Usually when planning a road trip, we start with a rough idea of where we’re headed and then the best flight options will dictate our route – this time we were heading for Tennessee and flying in and out of Nashville via Newark (New Jersey).
As with any trip, you can’t do it all – you have to pick and choose and won’t get everything right. Ranked 36 out of 50 in area (I looked it up!), Tennessee is not big by US standards but including Memphis in the itinerary was still quite a detour and meant a few long car trips. Much of our time was spent in urban centres and although that meant lots of walking, the few days in the national park were very welcome and made a necessary balance to the trip.
Driving in the state is straightforward and the bigger cities are easy to navigate. I can’t comment on parking in Nashville, Memphis and Chattanooga because we used downtown hotels with parking facilities and so didn’t avail of public car parks.
As with other road trips in the US, we found that smaller towns settle down very quickly at night and turn surprisingly quiet. Coming from a country with a pub culture, we’re used to the option of having somewhere to pop into for a pint on the way home – (and I’m not talking about hotel bars which really don’t do it for me). There isn’t the option of a nice coastal esplanade for a moonlit walk after dinner or a Mediterranean piazza for a late night coffee. Restaurants finish up early enough on week nights – and our clubbing days are well behind us! This trip was exceptional in that it started and ended in cities with a vibrant music culture and plenty of entertainment which nicely complemented the quieter nights elsewhere on the road…
Nashville ⇒ Franklin ⇒ Knoxville ⇒ Gatlinsburg ⇒ Townsend ⇒ Chattanooga ⇒ Lynchburg ⇒Memphis ⇒ Nashville Airport
With just two days in the city, we confined ourselves to downtown and the big three – Ryman Auditorium, The Country Music Hall of Fame and the Grand Ole Opry. There are plenty of smaller museums, galleries and of course other areas of town worth visiting but we were happy to allow for a few hours in the Ryman and Hall of Fame and then just enjoy the music scene. We had pre-booked the museum tours and the show and so had a schedule that suited ourselves.
(Ryman Auditorium -The Mother Church of Country Music!)
(Studio B – part of the Country Music Hall of Fame experience)
You don’t have to be a country fan to enjoy the downtown music scene. There’s a huge variety of musicians singing the oldies and the Top 40 hits or peddling their own tunes. And its not just country – every genre from blues to rock ‘n’ roll is covered. Because most Honky Tonks are free to enter, you can wander around until you find the one for you.
Having arrived in town on a Wednesday evening, there was a definite build up over the next few days and by Friday the party was well under way – we left the following morning so missed the joys of Saturday night downtown Nashville.
Read about our stay in Nashville Nashville – A few days in Music City
Food and Drink
For convenience, we ate in the downtown bars at lunchtime after our visits to the museums and again in the evenings. It was pretty much burgers, salads and fish but food and service was good everywhere we went.
(Chicken Avocado sandwich – Rock Bottom Brewery)
(Catfish – B.B. King’s)
Holiday Inn Express Nashville Downtown
The Positives: Music and nibbles every afternoon in the foyer / Good location – easily accessed in and out of town / within walking distance of downtown attractions / downtown shuttle service / breakfast included
The Niggly Bits: Hotel parking costs $30 per night
Once you leave Nashville behind, its well worth taking the 30 minute detour to Franklin before heading east towards the Smoky Mountains. If you are familiar with American history then you know that the area was the site of a major Civil War battle in 1864. There is a choice of battlefield tours and Civil War trails – including a self-guided driving tour – and some historical houses open to the public.
But the town itself is lovely for a wander along main street and through the shops. Residents don’t seem to mind sharing the place with day trippers – I think its the friendliest town I’ve ever visited …EVERYBODY was nice!
(Look – coffee and donuts for customers)
(Even the dentist’s surgery looks inviting!)
Food and Drink
We sat outside 55 South for a coffee but stayed for lunch when I saw Crab Fries on the menu!
(Crab Fries at 55 South)
I’m still not sure why I booked a night in Knoxville as its only an hour from the national park but something must have caught my eye at the time of planning. It certainly wasn’t my Rough Guide which gave a very brief and dismissive account of the place and as this was the only reference at hand, we would not have pulled off the road at all had I not prepaid for the accommodation. As it was, we ended up in having a lovely evening in town followed by a walk the following morning at the local nature centre and I’m delighted to say it was a worthwhile inclusion in the itinerary after all.
(There’s a nice old town centre)
(I wonder who thought it was a good idea to build that glass edifice in the historic centre)
(The town is built on the Tennessee River)
(The 1982 World’s fair was held in Knoxville)
(General Knowledge fact of the day!)
