Greenville, SC; Flat Rock, NC; Pisgah National Forest; and Franklin, NC (145 Miles)
With one leg of our cross-the-South road trip in the rearview mirror—having dipped our toes in Lowcountry culture in Charleston and caught a baseball game in Greenville—my driving partner Tim and I wake at Park House Bed & Breakfast in Greenville (parkhousebedandbreakfast.com; rooms from $169) with mountain majesty on our minds. Heading north out of the city (after a hearty breakfast of apple-and-Brie French toast at the inn), it's not long before the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains appear, a comforting dusky cornflower streak in the distance, and pasture scents flood in through the open car windows. Approaching the Cherokee Foothills National Scenic Byway (aka S.C. 11), we spot a sign for boiled peanuts at the intersection of U.S. 276 and S.C. 11. The American flag mounted on the side of Sandy Newsome's trailer (license plate: "Peanut Queen") is nearly as large as the trailer itself—which barely has room for its petite blonde proprietor and the giant steel vat from which she serves peanuts in supersize Styrofoam cups for $3. Sandy sends us off with a cupful and a tip for a shortcut.
I take a wrong turn right away and end up detouring through Flat Rock, North Carolina, home to a short strip of colorful storefronts selling mountain honey and local art. The "WHY BE MISERABLE? EAT HERE" sign at Dean's Market and Deli (828/692-5770), a converted gas station with a screened porch, draws us in for turkey-apple-pepper Jack sandwiches.
There are waterfalls all along this stretch of North Carolina, but you can't beat Looking Glass Falls, a broad, 60-foot stunner just off U.S. 276 North about 6 miles past the Pisgah National Forest ranger station. The ice-cold water hasn't deterred kids from scrambling on the rocks behind the falls, but it keeps us to toe-dipping and slack-jawed admiration.
Back in the car, we climb higher into the misty clouds, passing from one national forest into the next. Aside from a brief stop to buy white raku vases at the Cowee Mountain Clay pottery studio (828/421-9678), we are totally engrossed in mist and only mist. Our meandering path reveals that picturesque mountain communities are almost as abundant as waterfalls in these parts. We pick Franklin, a gem-mining town with easy access to the Appalachian Trail, and check in to Oak Hill Country Inn (oakhillcountryinn.com; rooms from $110), with its hardwood floors, all-white bedding, and mountain views all around. The innkeepers point us to Caffé REL (828/369-9446) for dinner, an unexpectedly ambitious bistro run by an alum of The Greenbrier tucked inside a Hot Spot gas station.
Franklin, NC; Cherokee National Forest; and Chattanooga, TN (147 Miles)
We've barely started driving when Tim makes a terrifying U-turn at a lookout 10 miles west of Franklin. Judging from the declarations of love spray-painted onto the safety railing, he wasn't the only one so moved.
After about an hour, we pass Brasstown, home to the John C. Campbell Folk School, a bucolic learning center dedicated to Appalachian crafts. Down the road in Murphy, there's a handful of low-key lunch options, such as Blue Mountain Coffee & Grill (bluemtngrill.com), known for its burgers and pie, and Parker's Drugs (828/837-1395), an old-fashioned soda fountain in the back of a red-brick drugstore.
Next we enter Cherokee National Forest, and a beautiful stretch of white water along the Ocoee River opens up to our left. Ocoee Rafting (ocoeerafting.com) leads guided trips down the Middle Ocoee several times a week, and the Upper Ocoee, site of the 1996 Olympic whitewater competition, on weekends.
As we make our way out of the mountains, the landscape mellows into flatter terrain marked by riverside cabin rentals and zip-line outfitters. We know we're close to Chattanooga when we see the iconic barn-roof signs advertising Rock City (seerockcity.com) on top of Lookout Mountain, from which you can see seven states on a clear day. We're bunking at the Bluff View Inn (bluffviewartdistrict.com; rooms from $105), a B&B spread across three historic homes overlooking the Tennessee River, but we're looking for something a little rowdier for our evening. A friend had tipped us off to Champy's Famous Fried Chicken (champyschicken.com), a late-night spot with hand-breaded fried chicken and cold beer—mostly served in 40-ounce bottles. Not quite ready to hit the hay, we head to the artsy Southside to check out the Flying Squirrel (flyingsquirrelbar.com), a design-forward watering hole where a young crowd sips The Opportunist cocktail (gin, lime juice, and habanero-ginger syrup) under the dim light of a wooden kayak chandelier.
Chattanooga, TN (3 Miles)
Chattanooga's in the midst of a downright renaissance. We've made time for window-shopping along Warehouse Row (warehouserow.net), where we linger in front of the antiques-and-vintage-housewares store Revival (revivalhome.com) and lament all the gorgeous stuff that won't fit in our trunk. And the boom isn't limited to the districts south of the Tennessee River. The call of house-made gelato and wacky coffee drinks (coconut milk and horchata lattes) lures us past the Hunter Museum of American Art (huntermuseum.org) and over the Market Street Bridge to the North Shore neighborhood, where Milk & Honey (milkandhoneychattanooga.com) has a long, open-air counter and serves Counter Culture Coffee and icy treats in flavors such as sweet beet, ruby red rosemary, and the namesake milk and honey.
Not that we need any more sugar, but there's one last thing to tick off our list: MoonPies for the road. The snack was invented by Chattanooga Bakery (moonpie.com) in 1917 and has been made here ever since—to the tune of about a million pies a day. Along with the final barn-roof sign we pass reminding us that Rock City is just a few miles behind us, it's a fitting farewell to this corner of Tennessee and this little sliver of our trip.