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Southern trails: Try this trail mix

Courtesy Kentucky Historical Society

Exploring the trails and byways of the nation’s South is not akin to numbing, interstate travel. These days, savvy travelers get off the beaten path for more interesting exploits.

Throughout Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana, Tennessee and West Virginia, driving trails feature escapes that are out of the ordinary, topping anything the GPS can show. Travelers who want to experience the authentic South will not be disappointed.

Known mostly for its horses, Kentucky is a vast network of trails that cover other aspects of the Bluegrass State. Kentucky Department of Travel and Tourism media coordinator Marge Bateman said Kentucky’s diversity is within easy reach of visitors.

“You have the Bourbon Trail — it’s a huge industry, but it’s been around forever here,” she said. “You’ve got the Country Music Highway, which is unique to our area, and then the landscape that gives you an opportunity to hike and rock climb.”

The Bourbon Trail includes six distilleries in north central Kentucky. Each offers tours that include bourbon tastings, architectural marvels and barrel rolling. All but one are free.

“Kentucky produces 95 percent of all bourbon in the world; so if you want to see how bourbon is really made, this is the place to be,” Bateman said.

Also, Kentucky is home to the Lincoln Heritage Trail, which showcases Abraham Lincoln’s roots in the state and how Kentucky influenced his presidency.

The trail was revived in 2008 and is an all-encompassing scenic and educational drive that has nearly 20 historic sites that shaped Lincoln’s legacy. The award-winning trail spans 10 Kentucky cities and features stops at the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site, Lincoln’s Boyhood Home and the Lincoln Museum in Hodgenville; Lincoln Homestead State Park, near Springfield; the Lincoln Marriage Temple in Harrodsburg; White Hall State Historic Site, near Richmond; Camp Nelson Civil War Heritage Park; the Mary Todd Lincoln House in Lexington; and the Lincoln statue in the state Capitol rotunda.

Other trails include the Wilderness Road Heritage Highway, the Red River Gorge Scenic Byway and the Great River Road.

Tennessee has an extensive set of trails with serious Southern flavor.

Tennessee Department of Tourist Development director of communications Cindy Dupree called the state’s 16 themed trails an “ambitious system” that is still being unveiled.

Discover Tennessee Trails and Byways will cover all of the state’s counties and include its five National Scenic Byways, three just designated in 2009.

“It’s very exciting,” Dupree said. “More than doubling our national scenic byways was a huge step for our state.”

The Old Tennessee Trail was the first to launch. It dives into Tennessee’s rich history, with dozens of stops in central Tennessee at historic houses, quaint heritage towns and significant landmarks.

Among the stops on the trail are the Franklin, Columbia and Mount Pleasant town squares; the President James K. Polk’s Home and Polk Presidential Hall in Franklin; and Rippavilla Plantation in Spring Hill.

Launched in December, the Walking Tall Trail, the program’s fifth, features nearly 200 sites in Memphis, Shelby County and seven surrounding counties that showcase historic sites, preserved homes, eateries and museums.

The trail originates at Elvis Presley’s Graceland in Memphis, with other stops such as Shiloh National Military Park, broom making in Selmer and the McNairy County home of the late Sheriff Buford Pusser, the subject of the movie “Walking Tall,” which gives its name to the trail.

“These trails are all-encompassing: culinary, history, culture, heritage, museums off the beaten path, shopping, interesting attractions and agritourism,” Dupree said.

Whether it’s a steamboat ride, food and drink, white-water rafting, folklore, hiking, Native American history, fishing or museums, the trails have it.

West Virginia
If travelers are looking for something “wild and wonderful,” West Virginia does not lack trails.

The Coal Heritage Trail winds through nearly 200 rugged miles of industrial heritage in the National Coal Heritage Area in the Appalachian Mountains. Visit national historic districts, coal miners’ homes, company stores and railroad yards — all with a mountain backdrop.

Start at the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine and take a mantrap 1,500 feet back into the mountain to learn about the life of a coal miner.

“The Coal Heritage Trail was created to explain and explore the influence that coal has had on the development of the state of West Virginia,” said Kathy Johnson, domestic travel specialist for West Virginia Division of Tourism. “Work in the mines created jobs that brought many different ethnic groups to the state and created the diversity that we have today.

“The region’s communities retain much of their original character as company towns, reflecting local traditions, immigrant laborers and dominance of the coal industry.”

The Historic National Road: West Virginia’s All-American Road provides access to the Wheeling Suspension Bridge and Independence Hall. On the Midland Trail, visitors can see what was an original buffalo path and thoroughfare for Native Americans.

“West Virginia’s unique byways and back ways offer a different traveling experience from the sameness encountered along today’s major highways,” Johnson said, adding that you’ll see 18th-century pioneer dwellings, Civil War battlefields, natural panoramas and industrial revolution sites.

Other routes include North Central Byways, the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike, the Highland Scenic Highway, the Washington Heritage Trail and the Farm Heritage Highway.

Alabama’s Birmingham Civil Rights Heritage Trail focuses on historic sites from the movement of the 1950s and 1960s, which include significant locations throughout downtown. Among the more than 30 sites on the trail are the historic 16th Street Baptist Church and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

“You can read about the civil rights movement in history books, but you can experience it by coming to Alabama and following an itinerary,” said Edith Parten, communications director for the Alabama Tourism Department. “No one else has the history that we have here.”

Alabama’s Civil War history is displayed along the Battle of Mobile Bay Civil War Trail. The 90-mile route conveys stories of ship captains, fort commanders and common fighting men.

The state’s outdoors-oriented trails also have an Alabama twist. On the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail, groups can see much in only eight miles, including Southern landscapes such as pitcher plant bogs, ancient hardwood forests, pine savanna, swamps and dunes. The U.S. Department of Interior dubbed it a National Recreation Trail.

Other trails are the Alabama Birding Trail, the Orange Beach Canoe Trail, the Alabama Scenic River Trail, the Native American Trail, the Alabama Ghost Trail and the Alabama’s Coastal Connection, a 130-mile scenic byway.

Known for its Creole and Cajun cuisine, Louisiana also boasts a Sportsman’s Paradise reputation.

“The majority of the state’s trails really capture this essence and make experiencing all of the unique outdoor options for groups easy,” said Katie Harrington, public relations manager for the Southwest Louisiana Convention and Visitors Bureau.

This includes a 180-mile trail through one of America’s last great wildernesses. The Creole Nature Trail All-American Road snakes through Louisiana’s outback, offering unparalleled views and exploration. It is a National Scenic Byway and the only All-American Road in the Gulf South.

Visitors can spot alligators, birds and more wildlife in their natural habitats. Walking trails allow visitors to explore the marshes and prairie lands. Handheld GPS devices are available for checkout.

“The GPS unit is loaded with trigger points, and as the visitor is driving along the trail and crosses a trigger point, the unit will become a tour guide,” Harrington said. “This is state-of-the-art technology that only one other byway in the country has.”

The Southwest Louisiana Boudin Trail unveils back roads chock-full of hometown eateries.

“Boudin is a meat-and-rice delicacy that is stuffed into a sausage-style casing,” Harrington explained. “Some of the best eats are found in mom-and-pop stores and gas stations. The recipe for boudin varies from shop to shop, and making good boudin is a source of pride for people around here.”

Other trails include Louisiana’s African-American Heritage Trail and America’s Wetland Birding Trail.