Are you planning a family road trip to the Southeastern US national parks? Maybe you’re thinking about Mammoth Cave, Smoky Mountains, Fort Sumter, or Congaree National Park?

Last spring, we took a national parks road trip west to see Grand Teton, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon (and more!). We had such a great time that we decided to follow up with a trip to the southeast corner of the United States this year for our “end of school” adventure.




Planning a family road trip is always time-intensive, so we try to start early and break it down into reasonable chunks:

  • CHOOSE DATES. This year, since we were traveling south, we decided to go at the end of April to avoid the worst of the summer heat. And it worked — we alternated between shorts and T-shirts and pants with sweatshirts. (The hotel we chose in South Carolina had an outdoor pool, but it wasn’t “open for the season” when we were there.)


  • PICK DESTINATIONS. We made a whole list of places we could visit, and then each person got to pick their top 2-3. (There was a lot of overlap.) I like mountains, so Smoky Mountains National Park was a definite yes. Both kids picked the US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville as their top choice. And since we were SO close to the ocean (relatively speaking, from a Midwestern point of view), it seemed silly not to go all the way to the coast.Other initial spots: Mammoth Cave, Fort Sumter, Congaree NP (since we would literally be driving past it), and Springfield, IL on our way back.


Southern US Trip Map

This wasn’t our exact route, but it shows the highlights!


    • Two nights tent-camping at Mammoth Cave National Park and Cade’s Cove campground in Smoky Mountains National Park. (1)
    • Two nights in Charleston, SC to restock groceries, do laundry, and spend some time outside of the car.
    • One night tent-camping in Tallulah Gorge State Park.
    • One night near Huntsville, AL.
    • One night in Springfield, IL. (2)


(1) Camping in National Parks has been 100% awesome so far — nice sites, clean bathrooms, mostly quiet campgrounds.

(2) Our night in Springfield, IL helped to break up the trip home. (We learned on our last trip that driving NINE hours on the last day was…unpleasant.)



I’m not really an “outdoorsy” person, but having all the right gear makes all the right difference.

Check out our list of camping essentials to see which items made the final cut!

Camping at National Parks


  • ADD IN EXTRA STOPS. With the help of the National Parks app and maps we picked up along the way, we found a few more places to visit:
    • Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park (Hodgenville, KY)
    • Fort Moultrie National Historical Park (Charleston, SC — right across from Fort Sumter, with beach access!)
    • Angel Oak Tree (Charleston, SC)
    • Hurricane Falls (Tallulah Gorge State Park, GA)
    • Helen Keller Birthplace/Muscle Shoals Sound Studios (Tuscumbia, AL)
    • Fort Jefferson Hill Park (Wickliffe, KY — great view of the Mississippi River)
    • Lincoln Home National Historic Site (Springfield, IL)
    • Lincoln Tomb Historic Site (Springfield, IL)


Southern US National Parks Road Trip



This basic framework gave us lots of freedom to take detours and add new stops along the way. Our final itinerary ended up looking like this: 

  • Day 1: drive to Mammoth Cave campground via Indianapolis and Louisville, stop at Abraham Lincoln’s National Historic Park
  • Day 2: Mammoth Cave tour, drive to Cades Cove campground in Smoky Mountains National Park
  • Day 3: drive through Smoky Mountains National Park to Charleston 
  • Day 4: Fort Moultrie outdoor tour + beach, wave to Fort Sumter, dolphin watching, Angel Oak Tree
  • Day 5: drive to Tallulah Gorge State Park, Hurricane Falls hike 
  • Day 6: drive to Huntsville, tour the US Space & Rocket Center
  • Day 7: visit Helen Keller’s Birthplace (Tuscumbia, AL), cross the Mississippi River in Wickliffe, KY, drive to Springfield, IL 
  • Day 8: tour Lincoln’s Home (National Historic Site) and Tomb, drive home


Southern US Road Trip



Every Kid Outdoors is a “federal public lands youth initiative to get all 4th graders and their families to experience the places that are home to our country’s natural treasures, rich history, and vibrant culture… Every year, beginning September 1, all kids in the fourth grade have access to their own Every Kid Outdoors pass at This pass provides free access to national parks across the country.”

Last year, we used our pass for entrance to several of the parks — but you do NOT need a pass to get into Mammoth Cave, Smoky Mountains, or Congaree National Park. We also did not pay any fees at either of the Lincoln sites we visited or Fort Moultrie (near Fort Sumter in Charleston, SC). We do buy souvenirs at every park we visit, plus any camping fees and/or Junior Ranger books (some parks DO charge for this program, and we think it’s worth it).


Have you been to any of these Southeastern US destinations? Do you have any questions for me?