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Editor Pick

Best Southeastern Appalachian Road Trips

Updated: October 25, 2023

Written by

AAA Travel Editor, Sherry Mims

The road trip is a quintessential travel experience, and this region offers the ideal opportunity to relax and discover recreational things to do in the Appalachians. Take a trip by car to cover the most ground, and consider these road trip essential picks by AAA editors. Along the way, you can have a variety of experiences, from viewing the geographic wonders in the Blue Ridge Parkway – North Carolina Road Trip to understanding the history of enslaved labor and civil rights on the African American History Road Trip.

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Scenic Drives in the Appalachian Area

Our list of southeastern Appalachia scenic drives features trips running through portions of Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee. (Not all of the states are strictly southeastern Appalachia as some routes extend into neighboring states, but they’re included as part of our road trip planner.)

Southern Appalachian Road Trip Destinations: Where to Go

Where is the Appalachian region? Simply put, this region (including states and parts of states) forms a cultural area, mostly rural, around the Appalachian Mountains that traditionally includes areas of:

• Alabama

• Georgia

• Kentucky

• Mississippi

• New York

• North Carolina

• Ohio

• Pennsylvania

• South Carolina

• Tennessee

• Virginia

• West Virginia

For more ideas on where to go in the Appalachian Mountains, follow our Mid-Atlantic Road Trips, some of which encompass other destinations traditionally considered Appalachia, including parts of Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia.

Blue Ridge Parkway: When to Visit

Though seasons are generally milder, visitors planning more southern Appalachian road trips may still experience all four seasons depending on when and where they go.

If planning leaf peeping during a fall trip, consult color maps; generally fall leaves in the region change colors later in the season. Places to go include North Carolina’s Scenic Route 421 Road Trip and Inland North Carolina Road Trip; October remains one of the best times to see the Blue Ridge Mountains. Along the Blue Ridge Parkway, be advised that weather conditions can change quickly, even during the mildest times of year, with winds and thunderstorms emerging suddenly; bring parkas or suitable gear if venturing out on hikes or other recreational activities. If in the car, stay on marked roads and only park in designated areas or along the shoulders.

When to go to the Smoky Mountains

Great Smoky Mountains National Park receives millions of visitors a year—and for good reason. From backcountry camping in summer to winter activities like visiting a snow-covered Cades Cove, the parkland offers fun things to do for couples as well as plenty of family-friendly amenities year-round, such as ranger talks. One of the best and most scenic times to go to the Smoky Mountains is autumn, when fall colors draw leaf peepers in droves.

Winters in this region of Appalachia are generally mild, with snowfall occurring mainly from January to March. Road closures also may occur and limit access. Four visitor centers—Cades Cove, Oconaluftee, Sugarlands and Clingmans Dome—are located within the park and offer the most updated information on accessibility.

• This loop, featuring preserved historic buildings within Great Smoky Mountains National Park, offers a chance to explore pioneer life and maybe catch a glimpse of wildlife among the foliage.

• This mostly four-lane route offers great foliage views in spring when dogwoods and azaleas are in bloom as well as fall colors.

• The short journey is perfect for white-water rafting and fall foliage fans.

• A seasonal delight, this lush winding route will take you along the Tennessee-North-Carolina border and introduce you to the Cherokee culture.

What to do in the Smoky Mountains

Hiking is a popular thing to do in the Smoky Mountains. One of the best-known destinations is the Appalachian Trail, the almost 2,200-mile route from Georgia’s Springer Mountain to Maine’s Mount Katahdin that figures prominently in the American imagination. If long journeys aren’t for you, consider driving the Appalachian Trail or stopping at places where it intersects, such as popular Clingmans Dome, which offers 360-degree views. The observation tower overlooks the park as well as several states on a clear day—said to be Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia; otherwise expect the signature blue haze of the Smokies, which is still beautiful. (Although the tower is open year-round, the road to it closes from December through March and during inclement weather.)

Scenic Byways: Appalachian Driving Experience

The verdant mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee aren’t the only scenic regions worth an off-the-beaten-path jaunt. Consider the following scenic drives recommended by professional AAA travel editors.

• Learn about the Civil War along this scenic drive through the South Carolina Lowcountry.

• Take advantage of recreational opportunities on this Kentucky route, which enters Daniel Boone National Forest.

• Discover the area around Lexington, Ky., which is called the “Horse Capital of the World.”

• The scenery will underscore why Kentucky is “The Blue Grass State” on this trip through horse country.

Tune into the Music of the Appalachian Mountains

Inspired by African and European styles, including ballads and hymns, Appalachian music—a new musical genre—traveled orally from person to person before musical notations and recordings brought new listeners in the early 20th century. Ranging from bluegrass to jazz and the blues, this lively style of music features banjos, fiddles and guitar.

A folk musical revival in the 1950s and 1960s inspired new generations, with entertainers such as Dolly Parton—born in the Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee—rising up and continuing to influence younger generations. So pop in your road trip some music, and consider these road trips for a musical journey through the region:

• This road trip covers portions of four states (some outside the Appalachian area) in an exploration of the region that birthed country, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll and the blues.

• Often on two-lane roads, this rural road trip bypasses city sprawl for a more intimate exploration of the region’s famous people and places, starting with the Elvis Presley Birthplace in Tupelo, Miss.

• Mountain music and folk arts are among the highlights of this Kentucky route once used by Daniel Boone as well as Native Americans and early American settlers.

Start Your Next Vacation with AAA

AAA Travel provides peace of mind for travelers—from the first mile of the journey to the last. Get inspiration for your next road trip with AAA’s TripTik Travel Planner, or browse pre-planned itineraries on AAA.com/RoadTrips. Estimating fuel costs for your trip is easy with the AAA Gas Cost Calculator, and if your car needs a quick tune-up before the trip, find a AAA Approved auto repair facility near you at AAA.com/AutoRepair. For printed maps, AAA TourBook guides and trip planning advice, visit your local AAA office.

Written by

AAA Travel Editor, Sherry Mims

Sherry is an experienced #AAAEditor and former journalist who enjoys writing informative travel articles and reviews. Her commitment to making meaningful connections with people and places fuels her work for AAA. Favorite activities range from skiing to backpacking abroad and taking ghost tours.

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