Road trip loop: Explore the beautiful coasts of these four Southern states


Note from 10Best: Check with individual businesses and attractions before going, because of sporadic closures due to COVID-19.

Life slows down in the South, so what better way to sample it than a meandering road trip through the South’s coastal states? From northeast Florida’s sun-soaked beaches to the mountains of fall color along the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina, a road trip through the South showcases the best of America’s coastal southern states.

We’ve highlighted the must-sees along the road, but make this road trip of southern states your own; don’t be afraid to stop at that roadside fruit stand or farmer’s market (they’re the best places to find mayhaw jelly in Florida or Carolina barbecue).

Soak in the tastes, sights and sensations of the South, and if you decide to stay a spell longer than you planned, don’t worry – your fast-paced life can wait. Of course, after a few days on these southern roads, you may not want to go back. We can’t say we blame you.

This road trip itinerary creates a loop, meaning you can jump on or off at any point in the following segments, which are broken down by state. Some of these trip legs would take you longer than a day to travel, so it’s up to you to decide how and when you’d like to stop for the night.

Florida to Georgia: Flagler Beach – St. Augustine – Neptune & Atlantic Beach

3 hours, 110 miles on A1A, the St. Johns River Ferry and US 17

Flagler Beach

Road trip loop: Explore the beautiful coasts of these four Southern states

Flagler Beach (at the east end of SR 100 at A1A) has the best waterfront campground in Florida. Campers who plan ahead can snag an oceanfront campsite at Gamble Rogers Memorial State Recreation Area.

Not a camper? A legion of mom-and-pop motels and Airbnbs front the water. Stroll along the roseate sand, which gets its color from coquina shells, tiny shells upon which starfish feast.

Make sure you scrawl some inspirational words (or sign your name) on the black board outside the Funky Pelican, a waterfront burger and fish restaurant on Flagler Pier before settling in for a fish sandwich.

Northeast Florida marks the southern edge of the wildly endangered North Atlantic right whale’s habitat and, every now and then, the eagle-eyed beach bum can catch sight of a whale and, if they’re lucky, her calf. Surfers, far less endangered, also flock to the waves offshore here, as do dolphins, turtles and other coastal dwellers.

St. Augustine

Road trip loop: Explore the beautiful coasts of these four Southern states

The divine ocean vistas continue, unbroken until St. Augustine. Even the beach restrooms are splashed in tropical hues.

At St. Augustine, history buffs can explore the oldest city in the United States, but don’t overlook Lincolnville, a historic Black community settled by freedmen when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. The Lincolnville Museum and Cultural Center walks you through that history.

They can also hook you up with a civil rights walking tour of St. Augustine, including taking you to the spot where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested for attempting to eat at a white restaurant.

Before or after you visit the Lincolnville Museum, take a short walk to the Blue Hen Cafe, a hidden gem serving breakfast and lunch (with vegan and gluten-free options, too). Save room for dinner at Meehan’s Irish Pub, where seafood lovers will make short work of the seafood tower. The pub has no shortage of Irish eats (colcannon, anyone?) and traditional American dishes, too. Grab a seat on the balcony overlooking the water.

Rest your head at Casa de Sueños, a B&B down a quiet, tree-lined street, but not before you sink into a bath in your jetted tub, or unwind with a glass of sherry before bed – every room comes with its own decanter and sweets baked in-house. And wake up to the smells of eggs and bacon (or whatever delicacy your host cooks for that morning’s breakfast).

Traveling with pets? Their sister bed and breakfast, the St. Francis Inn, allows small pets.

Neptune & Atlantic Beaches

Road trip loop: Explore the beautiful coasts of these four Southern states

Before you leave the Sunshine State, there’s one more place you may want to consider for an overnight stop: Neptune and Atlantic Beaches, two small town beaches immediately north of Jacksonville Beach on A1A. These tiny towns boast exactly one resort: One Ocean Resort, a pet-friendly resort with exquisite dining, spectacular vistas and a tranquil spa.

