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  • Writer's pictureRuby's Winding Road

On the Road to the Great Smoky Mountains: Planetarium, Meriwether Lewis, and Whiskey Landmark!

"Do you wanna go on a road trip?"

My lovable husband posed that question to me shortly after meeting him nearly a quarter century ago. I was never much of a road trip person up until that point. I never understood the appeal of hitting the open road and that was because I was going about it all wrong. Driving beyond the boundaries of my comfort zone was scary, boring and time consuming. When I went somewhere on a trip, I was focused on "getting there" and failed to understand the journey was half the fun.

A view of the Smoky Mountains from a scenic overlook.
A view in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Over the last 25 years or so, my perception of a road trip has gradually and dramatically changed. I'm not so wrapped up in "getting there" anymore. I've learned to zig and zag along the way, use interstate highways sparingly, and just enjoy the trip. It's been a blessing. I've seen so many places I had only previously heard about and never thought I'd actually get to see in person. Incredibly, I've learned about super interesting places I never knew existed until I happened upon them. That's the joy of a good road trip.

We set out this past fall with the intention of making it to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We had been there before years ago and enough time had passed that it was time to go back. We had a general route in mind, but no concrete plans for where to stay or what to see along the way. Since we're now retired we were in no hurry. We headed east from central Missouri.

Trail of Tears State Park/Jackson, Missouri

Our first stop was Trail of Tears State Park in Jackson, Missouri in the southeast region of the state. In the 1830s, Cherokee Indian groups crossed the Mississippi River near this location as they were forcibly relocated to Oklahoma as part of the Indian Removal Act of 1830. A trip to the Visitor Center allows guests the opportunity to better understand this sad chapter in our country's history. Exhibits at the Visitor Center tell the story of this grueling journey known as the Trail of Tears. While the related history of this area is preserved and shared by Missouri State Parks, there is also an effort to focus on the park's beautiful natural scenery.

Trail of Tears State Park is a wonderful place to learn, hike and picnic near the Mississippi River. In fact, it's the only Missouri park near the Mississippi. You can enjoy the native plants and wildlife as you explore.

The park has two small campgrounds. The campground in which we stayed, the Mississippi River Campground, is located next to the river and just yards from an active railroad track. Though a chain-link fence separates the campground from much of the track, trains do pass frequently and the track is accessible in some locations. That's something to take note of if you have kiddos with you.

While the rumbling trains and train whistle blasts didn't really bother us, it is worthy to take note of the track's proximity to the campground. It can be a bit jarring to see a train headlight roaring through the area at night. And, while you'll have a wonderful view of the Mississippi River, you might also experience the droning engine noise and "toot" from a river barge chugging along adjacent to the campground. That said, any place near the river in Missouri usually involves trains and barges. We did, of course, have a pretty good time during our stay.

Sign showing ten states along the Mississippi River that are a part of the Great River Road.
States along Great River Road

Trail of Tears State Park is a part of a network of must see stops along the Great River Road that spans the length of the Mississippi River. From the upper reaches of Minnesota to the tip of Louisiana at the Gulf of Mexico, the Great River Road is an engaging road trip. For us, however, we were en route to the Smokies and continued east.

Leaving Missouri for Illinois, we traveled across the interesting cable-stay Emerson Memorial Bridge in Cape Girardeau. It opened in 2003 and spans almost 4,000 feet across the Mississippi River to the Land of Lincoln. Not long after crossing, we had traveled through the narrow bottom tip of Illinois and into Kentucky. Pup needed a walk by now and we did too. We looked for a place to stop.

Golden Pond Visitor Center/Land Between the Lakes, Kentucky

We ended up at Golden Pond Visitor Center at Land Between the Lakes for our stretch. This little gem is located between Kentucky and Barkley Lakes in Kentucky. The Golden Lakes peninsula spans into Tennessee. This National Recreation Area is managed by the U.S. Forest Service.

In addition to an opportunity to stretch our legs, we were treated to a Visitor Center that included just a few exhibits about the history of the people who lived on the land between the two lakes. There are a lot of brochures available describing area attractions and a staffed information desk if you have questions or need recommendations. A small gift shop has trinkets for those who like to browse a bit. And, if you enjoy gazing at the stars, the Visitor Center offers a show in the attached Planetarium for a small fee. Pretty neat.

Meriwether Lewis/Natchez Trace Parkway, Tennessee

During our road trip to the Great Smoky Mountains, we went searching for a famous explorer. Southwest of Nashville is the Meriwether Lewis Burial Monument. Lewis is known for co-leading the Corps of Discovery Expedition from 1804-1806 with William Clark. You know... Lewis and Clark.

The Lewis Monument is located along the Natchez Trace Parkway and Highway 20 near the town of Hohenwald, Tennessee. It's here the famed explorer and governor of the Upper Louisiana Territory is buried not far from the house in which he died from a gun shot wound in 1809.

