The National Parks of the Southeast

The deep south of the United States is full of rolling forested hills, deep flowing rivers and sun-soaked beaches. In this trip you will get to experience it all and create memories of a lifetime along the way.

#thisismyroute

Prepared by:
Matt

States: 
Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida

Start: 
Atlanta, Georgia
End:
Miami, Florida

 


Total miles:
1,730

Suggested days: 
At least 14

Type: 
scenic road trip

Recommended for: 
First-timers to the United States, honeymooners, photographers, road trippers

Suggested season: 
Year round

Overview

This road trip will take you on an unforgettable vacation through the Deep South of the United States, exploring many national parks and wonderful cities along the way. You will begin in Atlanta, one of the major cities of the region, and head north into the breathtaking Great Smoky Mountains National Park. From there, you will head east to the hip Asheville and bustling Charlotte, the largest city in North Carolina. Next, you will head down into South Carolina, checking out both the capital city of Columbia and Congaree National Park. After that, you will begin your trip south along the coast, traveling through lovely Savannah, thriving Jacksonville and sunny Daytona Beach. No trip to southern Florida is complete without a visit to the Magic Kingdom, so you spend some time in Orlando and Disney World before a trip to historic Cape Canaveral. You will the cross the state to booming Tampa before briefly heading further south along the Gulf of Mexico. A side trip to picturesque Sanibel Island will be next, after which you will spend time in the fantastic Everglades National Park. The next segment of your trip will take you to the furthest southern point in the region, as you visit Key West and boat out to Dry Tortugas National Park. Your road trip will end in the vibrant city of Miami, the epicenter for multicultural life in Florida.

How to Prepare

We recommend at least two weeks to encompass all of the possible offerings that are suggested in this itinerary. The national parks in this trip are all worth spending at least a couple of days in, so plan accordingly. Almost all of the drives between locations are quite short, less than a few hours, with many even less than that. The weather throughout this region is reliably warm throughout the year. Though it can occasionally get somewhat chilly in the winter, the trip can definitely still be done year round. The only major thing to watch out for would be hurricane season in the late summer and early fall, which can wreak major havoc in this corner of the country. If you choose to travel during this time of year, be sure to check the weather forecasts to ensure that you are safe to move through the southeast.

DAY 1: arrival in atlanta

Fly into Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (the busiest airport in the world, by the way) and rent a car for the remainder of your trip. Atlanta is one of the major metropolises of the South and one of the largest cities in the country. There is a lot to do in the city, so you could easily spend several days there. Plan on a couple days to take it all in and plan on spending plenty of time in the car getting around; like Los Angeles, the city is notoriously spread out and gridlock is not uncommon.

Best historical site:

Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site

Best place for a stroll:

Piedmont Park

Best place for underwater adventure:

Georgia Aquarium

Best place to catch a live show:

The Fox Theatre

Best place for dinner:

Poor Calvin’s

Best place to stay:

East Atlanta Village

DAY 2: Smoky Mountain National Park

After your time in bustling Atlanta, it will be great to get some needed relaxation in Tennessee’s beautiful Great Smoky National Park. Though it is the most visited national park in the country – due to its proximity to major southern cities and its incredible beauty – it will not be hard to find calm and tranquility in the half-million acres that constitute the park. Backpacking and camping are popular here, but the 850 miles of trails – which includes 70 miles of the famous Appalachian Trail – make for excellent day hikes as well. There are a number of historic districts in the park, too, which might provide a nice balance to any outdoor adventures.

Best short hike:

Smokemont Loop Trail

Can’t miss it:

Cades Cove

Grab a burger and brew:

Smoky Mountain Brewery

Best place hike in for an overnight stay:

Le Conte Lodge

Best waterfall hike:

Grotto Falls

Best place to experience crazy Americana:

Gatlinburg, Tennessee

DAY 3: North Carolina fun

Your next segment will take you through two of North Carolina’s more popular urban areas, the small and very hip Asheville and the booming and busy Charlotte. These days, Asheville is often grouped with towns like Portland and Austin as a casual, food-centric town with a vibrant cultural scene. For a town of its size, there are an astounding number of breweries and there is plenty of live music coming through town to keep culture hounds happy. Plan on spending an afternoon here, or maybe even a full day and a night, if you want to linger a bit longer. Charlotte, as the major city in the state, has plenty of attractions to keep travelers happy, with its many museums, shopping areas and excellent restaurants in its borders.

