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Fall In The National Parks: A Quieter Ride Through Fall Along The Natchez Trace Parkway
Fall, that lofty season when Eastern hardwood forests don foliages red, gold, and orange, lures us like motorized lemmings into national parks to admire nature’s wizardry. We inch along, practically bumper to bumper at times, to be dazzled in a final seasonal hurrah before the paint-by-number leaves are shed and winter’s first squalls convince us that being inside really isn’t such a bad thing.
But there is a pastoral parkway in the National Park System that meanders hundreds of miles, through colorful forests and leading to plunging waterfalls, one rich in Native American and Civil War history, that doesn’t precipitate quite so hectic or jammed an excursion through the season.
Unlike its neighbors to the north, the Natchez Trace Parkway has yet to be discovered by the masses of motorists out in search of fall’s peak colors. Whereas the Blue Ridge Parkway, that hallowed ribbon of two-lane that roams through the Appalachians from Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee drew more than 1.6 million people last October, the Trace that runs from Natchez, Mississippi, to Nashville, Tennessee, counted not even a third as many visitors.
Fall crowds? Not along the Trace, at least not comparatively speaking.
The Natchez Trace Parkway is the seventh-most visited site in the National Park System as reflected by the 5.56 million recreational visitors in 2012. But that doesn’t mean you’ll be jockeying with crowds.
“Really, year-round, there is no traffic if you take the Natchez Trace as a whole,” says Lance Ragsdale, vice president of development for the French Camp Academy that manages the French Camp Historic Village at milepost (MP) 180 says.
Oh, around rush hour in morning and evening the Trace near Madison, Jackson, and Tupelo in Mississippi might get busy with folks heading to work or back home. But “once you get past those cities, it is clear and open,” he says.
Though summer-like weather prevails, with daily highs in the 80s possible, the Natchez Trace with forests thick with hickories, oaks, and maples has enough reds, yellows and oranges to signal a fall season that rivals other areas of the park system.
Laid out south to north, with Natchez the entry point to Milepost 1 and Milepost 444 at Nashville the far end, the Trace is a perfect destination for travelers looking to both enjoy the season and yet gain a measure of solitude from the high summer season.
“Usually the leaves start changing in October in this area,” Mr. Ragslade says. “Mississippi is pretty lush and green and stays that way for a while, but in October that begins to change, and the colors along the Trace begin to look like autumn.”
For those seeking the season’s best display, some of the very best views are to be had at Old Trace Drive (MP 375.8), Metal Ford (MP 382.8), and Swan View Overlook (MP 392.5). Time and weather permitting, take a leisurely stroll to enjoy the foliage at Meriwether Lewis (MP 385.9) or Fall Hollow (MP 391.9).
Many motorists from northern states are surprised to find that stretches of the parkway in Alabama and Mississippi offer pleasing color.
Among the recommended views in this southerly section are the Freedom Hills Overlook (MP 317.0), the Old Town Overlook (MP 263.9), and the Little Mountain Overlook (Jeff Busby Campground, MP 193.1). You can pair those foliage displays with chapters on American history, side trips to other park system units, waterfall gazing, or simply relaxing in a campground with a few easy hikes to connect with the landscape.
History Along The Trace
Did American frontiersman Davy Crockett cross the Trace early in the 19th century when he served as a scout for the Second Regiment of Tennessee Volunteer Mounted Riflemen? Most likely, for history, and even prehistory, thrum and reverberate along the 444 miles of the Trace.
If Crockett did follow the Trace, well, he was only one of the more recent visitors. American Indian villages developed more than 9,000 years ago along the area now traversed by the Natchez Trace Parkway. The paths that became the Natchez Trace traveled through the homelands of the Choctaw, Chickasaw and Natchez people- descendants of the early mound builders.
This rich history is highlighted at many sites along the Parkway, including Emerald Mound (MP 10.3). Though only about 750 years old, it is the second-largest American Indian mound in the country, covering about eight acres. The Natchez Indians developed a village outside present-day Natchez that is preserved at Grand Village of the Natchez Trace Historic Site. Here you can explore three ceremonial mounds, two of which have been restored to their original sizes and shapes.
Even later, beginning in the late 1700s and continuing into the early 1800s, boatmen coursed the rivers, including the Mississippi, down to New Orleans to sell their goods, including their flatboats, before heading back north along the Trace to home.
This landscape was a hive of military activity during the Civil War, as evidenced by today’s Park Service sites that are clustered along the Trace: Vicksburg National Military Park, Tupelo National Battlefield, Brices Cross Roads National Battlefield Site, Shiloh National Military Park and its affiliated Corinth Civil War Interpretive Site, and Stones River National Battlefield.
It was at Tupelo that the Union troops prevented the Confederates from severing General William T. Sherman’s supply lines. This two-day fight involving some 20,000 soldiers was the last major battle of the war in Mississippi. Head roughly 15 miles west of the Trace from Milepost 60 and you can enjoy a side trip to Vicksburg National Military Park, where you’ll find the USS Cairo, a restored Union gunboat, more than 1,300 monuments, a Union cemetery with the remains of 17,000 Union soldiers and, for ambitious youth, a 12-mile-long Scout trail that requires map and compass skills.
Civil War mysteries stand solemnly at MP 269.4, where 13 Confederate graves can be found along the Old Trace. How the soldiers died, and who they are, remains a mystery.
