In the South, a road trip is more than just another drive.
The South is known for its love of good food, live music, and quirky culture, only Southerners could have crafted up some of these unique itineraries. Although the scenery and the roads are, of course, top notch, it’s the entire experience that draws people to the paved pathways.
Road trips along the Southern half of the country carry a flair all their own. Groups can explore an entire regional cuisine, explore mountain scenery or take pilgrimages along the coast to discover undeveloped lands and lighthouses
Whether it’s on byways or highways, cruising the South on land is an experience that’s only elevated by the roar of the road and the roaring laughter from a shared group experience.
Here are a few of the best Southern road trips for group travel.
Southern Gumbo Trail
Modeled after the Southern Foodways Alliance’s (SFA’s) popular Mississippi Delta Hot Tamale Trail, the Southern Gumbo Trail in 2006 is a way to illustrate and celebrate Louisiana’s amazing food culture and bring the stories of the changing American South to life via the many gumbo cooks in the area.
The trail is a part of a multimedia documentary-like project consisting of 33 oral history interviews with gumbo cooks throughout southern Louisiana with a focus on the specific deliciousness pouring out of New Orleans. Groups can listen to the voices of sustenance as they traverse the route and get a taste of the region through piping hot bowls of gumbo and fascinating stories about the history behind the recipes from the chefs themselves.
“Their stories are invaluable,” said Amy Evans, lead oral historian with the SFA. “We gather the stories behind the food by capturing the voices of the people who make, grow, cook and serve Southern food.
“We have an interview with Lionel Key of Uncle Bill’s Spices, who carries on his family’s tradition of making gumbo file [dried sassafras leaves]. Vance Vaucresson operates his family’s century-old sausage business, where he makes the smoked sausage, andouille and chaurice that restaurants and home cooks rely on for their gumbos. And we have an interview with Leah Chase of Dooky Chase Restaurant, who is widely known for maintaining the gumbo z’herbes, or green gumbo, tradition.”
For visitors to the Southern Gumbo Trail, having the opportunity to meet those people where they are, to hear their stories and to eat their food is a trip in itself and keeps guests returning for seconds year after year. Every style of gumbo carries its own story and reveals a bit about the South’s sizzling history. The SFA also offers a free iPhone application that helps groups navigate the path while uncovering the real aromas of the region.
Mountain Waters Scenic Byway
North Carolina Highlands
The beauty of an undisturbed national forest is what makes the Mountain Waters Scenic Byway one of the best road trips in the South, but those exploring the natural wonders of the North Carolina highlands generally end up with more than just an exciting outdoor experience. With curvy and narrow roads dating back to the early 1930s, the Mountain Waters Scenic Byway offers adventurous groups an opportunity for a thrilling encounter.
The byway spans 61.3 miles and winds along Highway 64 through the Nantahala National Forest from Highlands, the highest incorporated city east of the Mississippi River at 4,118 feet, to Almond. Groups will be able to see wild animals, hardwood forests, rivers, gorges, waterfalls, meadows and beautiful mountain countryside.
“There are a few claims to fame along our route,” said Jennifer Cunningham, director for the Highlands Visitor Center. “The first would be Dry Falls, which is my favorite thing to see because of the path that takes you down behind the waterfall without getting wet, hence the name Dry Falls. The second is Bridal Veil Falls, where you can drive under a veil of water coming over the cliff. This once was the main road into Highlands until the late 1950s, when the road that stands now was built.
“The best part of the entire drive is the nine miles on Highway 64 between Franklin and Highlands, where the winding road parallels the Cullasaja River and offers spectacular views of the river. You will see the falls and beautiful mountain laurel and rhododendrons in the spring and summer and the fall foliage in autumn.”
Ocean Highway 17 Along the Hammock Coast
Stretching from Murrells Inlet in the northern end of Georgetown County to the North Santee River, which marks the southern border of the state, the Hammock Coast is a 36-mile route that connects some of the region’s most scenic and historic spots. The route is home to Georgetown, South Carolina’s third-oldest city; Pawleys Island, the oldest seaside resort in North America; and Murrells Inlet, the seafood capital of the state.
