Driving from Pittsburgh to Austin: if you had to, how would you go?
February 22, 2014 6:10 PM   Subscribe

What’s the most swift, interesting, safe, and/or inexpensive route by car through the Southeast?

I’m planning a long, roundabout trip from Pittsburgh to Seattle that includes visiting a good friend in Austin, Texas. I have the route figured out from Texas to Washington, but the first bit in between Pennsylvania and Texas is proving more difficult to plan.

In strong contrast to the South West, the South East is a part of the country that I never in my wildest dreams had any desire or expectation to visit, and I don’t know a lot about it. Names like Nashville naturally stand out to me on the map, but I’m sure there are dozens of other cities along the major highways just as worthy of a quick visit (and more affordable besides).

So what are your favorite of the many Interstates or large US highways threading through WV, KY, TN, AR, MS, LA, and TX? What are your favorite towns along them? Are the bigger, famous cities like Memphis worth stopping for the night in, if you’re just passing through? Are there any cities or roads best avoided?

In short: how would you go?

(Difficulty Level: I’d like to get to Austin in less than three days.)
posted by lordcorvid to Travel & Transportation around United States (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I'd stay in Louisville and Little Rock, avoid Memphis, and mostly just drive straight through.
posted by BabeTheBlueOX at 7:05 PM on February 22, 2014

Here's some excellent advice I got a few years ago on a nice scenic route through SW Missouri and NW Arkansas, plus good tips on places to stop for food or amusement. Honestly the best roadtrip advice I've ever gotten.

That will be slightly off the most direct route for you (per Google Maps it will add an hour or two to the trip), but I-540 is beautiful, quiet, and an absolute joy to drive on. If you take that route you'll also have the option of cutting through SE Oklahoma on US-69, which is a nice road that will take you through some jaw-dropping scenery but is pretty remote — stop for food and gas before you get off I-40.

Also, whether or not you pass through Missouri or Oklahoma, you are required to stop for kolaches at the Czech Stop in the small town of West, on I-35 in Texas.
posted by this is a thing at 7:53 PM on February 22, 2014

Having driven from Austin to Nashville a few times, I have to say that Texarkana-Memphis on I-30/I-40 is one of the most boring stretches of road I've ever seen. If you have time to add a couple of hours and go through Missouri or Mississippi, I'd recommend skipping Arkansas.

On preview: Seconding Czech Stop.
posted by bradf at 7:57 PM on February 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

Thirding the Czech Stop but there is a lot of construction along there right now so you'll have watch closely for the exit. Be sure to get a hot cream cheese kolache.
posted by tamitang at 8:06 PM on February 22, 2014

I've taken three routes through that general region: so some experience, but far from expert.

I had a great brunch in an artsy neighborhood in Louisville. There is a fabulous hostel in Memphis, if you're into a queer-friendly, social-justicey scene and don't mind staying in a UU Church-affiliated building. Plus there was an excellent diner in Memphis, friendly Mefites, and the Stax Museum was cool.

I took some secondary highways through western Mississippi between College Station, TX, and Memphis. It was alright; not terribly boring but also nothing special. I think the secondary highways are the way to go once you get in to Texas - more interesting than the interstate, yet still have a speed limit of 70 (sometimes even when that seems unwise, but hey, it's Texas). Stick to interstates otherwise though, if time is a concern.

Driving through southern Tennesee and the very northern part of Mississippi was pretty. I was unimpressed with the scenery in (northern) Alabama - though admittedly the drizzle and the billboards both likely strongly influenced my opinion downward, and I didn't go through any big or potentially interesting cities - just one big enough to have annoying traffic. But I think that much of Tennesee and Kentucky are generally quite pretty (more so closer to the mountains of course), so you wouldn't go wrong sticking to those states.

If you want to start off heading mostly south instead of angling across, West Virginia is absolutely gorgeous - which makes the grinding poverty and periodic giant mining scars all the more heartbreaking, sadly.

Eastern Arkansas and western TN near the Mississippi River are nothing special for scenery. But Hot Springs, Arkansas is actually worth a visit.
posted by eviemath at 10:24 PM on February 22, 2014

The drive from Knoxville, TN to Memphis is truly spectacular, especially in the spring, but that would involve heading south on 75 from Cincinatti and going through Lexington, which might prolong your trip more than you'd like. My fam used to stop in Brinkley, AK because it's more a halfway point between Knoxville and Dallas than Little Rock. Brinkley, of course, famous for the (apocrophal?) last sighting of the Ivory Billed Woodpecker. You could listen to the song. And eat at the Waffle House. True Americana.
posted by theweasel at 5:55 AM on February 23, 2014

*excuse me. the stretch from Knoxville to Nashville. Once you get past that, it's more river valley flatness.
posted by theweasel at 5:56 AM on February 23, 2014

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for the advice; this is all very helpful!

eviemath: Is it the Pilgrim House that you're referring to? Or are there two such fabulous hostels in Memphis?

theweasel: Definitely going to make a detour to see Brinkley. That's exactly the sort of recommendation that I was hoping for.

Czech Stop: check.
posted by lordcorvid at 9:02 AM on February 23, 2014

Yup, that's the one.
posted by eviemath at 1:59 PM on February 23, 2014

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