Tennessee Road Trip: (June 2021)

Tennessee is a trip that has been in the back of my mind for a long time. The Great Smoky Mountains was on our wish list as we are trying to visit as many National Parks as we can. It’s relative proximity makes it a perfect road trip destination. As music fans, there was no way we could travel to Tennessee and NOT see Memphis, Graceland, and Nashville. Planning this trip was a lot of fun because the options for travelers are abundant!

Our route!: Rather than working our way south, we decided to drive the long-haul to Memphis, and then work our way back North.

Road Trip Itinerary:

Day 1: Louisville, Kentucky

Louisville was a great stopping place on our way to Memphis. I was here a few years ago for a work conference, but this was a first for Brian and the kids.

Lodging: Louisville Marriott

We stayed near the Convention Center because I knew we would be close to 4th Street and a lot of restaurants. Unfortunately, we arrived later on a Sunday, and a lot of those restaurants were closed. The ones that were open had a very long wait. This was just a quick stop-over, but Louisville is a lovely city, and I highly recommend making it a stop. If you are a fan of bourbon, this is a must, as bourbon tours (both guided and self-guided) are plentiful!

If you are in Louisville, you simply MUST have breakfast at Wild Eggs. This was my favorite breakfast stop on our trip, and may be one of my top five in all of our travels!

Day 2: Travel day to Memphis, Roadside Attractions, and Mammoth Cave National Park

If you have been following our family’s adventures, you know that we love the National Parks and are trying to hit as many as we can in our travels. You also know we CANNOT pass up any kitchy roadside attraction, so on our way to Mammoth Cave, as we drove past Big Mike’s, we did a quick U-turn to check this place out. Big Mike’s is a rock, gem, and souvenir shop with a large fossilized skull of “Big Mo,” a Mosasaur skull. The highlight for us was the life-size replica of this prehistoric creature outside the shop!

Then we were off to Mammoth Cave National Park. I highly recommend that you reserve a cave tour with a park ranger for Mammoth Cave, and that you make that reservation as far in advance as you can. We have found that there are certain parks that you truly need to see with a guide (Voyageur’s National Park was another example). This was one park for which I had no expectations. I did not know much about the history, what the caves looked like, etc. Mammoth Cave ended up being one of our favorite park experiences so far, and I highly attribute that to the very informative and engaging park ranger who guided our group through the vast caves. (An excellent resource when planning a trip to Mammoth Cave was this article written by a former park ranger: 8 Things You Can’t Miss on Your First Visit to Mammoth Cave)

After a wonderful and full day at Mammoth Cave, we were back on the road to Memphis. We arrived later in the evening, and therefore did not do a lot of exploring other than our beautiful hotel-the historic Peabody. The hotel was grand and beautiful, and is home to the famous Peabody Ducks who do their famous duck march to the hotel fountain and then from the hotel fountain every day at 11am and 5pm.

Day 3: Memphis, Tennessee

There are so many things to love about Memphis. It is not an overwhelming city. It is walkable, friendly, and there are so many interesting places to visit. We started our day with a walk to the Arcade, which was frequented by Elvis and you can even see the booth he sat in every time he came here. Stepping into the Arcade is like stepping back in time. It is so full of nostalgia and still has that feel of a comfy classic diner. The breakfast was delicious, but even better were the warm and gracious staff members.

One thing that I desperately wanted to see while in Memphis was the National Civil Rights Museum. It is located at the former Lorraine hotel, where the late Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. I had read that visiting this museum was a powerful and emotional experience. Unfortunately, our full day in Memphis fell upon the one day of the week the museum is closed. We still wanted to see the site of the Lorraine hotel, and I am glad we took the walk over because we were still able to see the outdoor exhibit that included images and audio recordings from the history of the Civil Rights movement. Though we were only able to see this outside area and the site of the hotel, it was still an incredibly moving experience. I am hoping this was not our last trip to Memphis and that we will be able to tour the entire museum in the future.