(Market Square is a popular meeting place in the evenings)
(Outdoor theatre in Market Square)
Ijams Nature Center
Three miles from downtown, this 315 acre site has more than 12 miles of nature trails. You can rent bikes or boats, go rock climbing or just enjoy the paths and river boardwalk
Food and Drink
We went to Babalu Tapas & Tacos where we had delicious guacamole made at our table.
Four Points Knoxville
The Positives: Free parking / easy walk into town
Niggly Bits: Free breakfast not included
Gateway Towns – Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg, Townsend
Not even downtown Nashville can prepare you for Pigeon Forge! Don’t get me wrong -we’ve been to Las Vegas, Orlando, Ocean City – we’ve seen it all before and its definitely a great base for a family holiday.
We didn’t see any town centre – just motels, restaurants and attractions strung out along the highway. About 10,000,000 people visit each year so its one busy place!
Gatlinburg has a different feel to Pigeon Forge. It still has plenty of motels, restaurants and attractions but has obviously been modeled on a Swiss Alpine village and has an actual town centre. Ober Gatlinburg is the only ski area in Tennessee. (Being too far south to guarantee snow, it has 100% snow making ability).
(There are so many old time photo shops in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg – how on earth do they all stay in business!)
Townsend is a stretch of highway with motels and restaurants. It is a quieter base for the local activities but really not much there in itself.
Food and Drink
There are plenty of restaurants to choose from in the area – just remember that Pigeon Forge is a dry town and keep in mind that some places stop serving around 9.00pm during the week.
We were happy with the following restaurants:
(Mushroom Burger – Blaine’s Grill & Bar, Gatliinburg)
(Chicken and Avocado Salad – No Way Joe’s Cantina – Gatlinburg)
(Herb Trout – Cherokee Grill – Gatliinburg)
(Prime Rib and Trout – Trailhead Steakhouse, Townsend)
The Positives: Good location in town centre / free parking / breakfast included / nice pool area / helpful staff at reception
Niggly Bits: Can’t think of any!
(Skylift is right next door but doesn’t encroach or disturb – you can hear people chatting as they fly past – most of them were wishing for a swim when they saw the pool!)
(A welcoming veranda…..)
(….and a completely different scene right across the street!)
Townsend Gateway Inn
The Positives: Lovely welcome basket / free parking / big room / helpful and friendly reception.
Niggly Bits: No breakfast / maybe the area is a bit too quiet!
(Welcome basket at the Gateway Inn)
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
This is the busiest National Park in the US but even though we visited at the beginning of August, we weren’t overwhelmed by crowds – there were one or two congested places but no sign of the hordes we were expecting.
If, like us, you’re interested in an overall view of the park and the shorter trails, then 2 days will allow you follow the 2 main driving routes. If you are interested in extended hiking, there is one accommodation lodge within the park as well as 9 camp sites.
Day 1 – Newfound Gap Road across to North Carolina
Chimney Tops -This popular trail was the site of a terrible fire in 2016. Most of the trail has been reopened but there is still no access to the pinnacles – the Chimney Tops
(Visible scars of the fire)
(Beautiful scenery as we drive along…)
Clingmans Dome is the highest point in Tennessee. A steep enough trail brings you from the car park to an observation tower which offers great mountain views if you get a clear day.
(The trail doesn’t look too bad but its steep in places and there was plenty of huffing, puffing and whinging children (and adults!)
(Top of the world – well a least top of Tennessee!
(If you get a break in the clouds then take your photos quickly…..)
(…..because the scene can change very rapidly!)
(You can access the Appalachian Trail and if you don’t feel like hiking the 2181 miles then at least get a photo!)
(Yeah – well done for walking 50 yards!)
Back on the road ……..
(Mingus Mill: water – powered for grinding corn)
Down through the Cherokee Indian Reservation and into the town of Cherokee – you are back in touristville. There are museums dedicated to the Cherokee people and stores offering crafts. In Bryson City you can take a trip on the Smoky Mountain Railway.
Heading towards our last trail of the day – definitely in river tubing country!
(Lots of tubes for rent…..)
Day 2 – Little River Road to Cades Cove
(…..bit on the crowded side though!)
(Its a lovely drive along by the river)
(Our first bear sighting! Saw 4 more during the day including 2 right on the side of the road)
Most visitors head for Cades Cove (a ‘cove’ is actually a flat valley between mountains). Access is via a one-way 11 mile loop and you get a tour map at the beginning of the trail ($1 charge). The route takes you past churches and homesteads. It can be busy so you need to allow a few hours. During the summer months, on Wednesdays and Saturdays, the route is reserved for cyclists until 10.00am.
