American Southeast Road Trip

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.

Basic Facts About Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the most beautiful national parks in the country. The park is rife with fascinating history dating back to well before the establishment of the United States. From the original American settlers to the native Indian tribes that once dominated the area, there is much to discover in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

History 

Great Smoky Mountains National Park was established in 1934, and was dedicated by  President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940. After a long process involving a variety of expensive land purchases beginning in 1926 and totalling $11 million, this fantastically popular national park came into being. The main benefactor for the purchase of land was the Rockefeller family, who are honored today by a memorial in the park’s Newfound Gap.

The land the park is situated on was home to early American settlers as well as Native American tribes who lived there both before and during the American settlement.

Landscape  

The majority of Great Smoky Mountains National Park is forested, encompassing a variety of native trees and nearly 6,000 flowering plant species. The landscape is mountainous, with elevations ranging from 800 feet to 6,643 feet. Gorgeous fall foliage is visible during the autumn months, and rain and snowfall is not uncommon throughout varying points in the year. The wildlife in this park is bountiful, with a wide variety of birds, mammals, fish, reptiles, and amphibians. Bears, snakes, and elk are some of the more noteworthy animals inhabiting the park.

Places to Visit After Great Smoky Mountains National Park

One of the most-visited national parks in the United States, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is situated perfectly to continue your journey. Both North Carolina and Tennessee have much to offer and there are plenty of nearby attractions you won’t want to miss!

Cherokee, North Carolina – Visiting Cherokee is a great option for lodging before, during, or after your visit to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. A small town with a rich history, you’ll love exploring the Native American artifacts, viewing native elk herds, fishing, hiking, and more.

Asheville, North Carolina – Located in the heart of the breathtaking Blue Ridge Mountains, Asheville is only an hour outside of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Head here for a dynamic arts scene and a dose of history. 

Nashville, Tennessee – The capital of Tennessee is only 3.5 hours outside of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Nashville is renowned throughout the world for its vibrant country music scene, Vanderbilt University, and historic importance.

Gatlinburg, Tennessee – Just a 5 minute drive from Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Gatlinburg is the best place for a visit on your way to or from the park. There are ample lodging opportunities here if you choose to use Gatlinburg as a home base while you explore the park.

Knoxville, Tennessee – Under an hour away from the Great Smokies, Knoxville is a fun city with lots of restaurants, shops, museums, and historic architecture. Enjoy learning a bit about the Revolutionary War in this significant city.

Chattanooga, Tennessee –  Situated in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, Chattanooga offers stunning natural views of waterfalls, mountains, gardens, and more. The site of an important Civil War Battle, Chattanoonga makes for a great next stop after your visit to Great Smoky Mountains National Park!

Staying Safe at Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Positioned along the border of Tennessee and North Carolina, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is an International Biosphere Reserve and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This national park consistently ranks among the most-visited national parks in the country, and its beautiful natural landscapes, year round accessibility, and proximity to several big cities leave no question as to why that is. Be sure to take the necessary safety precautions before your trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Weather 

Due to the mountainous nature of the park, elevation ranges from 800 feet to 6,643 feet which can drastically affect the weather depending on your location. Be prepared for sudden and extreme changes in weather during any time of year. It’s essential to wear layers, sturdy shoes, and be prepared for rain or snow during your visit. Higher elevations yield cooler weather than do lower elevations, so you’ll want to be prepared for anything. Though winters in the Great Smoky Mountains are typically mild, weather extremes do arise, including snow storms at higher elevations.

Wildlife

You’ll surely experience your share of wildlife at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, so it’s important to take certain safety measures. More than 1,000 black bears live in the park so make sure to keep your distance, never approach bears, and store your food securely in bear bags or inside your locked car.

There are two types of venomous snakes living in the park, Timber Rattlesnakes and Copperheads. Watch where you step and reach, and if you see a snake, be sure to stay away.

Other Concerns

Climbing the waterfalls at Great Smoky Mountains National Park has claimed several lives and is extremely dangerous; do NOT climb the waterfalls! Water temperatures in the park’s streams can reach extremely cold temperatures, especially at the higher elevations, so if you plan to swim make sure to set a limit on your water exposure to avoid hypothermia. 

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Watching Wildlife in the Great Smoky Mountains

The Great Smoky Mountains, which are among the most visited mountains/National Park in the entire country, are a great place to get in wildlife viewing and exploration. Containing some of the largest tracts of wilderness in the East and acting as a critical sanctuary for a wide variety of animals, the park is home to 65 species of mammals, 200 varieties of birds, 67 native fish species, and more than 80 types of reptiles and amphibians.

Known for its prevalence of black bear sightings, the Great Smoky Mountains provide the largest protected bear habitat in the East. Many biologists estimate that 1,500 bears live in the park, with about two bears residing per square mile. Of course, there are other residents there as well, including the white-tailed deer, the groundhog, the chipmunk, and many different varieties of squirrels. Plus, some 120 birds nest there, several of which qualifying as Species of Concern. That makes the Great Smoky Mountains a very important and sacred environmental haven.

The park is surrounded by warm lowlands, with a cool, moist climate that creates a habitat suitable for animals found in most northern areas. It enables them to live far south of their primary ranges, since the weather in the park is more closely associated with that of the Northeastern United States. Therefore, park goers can expect to see species such as the Northern flying squirrel, the red squirrel, and the rock vole thriving in the park’s higher elevations.

Lastly, over 700 miles of streams in the park support fish, with over 50 native fish species, including the brook trout, residing within the confines. Don’t forget to look for salamanders, either! The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has been called the “Salamander Capital of the World.” That’s right, you can explore over 30 different types of salamander species in five families.

The Great Smoky Mountain’s Top Animals

  • White-tailed Deer
  • Bears
  • Bats
  • Bobcats
  • Elk
  • Fireflies
    • The synchronous firefly is just one of 19 species that live within the park. They are said to be the only species in the nation that can synchronize their flashing light patterns, according to the park service.

Viewing Locations

Elkmont: Fireflies

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail: Bears, bobcats, elk, white-tailed deer

Cades Cove: White-tailed deer, black bears, turkeys

Ober Gatlinburg (municipally sponsored zoo): otters, bobcats, birds

When Should You Go?

The best time to visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is during the summer months of June, July, and August, as well as in the fall. July is the busiest month of the summer season, while October weekends are the second busiest as tourists descend to capture imagery of the foliage. Since the park has elevations that range from 875 feet to 6,000 feet, temperatures can vary greatly. The park is known to be a wet climate, which is why you will want to always have a raincoat packed with you.

For foliage hunting, the most abundant displays occur in mid-to-late September. Most annual snowfall happens from January to March, sometimes into April. Although the park is open year round, major attractions and camping sites are closed during the winter months.

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