Being a family of music fans, we had to stop by the famous Sun Studio, where many of Rock and Roll forefathers started their careers: Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, and more. Due to our plans for the day, we were unable to do the guided tour, but it was such a cool family experience to just stand in the building where Rock and Roll roots were planted so deeply.

After walking all around Memphis, we decided to head back to the Peabody to rest, swim, and get ready for a boat ride we took on the Mississippi with Memphis Riverboats. We were looking online for some restaurant recommendations, hoping to get a taste of some authentic southern barbeque. Luckily, Brian stopped to chat with one of the employees at the Peabody, and asked for suggestions. He recommended a small place “down that alley. It’s in the basement. You’ll smell it before you see it.” Wow, was he right. Charles Vergo’s Rendezvous was the best! The atmosphere was hectic but also low-key at the same time. The staff was no-nonsense… friendly, but very efficient due to the bustle and crowd. We were lucky to get a table, and I have never tasted BBQ that I enjoyed as much as I enjoyed this. The food came on paper plates. Our table had plastic red and white checker tablecloths, and we spent less than $60 for all 5 of us to have an amazing dinner. If you are in Memphis, you HAVE to check this place out!

After our amazing dinner, we walked over to the famous Beale Street, and then headed to get some sleep before our trip to Graceland tomorrow.

Day 4: Graceland to Nashville

You simply cannot go to Memphis and NOT go to Graceland. Even if you are not a fan of Elvis’ music, he is a cultural icon. We have always been fans of Elvis, but I think our appreciation of him increased significantly after our Graceland tour. Graceland tickets are not cheap, but to truly get the full experience, I highly recommend getting tickets that give you access to the Graceland mansion. We purchased the Elvis Experience Tour. It did not include a private guide, but rather a iPad with a guided walk narrated by John Stamos. I do not believe we would have enjoyed it nearly as much had we not toured the mansion. One thing that truly surprised us to learn about Elvis was how close he was to his family and how involved his parents were in his career. We were also intrigued by how Graceland seemed less like an over-opulent mansion, and more like a family home in many respects. In addition to the Graceland home, there are many other areas and exhibits that you can access, including Elvis’ cars and planes, and exhibits about his career and influence. There are also gift shops and restaurants on the property.

After spending a large portion of the day at Graceland, we headed back on the road to Nashville. We splurged on our stay in Nashville as we knew we would be celebrating Grace’s birthday here. I had no idea what to expect when we pulled into the Gaylord Opryland Resort, but it is truly difficult to describe this place.

It is seriously like a town under one roof. We managed to get lost on our way to the room, having crossed the indoor creek and turned left rather than right. This place left us speechless. Having arrived later in the day, we decided to walk around, get our bearings, take a peek at the water park, and then get some sleep before we headed into Nashville.

Day 5: Nashville

Happy 10th Birthday to our Gracie Mae! After getting lost in the hotel (again), and grabbing a quick counter-service breakfast, we headed into Nashville. Everyone in our family is a huge Johnny Cash fan, so we went directly to the Johnny Cash Museum. The museum is right in Nashville, and it was absolutely perfect. It was just the right size to get through in a couple hours, and everyone in our family thoroughly enjoyed this experience. After spending the morning at the Johnny Cash Museum, we decided to walk over to Broadway to get the true Nashville honky tonk experience. Having the kids with us, we opted to do this during the day. The nights in Nashville are much crazier and less kid-friendly. However, even during the day, this was a music scene unlike anything we have ever experienced. As you walked past every restaurant/bar, you heard a different type of live music pouring out onto the sidewalk. After walking by many of these, and checking out some old music stores, we ended up having lunch at The Mellow Mushroom. This was a great family-friendly spot, and a female singer/songwriter was performing that afternoon. She even serenaded Gracie for her birthday, signing one of her favorite Pink songs.

