The Ultimate North Carolina To Tennessee Road Trip: From Mountains to Music

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Since we moved to Raleigh, we’ve been taking plenty of road trips to uncover more of the USA. One of our favorites is a Western North Carolina to Tennessee road trip, which takes you from Raleigh to Memphis.

It combines two things we love: mountains and music. This is a 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.

people listening to outdoor Symphony Chimney Rock village
Symphony Chimney Rock Village

Along the way, you can take in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Lake Lure, Nashville, and so much more, before you get to Memphis.

We have done this road trip several times, so we’ve highlighted the ultimate itinerary for you below so you can fall in love with this route as much as we have!

Best Time to Take A North Carolina to Tennessee Road Trip

Linn Cove Viaduct flanked by bright fall foilage | Photo: Visit NC
Linn Cove Viaduct, Grandfather Mountain, North Carolina, USA.

This NC to TN 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 for a road trip from North Carolina to Tennessee, 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 trails, and scenic drives and you may even see black bears.

The Ultimate North Carolina to Tennessee Road Trip

We have started this road trip in Raleigh as this is where we live, but you can also take this Raleigh to Memphis road trip in any direction and start anywhere in North Carolina.

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 weeks, if you want to take it slow and explore a little deeper.

Top tip: Plan in advance so you fit in any special musical events you don’t want to miss.

Stop 1: World of Bluegrass Festival, Raleigh

woman on banjo and man on guitar in shack
Fun at the Bluegrass festival in 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.

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.

Otherwise, there are many cool things to do in Raleigh that make it a great place to begin your road trip.

Stop 2: Charlotte

cars on charlotte speedway
Driving Time: 2 hrs 35 / 171 miles

Charlotte is the capital of North Carolina and is a vibrant city that’s worth checking out for a bit of city life before heading into nature. You might be starting your road trip from here instead of Raleigh, and that’s ok, it’s just as compelling a destination as Raleigh.

Known as the Queen City, Charlotte is well known for being a major center for finance and banking, but it’s also known to effortlessly blend its modern urban amenities and natural beauty.

The downtown area is where you’ll find trendy bars, restaurants, and top-notch nightlife.

Some of the top attractions in the city are the NASCAR Hall of Fame, which showcases the rich history and interactive exhibits related to the iconic sport. Be sure to watch a race on the Motor Speedway!

You can also check out the Levine Museum of the New South, which uncovers the history of the post–Civil War era in the South.

Stop 3: The North Carolina Mountains

aerial view of lake lure from Chimney Rock North Carolina
Chimney Rock North Carolina
Driving Time: 1 hrs 45 / 95 miles

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.

Here you will find the Grandfather Mountain to the North, and Chimney Rock in the South. We recommend staying in the South as you will want to stay on this side to get to your next stop.

We have more in-depth suggestions on top places to go in the North Carolina Mountains here, if you’re unsure of what to do there.

If you have more time then incorporate the Blue Ridge Parkway (also known as the Cherohala Skyway), which is a scenic drive that offers 252 miles of sheer beauty, outdoor activities and cute mountain towns.

Stop 4: Lake Lure, North Carolina

mother and child paddle boarding on lake lure, nc attraction
Love Lake Lure!
Driving Time: 10 minutes / 7 miles

Lake Lure is a beautiful place and 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 panoramic views of the Blue Ridge Mountains and Hickory Nut Gorge and the green pine tree forest surrounding the banks.

Did you know 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.

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).

You can also stay in Hendersonville, which is a cool town known for its Civil War history (check out the Henderson County Heritage Museum to learn more).

Watch our video of Lake Lure

Stop 5: Asheville, North Carolina

woman and child taking photos in front of Mural in Downtown Asheville, North Carolina
Mural in downtown Asheville
Driving Time: 48 mins / 28 miles

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.

Stop 6: Biltmore Estate

the biltmore house and estate north carolina
The Biltmore House
Driving Time: 6 minutes / 2 miles

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.

Stop 7: Cherokee

mingo waterfall cascading over rocks
Mingo Falls, Cherokee
Driving Time: 1 hr / 51 miles

Cherokee is famous for having the largest Native American community in the world, the Sequoyah, as well as a miriad of attractions.

Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort is one of the main reasons why people come here. It’s a world-class casino that offers more than just gambling, but we know it’s not everyone’s scene.

It’s also the perfect place to base yourself to access the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Southern Appalachian trail, so if you’re a keen hiker then you’ll want to spend a few days here.

