Southern Charm - A Cross Country Road Trip Through the Spectacular Southern States
The southern portion of the U.S. is incredibly full of places to see and things to do on a cross country road trip – a smorgasbord of fun! Not only do you get a taste of the antebellum South, you’ll see bayous and gators, sample the delicious debauchery of New Orleans, experience the live-music capital of the world in cowboy country, hang out on a real dude ranch, see gorgeous parks and deserts (including the mind-blowing Grand Canyon), as well as try for some star sightings and plenty of other fun-in-the-California-sun.
Many people dream of taking a cross country road trip – it is the ultimate road tripping experience. Be prepared for the trip to take you anywhere from three weeks to two months depending on how long you spend in each state and if it’s round-trip. Three weeks will be cutting it close on a one-way and will mean less fun and more days that feel like you never get out from behind the wheel, so I suggest you err on the side of more time, not less. See this article on mapping your road trip if you need more help. This trip runs from east to west, but there’s no reason why you can’t switch it around and ride in the opposite direction.
As far as timing, this is a great cross country road trip all year long, but be prepared for some powerful heat in the summertime. What would be the best time in terms of weather for you to take this southern cross-country road trip? In the fall (October or November) or in the spring (April and May) when the temperatures are friendly and the roads have cleared of summertime traffic. Be prepared for rain - not constant, but a part of many days - in the spring, however. In the fall, there may be a chance of a hurricane while you’re in the southeast, as well.
Kick start your cross country road trip in one of the most richly Southern and historical cities in the South, Charleston, South Carolina. A word of advice: bring a healthy appetite on this road trip. You’ll be gorging yourself on some of the best food you’ve eaten in your life!
Cross Country Road Trip Hit List – Southern Route
My husband and I live in North Carolina, and though it is the "South", it’s not the Deep South of South Carolina. There is so much history and beauty in this state, you could easily build an entire week around it and its neighbor, Georgia. As you’re on a cross country road trip, though, you’ll want to squeeze more out of less time, so here are the highlights:
- Charleston – When it comes to Southern cities, Charleston is the belle of the ball. With all of its intact colonial architecture and historical monuments, this a dream-come-true for history buffs. Wander the downtown, sample some outstanding road food (this city has some of the most delicious Southern cuisine around), and take in a tour if you can. The best historical tour hands down is Ed Grimball’s Walking Tour of Historic Charleston (opens in a new window).
- Southern Plantations – Feel like you’ve been transported into Gone with the Wind when you visit the plantations in the nearby Ashley River area on your cross country road trip (south on US-17 and a right on SC-61). On 61, you’ll be traveling on a scenic byway lined by ancient live oaks dripping with Spanish moss. Top plantations to visit include Magnolia Plantation (remarkable gardens and plantation house – plan this visit for a rain-free day to enjoy the gardens) and Middleton Place (for some of its unique preserved outbuildings including slave quarters) and Drayton Hall. If you want to see where scenes from Gone with the Wind were shot, visit nearby Boone Hall Plantation (we loved the long corridor of live oaks there).
- Hilton Head – Want to see how the other half lives? This playground for the rich is home to some outstanding golf courses, beautiful beaches (and a cool place to see a swamp), and a charming downtown with lots of great art galleries. Climb the town’s icon, the red striped Harbourtown Lighthouse, play a round of golf if you’re inclined, explore the elevated walkways over a swamp at the Sea Pine Forest Preserve, or just hit the wonderful sandy beach and go for a swim. If you’re a golfer, you could spend days here on your cross country road trip just playing at all the courses (and you may never want to leave!)
Due to most of Georgia being burned by Sherman in the Civil War, not much is left here in the way of the Antebellum South. One great city was spared at the direct request of President Lincoln, and that is our first hit in this state (just head down the coast) as this cross country road trip continues.
- Savannah – Not only is this city a historical gem – the solitary one in this city left intact after Sherman’s "scorched earth" campaign in 1864 – it’s also truly Southern city and a very closed and political one. This fact was made openly known in the famous book (known by locals simply as "The Book") Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. While you’re here, be sure to visit the nearby cemetery featured in the novel (Bonaventure Cemetery is located just outside of the city), stay in one of the cities historic inns, and see its many esteemed museums (especially the Owens-Thomas House and the Mercer House). This is also a great city for historic tours and there are many to choose from.