Venture out into town and whet your appetite with oysters at Sliders, slip down the street to Bookmark, a corner bookstore boasting some of Florida’s best writers and feast on seafood at North Beach Fish Camp. Pro tip: try the gator with Datil pepper aioli. Datil peppers, found predominantly in northeast Florida, hit between 100,000 and 300,000 on the Scoville scale. Don’t worry about the heat in this dish, though, because the creaminess of the aioli keeps it in check.

Continue up the road to Mayport, where the St. Johns River Ferry crosses the river every thirty minutes. The ferry leaves every half hour, so don’t resist the temptation to stop for lunch at Safe Harbor Seafood, or stock your cooler with caught-that-morning shrimp or snapper.

Georgia to South Carolina: St. Simons Island – Savannah

3 hours, 130 miles on US 17, including optional detour to St. Simons

Road trip loop: Explore the beautiful coasts of these four Southern states

Across the state line, take your pick: Savannah’s antebellum cobblestones and charm, or small-town beach islands you can explore by bike. If you choose the latter, head east on 341 to St. Simons and settle in for some Southern hospitality.

St. Simons Island

Smack dab in the middle of the Golden Isles, the King and Prince Resort boasts the only waterfront resort on St. Simons Island. Golfers, couples and those who simply crave some pampering make this Georgia beachfront resort home base as they explore St. Simons.

Don’t miss the lighthouse and the Bloody Marsh battle site, where you’ll learn about the War of Jenkin’s Ear (yup, that’s a real war, and yes, Jenkins lost an ear). And when you’re hungry, order the Beachcomber (brisket on sourdough) at Beachcomber BBQ & Grill steps away from the resort.

Savannah

If you’d rather check out Savannah, eschew the downtown hotels for a retro experience at the Thunderbird Inn, right off 17 at the foot of the Talmadge Memorial Bridge. Each room comes with RC Cola and Moon Pies!

The lobby serves hot coffee and Krispy Kreme donuts every morning – and pops popcorn throughout the day. It’s a short hop to the Savannah River, where you can take a ghost tour or riverboat cruise, then feast on fried catfish and Tybee crab corn chowder along the cobblestoned waterfront at the Cotton Exchange Seafood Grill and Tavern.

If you scream (as we all do) for ice cream, Leopold’s has dished up icy confections for more than a century. Expect a line, but it’s worth the wait.

South Carolina to North Carolina: Bluffton – Charleston

5 hours, 260 miles on US 17, SC 315, SC 46, SC 170, US 21 and US 17

Bluffton

Road trip loop: Explore the beautiful coasts of these four Southern states

Not so far from the crowds of Hilton Head Island, Bluffton offers a quieter stay that’s a little more relaxed. Take a walking tour through this historic Lowcountry town, and if you’re there on Thursday, be sure to grab some locally grown veggies at the Bluffton Farmer’s Market (12-5 p.m.).

Don’t miss breakfast or lunch at The Cottage (their shrimp and grits is great for either meal) and plan some time to browse the family-owned shops and galleries, especially Pluff Mud Art.

Road trip loop: Explore the beautiful coasts of these four Southern states

While you’re in the area, pick up a copy of Pat Conroy’s classic, “The Water is Wide,” and hop on a ferry to Dafuskie Island and take a tour with a sixth-generation guide who will teach you about Gullah heritage and how the island has changed since Conroy’s time on the island.

Charleston

You can’t escape Charleston’s long history as a port city. While you can certainly spend days on King Street, on walking tours and strolling through the oldest gardens in the country at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, Charleston has more than that on offer, like tours and tastings among the oaks at Firefly Distillery on Kiawah Island. Forget the moonshine here and ask to taste their Sea Island Java Rum (sold only in South Carolina) instead.

On your way back to the mainland, stop at the Angel Oak, a 500-year-old oak tree with some graceful branches reaching almost 200 feet across the ground and up towards the sky.

