Who doesn’t love a great road trip? How about a road trip that features great food, music, and breathtakingly beautiful landscape. One ultimate road trip crisscrossing the state of Tennessee accomplishes all three! Starting in Memphis, the birthplace of rock & roll and traversing to the Great Smoky Mountains is a great way to experience the diversity of Tennessee.
Check out our 2-minute road trip video!
Having lived in Tennessee the last 17 years, I have visited most of the the stops in this epic road trip, but not all on one road trip. This past spring, we attempted to see as much as possible in one road trip. This trip can be adapted very easily to just include 1/2 the state (Tennessee is very wide), or can be stretched into a 2-week or longer adventure.
The Ultimate Tennessee Road Trip
Road Trip Starting Point- Memphis, Tennessee
For Memphis trip details read 3 Days in Memphis.
Our road trip started in our hometown of Memphis. You could easily change up your itinerary to end in Memphis. Memphis is known for its Civil Rights history. A visit to the National Civil Rights Museum is a must see. No trip to Memphis would be complete without some delicious pork barbecue (read The Ultimate Memphis Barbecue Guide) and a visit to Graceland, Elvis Presley’s home.
Road Trip Destination #2- Nashville, Tennessee
After 1-3 days in Memphis, head east on interstate 40. About an hour 1/2 drive from Memphis is the little city of Jackson, Tennessee. Right off of Interstate 40 in Jackson is Casey Jones Village. It is a great place to grab some delicious southern cooking, tour the railroad museum, or stock up on old-timey sweets & treats.
After a brief stop at the Casey Jones Village, continue east on Interstate 40 an additional 2 hours. Nashville is the capital of Tennessee and is also known as Music City, USA. The influence of country music is everywhere! Even if you’re not a country music fan, the history of the genre is fascinating! A stay in Nashville should include the Country Music Hall of Fame, a night people watching on Broadway Street, and eating some fiery Nashville Hot Chicken. Your itinerary can range from 1 day to a full week!
For Nashville trip details read How to Spend 4 Days in Nashville.
Road Trip Destination #3- East Tennessee Waterfalls
For trip details read Tennessee Waterfalls Road Trip.
This part of the road trip can be completed in 1 day, although it is a very full, physical day. To truly enjoy each waterfall, take you time and maybe only hit 2 state parks a day. From Nashville, you will continue east on Interstate 40. Cummins Falls State Park is the first stop and is just north of the town of Cookeville. Once you get off of I-40, there’s not that many amenities (or cell service).
Cookeville is a good place to grab some lunch and get some gasoline. The other state parks are south east and include Burgess Falls, Rock Island, and Fall Creek Falls. If you’re limited on time, I would recommend at least stopping for Burgess Falls because it isn’t that far off of the interstate (8 miles), and it really is a series of small waterfalls leading to a grand daddy waterfall, a full volume cascade, falling 136 feet (44m) into a deep gorge.
Destination #4- Gatlinburg, Tennessee
For Gatlinburg trip details read How to Spend 2 Days in Gatlinburg.
Gatlinburg is home to the most visited national park in the United States, The Great Smoky Mountains. You could easily spend a week just visiting the national park. However, as part of a road trip, you can see the highlights in a couple of days.
For our latest trip to Gatlinburg, we spent 1 day sightseeing in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge and 1 day visiting the national park. We also had the pleasure of spending some time getting our car repaired, but I wouldn’t recommend that!
Road Trip Destination #5- Chattanooga, Tennessee
For Chattanooga trip details read How to Spend 2 Days in Chattanooga.
We have taken several Memphis to Gatlinburg road trips and several Memphis to Nashville to Chattanooga road trips. This vacation was the first for us to visit Gatlinburg and Chattanooga on the same trip. Both are great places for food and outdoor lovers. In Chattanooga, a visit to Rock City is a must. Some time downtown, by the Tennessee River, should also be on the itinerary.
Road Trip Destination #6- Small Towns in Tennessee
Since we live in Memphis, for the final days of our Ultimate Tennessee Road Trip, we headed back west, forming a big loop around the state. We took one day to travel from Chattanooga to Franklin in one (very long) day. Along the way, we hit several small towns to enjoy the local culture.
This leg of the road trip is mainly on small, 2-lane highways. To save time, you could easily leave out this section and just drive straight to Franklin. This saves 2 hours of driving time. If you wanted to continue east instead of heading to Franklin, head to Atlanta instead. Atlanta is just 2 hours east of Chattanooga (read 3 Days in Atlanta).
Foster Falls Recreational Area-
Less than an hour northwest of Chattanooga is Foster Falls Recreational Area. There is camping available here, and it is also a premier rock climbing site. An easy walk will take you to the top of the falls. The falls are 60 feet high (18 meters). To get to the bottom of the falls is a steep 1-mile descend. When we were there, a big fog had just rolled in, making the hike down extremely slippery. I was thankful for my hiking pole and boots!
An hour west of Foster Falls is the sweet little Tennessee town of Lynchburg. Jack Daniel’s Distillery is the main employer of Lynchburg and the main attraction of the city.
For distillery details read Taking a Jack Daniel’s Distillery Tour.
Bell Buckle, Tennessee-
When I was planning this road trip, I ran across an advertisement for Bell Buckle’s annual Daffodil Festival. The timing was right, and the little town was somewhat on our way, so of course we had to spend a couple of hours in Bell Buckle. Bell Buckle is pretty much a straight shot, 40-minute drive north of Lynchburg. Here, you’ll enjoy antique shopping and some delicious southern eats!
An hour west of Bell Buckle is another picturesque Tennessee town. Columbia, Tennessee is known as the Mule Capital of the World and even have a special Mule Day every year in April. We didn’t see any mules, but we did enjoy spending some time in the renovated, historic downtown.
Road Trip Destination #7- Franklin, Tennessee
For the final leg of our Ultimate Tennessee Road Trip, we traveled 40 minutes north of Columbia to the historic town of Franklin. Franklin is very close to Nashville. If we were just traveling across the state, and not making a big loop, we would have hit Franklin when we first stopped in Nashville. The loop route worked best for our itinerary.
Franklin, Tennessee was the site of one of the bloodiest Civil War battles in United States history. There are several homes that can be toured that were impacted by the Battle of Franklin. Make sure to take in at least one Civil War tour and the 16-block historic downtown.
For Franklin trip details read How to Spend 2 Days in Franklin.
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