If roads could share their stories, few would have a better tale to tell than the Natchez Trace Parkway. Stretching diagonally from the Mississippi River into the Tennessee Valley, this 8,000-year-old pathway has felt the tread of early Indians, marching armies, intrepid pioneers, and Spanish conquistadors. Today the historic route is roughly paralleled by a national parkway administered by the National Park Service, whose low speed limit and lack of commercial traffic make for a wonderfully lazy Southern sojourn.
The romantic Mississippi River town that lent its name to both the old trail and the modern parkway is one of the loveliest and most historic communities in the South. Founded in 1716, Natchez — the name comes from an Indian tribe that settled here in the 1500s — was at that time the only port on the Mississippi between bustling New Orleans and the mouth of the Ohio River.
During the steamboat era the town’s strategic location enriched so many of its citizens that more than half the millionaires in America lived here. Many of their lavish homes, like Natchez itself, went virtually untouched by the Civil War and are among the town’s 500-odd carefully preserved antebellum structures. Some of these magnificent mansions are open to visitors year-round, including such favorites as Stanton Hall, a structure that covers an entire city block; Magnolia Hall, which was shelled by a Union gunboat in 1862; Longwood, the largest octagonal house in America; red brick Rosalie, perched on a bluff beside the broad, muddy Mississippi; and Melrose, known for its unique Greek Revival style and distinctive outbuildings. Other homes may be visited only in the spring and fall, when the famed Natchez Pilgrimage Tours attract thousands of visitors, who stroll beneath live oaks draped with Spanish moss to relive the glory of a bygone era.
2. Emerald Mound
Heading northeast from Natchez, the drive follows Rte. 61, which joins the beginning of the parkway a few miles outside the city. Once on the Natchez Trace, the route winds through rolling hill country so dense with oaks, pines, beeches, and magnolias that their overhanging limbs in places seem clasped together like fingers. The first travelers along the original trace (from a French word meaning “track” or “path”) were no doubt wild buffalo seeking the easiest path south. Tracking their hoofprints, Indians blazed the trail farther, connecting villages with an intersecting series of game trails through the unbroken woodland.
At milepost 10 the region’s Indian heritage is highlighted by an ancient ceremonial site known as Emerald Mound. Built about 700 years ago by the Mississippians (ancestors of the now-extinct Natchez tribe), the flat-topped, 35-foot-high earthen structure covers eight acres, making it the second-largest ceremonial mound in America. Emerald Mound was once surmounted by smaller secondary mounds and temples, but most vestiges of these have long since disappeared as completely as their builders. Nearby is the entrance to Natchez State Park, a good spot for camping and fishing.