This southeast road trip takes you on a scenic journey to several of the cherished national parks, natural wonders, and historic sites of the American Southeast. From the Great Smoky Mountains to Hot Springs National Park, you’ll surely be amazed by all that this eclectic region has to offer!
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Begin your road trip at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Straddling the border between Tennessee and North Carolina, the Great Smoky Mountains features one of the country’s most diverse ecosystems. The Appalachian Mountain range houses an incredible range of plant and animal species, and you can delve into the historic settlements deep within the valleys. Coasting through Cades Cove lets you explore preserved cabins and churches of wayward travelers and stunning images of the forested peaks. Drive slowly along the roadway to watch for deer, black bears, and other wildlife hiding in the woodlands. Visiting during the spring reveals beautiful wildflowers and fall enchants you with a kaleidoscope of colorful foliage. There are endless hiking trails inside the park that take you to popular sights like Sugarland Mountain, Rainbow Falls, and the Alum Cave Bluffs.
Natchez Trace Parkway
The next stop on your road trip brings you to Natchez Trace Parkway. Spanning over 400 miles from Nashville, Tennessee to Natchez, Mississippi, the Natchez Trace Parkway courses through ancient trails used by Native Americans and European settlers. Native Americans maintained settlements for thousands of years and followed the wild game that created paths through the dense forests. Once Europeans settled the area, the footpaths improved to enable pioneers to venture into unexplored terrain. Further development of the trails led to the creation of the scenic drive and cycling paths that follow the historic route. Traveling the Natchez Trace Parkway lets you visit many cherished sites that enabled the development of the region.
Atchafalaya National Heritage Area
Continue on to the Atchafalaya National Heritage Area which transports you into the heart of the Bayou and the mysterious swamplands of Louisiana. Here there are incredible wildlife species and there is a unique cultural tradition surrounding the Atchafalaya River. The waterways offer an abundance of outdoor recreation. From bird watching and kayaking to camping and swamp tours, you’ll connect with nature like never before. While touring the swamplands and cypress forests, make sure to sample Cajun cuisine and listen to traditional Bayou music.
Vicksburg National Military Park
The next stop on your road trip is Vicksburg National Military Park. Nestled along the banks of the Mississippi River, Vicksburg hosted one of the most strategic battles in the American Civil War. Both sides recognized the importance of controlling the riverside city, and the rolling hills allow you to imagine the veracity of the 47-day siege. Over a thousand monuments decorate the landscape that commemorates the sacrifice of the soldiers who perished on the battlefield. Brilliant architects laid the foundation to make the Vicksburg National Military Park one of the finest artistic masterpieces in the country. Stop by the USS Cairo for a glimpse of the ironclads that patrolled the waterways during the mid-19th century.
Hot Springs National Park
Continuing along your journey, you’l come to Hot Springs National Park. The revitalizing hot springs located in Garland County, Arkansas were preserved by the federal government long before the concept of national parks existed. For centuries, humans have congregated at the healing waters flowing from Hot Springs Mountain into the spa town. Native American tribes utilized the natural springs for thousands of years, and European settlers created therapeutic spa baths for visitors seeking treatment. Established in 1921, parts of the national park run through town which allows residents to have convenient access to the historic bathhouses. The spectacular architectural works are among the most beautiful spa baths anywhere in the United States. Around the bathhouses, tackle the forested hiking trails to marvel at geologic treasures and peaceful creeks flowing around Hot Springs.
Congaree National Park
The next stop on your road trip brings you to Congaree National Park. The temperate forests in central South Carolina are among the most awe-inspiring anywhere east of the Mississippi River. Walking along the boardwalk and staring at the forest canopy lets you gaze at some of America’s tallest trees. The old-growth forest includes species such as cherrybark oaks, chestnut oaks, and American elms that soar well over 100 feet. You’ll find all sorts of wildlife inside the park, including bobcats, coyotes, turkeys, turtles, and snakes. The Boardwalk Loop is one of the park’s most popular trails that provides a detailed look at the bottomland hardwood forest.
Little River Canyon
Continue on to Little River Canyon. Although the state of Alabama doesn’t have a national park, Little River Canyon might be its most incredible natural wonder. Driving through the Little River Canyon Rim gives you 16 miles of sensational views of rocky cliffs, tumbling waterfalls, and beautiful foliage. The roadway passes numerous lookout points of steep ridges and lush forests as you climb Lookout Mountain. Woodland trails take you deeper into the canyon rim and let you explore the Southern Appalachians.
Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Park
Finally, you’ll arrive at Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Park. This small trip in Atlanta lets you pay tribute to one of the nation’s iconic Civil Rights leaders of the 20th century. The group of buildings consists of King’s childhood home and the church where he was a pastor. Touring the grounds and reading historic markers provide insight into Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and his upbringing to become the champion of nonviolent change. Throughout the museum, you’ll see other famous moments from the Civil Rights movement and get to see the lasting impact on American society.
When to Go
The states included on this trip can be brutally hot and humid during the summer months. Although temperatures can still be uncomfortable during fall and spring, they are much better options than visiting in summer. Unless you thrive in scorching climates, arrange your trip for spring (March-April) or fall (October-November). Winter isn’t a bad option either, but some areas in the region can still experience chilly temperatures and snowy forecasts.