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How to Explore the Great River Road in Tennessee

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As the Great River Road follows the Mississippi River it passes through Tennessee on its eastern path. For much of the length of the Great River Road in Tennessee, it meanders through similar rural territory that you’ll find in Kentucky or neighboring Arkansas. This route is then punctuated with one of the most famous cities in the South, Memphis. With this in mind, we will look at travelling down the Great River Road in Tennessee in these two parts. The state is definitely a study in contrasts and following the Mississippi River a great way to see that!

A sign for the Great River Road in Tennessee
We began our journey down the Great River Road in Tennessee a little late in the day!

The Great River Road North of Memphis

As you leave Kentucky on the Great River Road, you’ll quickly come to the first potential stop. Right off Tennessee 78 is Reelfoot Lake. The lake and associated parks offer fishing opportunities. Bald Eagles also nest among the cypress trees of the lake. You’ll find a number of cabins, lodges and camping along the shores of the lake. Honestly, the history of the lake itself is really unique. It was created by the 1811-1812 New Madrid earthquakes, which caused flooding and the Mississippi to run backwards forming the lake!

If you’re looking to do a bit of shopping or just want to spend some time in small town America, you can swing through Dyersburg. The largest city in western Tennessee (besides Memphis), Dyersburg is town recently revitalized. In fact this is a common theme with many of the towns in the area. Small towns like Ripley and Covington are prime for giving you that small town feel. Depending on when you swing down the Great River Road in Tennessee, you might even be able to catch a county fair or Ripley’s own Tomato Festival!

A few miles south of Ripley, you’ll find a piece of fairly well preserved history. Fort Pillow State Historic Park protects the remains of the eponymous fort. It was built by the Confederacy in 1861, but abandoned in 1862 due to the Union advance down the Mississippi. When visiting the park you’ll be able to see the preserved breastworks, as well as a reconstruction of the inner fort. For history buffs, this is a great stop on the Great River Road in Tennessee.

Quick Guide to Memphis

Memphis is a destination city in its own right. Fortunately, for those cruising down the Great River Road in Tennessee you’ll have to pass right through the city. Memphis is a cultural hub of the south, offering plenty to see and do. I’d suggest planning a minimum of two days in the city, though you could easily stretch that into three or four for a deeper experience.

For the days you’re spending in Memphis, there are plenty of attractions to bring you in. If the weather is nice, the Memphis Botanic Garden is an excellent choice. The grounds are easily walkable and they often have unique events or displays. When we visited, they had huge Alice in Wonderland themed topiaries which we super neat. Other outdoor suggestions include the Memphis Zoo or the 4,500 acre Shelby Farms Park.

The Lorraine Motel is a must visit site along the Great River Road in Tennessee
The National Civil Rights Museum occupies the site of the Lorraine Motel

Closer to downtown you’ll find a number of excellent museums as well. The Blues Hall of Fame is right off of Main Street and features a number of great exhibits on blues music. It’s also a short walk to the National Civil Rights Museum. This museum, located in the Lorraine Motel, is a powerful testament to the lives of so many people disenfranchised for so long. It also tells the powerful story of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. You can’t visit Memphis, or drive the Great River Road, without a stop here.

Memphis has plenty to offer at night as well. The world famous Beale Street cuts through the heart of downtown. The music here is rocking and rolling all night long. You’ll find street performers, bars with live music, and some pretty tasty food as well. I recommend a stop at B.B. King’s Blues Club for live music and food. No matter how you choose to spend your days, you’ll have to spend at least one night on Beale Street.

The Beale Street sign just off the Great River Road in Tennessee
You can’t make a trip to Memphis without visiting Beale Street

Planning Your Trip To Tennessee’s Great River Road

So, you’re thinking to yourself what else do you need to consider when planning this trip. The first question I’d ask is if you’re doing a larger trip up or down the Mississippi River? Visiting this portion of Tennessee is a pretty vital part of any larger trip. You can easily drive the entire length in a single day. From that perspective, I’d make sure you plan at least one night in Memphis. You could even stay in the famous Bass Pro Shop pyramid then!

With the Great River Road being your destination in Tennessee, you’ve got more options. Split your stays between time in Memphis and time near Reelfoot Lake. Doing some camping or sleeping in a cabin on Reelfoot will give you a large variety of experiences. Get a feel for rural Tennessee and mother nature, then enjoy everything a city like Memphis has to offer. It’s the best of both worlds!

Final Thoughts on the Great River Road in Tennessee

Much of the focus when travelling through Tennessee on the Great River Road is what you’ll see in Memphis. There are worthwhile stops on the way, but if you’ve only got a small amount of time make sure to spend it in Memphis. This was our strategy when we made the entire ten state trip in 2022. Overall, the Tennessee portion doesn’t have the same wow factor as states like Iowa, Illinois, or Minnesota. Yet, it does provide a easy-going, laid-back atmosphere that has it’s own attraction. Take advantage of that vibe when you decide to make your trek.

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