Can’t Miss it:

The Biltmore Estate

Best scenic drive: 

Blue Ridge Parkway

Best place for a stroll-Ashville:

Ashville Urban Trail

Best way to see a ghost-Charlotte:

Haunted Charlotte Tour

Best place for dinner

The Cellar at Duckworth’s

Best night out:

UpTown

DAY 4: Columbia and Congaree National Park

Next, you begin your long trip southwards by heading to Columbia, the capital and largest city in the state of South Carolina. Spend part of your day here by checking out the State House, the Riverfront Park and the Botanical Garden. Grab lunch in town and hit the road into the wonderful Congaree National Park. It was designated as such in 2003, making it one of the newest parks in the country. This fascinating swampy environment is home to the largest tract of old growth bottomland hardwood forest in the United States and makes for great exploration over the course of a couple days. Stay in nearby Columbia, but spend your days in the park.

Best nature walk:

Boardwalk Nature Trail-Congaree

Best way to see Congaree up close:

Kayaking in Cedar Creek

Best place for ribs:

Midwood Smokehouse

DAY 5: Savannah

You will begin your drive along the coast by heading south into Savannah, the oldest city in Georgia and also one of the most pleasant places anywhere to spend time in. Situated near the ocean, the city has long been home to a thriving shipping industry and today is appreciated as a charming town teeming with American history. Savannah is famous for its cobblestone streets and historic buildings, which make for excellent aimless strolling. There is plenty of shopping and eating to be done, too, so savor your time here.

Great southern Architecture:

The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist

Best place for southern food:

Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room

Best Antebellum south:

Savannah Historic District

Best place for a stroll:

Forsyth Park

Can’t miss it:

Bonaventure Cemetery

Best place for dinner:

Cotton and Rye

DAY 6: coastal Florida

You will next drive down the length of Florida, with ever-popular Daytona Beach as your destination. You can choose to stop in Jacksonville, the largest city by population in the state, if you so desire. But the main destination for this leg should be Daytona Beach, known alternately as “The World’s Most Famous Beach” and “The Spring Break Capital of the World,” both of which are true. The beach itself has attracted tourists and college students for decades, and for good reason: the beach is marvelous. Expect big crowds in the summer, but the people watching here is part of the draw. Bring a towel, a good book and prepare to soak in some sunshine. The city is also home to NASCAR, so take in a race at Daytona International Speedway if you’re looking to get a break from the beach.

Best place to shop:

Riverfront Shops at Daytona Beach

Party like a college student on Spring Break:

Beach Street

Best place for dinner:

Chucherias Honduras Restaurant

DAY 7 and 8: Orlando and the Wilds of Disney World

No visit to the lower half of Florida would be complete without a visit to Orlando and Disney World. With the metropolitan area being one of the largest in the state, the city is not at all limited to the Magic Kindgom – there are cultural attractions, dining and shopping that have nothing to do with Walt Disney’s creations. Yet, the city’s nickname, “The Theme Park Capital of the World”, lives up to its nickname, as these parks draw over 62 million visitors per year. (If you’re not into Disney, you could also spend the day at Universal Studios, SeaWorld, Gatorland or Wet ‘n Wild.) You should check out Disney World once in your life, regardless of whether or not you have kids in tow. Spend a full day there and head back into nature afterwards.

Plan your trip:

Visit Orlando

DAY 9: Cape Canaveral

When you’ve had your fill of Disney, head back east to check out Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The site is home to many firsts in American space exploration, from the first U.S. Earth satellite to the first U.S. astronaut to the first spacecraft to orbit Mercury. Spend the afternoon touring around and absorbing these important history lessons. Next, you will cross the state and hit Tampa, one of the largest cities in the state. There are many tourist activities in the city, from the Big Cat Rescue to the Electric Manatee Viewing Center, the Lowry Zoo to the Florida Aquarium. There is also plenty of shopping, dining and culture to be found everywhere.

