Having already set off on a West Coast USA road trip a few years ago when our first daughter was nine-months old, we decided to head back to the USA with the kids. We had a family friend in Alabama, but we also wanted to explore the less visited southern states.
This time, we planned a family road trip to see the autumn colours of the Great Smoky Mountains, explore honky-tonk culture in Nashville, visit Dollywood and get out on the bayou near New Orleans. Our Deep South road trip across America turned out to be full of surprises and we loved every moment. If you’re planning a similar trip, here are some tips to make the most of your adventure.
We visited America in October half term, which meant cheaper airfares but good weather. In October, we had cold, bright days with fiery autumn foliage in the Smoky Mountains, but as we headed south towards the Gulf coast beaches, the temperatures hit 25 degrees. It felt like the best of both worlds.
We hired a Toyota Forerunner, which was a massive car with plenty of space. Even better, it was easy to drive and comfortable. Our 1,600 mile road trip across America took us from Charlotte in North Carolina, through Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi and finally Louisiana. Our children (2 and 4 years old) are fairly used to long road trips in the UK, so they generally coped well with the drives, which were 3-4 hours on average. We planned to stay a few days in most places so that we weren't driving every day.
We flew direct from London to Charlotte with British Airways before driving four hours to the Smoky Mountains National Park. I hadn’t realised just how popular this park is - with over 12 million visitors a year; it's the most visited national park in the USA. To put this in perspective, the Great Smoky Mountains draw nearly twice the number of visitors as the Grand Canyon every year! Who knew?
The forest-covered hills that border North Carolina and Tennessee are world-renowned for their plant and animal life, beautiful mountains and forests, as well as remnants of Appalachian culture. Just outside the touristy town of Gatlinburg, a gateway to explore the park, we stayed in a fantastic log cabin. It came complete with a fireplace for the chilly evenings as well as a hot tub on the deck with outstanding views of the mountains and a palette of autumnal colours.
There are thousands of miles of hiking trails, but we found a great 2.5-mile trail up to Laurel Creek waterfall, which was manageable for the children with a little assistance. There are options for all abilities from short walks suitable for families, to longer multi-day hikes for the more active. We even got to see some black bears on the edge of town on the way back!
Another highlight of this area is the famous ‘Dollywood’- Dolly Parton’s theme park, in Pigeon Forge. There are rides for all ages, including our 4-year old’s first roller coaster, as well as many quaint shops, activities and a steam train ride. As we were there for the build-up to Halloween, they also had a spectacular pumpkin light festival, which was a lot of fun for the kids.
I highly recommend the Dolly Parton’s Stampede show, just a couple of miles away on the main Pigeon Forge road. This was one of our highlights, and the girls loved it! Watching this classic American-style Rodeo with horse shows, stunts and displays while eating chicken and chips with your hands was such a fun experience. I recommend a visit to both Dollywood and the Stampede show for all ages.
We drove west from the mountains into Nashville and were very pleasantly surprised by this city. Every bar on the main Broadway Street has live music playing. We managed to enjoy an afternoon pub crawl listening to different bands, and although we’re not huge Country music fans, we really liked it. We enjoyed the variety of music, and the children were entertained.
A few recommendations for family-friendly bars are Robert’s Western World, Honky Tonk Central and the great Wildhorse Saloon. A lot of bars don’t allow children after 6pm, but the Wildhorse allows kids at night and live music is interspersed with Country line dancing sessions where everyone is encouraged to give it a go.
While in Nashville, we went on the Old Trolley city bus hop-on-hop-off tour, which cost about USD90 per adult. We got off half way round to check out the farmer’s market for lunch and had a quick look at the great Tennessee museum, which is currently free to enter. If you’re really into Country music, you should also check out the Johnny Cash Museum and the Country Music Hall of Fame.
We then drove south towards the Gulf Shores beach area of Alabama. We rented a fantastic two-bedroom apartment in Orange Beach with sea views right on the golden sandy beach that stretched for miles. It’s an ideal town to enjoy some chill-out time and make the most of the swimming pool and the beach – central to any good family holiday we think!
During the day, we went for a short walk across the boardwalks in the Gulf State Park and saw birds and turtles but no alligators, although they apparently live in the park. The park is home to many waterparks (although these were closed in October) and theme parks. While you’re here, I recommend eating at the excellent Fin and Fork fish restaurant – it’s very popular, so you must book a table in advance.
Another great tip is to visit the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida about an hour away. Remember to take your passports to get in, as the museum is on a navy base and we had to return to get ours! You’ll see loads of planes and helicopters, and you can find out more about naval aviation history. You can sit in many of the aircraft, and there’s a children’s play area to keep them entertained. If you time it well, you can even see the Blue Arrows (like our RAF Red Arrows) practising.
On our way to New Orleans, we stopped off at the USS Alabama, a retired warship. Being able to explore the whole ship, which was the one used in the ‘Under Siege’ film, was a fascinating experience. There were more planes to see as well in a next-door hangar.
For eating out in New Orleans, I can highly recommend Mothers restaurant, the Ruby Slipper Breakfast restaurant and Café Du Monde (famous for its beignets and coffee), which all seem to be New Orleans institutions. Tempted? Read our foodie blog about New Orleans.
We took a half-day boat trip to the ‘bayou’ (a slow-moving, marshy swamp area) just outside of the city to try and spot the many alligators hiding among the plants. We also went on a jazz lunch cruise along the Mississippi River on the Steamboat Natchez with some great local food.
Similar to Nashville’s Broadway Street, New Orleans has Bourbon Street, where every bar has live music. We stopped in a couple of bars and managed to sample the local food, including alligator, crawfish (crayfish for us Brits) and plenty of creole food. You can imagine Mardi Gras would be crazy here; they love a party!
Driving through the southern states of the USA is a trip I would recommend to anyone. We managed to find lots of activities for the children and spending 3-4 nights in each place felt like the ideal timescale, as we didn’t feel rushed. If I had to pick, I’d say the Smoky Mountains were my highlight, and the children also loved the activities there. However, the cities were so exciting and lively, and the beaches are perfect for couples and families alike.
If you’d like to plan a road trip to the southern states of the USA, we can advise you and help you arrange every aspect of your journey. Take a look at our multi-stop flight ideas and top 10 things to do in the USA to get some inspiration, and contact Chris to start planning your trip.