1.GREAT SMOKEY MOUNTAINS
America’s most popular national park, it draws nine million annual visitors. Most enter through a jumble of go-kart tracks and outlet stores along Tennessee’s neon-bright Gatlinburg–Pigeon Forge gateway corridor. But for those who know where to look, the Smokies still offer the wild beauty and grandeur. Sneaking in through the back door, on the quieter North Carolina side, offers savvy travelers near-private viewings of the park’s unrivaled biodiversity, including 1,660 species of flowering plants as well as deer, elk, and black bears. Those fortunate few can also relish ethereal, blue-haze valleys in peaceful solitude.
Asheville serves as the North Carolina headquarters of the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway, with the Great Smokies as its southwestern bookend. Though the city is known best for its 250-room Biltmore Estate, a French Renaissance vision in Gilded Age opulence, it also has bluegrass jam, art galleries and indie coffee shops and bistros line the historic downtown. Just south of downtown, the North Carolina Arboretum beckons with 65 acres of cultivated gardens and more than ten miles of hiking and biking trails.
Back in Asheville, head 30 miles west toward the Smokies on I-40. This mostly rural stretch of interstate skirts the edge of the sprawling Pisgah National Forest, a pristine hardwoods wilderness laced with waterfalls, white-water rapids, and mile-high peaks.
Few day visitors to the national park venture to the remote Cataloochee Valley, accessed from I-40 via a serpentine, packed gravel mountain road. Entering the park through this secluded southeastern gateway provides spectacular views of the surrounding 6,000-foot summits as well as a glimpse into Smokies life before the creation of the park. Once home to a thriving farming and tourism community of 1,200, the valley is now populated by native wild turkeys, deer and majestic elk, best seen in midmorning or early evening.
Follow Little Cataloochee Trail to discover the isolated valley’s historic frame buildings that date to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Ring the church bell inside Little Cataloochee Baptist, a plain white chapel built in 1889, and slip inside the 1864 Hannah Cabin, with its original handmade brick chimney, to see the sleeping loft. Carefully drive back to the main road, and then hike all or part of the seven-mile Boogerman Trail loop, and reap the restorative rewards that come from walking in silence through towering old-growth woods.
Pull off the Blue Ridge Parkway at milepost 461.9 at Big Witch Overlook (elevation 4,150 feet) to bask in unobstructed mountain views. In May and June, the panorama glows deep pink and red with blooming flame azalea and pinkshell rhododendron.
Reenter the national park at the end of the parkway for a crash course in Smokies heritage at the bright new Oconaluftee Visitor Center. Behind the visitors center, join a ranger-led tour of the Mountain Farm Museum, an authentic Smokies log homestead. May through October, reenactors demonstrate early 20th-century mountain life.
Nearby, the town of Cherokee sits close to the center of the Qualla Boundary, current home of the 12,500-member Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Skip Cherokee’s tacky shops and tepees (the native residents lived in wood cabins) and head instead to the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, a stop along the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail. At the entrance stands a 20-foot statue of Chief Sequoyah, inventor of the Cherokee alphabet, here chiseled from a single California redwood. Across the street is Qualla Arts and Crafts, the nation’s oldest Native American cooperative.
From Cherokee, the Blue Ridge Parkway offers a slow (top speed: 45 miles an hour) but rewarding route back to Asheville, forming scallops past turnoffs such as the Devil’s Courthouse Overlook trail (milepost 422.4). The half-mile path climbs straight up to the rocky 5,720-foot summit. The payoff is a 360-degree view; look for peregrine falcons circling above the valley.
For a quicker return to Asheville, cut across Maggie Valley via Highway 19 and I-40. Unwind from your mountain ramble at Jack of the Wood, a Celtic-style pub or the Green Man Brewery with its Thursday night bluegrass jam, pickin’ starts at 6:30 p.m. In true Appalachian form, everyone’s welcome to join in.