- Macon – Jump on US-80, or if you’re in a hurry, I-16, and ride up to Macon to visit a true southern city (unlike the last "hit" in Georgia: Atlanta). Like Savannah, Macon still has many intact antebellum homes, and to top it off, it’s not only the cherry-blossom capital of the world (more cherry trees than DC!) it’s also the home the Georgia Music Hall of Fame. A long list of music greats came from Georgia including Ray Charles, James Brown and Gladys Knight (and then some). Like Nashville and Memphis, TN, Macon is a must-see stop for music lovers.
- Juliette – If you love the book and the movie Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café as much as I do, you simply have to go to Juliette, GA on your cross country road trip. No this isn’t the original (which is in Alabama), but the movie was filmed here and will seem much more like what you’ve dreamed of than the town in Alabama. Just hop on Georgia Highway 87 and you’ll run right into it. A real train still rides through, the café is just as you remember it, and you don’t have to ask what’s on the menu, do you?
- Atlanta – Now this is not a Southern town. Like Cary, NC (our home and the Containment Area for Relocated Yankees), most everyone in Atlanta is from somewhere else. Still, it’s a great city and a must-visit, if only for one of the best aquariums in the world. Although I’m a crazed fan for the one in Monterey, CA, nothing can compare with the enormous and remarkable Georgia Aquarium. You’ll see every marine life form out there from a giant octopus to Japanese sea crabs – there are more species here than any other aquarium in the world. Even the most jaded will admit that the Ocean Voyager exhibit with its many whale sharks and stingrays is fantastic. The lines can be long, though, so if you can, get a City Pass and you’ll not only get to see other downtown sights (World of Coca Cola, the Zoo, and the Inside CNN tour), you’ll also be in the fast line to get in - rather the one that stretches for miles.
Continue this southern cross country road trip into Alabama and you’re heading into the heart of the South – "Sweet Home Alabama" was a rebuttal, after all! This state has its own major piece of U.S. history (Rosa Parks), some outstanding barbecue (like most of the South, it’s unique to that area), and lots of great sights to see.
- Montgomery – In addition to a huge role in our country’s history, Montgomery is both modern and old-school Southern. Most famously, the Civil Rights Movement sparked in this city when Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man. The Rosa Parks Library and Museum is a tribute to that great woman and her act of courage (and all the change it initiated in our country). Visiting it as well as the Civil Rights Memorial is a must-do while you’re in town. In addition, be sure to step back in time and visit Old Alabama Town, a wonderful place to explore that replicates a 19th Century town perfectly down to the quaint one-room schoolhouse.
- Mobile – Continue your cross country road trip in a southwestern direction and you’ll land right in Mobile, where you can chow down on some outstanding Southern cooking. Road food is an essential part of any road trip plan – it really gives you a feeling for a place. Top places to dine in Mobile for a plateful of the South? For great fried chicken, look no further than Hart’s Fried Chicken and for some real Southern Barbecue, go to Brick Pit. Both have so many rave reviews and obsessive fans that one of the major reasons to go to Mobile is to pig out! There are also great sights like the USS Alabama Battleship and some fun historic museums including Oakleigh House and the Magee Farm.
- Bellingrath Gardens – Just down the road from Mobile in Theodore you’ll find one of the top public gardens in the U.S., Bellingrath Gardens. If your legs are starting to feel cramped on this cross-country road trip (and you went to town on plenty of hearty Southern fare in Mobile), the 65 acres of beautiful gardens to explore will burn some butter and work out the kinks. Wherever you walk on these meandering walkways, you’ll be confronted from early spring to late fall with incredible fields of flowers, arching bridges a-la-Monet over reflective ponds, and special gardens like the Japanese Garden.
Next, we’ll be heading further west on this cross country road trip and into bayou country! Keep your eyes peeled for gators and put your dancing shoes – we’re about to hit one of my favorite cities in the world (and one of the top ten road trip destinations in the country)…
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