles to Jackson, home to both the International Rock-a-billy Hall of Fame and The Carnegie Featuring The Tennessee Legends of Music Museum which has exhibits on Sonny Boy Williamson, WS Holland and Carl Perkins. Outdoor lovers can visit Chickasaw State Park for a swim in Lake Placid or visit the stables for a guided horseback ride along a tranquil trail.
From there, it’s an hour to Nashville, and Music City is not only the epicenter of country music in America but also a hotbed of world-class classical, jazz, and film music as well. Attend a show at one of the many music venues across the city where you’ll find not only country music but rock ‘n’ roll, hip hop, jazz, blues and more. For a full history on country music visit the Country Music Hall of Fame. Take a backstage tour of the Grand Ole Opry and take in a show during the live recorded show that “made country music famous.” See rising stars and music legends at the historic Ryman Auditorium or an up-and-comer at the Bluebird Café. See if you can stand the heat of Nashville’s hot chicken, prepared with secret spicy recipes from the grandfather of hot chicken, Prince’s or the more modern take, Hattie B’s and Party Fowl. Stay in a historic hotel like the Hermitage Hotel which has hosted presidents and famous musicians alike or rest your head in a museum hotel like Noelle or 21c Museum Hotel.
Sixty-five miles east on I-40 is Edgar Evins State Park, a sprawling 6,000 acres on the banks of Center Hill Lake with fishing, kayaking, canoeing, 11 miles of hiking trails, and 57 species of butterflies. Drive half an hour further to Burgess Falls State Park, a natural area on the Eastern Highland Rim with sheer bluffs, narrow ridges, and four waterfalls. Snap some shots for Instagram and then head for Sparta, where you can visit the Coal Miner Railroad Section House Museum, take in views of four different counties from Sunset Rock. Enjoy a glass of wine at Tennessee’s oldest winery, Highland Manor Winery in Jamestown. From there, it’s a straight shot down I-40 to Knoxville.
The Scenic Route: Nashville to Chattanooga
Just 45 minutes south of Nashville is Franklin, a small town filled with music, history and boutique shopping. Keep an eye out for the likes of Justin Timberlake and Winona Judd at Puckett’s Grocery’s famed open-mic night; peruse the country-chic offerings at White’s Mercantile, a general store owned by Holly Williams, granddaughter of Hank Williams and a musician in her own right; learn the extensive Civil War history through carefully preserved battlefields and homes that were on the frontlines; and pick up sweet treats for the road from Meridee’s Breadbasket.
Motoring south down US-41A, you’ll pass Tullahoma, the site of both the world’s largest wind tunnel and a former World War II POW camp. (Reserve at least two weeks in advance for tours of Arnold Air Force Base.) While you’re in town, have a meal at One22West, a former department store now slinging American classics with a local twist, and have a lovely night’s stay at the Grand Lux Inn, a refurbished 1905 home in the town’s historic district—both favorites of Jack Daniel’s master distiller Jeff Arnett. Aviation buffs should consider an October trip for the Beechcraft Heritage Museum's annual Beech Party, a celebration of all things antique aircraft.
From Tullahoma, it’s 13 miles to Lynchburg, home of Jack Daniel’s since 1866. Whiskey fans can tour the distillery and partake in a five-pour tasting, then hit Miss Mary Bobo's Boarding House for a great Southern meal. Afterwards, pick up provisions and memorabilia at the Lynchburg Hardware General Store, then take Rt. 50 to 41A south until you hit the neighboring Cumberland Plateau towns of Sewanee and Monteagle. Stop for lunch and admire the mountain vistas over sandwiches at Mountain Goat Market or pulled pork at the 135 Cafe, a diner gem tucked away behind a gas station and a truck stop.
From Sewanee, take I-24 through the mountains to Chattanooga, East Tennessee’s Scenic City. For great leaf-peeping, bike the Tennessee Riverpark Greenway, then spend some time in the Bluff View Art District, a vibrant one-and-a-half-block neighborhood overlooking the Tennessee River where you’ll find regional, local and nationally-known artists’ works at the Hunter Museum of American Art, the Houston Museum and the River Gallery. Treat yourself to a meal at the Back Inn Café, where dishes like smoked-duck flatbread and shrimp and grits impress as much as the water views. After dinner, swing by the Chattanooga Whiskey Co. for a tour, a tasting, or a drink in the lounge, then hit the Chattanooga Choo-Choo, an historic terminal station that now houses the Songbirds Guitar Museum, for a nightcap.
