Staying Close to

By Mary Ann DeSantis and Cheré Coen

Photography courtesy of GRAMMY Museum; The Guest House; Discovery Park of America;

Tishomingo County Development Foundation & Tourism; Mary Ann DeSantis and Cheré Coen

    While the Coronavirus may have disrupted your major travel plans for upcoming vacations, don’t despair. Plenty of nearby destinations offer memorable getaways and a chance to relax without the crowds. And the best part: all you have to do is hop in your car and go!

    If you find yourself looking for a cure for the summertime blues, a short getaway to these area attractions might be just what the doctor orders. The DeSoto editors remembered some of their favorite places with hopes that these ideas will encourage you to plan a staycation this summer.

The Guest House at Graceland
Memphis, Tenn.
    It’s a long way from a heartbreak hotel to The Guest House, the 450-room luxury resort adjacent to Graceland, the iconic home of Elvis Presley. Open since 2016, The Guest House is more than a nod to Elvis and an extension of Graceland. Many Memphians say it’s the ultimate staycation with large, comfortable rooms and suites, excellent dining, luxurious amenities, and a big dose of Southern hospitality.

Nods to Elvis are everywhere: curved, high-backed sofas in the lobby are meant to mimic the collars on some of Elvis’ capes, and the heart-shaped outdoor fire pit is called “Burning Love.” The gabled entrance and grand staircase are large-scale replicas of those at Graceland. Elvis fans will love the nonstop soundtrack of Elvis songs playing in the lobby and public areas. The “make-yourself-at-home” vibe is evident throughout the resort, especially on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights when you can make your own s’mores on the back lawn.

It is easy to while away an afternoon poolside or playing games on the back lawn. If you want to explore, however, it’s a short walk or shuttle ride to Graceland and the Elvis Presley Memphis attraction, a 200,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art entertainment complex that showcases the life and career of the King of Rock ’n’ Roll.

Mississippi Petrified Forest
Flora, Miss.
    Long before conservation became a buzzword, Bob and Shirl Schabilion acquired the Petrified Forest in August 1962 to preserve it. Although Mississippians knew about this primeval forest since the 1800s, it opened to the public only after the couple bought it.

   The forest supposedly formed 36 million years ago when fir and maple logs washed down an ancient river channel to the current site where they later became petrified. Declared a National Natural Landmark in 1965, the Mississippi Petrified Forest combines natural history with peaceful surroundings. The science lessons abound. Visitors learn how the giant, earth tone stones were once living trees, some reaching more than 100 feet in height and 15 feet in diameter.

   The Nature Trail offers signs at each point of interest, and a leisurely stroll tells the story of how this unusual forest unfolded. The most photographed “log” is Caveman’s Bench, which lies right on the trail. The on-site Earth Science Museum displays, among other things, dinosaur footprints, whale bones, and a complete cast of a prehistoric camel.

   Kids will find visiting the Petrified Forest to be a memorable experience as they enjoy the gem-mining flume, where they receive a bag of “mine muck,” a real term for rocks out of the mine. They wash and screen the muck for real gems – which they can keep.
The Mississippi Petrified Forest is so peaceful that you might want to stay overnight in the small, secluded campground where RV and tent sites are available.

Discovery Park of America
Union City, Tenn.
    To say there’s something for everyone at Discovery Park of America would sound like an overused cliché, but we’ve yet to find an attraction that comes close. Located in west Tennessee, Discovery Park offers 100,000 square feet of exhibits that run the gamut from an extensive dinosaur and fossil collection to a 20,000-gallon aquarium showcasing aquaculture lying beneath area lakes.

    Visitors can view military equipment and vintage cars, learn about technology, science and Native Americans — even view a gallery of artwork. A 4-D simulation theater lets visitors experience the earthquakes of the early 1800s, seismic activity that transformed the region. And that’s just naming a few of the exhibits.

    In addition, the temporary exhibit “Astronaut,” through May 3, lets guests explore the challenges involved in space exploration with 26 different stations that demonstrate how life is lived in space with zero gravity. 

    Outside the main building is the 50-acre Heritage Park, several historic buildings where craftspeople may be viewed at work, dressed in period costumes. There’s also the Train Depot where visitors may enter and tour antique train cars, the Chapel with working bell tower, tractor displays, and much more. Naturally, since this is a full-day adventure, the park offers dining options. Union City is only home to 10,000 people so accommodations are limited to Sleep Inn and Mainstay Suites but Holiday Inn Express & Suites will be opening soon.

