Glowing with the flow.
The Tennessee Tombigbee Waterway and massive sun-kissed lakes are just a few
of the high notes on the Parkway from Mississippi to Alabama
When you’re looking for the perfect rhythm, you really can’t do better than the 80-mile stretch of Natchez Trace Parkway leading from rolling hills of Mississippi, past water attractions of magnificent size and appeal, to the lower Appalachian peaks and Shoals area of Alabama, where great Americans and great American musical sounds were all born.
The tour begins on a contemplative note, offering three successive walks through history and nature—first through the Old Trace to the graves of 13 unknown Confederate soldiers, then through a verdant stand of dogwoods on the Dogwood Trail, and finally at the grand Pharr Mounds, where eight Native American burial mounds dating back 2,000 years spread out over 90 acres of lush green fields. Other important Native American sites on this section of the Parkway include Bear Creek Mounds and at Florence, Alabama, the largest domiciliary mound in the Tennessee Valley, with artifacts at the adjacent museum dating back 10,000 years.
But before you can view those two sites, there are the water views and the water fun to be enjoyed at the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway and adjacent lakes. Dreamed of by the earliest explorers, the Tenn-Tom was finally completed in the late 20th century, carving out a 459-mile navigable route between the Gulf of Mexico and the Tennessee River, and while it’s a crucial asset to trade and flood control, the Waterway is also a lavishly forested boon to recreation. For a grand panorama, stop at the Jamie L. Whitten Bridge at Mile Marker 293.2, and be sure to stop at the Visitor Center which, like the entire Waterway, is administered by the U.S. Corps of Engineers.
If you’re ready to get your feet wet, two large lakes—Bay Springs and Pickwick, spreading across North Mississippi and into Tennessee—are ready to plunge you into exciting water sports and leisurely liquid diversions. At Bay Springs Lake, fishermen are lured by the large mouth bass, while other visitors enjoy the museum and overlook of lake and lock, and when summer rolls around the sugar white sands of Old Bridge Beach have swimmers and sunbathers glowing with the flow.
Pickwick Lake, dubbed the “Great Lake of the South,” stretches in long fingers from Tishomingo County, Mississippi into the Shoals area of Alabama, spreading out at nearly 50,000 acres at full summer pool. The delights at this man-made Goliath aren’t endless, they just feel that way. Brimming with small and large mouth bass, crappie and catfish, the “Small Mouth Capital of the World” is also, naturally, a prime habitat of fishermen, campers, boaters and assorted lovers of fun and gorgeous scenery like the 50-foot Cooper Falls you’ll find at J.P. Coleman State Park, which wraps the edge of Pickwick with parkland, a well-appointed marina, motel, cabins, RV spaces and campground.
Like Pickwick and Bay Springs, Tishomingo State Park combines land and water recreation in a must-see, must-experience destination. Here, in Bear Creek Canyon, with its majestic sandstone cliffs and outcroppings and overhangs as tall as 60 feet, visitors find themselves in a world dating back to 7,000 BC when paleo Indians used the sandstone to make tools and where today waterfalls tumble gracefully into rocky streams and mountain laurels bloom amidst hardwood forest. The Park’s 1,530 acres abound not only with natural beauty but also with recreational treks, with 13 miles of hiking trails (including an adventure-worthy swinging bridge) and 8 miles of meandering stream that make for great canoeing. Swimming, caving, camping and rock climbing are also part of the fun.
To blend a little city civilization into your visit, take a trip into Iuka for museums, historic architecture and a refreshing stop at Iuka Mineral Springs Park, where the waters won an award at the 1902 World’s Fair. Then, before you leave Mississippi, there’s one more high point: Woodall Mountain, the highest peak in Mississippi. From there, it’s across the Mississippi-Alabama state line and off to the Freedom Hills Overlook at Mile Marker 317 for another magnificent view; at a height of 800 feet, the Overlook is the highest point on the Parkway.
Back in the early 1800’s, stick-ups were common along the Trace, but at Colbert’s Ferry, you can see the site of what was surely one of the most infamous highway robberies in history. According to legend, George Colbert reportedly charged Andrew Jackson $75,000 to ferry his army across the Tennessee River.