2. CHEROHALA SKYWAY, Tennessee and North Carolina
The Cherohala Skyway is a 42-mile (68-kilometer) byway linking Tellico Plains, Tennessee, to Robbinsville, North Carolina through forests of hardwoods and evergreens following a mile-high ridge in the Unicoi Mountains, part of the Great Smokey Mountains. You can complete the drive in as little as two to three hours, but this route was built for sightseeing. You’ll be passing through Cherokee National Forest offering several recreational opportunities – more than 600 miles (966 kilometers) of hiking trails, including a section of the famous Appalachian National Scenic Trail at the road’s highest point, the Santeetlah Overlook, 5,390 feet (1,643 meters).
Start in the quiet town of Tellico Plains and after five miles, take a six-mile side trip on State Route 210 to see 100-foot (30-meter) Bald River Falls. Back on Cty. Rd. 165 the scenery gets better with every mile. Thirteen miles from Tellico Plains is the turn to the Cherokee National Forest’s Indian Boundary Campground, on Boundary Lake with electrical hookups to rustic sites.
Not far beyond, you enter North Carolina, where the highway name changes to N.C. 143 and enter the Nantahala National Forest with many recreational opportunities. The road continues to rise, with panoramas of the Great Smokies from scenic overlooks as far as Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The high point is the picnic spot at 5,390-foot (1,643-meter) Santeetlah Overlook.
After you descend through Shute Cove (3,550 feet) and Hooper Cove (3,100 feet), the road intersects with N.C. 134, which takes you on a two-mile (three-kilometer) side trip to the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, perhaps the most famous spot along the skyway. This magnificent woodland honors the poet who wrote the well-known line, “I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree.” Among the lovely trees are 400-year-old stands of poplar and hemlock.
The best times to drive the skyway are spring through fall when the forest erupts in blazing colors. The only services are Forest Service campgrounds.
3. THE BLUES HIGHWAY, Tennessee and Mississippi
Highway 61 running south out of Memphis forms a legendary route along the Mississippi River evocative of a delicious slice of Americana represented by a genre of music known as the Delta blues. Drive the old Blues Highway—Route 61 between Memphis and Vicksburg—in search of music, and you’ll find it everywhere you turn.
Memphis. The Stax Museum of American Soul Music is named for an influential 1960s label with a collection including more than 2,000 exhibits, videos, stage costumes, photographs, and instruments used to record the Stax sound.
Want to hear live blues? Go to Wild Bill’s (1580 Vollintine Ave.), a juke joint three miles north of touristed Beale Street. Memphis is alleged to have more than a hundred barbecue joints. Downtown’s Rendezvous (52 S. Second St.) is justly famous for its dry ribs. Another favorite is Tops Bar-B-Q (multiple locations, including 1258 Union Ave.), where the meat, if not the decor, is sublime.
With its garish, casino-based economy, Tunica looks like Las Vegas. But even if gambling isn’t your thing, stop here for a meal, Southern cooking at its best.
For barbecued chicken or a jam session, go to the Hopson Plantation, a historic cotton farm, in Clarksdale, Mississippi. In Clarksdale check the “who’s playing” board at Cat Head (252 Delta Ave) or the website www.cathead.biz, a blues music and folk art store that lists performances at local joints. Catch a band and a down-home meal at actor Morgan Freeman’s nightclub Ground Zero Blues Club (0 Blues Alley). Right next door is the Delta Blues Museum (#1 Blues Alley, Clarksdale).
Back on the road south of Clarksdale, instead of the four-lane Highway 61, divert yourself west to the parallel Highway 1, a quiet two-laner running along the Mississippi’s “Great Wall,” a never-ending levee. Here you’ll find Rosedale, a town famed blues musician Robert Johnson sang about. Today, try Mexican tamales at White Front Café (Main St., Rosedale).
Nearing the end of the journey, still north of Vicksburg, welcome to Margaret’s Grocery (4535 N. Washington St., Vicksburg). a collection of plywood and brick towers rendered in white, pinks, reds, and yellows, with hand-painted Bible verses. No longer a working store, it is an enduring testament to the faith of Reverend H.D. Dennis. Back in 1984, he promised his beloved Margaret that if she consented to marry him, he would build a palace to honor God. Inside a cramped chapel is his Ark of the Covenant cobbled together from plastic, old Mardi Gras beads, and gold spray paint, illuminated by a string of Christmas lights.
