Kentucky-Tennessee-North Carolina road trip
April 18, 2014 11:25 AM   Subscribe

We're planning about a week long road trip from Louisville to Mammoth Cave, south towards Nashville, east towards Great Smokies and ending up in Asheville NC. Looking for your suggestions for places to eat, places to stay, things to do along the way.

We're planning this trip for late May.

I've already got a partial itinerary in my brain, but I need your help filling in the details. We've never been to any of the states mentioned (other than flying through NC), so I'm looking for suggestions from locals and people who have traveled this area more extensively. Restaurants, attractions, day hikes - you name it.

Possible stops along the way (Mammoth and Asheville are the main reasons for the trip):

Louisville - bourbon trail - what's your favorite distillery tour, anything else?
Mammoth Cave Nat'l Park - possibly camping, other things in the area? Day hikes?
Nashville - no ideas here, and it's just a tentative stopping point. We're not big country music fans, but we do enjoy cool, historic cities.
Oak Ridge/Knoxville - had thought about touring the atomic site, but it doesn't look like those tours start until June (insert scientist sadface)
Great Smoky Mountain Nat'l Park - possibly camping again, maybe a day hike
Asheville - visiting a friend here, so she will probably show us around...but we're always open to suggestions. Biltmore grounds look really cool.
posted by sararah to Travel & Transportation around Kentucky (17 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
The Mammoth Cave area has Kentucky Down Under, where you can play with kangaroos. We also make it a point to eat at Sahara, an unpretentious old-school steakhouse which is right nearby.
posted by jbickers at 11:37 AM on April 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

In Nashville, they have a full sized replica of the Parthenon in Centennial Park. Inside there is an art museum, but we just enjoyed walking around the outside.
posted by soelo at 11:41 AM on April 18, 2014

Nashville, eat at Monell's. Tour the Ryman or get tickets for the Grand Ole Opry. We saw Loretta Lynn (one of Husbunny's life highlights.) I couldn't care less about country music, but even I enjoyed the Opry. The Parthenon is a thing. There's "art" inside. It's not good art, but it's there.

In the Smokeys, hiking is gorgeous, and I recommend a drive to see Cade's Cove. Gatlinburg is fun, touristy and has tons of motels. If you do Cherokee, before you go through the park, there's a museum (typically depressing) a show and a Casino.

Sounds like fun! Have a blast!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:46 AM on April 18, 2014

Nashville- My former stomping grounds. I've been introducing my partner to the city over the last few years, and these are his favorites. We just did the Walkin Nashville tour last week. The guide Bill Demain is an uber knowledgeable music writer and geek and his tour covers the significance of all music in Nashville, not just country music, and takes you through both famous and obscure places. It was really fantastic.

If you can catch a show at the Ryman (which was the original home of the Opry, and remains a high holy place for music) I would do that. The Grand Ole Opry is now well outside of downtown in an area with a giant hotel and mall, and unless you really want to see a specific show there, I would skip it. Another fantastic old school venue to catch a show is Station Inn (bluegrass, roots, Irish, celtic). Further out is Bluegrass Underground (bluegrass in cave).

Five Points & East Nashville are hip foodie neighborhoods with bars, shops, and nightlife. My favorite eating places in that area are Silly Goose, Two Ten Jack, Mitchell's Deli, I Dream of Weenie, and Lockeland Table. Calypso Cafe is a cheep and cheerful local chain serving Caribbean food, and I adore it.

Cultural and historical- The Hermitage (Andrew Jackson's home) is pretty good if you are a history geek. Cheekwood is a lovely botanical garden and museum, and they have pretty interesting sculpture exhibits.

As for the Smokies, I also highly recommend Cade's Cove. It's one of my favorite places in TN.
posted by kimdog at 12:11 PM on April 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

Nashville is one of the special cities, don't give it a miss. It has great live music - a lot of it blues based and all the food and music is in a compact neighborhood. Ask the person at the front desk for a discount.
posted by vapidave at 12:14 PM on April 18, 2014

For Asheville, in addition to the Biltmore, Chimney Rock Park is very nice.
posted by damayanti at 12:16 PM on April 18, 2014

When we drove from NM to NY (a long time ago now), we stopped at Graceland in Memphis TN. Totally worth it, in all its obnoxious over-the-top cheesy glory, complete with the airplanes and the gallery of outfits and the green shag carpet in the Jungle room.

Saw the ghost of Elvis
On Union Avenue
Followed him up to the gates of Graceland
Then I watched him walk right through
Now security they did not see him
They just hovered 'round his tomb
But there's a pretty little thing
Waiting for the King
Down in the Jungle Room

(Also, the Smokey Mountains are lovely but beware the tourist traps of Gatlinburg and Dollywood...)
posted by RedOrGreen at 12:34 PM on April 18, 2014

I'm sure your friend will already have these things planned, but there are about a bajillion great day and/or overnight hikes & backpacking options within about an hour's drive (and often much less) of Asheville. You can pretty much throw a rock in any direction and find some gorgeous hiking. Mt. Mitchell, Linville Gorge, Greybeard/Montreat area, and South Mountain are just a few of the delightful rambling areas in the vicinity that we've explored recently.
For eating/drinking in Asheville, make sure you don't miss Wicked Weed. There is a giant portrait of Henry VIII on the wall, so obviously it is amazeballs.
posted by Dorinda at 1:02 PM on April 18, 2014

The distillery tour I would most recommend is Four Roses, but they're in the wrong direction from Louisville (east along I-64, not south along I-65). In my estimation, Barton's 1792 has the best tour south of Louisville, but others may disagree there.

