Let’s talk about road trips. I know they are not for everyone and some people go stir crazy if they are stuck in a car too long. But I love them. If done right, a road trip is one of the best ways to see and explore a particular destination. Our road trip through the South was amazing. Below, we share our 10-state, 12-day itinerary as well as highlights and recommendations and from our time on the road.
Road trip through the South
A couple of years ago, as part of our quest to see all 50 states, R and I planned a pretty epic road trip down south. Our individual travels had taken us to a few Southern states, but we both had several left to check off our list. By making one big loop through the South, R determined that we could both check off our missing Southern states while having a grand old time and seeing a good chunk of this country of ours. We knew it would be ambitious and exhausting since we had a limited amount of time. But we were more than up for the challenge.
Planning our road trip
Good planning and preparation is critical to a well-executed road trip in my opinion (see which websites I prefer to use for planning a trip). We decided that the person who had never been to a particular state would get to pick out the main activity. That seemed like a good way to prioritize since we did not have time to see and do everything. We also factored in bucket-list items—the more random the better. R is always on a quest to see our National Parks so naturally, those made the list as well. Once we had our general list compiled, we roughly mapped out how long it would take us to get from point A to B to C and so on. Then we bought our plane tickets.
We settled on October for a couple of reasons: one, there was a concert in San Antonio we wanted to attend; two, fall is a great time to travel because the weather tends to be nice; and three, since kids are in school, you do not have to deal with as many people in touristy areas. We had our dates and we had our route. The only thing left to do was anticipate the adventure.
We flew into Oklahoma City on a beautiful fall day. Neither of us had been to Oklahoma City before and honestly, my expectations were low. However, the city surprised me and I ended up enjoying it very much. After picking up our rental car (a Mazda 3 with Missouri plates that we named Mo), we headed to Cattlemen’s Steakhouse at the Stockyards for some steak (obviously). We had to wait since this place is super popular but let me tell you, it delivered.
After dinner, we enjoyed some time downtown. We wanted to see the Wormy Dog Saloon, a place many of the bands we like play at. It was not very impressive but the historic Bricktown area is cool as is the little riverwalk. The real gem however, was the Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial. It is powerful to see this at night and although it breaks your heart, it is one of the more impressive memorials I have been to. I would recommend a visit. The other thing we did in Oklahoma City was visit the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. It too is well done and worth a visit.
We left Oklahoma City and headed south to Texas. Both of us have spent time in Texas so the state was not new to us. However, the traffic was especially bad on this trip. After talking with quite a few different locals, it sounds like bad traffic is the norm in and around the Hill Country—which is unfortunate. It was, hands down, the worst traffic we experienced on our entire road trip. Ugh.
We made it to San Antonio eventually and spent a couple of days enjoying all the city has to offer. Our first stop was John T. Floore’s Country Store. We planned this trip so that we could attend a two-night, live taping of the Randy Rogers Band. Have we mentioned our love of live music? It is shadowed only by our love of travel. Combining the two is pretty much nirvana. So in between rocking out at Floore’s, we walked the Riverwalk, ate TexMex and visited the Alamo. R’s family happened to be in town so we also had the chance to catch up with them. Our time in San Antonio was fun and relaxing, which was important since we had to battle more traffic getting out of Texas. Sheesh.
From Texas, we headed east to New Orleans. I had visited New Orleans a couple of times before but this was R’s first time so she got to pick the adventures. First up was a vampire and ghost tour. Although it had potential, it was a little on the boring side. Luckily, there were beignets and people watching on Bourbon Street to make up for it.
The next morning, we actually got out of the city to take a Cajun swamp tour. This ended up being a highlight of the state. The country is so different down there and a swamp tour is a great way to experience it. Our funny guide led a small group of us through the bayou while showing us plenty of critters—both on and off the boat! So. Many. Alligators. A swamp tour really is worth taking if you get the chance.
From Louisiana, we kept heading east. The Gulf Shore in Mississippi was a delightful surprise. The beaches were gorgeous! As we drove along the white sands and clear blue waters, we just had to stop and put our toes in the water. The most amazing part was how empty the beaches were. I imagine it is a different story in the summertime so score one for fall travel. We stopped at the Gulf Islands National Seashore to learn a little bit about this beautiful part of the world. The only downside was that the visitor’s center was not open so R wasn’t able to get a stamp in her National Parks Passport.
Once we got to Alabama, we headed away from the coast and moved inland. The landscape changed and I saw my first cotton field. In fact, it took us a minute to figure out was we were looking at! Of course, once we did, we had to stop and get a picture. I am sure the locals were rolling their eyes at us. That night we enjoyed a lovely sunset through the Alabama pines (thank you Jason Isbell) and had dinner at Bubba’s BBQ. Nobody does BBQ like the South.
Our first stop in Georgia was Andersonville, a National Historic Site. It was a confederate prisoner-of-war camp during the final twelve months of the American Civil War. It is super depressing, so brace yourself if you decide to visit.
Luckily, the next stop on our route was much more pleasant. Savannah was one of the places I was really looking forward to visiting on our road trip through the South. I had high expectations and thankfully, this Southern town delivered. We walked the old streets, shopped in unique boutiques, ate fresh crawfish and shrimp at Bernie’s on the river and tried rolled sandwiches for the first time. The weather was perfect and our hotel was a great retro number called the Thunderbird. My only regret is that we did not get to spend more time here.
