I spent many childhood summers on road trips through the South. My family made an annual pilgrimage to visit relatives in Mississippi—my mom’s home state. As you can imagine, driving the same route to the same small town got old quickly, especially for a young kid with the attention span of a mayfly. So, my mom being the ever-industrious traveler, found ways to spice up the long drives with quirky roadside interests, delicious rest stops, and creative activities.
My mom did more than just entertain me during those road trips; she introduced me to another side of the Deep South and gave me fond memories to boot, which I have enjoyed sharing with my friends, who have started their own families.
You and I probably aren’t acquainted, but I hope you’ll read on for insights on off-the-beaten-path ways to experience our country’s southern states. There’s more to the South than biscuits and gravy, drawling accents, and country and blues music. If you make an effort to visit these places while you travel through to the bigger destinations, you’ll not only have some family fun but also get a glimpse of true Southern culture.
A really big bird
When I was a middle schooler, this Fort Stockton, Texas, roadside attraction was one of the biggest birds in the world. I’m referring to Paisano Pete, the second largest roadrunner statue in the world at 11 feet high and 22 feet long.
My first thought when I saw it was, “There’s a larger one somewhere?”
Pete’s fellow giant is Recycled Roadrunner (20 feet tall and 40 feet long), who stands in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Recycled Roadrunner is comprised of materials including discarded crutches, shoes, and keyboards. If you’re in New Mexico, that may be worth a quick stop.
Back in Fort Stockton, poised in a mid-run action shot, Pete looks like a bird on a mission to get somewhere fast. Perhaps a comment on our busy, go-everywhere lives? Or, maybe it’s just a nice opportunity to see a small town’s claim to fame and get out of the car for a stretch and a novelty shot. Fort Stockton isn’t a major highway stop, but it’s a nice way to escape the busy interstates for some country highways. Located near highways 67, 285, and 385, these roadways will provide that rat-race-free change of scenery with quaint towns and one really big bird.
Cruising Interstate 40 through Arkansas late in the afternoon, we were getting hungry and almost hangry. Then a hand-painted sign the size of a mini billboard caught our eyes, advertising Nick’s Bar-B-Q & Catfish. Claiming to be a world-famous barbecue joint with all the fixings, we were just hungry enough to be adventurous.
Driving down a dirt road off of the interstate exit, we wondered if we took a wrong turn. But, a wooden structure with bright red letters spelling “Nick’s” soon came into view. The parking lot was packed—a good sign for a restaurant. Inside—a wall of famous faces, all autographed and many praising the amazing BBQ. My mom spotted George Strait’s picture and that was enough for her to know this was a great place to eat.
The staff knew most of their patrons by name but made us newcomers feel equally welcome. Sitting at a simple folding table, we were treated to a fabulous down-home flavor bomb. Fresh caught and fried catfish, sweet brown sugar barbecue, and crisp coleslaw—I could have slurped that dark, sugary barbecue sauce straight, and pretty much did. The tip from this story is simple: go to Nick’s.
Cheekwood Estate & Gardens
On one of our side trips back south, we ventured past the neon lights and steel guitars of Nashville and the purple velvet of Graceland to see a more natural side of Tennessee. The 55 acres of pristinely cultivated gardens at Cheekwood Estate & Gardens are a wonderland of color, floral scents, and grandeur. Formerly the estate of a well-to-do couple, a 1930s mansion anchors the estate and serves as an art museum. However, the surrounding acreage is the true star, as it bursts with color with more than 150,000 blooms during the summer and thousands of sparkling lights for the holidays. In simple terms, it is just darn pretty to look at. Prepare to walk through the various themed gardens with camera at the ready and mouth gaping.
Being our end destination for most of our Southern road trips, we spent a lot of time exploring the state in between family meals and activities. A few highlights worth checking out are simple excursions any family can do on a lazy afternoon.
Natchez Trace Parkway
This scenic drive spans three states (Alabama, Tennessee, and Mississippi), but many of the access points are within Mississippi. Lush greens, old trees, and many Instagram-ready landscapes await you along the 444 miles of recreational roadway. The parkway is your connection to some historic stops like prehistoric mounds and battlefields on top of some trailheads that mark the start of winding hikes through the woods.
The Natchez Trace felt like a right of passage for me, as it follows a corridor once used by American Indians, European settlers, soldiers, and many other historical figures that shaped the South. Following the footsteps of ancestors and Southerners past, it’s a roadmap to the South’s heritage.
Elvis Presley Birthplace
If you’re an Elvis fan, this is a no brainer. Even if you’re not a fan, I still say, “Why not?” Where else will you come across an attraction like this? While Europe and most other countries have their royal castles and manors or ruins of empires, we have the hallowed grounds of pop culture phenomena.
Elvis’s humble beginnings are chronicled at the Elvis Presley Birthplace in Tupelo, Mississippi, but the park does it in rock-and-roll style. The shack Elvis was born in stands alone on the edge of an immaculate green lawn. Guides tell visitors what life would have been like for the singer and his family. The angelic white church he sang in is a short walk away, as are the graves of his family members, including his twin brother, Jesse, who was stillborn.
Of course, the park wouldn’t be complete without a lavish car on display and a gift shop with every Elvis bobble you could think of. However, the part that truly conveys Elvis’ simple beginnings is the experience of driving to and from the park. The neighborhood surrounding the park is still quite modest and harkens to simpler times, as you’ll see several front porches with rockers facing out to watch the day go by.
Honeysuckle grows pretty much everywhere in the South, and its nectar tastes true to its name. Some of my fondest memories are of my mom and me pulling the centers out of honeysuckle flowers and dripping the nectar onto our tongues. We both seemed to turn into little kids when doing this, creating a new experience for me and reliving childhood for my mom. Just Google “how to eat honeysuckle” and you’ll find instructions on how to extract the golden syrup. You’ll also learn that it’s not recommended to consume the berries, but the blooms’ nectar is delicious.
As you plan your next family road trip, remember to make a few stops along the way to get an experience beyond the ordinary. Especially in the South, there’s a lot to discover that will not only reveal the true nature of a place, but also make for good tales around the table.