Take a drive through history and enjoy a slower pace on this All-American Road.
By James Richardson
One of the loveliest and most serene routes in the southeastern United States is the Natchez Trace Parkway. Whether or not you travel it all the way from Natchez, Mississippi, to Nashville, Tennessee, this road will quickly become one of your favorites. And “quickly” refers only to the time it takes to become endeared. Because traveling the parkway should be a relaxing and unrushed journey.
Autumn is an especially picturesque time of year to drive along the parkway. Tennessee’s many hardwood trees offer a greater variety of brilliant hues than the vegetation along the southern part of the route. But traveling the entire parkway is a good way to enjoy color and receive a history lesson at the same time.
History of the Trace
The Natchez Trace served as an Indian trail that went north from the area we now call Natchez, Mississippi. By the early 1700s it was used by French explorers. By the late 1700s, American settlers in the Ohio River Valley floated merchandise down the Mississippi River to New Orleans or Natchez. After unloading their goods, the northerners would sell their flatboats for lumber and return home on foot. Toward the beginning of the 1800s the Natchez Trace was tramped into a well-marked trail.
Of course, there were encounters with sometimes unfriendly Indians and wild animals along the trail, but that was a fairly common occurrence anywhere west of the Appalachian Mountains in those days. In addition, the weather was a major factor in determining the ease of getting back home. Wetlands, streams, and rivers “” as well as wet weather “” caused more difficult conditions.
Enterprising settlers built inns along the trail, called stands. By 1820 more than 20 stands were in existence; some were simple structures, but others were substantial, such as Mount Locust, which has been restored and is the only stand that remains along the Natchez Trace.
When steamboats arrived on the Mississippi around 1830, traveling back up the river to other settlements became easier. Soon traffic along the Natchez Trace slowed.
In the early 1900s sufficient interest was generated to begin work on saving the trail. A parkway was built near the original path, and today it offers opportunities to look at “” and sometimes walk on “” original sections. Natchez Trace Parkway is now maintained as a unit of the National Park Service and is an officially designated All-American Road.
Facilities and Amenities
Today the parkway is approximately 440 miles long, of which 423 are completed. Mileposts announce historical and scenic features along the route. The mile counting begins near Natchez and goes up from there, helping travelers note distances and gauge driving time to the next attraction. Make sure you travel with a map to insure that you see everything the route has to offer. Special places along the road are identified by their proximity to mile markers.
Picnic areas, rest rooms, hiking trails, campgrounds, and other services for visitors can be found at various intervals. However, only one fuel station-camp store is situated directly on the parkway: Jeff Busby Site, at Milepost 193.1. Otherwise, travelers will need to exit to obtain fuel, food, and supplies at nearby towns and cities, which are easily accessible.
Commercial hauling and commercial trucks are banned from the road (recreational hauling only), to the delight of folks who want to get away from semis for a while. The speed limit along the parkway is 50 mph, except where lower rates are posted near major cities and towns.
A combination length limit of 55 feet is in effect on the parkway, so most motorhomers should have no restrictions if they tow a car. As you travel, keep an eye out for whitetail deer, which seem to be everywhere, sometimes posing a traffic hazard.
Three campgrounds are situated right on the Natchez Trace Parkway, with picnic areas, hiking trails, and rest rooms, but no hookups. They come at a good price: free. No reservations are taken. Two of the campgrounds are in Mississippi: Rocky Springs, which has 22 sites (Milepost 54.8), and Jeff Busby, which has 18 sites (Milepost 193.1). One campground is in Tennessee, at the Meriwether Lewis Grave Site (Milepost 385.9), with 32 sites. If you require hookups, check your favorite campground directory, because many commercial campgrounds are located just off the parkway. They can accommodate motor coaches of all sizes.
Beginning and Ending
If you start at the south, you’ll notice that the land is wet and flat. Spanish moss adorns many trees along the southern roadway; wildflowers are sprinkled along the creek banks. Middle Tennessee’s rolling hills, picturesque old barns, and scenic overlooks characterize the northern part of the parkway.
In addition to deer, you may glimpse wild turkey and an occasional armadillo along the way. Birds present themselves as good visual subjects also.
Whether you begin in the north or south, the scenery is grand. The relaxing route should be enjoyed without rushing. Pause to visit some of the attractions just off the road, or stop at some of the frequent pull-offs to check out the many historical markers or walk the trails. At a trailhead at Rocky Springs campground, an inscription on a plaque along a section of the Old Natchez Trace reads: “Walk down the shaded trail “” leave your prints in the dust, not for others to see, but for the road to remember.”
