If you’ve ever been through Tennessee, Alabama or Mississippi, you’ve probably heard of the Natchez Trace. I’d heard of it, but I wasn’t really sure what it was. Another pretty parkway, I assumed.
That’s true – the Natchez Trace Parkway is a 444-mile-long highway that starts in Natchez, Mississippi and travels through Alabama, ending in Nashville, Tennessee. The longest portion is in Mississippi, 310 miles. Then it cuts through the northwest corner of Alabama for 33 miles. The Tennessee portion covers about 100 miles.
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Unlike some other national parkways, there is no admission charge to travel on the Natchez Trace Parkway. Commercial vehicles are prohibited, and the maximum speed limit is 50 mph. It’s definitely a beautiful drive, whether you are following the entire route or just taking in a few miles for a peaceful interlude.
But there’s a lot of history there, too. Established as a part of the National Park Service in 1938, the Parkway was begun as a project of the Civilian Conservation Corps to commemorate the historic Old Natchez Trace and preserve sections of the original trail. Construction began in 1939 and continued until the last portion was finally completed in 2005.
Originally used by Native Americans, including the Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes, as a walking trail between villages, there are seven ceremonial mound groups located along the Mississippi portion of the Trace.
The largest, Emerald Mound, covers 8 acres with secondary mounds on top of the original mound, making the tallest structure as much as 70 feet high. In 1950, Emerald Mound was turned over to the National Park Service, and in 1989 it was designated a National Historic Landmark. Emerald Mound is located at milepost 10.3 near Natchez.
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In the early 1800s, farmers and boatmen from the Ohio River regions of Pennsylvania, Ohio and Kentucky began floating supplies, including agricultural products, coal, and livestock, down the Mississippi River to sell at the ports in Natchez and New Orleans.
These travelers became known as Kaintucks, regardless of where they lived. Because the flat-boats couldn’t travel up-river, they were often dismantled and sold as lumber. Then the boatmen would walk home along the Natchez Trace. The trip from Natchez to Nashville took them about 35 days.
At milepost 15.5, you can visit one of the oldest structures in Mississippi. Built around 1780, Mount Locust was originally a working plantation and an inn, where the Kaintucks and other travelers on the Trace could rest for the night. It’s open every day except Christmas Day and admission is free.
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While thousands of travelers walked or rode along the Natchez Trace, several are well-known historical figures. Meriwether Lewis, of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, was traveling through Tennessee on the Trace in 1809 when he died under mysterious circumstances. He was buried near Grinder’s Stand. In 1848, the state of Tennessee erected a memorial to honor him. You can visit the Meriwether Lewis Site at milepost 385.9.
Andrew Jackson traveled on the Trace with his troops during the War of 1812. And Captain John Gordon and his wife moved into a home at the Duck River site near Nashville, in 1812. Dolly Gordon remained at their house until her death in 1859. Their home still stands at milepost 407.7 on the Parkway.
If nature is more your thing, there’s plenty to do and see on the Natchez Trace Parkway. Nearly 39,000 of the 52,000 acres along the Parkway are maintained in a natural condition. You’ll see streams, waterfalls, swamps, lakes, hardwoods and pine forests.
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Trails through the woodlands offer short scenic routes as well as more strenuous and lengthy paths. At mile post 41.5 you can see parts of the original Sunken Trace where thousands of travelers literally wore the path away, creating a trench.
More than 100 different species of trees grow along the Parkway. There are 15 species of frogs, newts and salamanders, dozens of kinds of birds, deer and other mammals, and reptiles including alligators, turtles and snakes.
One of the best places to see nature at its most beautiful is Cypress Swamp at milepost 122.0. Many years ago, the Pearl River flowed here, and then it changed directions. You walk across a boardwalk trail above a breathtaking water tupelo/bald cypress swamp, to the abandoned river channel. The whole trail takes only ten minutes or so, but it’s a peaceful opportunity to stretch your legs and maybe see an alligator or turtle.
Another beautiful stop is the Ross Barnett Reservoir, which parallels the Parkway for about eight miles. The Outlook is at milepost 105.6 and the West Florida Boundary, a trailhead to the Ridgeland, MS section of the Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail, is at milepost 107.9. Both sites offer the opportunity to see water birds as well as aquatic animals.
Fishing is allowed in lakes and streams along the Parkway, and fishing regulations vary by state. A Mississippi State fishing license is required to fish at the Reservoir.
There are three Parkway campgrounds which are primitive, free, and available on a first-come, first-serve basis. Other campgrounds along the Parkway corridor offer electricity, showers, and dump stations. There are also bicycle-only primitive campgrounds offering tent sites, picnic tables, and fire grates.
Horseback riding is allowed on the established horse trails but it is prohibited on all other areas of the Parkway including on the roadway itself.
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A variety of events throughout the year are held at various locations along the Parkway. Ranger-led events are available often and are always free. Pioneer Day is held the 4th Saturday of every month from April 25 to November 28. You’ll experience living history demonstrations of pioneer activities from the 1700s and 1800s, including basket-making, spinning, weaving, knitting and other traditional craft demonstrations as well as leather-working and mountain dulcimer demonstrations. It’s at the Natchez Trace Parkway Visitor Center near Tupelo, MS at milepost 266. It’s free also.
So if you love to learn about the history of those who came before us, or if you love natural unspoiled beauty with native plants and animals, or if you just want a scenic drive without billboards and neon signs, think about traveling the Natchez Trace Parkway. It’s a wonderful roadtrip!