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Gorgeous National Park sites of southern Mississippi River Country

Take in the beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains, ride a wild river in the Ozarks, explore the Gulf Coast or learn about the history of jazz.

Buffalo National River
Buffalo National River, Arkansas (Credit: Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism)

The southern states of Mississippi River Country are rich in history, heritage and natural beauty, and each state offers many different National Park Sites to explore. Take in the scenic beauty of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, take a tour on a wild river in Arkansas, explore Mississippi’s Gulf shore or learn about the history of Jazz in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Tennessee – Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The most popular National Park in the United States, Great Smoky Mountains National Park sits on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina. The park is known for its stunningly beautiful mountain ridges—in fact, the name “Great Smoky Mountains” comes from how the landscape looks when fog settles in over the scenic hills in the morning and evening. The park, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a popular destination for driving tours, as well as hiking (part of the United States’ Appalachian Trail passes through the Smoky Mountains), waterfall tours, picnicking and camping. Those interested in the history of the area can explore historic buildings and cemeteries that tell the story of the people who lived here over the centuries.

Getting there: There are three main entrances to the park—two in Tennessee (Gatlinburg and Townsend) and one in North Carolina (Cherokee). Townsend is a 45-minute drive and Gatlinburg is a 1-hour drive from nearby Knoxville, Tennessee, home to McGhee Tyson Airport, or about 3 hours from Nashville International Airport (Tennessee). The closest airport to Cherokee is Asheville Regional Airport, about an hour away; Charlotte Douglas International Airport in Charlotte is about 3 hours away (both located in North Carolina).

Other National Park sites in Tennessee:

Arkansas – Buffalo National River

For a true wilderness experience, head to north-central Arkansas and launch a canoe or kayak on the Buffalo National River, a scenic, bluff-lined waterway that flows through the Ozark Mountains for more than 160 kilometers. The Buffalo National River is one of the few remaining undammed rivers in the United States and is a popular destination for whitewater rafting, kayaking, canoeing or tubing. Anglers can find a dozen species of game fish, including smallmouth bass, rainbow trout and brown trout. Hikers can discover trail systems that run through three areas of the 38,500-hectare park: the Upper District, Tyler Bend and the Buffalo Point Area. The Buffalo National River is also a popular spot for camping, from primitive backcountry campsites to developed sites with electric and water hookups for RV users.

Getting there: Since the park follows the Buffalo River, it can be accessed at several points, including U.S. Highway 65 and State Highway 7. The closest airports to the Tyler Bend Visitor Center in St. Joe are Branson Airport in Branson, Missouri (110km, 1 hour 25 minutes) and Bill and Hillary Clinton Airport in Little Rock, Arkansas (180km, 2 hours).

Other National Park sites in Arkansas:

Mississippi – Natchez Trace Parkway

The Natchez Trace Parkway is a 715-kilometer recreational road and scenic drive that travels from Natchez, Mississippi, to just south of Nashville, Tennessee. The route follows a historic travel corridor that was used by Native Americans, European adventurers and early settlers of the area. As the parkway travels through Mississippi, it passes through charming, historic cities like Natchez (and its famed antebellum homes), Jackson (the state capital) and Tupelo (the birthplace of Elvis Presley). This popular driving route, which also passes through the state of Alabama, welcomes motorists all year long, but fall is a particularly scenic time to visit. All along the parkway, visitors will find recreational opportunities for hiking, biking, horseback riding and camping.

Getting there: To start at the southern end of the Natchez Trace Parkway, visitors can fly into Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport in Baton Rouge, Louisiana (140km, 1 hour, 30 minute drive from Natchez), or Jackson-Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport in Jackson, Mississippi (180km, 2 hours). To start at the northern end of the parkway, fly into Nashville International Airport (Tennessee).

Other National Park sites in Mississippi:

Louisiana – New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park

There’s no better spot for a National Park dedicated to the history of jazz music than New Orleans. Located in the heart of the French Quarter, the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park offers educational exhibits, concerts, historical walking tours and more for visitors who are interested in learning about this uniquely American form of music. The park’s main visitor center on Peters Street includes historical exhibits, a bookstore and a performance area for concerts, talks and other programs. The park also produces educational concerts at the nearby New Orleans Jazz Museum.

Getting there: The New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park is located in the heart of New Orleans, which is serviced by Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport.

Other National Park sites in Louisiana: