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September 29, 2020
By Debi Lander
American Indians, Ohio Valley riverboat traders, European settlers, soldiers, slaves, and future presidents trod the Natchez Trace, one of America’s oldest trails. It took about 35 days by foot, 25 days on horseback. Later widened for wagons, the route was eventually abandoned in favor of steamboat transit. Fortunately, the pathway was restored and today the National Park Service maintains the 444-mile renovated highway running through three states from Nashville to Natchez. The two-lane road posts a maximum speed limit of 50 mph. Attempt the drive in one day, and you’ll spend more than 10 hours behind the wheel.
A better way to enjoy this part of the South is to break the trip up, making it like a relaxing Sunday drive on a rural country road. Stop to explore the tree-lined trails, campgrounds, historical markers, and bodies of water for hiking, biking, fishing, and even horseback riding. Or drive segments of the road veering off to discover the many attractions in small and bigger cities. My suggestions follow:
Nashville makes a great starting point. Take in a performance at the Grand Ole Opry and tour the Country Music Hall of Fame. Marvel at Nashville’s full-scale replica of the original Parthenon in Greece, reminding us that the city was dubbed “Athens of the South.”
Next morning, head to the Trace’s entrance with a full tank of gas and some snacks. The scenic road offers no gas stations, convenience stores, or hotels; however, you’ll find public restrooms and mile markers.
About an hour down the road, stop by the Meriwether Lewis Monument. Meriwether Lewis of Lewis and Clark fame died under mysterious circumstances at Grinder’s stand. His grave marker features a cut off column signifying a life cut short, at just 35 years.
Music lovers should consider visiting Muscle Shoals, about 15 minutes off the road. FAME Studios, Muscle Shoals Sound, and other recording studios made the Alabama city the “Hit Recording Capital of the World” in the 1960s.
On the way to Tupelo, stop, and walk along the footpath of the Old Trace imagining how vulnerable travelers felt over 200 years ago. Pause for reflection when you come to 13 Confederate graves with stone markers.
The Parkway Headquarters and Visitor Center provides a must-see educational opportunity. Don’t miss the introductory film and displays covering the trail’s 10,000-year history.
Tupelo celebrates its hometown hero Elvis at the Elvis Presley Birthplace Museum. The Presley house contains just two rooms. The museum offers more about Elvis’ early years, and the grounds include some fantastic statues.
State capitol buildings are always worth a visit and Jackson, Mississippi’s capital, lies just 10 miles off the Trace. Follow a self-tour using the visitor brochure as your guide and discover grandeur in the domed building. Stay and tour two eye-opening museums in one: the hands-on Mississippi History Museum and the interactive Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. The two attractions jointly cover 200,000 square feet and include 22,000 artifacts.
Port Gibson, a town Sherman called “too pretty to burn,” and the Windsor Ruins put you smack in kudzu covered territory. The ruins are all that remain of what was once a palatial mansion, but they make a haunting sight, a favorite of photographers.
National Park Ranger Jane Farmer, Chief of Interpretation, says, “Emerald Mound is the must-see along the Parkway. It’s the second-largest Indian mound in the U.S.”
Reaching Natchez provides elegance and charm. Historic homes showcase antebellum splendor with costumed, knowledgeable guides. Natchez became the richest town per capita in the U.S. from about 1820 – 1860.
Don’t leave until you’ve gone down to Natchez Under-the-Hill, a row of Mississippi riverfront restaurants and shops far tamer than the brothels, taverns and gambling halls that stood there 200 years ago.
Whether you’re a National Park enthusiast, history buff, or just enjoy driving, the Natchez Trace Parkway delivers memorable miles.
Visit the National Park website, www.nps.gov/natr for more information.
Visit www.bylandersea.com to read more of local travel writer Debi Lander’s stories and travel tips.