Fall is one of the best times to go for a scenic drive and discover the sometimes-overlooked gems along the backroads of Tennessee. Driving vacations might appeal to those seeking a more laid-back excursion.
The faithful servant of many a traveler is the tourist welcome center, home to helpful staff knowledgeable about the area, refreshments, maps and brochures galore. The Delta Heritage Center in Brownsville is a good place to stop if you want to know where you should go and what you should see in West Tennessee. In addition to being able to obtain necessary information to guide you on your West Tennessee travels, the center boasts three museums and the final home of blues music pioneer “Sleepy” John Estes.
Each region of Tennessee has its iconic symbols, and one of West Tennessee’s is cotton. Thus, it’s not a surprise that one of the three museums housed at the Delta Heritage Center is devoted to the history of cotton production in the western third of the state. Yet another museum has as its focus the music of the region, including Elvis Presley, Tina Turner and Carl Perkins. The third museum gives visitors an overview of the nearby Hatchie River and its ecosystem.
Once you’re armed with your stack of brochures and maps, you might want to set off on the 177-mile Cotton, Blues and Barbecue driving tour. The sites and small towns along this route highlight the things that make West Tennessee, well, West Tennessee. It’s a variety that stretches from the metropolitan offerings of Memphis’ blues and rock ’n’ roll history to the natural peace derived from a visit to the Hatchie National Wildlife Refuge.
Another route you might consider runs along the Mississippi River north from Memphis to Reelfoot Lake in the northwestern corner of the state. You can enjoy the views of the river in between stops at places such as Mud Island River Park in Memphis, where you can walk along an outdoor scale model of the Lower Mississippi River; “Roots” author Alex Haley’s boyhood home in Henning; and Fort Pillow State Historic Park (also in Henning), where the Confederate Army built fortifications during the Civil War.
Though California is often considered America’s wine country, winemaking is actually a widespread endeavor. Tennessee is no stranger to wineries, and the Upper Cumberland Wine Trail showcases several of them. Six wineries stretching from Lafayette to Crossville offer visitors the chance to taste a variety of wines, take winery tours and even leave with a bottle of red or white to enjoy later.
If history is more to your liking, one of the richest historical driving tours in the state is the Antebellum Trail from Nashville south to Mount Pleasant. Picture stately antebellum mansions, rolling horse farms and sites important to Civil War history. That’s what you’ll get during this tour: everything from Fort Nashborough to the State Capitol to Carnton Plantation.
One of the most beautiful lakes in Tennessee is Center Hill, so it’s no wonder that it’s the centerpiece of the Center Hill Lake and Cedars of Lebanon driving trail. At 128 miles long, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to enjoy lovely views of the lake and the Caney Fork River Valley. If you feel like doing more than just driving and admiring the view, among gorgeous spots to do some hiking are Burgess Falls State Natural Area and Cedars of Lebanon State Park.
When people think of scenic drives in Tennessee, their thoughts often go the Great Smoky Mountains, particularly the Cades Cove Loop. But there are many more drives through the state’s portion of the Appalachians that are every bit as beautiful and probably less crowded. Take the Cherohala Skyway, for instance, and its vistas from up to 6,000 feet. This 36-mile stretch between Tellico Plains and Robbinsville, N.C., offers stunning views of the Great Smoky Mountains, the Unaka Mountains and the Tennessee River Valley. Two side trips off the skyway offer even more beauty to admire. On the Tennessee side, you can take FR 210 in the Cherokee National Forest to follow the Tellico River below the skyway. This will take you to the beautiful Tellico River Gorge and the 100-foot Bald River Falls. Be sure to remember your camera because you’re going to want to have it handy.
While many scenic drives tend to have two distinct endpoints, necessitating backtracking to return to one’s starting point, the same is not true for the 364-mile Southern Highlands Trail. This circular drive takes visitors through parts of four national forests in four states: the Chattahoochee in Georgia, the Sumter in South Carolina, the Nantahala in North Carolina and the Cherokee in Tennessee. Though the drive itself is worth the time it takes to make it, you might want to schedule more time so you can experience several of the fun opportunities along the way. In addition to the usual hiking, picnicking and picture-taking, why not stop to learn about the history of gem-hunting, logging and gold-mining? You might also want to investigate when the area’s mountain festivals are scheduled. These are often a great way to learn about an area’s culture and history. And if you can pick up a handmade craft or tasty treat at the same time, so much the better.
Away from the mountainous eastern border of the state, East Tennessee has many other beautiful routes to explore. For instance, the Top Secret Trail begins with several historic sites in Knoxville, then moves on to Oak Ridge, the secret city that was home to the Manhattan Project, which led to the development of the first atomic bomb. One of the biggest attractions in Oak Ridge is the American Museum of Science and Energy, home to the largest energy-related exhibit in the U.S. The trail continues on to Historic Rugby, a short-lived utopian community from the 1800s; the natural splendor of the 125,000-acre Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area; and finally the Appalachian Arts Crafts Center in Clinton.
Type these destinations in your Web browser to go to their websites:
- Delta Heritage Center
- West Tennessee Trails
- Mud Island River Park
- Alex Haley Museum and Interpretive Center
- Fort Pillow State Park
- Upper Cumberland Wine Trail
- Burgess Falls State Natural Area
- Cedars of Lebanon State Park
- Scenic Drives in the Tennessee Valley and Mountains
- Top Secret Trail
- Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area
- Appalachian Arts Crafts Center
- Tennessee Scenic Drives and Road Trips
- Tennessee Trails and Byways