The Best Road Trips in the Southern U.S.

Sep 12, 2019

Life-altering local food? There's a whole award-winning nonprofit dedicated to it in the South. Dynamic drinks scene? Two words: craft moonshine. Outstanding music, art and nature? Check, check and check. Roadside curiosities? Too many to count. Put otherwise: The Southern U.S. practically demands to be your next epic road trip destination. So slip some boiled peanuts down the neck of your Coca-Cola (trust us: it's a thing—and it works) and check out one of these four favorite routes, some short enough for a weekend, some more leisurely, all amazing. 

Louisiana's perfect 10 
Saint Charles to New Orleans. 205 miles

Anyone who says you should steer clear of highways on road trips hasn't traveled the stretch of I-10 that runs from Lake Charles to New Orleans or—as we like to think of it—from boudin to etouffée, with stops for gumbo, fried chicken and jambalaya along the way.

Start in Lake Charles, where you should sample as much of local rice-and-pork sausage (aka boudin) as possible. Good options range from the generations-old Famous Foods to one of the 21st-century's most beloved additions, Sonnier's Sausage and Boudin. And if you're going to be here on Oct. 26, try to score tickets to the famous Boudin Wars in the nearby town of Sulphur.

Between meals, check out the historic mansions of Shell Beach Drive—and do a deep dive into another aspect of local history at the Mardis Gras Museum of Imperial Calcasieu (or show up for the IRL version Jan. 6-Feb. 25). Depending on where all of the above leaves you on the vice-virtue scale, you may also want to squeeze in anything from a casino visit to a Grosse Savanne Eco-tour before you hit the road. The latter is basically birder heaven, if that helps move the needle at all.

Next stop: Lafayette, right in the heart of Cajun Country, where you're contractually obligated to go dancing at least once. Zydeco. Swamp Pop. Two-step. Whatever it is, give something a whirl—not just to immerse yourself in the insanely fun local culture, but also to keep your appetite up. There is, after all, beaucoup gumbo to get to. Learn about its regional roots—among other fascinating aspects of Cajun history—at Vermillionville Living History & Folk Life Park and Acadian Village.

You'll find history to spare in your next destination: the state capital of Baton Rouge, where—just to start to get a sense of the local legacy—you should visit the Old State Capitol building, the River Road African American Museum, and Rosedown Plantation. Even the city's favorite fried chicken since 1935 comes with a Civil Rights history lesson (and an addictive, family-secret batter).

While the I-10 would take you pretty much directly from Baton Rouge to NOLA, you may want to scoot over to the 61 for the first 20 or so miles of the trip, just to get to Gonzales, the so called Jambalaya Capital of the World, where the rice-meat-veg combo is best enjoyed at The Jambalaya Shoppe, The Cabin Restaurant—or an entire Jambalaya Festival in May. 

From Gonzales, it's another hour or so on the 10 until you hit NOLA, and all bets are off. Mother's etouffee. Parkway poboys. Central Grocery muffulettas. Arnaud's French 75 Sazeracs. And yes, yes, Cafe du Monde beigneits. You kind of have to.

And when you need to walk off some of that gluttony, wander the mansion-lined sidewalks of the Garden District, the ancient, live oak-shaded trails of Audubon Park or the stunning, evocative avenues of the city's historic cemeteries. If retail therapy is more your thing, do an epic boutique crawl on (and just off) Magazine Street. Once you've scored your perfect local find (can't go wrong at Saint Claude Social Club), take it out for a spin on the dance floors of Frenchman Street. Then get a very well-deserved (and very cushy) night's sleep at the new Maison de a Luz.


Virginia's Crooked Road 
Rocky Mount to Breaks Interstate Park. Approximately 300 miles

Until this very moment, you may have had no idea you were craving a deep dive into Appalachian culture. But Virginia's Heritage Music Trail—aka the Crooked Road—is so gorgeous (and frankly, fun), we'd like to be the first to welcome you to your new passion: the roots of Country.

