Top Road Trip Destinations in Tennessee
Tennessee may be landlocked, but the southern state abounds with lakes, rivers, waterfalls, and endless natural beauty.
The Volunteer State is home to the magnificent Great Smoky Mountains, a theme park devoted to country music legend Dolly Parton, Elvis Presley’s iconic Graceland mansion, and one of the top-rated aquariums in the world. From the lively honky-tonks in downtown Nashville to remote mountain hiking trails to both indoor and outdoor waterparks, there’s something for everyone in this centrally located state.
Just don’t forget to try Nashville hot chicken or Memphis barbecue while you’re here.
- Aside from the White House, Elvis Presley’s Memphis mansion, Graceland, is the most visited house museum in the entire country.
- The Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga consistently ranks as one of the best aquariums in the world. In 2018, TripAdvisor named the Tennessee attraction the world’s seventh-best aquarium, behind the Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo.
- Nashville is home to the world’s only replica of the Greek Parthenon.
- Known as the barbecue capital of the world, Memphis boasts of more than 100 barbecue joints.
- Tennessee is home to only one ski resort, located in the mountain town of Gatlinburg.
Chattanooga is nicknamed Scenic City for good reason, and it’s one of our favorite family destinations. We love visiting in the summertime and staying in an Airbnb in the bustling Southside neighborhood, where you can walk to bars, restaurants, shops, and art galleries. For a different experience, we have friends who like to stay across the Tennessee River in the Northshore neighborhood, which similarly has good restaurants and fun shops.
No family trip to Chattanooga is complete without a visit to the Tennessee Aquarium. The two-building property takes visitors on a journey through oceans and rivers. You can even touch sharks and stingrays.
Although it’s quite touristy, Rock City atop Lookout Mountain is a fun destination for kids. It features huge rock formations, gardens, and views of seven different states. We love the magical Fairyland Caverns, which are colorful fairytale scenes on display inside caves.
A hot summer day is perfect for a trip to Coolidge Park, which features a restored historic carousel and a play fountain where the kids can splash around. And make sure to visit the famous Clumpies Ice Cream Co. while you’re in town!
Fall Creek Falls State Park
In my opinion, Fall Creek Falls State Park has it all: a gorgeous waterfall, campsites, cabins, playgrounds, a golf course, a canopy challenge course, boating, swimming, hiking, and a lodge with a restaurant and pool.
It is one of Tennessee’s largest and most visited state parks, and the waterfall itself is one of the highest in the eastern United States.
We rented a camper through Outdoorsy (essentially the Airbnb for campers and RVs), and had a wonderful experience. The owner of the camper brought it to the campsite and set it up for us, so all we had to do was unload our things once we arrived. We stayed at a campsite across from a wide-open field and a playground, which was ideal for little kids. You can also rent one of 30 cabins or stay in the 85-room Lodge at Fall Creek Falls.
There are tons of hiking trails at Fall Creek Falls, but the hike to the waterfall lookout is about 2.5 miles and moderately strenuous. We did the hike with two 3.5-year-olds on foot and two babies strapped into carriers, and everyone managed it. This is a very popular hike, so expect quite a bit of pedestrian traffic.
Dolly Parton’s massive Dollywood attraction in Pigeon Forge celebrates the mountains where the country icon spent her childhood. The thoughtfully-designed attraction is rich with Smoky Mountain heritage, and it’s the perfect place for a family getaway.
You can easily spend a few days at Dollywood (and probably need at least two days) between the theme park with more than 50 rides and the massive waterpark with water slides, a wave pool, a lazy river, and more. Not to mention the live music, shows, craft demonstrations, and many restaurants on the property.
The park is designed with families in mind and has rides appropriate for both big and little kids. The Wildwood Grove section of the park is super fun for kids, with everything based on Parton’s childhood imagination.
You can stay at Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort and Spa or rent luxury cabins through Dollywood. You’ll also have easy access to the Smoky Mountain National Park if you’re looking to explore the nearby area.
Dollywood tickets range from 1-day to 3-day theme park tickets, with the option to add access to the water park. Season passes are also available.