Dinner at FIG, the crown jewel of Charleston dining, completes your stay. Their Lowcountry bourride mixes royal red shrimp and mussels. Your mouth will thank you. Pay attention to the veggies too, because if they have ramps (a wild onion-ish veggie only found in the South), they, like the royal reds, are a bucket list item.

North Carolina to South Carolina: Wilmington – Outer Banks – Raleigh – Blue Ridge Parkway

15 hours and 30 minutes, 850 miles on US 17, US 64, US 421, Blue Ridge Parkway and I-26

Wilmington

Road trip loop: Explore the beautiful coasts of these four Southern states

At the northernmost southern state on our road trip, don’t miss a night in Wilmington. Blocks from the Cape Fear river, ARRIVE Wilmington is the only hotel we’ve seen with its own confessional; if you ask, they may even give you a room in the old convent.

The hotel’s proximity to the Cape Fear River and Wilmington’s historic downtown make it easy to stroll the area. Note: ARRIVE is remodeling the hotel; limited availability – until then, check out The Hive, another boutique hotel nearby.

Grab your morning coffee at 24 South. Nosh your way through the River District, saving space for tapas at Circa 1922 (especially the beet salad).

The Cape Fear Museum of History and Science has rotating and permanent exhibits, including a replica skeleton of a giant ground sloth.

Outer Banks

Road trip loop: Explore the beautiful coasts of these four Southern states

Keep heading north to see gigantic sand dunes, the site of the first flight, and wild horses. It’s hard to find a bad place to stay along the Outer Banks. If you love the feel of bed and breakfast inns, make reservations at The Cypress House, a converted fishing-and-hunting lodge.

If you prefer a dog-friendly national chain, TownePlace Suites, across the street from the beach, fits the bill. Campers of all ilk – from RV to tent – have four campgrounds on Cape Hatteras National Seashore from which to choose.

The wild horses roaming OBX (how the locals refer to the Outer Banks) descend from horses that the Spanish conquistadors brought to the Carolina coast more than 400 years ago. Multiple tours exist in Corolla, Ocracoke and at the Rachel Carson Reserve in the Shackleford and Beaufort area.

Road trip loop: Explore the beautiful coasts of these four Southern states

It’s a bit of a drive to take a guided tour of the wild horses, but well worth it – especially if you make time for a stop at the Corolla Wild Horse Museum (check with the facility for pandemic hours). Finally, the Wright Brothers National Memorial pays tribute to flight – and the Wright brothers.

Raleigh-Durham

From the Outer Banks, it’s a straight shot across 64 to the Raleigh-Durham area. The Warehouse District has no shortage of offerings (avoid this area on weekends if you don’t love crowds).

People call Pullen Park “one of the world’s oldest amusement parks,” and while there, you can hop aboard a 1911 carousel. All that round-and-round making you hungry? Eat at Parkside (beer aficionados, we’d be remiss if we didn’t tell you to order a Crank Arm Holy Spokes Chocolate Habanero Smoked Porter.)

Blue Ridge Parkway

Road trip loop: Explore the beautiful coasts of these four Southern states

The Blue Ridge Parkway takes you on a winding, mountainous drive through North Carolina, and if there’s a way to make this drive in October, you’ll see perhaps the most stunning fall foliage anywhere in country. No matter what time of year you drive the Parkway, though, the sojourn through the treetops offers travelers windows into southern folkways, Appalachian culture and mountain history.

Exit the Parkway at Asheville, North Carolina for the journey back to Columbia, South Carolina, for one of nature’s most mysterious spectacles.

South Carolina to Georgia: Congaree National Park – Lexington

3 hours and 30 minutes, 220 miles on I-26 and I-20

Road trip loop: Explore the beautiful coasts of these four Southern states

Columbia & Congaree National Park

Forget fireworks and drone shows; every May, synchronized lightning bugs draw throngs of people for the Congaree Synchronized Fireflies Festival at Congaree National Park. The lightning bugs don’t know they’re putting on a show, of course – but so many people clamor to see this phenomena that the park has to hold a lottery to decide who can get in to see them.