“One of the best things about the Hammock Coast is that while it has changed and grown, it doesn’t have the commercialism of other tourist areas,” said Lauren Cobb, tourism marketing director for the Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Management Commission. “We have the largest amount of philanthropically held oceanfront on the East Coast. This gives us great expanses of undeveloped land, and the drive down Highway 17 is lined with trees. There truly is too much to pack into one day. A group can easily spend an entire day in Georgetown or at Brookgreen.”
From bird-watching at Huntington Beach State Park or shopping at the Hammock Shops in Pawleys to eating seafood at the same spot it’s brought in fresh at the Murrells Inlet Marshwalk or dining on Front Street in Georgetown, the itinerary can be as broad as the group’s various interests.
“Georgetown also has a historic lighthouse at the mouth of our harbor,” said Cobb. “It is only accessible by boat, but we have two tour boat companies that take regular trips out to see the lighthouse and walk the pristine beach there. The shelling is great.”
Georgia’s Antebellum Trail
The Antebellum Trail is a 100-mile self-guided tour that takes visitors through seven communities that barely escaped the Sherman’s fiery march through Georgia during the Civil War. The trail includes Athens, Watkinsville, Madison, Eatonton, Milledgeville, Gray/Old Clinton and Macon, each located just over an hour’s drive from Atlanta.
Those communities seem to have paused time for visitors and are a great opportunity to see authentic 19th-century architecture, relatively untouched historic homes and original artifacts from the antebellum era in the numerous museums around the region. Highlights include visits to the original 1802 campus of the University of Georgia in Athens, an early-1800s stagecoach stop in Watkinsville, and the Old Governor’s Mansion in Milledgeville.
“Alongside the rich history, towns like Athens, Eatonton, Macon and Milledgeville are also home to award-winning musicians, writers and chefs,” said Justin Martin, assistant tourism director for the Oconee County Tourism Department.
Among the famous names from the area are Athens’ Hugh Acheson, the James Beard Award-winning chef of Five and Ten, Macon’s Little Richard and Otis Redding, and Milledgeville’s Flannery O’Connor. Those towns have inspired great minds throughout the years and continue to do so with tours through this historic trail.
Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains/U.S. Route 11
With scenic overlooks sure to take your breath away and tons of spots to pull over for some prime picking and antique shopping, the Virginia Blue Ridge Mountains’ U.S. Route 11 immerses groups in Virginia’s characteristic mountain culture and Southern hospitality.
The route follows the historic road in the Virginia Blue Ridge Mountains that runs parallel to Interstate 81 and takes tourists on a metro/mountain mixed journey through the different scenery and communities in the region.
“We have a rich railroad heritage, which is a draw for many visitors,” said Catherine Fox, director of public relations and tourism for the Roanoke Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau. “This includes the Virginia Museum of Transportation, O. Winston Link Museum and Railwalk.
“I enjoy taking groups on step-on tours. This gives me an opportunity to share my passion for the region any season. This route gives you a great slice of Americana, and it really depicts this area’s roots and rich farmland. The scenery is spectacular if you climb up to the adjacent Blue Ridge Mountains and take the Blue Ridge Parkway.”
Heading south from Lexington along Route 11 leads visitors to the Natural Bridge and then through Buchanan in Botetourt County. Not long after entering the city of Roanoke, Route 11 transforms into the quaint and shopper-friendly district full of dining and entertainment.
Rocky Top Trail
Tennessee Smoky Mountains
The 282-mile-long Tennessee Rocky Top Trail officially kicks off in Gatlinburg at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Welcome Center and quickly whisks guests along Tennessee’s back roads. Made up of more than 130 points of interest — including scenic overlooks, thrilling attractions and an amazing array of music, culture, history, and cuisine — the Rocky Top Trail is so much more than a pretty route.
“This is a diverse trail that offers multiple ways to experience Appalachian heritage and the natural beauty of east Tennessee,” said Melanie Beauchamp, public relations media manager for the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development. “Tennessee and the Smoky Mountains are a beautiful combination for a great drive. The area’s scenic beauty can’t be beat.”
Aside from the stunning scenery that the route boasts year-round, one of the most beautiful aspects of the drive is that it brings tourists off the main road to experience the real Tennessee. For those looking to touch and experience the culture, spots marked along the route range from moonshine-tasting tours at Ole Smoky Moonshine Distillery to water-rapids excursions on the Pigeon River near Hartford.
With so much ground to cover, it shouldn’t be too hard for the group to map out a customized itinerary, but the Department of Tourism also offers step-on guided tours of the region.