The Ultimate Barbecue Road Trip: 14 Essential Pit Stops (Slideshow)

Day 1: Lunch — Cowling’s, Waverly, Va.

Start your day and trip with lunch at a Virginia classic. Opened in 1972 in the heart of peanut country, Cowling's serves pit-cooked pork shoulders prepared over white oak and served with a tomato-based sauce including vinegar, sugar, and spices. Sides include a coleslaw of green and white cabbage and carrots, baked beans, and pan-fried cornbread.

Day 1: Dinner — Grady’s Barbecue, Dudley, N.C.

Only a two-and-a-half-hour drive due south of Cowling's, Grady's Barbecue is easily reachable in time for dinner. Stephen and Gerri Grady took over the joint in 1986, the year they got married, buying it from Mr. Grady's brother, who lasted only one day at the restaurant before he quickly discovered the restaurant biz wasn't for him. On their own first day as owners, the Gradys ran out of hog, hushpuppies, bread, and coleslaw within hours of opening.

As a kid, Stephen grew up helping his pitmaster grandfather; Gerri grew up on a farm and helped her family roast whole hogs in ground-dug pits. Today, they slow-roast the animals over oak and hickory coals and serve the chopped meat with vinegar sauce. The Gradys also brew sweet tea on the stovetop, and make black-eyed peas, steamed cabbage, and boiled potatoes daily. Other staples include Brunswick stew, hushpuppies, and coleslaw. "Everybody seems to think theirs is better than the next person's and some of it's right and some of it's not. But we think ours is the best," Stephen Grady told SFA.

Day 2: Lunch — Scott’s Bar-B-Que, Hemingway, S.C.

Scott's, near Myrtle Beach (only three hours from Dudley, N.C.), is the quintessential mom-and-pop restaurant, with the mom and pop in question being Roosevelt "Rosie" Scott and his wife, Ella, who founded the place in 1972. The couple still runs the restaurant with their son Rodney, who is the pitmaster. Scott's is open Wednesday through Saturday only, and Rodney reportedly spends most of his off-days cutting down trees and chopping wood for the restaurant's pits.

The signature dish off the small menu (just pork, chicken, and smoked ribeye) is the pulled pork plate served with a heap of crispy skin and some vinegar-based barbecue sauce on the side. Extras include boiled peanuts and more kettle-fried pork skins.

Scott's hosts an annual community picnic in the spring, free for all. The Scott family times its family reunion to the event to ensure there is enough staff to serve everyone — so if you time your trip right, you can get some free barbecue and Southern family hospitality.

Day 2: Dinner — Gator’s BBQ, Jacksonville

The bad news? You'll have a four- to five-hour drive from Scott's to Gator's BBQ. The good news? It's an easy drive down I-95, and the destination makes the trip totally worth it. The "Swamp Crew" at Gator's proudly runs their smoker all day, every day, to ensure the best and freshest dishes, with highlights including their selection of sandwiches (from smoked beef and sausage to pork chops) and a number of gator-sized plates that come with two sides and tasty garlic bread. Undecided? Opt for the "Smoke House Grand Slam," which comes with beef, chicken, pork, turkey, ribs, and sausage — all for just $17.99.

Day 3: Lunch — Fresh Air Bar-B-Q, Jackson, Ga.

Four hours from Jacksonville, Florida is Jackson, Georgia, the home of Fresh Air Bar-B-Que, which has been serving barbecue at its original location since 1929. Dr. Joel Watkins, a veterinarian, opened the restaurant, but served only beef. When George "Toots" Caston bought Fresh Air in 1952, he added pork to the menu. The original pits could hold 19 whole hogs, and Brunswick stew was prepared in 25-gallon cast-iron pots. Today, the third generation of the Caston family is at the helm at the Jackson location and a second outpost in Macon, serving barbecue pork roasted over hickory and oak wood and slathered with a vinegar- and tomato-based sauce.

Day 3: Dinner — Archibald’s Bar-B-Q, Northport, Ala.

Another four hours will take you to Northport, Alabama, where George Archibald worked in a steel mill and his wife, Betty, worked at a paper mill for years before opening Archibald's Bar-B-Q in 1962. George Archibald Jr. and his sister, Paulette Washington, now run the business. The siblings serve ribs the same way their parents did: cooked over hickory with vinegar-based sauce and served in butcher paper with white bread. The secret sauce is so popular people have been known to come by with jars to take some home in.

Archibald's ranked No. 25 on our list of the best ribs of 2015. Click here to see all 35 winners.

Day 4: Lunch — Abe’s Bar-B-Q, Clarksdale, Miss.

After one more lengthy drive (about three-and-a-half hours; but don't worry, shorter legs are on the way), you'll arrive at Abe's Bar-B-Q, which has been offering Mississippians and their guests "swine dining" since 1924. Its current location, at the fabled crossroads of highways 49 and 61 (where blues pioneer Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the devil in return for prowess on the guitar), Abe's has hosted musicians like ZZ Top, Paul Simon, and Conway Twitty, along with road-trippers and locals alike — all of whom ate in search of Abe's famous barbecued pork and beef, ribs, and bundles of hot tamales (a Mississippi tradition) served with crackers and slaw.