Towns Along The Way
Natchez, a historic city on the Mississippi River, features antebellum plantations and stately homes. Tours of many of these venerable domiciles are available. Downtown Natchez boasts historic buildings, too, including an 1822 church with two Tiffany art glass windows. For more information, contact the Natchez Convention & Visitors Bureau at (800) 647-6724; www.visitnatchez.com.
Just outside the town of Natchez along the Natchez Trace is historic Mount Locust (Milepost 15.5), one of the most well-known of the stands. Today it is restored and offers an interpretive program from February through November. Exhibits, a ranger station, and rest rooms are also available.
The only frustrating aspect of traveling the Natchez Trace is the fact that it is incomplete through the city of Jackson, Mississippi. However, this final portion of the road is expected to be completed in May of 2005. For now, you can follow the interstate system to bypass the city. Then again, Jackson has a number of interesting and noteworthy attractions worth a visit. These include several historic buildings that survived the Civil War: the Mississippi Governor’s Mansion; the Old Capitol Museum of Mississippi History; and the Manship House Museum, the restored home of Charles Henry Manship, Jackson’s Civil War mayor. These are not all, of course. Contact the city’s convention and visitors bureau for more information at (800) 354-7695; www.visitjackson.com.
For approximately 20 miles north of Jackson, the Natchez Trace follows the shore of the Ross Barnett Reservoir and offers scenic views of the lake. Picnic grounds and frequent pull-offs make stopping easy. Between Jackson and Tupelo, at Milepost 193.1, is the aforementioned Jeff Busby campground, store, and fuel station. This stop also offers hiking trails and an overlook from one of the highest points in Mississippi “” a whopping 603 feet above sea level.
Tupelo is approximately the midpoint of the Natchez Trace Parkway, so it’s a logical location for the headquarters of the parkway and its official visitors center, at Milepost 266. Rest rooms, exhibits, and a 12-minute film about the Natchez Trace are available. You also may want to stretch you legs along a nature trail that leads through an area of forest regrowth.
While in Tupelo, you may wish to visit the house that put the town on the map: Elvis Presley’s birthplace, a small, modest, two-room dwelling. It’s part of Elvis Presley Park, a 15-acre spot that also includes a museum and a chapel, a story wall, and a bronze statue of the singer when he was young. The complex is open daily; hours vary according to the season. In addition, Tupelo offers maps of a self-guided driving tour that leads to some of the most significant locations in Elvis’ life as a young man. Phone the Tupelo Convention & Visitors Bureau at (800) 533-0611 or visit www.tupelo.net for more information.
North of Tupelo, beginning at Milepost 302.8, the parkway travels through Tishomingo State Park. The preserve is noted for its beautiful rock formations and bolders. RV camping along Haynes Lake is available with water and electrical hookups at reasonable rates ($10 to $15 per night, as of 2004). Phone (662) 438-6914 for more information.
The parkway continues on and touches the northwestern corner of Alabama. The major features of this 33-mile section are the crossing of the Tennessee River and the Colbert Ferry, named after the man who once operated a stand and ferry there. Today Colbert Ferry provides a ranger station, a picnic area, a boat launch, and rest rooms, at Milepost 327.3.
In Tennessee at Milepost 375.8, you can turn off to take a 2-1/2-mile drive that travels the original Natchez Trace. It offers overlooks of the surrounding countryside, but it is a one-way gravel path. Motorhomes should not be taken down this road. It can be negotiated in a towed car, however.
At Milepost 385.9 is a small interpretive display and a monument relating to explorer Meriwether Lewis, who joined William Clark in America’s search for a route to the Pacific Ocean and back. Lewis died in 1809 at Grinder’s Stand, an inn once located here, and his gravesite is nearby. The stop also has hiking trails, a picnic area, a campground, and a ranger station.
Farther on, several overlooks onto the farming countryside offer picturesque views you can enjoy or photograph. The spectacular and impressive bridge over Tennessee State Route 96 is in a very scenic area. A parking area is located on the north side of the bridge along the parkway. To get another vantage point, exit the parkway and travel on State Route 96 in either direction.
Natchez Trace Parkway’s northern stopping point is near Nashville at Exit 192 on Interstate 40. While you’re this close to the Music City, perhaps it would be a good time to visit “” and an ideal way to end your journey on the Natchez Trace. For information about what to see and do in Nashville, contact the Nashville Convention & Visitors Bureau at (800) 657-6910; www.nashvillecvb.com. After your peaceful tour along the parkway, you’ll likely be ready to face the bustle of one of Tennessee’s largest towns.
For travel information and a free copy of a detailed map of the parkway, plus a list of camping accommodations along the way, contact:
Natchez Trace Parkway
2680 Natchez Trace Parkway
Tupelo, MS 38804