Best Road Trips in the South Central Region
Updated: October 17, 2023
AAA Travel Editor Laurie Sterbens
AAA’s South Central Road Trips region comprises a collection of scenic drives in Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas. The region, ranging from as far north as Missouri to the southern tip of Texas, includes climates ranging from humid subtropical to arid, and includes road trips through forests, mountains, prairie and desert landscapes. Major cities in the region include Kansas City, Nashville, Oklahoma City and St. Louis. These and other towns, large and small, offer fun and fascinating stops on many AAA Road Trips.
Best Time of Year for a South Central Region Road Trip
With such a diversity of topography and climate, this region offers opportunities for scenic drive trips year-round. The more northern states such as Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma offer spectacular fall colors. Spring brings wildflowers throughout the mountains and plains of the region. When it’s winter up north, it’s the perfect time to explore the charms of Route 66 in Texas and New Mexico.The best way to explore this diverse region is by car, and AAA editors have created itineraries that show off many areas of spectacular natural beauty, rural charm and lively downtown areas, along with recommendations for fun places to go along the way. Below are a few examples of the most scenic road trips from the dozens of routes AAA has created in the South Central region.
What to See in Arkansas
While the southeastern part of the state is primarily flat delta farmland, northeastern Arkansas is home to the Ozark and Ouachita mountain ranges, as well as many lakes, rivers and wilderness areas.
• The Northwestern Arkansas Scenic Byway offers one panorama after another as you make your way south on SR 7, which winds through both the Ozark and Ouachita mountains. The journey ends in the charming resort town of Hot Springs, known for its historic Bathhouse Row.
• The Boston Mountains Scenic Drive is a two-lane highway that begins alongside the West Fork White River and offers views of mountain forests, cliffs, streams and farmlands of the lower Ozark Mountains.
What to See in Kansas
The highways in this Great Plains state may not offer roller-coaster hills with exciting twists and turns, but who’s to say a relaxing ride through a prairie covered in wildflowers or swaying tall grass isn’t just as enjoyable?
• During peak wildflower season from mid-May to June and August through September, the rolling pastures and prairies along the Kansas Scenic Turnpike explode with color. Golden fields of wheat sway in the wind during the growing season. Near the end of this peaceful drive, the byway crosses the northern tip of El Dorado Lake.
• The Flint Hills National Scenic Byway leads you past views of what is said to be the largest remnants of tallgrass prairie on the continent. The two-lane highway travels through small towns and into the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, where the native bluestem grasses can grow as high as 8 feet.
What to See in Missouri
The rolling hills of the Northern Plains meet the Ozark Mountains in Missouri, whose scenic routes include a section of the famed Route 66 and a drive through Mark Twain National Forest.
• Route 66-Central Missouri offers a combination of the beautiful natural scenery of the Ozarks and vintage attractions of old Route 66. Take a slight detour near the beginning of the route so you won’t miss the view at Devil’s Elbow, named for a dangerous bend in the Pig Piney River. Continue through Cuba, Mo., where 12 murals depict scenes from the town’s history, including visits from Amelia Earhart and Bette Davis. During the final leg of the journey to St. Clair, visit the Jesse James Wax Museum and tour the colorful formations of nearby AAA GEM (Great Experience for Members) attraction Meramec Caverns, once a hideout for the famous outlaw.
• The Ozark National Riverways Scenic Drive is a hilly, curvy path through the Mark Twain National Forest. River crossings, roadside parks and wildflowers in bloom are highlights of this route.
What to See in New Mexico
New Mexico’s climate ranges from alpine to arid, and the landscape includes mountains, high plains and desert.
• Route 66 Eastern New Mexico begins in Albuquerque and travels east to Santa Rosa through the foothills of the Sandia Mountains. Santa Rosa, on the banks of the Pecos River, has buildings, motels and restaurants that date back to the heyday of Route 66. It’s also home to the Blue Hole, an 81-foot-deep natural artisan spring where you can swim in warmer months or scuba dive year-round.
What to See in Oklahoma
Oklahoma has a diverse landscape, from high plains to mountain ranges.
• The Wichita Mountains Wildlife Rescue Scenic Drive is a short route beginning at Medicine Park, crossing over Medicine Creek and across the prairie between Elmer Thomas Lake and Lake Lawtonka. Be on the lookout for free-roaming bison, elk and longhorn cattle, as well as armadillos and prairie dogs.
• Oklahoma’s Talimena Scenic Drive is a journey through Winding Stair National Recreation Area that offers breathtaking vistas and plenty of turnouts so you can stop and take in the scenery.
What to See in Tennessee
Tennessee’s terrain stretches from the Blue Ridge Mountains of east Tennessee to low hills of the Gulf Coastal Plain and the lowlands of the Delta in western Tennessee.The Grand Ole Music Road Trip is a music-themed loop through four states, covering more than 1,000 miles. The Tennessee portion of the route takes you from “Music City, USA” to “Home of the Blues.” Nashville is a mecca for fans of country music, offering AAA GEM attractions including the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, the Grand Ole Opry, Ryman Auditorium and The Johnny Cash Museum, along with lots of live music and great places to eat. Continue your musical journey in Memphis with a visit to Elvis Presley’s Graceland and the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum. Another attraction worth your time here is The National Civil Rights Museum. Be sure to make time for live music on Beale Street and some of this city’s famous barbecue.
What to See in Texas
The second largest state in the nation has everything from mountains to desert to coastline, offering many options for scenic road trips.
• Route 66-Western Texas traverses the desert landscapes and cattle ranches of the Texas Panhandle, with retro motels and cafés giving travelers a glimpse of the vintage days of Route 66. Near Amarillo, stop to see the quirky art installation at Cadillac Ranch, where a line of colorfully painted cars stands half-buried in the ground.
• The Texas Mountain Trail Scenic Drive, Van Horn to US 62/US180 takes you across scrub-covered prairie between Bitter Will Mountain and the Black Mountains to Guadalupe Peak, which presents a spectacular photo op at sunset.
• Mount Livermore, one of Texas’ highest peaks, is the centerpiece of the Texas Mountain Trail Scenic Drive, Fort Davis Loop. Rugged mountains frame wide expanses of open land where horses and cattle roam.
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AAA Travel Editor Laurie Sterbens
Laurie Sterbens is a AAA Travel Expert.