Cruise east to west across the Volunteer State to experience some of Tennessee’s top tastes, sights, sounds, and state parks. The roughly 420-mile route follows I-40 from the Great Smoky Mountains in the east to the mighty Mississippi River in the west. If you’re planning a fly-and-drive vacation, arrive in Knoxville and depart from Memphis.
GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK
Whether you start the trip on I-40 or at the Knoxville airport, it’s a short drive (about 30 miles) to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. From the interstate (exit 407, Sevierville), head to the Sugarlands Visitor Centre in Gatlinburg for a free park map, trail recommendations, and a schedule of ranger-led programs.
From the airport, the closest park entrance is in Townsend, gateway to historic Cades Cove and its 11-mile, one-way scenic driving loop. For 360-degree views of the park, hike the paved half-mile trail to the summit observation tower atop 6,643-foot Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the park—and in the state.
Fog rolls across lush green meadows in Cades Cove.
PHOTOGRAPH BY BILL SWINDAMAN, GETTY IMAGES
From Sevierville, hop on I-40 for the 30-minute ride west to downtown Knoxville (exit 388, Henley Street). The state’s third-largest city draws outdoor enthusiasts to its Urban Wilderness and live music acts to intimate venues such as the Mill & Mine and the historic Tennessee Theatre. Visit the Outdoor Knoxville Adventure Centre at Volunteer Landing for trail maps and seasonal bike, canoe, and stand-up paddleboard rentals. Nearby, tour the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, topped by the world’s largest (30 feet tall) basketball.
At noon daily (except Sunday), catch the free WDVX Blue Plate Special live performance radio show inside the Knoxville Visitor Centre. On Wednesdays and Saturdays (May to November) visit the Market Square Farmers Market.
OAK RIDGE AND CROSSVILLE
Detour off I-40 at exit 376A (Pellissippi Parkway) to discover the “Secret City” of Oak Ridge. Constructed in 1943 to house facilities and workers helping build the world’s first atomic bomb, Oak Ridge (along with Los Alamos, New Mexico, and Hanford, Washington) hosts a section of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park. Park tours begin at the American Museum of Science & Energy.
From Oak Ridge, follow TN-95 South back to I-40 (exit 364). Continue west onto the Cumberland Plateau, crossing into the Central Time Zone at mile marker 340. Stop at the family-owned Stonehaus Winery (exit 320, Crossville) for a complimentary wine tasting.
COOKEVILLE AND BUFFALO VALLEY
The 35-mile drive from Crossville (elevation 1,854 feet) to Cookeville (elevation 1,140 feet) is one of the highest stretches of I-40 between Knoxville and Memphis. Take exit 290 (Cookeville) to learn about the region’s railway history at the Cookeville Depot Museum (closed Sunday and Monday). Walk across the street for a cone or cup at Cream City Ice Cream & Coffee.
At Burgess Falls State Park (exit 286), peer down from the rim (trails to the base of the falls are closed) at the main waterfall plunging into the gorge. Buffalo Valley (exit 268) is the I-40 gateway to Edgar Evins State Park and Center Hill Lake. To play on the lake, rent a houseboat, Jet Ski, or pontoon boat at Edgar Evins Marina.
Water rushes down Burgess Falls in its namesake's state park.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DON GRALL, GETTY IMAGES
Spend at least two full days and one music-filled night in Nashville (exit 209A, Broadway), Tennessee’s capital and home of the Grand Ole Opry. Get steeped in Music City history at the world-class Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Nearby, stroll Lower Broadway to visit the city’s famous honky-tonk bars and shop for cowboy boots (buy a pair, get two pairs free) at Boot Country Nashville.
In the Southern-hip 12South neighbourhood, browse the curated collections at actor Reese Witherspoon’s flagship Draper James store and songwriter Holly William’s White’s Mercantile. After shopping, indulge in a sweet treat from the Sprinkles Cupcakes ATM or at Five Daughters Bakery, home of the 100 Layer Donut. If the Nashville Sounds are in town, catch a Triple-A baseball game (and the game-long party at The Band Box in right field) in historic Germantown neighbourhood.
BURNS, HURRICANE MILLS, AND CAMDEN
Montgomery Bell State Park in bucolic Burns (exit 182, Fairview) is a 40-minute drive west—and a world away—from the bright lights of Nashville. Spend the morning in the park hiking; canoeing, kayaking, or boating (seasonal rentals available) on one of its three lakes; or golfing the par-71, 18-hole course.
Continue west to Hurricane Mills (exit 143, Linden/Waverly) and Loretta Lynn’s Ranch, the former home-turned-museum of the country music icon. On a self-guided tour, visit Lynn’s grand plantation-style home and the memorabilia-packed Coal Miner’s Daughter Museum. In Camden (exit 133), see how freshwater pearls are cultured and harvested at the Tennessee River Freshwater Pearl Farm and Museum.
WILDERSVILLE AND JACKSON
From Camden, it’s only 26 miles southwest to Natchez Trace State Park (exit 116, Wildersville). Home to four lakes and an equestrian centre, the 9,629-acre park boasts top-notch bass fishing and over 250 miles of public use trails open to horseback riders. Memorial Day to Labor Day, rent a flat-bottomed boat to fish (licenses are sold at the Inn on Pin Oak Lake) for bass, bluegill, and catfish. Walk through woodlands and along the waterways on more than 20 miles of hiking trails.
Continue west to Casey Jones Village (exit 80A, Jackson), a one-stop destination for shopping, Southern eats, and family attractions, including mini-golf and the Casey Jones Home & Railroad Museum.
Roll west 85 miles into Memphis and the Tennessee Delta for the grand finale of your mountains-to-the-Mississippi adventure. Memphis is legendary for Delta blues and barbecue, but there’s so much more here to explore.
Start by touring the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel (closed Tuesdays), located on the site where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in 1968. Don’t miss the museum’s interactive Voices of the Civil Rights Movement kiosk, a compelling touchscreen exhibit featuring firsthand testimonials and historical video clips.
To see where Elvis Presley launched his career, visit historic Sun Studio. After the studio tour, ride the free shuttle to Presley’s iconic Graceland mansion and on to the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum. End the day—and the trip—on world-famous Beale Street, where you can hear live blues, rock, jazz, and other sweet Memphis sounds any night of the year.
A red Ford Thunderbird is parked outside of the Sun Studio in Memphis, Tennessee.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ANDREW WOODLEY, ALAMY STOCK PHOTO
Maryellen Kennedy Duckett lives, writes, and drives the backroads in East Tennessee where she wakes up curious every day. You can follow her on Twitter.
Header Image: The city lights of Nashville turn on as the sun sets behind the skyline.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MALCOLM MACGREGOR, GETTY IMAGES