Other than that, though, Congaree National Park often gets overlooked, and that’s a pity, because this South Carolina gem has the country’s largest old-growth bottomland hardwood forest (think cypress, oak and gum trees) carved out by the flow of the Congaree and Wateree rivers. Once you’re in the middle of the forest – whether you’re hiking or paddling – it’s tough to believe Columbia’s only a few miles away.

Tent and hammock campers will find solitude at Conagree, and tent and RV campers alike can stretch out slightly north of Columbia proper at Sesquicentennial State Park (don’t call it that, though – it’s a dead giveaway you’re not local because locals call it Sesqui). Please note: the state’s renovating the Sesqui campgrounds. Expect them to re-open in August 2021.

Looking for a hotel? Columbia has no shortage of national chains, and the Home2 Suites offers a fine experience. If you’re in the mood for something different, you may want to book a few nights in this West Columbia treehouse (with no stairs!).

If you do, visit the rustic but modern Old Mill Brewpub, and if you’re in the mood for a cheeseburger, order the Old Mill Burger. With pimento cheese and fried green tomatoes, it doesn’t get much more Deep South than this!

Georgia to Florida: Columbus

6 hours and 15 minutes, 370 miles on I-20, US 80 and US 27

Columbus/Phenix City

Road trip loop: Explore the beautiful coasts of these four Southern states

Columbia to Columbus might not sound like a big difference, but going from the forested floodplain to a river city is a big jump, culturally. Ease into Columbus at the Lunch Box Museum and browse the adjacent antique store. For more salacious fun, hop the border (it takes less than a minute) to Phenix City, Alabama for the Sin City tour, which straddles the border.

No trip to the Deep South is complete without at least one pimento burger, and The Black Cow (in the Chattahoochee Riverwalk area) serves a juicy pimento/ bacon/ jalapeno pepper jelly burger that Garden & Gun readers named the Best in the South. If you want a twist on shrimp and grits, try their chicken, grits and andouille.

Road trip loop: Explore the beautiful coasts of these four Southern states

Linger a night or two at the Chattahoochee Riverwalk area, resting your head at the 1870s-era Rothschild-Pound House Inn. The 12-room inn offers a free wine and cheese hour, and history buffs will love feeling as though they’ve walked back in time as soon as they cross the threshold.

Back in Florida: Tallahassee – Ocala

5 hours and 30 minutes, 280 miles on US 27, US 98 and US 27

Cyclists call it Trailahassee because Florida’s capital city has more than 700 miles of trails. Spend the night in Tallahassee (what could be more appropriate than the Governors Inn?), so you can browse the stacks at indie bookstore Midtown Reader, picnic in Cascades Park and grab a bite to eat at The Edison. Visit Tally in April for Word of the South, a celebration of the spoken, written and sung word.

Cyclists can ride the 16-mile Tallahassee-St. Mark’s Trail (a converted railway) to the Gulf of Mexico, but you can point your car south to the St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge just as easily. Of note at St. Mark’s: Rangers there have undertaken a massive effort to save the Monarch butterfly by spreading milkweed.

Road trip loop: Explore the beautiful coasts of these four Southern states

Don’t pass by Ouzts’ Too on US 98 for local seafood, oysters, beer and live music. Campers can pitch a tent or park the RV for the night at Ochlockonee State Park, but as for hotels, the Lodge at Wakulla Springs State Park offers turn-of-the-last-century luxury and a large taxidermied alligator in the lobby (Old Joe was beloved by all).

To close this road trip loop, head east through Ocala, stopping at Silver Springs for a glass-bottom boat ride, one of the oldest roadside attractions in the United States. Only gator wrestling, a uniquely South Florida tradition, is older, but that’s a road trip for next time.

10Best is a part of the USA TODAY Network — providing an authentically local point of view on destinations around the world — in addition to travel and lifestyle advice.

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