There are plenty of reasons to take a road trip from Nashville to Chattanooga -- delicious food, historical sites, Southern hospitality, live music, and gorgeous scenery among them -- but the outdoor adventures are among some of the best in the U.S. Fill your belly and feed your soul with food and music in Nashville, then set off for multiple stops with hiking, kayaking, waterfalls, and other outdoor adventures in some of the most beautiful -- and always free to enter -- state parks.
Nashville is known for its music scene, but there’s so much more than honky-tonk in this fun city, including arts, a dynamic food scene, opportunities for hiking, and plenty of shopping. If you’ve never visited Nashville before, aim to experience Nashville’s hidden gems to get a true feel for what makes Nashville a great destination.
To sample the music scene, catch a show at Ryman Auditorium and tour the Country Music Hall of Fame, then walk up and down Broadway to listen to live music. There are three venues in one location, so stop at 1 Cannery Row to enjoy music at the Cannery Ballroom, Mercy Lounge, and The High Watt.
After you’ve taken in the music scene, visit the Tennessee State Museum; it’s connected to the Nashville Farmers’ Market and is a good stop if you’re around downtown for lunch. The market is open daily year-round and has a great gift shop called Batch where you can pick up local products.
Husk is a highly-recommended stop in Nashville -- great for a lunch or dinner made with regional ingredients. Visit Hattie B’s Hot Chicken for Nashville hot chicken and pimento mac ’n’ cheese. There’s also Edley’s Bar-B-Que, voted the best barbecue in Nashville, Puckett’s Grocery, or Acme Feed and Seed for lunch (or live music and drinks at night).
Spend time outdoors hiking at Percy Warner Park, or kayak from Shelby Park into downtown with River Queen Voyages. You can also walk across the John Seigenthaler Pedestrian Bridge in downtown Nashville at sunset for great city views.
For shopping, visit Marathon Village located inside a former auto factory built in 1881. While you’re there, stop by Corsair Artisan Distillery, a coffee shop, and Marathon Music Works among other shops. Additional favorite shopping destinations include Olive and Sinclair Chocolate Co. in East Nashville (they do tours on the hour on Saturdays only, during which you get to sample the chocolate), the Goo Goo Cluster shop downtown (where you can make your own candy bar), and The Bookshop in East Nashville.
For an authentic Nashville experience, spend a few nights at Noelle. This experiential hotel partners with local makers, curators, artists, and purveyors, and your experience will include everything from a Nashville ceramist’s wares to farm-fresh seasonal fare.
Stop in Murfreesboro to visit Cannonsburgh Village and walk on the trail nearby. Cannonsburgh Village represents approximately 100 years of early Tennessee life from the 1830s to the 1930s. Tour the village and see a gristmill, a schoolhouse, a telephone operator's house, the University House, the Leeman House, a museum, a caboose, the Wedding Chapel, a doctor's office, a general store, and a blacksmith's shop. A self-guided tour is free.
Before heading to McMinnville, stop by Hattie Jane’s Creamery, a small-batch creamery and scoop shop, and take an ice cream cone for the road.
Approximately halfway between Nashville and Chattanooga lies McMinnville. Stop for lunch at Collins River BBQ in the heart of McMinnville. This local favorite is known for its hickory-smoked ribs and beef brisket. Try it with the white barbecue sauce. It’s a secret recipe that’s reminiscent of a creamy horseradish sauce -- and delicious.
Located in Warren County, known as the Nursery (plants) Capital of the World, you’ll find hundreds of nurseries to shop in and around McMinnville.
While you may not think of rural Tennessee as a place to find a spiritual retreat, the Isha Institute of Inner-Sciences is located there. This mountain retreat offers yoga and meditation classes and hosts the largest meditation and yoga hall in the Western Hemisphere. Set on 1,400 acres, there are also hiking trails that invite you to discover waterfalls and reconnect with nature.
