Moon Tennessee: With the Smoky Mountains

Outdoor Recreation, Live Music, Whiskey, Beer & BBQ


By Margaret Littman

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The birthplace of the blues, the cradle of country music, and the home of the Smokies: get to know the Volunteer State with Moon Tennessee. Inside you'll find:
  • Strategic, flexible itineraries, from a long weekend in Nashville to a Great Smokies road trip, plus day trips from Memphis and Nashville
  • The best local flavors: Dig in to fiery hot chicken and authentic Southern barbecue or sip on samples at the Jack Daniels Distillery
  • Can't-miss music: Catch a performance on the Grand Ole Opry stage or follow in the footsteps of the King at Graceland. Two-step with the locals at a beloved honky-tonk, listen to the strums of bluegrass, or tour studios where legends like Johnny Cash recorded their hits
  • Outdoor adventures: Go whitewater rafting in Cherokee National Forest, hike to rushing waterfalls in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, or spot wild bison in the Land Between the Lakes
  • Expert advice from local Nashvillian Margaret Littman on when to go, where to eat, and where to stay, from secluded campgrounds to historic inns
  • Full-color photos and detailed maps throughout
  • Accurate, up-to-date information on the landscape, wildlife, and history of Tennessee
Experience the best of Tennessee with Moon.

Hitting the road? Check out Moon Nashville to New Orleans Road Trip.

About Moon Travel Guides: Moon was founded in 1973 to empower independent, active, and conscious travel. We prioritize local businesses, outdoor recreation, and traveling strategically and sustainably. Moon Travel Guides are written by local, expert authors with great stories to tell—and they can't wait to share their favorite places with you.

For more inspiration, follow @moonguides on social media.


National Museum of African American Music

Elvis Presley statue by sculptor Andrea Lugar

DISCOVER Tennessee


Planning Your Trip

The Best of Tennessee








From the Blues to Bluegrass

Roaring Fork Auto Nature Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

My first visit to Tennessee was when I was a teenager. Back then I wasn’t able to articulate what drew me to this Southern destination. But in the years since, I’ve moved away and come back, and now am quite verbose when it comes to the state where I make my home.

Tennessee offers a suggestion for every season, every mood, and every personality. It’s the cradle of country music and the birthplace of the blues. It’s produced Nobel laureates, Pulitzer Prize winners, and history-making statesmen. Creativity of all kinds seems to flow in the rivers and in the veins of the folks who call the Volunteer State home.

That creativity is evident even to visitors just passing through. It fosters an entrepreneurial energy that results in funky, offbeat music clubs for jamming, quirky boutiques for shopping, and one-of-a-kind roadside eateries for . . . well, eating. Introduce yourself to bluegrass and the Nashville Sound, to Appalachian crafts and Black heritage quilts, to meat-and-three, hot chicken, and barbecue. You will soon become well acquainted with (and enamored of) them all.

The creative spirit seems to inhabit the landscape as well. East Tennessee has mountains—scenic peaks that climb up to kiss the clouds and plunge down into valleys. Moving west, the mountains become the rolling hills of Middle Tennessee and then the plains toward Memphis and the mighty Mississippi, the country’s lifeblood river.

breakfast at The Memphian

the Duckmaster at The Peabody Hotel Memphis

National Civil Rights Museum

Come to eat, to drink, to distill, to study, to shop, to hike and climb, to fish and run rivers, to hear music, to play music . . . it doesn’t matter. No matter what brings you here, Southern hospitality ensures that you’ll feel at home minutes after your arrival. Tennessee’s geography, its arts, its history, and its people all guarantee you can be here a lifetime and never be bored.

John Oliver Place in Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains

Hattie B’s in Nashville.

Bald River Falls off the Cherohala Skyway


1 Hike in Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Trek or stroll to gorgeous vistas, wildflower meadows, and rushing waterfalls in the most visited U.S. national park.

2 Listen to Live Music: Whether it’s blues on Beale Street, classic country at the Grand Ole Opry, or in a session in Bristol, “the birthplace of country music,” live music goes deep in Tennessee.

3 Meet the Legends: Get to know the stories behind your favorite entertainers: Elvis at Graceland; Tina Turner in Brownsville; Loretta Lynn in Hurricane Mills; and, of course, Dolly Parton at Dollywood.

4 Honor the Fight for Civil Rights: The Civil Rights Movement can be traced across the state from the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis to the Civil Rights Room at the Nashville Public Library to Green McAdoo Cultural Center in Clinton.

5 Experience Mountain Culture: There’s a rich heritage in the mountains. Start at the Museum of Appalachia, the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts, and the Great Smoky Mountains Arts and Crafts Community.

