Our penchant for long, leisurely drives is uniquely American. Extended drives rich with scenery, history, and charming communities transformed post-World War II America. Today, many of these routes are cherished destinations.
For residents and visitors to the Southeast, the Natchez Trace Parkway is one such drive. You won’t get anywhere fast along the Parkway, at least not by today’s interstate speeds. And that’s one of the enviable pleasures of following this 444-mile-long byway that runs and flows through the pastoral countryside and by the many small towns that dot its path from Natchez, Mississippi, to Nashville, Tennessee.
Travel along the Natchez Trace arrived long before the 20th century; it was designated a national postal road back in 1801 by Thomas Jefferson, and long before that sections of the route had been followed by the Natchez, Chickasaw, and Choctaw tribes. Today the Trace, with its 50 mph speed limit in most places, offers an escape from getting from here to there as quickly as possible. Such a leisurely pace encourages you not only to notice this countryside, but to stop and enjoy it.
In a very real sense the Trace, which celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, preserves “Americana.” There are stately antebellum mansions such as Stanton Hall and Rosalie Mansion in Natchez, distinctly American blue grass concerts, and, for the architecturally inclined, the country’s first double-arch bridge.
You can explore by car or park, get out, and enjoy the fresh air, hiking trails, and gurgling streams. An afternoon spent fishing along the Parkway definitely is not wasted.
Along much of the Trace there’s a peacefulness that epitomizes the allure of backroads. You’ll find gleaming Corvette car shows, the sweet sounds of dulcimer festivals, tractor pulls, art and photography shows, flea markets, antique shows, and bucolic settings perfect for picnics.
You don’t even need your car, as the route ranks as one of America’s Top 10 for cyclists, who benefit from five bicycle-only campgrounds along the route.
You can explore the Trace in bites, traveling, for instance, the 170 miles from Ridgeland, Mississippi, to Tupelo, Mississippi, to take in the home of Elvis Presley and Cypress Swamp.
Or head along the 112-mile jaunt from the Shoals of Alabama to Nashville with its canoeing opportunities and musical heritage.
Whichever route you choose, if you embark on the entire drive on one vacation or split it up in sections over the years, you’ll come across history from pre-Revolutionary War days up through the Civil War and happen upon great art galleries, local talents, and relaxing meadows, forests, and riverine settings.
You’ll likely find yourself sharing parts of the Trace with wildlife. If you’re in the right place at the right time, you might even spot some rare Whooping cranes along the Trace, as several stopped there earlier this year during their migration.
You can make a connection with the past, and the present, along the Trace.
Five Must-See Attractions Along The Natchez Trace Parkway
Mount Locust: Milepost 15.5, Natchez, Mississippi – Take a guided tour of historic Mount Locust, the only surviving “Stand,” or inn, on the Natchez Trace, that dates to the late 1700s.
Parkway Visitor Center & Headquarters: Milepost 266, Tupelo, Mississippi – Visitors find exhibits and a park orientation film. There is the opportunity to collect national park Passport stamps, and you’ll find a bicycle-only campground here.
Colbert Ferry: Milepost 327.3, Colbert County, Alabama – Today a spectacular bridge takes you across the Tennessee River, but in the early 1800s George Colbert operated a ferry from this point. Now picnic by the river or use the boat launch to paddle the river. Cyclists enjoy the campground reserved just for them.
Meriwether Lewis: Milepost 386, Hohenwald, Tennessee – Find a newly renovated visitor center as well as new exhibits on half of the Lewis and Clark duo. There also are walking trails, restrooms and campgrounds. Nearby is where Lewis died in 1809 of a gunshot wound. Was it suicide, or murder? The debate continues.
Birdsong Hollow: Milepost 438, Williamson County, Tennessee – The nation’s first double arch bridge spans 1,648 feet and stands 155 feet tall.
Coming Wednesday: Preserving Wonderland, the Yellowstone Park Foundation.