The trail strings together 19 counties, four cities and 54 towns, but if you can't get to every last one, the greatest hits also make for an excellent itinerary. Leaving from Rocky Mount, head to Ferrum, where two exhibits at the Blue Ridge Institute and MuseumCrooked Road Royalty and Crooked Road Musical Styles—will help set the stage for the rest of your trip. (And if you happen to be in town on Oct. 26, stop by the Institute's annual Blue Ridge Folklife Festival to rub elbows with moonshiners, mule jumpers and coon dog racers, among others.)

Next up: Floyd, where the iconic Floyd County Store hosts Friday night jamborees, Saturday Americana music afternoons and Sunday mountain music and Bluegrass jams. If you want to brush up on your own skills and have an extra hour or two, check out the in-house Handmade Music School, where workshops cover the likes of fiddle, old-time banjo and flatfoot dance. Whatever you do, be sure to hit the ice cream counter before you hit the road.

This stretch of the trail may involve some back-and-forth on weekends, because about 40 miles down the road, in Galax, lives a Friday night tradition you'll probably want in on: the Blue Ridge Backroads Live radio broadcasts from the historic Rex Theater, whose fans tune in from around the globe for this old-time and Bluegrass extravaganza. While you're in the neighborhood, you should also see what banjo- and fiddle-fueled goodness is on at the Blue Ridge Music Center.

Though it's no indication of the kind of shape you'll be in after all that performance-hopping, Galax's Doctor's Inn is a beloved—and National Register of Historic Places-listed—spot to lay your head between shows. And you'll want some decent rest, because your next stop isn't for another 90-ish miles, where Abingdon's the Southwest Virginia Cultural Center & Marketplace is the place to go for locally-made souvenirs of your time on the trail. The town is also the perfect place to stretch your legs, whether on historic Main Street or along the gorgeous, leafy Virginia Creeper Trail, where you can hike or take a rental bike out for a spin. And don't leave town without at least popping into (if not staying at) the historic Martha Washington Inn & Spa—but call it the Martha—whose front porch is a destination unto itself.

From there, it's onto Bristol and the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, where all kinds of immersive exhibits will take you from the seminal 1927 Bristol Sessions to the present—great recon for your next stop: Hiltons' Carter Family Fold, a memorial to the so-called First Family of Country Music, who were among the 1927 Bristol recording artists. That's Carter family as in, June, for one—whom many of us got our first glimpse of thanks to Reese Witherspoon, whose portrayal of Johnny Cash's singular wife in Walk the Line scored a Best Actress Oscar. 

Wrap up your trip with a stop at Norton's Appalachian Traditions Village and Country Cabin II, where—depending on when you arrive—you'll find anything from jam sessions (Tuesday nights) to old time and bluegrass parties with mountain-style clogging lessons (Saturday nights). And just before exiting the Crooked Road, get one last dose of what you came for at the Ralph Stanley Museum and Traditional Mountain Music Center, four stories' worth of exhibits dedicated to the legendary bluegrass artist. The Breaks Interstate Park marking the end of the line is filled with stunning trails where you can hike off some of the last few days' worth of Virginia gorging (trust us: You will have eaten your weight in fried apple pies, biscuits and gravy and BBQ'd everything).


Outer Banks Scenic Byway 
Whalebone Junction to Beaufort. 138 driving miles + 25 ferry miles

One of America’s most unusual roads—in part, because it involves 25 miles of ferry travel—the Outer Banks National Scenic Byway stretches along the arm of the North Carolina coastline that extends into the Atlantic and strings together 21 villages along the way. While we can think of no one who wouldn't love this trip, it's especially good for anyone who's got the change-of-season blues: The Outer Banks have an endless summer vibe, with two national seashores—Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookoutthe nation's tallest brick lighthouse and coastal recreation ops well into the fall, locals' favorite season thanks to the gorgeous weather and thinned out summer crowds. Just be sure to check on the latest post-Dorian updates before you go: While most of the road is open, the area around Ocracoke is under repair, as is Ocracoke itself.