6 Take a Scenic Drive: To best take in the beauty of Tennessee, cruise along Natchez Trace Parkway or Cherohala Skyway, or take one of several routes through the Smokies.

7 Go Chasing Waterfalls: For three of the best waterfall vistas, check out Cummins Falls, Burgess Falls, and Fall Creek Falls.

8 Indulge in Southern Eats: From Memphis’s barbecue to Nashville’s hot chicken, your taste buds are in for a treat.

9 Sip Local Whiskey: Tennesseans are expert distillers, thanks in part to the water bubbling up from the state’s springs. Sample some for yourself.

10 Gain Deeper Insight into the Civil War: The fallen are honored at Shiloh National Cemetery; nearby, at Corinth Contraband Camp, post-war stories of rebuilding are told.

Planning Your Trip

Where to Go

Tennessee is a long state: From tip to tip, the Volunteer State stretches 432 miles (695 km). That would be eight hours on the interstate highway—which I don’t recommend! Get off the interstate and explore. Cultural and historical differences help define the state’s three basic geographical regions: East, Middle, and West Tennessee. Here’s an overview from west to east.


Memphis may owe its physical existence to the mighty Mississippi, but it is music that gives this city its soul. The blues were born in Memphis, and they still call Memphis home in nightclubs on Beale Street and juke joints around the city. But the Bluff City isn’t just the blues. It’s gospel, Elvis Presley, Soulsville, Rev. Al Green, Isaac Hayes, and Sun Studio. And it’s more than music. Memphis is an urban center with fine dining, riverside parks, and a thriving visual arts scene. It is a city where you can unwind by watching the ducks get the red-carpet treatment at The Peabody Hotel Memphis or fuel up with a plate of barbecue.

Elvis Presley’s grave at Graceland

Lynchburg lemonade, a Tennessee whiskey cocktail

Western Plains

Look for bald eagles and wild turkeys amid the knob-kneed cypress trees at Reelfoot Lake. Hike and camp along the shores of Kentucky Lake at the Land Between the Lakes. Along the Tennessee River is the state’s only pearl farm and Shiloh, the site of an epic Civil War battle. Spend time at the complex of Native American mounds at Pinson Mounds State Archaeological Park. Don’t miss Billy Tripp’s outsider art masterpiece, Mindfield.


Even as Nashville grows, it is in no danger of losing its quirkiness. Nashville is the epicenter of country music. It is home of the Grand Ole Opry, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, and hundreds of recording studios. It is the place where thousands of musicians and songwriters come to make it, and the city’s nightlife is all the richer for it. Historic Black colleges, fine arts, and excellent dining connect the city to its roots while also nodding to its future. Museums, historic sites, and the unique Tennessee capitol recall the city’s history, while expansive parks invite recreation in this leafy, livable city.

Independence Day celebration in downtown Nashville

Middle Tennessee

Tennessee’s midsection is a road trip waiting to happen. The landscape is rural and pure relaxation. This is Tennessee Walking Horse Country, where picturesque horse farms dot the landscape and Tennessee sipping whiskey is made. In Amish country black buggies and old-fashioned homesteads sprinkle the back roads. The Natchez Trace Parkway is a scenic, historic highway that marks one of the oldest overland routes between Natchez, Mississippi, and Nashville. Set off into the heartland in search of perfectly fried chicken, the world’s largest MoonPie, and exciting summertime festivals. Don’t forget to sip some of that Lynchburg lemonade.

Cumberland Plateau

The Cumberland Plateau is a breathtaking landscape of caves, waterfalls, gorges, and mountains. It is home to some of the state’s best parks: the Big South Fork and Pickett State Park in the north, Fall Creek Falls State Park in the center, and Savage Gulf in the south. Come here for outdoor recreation, including hiking, biking, horseback riding, camping, and kayaking. The plateau offers destinations with fascinating history: the lost English colony of Rugby, the idealistic experiment of Cumberland Homesteads, and the moving Children’s Holocaust Memorial at Whitwell.

Chattanooga and the Overhill Country

Nestled in a bend of the Tennessee River and surrounded by the Cumberland Plateau and foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, Chattanooga is not called the Scenic City for nothing. It is a great place to bring the kids thanks to its excellent aquarium, children’s museum, parks, caves, and other family-friendly attractions. East of the city lies the southern Cherokee National Forest and the Ocoee River—a destination for those interested in white-water rafting and other outdoor pursuits. No other region offers a better glimpse at the legacy of the Cherokee, who once populated the hills and valleys of this Overhill land.