Nearby Cumberland Caverns consist of almost 30 known miles of caving opportunities (plus many more of unexplored, virgin cave) and is Tennessee’s largest show cave. Tour the underground passageways to discover underground rock formations, waterfalls, and gleaming pools. Walking tours are offered on the hour daily between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.
Rock Island State Park
You’ll find beautiful waterfalls and some of the most scenic and significant overlooks along the Eastern Highland Rim at Rock Island State Park. The 883-acre park has plenty of hiking trails to explore. Take the Collins River Nature Trail for a three-mile loop that winds along the riverbank and offers up-close views of wildlife.
Popular sights include Great Falls, Twin Falls, the Blue Hole, the Cold Hole, and the Warm Hole.
There’s a 19th-century cotton textile mill that was powered by Great Falls, a 30-foot horseshoe cascading waterfall that’s located below the mill.
The Caney Fork River Gorge has more waterfalls, deep pools, scenic overlooks, and a limestone path. A great area for hiking, kayaking, swimming, or fishing, the park’s whitewater draws professional freestyle kayakers from around the world.
Note that there isn’t trail access to Twin Falls. You’ll drive to an overlook and take stairs down to the trail. The steps are fairly steep, but once you’ve made it down, it’s a short walk to see the falls.
Immerse yourself in the area by renting one of the park’s cabins. Rock Island State Park has 10 three-bedroom, two-bathroom cabins that are open year-round. If you prefer to camp, there are 60 campsites for RVs and tents.
Fall Creek Falls State Park, near Spencer, is another great state park for hiking, waterfalls, and cascades. The park is one of the largest and most visited state parks in Tennessee with 26,000 acres along the rugged Cumberland Plateau.
In addition to Fall Creek Falls -- one of the highest waterfalls in the eastern U.S. at 256 feet -- you can visit Piney Falls, Cane Creek Falls, and Cane Creek Cascades while in the park.
Chattanooga is rich with history and located close to a myriad of outdoor adventures. Deemed one of the “dirtiest cities in America” by the federal government in 1969, Chatanooga took action to move toward environmentally conscious choices and since then has debuted practices and projects including the world's first LEED Platinum Certified aviation terminal.
In Chattanooga, visit the Tennessee Aquarium, where the rich biodiversity of the Southeast is celebrated through numerous exhibits.
The Bluff View Art District is a funky arts area located in a historic neighborhood. Explore the art galleries, grab something to eat, walk the art-filled park, and shop unique boutiques.
Immerse yourself in history at The Battles for Chattanooga Museum, the newly opened National Medal of Honor Heritage Center, and the Chickamauga National Military Park. Be sure to visit Signal Point, located at the Chickamauga National Military Park, at sunset -- the view is spectacular.
Just six miles from downtown Chattanooga on Lookout Mountain, you’ll find Rock City Gardens. There’s a 4,100-foot walking trail to view rock formations, cross a hanging bridge, and take in the views from scenic overlooks on your way to see the Lover’s Leap waterfall.
Visit Ruby Falls to discover this underground waterfall located more than 1,120 feet below the surface of Lookout Mountain. You’ll take an elevator down then descend an additional 260 feet on foot to explore the cavern trail, see stunning rock formations, and view the deepest cave waterfall open to the public in the U.S.
Enjoy an American Wagyu beef burger at Urban Stack. The restaurant serves unique takes on the American hamburger, including the Fried Green Tomato (with fried green tomato, sharp yellow cheddar, lettuce, white vinegar mayo, remoulade, and Benton’s bacon). Sides include Southern-inspired favorites such as gouda creamed corn and Almost Pickled Beets.
For a unique few nights in Chattanooga, check in at the Chattanooga Choo Choo. In addition to traditional hotel rooms, you can sleep in the Pullman Train Car room. The original train station opened in 1909, and the hotel was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. For more inspiration, check out the best things to see and do in Chattanooga, from walking the Walnut Street Bridge to cruising on the Southern Belle.
Pro Tip: Enjoy this route in autumn for a fall foliage road trip.