We truly loved Nashville, and looking back, I wish we had explored a little more of the city. But it was hot, and a bit crowded, and the kids really wanted to just spend some time at the hotel’s water park. There are times when traveling, that you really need to step away from your “itinerary,” and let everyone have a say in the plan. The kids were tired. It was Gracie’s birthday, and I also liked the idea of sitting down pool-side. So back to the resort we went, and it was the perfect decision for us. Everyone had immense fun at the Soundwaves water park, and I got to sit in a chair beside the wave pool and watch old music videos on the big screen.

It was a re-set button for us, and gave us the energy to keep going. Later that night, we had a very nice (and somewhat fancy) dinner at Old Hickory Steakhouse in the resort. We did spend a lot of time in the hotel, but for our family, it was what we needed at this point in our trip, and we had an amazing experience at the resort.

Day 6: Travel day to Great Smoky Mountain National Park

Though I loved Memphis and Nashville, the true destination and reason for this road trip was Great Smoky Mountain National Park. I was also looking forward to staying in a full house. During each road trip we take, I try to book at least one Airbnb or Vrbo so that we have some space to spread out and, most importantly, I can do laundry. It helps minimize the amount we need to pack. Our cabin, though it had its faults, was comfortable, had a decent-sized kitchen, and had an amazing view.

We arrived at our cabin later in the day, so we spent the evening cooking and settling in. The next day would be an early rise.

Day 7: Great Smoky Mountain National Park, Chimney Tops Trail

Today we woke the kids around 5:00 am. I cannot recommend this enough when hiking in the National Parks. This is for multiple reasons… First, you avoid heat. You also avoid crowds. Parking areas near popular trail fill up quickly, and you don’t want to be parked an extra mile away from the trail head (especially when you are already challenging younger hikers). Also, do not underestimate the amount of time it will take to hike with kids. My children always want to explore creeks, climb rocks, take snack breaks, etc. It adds time to the hike. I do not mind. The whole point of the hike to enjoy and just be in the outdoors. I want my kids to enjoy this, so I want them to go at their own place and explore things in the way they like. This hike was a challenge. It was 1.75 miles up and 1.75 miles back down, but the elevation increased 1500 ft. in that short distance. It was a steep climb, but my kids were troopers. We have a rule in our family that there is no complaining while hiking, and I have to say, they followed it this entire trip. Our family also tends to fall into a rhythm while hiking. Seth, the oldest child and the fastest, is always in the lead. Brian follows behind Seth, keeping him in sight while also making sure that we do not lag too far behind. He will stop or slow Seth down to make sure we all stick together. Peter and Grace come next, often side-by-side, and they chat nonstop the entire time. I follow behind to make sure no one slows down too much. (I always tell the kids it is so that if a bear comes, I get eaten first!) I am also “the cheerleader,” especially with Gracie, yelling out “you’ve got this G!” or “You are a rock star! Keep going!” No matter how we may start out, or what breaks we take, this is the formation into which we always fall back. To me, it’s very comfortable.

We climbed the 1.75 miles, and were rewarded with amazing views at Pinnacle Rocks. At one point, you used to be able to climb out to the rocks, but there were wild fires on this mountain a few years ago, and the final part of the trail to the rocks was damaged and is now unsafe. The climb back down went a bit quicker. Another reason to start a hike bright and early is that you may want to have time left in your day to do something else. On this day, we planned to head into Gatlinburg.

We had dinner at a country-themed pub, and after our hike, the food was amazing. We also decided to take the kids to Ripley’s Aquarium, and it was a wonderful aquarium that the kids truly enjoyed. A lot people rave about Gatlinburg. It does seem like a fun town if you are into very “touristy” types of spots. The main road in Gatlinburg is lined with restaurants, bars, ice cream shops, souvenir stops, and a variety of attractions. In all honesty, we were a little overwhelmed by Gatlinburg AND Pigeon Forge (which has similar attractions, but rather than in a town, is spread out on a major highway). I think we were just more in “National Park mode” rather than “crowds and tourist mode.” I admit that I was relieved when we headed back to our cabin in the mountains.