4. BOURBON TRAIL, Kentucky
Central Kentucky is bourbon country. Its rolling meadows, limestone-filtered streams, and cool hardwood forests have long provided ideal conditions for producing the honey-colored drink as crucial to Kentucky legend as Daniel Boone himself.
The bluegrass byways winding through bourbon country make for a great road trip. These lanes, including 31E, 52, 127, 60, among others, connect Louisville, Bardstown, and Frankfort in a large triangle, taking in numerous distilleries, glimpses of white-water rapids and grazing Thoroughbreds.
In Louisville, stroll along the Ohio River to reach the Belle of Louisville steamboat (4th St. at River Rd).
The heart of bourbon country lies about 40 miles south of Louisville, where Knob Creek winds through low, cave-pocked hills to join the Rolling Fork River. Today Knob Creek is better known as the name of one of several boutique bourbons produced along the route that have gained popularity over the past decade.
Bardstown. Grab a walking-tour map at the Bardstown’s Welcome Center (One Court Sq) listing 48 historic buildings. At the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History (114 N. 5th St), learn about whiskey in general and bourbon in particular. My Old Kentucky Dinner Train (602 N. 3rd St.) departs from the town’s stone depot for a 40-mile lunch or dinner excursion. Visit the Bourbon Heritage Center run by Heaven Hill Distilleries (1311 Gilkey Run Rd., Bardstown). And don’t miss the free museum and a film on bourbon making at Jim Beam’s American Stillhouse (149 Happy Hollow Rd., Clermont).
At the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace (2995 Lincoln Farm Road, Hodgenville), a simple cabin in a green valley, hike through the pasture behind the house to the small brook on the right known as Knob Creek.
In Loretto, tour the Maker’s Mark Distillery (3350 Burks Spring Road). You can see every step from the grinding of the corn to the final bottling.
Except for tasting the bourbon itself, there is no better way to enjoy the water it’s made from than by white-water rafting on Elkhorn Creek. Canoe Kentucky (7323 Peaks Mill Rd., Frankfort) offers guided and unguided tours, from relaxing canoe floats to Class II and III raft trips. Nearby is the Buffalo Trace Distillery (1001 Wilkinson Blvd) where visitors can tour aromatic wooden warehouses packed with whiskey barrels.
In Georgetown, 19 miles east of Frankfort, you’ll find historic homes and inns. At the center of town, a spring emerges from a cave to form the municipal water supply. Baptist minister Elijah Craig built a classical school here in 1787 and began making whiskey two years later. According to local tradition, a fire damaged his stock of white oak barrels, but when he saw they were merely charred, he used them to store a fresh batch of corn squeezings. The charcoal worked wonders on the aging process of his whiskey, and bourbon was born—to the delight of generations that followed.
Leaving Chatham, amble westward alongside Nantucket Sound. In the 1960s, the seaside quarter of Hyannis Port, in the village of Hyannis, became one of the world’s most famous addresses. That era is recalled at the John F. Kennedy Hyannis Museum, which really is an extensive gallery of large-format photographs that capture the 35th president’s lifelong romance with the Cape. Kennedy is also remembered at the John F. Kennedy Memorial, a harborside fountain and reflecting pool. Proceed farther west to Falmouth, the Cape’s southwesternmost point. Settled by Congregationalists in the 1660s, the town became a whaling and shipbuilding center in the 19th century. Clustered around the classic village green are the 1796 First Congregational Church, with its steeple and Paul Revere bell, and two historic-house museums, the 18th-century Julia Wood House and the Conant House Museum. From Falmouth take Woods Hole Road south to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, founded in 1930 as “the world’s largest private, nonprofit ocean research, engineering and education organization.” Its Exhibits Center showcases the various activities and discoveries of its scientists—including a full-size model of the inner sphere of the deep submersible Alvin.
Allow three to four days to enjoy this 160-mile (257-kilometer) circuit, which can be traveled spring through fall, when the seasonal weather is generally temperate and most attractions are open. Note that summer traffic can be heavy, especially on weekends.