Why This is the Fall For an Epic Tennessee Road Trip
Any one of Tennessee’s most iconic places—Nashville, Memphis, Knoxville, Chattanooga, the Smokies—would make for a stellar getaway. But string them all together, then slot in a backdrop of dazzling fall foliage and pilgrimage-worthy events, and your prospects become instantly epic.
Bonus: Though these experiences are larger than life, the state itself happens to be relatively small, so the driving distances aren’t daunting. Nor is getting to Tennessee, with increased direct air service to all the major airports.
Put otherwise: This isn’t one of those trips you need to wait on until you have a huge chunk of time to spare. You’ll want to go soon. Read on for the ultimate itinerary, then tailor it to your own timeframe and interests.
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.)
To view local history through another lens, visit the renovated Pink Palace Museum, where the exhibits include an original Piggly Wiggly Store replica, the Clyde Parke Miniature Circus, and a recreation of the first museum in Memphis.
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).
While this city has plenty of indoor delights, its residents spend a lot of time outdoors, especially come fall, when the trees along the Riverwalk frame the Tennessee River in brilliant reds, yellows, and oranges.
Or lace up your boots, head 10 miles west of town to the Prentice Cooper State Forest and hit the park’s trails. The rewards overhead include not just fall foliage, but the fall migration of warblers, loons and kingbirds.
Or take in the foliage from above: Go hang gliding off of Lookout Mountain, ideally, on a Friday afternoon, so you can also hit one of the new lantern-lit tours of nearby Ruby Falls. (The cavern’s lighting is turned off to give you a view by lantern light, just as Leo Lambert would have gotten when he first wandered inside in 1928.)
However you spend your time in nature, there’s one urban fixture you can’t miss here: the legendary Chattanooga Choo Choo, the old terminal station-turned-singular-hotel. Beyond the recently redone Glen Miller Gardens, one of the newest ways to experience the complex is the Songbirds Guitar Museum, where you’ll find an astounding collection of rare and vintage guitars and a just-added live music lineup.
You’ll find all kinds of fun in Knoxville, but one of the most famous varieties happens to be having a banner year: The Tennessee Valley Fair is celebrating its 100th anniversary from Sept. 6-15 with a lineup that includes concerts (everyone from Keith Sweat to KC and the Sunshine Band), competitions (not least, the Cornhole Tournament), a circus, fireworks and an epic assortment of fair foods.
Another big local anniversary: The Bijou Theatre is turning 110. In keeping with its history of bringing far-ranging talents to the stage (the Marx Brothers, Joan Baez, the Ramones), the Bijou is hosting everyone from Dweezil Zappa to Lewis Black this fall.
Of course, one of the greatest shows in town is the fall foliage. Among the best ways to see it? The Three Rivers Rambler steam train, which runs from downtown Knoxville to the start of the Tennessee River. Or explore the Knoxville Urban Wilderness, where 50 miles of trails crisscross 1,000-forested acres.
The Smokies (Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg)
With the Great Smoky Mountains as their backdrop, the towns of Sevierville, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg make for an epic trilogy.
One of the biggest names in the Smokies is, of course, Dolly Parton. And Pigeon Forge’s Dollywood has an all-new attraction: Wildwood Grove, where you’ll find rides (the spinning Treetop Tower is actually inspired by fall foliage), food (check out Till & Harvest for Smoky Mountain Mexican, seriously) and music (as you might intuit, the Wild Roots Band is all about the rich local heritage). Then again, not much beats the 200-feet-in-the-air mountain views you get from the Great Smoky Mountain Wheel at The Island in Pigeon Forge, where you'll also find the 7D Dark Ride Adventure, Flying Horse Carousel and Island Bumper Cars, among other amusements.
If you like your amusement parks with a dash of DIY, head to Gatlinburg’s Anakeesta, where you’ll find the new Rail Runner. The first of its kind in the U.S., this single-rail coaster lets you pilot your own capsule down a mountainside—and if you want to go slow to take in the spectacular fall scenery, no judgment. You’ll also find new Ridge Rambler adventure vehicles to take you on a guided ride to the top of Anakeesta Mountain—and a new Overlook beer garden with views that turn particularly epic in fall.
Then there's the new Gatlinburg Pinball Museum, where the exhibits are anything but hands-off. You’re supposed to put the resident treasures through their paces. Pay once and play pinball and other classic arcade games all day.
Before leaving town, fans of country music or of NBC’s The Voice should head straight to Blake Shelton’s new Ole Red Gatlinburg. The restaurant serves up traditional country fare with a twist (think Southern Tater Tot Poutine), and of course, music: Rising stars discovered by Blake Shelton take to the stage daily.
After all that? The Great Smoky Mountains National Park—the most visited national park in the U.S.—is waiting for you. Don’t miss the chance to drive the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, then turn onto the Blue Ridge Parkway, which serves up even more fall foliage—and a million reasons to return.
Ready to go? Start planning your Tennessee road trip with these tips.
This year, Travelzoo is falling for the South. Check out our picks for the best eye-popping autumn colors, entertaining festivals, charming small towns and mouth-watering foodie finds.