Like better-known Memphis and Nashville, Knoxville is emerging as a center for live music and the arts. Galleries, restaurants, nightclubs, and theaters on Gay Street, Market Square, and the Old City are funky, unpretentious, and fun. Of course, sports fans have been coming to Knoxville for years to watch the University of Tennessee Volunteers play football and basketball, and to tour the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame. Attractions such as the East Tennessee History Center and the gold-plated Sunsphere add to the city’s draw.

Great Smoky Mountains

One of Tennessee’s most picturesque wilderness area is the Great Smoky Mountains. It is the vistas that first draw you in: the soft-edged peaks enveloped by wispy white “smoke,” touched by brilliant red and orange at sunset, and crowned by crisp white snow in winter. Hike through old-growth forest and mysterious mountain balds. Camp next to a mountain stream. Hunt for wildflowers. Bicycle the Cades Cove loop to see historic cabins and churches. Outside the boundary of the park are gateway communities offering everything from the Dollywood theme park to the roots of mountain arts and crafts.

Alum Cave Bluff in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The First Frontier

It was the eastern mountains of northeast Tennessee that early settlers took over from Native Americans in the 1770s. More than 150 years later their descendants brought forth modern country music during the Bristol sessions. This region of Tennessee is more closely linked to Appalachia than any other; this is a landscape of hills and hollers, small towns, and traditional ways. Erwin and Johnson City offer chances to hike, raft, and camp in this pristine land. Jonesborough is the first city of storytelling.

Know Before You Go
When to Go

Summer can be peak travel season for Tennessee. This is the season of hot weather and crowds at many popular sites, and it’s also when some of the biggest music festivals and events are going on. If you can, avoid the crowds and the heat: Spring and fall are the best times to visit Tennessee. During spring, the weather is mild, flora is in bloom, and you can enjoy springtime festivals. During the fall, the trees change color and temperatures drop. The fall is a busy time in the Smokies, however, as “leaf peepers” come to see the foliage.

Visitors in winter may encounter cold weather and snow. If you’re a skier, head to Gatlinburg. In other parts of the state, some attractions close or cut back hours November-February, but the cooler months can also be a nice time to tour as you’ll have many attractions to yourself. December holidays are particularly festive in Jonesborough, Nashville, and Memphis.


While visitors making a getaway to Memphis or Nashville may be able to subsist on public transportation, ride-hailing companies, and taxis, all others will need their own wheels to see this state. A car is essential if you are traveling in Tennessee. If it’s practical, bring your own car. If you’re flying in, arrange a rental car ahead of time to save money and ease hassles. A good road map or GPS is helpful to have before you set out.

If you are flying to Tennessee, which airport you fly into will depend on your destination. Nashville and Memphis have international airports and generally the best airfare deals. Knoxville, Chattanooga, and the Tri-Cities regional airports are convenient if you’re headed to East Tennessee.

What to Pack

A cell phone with a good roaming plan, GPS, and Wi-Fi should cover your basic needs. Prepare with maps and apps, particularly if you are likely to get off the interstate and out of the range of cell phone signals.

Since your trip is likely to include a fair amount of driving, download a mess of tunes. Depending on your destination, pick up some classic country, bluegrass, blues, or Elvis albums to get you in the mood.

If you’re planning on spending time in the Great Smoky Mountains, pack rain gear and several layers of clothes, including a jacket or sweater—even in the summer. If you think you may do some hiking, bring good boots, a backpack, trekking poles, and a trail map. Cowboy boots and a cowboy hat aren’t required, but they’re certainly always appropriate. Grab some stylish sunglasses for all the photos you’ll take. And don’t forget the sunscreen.

The Best of Tennessee

Memphis and the Delta

Follow in the footsteps of the King (that would be Elvis), eat tangy Memphis barbecue, and see the Delta landscape that gave rise to the blues. Travel along the Tennessee River, stopping at a pearl farm, river towns, and the site of one of the bloodiest Civil War battles in Tennessee.

A Long Weekend in Memphis

Arrive in Memphis and check into a downtown hotel, such as the historic Peabody Hotel Memphis or the boutique Arrive Memphis. Stroll down to Beale Street for food and a taste of the iconic live music venues here.


Take a walking tour of Beale Street in the morning, stopping at the W. C. Handy Home and Museum. Take your picture with the Elvis statue and go treasure hunting at A. Schwab. Eat lunch at Automatic Slim’s downtown, and then head across the Mississippi at Big River Crossing for the afternoon. Check out the Mississippi River Museum and the River Walk on Mud Island. Eat dinner at Salt and Soy.


Go to the National Civil Rights Museum in the morning, eat lunch along South Main, and then head to the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. Dine on Cuban food at the misleadingly named Liquor Store.

Stax Museum of American Soul Music


Make it Elvis Day. Start early at Graceland to avoid the crowds, and then visit Sun Studio, where Elvis recorded his first hit. Eat a burger at Dyer’s on Beale Street in memory of the King.


