The Natchez Trace Parkway
The Natchez Trace Parkway – 444 miles stretching over three states (Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi) – has been a unit of the National Park Service since 1938 and officially completed in 2005. It stretches from Nashville, Tenn., to Natchez, Miss.
Yet when I mentioned that Dave and I would be visiting the Natchez Trace the first week in May, I mostly got blank stares. It seems that, at least among my friends in the upper Midwest, the Parkway is one of the National Park Service’s best-kept secrets. I mean, I guess it’s not exactly Yellowstone.
But this road covers essentially 10,000 years of history. It includes the historic land of the Natchez, Chickasaw, and Choctaw nations, and as the early U.S. expanded to the west in the 1700s and early 1800s the Trace became a marked path. Walkers, horses, and wagons traveled the trail; it became a highway of sorts for the folks who floated crops and goods down the Mississippi River, sold them in Natchez and the surrounding area, and then walked back to Nashville. It also became a national post road for mail delivery between the cities.
Dave had visited portions of the Parkway a few years ago, but we were determined to drive the full 444 miles this time. We broke it down into three days: Nashville to Tupelo, Tupelo to Jackson, and Jackson to Natchez.
For three days we were transported back in time, surrounded by historic sites and natural beauty. On the Parkway, there are no stop signs and no billboards…only National Park signs and the occasional sign informing you that you are nearing the intersection of a “real” road, at which point you are welcome to hop off the Parkway for tank of gas, a southern meal, or a small-town experience. We viewed turkeys, wildflowers, songbirds, turtles, a great blue heron, and a dozen or more white cranes. Everywhere was green, green, green – with the occasional pop of a flowering tree or burst of wildflowers along the side of the road.
Day 1: Nashville to Tupelo, 184 miles
We started on Tuesday (after driving about 700 miles from Ames to Nashville on Monday). The northern end of the Parkway is just south of Nashville, and our first stop was to jump out of the car and take a picture of the Natchez Trace Parkway entrance sign (or terminus sign, depending on which direction you’re driving). We also picked up a National Park Service brochure that described the parkway mile by mile, which may just be the best NPS brochure in existence. I kept it unfolded on my lap, and we used it constantly throughout the trip.
That stop would be the first of so many that day. Here are just a few of the highlights:
- A double-arch bridge at mile 438
- A tobacco farm
- An area of the Old Trace on which you can actually drive (one of just two along the route)
- The gravesite of explorer Meriwether Lewis
- A walk along Sweetwater Branch
- Two waterfalls: Jackson Falls and Fall Hollow
- Rock Springs Nature Trail, a loop trail along Colbert Creek
- The John Coffee Memorial Bridge, the longest bridge on the parkway
- Indian burial mounds
- The Donivan Slough
- Confederate Grave markers along a section of the Old Trace (above)
- And many other historical markers, nature walks, and overlooks
This was a beautiful section of the Parkway. I learned that the road follows the original corridor but that much of the Old Trace has been overgrown and lost to time. The areas that remain are marked, and we walked many of them (and drove along one two-mile section).
Also, many of the historic markers designate buildings that no longer exist – such as the inns or “stands” that were built to provide lodging, food, and drink to Trace travelers. Other markers denote historic sites such as army posts, native tribal boundaries, and Civil War sites as well as interesting nature habitats. According to the brochure, the Trace crosses four distinct ecosystems and eight major watersheds. I’m no expert on ecosystems, but it was pretty fascinating to watch how the trees changed from one section to the next.
The weather forecast for Tuesday indicated thunderstorms beginning at 1 o’clock, so we kept expecting to run into rain, but we drove all the way to Tupelo without any inclement weather. Unfortunately, Tupelo had experienced a major tornado the previous evening, and much of the city was damaged. We tried to check in to the Fairfield Inn on the north side of town, where we had a reservation, but were told the hotel, while undamaged, was without power. We ended up driving about 25 miles north to the town of Booneville, where we found a Super 8 with an available room.
We were hungry after our long drive (we had neglected to bring along food for a picnic, which would have been smart), and we found a good Mexican restaurant in town. The restaurant didn’t serve beer, which we found baffling, but then again we didn’t see any bars in town, so maybe it was a dry county. We did find a small grocery store, where we bought some fruit and cheese to eat the next day.
Day 2: Tupelo to Jackson, 160 miles
We started the day at a Huddle House, where we ordered breakfasts much too large to actually eat. I did my best to get through about half of the eggs, hashbrowns, and raisin toast served with decent coffee by a tag-team of servers. Then we headed south to connect with the Trace at the same place we left it the previous afternoon.