Food and Fall Colors: Chattanooga to Knoxville to Great Smoky Mountains National Park
From Chattanooga, it’s 36 miles northeast to Booker T. Washington State Park, a 353-acre water-lover’s paradise on the shores of Chickamauga Lake. Wander the walking trail, challenge yourself with a mountain bike ride, take a boat out on the lake and go fishing, or picnic by the waterfront.
The outdoor activity is bound to make you thirsty, and the family-owned Morris Vineyard & Tennessee Mountainview Winery in Charleston is just under an hour away. Sip a glass of muscadine blush or blueberry wine, made with fruit grown on the property’s more than 50 acres, in front of a stunning mountainous backdrop.
From there, take Rt. 11 to Athens, and cap off a tour of Mayfield Dairy Farms with a scoop of homemade ice cream in the old-fashioned parlor. Next, it’s on to Madisonville for a stop at Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Ham, where the renowned country ham and hickory-smoked bacon gets made for some of the top restaurants in the nation. Take a pound or two to go for the ultimate edible souvenir, and continue on to Knoxville, the football-mad home of the University of Tennessee Volunteers. In October, join the rowdy crowd for a game, then stick around to watch an array of adorable pups compete for best costume in the UT Gardens’ Howl-O-Ween Pooch Parade. Head up to the 4th-floor observation deck of the Sunsphere, a 266-foot tower built for the 1982 World’s Fair, for 360-degree views of the city, then slip over to the nearby Knoxville Museum of Art. Explore the lively dining scene at Lonesome Dove Western Bistro, run by James Beard Award-nominated chef Tim Love and Oliver Royale, breweries like Balter Beerworks and Alliance Brewing Company; donut shops like Status Dough, and pet-friendly patios like Stock & Barrel and Suttree’s High Gravity Tavern , before bouncing back to your boutique treehouse at Treetop Hideaways, just outside of town.
Known as the Gateway to the Smokies, Gatlinburg is just over an hour away, at an access point to the nation’s most-visited and biodiverse national park: Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Take the winding Great Smoky Mountains Byway, but drive slowly to capture the many fall-foliage photo ops, especially in Cades Cove. (Don’t forget to check the park’s Weekly Fall Colors Update to catch the vivid autumn palette at its prime.) Get your fill of hiking, zip-lining, and rafting, but be sure to allow time for Gatlinburg proper, too. Take a tour and sample the spirits at Sugarlands Distilling Company, pick up some pottery or take a class at Fowler’s Clay Works, and don’t miss Anakeesta, Gatlinburg’s newest attraction, with its own mountain, dueling ziplining, canopy walk, shops, bakeries, barbecue, and stunning mountain views. Stop by Tennessee’s only ski park, Ober Gatlinburg, for the Oktoberfest celebration, and wash it all down with a shot of pumpkin pie moonshine from Ole Smoky Moonshine.
For epic views on the way out of town, take the Gatlinburg Bypass and stop at the Gatlinburg Scenic Overlook before continuing on to Pigeon Forge, where the main attraction is Dollywood, Dolly Parton’s amusement park. Make a day of it there, but don’t skip the area’s assortment of specialty museums. Located in Dollywood, the Southern Gospel Music Hall of Fame and Museum celebrates the pioneers of the genre; nearby, stop by the Titanic Museum to see relics and recreations from the legendary luxury liner, snap selfies with stars like Lucille Ball and Michael Jackson at the Hollywood Wax Museum, and learn about the criminal underworld at the Alcatraz East Crime Museum, where infamous artifacts like O.J. Simpson’s white Bronco and Ted Bundy’s VW Beetle are on display. In neighboring Sevierville, motorheads will love the collection of high-performance vehicles at the Floyd Garrett Muscle Car Museum, while warbird enthusiasts will find plenty to enjoy at the Tennessee Museum of Aviation. Spend an afternoon running the obstacle course at the Sevier Air Trampoline & Ninja Warrior Park, take a scenic helicopter ride or go up in a 1927 biplane, and browse the merchandise at Smoky Mountain Knifeworks, the world’s largest knife showplace, where everything from collectible and antique knives to fantasy and superhero blades is on offer. Don’t miss gorgeous nearby Foxfire Mountain, and be sure to treat yourself at Tanger Outlets, the sprawling mall with something for everyone.