Best place for a stroll:

Bayshore Boulevard

Can’t miss it:

Ybor City Historic District

Best place for a hike:

Lettuce Lake Park

Coolest bridge:

Sunshine Skyway Bridge

Best place to people watch:

The Tampa Riverwalk

Most American dinner ever:

Medieval Times

DAY 10: Head Offshore to Sanibel Island

Your next stop is Sanibel Island, a small scenic barrier island off the coast of Fort Myers. (The neighboring Pine Island is solid coral-rock, while Sanibel is mostly sand.) It’s a popular tourist destination, known for its lovely shell beaches and wildlife refuges, which make up more than half of the island. The largest of these is J.N. Darling National Wildlife Refuge, which hosts one of the country’s largest undeveloped mangrove ecosystems and a large migratory bird population. The island a great place to wander around and relax in the surf for a day or two.

Best place to shop local:

Sanibel Island Farmer’s MArket

Most unique museum:

Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum

Hit the beach:

Lighthouse Beach

Best hike:

Apple Pond Park Trail

Get a little history:

Sanibel Historical Museum and Village

Best place for dinner:

The Sandbar

DAY 11 and 12: The Unsurpassed Everglades National PArk

Your next stop is the incredible Everglades National Park, unlike anywhere else in the country. It is the third largest of the national parks in the U.S. (after Death Valley and Yellowstone), the largest tropical wilderness in the country and the most comprehensive wilderness of any kind east of the Mississippi River. It is one of only three places in the entire world to be designated an International Biosphere Reserve, a World Heritage Site and a Wetland of International Importance. In other words: the Everglades will astound you! Plan on spending at least two or three full days here. Hiking, boating, birdwatching, camping and fishing are all popular in the park.

Can’t miss it:

Captain Jack’s Airboat Tours

Best short hike:

Mahogany Hammock

Best long hike:

Coastal Prairie Trail

Best ranger led tour:

1000 Islands Boat Tour

Best bird watching from a canoe:

Nine Mile Pond

Try some alligator:

Everglades Gator Grill

DAY 13: The Florida Keys

On your penultimate leg of this trip, you will drive all the way down to Key West, only a few hours south of Miami but an entire world away. En route, you should visit Biscayne National Park, which preserves Biscayne Bay and its offshore barrier reefs. Ninety-five percent of the park is water, which makes for incredible ocean views and undisturbed watery ecosystems in this highly developed part of Florida. Among the protected features is Elliott Key, which is the largest island in the park and the first of the Flordia Keys. Spend a few hours to soak in this magical environment. Next, you will begin your drive down through the rest of the Florida Keys, with the southernmost Key West as your end point. You’ll pass through a number of towns, so you can do this drive entirely at your leisure. Plan on spending a few days in Key West. On one of those days, you should take a side trip to Dry Tortugas National Park, only accessible by boat or seaplane from Key West. There you will see abundant sea life, tropical birds, colorful coral reef and the unfinished Fort Jefferson, the largest masonry structure in the Western Hemisphere.

Best place to catch the sunset:

Mallory Square

Best place for a stroll:

Duval Street

Best place for seafood:

The Conch Republic

DAY 14: miami

You will end your weeks of roadtripping through the South in Miami, one of the few truly world-class cities in the region. Home to more than 5 million people, Miami is considered one of the most vibrant cities in the country and is the center for finance, culture and media in the state. The city is nicknamed the “Capital of Latin America” due to the large Cuban-American population, which represents roughly one third of Miami’s demographic spread. With its mix of Cuban, West Indian and other cultures, Miami truly feels like an international locale. As with all cities this size, there is plenty to occupy one’s time here.

Best pace for a stroll:

Vizcaya Museum and Gardens

Best outdoor art:

The Wynwood Walls

Can’t miss it:

Little Havana

Best place to explore urban Miami:

Miami Design District

Best place for a stroll:

South Beach

Best place for dinner:

Cardon Y El Tirano