I thought this section, while maybe not quite as scenic as the northern section, was the best. It included by far my favorite stop-off: Cypress Swamp. But I am getting ahead of myself. Here are highlights of Day 2:
- More Indian burial mounds and sections of the Old Trace
- Chickasaw Village site
- French Camp, a historical village just off the Parkway
- Kosciusko, birthplace of Oprah Winfrey
- Little Mountain Overlook at Jeff Busby Park, which is named for the Congressman who introduced the bill authorizing a survey of the Natchez Trace in 1934
- More short hikes
- A picnic at Holly Hill (above)
- Ross Barnett Reservoir overlook
- And the incredible Cypress Swamp
OK, so I loved the Cypress Swamp. It’s how I imagine the Everglades, though Dave says the Everglades don’t look like this at all. You can walk along a boardwalk and trail about half a mile through this water tupelo/bald cypress swamp, and it’s just the most beautiful, fascinating thing. Apparently there are alligators living there, but we saw none.
We finished our drive at about 4:30 and headed into Jackson, the capital of Mississippi. It’s a decent-sized city – maybe about the size of Des Moines. We stayed at the Old Capitol Inn a few blocks from the capitol (hence the name) on State Street. The moment we checked in, I truly felt like I was on vacation for the first time on the trip. It was such a relaxing environment! This historic, elegant inn had a lovely sitting area, dining room, and courtyard with a small fish pond, a fountain, and round tables with umbrellas. We timed it just right, because they’d just put out a platter of good-quality cheese, huge strawberries, and bread – plus, a bottle of white wine chilling in a wine bucket. Yes, please! We filled small plates, poured some wine, and sat on the patio for half an hour before even finding our room (which turned out to be lovely).
It turns out that State Street has the Victorian homes mentioned in our Deep South guidebook, and they were just a short walk away from the inn. All of them were very well maintained and seemed to be used for some commercial purpose, as opposed to private homes. It was too late to tour or visit them, so we headed to the capitol grounds, looked at the governor’s home, and then attempted to find some food and drink.
We found a very nice restaurant called the Parlor Market, which sounds sort of homey and southern but was more dark-wood and fancy. Most diners were men in suits, presumably at the end of their day doing important state government stuff. I was wearing sneakers, and Dave was in shorts, but they let us in anyway.
The menu was meaty, as are most southern menus, and quite pricey. We ordered a couple of Abita Ambers and studied our choices. Luckily the waiter was knowledgeable and assured me that the chef could prepare me a fine vegetarian meal if I was an adventurous diner, so I ordered the “vegetarian whatever” pictured at left. For 25 bucks I would have enjoyed receiving some bread or a side salad or maybe even dessert with my meal, but all I got was a plate of veggies and couscous…I think all together our Parlor Market meal was more expensive than all our other vacation meals put together. But it was nice, I’ll give it that.
Day 3: Jackson to Natchez, 100 miles
Breakfast this morning was included in the price of the room, and we got real silverware and cloth napkins. The buffet was better than average and offered biscuits and red gravy (pretty scary for a vegetarian) along with eggs and other breakfast items.
Today’s drive was much shorter, so we planned several off-the-Trace excursions. The weather continued to be spectacular, and we took our time visiting the historic sites in this section:
- A walk to a small cemetery
- Battle of Raymond site, part of the Vicksburg campaign
- Rocky Springs town site
- A wonderful section of the “sunken Trace” that had been deeply eroded due to heavy traffic and loess soil
- Mount Locust, a restored plantation and the only remaining “stand” (inn) on the Parkway
- Emerald Mound, a very large ceremonial mound from the Mississippian period
We got off the trace this morning and drove around the small town of Clinton and took a walk through the Clinton Nature Center. Later in the day we headed for the Windsor Ruins (above), which we thought would be close to the town of Port Gibson but it turned out that we took the LONG way there…but it was well worth the drive. Windsor Ruins are the remains of one of the largest antebellum mansions in Mississippi. It burned in 1890, and all that remains are 23 Corinthian columns. It was fascinating.
We arrived in Natchez with plenty of time to take in two National Park Service homes that are part of the Natchez National Historical Park. The first, Melrose, was on the outskirts of town. Melrose (above) is described as a “cotton kingdom estate.” The home was undergoing some renovation, but the grounds were spectacular, with a large lawn, garden, and huge oak trees.
The other home, the William Johnson House, was in town. William Johnson was a free black man in the 1800s and became a barber. Interestingly, he owned slaves to work in his business. Johnson kept complete journals that described his life from 1835 until his death in 1851.
At this point, we had completed the entire Natchez Trace Parkway and surrounding historic sites, but the entire town of Natchez is charming and historic. Homes along the Mississippi River and all through the historic downtown area just exude southern grace and charm. There are a number of historic walking trails, and you can easily follow one or more, with historic signs describing each of the homes along the route. Natchez is described as one of the most “historically intact” towns in the U.S., and I’d also add most beautiful. Home after beautiful home, with these huge, awesome trees! You could spend days looking at them all.