Just as a bridge now takes traffic (at no charge) across the Tennessee, visitors to this extraordinary area today find themselves utterly transported by the lush natural beauty and abundance. Colbert’s Ferry is another great place to find yourself attuned to the Great Outdoors, with swimming, fishing, a boat launch, bike-only campground and picnic areas.
As you move through this part of the Parkway toward the Shoals of Alabama, look and listen up: You’re on the North Alabama Birding Trail. And in fact, the Shoals area with its quartet of beautiful cities—Muscle Shoals, Tuscumbia, Florence and Sheffield—has drawn songbirds of every variety. Percy Sledge and W.C. Handy, the “Father of the Blues,” were Shoals natives, and some of the biggest names in rock and roll made their most famous records here, relying on the famed “Swampers” for the legendary “Muscle Shoals Sound.” Dozens of musical stars, from the Rolling Stones to Paul Simon to Cher to Rod Stewart recorded here; Bob Seger made “Old Time Rock ’n’ Roll” here. Today, visitors to the Shoals area can roll through rock history at a number of sites—the FAME studios in Muscle Shoals, the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio Museum in Sheffield and the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in Tuscumbia, where a stroll through musical history includes a walk-on tour of an actual tour bus used by the group Alabama and recording facilities are equipped to give each and every visitor a shot at singing stardom!
Florence also boasts a distinguished musical history as home to the W.C. Handy birthplace and museum, where every year the Handy Music Festival draws not only record crowds but also high praise from aficionados as well as fans. The birthplace and museum is a great stop any time of year, with a rich range of artifacts includes his piano and trumpet.
After all that musical history, you’ll want to switch gears for a completely different kind of “rock,” Colbert County’s “Rock of Ages” driving tour where you’ll swear you can still hear the hymns and gospel songs emanating from the18 historic churches, all of them at least a century old, and many of them older. Whether sacred or secular, Colbert County’s historic architecture is well worth an exploration. In Florence, architectural styles range from elegant Victorians to bungalows that came straight out of Sear and Roebuck catalogue to the Rosenbaum Home, Alabama’s only Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home, one of only 26 pre-World War II Usonian houses and the only such home in the Southeast open to the public. And Sheffield’s two historic districts listed on the National Register of Historic Places include Village One, a planned 1918 bungalow community.
Some of the architecture is more notable because of its residents. For instance, Ivy Green, Helen Keller’s childhood home, offers a genuinely uplifting experience. The house and gardens have been meticulously maintained, and visitors can see both the birthplace cottage where Helen and Annie Sullivan did their work, as well as the main house furnished with the original family furniture. Out in the garden, amidst the magnolias, crepe myrtle and ivy, you’ll find the famous pump, now dispensing inspiration instead of water.
While at Ivy Green you can walk in the shoes of young Helen, throughout all these charming towns you’ll find inviting walking and hiking trails and delightful pockets of nostalgia like the former railroad bridge overlooking a beautiful view of the Tennessee River. If you like a “good walk spoiled,” there are two courses on the famed Robert Trent Jones golf trail. And for more outdoor fun, there’s the Cane Creek Canyon Nature Preserve and the 15,000-acre Wilson Lake, with three previous world-records to its credit, for small mouth bass, freshwater drum and sauger. At the adjacent Veteran’s Park, you can camp, fish, go boating, play tennis or just soak up the view.
With so many attractions to choose from, you can easily find your own rhythm on this stretch of the Parkway in a visit that’s tailored to your interests. But no matter what your tour encompasses, you may want to include a final grace note at the Coon Dog cemetery. Seventy years ago, after the death of his trusty dog Troop, Shoals resident Key Underwood decided that man’s best friend deserved more than an unmarked plot in the backyard. And why not a real cemetery with headstones and all? With more than 100 dogs buried there, their graves marked by a range of noble and whimsical statuary, the Coon Dog Cemetery is an exceptionally popular attraction for humans; the cemetery even has its own Labor Day celebration.
It seems that honoring a faithful companion strikes a chord with folks everywhere—but then that’s how it is with all of the attractions on this section of the Parkway.
FOR VISITOR INFORMATION: 866-TRACE 56