Let’s take you on one of our favorite USA road trips from Raleigh to Memphis.
It combines two things we love: mountains and music. This is a Southeast road trip that incorporates beauty, soul, history and culture. The focus is on music and natural beauty, but you can add other things into this experience while in the various destinations, like beer food and small town historical charm.
We have done this road trip several times, the first time pre-kids where I fell in love with the musical story of Nashville. I’ve since been back several times, and was thrilled to take my parents there on our Dallas to Boston 4 week road trip in 2018.
They LOVED it.
Why this NC to TN road trip is worthwhile
This East Coast road trip can really be taken at any time of the year – the Smoky Mountains offers four seasons of beauty, and the musical experiences are never cut off with the changing seasons.
Summer is a great time, obviously as you can enjoy the outdoors more, and you may be able to fit in a few outdoor concerts or festivals.
During the summer, it may be slightly cooler in the mountains for some relief, and you can swim in the lakes and rivers and hike in shady forests.
As half of this trip is in nature, you can travel quite cheaply by camping and staying in the Great Smoky National Park, which is the most visited in the country. There’ll be a lot of hiking, swimming, biking and scenic drives and you may even see black bears.
You can also take this Raleigh to Memphis road trip in any direction. Flip it if you need to and change it to suit your style and length of travel. We recommend at least one week, more realistically two if you want to take it slow and explore a little deeper.
As always with travel, the longer the better!
Plan in advance so you fit in any special musical events you don’t want to miss.
Optional Beginning: World of Bluegrass Festival, Raleigh
Is there a better way to kick off a fun Mountains & Music road trip than at the largest urban bluegrass festival in the world,
The annual Wide Open World of Bluegrass in Raleigh, NC closes out the International Bluegrass Music Association’s World of Bluegrass Week. It is one of the most fun and unique things to do in North Carolina
The festival features the best performers and musicians in the national and international bluegrass scene each year. Streets are blocked off and you’ll find free music all over the city In addition to the main stage at the Red Hat Amphitheater.
The event also includes an amazing street festival complete with delicious food, a dance tent, a BBQ cook-off, an arts & crafts market and a many other activities for all ages. This year, due to COVID it was a free virtual event. Fingers crossed for 2021.
If you want to incorporate this event into this mountains and music road trip from Raleigh to Memphis, you will have to plan around this event, which is typically held end Sept/start Oct every year.
The North Carolina Mountains
The North Carolina Mountains area is to the west of the State near the Tennessee border. It’s the region nestled among the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains and are full of outdoor adventure, spectacular natural beauty, and cute small mountain towns.
We have more in-depth suggestions on top places to go in the North Carolina Mountains.
It really depends on how much time you have? We recommend the following: Lake Lure, Asheville, and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
If you have more time then incorporate the Blue Ridge Parkway, which offers 252 miles of sheer beauty, outdoor activities and cute mountain towns. (Fingers crossed we will drive the entire length in Spring 2021)
Lake Lure, North Carolina
This area is stunning and Lake Lure is one of my favorite places in the US.
It has an air of ancient stillness and silence. Best felt in the middle of the lake on a paddle board with views of the Blue Ridge Mountains and Hickory Nut Gorge and the green pine tree forest surrounding the banks.
A cruise on Lake Lure is also a great activity to learn more of the history and culture of the area. Chimney Rock is nearby for a great hike to outstanding views. (Some scenes from the Last of the Mohicans filmed here)
The lift scene (and others) form Dirty Dancing were filmed here. A really fun thing to do (that also involves music) is to attend the annual Dirty Dancing festival. – we loved it.
Watch our video of Lake Lure
Asheville, North Carolina
Asheville is small mountain town in North Carolina famous for artistic alternative lifestyle, craft brews and music.
The music scene in Asheville blends age old mountain blue grass traditions with modern folk, Americana, and everything in between.
We are disappointed to have missed many of our favorite artists playing here due to traveling elsewhere. They include: Xavier Rudd, John Butler Trio, Jack Johnson, Ben Harper, and Pearl Jam – see the diversity it offers and in this setting, it’s pure magic.
This is a true hippie spirit town that aligns beautifully with its stunning natural surroundings and access to outdoor adventure.
Asheville also boasts more breweries per capita than any other US city. Of course you want to pair live music and hikes with sampling quality craft brews.
Some breweries worth mentioning: Upcountry Brewing, Catawba Brewery, Asheville Brewing and I loved Ginger’s Revenge for their ciders. Let us know in the comments your favorites.
The Biltmore Estate is located in Asheville and is a top North Carolina attraction!
It will require at least half a day, but as it’s the most magnificent and biggest residence in America, we highly recommend you do.
We’ve been three times and LOVE it. They have various themes throughout the year. It is spectacular at Christmas and I loved the spring experience we had with my parents with their stunning gardens and Chihuly Glass sculptures.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
We love the green, lush world of the Smokies, which stretches across into Tennessee. We’ve mostly explored the Tennessee side and if you are short on time, I recommend doing that.
The North Carolina side of the Great Smoky Mountains is typically a bit quieter and a more relaxed experience.
There are several great hiking trails including the Little Cataloochee Trail, Oconaluftee River Trail (great for spring wildflowers), and the 5-mile loop Deep Creek Waterfall hike, which takes you pass three beautiful waterfalls.
On the Tennessee side is the fantastic Cades Cove Loop (bike it!), a few wonderful easy family friendly hikes and beautiful views at Clingmans Dome (highest point), Morton Overlook and Newfound Gap (straddle the border!).
Watch our video of the Cades Cove Bike Ride Loop
From West North Carolina, you’ll move into Tennessee and follow the music story. Tennessee has been a place where musicians have gone to be discovered for many years, most notably Nashville and Memphis.
I’m sure you’ve heard of Elvis, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, and current stars like Keith Urban and Carrie Underwood.
You can discover their journey and current aspiring artists in Tennessee on this road trip.
Nashville is one of my favorite cities in the country for its uniqueness and opportunity to experience all kinds of music at any time of the day.
Just show up to any bar or restaurant and someone will be playing. Learn more of the history at the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum, catch a show at the Grand Ole Opry or one of the many Honky Tonk bars.
A highlight of this musical road trip would be a night at the Bluebird Café. Plan that one in advance. Monday night open mic is the best, but that is a first come first served and many line up for hours.
There is also Civil War history in the nearby historic town of Franklin, which recently made our list of cool places to visit in the USA and Puckett’s Grocery in Leipers Fork is an iconic musical venue. You never know what start may pop in there and play – Hello Keith Urban.
Leipers Fork and Franklin are where many US Country artists live.
When visiting Nashville, consider getting a Nashville Sightseeing Pass to save money on top attractions. See more information here.
Watch our video of Backstage at the Opry
In Memphis you have blues and soul and rock n roll, Graceland and BBQ. A tour of Graceland is a must not miss US experience. As is Sun Studios where Elvis was discovered and the Stax Museum which tells the story of soul.
There is also the very sobering Civil Rights Museum which tells the story of an important part in history – the Civil Rights movement and the assassination of Martin Luther King.
You’ll also want to check out the famous Peabody Ducks and Beale St – although plan for daytime if visiting Memphis with kids.
Read More: 11 Cool things to do in Memphis with Kids
Video: Memphis with Kids
Want more music?
You may wish to duck down to Huntsville, Alabama, which is only just under two hours from Nashville. Due to its proximity to Music City (and the high cost of living there) many talented and aspiring artists live in Huntsville and commute into Nashville. This means you can easily find good music at the bars in Huntsville too!
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