Historic Downtown Laurel
Laurel, Miss.
    Tucked away in the south Mississippi’s Pine Belt region, Laurel has undergone an amazing resurgence in the past four years due to the popular HGTV “Home Town” television series. Dedicated fans of the show have descended on the charming town for weekend visits, and some from as far away as Canada – as seen on a recent episode – have even stuck around to buy houses.

    With the most intact collection of early 20th century architecture in Mississippi, Laurel is a natural setting for the HGTV series that features Laurelites Erin and Ben Napier renovating the historic properties. Stroll down Fifth and Sixth avenues near the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art and you’ll see several of the homes that have been featured on the series.

   A visit to Laurel should include a stop at the world-class Lauren Rogers Museum, which was built in 1923 in the heart of the historic district and features fine arts from around the world.

  Although not in the historic district, the Veterans Memorial Museum on Hillcrest Drive houses an array of war-time memorabilia and tells how the world wars impacted Laurel and Mississippi. Staffed by volunteers, the museum hours can change so call ahead before going.

     An afternoon of shopping in the quaint boutiques – many of which have been featured on “Home Town” – will uncover quite a few “Made in Mississippi” items, especially at the Laurel Mercantile, co-owned by the Napiers. Make a stop on Central Avenue at the Leontyne Price Musical Park, which honors Laurel’s native daughter and legendary opera singer. You can ease stress by playing on the musical instruments that were installed last summer and then head across the street for an ice cream cone or cookie at Sweet Somethings Bakery.

Grammy Museum Mississippi
Cleveland, Miss.
    Mississippi was fortunate to acquire the second Grammy Museum outside of Los Angeles, an educational component of the Recording Academy which hosts the annual Grammy Awards. It’s a treat to visit anytime, but now through the end of August the Cleveland museum honors female musicians who have long been a vital component of country music. The special exhibit, “Stronger Together: The Power of Women in Country Music,” honors both the pioneers and modern trendsetters.

    The exhibit begins with early female artists such as The Carter Family, Kitty Wells, Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette, and Patsy Cline. Their hard work and influence paved the way for newcomers such as Alison Krauss, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Rosanne Cash. The exhibit finishes with new female powerhouses Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood, and the Dixie Chicks, to name a few.

    Curated by the Los Angeles Grammy Museum, the exhibit includes artifacts such as Caylee Hammack’s guitar given to her by her father, Rosanne Cash’s Martin OM-28M acoustic guitar, and Swift’s banjo used in her music video “Mean.” There are also outfits worn by the musicians, including performance clothes by Little Big Town’s Kimberly Schlapman and Karen Fairchild at the Dolly Parton Tribute at the 61st Grammy Awards and Brandi Carlile’s custom Manuel Cuevas Duster worn during the first all-female headlining set at the 2019 Newport Folk Festival. Videos of Grammy performances top off the exhibit, with some exquisite, tear-inducing moments.

Tishomingo State Park
Tishomingo County, Miss.
    Visit for the day or stay the night at Tishomingo State Park located north of Tupelo along the Natchez Trace Parkway. The park is named for Chickasaw Chief Tishomingo, but archaeological excavations have unearthed presence of Paleo Indians dating back to 7000 B.C. It’s easy to see why Native Americans loved this spot nestled in the Appalachian Mountain foothills, with its streams, cool rock formations, and unique flora and fauna.

    The park contains 13 miles of nature trails that range from easy to moderate hiking. Rock climbing on the park’s unique bluffs is available by permit from the park office and climbers must bring their own equipment. Bear Creek with its sandstone bluffs and shoals flows through Tishomingo and the park offers a 6.25-mile canoe trip daily from mid-April through mid-October, weather permitting. The 45-acre fresh water Haynes Lake is popular with fishermen.

    Other park attributes include picnic area with grills, playgrounds, and swimming pool during the summer months. Sports enthusiasts will want to check out the disc golf course, volleyball court, and a multi-use field.

   Accommodations vary from primitive campsites and 62 RV sites along the edge of Haynes Lake to six rustic cabins nestled on the rocky bluffs above Bear Creek. The park also offers a two-bedroom modern cottage and a group camp facility.

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