Day 8: Great Smoky Mountain National Park, Cades Cove Loop

We decided to try something new for this National Park trip, and we booked a horseback ride for the family. I recommend you book this in advance because these trips can also fill up quickly. We went with Cades Cove Riding Stables. The staff and guides were so knowledgeable and fun. I was so glad we decided to try this out! It also gave us a “break day” between two longer hike days. After our guided trail ride on the horses, we drove the Cades Cove loop to explore more of the park. Seth was on high alert to watch closely for bears, and luckily he spotted one for us while driving through the park. It was difficult to get a good photo, but he was certainly fun to watch from afar!

Bear sighting! (With the camera zoomed WAAAAY in)

After exploring the park some more, we decided to head back into Gatlinburg to check out Anakeesta. Anakeesta is a mountain-top adventure park that was recommended by many travel bloggers. I am so glad that we checked this out. Brian and I both said we wish we would have purchased a day pass and spent more time there. To get to the park, you ride up the mountain in an enclosed gondola or an open lift. Much to my dismay, my entire family wanted to try the lift. I am terrified of these things and white-knuckled it the entire trip up the mountain, hanging very tightly to my two smaller kids. It was well worth the trip, though. We missed the zip-line, as that closes a little earlier, but we rode the mountain coaster, checked out some shops and food stands, walked to the top of the observation tower, and explored the treetop skywalk. The views were beautiful, the crowds were small, and the whole evening was a relaxing, quieter-paced experience. If you are in Gatlinburg, Anakeesta should definitely make to to your “to do” list!

Day 9: Great Smoky Mountain National Park, Ramsey Cascades Trail

Back up at the crack of dawn, we headed out for our final day in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. After researching several trails, we decided on the Ramsey Falls trail. This was our longest hike ever as a family. It was a tough one. Eight miles round trip, this is an out-and-back trail with beautiful waterfalls as your destination. The elevation change on this one was 2200 ft. gain. Again, I highly recommend getting up early for these hikes. Even with our early rise, the parking lot at the trail head was still pretty full upon our arrival. The last mile or so before the falls was very “boulder-heavy,” and we did a lot of scrambling more than walking on that stretch. The falls at the end of the 4 miles were beautiful and well-worth the effort to get there. Normally, the return trip on an “out and back” trail seems to go much quicker, but Gracie started to lose steam. It took a lot of extra encouragement to keep her going. Brian put her on his shoulders for a short bit, but she is 10 now and no longer just a tiny peanut. He put her back down after a short bit. Still, I am so glad we did this hike. It proved to the kids that they could handle long distances, and though we were exhausted at the end, I think we all felt proud of our accomplishment afterwards. We decided to treat the kids to some go-kart riding and dinner at a Brazilian steakhouse in Pigeon Forge that evening. They deserved it after all their hard work (and no complaining!).

Day 10: Travel home day/ New River Gorge National Park

We packed up and headed home today. Right around dinner time, we were driving through one of our favorite areas: The New River Gorge in West Virginia. Because the timing was right, we could not resist stopping for dinner at Adventures on the Gorge, where we had spent a long whitewater rafting weekend.

New River Gorge, WV

Every time we go on a new vacation, a new adventure, we say it is our favorite one so far. Each trip is different. Each trip has it’s hardships and highlights. There is something about our family when we hit the road–we quickly become “in sync.” We work so well together, and truly, everyone becomes more patient, more amiable. In some ways, I think it is because we get to break away from the busyness and routine of home and our daily lives. But I also think we get into “travel mode.” We know we need to cooperate in order to get the best experience, and we just click right into place. It is sort of like the way we fall into our rhythm and our pattern during our hikes. I wouldn’t want to travel like this with anyone but these four people. We make a great a team.

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