Louisville's a fun town which isn't on most folks's radar. Lots of good food popping up on East Market Street, and some pretty decent attractions. Good hiking in the local forests and parks, although honestly there's better further south on your trip. One little-known and worthwhile thing to swing by is Falls of the Ohio, a park on the north side of the river with striking fossil beds.
posted by jackbishop at 1:07 PM on April 18, 2014

A touch out of the way, but if you're a Tennessee Whisky fan then both Dickel and Jack Daniels (my alma mater!) give distillery tours.
posted by 26.2 at 1:10 PM on April 18, 2014

I would also strongly recommend the Country Music Hall of Fame. My husband - a total non-country fan - found it fascinating. Also, as required by law, I'm suggesting that all visits to Nashville include the Bluebird Cafe.
posted by 26.2 at 1:14 PM on April 18, 2014

My parents live in TN and my partner and I visited not too long ago. Neither of us had ever really explored Nashville, so we took a Friday evening to just wander around downtown. We didn't really have a concise plan - our only goals were to walk everywhere (if possible) so we could explore and check out as much live music as possible. One place that we found ourselves lingering at was "The Wild Beaver Saloon", which had more modern (ie: not country) music playing, a mechanical bull (that people actually did ride on while we were there), electronic dartboards and live karaoke (the participants of which were surprisingly good). I also highly recommend checking out Printer's Alley - which was full of various bars and live music (although mostly country). We stopped into a place called "Bourbon Street Blues and Boogie Bar" and listened to some live blues-style music over drinks. It was a good time and I highly recommend it if you're a blues fan.

As for other things to do... if you don't mind a little extra drive you could check out Chattanooga, which has a pretty awesome aquarium and cute little downtown. If you're into alcohol - whiskey specifically, there's the Jack Daniels Distillery and George Dickel Distillery within an hour or so of Nashville. I've only done the Jack Daniels tour, but it was interesting and the free lemonade was very tasty. Cheap Jack Daniels can be had too.

For hiking/outdoors, there's Long Hunter State Park, Warner Park, Radnor Lake, Long Hunter State Park, Shelby Park and the Cheatham Wildlife Management area all immediately surrounding Nashville.

Have a great road trip!
posted by stubbehtail at 1:22 PM on April 18, 2014

I can chime in a bit about distilleries/KY-

If you didn't want to drive all the way to Louisville, I'd go just the Frankfort/Versailles area. Definitely hit up Buffalo Trace near downtown Frankfort - they distill a bunch of different bourbons, including the Van Winkle line and some non-bourbon spirits. While you're in Frankfort, check out the Rebecca Ruth Candy Factory. They are the inventors of the bourbon ball, but they also have other delights, such as Kentucky creamed pull candy and chocolate covered marshmallow/caramel. Ask if they have any "boo-boo bags". IIRC, it's either a bag of mixed chocolate and/or just bourbon balls which were not pretty enough to box. It's about half the price per lb of the other candy. We almost always get a few bags when we visit.

Then take a scenic drive to Woodford Reserve, either by Duncan Rd to McCracken Pike or by Grassy Springs Rd to McCraken Pike. Grassy Springs will take you right through some gorgeous horse farms, but Duncan is more direct and it is still very pretty (also you'll be driving by my parent's farm!)

If you'd like to know more about the Versailles/Frankfort area, please just ask!
posted by lizjohn at 4:18 PM on April 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

Biltmore is a big house with lots of gardens. It's expensive to go in. I think there are nicer places to visit that don't cost as much. They have great marketing.

The Smokies are great, but know what you are getting into: the road is windy and long and, depending on the day of the week and time of year and number of bears hanging out by the side of the road, incredibly slow-going. Don't take 441 through GSMNP until you are okay with a L O N G and S L O W drive.

I'd suggest skipping Gatlinburg and taking I40 from Knoxville to Asheville and using your extra time to check out stuff around Asheville. All of this is to say, yes, the Smokies are pretty, but they're not different pretty than the other mountains you can visit as day trips from Asheville.
posted by bluedaisy at 9:59 PM on April 18, 2014

The Smokies are great, but know what you are getting into: the road is windy and long and, depending on the day of the week and time of year and number of bears hanging out by the side of the road, incredibly slow-going. Don't take 441 through GSMNP until you are okay with a L O N G and S L O W drive

Even in season, I've not spent more than an hour going from Cherokee to Gatlinburg on 441.

It's SUCH a pretty drive anyway.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:48 PM on April 19, 2014

Even in season, I've not spent more than an hour going from Cherokee to Gatlinburg on 441.

Sure, and then add in all the extra miles to get to Gatlinburg, and then from Cherokee to Asheville. It adds up.
posted by bluedaisy at 6:18 PM on April 24, 2014

If you don't get enough of distilleries in Kentucky, I can recommend the Corsair distillery in Nashville. It's a small crafty distillery, with a single pot still, and a penchant for experiment. And I'll second the recommendation of the Nashville Parthenon.
posted by Jasper Fnorde at 7:48 PM on April 24, 2014

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