It’s a 444-mile ribbon of road that winds through three states, traverses four unique ecosystems, crosses eight major watersheds, is a witness to thousands of years of human history, and most importantly, offers the traveler an opportunity to slow down and relish the beauty of rolling pastureland and lush, thick eastern hardwood forests. This unique and lovely highway is the Natchez Trace Parkway, a unit of the National Park System.
Having spent the past 7 months volunteering at a state park in the hill country of Texas and working as Gate Guards in south Texas, it was time to head north to Kentucky and Ohio. Since time was on our side, we began looking for a leisurely route towards those destinations. Pouring over the maps, dear hubby pointed to a swath of green stretching from south Mississippi to Nashville. “Natchez Trace Parkway, hmm, wonder what that is?” (Do I really dare to display my ignorance of this National Park site?) The more we researched the Trace, the more excited we became about experiencing it first-hand.
The Natchez Trace Parkway (NTP) follows the route of the Natchez Trace, a “superhighway” of sorts for the Natchez, Chickasaw, and Choctaw tribes. As the United States began expanding, the trace was used by early explorers, settlers, and traders to reach the lands of the “Old Southwest,” namely, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. The Trace saw its heaviest use from the early 1800’s to the 1820’s as “Kaintucks” from the Ohio River Valley shipped their wares down the Mississippi River to New Orleans or Natchez where they sold their products AND the boats used for transport. To return home, they began the long walk north using the Natchez Trace. Thousands of people traveled that path, facing dangers such as injury, illness, and robbery. What a lesson in strength, fortitude, and bravery! When steamboats arrived on the scene, upstream travel became possible, thus leading to the abandonment of the trace. Due to the efforts of preservationists, the Natchez Trace Parkway was established as a unit of the National Park System in 1938 and officially completed in 2005.
Driving the NTP is not just a way to get from Point A to Point B, the road itself forces the traveler to slow down and drink in the scenery. The Parkway is a two-lane road. There are no stop signs or stoplights along the route. The speed limit is 50 mph, which is strictly enforced. No billboards or neon lights clutter the roadway. No commercial traffic is permitted, so, no having to compete with semis. RVs are permitted, but total length allowed is 55 ft. It is an active bicycle route, so you must be alert. No services, such as restaurants, gift shops, lodging, or gas stations are on the Parkway, but many towns offering those amenities are located just off the road. The NTP was purposely designed to encourage “meandering.” Over 100 points of interest line the route, offering a chance to pull over, read an interpretive sign, take a hike, have a picnic, or enjoy a scenic view.
Our trip up the Trace was certainly a highlight for us. We could not have ordered more perfect weather! Skies were sunny, temperatures were warm and pleasant, and we had not one drop of rain! After spending 4 months in the dusty oilfields of south Texas, being immersed in a lush, green hardwood forest was just what our souls had been craving.
Sites along the Trace
As I mentioned above, there are over 100 points of interest along the Parkway. Did we stop at all of them? Well, no. If we had, we’d probably still be on the Trace. A bit of research beforehand led us to map out our “must-sees.” We wanted to do some hiking, educate ourselves about the South, and see some new sights. Perhaps your list would be different. It all depends on your interests and abilities.
We began at the beginning, at mile marker 0.0 in Natchez, Mississippi. We were looking forward to spending one day exploring Natchez, but we were delayed by severe storms in southern Louisiana so we had to nix that idea. Natchez has much to do and see, including many restored Southern mansions, museums, and monuments. I was sorry we had to miss it. Maybe next time!
Our first stop was Rocky Springs. After securing a campsite, we explored the area, hiking a short trail which took us through the abandoned site of the once thriving town of Rocky Springs. It’s always amazing to me at how quickly a settlement can fall into ruin, with little to no reminders of its industrious past.
We also walked along the Sunken Trace. I was simply awe-struck imagining the amount of traffic the Trace must have received for it to sink like it has! Incredible! I have always been intrigued with walking in the same footsteps as those who have gone before me. Whether it is the well-worn marble steps of Union Station in Chicago (how many famous and infamous folks have hustled down those stairs?) or the path along Pike’s Peak where Katharine Lee Bates penned the words to “America, the Beautiful,” or following the tracks on the Oregon Trail made by the wagon wheels which took countless brave settlers to a new life out West, it thrills me beyond words. When walking along those paths, I try to picture myself in that time and place. What would I be thinking or feeling or eating or wearing? Would I have had the strength and fortitude to survive and thrive during that perilous journey?
Just north of Jackson, MS, is the Cypress Swamp. Growing up in Ohio, neither of us have seen many Tupelo or Bald Cypress swamps. A boardwalk through the swamp and between the cypress trees enveloped us in this incredible wonderland. We took our time strolling along the path, watching the sun and shadows filter through the leaves and play off the still waters. I always know when I’m in an amazing part of creation when the nature around me causes me to slow my step and whisper. I call it the “Cathedral Effect,” that moment when you see God’s Hand before you, shaping and designing this beauty for you to enjoy.
Many towns and cities are within easy distance of the Trace. We hopped off a couple of times and did some sightseeing in Tupelo, where we found Elvis!
And the Tupelo National Battlefield, which is a small lot, literally in the middle of town!
A drive over to Hohenwald led us to the home of the best sweet potato fries we’ve ever had at the Junkyard Dog Steakhouse!
