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.
3. Mt. Locust
Throughout its long history the Natchez Trace has shown the way for an incredible caravan of travelers: trappers and traders, pioneers and preachers, soldiers and scoundrels. But of all those who have trodden here, the group that is perhaps most identified with the trace are the riverboat men who, starting in the late 18th century, began a regular trading routine with cities on the lower Mississippi.
Known as Kaintucks (though they came from many states besides Kentucky), these rough-and-ready entrepreneurs guided their flatboats and rafts down the Mississippi to deliver goods at Natchez or New Orleans. Once their business had been completed, they sold their boats for lumber and trekked home on foot rather than push upstream against the current. Darkened by the sun and often dressed in tatters, they had, according to one observer, “beards eighteen days old, adding to the singularity of their appearance, which was altogether savage.”
By 1810 as many as 10,000 Kaintucks a year were trudging northward toward Nashville on the trace. Before long, such heavy traffic had turned a crude, narrow wilderness trail into a clearly defined route. (In 1806 the trace was broadened to 12 feet by order of Thomas Jefferson to make it passable for wagons.) To serve the boatless boatmen who faced a long journey home, a series of inns, called stands, sprang up along the route, spaced about one day’s walk apart. Of the 50 original stands, only Mt. Locust remains. Restored to its 1820 appearance, the simple wooden house is built on pilings to keep the interior cool during summer; the design also features a long front gallery, or porch. Most of these primitive shelters provided little more than a plate of cornmeal mush and a spot to sleep on a wooden floor, but to weary travelers making their way on a journey of nearly 500 miles, they must have seemed as inviting as any posh New Orleans hotel.
4. Windsor Ruins
A turn west off the parkway onto Rte. 552 leads along a quiet back-country road to Windsor Ruins, the haunting skeleton of what was once the largest and most impressive antebellum home in Mississippi. Completed in 1861 at the then-staggering cost of $175,000, Windsor served as an observation post for Confederate troops and, later, as a hospital for the Union Army. Ironically, the building survived the Civil War intact, only to be destroyed in 1890 by a fire ignited by a careless smoker. Today, all that remains of the once-magnificent mansion is 23 weathered Corinthian columns, their ornate iron capitals touching nothing but the deep blue southern sky.
5. Port Gibson
From Windsor Ruins the drive curves northeastward to rejoin the parkway, via Rte. 18, near milepost 40. Just before the junction, you pass through historic Port Gibson, the town General Ulysses S. Grant reportedly decreed was “too beautiful to burn” during his march to Vicksburg in 1863. Among the antebellum structures that inspired his benevolence are Oak Square, a 30-room Greek Revival mansion (now a bed-and-breakfast inn) and the 1859 First Presbyterian Church. Its soaring steeple is topped with a gilded 10-foot-tall metal hand pointing skyward, and its interior features chandeliers from the Robert E. Lee, one of the most majestic steamboats ever to ply the Mississippi. The dawn of the steamboat era, around 1812, marked the beginning of the end for the Natchez Trace: river travel was so much easier and safer than the overland journey that, by the 1820s, the pathway was virtually abandoned and forgotten. Not until the early 20th century were efforts made to locate and mark the historic route.
6. Rocky Springs
Even at the peak of its popularity, the Natchez Trace was frighteningly lonely and remote, a junglelike place where a traveler might walk or ride for hours without seeing a single soul. Poisonous snakes, ruthless bandits, Indian warriors, treacherous terrain — these were just some of the hazards that earned the trail its ominous nickname: the Devil’s Backbone.
At mile 41.5 a portion of the original trace (one of a dozen sections that are accessible) gives visitors a taste of what early travelers must have experienced. Worn deep into the earth by countless footsteps and hoofbeats, this eroded tunnel is as spooky as ever. Spanish moss drips from tall trees, a chorus of crickets issues an almost deafening trill, and the forest is often shrouded in a steamy haze. Up ahead lies another eerie place, the ghost town known as Rocky Springs, where you’ll find the southernmost campground on the parkway.
7. Mississippi Crafts Center
At milepost 87 the drive detours around an incomplete section of the Natchez Trace Parkway (via I-20, I-220, and I-55) through the capital city of Jackson. Just a mile after returning to the parkway, you’ll reach the Mississippi Crafts Center, housed in a dogtrot log cabin. All of the objects on display here were created by members of the Mississippi Craftsmen’s Guild. On weekends from March through October, artisans demonstrate their homespun skills in pottery, quilting, basket weaving, and many other crafts, both traditional and contemporary.
8. Cypress Swamp
For several miles the parkway hugs the western border of Ross Barnett Reservoir, whose shimmering blue waters attract waterskiers in summer and anglers year-round (bass and catfish are common). Near the reservoir’s north end lies Cypress Swamp, an abandoned river channel that abounds with two types of water-loving trees, tupelos and bald cypresses. A 20-minute nature trail begins on an elevated boardwalk, which leads through a wetland full of natural wonders. Turtles sunning themselves on logs plop into the still water as walkers approach, lazy alligators drift by like floating logs, and great blue herons spear fish with remarkable skill. About 40 miles ahead, just north of Kosciusko, you’ll find a visitor information center with exhibits on the colorful history of the parkway.
