Mention a fall foliage trip in the southeastern U.S. to veteran travelers, and places such as the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Blue Ridge Parkway come quickly to mind. Those are long- standing favorites, but here's another scenic drive that may not be on your autumn color list: the Natchez Trace Parkway.
Travelers have used this route since long before the area was called America. The persistent passage of animals and humans formed a network of rough trails through the forests east of the lower Mississippi River, and an identifiable route that came to be known as the Natchez Trace emerged by the late 1700s.
A steady throng of traders, trappers and settlers made it the most significant highway of the region, and in 1800 the Trace was designated a national post road for the delivery of mail. General Andrew Jackson used it to march troops from Nashville to the Battle of New Orleans, where his army ended Britain’s plans to occupy the Mississippi River Valley. The end of the Old Trace as a major transportation route finally came at the hands of "progress," with the development of the steamboat and the rerouting of portions of the national post road.
The modern Natchez Trace Parkway covers a distance of 444 miles from Natchez, Mississippi, across northwest Alabama to just south of Nashville, Tennessee. Authorized by Congress in 1938 and completed in 2005, it commemorates the historic Old Trace and parallels portions of the original route. A park publication offers a good description of the Parkway:
"…a traditional southern landscape that offers travelers manicured grassy roadsides and native tree plantings intermingled with a mosaic of hardwood and softwood forest communities, wetlands, prairie landscapes, agricultural croplands, abundant wildlife, and architecturally significant bridges and structures."
Landmarks along the road are identified by mileposts: Mile one is at the southern end near Natchez and numbers become larger as you travel north. You can download printable maps and directions to key access points from the park's website.
While it's not Vermont or the Skyline Drive, the gentler landscape of the Natchez Trace can offer some fine autumn scenery. You've still got time to plan a trip this year, since the best color typically occurs from mid-October into early November, beginning in the Tennessee sections of the park and moving southward.
David Carney, Chief of Interpretation at the park, reports that leaves are just beginning to turn along the Tennessee end of the drive, but the recent cool weather should move that process right along. He also notes that the mixed hardwood forests on the northern portion of the Parkway tend to offer more variety in color than the southern end of the drive.
The Parkway is designated as a National Scenic Byway and All-American Road. A ban on commercial vehicles makes travel on the road a pleasure if you want to enjoy the view, but this route is intended for a leisurely drive. If you're in a hurry, stick to the Interstate—the speed limit along most of the Parkway is 50 m.p.h., and lower in a few sections.
Wildlife is plentiful along and on the road, so be alert, and do observe the speed limit. It's enforced for your safety, as well as to keep the route from becoming a raceway for those looking for a shortcut across the South.
If the weather's nice, don't limit your visit to a windshield tour. The Parkway has 87 miles of trails, includes 52 nature, hiking, and horse routes. At the Sunken Trace (Milepost 41.5) you can walk through a deeply eroded section of the Old Trace; a nature trail at Cypress Swamp (Milepost 122.0) keeps your feet dry while you travel through a water tupelo/bald cypress swamp.
Get information about trails and other things to see and do at the Parkway Visitor Center (Milepost 266 near Tupelo, Mississippi). It's open from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Central Time, every day except December 25th (1-800-305-7417 or 662-680-4027). A second information station located at the Mt. Locust Historic Inn (Milepost 15.5, near Natchez, Mississippi) has the same hours, February through November.
If you'd like to camp during your visit, the park's three campgrounds are free, first come-first serve, and do not have showers or utility hookups. You'll find them at Rocky Springs (Milepost 54), Jeff Busby (Milepost 193.1) and Meriwether Lewis (Milepost 385). Other campgrounds not far off the parkway offer more amenities.
Although this park is primarily a long, narrow strip paralleling both sides of the roadway, much of the route is heavily wooded enough to provide both a nice landscape—and to screen nearby commercial development. When it's time for food, fuel or other services, you'll need to exit to parkway. A link on the park's website provides a list of Chambers of Commerce or Visitor and Convention Bureaus, complete with phone numbers, for communities just off the road.
Many have gone before you through this quiet southern landscape: Chickasaw and Choctaw Indians, Davy Crockett, Lafayette, Andrew Jackson, Jefferson Davis, Henry Clay, James Audubon, Meriwether Lewis …. If you can shed the urge to rush for a hour or a day—or two—take an unhurried drive on the Natchez Trace Parkway, and let this old route make some new travel memories for you.