Don’t miss the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, The Oconaluftee Indian Village and Mingo Falls for breathtaking scenery.

Stop 8: Great Smoky Mountains National Park

child on bike cycling the Cades Cove Tennessee bike ride
Biking the Cades Cove Loop
Driving Time: 1 hr 48 mins / 85 miles

We love the green, lush world of the Smokies, which stretches across the border of North Carolina into Tennessee.

We’ve mostly explored the Western Tennessee side and if you are short on time, I recommend doing that, but if you have more time do head over to Eastern Tennessee as this is where you find the music.

The North Carolina side of the Great Smoky Mountains is typically a bit quieter and a more relaxed experience. You can also find the famous Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, a historic railway, which goes from Bryson City to the park if you want to give your car a break.

We recommend you stay in either Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge to access the Great Smoky Mountains. Gatlinburg is mostly about the Smoky Mountains and all the attractions here are part of the national park, but Pigeon Forge is where you’ll find the famous Dollywood theme and water park – I’ll let you make a preference.

There are several great hiking trails and mountain passes including the Little Cataloochee TrailOconaluftee River Trail (great for spring wildflowers), and the 5-mile loop Deep Creek Waterfall hike, which takes you past three beautiful waterfalls.

On the Tennessee side is the fantastic Cades Cove Loop, a biking trail that offers a thrilling experience, as well as 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

Stop 9: Knoxville, Tennessee

woman and children sitting on pier in Meads Quarry
MEads Quarry
Driving Time: 53 minutes / 35 miles

Knoxville is one of the best spots on this NC to TN road trip as it offers so much! At the heart of Knoxville is the charming Market Square, an iconic hub of local culture where you can find a sprawling park surrounded by restaurants, bars, and cafes nestled inside the historic architecture.

Don’t miss the awe-inspiring Ijams Nature Center, an expansive natural sanctuary full of picturesque trails, local wildlife, and serenity. Right near there is Meads Quarry which we loved for a refreshing swim, gorgeous views, and a dose of serenity.

For amazing views, head up the Sunsphere Tower for a unique perspective of Knoxville’s urban and natural landscapes.

Read our guide on best things to do in Knoxville.

Stop 10: Chattanooga, Tennessee

A large body of water with a mountain in the background
Driving Time: 1 hrs 41 / 112 miles

Take a short detour to Chattanooga, a popular spot to blend city life with nature. Located on the Tennessee River, Chattanooga in Tennessee is one of the best places to base yourself for a few days if you want to explore the Appalachian Mountains but without feeling too remote.

It’s a fun outdoor town with a blossoming art scene and great local food.

If you’ve had enough hiking on this road trip, enjoy the Incline Railway to the top of Lookout Mountain and head over to Ruby Falls waterfall and Rock City for incredible views.The Tennesse River is also fun to kayak down as it winds through the city.

It’s also an important destination for Civil War history enthusiasts, as Point Park marks the spot where a Civil War battle took place. You can learn more about it at the Chattanooga Museum.

Don’t miss these fun things to do in Chattanooga. Savannah and I had a great mother daughter getaway there!

Stop 11: Nashville, Tennessee

chris janson on state at the Grand ole opry
Grand Ole Opry Fun
Driving Time: 2 hrs 3 mins / 133 miles

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 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.

Read More:

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

Stop 12: Memphis

woman playing u2 rattle and hum drums Sun Studio
Playing U2s drums at Sun Studio
Driving Time: 3 hrs / 212 miles

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.

Video: Memphis with Kids

Map of This North Carolina to Tennessee Road Trip

To help you plan your road trip, here is a helpful map of the best stops mentioned in this guide:

Final Thoughts

This is one of the best road trips we have taken since moving to Raleigh. There’s something about hitting the open road and being able to witness a vast variety of landscapes and attractions.

From uncovering hidden gems to taking a stroll around an iconic city, or hiking in the Southern Appalachians to shopping for boutiques in a quiet mountain town, there is so much to see and do on this route.

Even the scenery from the car makes it worth it!

We hope this guide helped you plan your North Carolina to Tennessee road trip and gave you some inspiration for places to stop along the way.

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!

Save time by getting our FREE Mountains + Music itinerary guide when you join our free VIP email community. Easy to follow printable with a list of top things to do in each destination.

Click here to join us

More Travel Tips for the South

Need more inspiration for visiting the South in the USA? Here are some other helpful guides!

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