But, as usual, it was evening by this time, and we were ready for a beer and some food. So we checked in to our lodging for the night, the Natchez Manor Boutique Bed & Breakfast at 600 Franklin Street in downtown Natchez. Built in the 1800s, it’s really an inn, not a typical B&B. There’s a rooftop terrace and courtyard garden, neither of which we saw, and a piano bar downstairs, which we also didn’t visit. We walked the town instead, stopping for a beer on a noisy cantina patio and then settling down for dinner at a downtown restaurant, where we ate outside.
The road home
Our inn in Natchez was elegant and offered a free, hot, southern breakfast. While we waited for it to be prepared, I enjoyed the best coffee I had on the whole trip and gazed at a mural of a fictional market scene of downtown Natchez in the 1800s, painted by Mississippi Artist Ryan Portis. The breakfast came out, piping hot, consisting of a bowl of grits, real scrambled eggs, two sausage patties, and the most delicious biscuit ever made. I traded my sausage to Dave for his biscuit. And, once again, we got real silverware and cloth napkins. Take that, all you chain hotels with your crappy free breakfasts served on styrofoam plates with plastic forks!
At this point in our trip, we had a number of choices to round out our vacation before heading home. We considered heading to the Gulf Coast region of Mississippi or perhaps New Orleans. Both were a bit too far out of the way. I was advocating for driving straight up Hwy. 61 to Memphis, through the Mississippi Delta region with its blues and jazz history and southern towns. Dave had some Louisiana plantations on his wish list, and that’s what we decided to do.
We left Natchez and crossed the Mississippi River into Louisiana on an awesome bridge. I’ve already forgotten our exact route as we headed in the general direction of Natchitoches (pronounced, inexplicably, NAK-eh-tush), but at some point we saw a sign for a welcome center and stopped there for brochures to help us find what we were looking for.
Well, as I said to Dave, that was the MOST welcome I ever felt at a welcome center. The folks in the area were having some sort of milestone, so they were celebrating with a tourism fair, complete with live music, free hamburgers and hotdogs, cake, and good coffee. A dozen or more people welcomed us, helped us find the information we were looking for (the racks were jam-packed with every Louisiana brochure you could imagine), and offered us the aforementioned food, which we declined (except for coffee). I think we were the only visitors in the place; everyone else seemed connected to tourism. We thanked them all mighty kindly.
With our brochures in hand and our map highlighted, we headed for the Cane River Creole National Historic Park, which consists of two plantations run by the National Park Service: Magnolia and Oakland. We arrived at the Magnolia Plantation first; it consisted of slave and tenant quarters, the overseer’s house, a large cotton gin barn, and a few other buildings. I have to say this place was not real exciting. The plantation’s historic residence is private property and not part of the National Park Service.
Down the road, in between the two National Park sites, we were hoping to tour the 1884 Melrose Plantation. The brochure made it look really spectacular. Unfortunately, we managed to be there on the one day before the spring arts and crafts festival, and it was closed. Well, sort of closed. The home was closed for tours because vendors were setting up their tents and stands on the lawn, but we parked in the vendor-parking area and walked through the vendor entrance and figured we’d just wander around and take pictures until somebody threw us out. Which they didn’t. So we got to see the outside of the house and look at the gigantic trees and didn’t have to pay anything. Too bad the funnel cake stand wasn’t open yet…that would have tasted good.
So back on the winding road we went, toward Oakland Plantation. This place was really interesting, especially because the descendants of the original owners recently sold the home and property to the Park Service and still live nearby. We took a ranger-guided tour of the main house (interior shown above) and visited the gardens, overseer’s house, store, and other buildings. Eight generations of French Creole family lived and worked on the land; more than 100 slaves helped run the plantation in its heyday, and many remained on the property as farmers and sharecroppers after the Civil War.
By now it was about 2 o’clock and we were hungry, so we headed to NAK-e-tush, which is really a very cute town with a historic district that offered lots of shopping and dining. We found a restaurant and settled in for a nice meal followed by a homemade apple dumpling with ice cream. Yummers.
And that was pretty much it for the vacation part of our trip. The rest of the day was spent driving, and all the next day, too. It’s a long way from Louisiana to Iowa.
Total miles driven: 2,439
(Note: If you go, I recommend both of our historic inns. Our room at The Old Capitol Inn was just $99 plus tax, and the Natchez Manor was $125 plus tax. Both included breakfast, free wi-fi, and free parking. And here are a couple of good websites to help plan your trip: http://www.nps.gov/natr/index.htm and http://www.natcheztracetravel.com/)