Day 4: Dinner — Jones Bar-B-Q Diner, Marianna, Ark.

Jones Bar-B-Q (just an hour from Abe's) in Arkansas began on Walter Jones' back porch, where he sold barbecue pork with a vinegar-based sauce to neighbors on Fridays and Saturdays. His son Hubert carried on the tradition, serving the same barbecue from a two-story shotgun building near the Mississippi River. Today, his son, James, and his wife Betty continue to cook pork shoulder in a primitive cinder block pit and serve Jones Bar-B-Q's legendary pork shoulder sandwiches on white bread. In May 2012, James Jones won the James Beard Foundation award for American Classics, and accepted the award in New York following his first plane ride ever. 

Day 5: Lunch — Payne’s Bar-B-Q, Memphis

Feel free to sleep in today, because the next location is only 60 short minutes away. Payne's was opened in a converted Memphis gas station by Horton Payne and his mother, Emily, in 1972 — but after his death at the age of 35 in 1984, his wife, Flora, took over. Today, she and the Paynes' son Ron turn the pork shoulders over hickory coals in a recessed pit set into the wall behind the counter. A mild sauce simmers all afternoon on the stove and hot sauce is dispensed from an old liquid soap bottle. The specialty here is pork shoulder sandwich topped with neon-green mustard-based coleslaw. "I pray over this food," said Flora Payne in an interview with SFA. "Bless it."

Day 5: Dinner — Bar-B-Que Shack, Hopkinsville, Ky.

Hope you took our advice about sleeping in, because you'll want to be rested for the solid four-hour drive between lunch and dinner. Upon arrival, you'll be greeted with open-pit hickory-smoked pork, chicken, beef, and lamb, which are the mainstays that have kept locals coming back year after year to this no-frills establishment. The signature side dishes at Kentucky's Bar-B-Que Shack are hot slaw, a spicy slaw with a red dressing, and burgoo, a Civil War-era stew from Kentucky made with pulled pork, carrots, and beans.

Click here to check out some burgoo recipes to make at home.

Day 6: Lunch — Pappy’s Smokehouse, St. Louis

About 260 miles and a trip through Illinois will bring you just over the border to St. Louis, Missouri, home of Pappy's Smokehouse. This spot prepares delicious BBQ with "only the best ingredients." The restaurant slow-smokes its meats for four to 14 hours over apple or cherry wood and then allows the customer to choose between three sauces (Pappy's Original, Sweet Baby Jane, or Holly's Hot Sauce), all of which are made in-house. The house specialty is the ribs, and all meat options are served with your choice of two sides, which includes classic BBQ favorites like slaw, baked beans, and fried corn on the cob. The portions are known for being large, and the restaurant boasts, "If you leave hungry, it's your fault!"

Day 6: Dinner — Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que, Kansas City, Kan.

Crossing from the eastern border of Missouri to western will bring you to Kansas City — Kansas City, Kansas, that is. Don't let Joe's Kansas City Barbecue's (formerly Oklahoma Joe's Barbecue) unlikely location in a gas station put you off from dining there, it's some of the best food you'll ever have (in fact, its ribs were ranked No. 2 in our list of America's 35 Best Ribs of 2015). After owner Jeff Stehney and a handful of friends, who dubbed themselves the Slaughterhouse Five, started entering barbecue competitions and winning grand championship awards (eight in all), he then went into partnership with Joe Don Davidson, and opened his first restaurant in Stillwater, Oklahoma, in 1996. Eight months later, a location in Kansas City was christened, and now three locations serve sandwiches and plates of chicken and pork. The house specialty? A pulled pork sandwich that has to be tasted to be believed.

Day 7: Lunch — Smokin’ Joe’s Rib Ranch and RV Park, Davis, Okla.

This one is a long haul, so don't say we didn't warn you. Rise early, eat a big breakfast, and immediately hit the road, because it'll be a full six hours before lunchtime rolls around. When you arrive, reward yourself with fall-off-the-bone ribs, thick-cut bologna, dill pickles, and much more at Smokin' Joe's in Oklahoma. While the tabs may be a bit higher than at other places on this list, the massive portions easily yield enough for two to three people, especially the chopped brisket sandwich, with mounds of meat that fall from the Texas toast. With only a handful of tables, most diners take the 'cue to go and eat in their RVs, which can conveniently be parked out back — hence, the "RV Park" part of the name.

Day 7: Dinner — Taylor Cafe, Taylor, Texas

Texas has some ridiculous barbecue joints (shout out to Franklin Barbecue in Austin), so this last decision was difficult. In the end, we went with a place that has been doing barbecue right since the middle of the last century. At 88-years-old, pitmaster Vencil Mares is still serving what some connoisseurs consider the best brisket in the Texas Hill Country, along with turkey, sausage links, and other meats. Mares learned his craft at nearby Southside Market in Elgin, before buying the Taylor Café in 1949, according to the SFA. Mares seasons his brisket two days ahead and roasts it in a pit with post oak wood for five to six hours. The brisket is served with a sauce based on ketchup, with lemon juice, onion, celery, brown sugar, butter, and Louisiana hot sauce added. Taylor Café has not changed much since its opening. Telltale signs include an aging jukebox, old-fashioned cash register, mismatched bar stools, and food that keeps people coming back for more.