Eight Great Scenic Drives In The Southeast
We do a lot of driving. And when we drive, we like to drive on non-Interstates. We’ve found that US Highways and State Highways offer the best sight-seeing (along with some other benefits that we’ll touch on in a later post). We’ll occasionally hit an Interstate if we need to get somewhere quickly or if (as in the case of Galveston, TX), the alternative is to drive 50 miles out of the way to get where we’re going. You’ll notice though that none of these drives start with “Interstate”.
There are definitely great drives in every state and around every city. These are just some of the ones that stick out in our minds. Depending on where you are, you might have to go out of your way to get to some of them, but if you’re looking for a nice day-trip or weekend driving trip, you can find one or two of these near most anywhere.
Note that we haven’t made it up to North Carolina or Virginia yet and there are definitely a ton of other great scenic drives in the Southeast US, but these eight really stick out to us from our first 6000 or so miles (plus a few from earlier trips).
The Natchez Trace Parkway
To: Natchez, MS
States: TN, AL, MS
Length: 444 miles
Nearby Cities: Nashville, TN; Jackson, MS
On a drive out to California in May 2010, we traveled all 444 miles of the Natchez Trace Parkway, which runs from Nashville, TN to Natchez, MS (or Natchez, MS to Nashville, TN, if you prefer). There are several things about this road that stand out, even nearly two years later.
First, it’s a two-lane, curvy, restricted access road. You might go 10-20 miles without a single entrance or exit. Second, there are no billboards. It’s an advertising-free zone. Third, there is very little traffic (and no tractor trailers), though when you do come up behind a slow mover, it might take you 10 miles to get a passing zone. The speed limit is 55 mph and it’s highly suggested that you stick to it.
All sections of the Parkway are beautiful, so if you just want a day trip, even a 50-100 mile section would give you a nice, relaxing trek through the forest. The road is lined with dense forest, a lake, and even a swamp or two. At various points, you’ll see wild turkeys, rabbits, deer, and any number of birds. There are lots of stops for short hikes to waterfalls, to sit on the banks of the Tennessee River, or to read about the history of the parkway and surrounding areas.
One thing though: When the sun starts to drop, be prepared for some serious darkness. At one point, we stopped and turned off the headlights and everything is pitch black. It could be the setting for the start of a horror movie.
To: Lexington, KY
States: TN, KY
Length: 110 miles
Nearby Cities: Knoxville, TN; Lexington, KY
US-27 actually runs all the way from Richmond, IN to Miami, FL, but we haven’t driven the whole thing. We’ve actually only driven about 80 miles of it from Knoxville, TN to just south of Danville, KY. Since we know how incredible the areas around Chattanooga and Lexington are though, we’ll go ahead and vouch for US-27 to those endpoints. Hopefully we’re not wrong and you don’t accidentally drive into a ravine we didn’t know about or something.
On our way home from Pinhook Plantation House B&B in Calhoun, TN, we decided to take the scenic route. Driving through the Southeastern US during fall is one of the most beautiful drives you can take. The forests are dominated by bright shades of red, orange, and yellow. Add in the rolling hills of Kentucky and Tennessee and it’s a gorgeous drive.
US-27 runs almost directly north-south through this section, winding up and down rolling hills, and through the giant metropolises of Oneida, TN (pop: 3615); Pine Knot, KY (1680); and Stanford, KY (3430). It crosses the Daniel Boone National Forest, which gives you plenty of options for a quick side trip to do some hiking. It also runs right through General Burnside State Park at Lake Cumberland, also worth a stop to check out one of Kentucky’s incredible lakes.
Cherokee National Forest
To: Etowah, TN
Length: 40 miles
Nearby Cities: Chattanooga, TN
Bonus Side Trip: Starr Mountain Road
Before that jaunt up US-27, we spent the previous day trekking around the Cherokee National Forest. We had a start point (Pinhook Plantation House B&B) and an end point (Knoxville, TN), but no defined path. We basically just started driving down a road, turning here and there, and finally using the GPS to get us back to civilization so we could turn northeast towards Knoxville.
There are numerous roads that cut through Cherokee National Forest. The path we ended up on was TN-30 to TN-315 to Starr Mountain Road to TN-39 to TN-310, a trip of about 40 miles. We stopped here and there to see the river that runs right by the road and to take a short 30-minute hike up one of the trails. While we have no proof of this, we’re betting that you really can’t go wrong with any of the drives in the forest.
If you’re in the area of the Cherokee National Forest with some time to spare, be sure to drive the Cherohala Skyway. Unfortunately, we didn’t take the time to do it and we really missed out. It’s supposed to be one of the coolest, most beautiful drives in the Southeast, running about 50 miles between TN and NC.
Now, about Starr Mountain Rd. We were driving along in our truck and we saw a sign that said “Starr Mountain Access”. We looked at each other for about 1/3 of a second before deciding “Hell yes, we’re going up!” A narrow (1.5 lane) paved road ran for a couple miles, then became a narrow gravel road, which later became a 1-lane gravel road ascending pretty quickly up the mountain. There were ruts. And downed trees that gave you a choice of scraping the side of the truck or falling into a ravine. (We chose the trees.)
On the other hand, there were the incredible views over Tennessee farm lands from about 2300 feet up, looking through brightly colored fall foliage. But if you aren’t driving a truck or SUV, you should just stick to the paved roads. Your car will greatly appreciate it.
South Carolina State Highway 174
To: Edisto Beach, SC
Length: 21 miles
Nearby Cities: Charleston, SC
Bonus Side Trip: Steamboat Landing Road (2 miles each way)
Since we were camping in Edisto Beach State Park in South Carolina, we were forced to drive down SC State Highway 174, a 21-mile stretch running out onto Edisto Island. I say “forced” only because there’s no other way onto the island. Even if there was, this would be the best way to go because it’s an incredible drive.