Memphis is a city so full of history, music, and entertainment that you might have trouble narrowing down the best places to visit.
If you have little kids who love all things fire trucks (like mine), you should swing by the interactive Fire Museum of Memphis, which is housed in Fire Engine House No. 1 and promotes fire safety education. It’s such a fun stop for vehicle-loving kids.
Another great activity for littles: watching the ducks at The Peabody Memphis parade to the hotel’s fountain every day for a short dip in the water. The historic downtown landmark has maintained this unusual tradition since the 1930s. Today, the ducks still visit the fountain at 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. every day (arrive about 30 minutes beforehand so you don’t miss it).
For school-aged children, the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel is packed with information about social justice and civil rights. The museum itself is built around the Lorraine Motel, which was the site of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.
Other Memphis sites worth a visit:
- The Memphis Zoo, which houses over 3,500 animals
- Elvis Presley’s mansion and estate Graceland
- Beale Street, the iconic home of blues music
- Mud Island River Park, a scenic place for a picnic or to walk around
- A&R Bar-B-Que, a highly rated Memphis barbecue joint
Deer Lick Falls
Tiny mountain town Monteagle is a summer destination for many Nashvillians and other city dwellers looking for a slight reprieve from the heat. An awesome way to take advantage of Monteagle’s nature trails, laid-back lifestyle, and mom-and-pop restaurants is by booking a tiny home rental at The Retreat at Deer Lick Falls.
The tiny home community has lots of homes for rent and each is unique in its own way. The size of the homes varies, but many can accommodate up to four or six people. It’s kind of like glamping — the units are clean and well-outfitted, with WiFi, heating and air conditioning, and kitchens stocked with appliances and cookware.
For activities, you have direct access to hiking trails on-site, and you can hike to Deer Lick Falls, one of Tennessee’s largest waterfalls. The hike to the falls is a steep, short hike that takes you straight down to the falls and straight back up on the way out.
The Retreat at Deer Lick Falls has a playground, community pavilions, and fire pits on the property. You’re also just a 10-minute drive to Monteagle restaurants and shops, and 15 minutes to the beautiful university town of Sewanee.
South Cumberland State Park
Big-time hiking families will love South Cumberland State Park.
This hiking haven boasts over 90 miles of hiking trails, a wild cave you can explore, rock climbing, swimming, and some of the region’s best backcountry camping.
One of the most popular long hikes in the state is the Fiery Gizzard Trail, which is a 12.5-mile one-way trail with rock formations, cascading streams, waterfalls, rocky gorges, and panoramic overlooks.
Spread throughout the state park’s trail system are more than 100 backcountry campsites, which must be reserved in advance and can only be accessed by hiking.
The park also has plenty of easy hikes for families with kids, and if backcountry camping isn’t your thing, the Foster Falls Campground has 25 campsites ideal for tents and small trailers.
A hidden gem in the park system is Grundy Lakes, a day-use area on the outskirts of Tracy City where you can swim, picnic, fish, and hike.
This newer Nashville destination is getting rave reviews from families who love the indoor-outdoor combination of water fun.
In terms of waterpark features, SoundWaves has it all: body slides and tube slides, a rapid river and a lazy river, a surfing simulator, an activity pool (perfect for kids), a splash pad, a wave pool, adults-only pools, private cabanas, and on-site dining. Many of the attractions have height requirements, but there are several areas suitable for little kids, including a small waterslide.
There are two ways to visit SoundWaves: book a night (or more) at the Gaylord Opryland Resort and be sure to add on a SoundWaves package, or book a party room to get access to the waterpark for a day and two hours in a private room with pizza and drinks.
Room rate discounts are available for Tennessee residents visiting SoundWaves, with a steeper discount for residents of Davidson County.
What are your favorite spots in Tennessee? Have any great local knowledge that you would love to share with us? Let us know in the comments below, or tag us in your photos @gethappyly!
Want to learn about more great local activities in other states? We have a whole state-by-state series, and would love to have you along for the journey! Check out our past state-by-state articles on Florida, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia!
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