9. French Camp
Louis LeFleur, a French Canadian married to a Choctaw woman, established a stand serving Natchez Trace travelers here in 1812. Today visitors can browse over French and Indian artifacts in a restored 1840 log cabin and inspect a sorghum mill, where a favorite Southern treat, molasses, is made on weekends from late September through October.
10. Jeff Busby Site
Winding its way northeastward, the drive soon arrives at Jeff Busby Site, named for a congressman who played a key role in the preservation of the trace. This recreation area offers camping, picnicking, and the only fuel station located directly on the parkway. A nature trail, identifying native plants and the ways pioneers used them, leads to Little Mountain, which, despite its name, is one of the highest points found in the state of Mississippi. From its 603-foot summit, you can see as far as 20 miles on a clear day. In the pine and hardwood forest near milepost 203 is a reminder of a tragic chapter in the natural history of America. The Pigeon Roost roadside exhibit marks the spot where millions of migrating passenger pigeons once rested. Thought to have been the most abundant bird species in the world in Colonial times, the passenger pigeon, flocks of which would blacken the sky for hours at a time, was wantonly slaughtered for food and sport. Its numbers declined precipitously toward the end of the late 19th century, and the last known member of the species died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.
11. Tombigbee National Forest
Curving gently through rolling countryside, the parkway traverses 66,000-acre Tombigbee National Forest, which offers a different treat in every season. In spring, as jack-in-the-pulpits hide beneath their hoods, redbuds burst forth with pink blossoms, and flowering dogwoods dot the forest with clouds of white. Come late autumn, the colors of the forest are even more vibrant, as oaks, hickories, maples, and sweetgums go out in glory. Thanks to its abundance of shortleaf and loblolly pines, the forest remains green in winter and shady on sultry summer days.
The Witch Dance Horse Trail, at milepost 233, takes its intriguing name from a local legend about mysterious bare spots on the forest floor. Witches once gathered here to dance, the story goes, and wherever their black-slippered feet touched the ground, the plants withered and died, never to grow back again. A few miles ahead, a spur road leads west to 200-acre Davis Lake, a good spot for swimming and boating.
This part of Mississippi was once the floor of an ancient sea, yielding a limy black soil that, centuries later, would prove ideal for growing cotton. Cattle now graze on many of the prairies near the parkway as it approaches Tupelo, the largest city in the northeastern part of the state. Although Tupelo’s history is as rich as its cropland — a Chickasaw Indian village was located nearby, and the town is the site of the last major Civil War battle fought in Mississippi — people now flock here from all over the world because of an everyday event that occurred on January 8, 1935. On that date, in a tiny two-room house built with $180 worth of materials, twin sons were born to Gladys and Vernon Presley. One boy, Jesse Garon, died at birth; but the other, Elvis Aaron, grew up to become the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. His fans, whose worship has never waned in the years since his death in 1977, visit Tupelo by the thousands each year to glimpse his boyhood home, his elementary and junior high schools, and the hardware store where he bought his first guitar.
The Natchez Trace Parkway has its headquarters about five miles north of town at the Tupelo visitor center, where travelers will find a scenic nature trail and a museum chronicling the history of both the old Natchez Trace and the modern parkway.
13. Donivan Slough
The 20 minutes it takes to walk the trail at this imposing bottomland forest (located at milepost 283) are well rewarded. Water oaks, sycamores, sweetgums, bald cypresses, beeches, and river birches thrive here, but among the most splendid specimens are the tulip trees, tall and arrow-straight. Often called yellow poplars — though they’re more closely related to magnolias — these woodland giants flaunt beautiful greenish-orange tuliplike flowers in spring. Farther north, at milepost 287, sprawl the Pharr Mounds, the largest archeological site in Mississippi. Built around 100 B.C., these earthworks cover some 90 acres.
14. Tishomingo State Park
Just beyond Donivan Slough, the parkway crosses the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, a shortcut for commercial shipping between the Tennessee River and the Gulf of Mexico. Farther ahead, the route bisects 1,500-acre Tishomingo State Park, one of the loveliest spots in Mississippi. The park’s steep hills, which are in fact the westernmost extension of the Appalachian Mountains, make for so many bluffs, waterfalls, and rocky ridges that one feels a world away from the flatlands of the Mississippi River Delta. Except in winter the park offers an eight-mile canoe trip along Bear Creek, past high sandstone bluffs and over rocky rapids.
15. Freedom Hills Overlook
After spending three-quarters of its journey in Mississippi, the drive crosses into Alabama for a brief visit — just 33 miles. At Freedom Hills Overlook (milepost 317), a short but steep trail leads to a view of tree-covered highlands along the western edge of the Cumberland Plateau. The drive then breezes on past lush rolling hills that are especially pretty in the late afternoon, when long shadows cast a bluish tint on the gently folded landscape.