As described at the small log visitor information station, Lewis was on his way to Washington D.C. from St. Louis when he died. His route would have taken him by water via the Mississippi River to New Orleans and then up the east coast. However, trying to protect his journals and fearing the British patrolling the seacoast, Lewis abandoned his plans and instead traveled across land using the Natchez Trace corridor. The 35-year-old Lewis stopped at this location on the evening of October 10 at an inn named Grinder's Stand. He was shot that evening and died from his injury early the next morning.

There is mystery surrounding the circumstances of Lewis' death, leading many to speculate on whether it was murder or suicide. While it's not known for certain, it is thought by historians that Lewis might have committed suicide. It had been reported Lewis was in deteriorating health and had been behaving unusually.

Lewis lay in an unmarked grave in this area until a monument was erected nearly 40 years later in 1848.

In addition to visiting the Meriwether Lewis Monument, guests can check out the small visitor exhibit and walk a portion of the Old Natchez Trace. The Natchez Trace is a well-traveled and historic corridor once used by Native Americans and other settlers. In addition to exploring the trail, there's a basic campground in the park.

For those wishing for a beautiful scenic drive, the Natchez Trace Parkway runs more than 400 miles from Natchez, Mississippi to Nashville, Tennesee. Be sure to check lenth and height restrictions via the National Park Service website if traveling in your RV.

Jack Daniel Distillery/Lynchburg, Tennessee

Continuing eastward through Tennessee we reached Lynchburg. It's home to the Jack Daniel Distillery. The distillery is on the National Register of Historic Places. We learned it was registered in 1866 and is the country's oldest distillery.

It's here you can go on a distillery tour, sample a little whiskey or just mill around a bit. As we were happening through the area for just a short time (and having our pup in tow), we decided to save the tour for another visit. Those who had been on the tour, however, said their experience was great.

We did take time to walk the nicely maintained grounds. We sat on the porch in rockers and watched people roam about. Having endured on and off rain in the preceding days, we enjoyed the momentary sunshine. My pup and I had our picture taken in an oversized rocking chair that made us look like tiny. Though, we quickly climbed down when we saw a large group of children running toward us because they wanted to be next! We barely escaped in time...eek!

Of course, we strolled through the on-site shop to look at the varieties of whiskey. There were so many from which to choose. Do you stick with the classic Old No. 7 that earned a gold medal way back in 1904 at the World's Fair in St. Louis or go for something newer? Hmmm. We decided to ponder that question. No purchase this time. Interestingly, Lynchburg is located in a dry county, but we understand a souvenir bottle of Jack Daniel's can still be purchased at the distillery at certain times.

Jack Daniel Distillery displaying whiskey varieties to purchase.
Lots of whiskey!

Of course, the whiskey is the star of the show here, but Jack Daniel's is pretty proud of their hand-crafted white oak barrels, too. We learned they're used only once to perfectly age whiskey at their distillery. From there, the barrels are reused by others for making products like beer and hot sauce. Of course!

While there's nothing like visiting in person, Jack Daniel's does offer an augmented reality app on Google Play or the Apple App Store that allows people to visit the distillery and the town of Lynchburg. Using the app, it's advertised just point your phone at a Jack Daniel's bottle and away you go! I watched a video of this innovation, but haven't tried it myself to get the full affect. Sooo.... good luck with that if you have the urge to give it a try.

We happened upon an impromptu car show in the parking area while visiting Jack Daniel's. Seems there was a pretty big group of car folks heading to an actual car show (or so we were told) in their hot rods and cool cruisers. They stopped for a bit at the distillery. While they were checking out the whiskey, we took time to check out their shiny rides. So nice! You just never know what you're going to see out there. Fun!

Old Stone Fort State Archaeological Park/Manchester, Tennessee

Old Stone Fort State Archaeological Park was just a hop, skip, jump down the road from the Jack Daniel Distillery (about a half hour). This park is almost 800 acres in size. It includes the Old Stone Fort believed to have been built almost 2,000 years ago and served as a Native American ceremonial location. Visitors can explore the park and Visitor Center to learn the area's history. The park is also a place for camping, hiking and fishing. If you plan to stay for a bit, toss a small pair of binoculars in your hiking bag to catch a glimpse of various bird species.

We headed to this park for the night, went for a walk, made a tasty pasta dinner and enjoyed a peaceful night to recharge for our trip into the Smokies the next day. Yea! The Smoky Mountains were next!

On the Road to the Smokies

A view of the road through the windshield.
Heading into the Smokies!

We were on the cusp of our destination, but we had already enjoyed a number of stops along the way. Each one uniquely interesting. We would find even more places to explore on the way home.

Our road trip advice is to go with the flow and keep an open mind. There's a lot of information online nowadays, but an old school Road Atlas is worth a purchase. Pick up a National Park Passport Book for ideas about parks and historic sites in the area of your travels and keep it handy. And, stop to look around if you see something that attracts your interest. The only big question when wandering is when to turn for home. That's the one with which we struggle a bit. For this trip, we weren't ready yet. We still had to visit Great Smoky Mountain National Park. We'll be posting about our adventure there soon... so stay tuned.

Thanks for taking time to read our blog. Check out some of our past adventures on We've been traveling and will be posting again soon. You can also follow us on Facebook and Instagram. Take care.

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