(The landscape is different from elsewhere in the park)
(Interesting reading in the graveyard)
(There are several churches in the Cove)
(Traffic can build up at times)
(Snake rail fence)
Day 3 – A walk along the Middle Prong Trail before we head off
Like many of you, I only know this place through the song – which isn’t always a justifiable reason to book accommodation for three nights! So with a lot of time on our hands – and bad weather so we couldn’t even get much use from the hotel pool – we embraced the town as best we could and of course found it had plenty to offer.
The setting is lovely on the banks of the Tennessee River and a lot of effort has been put into making the area attractive for tourists.
(The river is the city’s main amenity. A 13 mile Riverwalk passes through several neighbourhoods, there is a huge aquarium and also the Southern Belle – a river boat for your lunch or dinner cruise)
(Free electric shuttle)
(Walnut Street Bridge is one of the longest pedestrian bridges in the world)
(The zig-zag sidewalk is reminiscent of San Francisco’s Lombard Street)
(The Hunter Museum of American Art )
(The Railway Terminal is now a hotel)
(Carriages are used as bedrooms)
(There’s plenty of street art and installations)
Because of its mountains, railway and river, Chattanooga was an important strategic location for both Union and Confederate armies during the Civil War. You can visit Chickamauga Battlefield or Point Park which is on top of Lookout Mountain. Both sites have visitor centres and tours. Point Park also offers great views of the area – cloud cover permitting!
(Chattanooga lies somewhere down there!)
(Ah ! There it is!)
Also located at Lookout Mountain is Ruby falls – the tallest and deepest underground waterfall in the US. Guided tours lead through geological formations until you reach the waterfall.
Food and Drink
(Breakfast at Puckett’s Grocery)
(Chicken Ravioli – Tony’s Pasta Shop)
(Salmon Salad – The Terminal Brewhouse)
(The Ice Cream Show)
The Positives: Good location downtown / nice pool / Starbucks on site
Niggly Bits: No free breakfast / $11 self – parking fee
A bit of a detour en route to Memphis from Chattanooga brings you to Lynchburg and the Jack Daniels Distillery which has tours daily from 9.00am to 4.30pm. To make the most of the day we decided to get there for the 9.30am tour. We made the 95 mile trip in plenty of time and were surprised at how quiet the facility was for a Saturday morning. We were not impressed to find the visitor centre still closed at 9.10am with a few staff members leisurely arriving and strolling past us with no apology or embarrassment. A few moments later another visitor pointed out to us that we had crossed a time zone en route from Chattanooga and it was actually coming up on 8.15am!
We headed off for breakfast and 2 minutes found us in the town centre. Built around a small square with quaint shopfronts, its where the official distillery shop is located which must be a great boost for local business. We met two local gentlemen – one invited us to stick around for his radio show later that morning and the other invited us to a Saturday morning cook up in the church hall. We declined both invitations, had a fine breakfast in the diner and headed back to a now open and busy distillery
We opted for the Flight of Jack distillery Tour which at $20, includes sampling. (Although one of us was not sampling, we could not combine a dry tour and a sampling tour when purchasing tickets). The tour lasted about 90 minutes
(Where is everyone – not impressed!)
(There’s plenty to look at while awaiting your tour)
(The tour takes in every stage of the distilling process)
(This is how the band REO Speedwagon got its name – bet you didn’t know that!)
(The man himself)
(A lot of the work is still done by hand and the distillery is a very important local employer)
And so we arrive at our final destination. As with Nashville, I’ve written separately about Memphis and so will just summarize here. But suffice to say, we had a great day in Graceland, loved the fantastic National Rights Museum and really enjoyed the music.
If you’d like to know more about our few days in Memphis then please have a look at My Memphis Top 10
Food and Drink
As in Nashville, we ate downtown for convenience. In this self proclaimed barbecue capital of the world you could live on pork for a few days but there are other options!
(Gumbo -Blues City Cafe)
(Chicken Salad – Huey’s)
(Fried Chicken – Gus’s)
The Positives: Good downtown location / easy access from highway
Niggly bits: Valet parking only / breakfast not included / pool could be cleaner
If we were doing it again – We’d spend one night less in Chattanooga and get to see more of Nashville
Make sure you carry id for bars in Nashville and Memphis regardless of how old and decrepit you are! All the bouncers on the doors have two things in common – they’re young enough to be my grandchildren and they’ve absolutely no sense of humour.
If you like ticking things off lists, then here’s a few US states for you – you can cross these state lines on this trip!
Don’t forget the different time zones
13 out of 95 counties are dry