16. Colbert Ferry
At Colbert Ferry the parkway crosses Pickwick Lake via the mile-long John Coffee Memorial Bridge. Well over a century before the bridge was built, the site’s namesake, a mixed-blood Chickasaw chief named George Colbert, operated an inn and ferry here for Natchez Trace travelers. A shrewd businessman, Colbert reportedly charged Major General Andrew Jackson $75,000 to ferry his troops across the Tennessee River on their return from the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. A section of the old trace leads past the site of Colbert’s house. At the north end of the bridge, near milepost 329, is a picnic area and a boat ramp.
17. Sunken Trace
Rather than following one unvarying line, the original Natchez Trace had paths that often shifted — the result of changes in terrain, weather, or the whims of Spanish Colonial rule. At Sunken Trace, located at a spot just nine miles beyond the Alabama-Tennessee border at milepost 350, visitors can spot three distinct trails, evidence that early travelers changed course at various times to skirt miring mudholes.
18. David Crockett State Park
Just past milepost 370, Rte. 64 leads eastward from the Natchez Trace to David Crockett State Park, named for the legendary Tennessee pioneer who died at the siege of the Alamo in 1836. (Despite the words of a popular song about the “king of the wild frontier,” he was known in his time as David, not Davy.) Crockett established a powder mill, gristmill, and distillery here on the bank of Shoal Creek in 1817; all were washed away by a flood in 1821. Today campers can catch a bass for supper on Lindsey Lake, and hikers on the park nature trail can pause to enjoy the delightful scene at Crockett Falls, a series of cascades on Shoal Creek. Back on the parkway continue to milepost 375, where an unpaved, forest-fringed section of the old trace — unsuitable for large trailers and recreational vehicles — climbs to a high ridgeline with fine views of the surrounding hills and valleys.
19. Meriwether Lewis Site
As the drive winds northward past the Buffalo River, keep an eye peeled for woodchucks, foxes, coyotes, and — where the road passes through fields and pastures — bluebirds perched on roadside fence wires. The Meriwether Lewis Site, at the junction with Rte. 20, is one of the region’s most popular recreation areas, with camping, hiking trails, and a section of the old trace leading down to Little Swan Creek. Lewis, co-leader of the historic Lewis and Clark expedition to the Pacific Northwest, was only 35 when he died of gunshot wounds at an inn here in 1809. Though believed to have been a suicide from the outset, murder and conspiracy theories have circulated since soon after his death. His gravesite is marked with a broken stone column, symbolic of a life cut short by tragedy.
20. Jackson Falls
At milepost 404 a precipitous trail descends from the parkway to the base of a waterfall on Jackson Branch, where springtime freshets create a shimmering silvery cascade that splashes down glistening dark rocks. The falls are named for Andrew Jackson, the renowned general who became the seventh president of the United States. At the parkway’s northern terminus in Nashville, you’ll find the Hermitage, Jackson’s white-columned home and the site of his tomb.
About 20 miles past the falls, the Natchez Trace reaches its highest point — 1,100 feet above sea level. This long ridge, the Tennessee Valley Divide, once marked the boundary between the United States and the Chickasaw Nation, its neighbor to the south.
21. Garrison Creek
Named for an army garrison that was established nearby in 1801, the parkway’s northernmost picnic site is the trailhead (at mile 427.6) for a 24 1/2-mile hiking and bridle path that meanders across the Tennessee highlands. The old trace was designated an official postal route at the beginning of the 19th century; as a result, army troops made improvements to the roadbed in this area — at mile 426.3, just over a mile to the south — to try to speed up the pace at which mail was delivered between Nashville and Natchez. Trusting that the mail carriers would know the shortest and easiest way and would provide companionship in case of danger, newcomers often accompanied these seasoned riders on their journeys. The post rider was adopted by the National Park Service as the official symbol of the Natchez Trace Parkway, and today you’ll find the silhouette of a horse and rider adorns the signposts along the entire route, a recurring reminder of the roadway’s frontier heritage. Length: About 450 miles, plus side trips.
When to go: Spring and fall.
Lodging: Available in nearby towns and cities. During pilgrimage seasons (spring and fall), make reservations well in advance.
Words to the wise: Observe the 50 m.p.h. speed limit, which is strictly enforced. When driving, be on the lookout for bicyclists and deer; when hiking, beware of ticks, snakes, and poison ivy.
Nearby attractions: Vicksburg National Military Park, Vicksburg, MS; Mississippi Petrified Forest, near Flora, MS; Country Music Hall of Fame, Nashville, TN.
Visitor centers: Mt. Locust, Tupelo, Kosciusko, Colbert Ferry.
Further information: Natchez Trace Parkway, RR1, NT-143, Tupelo, MS 38801; tel. 800-305-7417, www.nps.gov/natt.
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