Officially, the byway doesn't start until Whalebone Junction (the intersection of Highways 64 and 158), but you'd be remiss if you didn't check out the greatest hits of the area just north of there: Scale the East Coast’s tallest sand dunes in Jockey’s Ridge State Park; see where the Wright Brothers first took flight at the national memorial in Kill Devil Hills; and—if you'll be passing through on October 19—fuel up for the trip ahead at the Outer Banks Seafood Festival in Nags Head (don't miss Proof Bakery's award-winning shrimp-stuffed pretzels).

From Whalebone Junction, head south, stopping on Peak Island to check out the Bodie Island Lighthouse and National Wildlife Refuge, where the birding is frankly insane. A number of the residents are here year-round, but if you happen to go in in fall, look out for migrating whimbrels, Eurasian wigeons, oh—and peregrine falcons. And if you're a diehard birder (or you love one enough to take one for the team while you're traveling together), hit the Wings Over Water Wildlife Festival (basically, a birding bacchanalia) Oct. 15-20, and again Dec. 6-8.

Or maybe you're more of a Nicholas Sparks fan (we won't judge), in which case you can't pass through Rodanthe without seeing (or if you're a superfan, staying in) the Nights in Rodanthe house, now the rentable Inn at Rodanthe. You'll also recognize the Rodanthe Pier, among other achingly romantic bits of background. But Sparks fan or not, don't leave the area without seeing the19th-century Chicamacomico Lifesaving Station, one of the nation's best  preserved examples of historic life-saving stations.

Heading south once again, look out for Canadian Hole—you'll recognize it by all the kiteboarders and windsurfers who've congregated on this from across the globe (especially in the fall). A bit farther down the road, you can't miss Buxton's Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, the aforementioned tallest brick lighthouse in the U.S.

Once you reach Hatteras, visit the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum, an entire institution dedicated to the hundreds of shipwrecks that taken place locally over the centuries. And in keeping with the theme, toast to your adventures at the Wreck tiki bar, beloved for the sunset views as much as the drinks.


Tennessee tunes 
Memphis to Nashville. 210 miles

Kick off your trip with a dose of Memphis cool—and commemoration. The city (and its surrounding county) are celebrating their bicentennial, and while you’ll find all kinds of related events throughout the fall, the Shelby County 200th birthday bash on Nov. 24 promises everything from fireworks to free cupcakes.

Bicentennials are also the perfect occasion to reflect on local history—and one of the best ways to do that here is the new Memphis Women’s Legacy Trail. The 25 stops range from music-central Beale Street, where you’ll learn about the likes of jazz legend Alberta Hunter to Elmwood Cemetery, where suffragette Lide Smith Meriwether is buried among several other amazing women. (You’d want to tour this gorgeous 167-year-old cemetery/bird sanctuary/arboretum regardless; it’s on the National Register of Historic Places.)

Of course, you should also check out what’s new in town, from the 36-mile Wolf River Greenway (fall is perfect biking weather) to the Grove at the Germantown Performing Art Center (the city’s latest outdoor music venue). Even the most classic of classics—Graceland—has a whole new element: the just-opened Graceland Exhibition Center, where you can catch National Geographic’s Earth Explorers interactive installation through Sept. 9; a Muhammad Ali retrospective through Sept. 15 and a historic look at motorcycles in America through Nov. 23.

Nashville has undergone quite the renaissance (and building boom) in recent years. So the local icons—Ryman Auditorium, Grand Ole Opry, The Bluebird Cafe, Prince’s Hot Chicken and, of course, Lower Broadway’s Honky Tonk Highway—have been joined by world-class restaurants, high-concept hotels, and other elements that will elevate your visit.   

Whether by divine providence or coincidence, some of the most noteworthy of these have cropped up in old church buildings, from chef John Stephenson’s eagerly awaited New American restaurant, Hathorne, to the 23-room Russell boutique hotel, where a portion of profits helps locals who are experiencing homelessness.

But wherever you fuel up and rest up, do so liberally: You’ll need your energy for the lineup of fall festivals, which include September’s Americanafest (expect pretty much every genre of American music, from roots and folk straight on through to soul); October’s Artober (a month-long celebration of visual art, dance, and, of course, music) and October’s Southern Festival of Books (the 30th anniversary editions stars several literary A-listers—Ann Patchett, Pico Iyer, Dani Shapiro and Paul Theroux among them).

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