Fall Fun Along The Trace
The Natchez Trace Parkway is not only a famous drive, but also a special place for cyclists. Pedal down the Parkway and not only will you take a decidedly slower tour of the fall color, but you can stop in bicycle-only campgrounds (MPs 159, 234, 266, 327, and 408) or, if you like a hot shower at day’s end, overnight in one of the numerous bed-and-breakfasts along the way.
“Typically, as a general rule, people driving are fairly respectful to cyclists,” points out Mr. Ragsdale. “I think that just reflects the tranquility of the Trace, the scenic byway that it was intended to be.”
Seeking a great fall photograph along the Trace? Head to the “Sunken Trace” at MP 41.5. This short trail, along a section of the old Trace that appears to have sunk down into the ground due to the millions of footsteps that helped erode away the soil, offers a classic portrait of the Trace under a colorful canopy. The “sunken” nature of the trail stems from the highly erodible “loess” soils underfoot; sturdier soils further north that saw the same traffic don’t erode quite as easily and are consequently not as “sunken.”
Wildlife in the form of alligators sometimes can be seen from the boardwalk that meanders through Cypress Swamp (MP 122). It’s a short walk, roughly a half-mile through a water tupelo/bald cypress swamp adorned with tangles of Spanish moss, but offers a peaceful leg-stretcher.
Any season is wonderful to find yourself along the Natchez Trace Parkway. But the fall calendar is dotted with special activities that are worth noting.
Travel to Milepost 180 and you’ll arrive at French Camp, site of an historic village with roots put down around 1810 when Louis LeFleur and his family opened a tavern and inn to accommodate travelers along the Trace.
These days you’ll find a nice historic district containing cabins, a log bed-and-breakfast establishment, and more than a little entertainment. Plan on visiting October 12 and you can participate in the annual Harvest Festival where you can attend an auction of handmade quilts, pick up artworks, or enjoy family-style picnic. (If you can’t bring a covered dish or two, there are donation boxes.)
All the while, strains of music fill the air as dulcimers are strummed, banjos plucked, and fiddles fiddled by musicians set up around the village.
If you visit the birthplace of Elvis Presley in Tupelo (MP 260) during Labor Day Weekend, you can enjoy the Multi-Cultural Gospel Fest that will be held in Ballard Park. Or mark September 13-14 down on your calendar so you don’t miss the Up, Up, & Away Hot Air Balloon Festival, also at Ballard Park.
Don’t be surprised to come across convoys of classic cars and trucks along the Trace in mid-October. They’re likely heading to the 20th Annual Fall Classics Car and Truck Show (and the annual Oktober Heritage Festival) held in Hohenwald, Tennessee (near MP 385). Come Friday, October 11, the parking lot on the corner of North Maple and East Linden in Hohenwald will feature entertainment, arts and crafts, and food from morning ‘til nightfall.
In late November you can help open the new Visitor Center arising at Florence, Alabama, on the banks of the Tennessee River at McFarland Park (just off MP 330). This facility will showcase Muscle Shoals and its musical heritage. After exploring the Visitor Center, head over to a home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Built in 1939-40, the home is constructed of cypress, glass, and brick.
The City of Florence maintains and operates the home and offers tours Tuesday-Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and on Sundays from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. The home’s flat roofs, large overhanging eaves, expanses of glass, and the flowing space are all hallmarks of the Usonian style loved by Wright in his designs for the average American family. Typical of many of Wright’s projects, the house is furnished with Wright designed objects.
If you prefer to entertain yourself, more than 60 miles of the Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail can be found along the Parkway, and there are 28 hiking and self-guiding trails for you to explore along the Trace.
With more than a dozen campgrounds adjacent to the Parkway, and three campgrounds in the park itself, you have plenty of choices for finding some solitude.
Two significant waterfalls can be found along the Trace, perfect for photographs that frame them with fall foliage. The Fall Hollow Waterfall at MP 391.1 cascades down a slope in a beautiful forested setting reached via a set of wooden bridges that crisscross the creek before arriving at a viewing platform from which you can admire the small falls.
Not too far up the road (MP 404.7) tumbles Jackson Falls—named after Andrew Jackson—where a paved trail takes you nearly 900 feet down in elevation to a small gorge carved by the water.
Too, state parks can be found up and down the Trace, including David Crockett State Park not far to the east of MP 370. In Mississippi these state parks complement the Homochitto and Tombigbee national forests.
The Homochitto National Forest, which actually wraps a portion of the Trace near MP 240, is of particular note as it was the result of an extensive reforestation effort made in the 1930s by the Civil Conservation Corps.
The Corps also developed scenic drives and recreation areas (don’t miss the Clear Spring Campground with its manmade lake, picnic grounds, swimming area, and hiking trails) in the forest. Along with the state parks, you’ll find charming communities with wonderful places to stay, excellent places to dine, and plenty to see and do. Several historic cultures are represented by living villages, museums, and monuments. Throughout the year, there are many cultural events such as Pioneer Days, Dulcimer demonstrations, craft demonstrations, and heritage programs.
Whenever you visit the Trace—September, October, or into November—you’ll find a peaceful ride with countless attractions, events, and historic sites to capture your attention. And you surely won’t mind the absence of bumper-to-bumper traffic.