The highways are calling. With this summer becoming the revitalizing season we’ve all been waiting for, there’s never been a better time to pack the car and cruise through the scenic stretches of Southern Appalachia. With that in mind, we’ve assembled five adventure-based road trip itineraries to help you plot the perfect road trip adventure.
Rivers and Trails in North Carolina’s Nantahala Gorge
The Nantahala Outdoor Center—which offers trips on eight rivers across the Southeast—has their base right on the river next to Nantahala Falls. The center offers lodging options, a restaurant, a ropes course, and plenty more. Nearby, there are several private campgrounds with spots to pitch your tent or hook up an RV. More lodgings and restaurants are available in Bryson City, N.C., including a pair of breweries: Nantahala Brewing and Mountain Layers Brewing Co.
The Appalachian Trail passes through the NOC, and day-hikers and backpackers can explore the challenging terrain that rises steeply above the river. Nearby, mountain bikers can pick from four challenging loop trails at the Tsali Trail System, which winds through rugged hills overlooking Fontana Lake.
To the northwest, on US Highway 129, is the world-famous Tail of the Dragon, a favorite stretch of road among sports car drivers and motorcyclists, which packs 318 sharp turns into 11 miles. It’s tricky driving, so proceed with caution while enjoying the experience. —M.B.
Bourbon and Caves in Kentucky
Kentucky is perhaps best known for its pastoral horse farms, but the Bluegrass State also has the longest known cave system in the world at Mammoth Cave National Park. You can spend hours exploring the geologic formations of this subterranean wonder on a variety of guided and self-guided tours (reservations are not required but recommended during the busy summer months), and then head above ground for even more road trip adventure.
The park also has 80 miles of trails, including the Big Hollow Trail, which features north and south loops and is enjoyed by both hikers and mountain bikers. Big Hollow has been named an IMBA-designated Gateway Trail for offering novice riders a proper introduction to singletrack. Accordingly, it features flowy terrain among dense forests and scenic rock outcroppings.
When your legs are tired, pitch a tent at one of the park’s three main campgrounds. Then the next day drive an hour and a half north on I-65 to Louisville for some playtime in Kentucky’s largest city. Grab a room at the 21c Museum Hotel, which features its own art gallery, and sample the goods of the city’s favorite liquid on Whiskey Row at well-known bars like Down One, which regularly features around 150 Kentucky-made bourbons. —J.F.
Cruising the Florida-Georgia Line
At the top of Florida’s Atlantic coast, on Amelia Island, Fernandina Beach is a small seaside community with big adventure potential. One highlight is the historic Fort Clinch State Park, where you can explore a pentagonal Third System fort from the 19th century.
The park is known for its 3.3-mile drive underneath a live oak canopy, a popular ride with cruiser bikes. There’s also camping and a six-mile mountain bike trail along surprisingly rolling terrain. Another highlight is hunting the tidal zone for shark teeth, which over thousands of years have turned a shimmering black from mineralization.
In Fernandina’s historic downtown, there are plenty of restaurants and several breweries worth checking out, including the Amelia Tavern and Mocama Beer Company. Fishing trips launch from the town port, and kayaking is popular in the St. Mary’s River and other tributary channels of the Intracoastal Waterway, with guided trips available from outfitters like Amelia Island Kayak.
For another road trip adventure, head north over the Georgia state line and take the ferry from the colonial town of St. Mary’s to Cumberland Island National Seashore. The largest of Georgia’s barrier islands, Cumberland is known for 18 miles of undeveloped beach, several primitive camping areas, and miles of sandy roads leading through the island’s northern wilderness of salt-pruned oak forest. At Plum Orchard, you can tour a mansion once owned by the Carnegie family, and on the southern end of the island there are several museums and the Dungeness mansion ruins. —M.B.
Olympic Nostalgia and Brews in Tennessee
Host of the 1996 Olympic whitewater events, the Ocoee Whitewater Center and surrounding region make for a packed road trip adventure. At the center, you can watch from the banks as rafts and kayaks bomb through the original Olympic slalom course. Or hop in a guided boat and navigate the famous class III-IV rapids of the upper and middle Ocoee, with names like Broken Nose, Double Trouble, and Tablesaw.
Other activities include hiking and biking on the riverside trail departing from the Whitewater Center, which connects to the Tanasi Trail System. Twenty miles of trails have everything from mellow walks to white-knuckle downhill riding.
A fun way to stay is pitching a tent or renting a cabin at the camps of the many raft companies that run the river, like Outdoor Adventure Rafting. Other visitors rent private cabins throughout the area, particularly popular near Ducktown, where you’ll also find the Copperhill Brewery at Ocoee for post-river beers.
If you’re looking for more beer, then consider a side trip to nearby Chattanooga. The city is home to around a dozen breweries, including Chattanooga Brewing and the geologically themed Hutton & Smith Brewing Company.
While in town, check out the Chattanooga Riverwalk. This 16-mile paved path along the Tennessee River is popular among walkers and bikers, offering access to scenic views, museums, and restaurants. The path ends near Lookout Mountain, with several sites to explore, like the underground waterfall, Ruby Falls. For hiking and biking, the Lookout Mountain Trail System, administered by the National Park Service, has 30 miles of trails that crisscross the mountain and visit historic Civil War battle sites. All these opportunities make Chattanooga a great road trip adventure. —M.B.
Bikes and Bluegrass in Southwest Virginia
There are many trail-friendly towns in the Blue Ridge, but Damascus takes it to another level, hence the nickname Trail Town, USA. The tiny burg in the mountains of southwest Virginia has seven paths running through its borders, including the Appalachian Trail, Iron Mountain Trail, and the flat and scenic Virginia Creeper Trail. Perfect for a family-friendly bike ride, the latter is a 34-mile rail trail with a gentle grade that runs into the vast Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. With the mid-point of the Creeper located in Damascus, the town has many outfitters, including Sundog (http://www.sundogoutfitter.com), that will shuttle you to Whitetop Station to take the 17-mile ride back to town.
After a long day of pedaling, grab a beer at the Damascus Brewery and a meal at the Old Mill, a historic inn and restaurant on the banks of Laurel Creek, where you can also stay for the night.
The next day, drive a couple hours east towards Galax and visit the Blue Ridge Music Center (blueridgemusiccenter.org), located at milepost 213 on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The center, dedicated to the old-time and bluegrass sounds of the region, hosts a free Midday Mountain Music series with local musicians every afternoon that it’s open, as well as outdoor concerts by national acts on the weekend. Upcoming shows in July and August will feature the Steep Canyon Rangers, Sierra Ferrell, and Chatham Rabbits. —J.F.
Cover photo: The scenic waterfront in Louisville, Ky. Photo courtesy of Louisville Tourism