Start out at Elmwood Cemetery with the audio tour, and then drive east. Visit the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art and lounge in Overton Park. Tour The Dixon Gallery and Gardens and eat dinner at The Beauty Shop in the Cooper-Young neighborhood.


Drive northeast along US-70. After 45 miles (72 km), stop in Mason to pick up some of Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken for the road. Visit the Alex Haley Museum and Interpretive Center in Henning, just 20 miles (32 km) away, and then push on for an hour to Reelfoot Lake. Check into a lakeside cabin. The next day, explore Reelfoot Lake State Park. Take a boat cruise or hike along the lakeshore. Eat fried catfish at Boyette’s.


Drive 165 miles (265 km) northeast to Land Between the Lakes. Visit The Homeplace to see frontier life re-created, and watch a celestial show at the Golden Pond Visitor Center and Planetarium. Overnight in a log cabin at Leatherwood Resort in Dover.


Drive 110 miles (177 km) south to historic Savannah, which you can enjoy on foot. Then tour the Shiloh National Military Park and Corinth Contraband Camp. Take the audio tour or hike to the Shiloh Indian Mounds. Overnight nearby at the hotel at Pickwick Landing State Park and eat dinner at the Captain’s Galley Restaurant.


Go to Pinson Mounds State Archaeological Park to stretch your legs and tour ancient mounds created by Native Americans. Drive just 20 miles (32 km) to eat lunch in Jackson at Jamaican & African Cuisine, see the Mindfield art installation, and then return to Memphis, about 90 miles (145 km) on I-40.

Nashville and Middle Tennessee

Start out in the state’s capital, and then strike out through Tennessee’s heartland to old railroad towns and quiet parks. See the stars on the Grand Ole Opry stage and make a pilgrimage to Lynchburg, home of that most famous Tennessee whiskey. Tour the sites of Civil War battles and hear the stories of those who fought and those who were enslaved.

A Week in Nashville

Arrive in Nashville. Check into a downtown hotel, such as the historic Hermitage Hotel or the retro Fairlane Hotel. Feast at Chauhan Ale & Masala House. Stroll lower Broadway and enjoy dancing at the honky-tonks on your first night in town.


Visit the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in the morning and grab an early lunch at Arnold’s Country Kitchen to fuel up. Go to the Ryman Auditorium and Johnny Cash Museum. See the Grand Ole Opry in the evening.


Head toward West Nashville. Drive through Music Row on your way to Centennial Park and The Parthenon. Eat lunch at one of the local outposts in the L&L Market, and then spend the afternoon checking out the museum and gardens at Cheekwood. Eat dinner at Bastion south of downtown.

Ryman Auditorium

The Parthenon in Centennial Park


Go uptown to the Tennessee State Capitol and the Civil Rights Room at the Nashville Public Library. Then take one of Walk Eat Nashville’s tours, where you can dine and learn at the same time. Visit Fisk University in the afternoon. Catch a songwriter’s show at The Listening Room Café over dinner.


Drive 15 miles (24 km) east and spend the day at Percy Priest Lake. Wander the lush green landscape on a paddleboard, mountain bike, or on two feet. Grab takeout from Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack on your way home and enjoy a quiet night in with a cocktail from the hotel bar.


Drive 50 miles (81 km) northwest to Clarksville. Tour the RiverWalk park along the Cumberland and find the statue of Wilma Rudolph. Eat lunch at


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On Sale
Feb 28, 2023
Page Count
568 pages
Moon Travel

Margaret Littman

About the Author

Margaret Littman is both an old-timer and a relative newcomer to Nashville. After graduating from Vanderbilt University, she left Tennessee for points north over the course of her writing career. But after 17 years she could no longer resist the siren song of the Parthenon, bluegrass music, or fried pickles, so she returned to Nashville, where she writes about Music City, Southeast travel, food, pets, and more. An avid stand-up paddler, she loves being a day trip away from the Tennessee River to the south, Reelfoot Lake to the west, and Norris Dam to the east.

There’s nothing Margaret loves more than telling natives something they didn’t know about their home state. And with 75,000 miles on her station wagon already, she has lots of ideas for little-known places to listen to music, eat barbecue, paddle a lake, hike to a waterfall, or buy works by local artists.

Margaret’s work has appeared in national and regional magazines, including Wine Enthusiast, Entrepreneur, The Tennessean, and many others. She is the author of several guidebooks as well as the Nashville Essential Guide.

Margaret has loved lots of places she’s lived, but the day she looked down and realized she was wearing cowboy boots in synagogue, she knew she had become a Nashvillian.

Learn more about this author