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6 Best Road Trips

Nashville to Knoxville to Great Smoky Mountains Road Trip

Buckle up for a 200-mile journey through the best of Tennessee. You’ll experience the heart of American music, classic southern food, Civil War era history, amusement parks and natural beauty on your way to the most visited national park in the country, Great Smoky Mountains.


Start: Nashville, Tenn.

Lighted signs on lower Broadway in Nashville, Tennessee
Lighted signs on lower Broadway in NashvilleDeposit Photos

Smack in the middle of Tenn. lies Nashville, the country western capital of the country. A trip to Nashville is not complete without immersing yourself in its vibrant music scene. After all, the city boasts “free music all the time.”

See if you can catch a show at the legendary Grand Ole Opry where pop artists and country singers perform or head to a smaller venue like The Bluebird Cafe to see incredible live music in a really intimate space. Then, stretch your legs, head to the Music City Walk of Fame on Nashville’s Music Mile to see the names of accomplished artists with a Nashville connection of all musical genres.

Other attractions include The Johnny Cash Museum, National Corvette Museum and the Nashville Flea Market (held the fourth weekend of every month).

The Johnny Cash Museum in Nashville, Tennessee
The Johnny Cash MuseumSporst/Flickr

While music may be the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks Nashville, if you’re a foodie, Nashville Hot Chicken is a close second. This local specialty – fried chicken which is first dunked in hot-sauce spiked buttermilk – is widely found around Nashville, but we suggest heading to Hattie B’s for your first experience – there are three locations in the city. Choose your spice level from the heat-less “Southern” to the sizzling “Shut the Cluck Up!!!” and enjoy your chicken with traditional southern sides like pimento mac and cheese and creamy coleslaw. Don’t forget the sweet tea.

Knoxville, Tenn.

Grab some snacks and turn on your favorite playlist, it’s time to hit the road.

Drive three hours east to get to Knoxville, Tenn. Your first stop is the city’s famous Gay Street. While Gay Street was the first paved road in Knoxville, its history goes even farther back. It was the site of the 1796 Constitutional Convention, which resulted in Tennessee gaining statehood, and a boiling point for both Union and Confederate armies on the eve of the Civil War. Gay Street was also home to famous entertainment like Knoxville’s finest theaters, vaudeville acts and opera. Today, stroll the street for shopping, dining and entertainment.

Gay Street in Downtown Knoxville
Gay Street in Downtown KnoxvillePhoto courtesy Visit Knoxville

If you’re looking for Knoxville’s quirkier side, Old City is the place to head. Dubbed the city’s “creative Corridor,” you’ll find beautiful architecture, a variety of shops and dining and East Tennessee’s most beloved coffee shops like Remedy Coffee, Wildlove Bakehouse and Old City Java. At night, Old City turns into a vibrant location for live music and electric dance clubs.

When you’re ready to relax for the evening, head to Market Square, near the University of Tennessee. On summer nights, you can catch a free performance of Shakespeare in the Square with classic performances like A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Comedy of Errors performed by the Tennessee Stage Company.

Mead's Quarry at Ijams Nature Center in Knoxville, Tennessee from an overlook along Tharp Trace
Mead’s Quarry at Ijams Nature Center in Knoxville, Tennessee from an overlook along Tharp Trace.Scott Basford/Wikimedia Commons

In the heart of downtown Knoxville, the Legacy Parks Foundation created the Knoxville Urban Wilderness – 1,000 forested acres of open space along the town’s southern waterfront. It includes the Ijams Nature Center, miles of trails, rock climbing routes, several civil war sites and a quarry with panoramic views.

Sevierville, Tenn.

Downtown Sevierville, Tennessee
Downtown Sevierville, Tennessee (Photo: Visit Sevierville)

You’ll find authentic charm in Sevierville. From farm-to-table dining to theme parks the kids will love, this Tennessee town is your perfect basecamp. In Sevierville, you won’t feel like you’ve walked into Disneyland when you visit. Explore its historic downtown, boutique shopping, chef-driven restaurants and a wide range of lodging options.

Pigeon Forge, Tenn.

Before you head for the wilderness of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, get your fill of fun in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. Home to Dolly Parton’s theme park, Dollywood, this stop will be a fun-filled day for the whole family. Make sure to ride the Lightning Rod, the world’s fastest roller coaster and don’t forget to check out other amazing roller coasters like the Wild Eagle and FireChaser Express.

The Barnstormer at Dollywood
The Barnstormer at DollywoodPhoto by Wes Ramey of the Dollywood Company

No matter which season you end up in Pigeon Forge, you’ll find something to celebrate. In the summer, Splash Country, the Dollywood water park, is the place to cool off. In the winter, stroll through four million twinkling lights at Dollywood’s Smoky Mountain Christmas. For the unofficial start to summer, visit the last week of May for the Barbecue & Bluegrass Festival.

Gatlinburg, Tenn.

The Ober Gatlinburg tram in summer next to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee
The Ober Gatlinburg tram in summer next to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee (Photo: Courtesy Ober Gatlinburg)

Gatlinburg, Tenn. is the gateway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but don’t let the hullabaloo fool you. Gatlinburg’s best feature is its natural beauty.

Hop on the Ober Gatlinburg aerial tramway at Parkway and LeConte Streets and soar high above the treetops to see the beautiful vistas. Have lunch at the Seasons of Ober Restaurant for more great views.

Whitewater rafting
Whitewater raftingDeposit Photos

When you research the Pigeon River, you’d think it was designed with all levels of white-water rafter in mind. The upper Pigeon offers an exhilarating Class III rapid trip, while the lower river is calmer, offering those who would rather take in the peaceful scenery than get their blood pumping, a chance to float gentle rapids and swim in calm swimming holes. There are several rafting companies based in Gatlinburg that offer trips on the Pigeon.

End: Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Enter the park at the Gatlinburg entrance and stop at the Sugarlands Visitor Center. Then either follow Laurel Creek Road to Cades Cove or drive the scenic Newfound Gap Road with a stop at Clingmans Dome. View our suggested park itineraries for more park activity ideas.

Clingmans Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Clingmans DomeiStock