The two-lane roads are lined with Spanish moss-covered trees. The trees push right up to the road, leaving very little in the way of a shoulder. When you aren’t getting up close and personal with the trees, you’re looking across flat swaths of swamp and marshlands, dotted with the occasional boardwalk or house or boat.
If you’re in the Charleston area and only have time for one islands trip, we highly recommend skipping Kiawah and Seabrook and heading down to Edisto to see what the islands look like in a more natural setting. For a bonus side trip, cut off of Highway 174 onto Steamboat Landing Rd, a 2-mile smooth dirt road (even your Corolla can make this journey) out to a boat ramp. The whole drive has a very “Sleepy Hollow” feel.
Florida State Road A1A
To: Miami, FL
Length: 260 miles
Nearby Cities: Florida’s entire East coast
Bonus Side Trip: Jungle Trail (8 miles)
Florida Highway A1A runs from Callahan, FL near the GA border all the way to Key West, FL. Basically, it traverses the entire east coast of Florida through all of the beach towns. Small beach towns, large beach towns…it gets them all.
A1A runs east of US-1, which runs just east of I-95. A1A is definitely the most scenic of the three and also the slowest going. If you’re looking for a beautiful drive where you can see the ocean 90% of the time out your driver’s side window (or passenger side if you’re driving north), A1A fills the bill. Sometimes you’ll be forced onto US-1 due to inlets with no A1A bridge, but look for the next chance to jump back over to A1A a few miles down the road.
And don’t forget to stop and dip a toe in the Atlantic while you’re driving.
Another great side journey is the 8-mile Jungle Trail, located just north of Vero Beach. This old dirt road was used by citrus growers to transport product. Just like the Steamboat Landing Rd, this dirt road is fine for most any car. The road is interesting because it’s unpaved, passing through palm groves and by Indian River, then through gated communities with enormous houses. Even in parts where it’s grown completely over by trees, you can look through and see neighborhoods. It’s a little spot of barely disturbed nature in the midst of a densely populated area.
The Overseas Highway
To: Key West, FL
Length: 130 miles
Nearby Cities: Miami, FL; Key West, FL; All Florida Keys
The Overseas Highway is part of US-1. The highway runs 130 miles from Homestead, FL through the Florida Keys to Key West. If you plan to drive to Key West, you’ll be taking US-1 to get there.
This is an incredible drive. You’re either surrounded on both sides by water or driving through palm tree lined island communities. You’ll see parts of the old bridges that connected the islands prior to the rebuilding of US-1 in the 1980s. Those old bridges would’ve been a hairy drive! They’re narrow and basically just fall off into the ocean.
When you make this drive, leave your impatience at home. You’ll rarely do more than 3 mph over the speed limit and will often be 5-10 below it. Take the time to enjoy the scenery. The Seven Mile Bridge is particularly nice, covering 6.75 miles over open water between Knight’s Key and Little Duck Key. If you’ve seen True Lies, 2 Fast 2 Furious, or any number of other movies, you’ve seen Seven Mile Bridge, which I suppose sounds better than Six-And-Three-Quarters Mile Bridge.
One note: get gas on the mainland or in Key Largo. It was actually cheaper on Key Largo than on the mainland when we went, but it was a difference of a few cents. However, Key West was 44 cents higher per gallon than Key Largo.
Florida Highway 90/US-41
To: Naples, FL
Length: 95 miles
Nearby Cities: Miami, FL; Naples, FL
As we mentioned, when you’re in The Everglades and Big Cypress National Preserve with a dog, your options for recreation are limited. There’s plenty of hiking in these areas, but you can’t do it with a dog due to gators and panthers. Well, you know that thing about lemons and lemonade? The next best option is to drive Florida Highway 90/US-41, which cuts 95 miles east-west from Naples, FL to Tamiami, FL.
Even though it’s a 55 mph highway, there isn’t a lot of traffic, so you can slow down to see the gators, turtles, and numerous species of birds. There are also quite a few turn-offs if you want to get out of the car, do some hiking, or get a little closer to the wildlife. There are more animals in Big Cypress, while The Everglades features more wide open marshes and airboat tours.
While you’re in Southern Florida, don’t forget to sample a Cuban sandwich.
Creole Nature Trail (LA-27)
To: Port Arthur, TX
States: LA, TX
Length: 90 miles
Nearby Cities: Houston, TX
The Creole Nature Trail is actually a system of roads. Twice now, we’ve driven part of it that runs along Louisiana Highway 27 from Lake Charles, LA to Port Arthur, TX. When most people think of “beautiful drives,” driving through a marsh probably isn’t what comes to mind. This one is way off the beaten path. But if you’re looking for something a little different, this is definitely a scenic drive.
The north-south sections of the Creole Nature Trail run right through the Louisiana bayou. You’ll go through either Cameron Prairie or Sabine National Wildlife Refuges. These roads are remarkably straight, cutting a path right through the bayou with trouble for your vehicle if you decide to leave the road and the thin shoulders.
The east-west portion of the Trail runs right alongside the Gulf of Mexico, through tiny beach towns and more “nothingness”. These towns are actually so small, they’re barely towns. There’s not much in the way of gas, food, or lodging, so plan to stay in Sulphur, LA; Lake Charles, LA; or Port Arthur, TX.
One of the main things we noticed about this drive were the birds. There are birds everywhere! And when you’re driving and the sun breaks through the morning fog to reveal the Gulf of Mexico, it’s amazing. If you’re running I-10 into or out of Texas, do yourself a favor and hop off for a side trip through the Bayou.
What other great drives have you been on in the Southeastern United States?