No trip on the Trace is complete without a stop at the Loveless Cafe at the northern Terminus of the Parkway!
At mile marker 385.9, we visited the site of Meriwether Lewis’s death and grave. In 1809, just a few short years after his heroic and successful expedition with the Corps of Discovery, Lewis was en route to Washington via the Natchez Trace when he stopped for the night at Grinder’s Stand. During that moonless October night, gunshots were fired and Lewis was dead. Conflicting reports abound as to whether it was a botched robbery, outright murder, or suicide. But whatever the cause of death, America lost one of the finest, noblest men in its nation’s history.
About 40 miles from the northern terminus of the Parkway is Jackson Falls, one of the most popular stops on the NTP. It’s a steep walk down to the falls, but when the water is flowing, it is well worth the hike!
Hiking Along the Trace
Three of our favorite hikes on the NTP were
The Old Trace trail at the Rocky Springs Campground area. Along this trail is an even better example of the Sunken Trace than the one found at mile marker 41.5. There are a few parking spots at the trailhead in the campground near the amphitheater. Just follow the signs for the Old Trace.
The Little Mountain Trail at the Jeff Busby Campground area. This trail takes hikers up to one of the highest points along the NTP in Mississippi. A large pavilion with exhibits and restrooms are at the top of the mountain. You can also drive to the top, but, what fun is that?
The Devil’s Backbone Natural Area is a moderately challenging hike up and down along the ridgeline in this section of Tennessee. This is also where we managed to pick up quite a few ticks. YUK! We’ve read that this summer of 2017 is going to be a bad tick year, so get out the DEET and spray away!
Camping Along the Trace
There are 3 FREE, yes, I said “FREE” first-come, first-served campgrounds along the trace. Rocky Springs at mile marker 54.8, Jeff Busby at mile marker 193.1, and Meriwether Lewis at mile marker 385.9 all come equipped with flush toilets and water, but no electric or dump stations, so be prepared to dry camp. There are also countless state parks and privately owned campgrounds just off of the parkway in neighboring communities if you are in need of a FHU site. We are 50’ total length (30’ fifth-wheel plus a long bed pickup) and there were many sites at each campground that could accommodate our length.
We spent two nights at Rocky Springs campground. Though quiet and peaceful, this campground was a bit rough around the edges. It would appear that improvement projects had begun and were halted for whatever reason. The sites are a mixture of back-in, pull-thru, long, short,….so there’s something for everyone! We drove through the first wooded area and made our way up the hill where we found a nice sunny, pull-thru spot on our right. Each site had a picnic table and fire ring, though these particular fire rings were very deep, necessitating a giant bonfire if you wanted to enjoy watching the flickering flames. Only one restroom is open and that is located on the lower drive. It is older, but clean and well-maintained.
Jeff Busby campground is heavily wooded with nice, new blacktop roads and driveways. Again, it is a mixture of back-in, pull-thru, long, and short sites. The best spot we found for our camper was a pull-thru, the last one on the left before exiting the campground. Picnic tables and shorter fire rings (more conducive to fire light gazing) were at each site. The restrooms were immaculate.
Meriwether Lewis campground is the largest of the three with over 30 available sites. Again, a mixture of sites, picnic tables, fire rings, and clean restrooms. The first loop to the right could be a tad tight for larger motor homes to maneuver. We drove straight through, past the restrooms and chose a site on the upper loop.
***As a side note, we spoke with one camp host who said that you can most always find a spot to camp at any of the three campgrounds EXCEPT in the month of April, then it can get a little dicey. Word about the FREE campgrounds has circulated among the snowbirds and they fill the campgrounds to the brim, sometimes parking 2 and 3 deep in each site as they wing their way north in the spring.
Halfway through our trip we hopped off the NTP at Tupelo and camped at Trace State Park. The cost was $21 for a weekday night. Our main purpose was to dump our tanks and refill our fresh water. The park was virtually empty, not sure if it was because of the time of year or due to the fact that the lake had been drained because of dam repairs. At any rate, it was clean, peaceful, and a convenient spot to stay while exploring Tupelo.
Some NTP Tips for First-Timers
Before beginning your trek on the Trace, you have to get in the Trace frame of mind. Slow down. Take your time. Fill your mind with words like, stroll, meander, saunter, ramble, meditate, contemplate, gaze,….any word or phrase that causes you to put it all in low gear.
A lot of the historical points of interest stops are sites that “used to be here.” Only 2 of the stands are still in existence. Many villages, settlements, etc., have completely disappeared. So though there is a lot to read and learn about, you won’t SEE many of the sites.
Unless your children LOVE to ride for hundreds of miles in the car and read interpretive signs about life in the past, this probably won’t be one of their top 5 favorite family vacations. However, if your goal is to find miles of hiking trails and free camping, then you can’t go wrong on the Trace.
Traffic is very light on most of the Parkway. Traveling through and around the bigger cities like Jackson and Tupelo, we saw an increase of cars, but it was never what I would call congested.
Several times we were wishing we hadn’t sold the Harley. What a fantastic road for motorcycles! And with many restaurants and lodging accommodations just off the Parkway catering to the biker crowd, it would make for one memorable road trip.
The Wrap Up
Our trip up the Natchez Trace Parkway was “just what the doctor ordered.” After our 4-month, 24/7 working stint in dusty south Texas, our leisurely stroll up this gorgeous green highway refreshed and renewed our spirits.