From Savannah, we headed to the Fort Pulaski National Monument. It is out on the coastal marshlands so the views are hard to beat. We attempted to walk to the lighthouse, but that did not pan out. However, we still enjoyed a nice, albeit hot, nature walk. Back on the road, we stopped at a convenience store for snacks. R thought the boiled peanuts sounded like a good idea. They were not and we decided the South can keep that particular snack.
Since I had never been to South Carolina before, I got to pick out the main event. After some research, I decided on something very random: God’s Acre Healing Springs. The old springs are famous for their healing powers so we made a quick stop to fill up our water bottles. I am not sure if they healed me, but the water sure tasted good. This place was not the easiest to find, but it meant we stayed off the beaten path and really got into the heart of South Carolina.
After spending the night in Greenville, South Carolina, we crossed the border into western North Carolina. Ashville was our destination and it was here that we did some serious shopping. I highly recommend Screendoor and the Tobacco Barn. I enjoyed Ashville, but it felt a little more pretentious than the other cities we had visited (no offense to anyone who lives or loves it there). It happened to be Halloween while we were in Ashville so we did our best to dress up and hit the town. We found a bar with live music and great people watching.
From Ashville we headed into the Smokey Mountains (a must-see on a road trip through the South). Here is where the timing of our trip turned impeccable. The leaves were changing but the weather was perfect—blues skies and warm temperatures. The views we had were just like all of the photos we had seen of the Smoky Mountains and it was glorious. There turned out to be quite a few cars on the road, but they all seemed to be going the opposite direction of us so we had no complaints.
Once we crossed the state border into Tennessee, we headed towards Pigeon Forge. The town itself is not really worth talking about. In fact, it is downright tacky. But we were there for one purpose only: to visit Dollywood. Dollywood has been on my bucket list for many years. Thankfully, R was up for a visit. I am pretty sure she was just humoring me but boy, did we have a good time!
The park is very well done. I happen to be a Dolly fan, but even if you are not, there are plenty of rides and activities to keep you entertained. We could not have asked for better weather and the lines for the rides were practically nonexistent. Dollywood ended up being a highlight of the trip for me and I would strongly recommend you visit if you are in the area.
A short drive later found us in Knoxville—which was another city that surprised us. I did not have any expectations so I was pleasantly surprised by what it had to offer. We did some shopping, got some dinner and enjoyed a nice walk around their active downtown.
Back to Alabama
Instead of heading directly west towards Nashville, we headed back down south to the top of Alabama. Our first stop was the Unclaimed Baggage Center. I was really looking forward to visiting this weird and wonderful store. However, our timing was bad and we arrived on their busiest day of the year—the day ski clothes come out (although I have no idea why ski clothes are so popular in a place that has very little skiing). R and I did not need new ski clothes so we did our best to browse amongst all the people. But we were overwhelmed real fast and soon found ourselves back on the road to continue our road trip through the South. It was unfortunate. Luckily, we had plenty of adventures left on our list.
Up next was Muscle Shoals, a worthy stop for any music lover. We had lunch and stopped at a record store where I picked up a Jason Isbell record because, well, duh.
Back to Tennessee
The adventures continued back in Tennessee with a stop at Shiloh National Military Park (my favorite of all the civil war sights we visited) before we rolled in Memphis. Phew! As if all of these activities were not enough for one day, we decided a concert was in order. We headed to the Minglewood (highly recommend this venue) to enjoy two of our favorite bands: American Aquarium and Turnpike Troubadours. The crowd was pretty stellar and the whole experience made for a memorable night.
The next day found us exploring Memphis. We strolled Beale Street, rode the trolley, visited the Civil Rights Museum and ate tasty BBQ at Central BBQ. We also stopped by Graceland and payed our respects to the King. Memphis, although a little on the touristy side, is a pretty cool city and has a lot to see. It also appears to be reshaping itself and I see good things for it in the future.
From Memphis, we took a leisurely route south through part of Mississippi before crossing over into Arkansas. By this time, we were pretty exhausted and all that time on the road was taking its toll. Thankfully, our plans for Arkansas were very relaxed. We met up with R’s cousin in Pine Bluff. He and his wife put us up for the night and fed us. It was one of the best meals I had on the trip and the time spent relaxing and catching up was very much appreciated. After an easy night, we made our way back to Oklahoma City to return Mo and catch our flight back home.
Road trip recap
10 states, 12 days and 3,544 miles later, we have a whole heap of new experiences and memories. We ate Southern foods whenever we could, stuck to country roads and kept our eyes peeled for critters we do not have in Idaho (critters like possums, turtles and armadillos). We know there is still so much more to see and do in the South, but we got a good taste and now know where to focus when we go back. (In fact, R was able to go back to New Orleans and take in all of the things she missed the first time.)
A road trip is never a bad idea (unless it is in the middle of a snowstorm but I will save that story for another time). It is especially a good idea if you want to get off the beaten path and see how the locals live. Our road trip through the South may have been fast and furious, but it was filled with memorable experiences and it was a great way to see and explore a beautiful part of this country.