TOP: Ride the Wild Eagle at Dollywood in Tennessee, where you also can see Gatlinburg and the Great Smoky Mountains. Also on our tour: Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Ala.; Muscle Shoals and Tuscumbia, Ala.; Cave City, Ky.; and Beaufort, S.C. Photo: Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism.
See the Southeast with 4 wheels and your family. We’ve got 5 stops in 4 states that are worth your time
WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE family memory? For many it’s a family vacation.
A 2015 study found that half those surveyed listed a family vacation as their happiest memory. Apparently, all those cries of “Are we there yet?,” “How much l-o-n-g-e-r?” and “Mom, I have to go to the bathroom!” haven’t soiled some fond thoughts of long ago. The survey, incidentally, comes from the nonprofit Family Holiday Association, so not exactly an unbiased source, but still.
Still, if you’ve got four wheels and a hankering to see more of the Southeast with your best beloveds, we have a few ideas. Forget air travel this time. Avoid the stresses of herding kids and luggage through the maze that is the modern airport. Experts predict that lower gas prices will stick around at least through the first part of 2018. Our go-tos are arranged alphabetically by state.
Gulf Shores & Orange Beach, Ala. | 5.5 hours by car
With so many beaches in the Southeast, it’s tempting to overlook the 60 miles of Alabama coastline found between Mississippi and Florida. That’d be a mistake. Bama beaches are worth a long look and a longer weekend.
When was the last time you sat with your family and watched a sunset?
You can do this at either of two distinct neighboring towns on the Gulf of Mexico: family-friendly Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, with its soft white sand, turquoise water and relaxed vibe. These are popular spots for families at spring break time.
GULF STATE PARK fills 6,500 acres between the two towns. Camp in an RV, a tent or a cabin. There’s a pool for you and your dog. The 18-hole REFUGE GOLF COURSE is a beauty. Just keep an eye out for alligators. Hop over to Pensacola, Fla., and visit the world’s largest NATIONAL NAVAL AVIATION MUSEUM, home to 150 restored aircraft from the Navy, Marines and Coast Guard. Admission is free. Kayaking, paddleboarding and small-wave surfing abound in both places.
Another option: the ALABAMA GULF COAST ZOO and its 300 residents. These beasts starred in Animal Planet’s 14-part documentary series about “The Little Zoo That Could,” nicknamed for its ability to survive several hurricanes.
Muscle Shoals + Tuscumbia, Ala. | 4 hours
Duane Allman and Helen Keller are just two reasons to visit northwest Alabama.
FAME RECORDING STUDIOS, which dates to 1959, is the hallowed home of the “Muscle Shoals Sound.” Wilson Pickett recorded here, as did Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding and the Rolling Stones. Allman, the guitar virtuoso, camped in the parking lot one night so he could be ready in the morning.
Other Tuscumbia options: the ALABAMA MUSIC HALL OF FAME; the IVY GREEN HELEN KELLER HOME (take your photo next to the water pump where a young Helen first made her real connection with language); NATCHEZ TRACE PARKWAY; and the BIRTHPLACE of W.C. Handy, the Father of the Blues, in nearby Florence.
A hunter and a favorite dog are never easily separated, it seems, and COON DOG CEMETERY, at the base of the Cumberland Mountains, memorializes local dogs in ways both unusual and touching.
This is a prime festival destination, whether you’re into music, motorcycles, Native American culture, Helen Keller, theater, history or Christmas.
Cave City, Ky. | 5.5 hours
Start by going deep. MAMMOTH CAVE offers short introductory tours and is a great year-round destination. The surrounding national park has 90 miles of hiking, biking and horseback-riding trails. The park’s Green and Nolin rivers are good for campers, canoers and kayakers.
The dog-friendly DINOSAUR WORLD puts you among hundreds of life-size dinosaur models.
BOWLING GREEN, the city that’s home to Western Kentucky University, is an easy 30 minutes away. It’s a great place to shop, dine and stay. Take the kids to LOST RIVER CAVE and ride a boat into an underground labyrinth. Let them run wild at BEECH BEND AMUSEMENT PARK with its rides, raceway and camping, or slide into the CORVETTE MUSEUM.
Beaufort, S.C. | 4.5 hours
Even if you’ve never been to Beaufort (pronounced BEW-fert), you’ve seen its centuries-old oaks and low-country charm in movies like Forrest Gump, The Big Chill and Forces of Nature. Hook up with BEAUFORT MOVIE TOURS (on foot or by van) and see where the film magic was made.
It’s Deep South delightful here, with narrow streets, Spanish moss-draped trees and restored antebellum homes. Southern Living magazine named Beaufort the South’s best small town in 2017. Found on the coast between Charleston and Savannah, it’s a quick trip to the Sea Islands, the barrier islands between Beaufort and the Atlantic Ocean. HUNTING ISLAND STATE PARK’S historic lighthouse is the only publicly accessible lighthouse in South Carolina.
Also worth a look: the BEAUFORT HISTORY MUSEUM and the PENN CENTER, which was founded in 1862 to provide education for newly freed slaves.
For breakfast or lunch, visit LOW COUNTRY PRODUCE AND MARKET. Grab regional gifts for folks not lucky enough to be with you. Or head to SCOUT SOUTHERN MARKET for a sweet tea float that includes a dollop of lemon, peach or mango sorbet.
Wear your walking shoes. Beaufort is a fine place for strolling.
Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, Great Smokies, Tenn. | 4.5 hours
Two destination towns and the most visited national park in the United States sit in the misty mountains of eastern Tennessee.
If you think it’s Dolly Parton’s world and we just live in it, you’d be right — at least in Pigeon Forge. It’s home to the DOLLYWOOD theme park, the biggest ticketed attraction in the state, and DOLLY’S SPLASH COUNTRY, a 35-acre water park named one of America’s best by TripAdvisor. In addition to rides, and regional arts and crafts, Dollywood has concerts and the SOUTHERN GOSPEL MUSEUM AND HALL OF FAME.
Dolly’s 100-acre DREAMMORE RESORT is here, as is DOLLY’S STAMPEDE, five acres of fun featuring 32 horses and riders.
It’s all downhill at the SMOKY MOUNTAIN ALPINE COASTER, a mile-plus track that offers thrill rides and gorgeous views. THE HATFIELD & McCOY DINNER SHOW is a soap opera of countrified conflict with live music and an all-you-can-eat buffet.
The GATLINBURG SPACE NEEDLE, a 407-ft. tall observation tower, provides a bird’s-eye view of the Smokies. GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK, itself, covers 522,427 acres, divided almost evenly between Tennessee and North Carolina. The sprawl of forest, streams, rivers and waterfalls includes a segment of the Appalachian Trail. CADES COVE, the park’s most popular feature, treats you to stunning vistas and remnants of Appalachian culture.
A word to the wise: Be prepared for “bear jams.” When a black bear is spotted, traffic stops and smartphone cameras come out.