Traversing the Trace
Natchez Trace Parkway is a 444-mile route managed by the National Park Service. It runs through three states—Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi—connecting Nashville to Natchez, Mississippi. Like any good national park site, it is all about nature and history. The road itself has no commercial stops and doesn’t even have gas stations (you can fill up easily after exiting the parkway). Instead, it boasts miles of redbuds, sugar maples, and loblolly pines. Instead of billboards imploring you to stop, you’ll find more than fifty pullouts with historic markers, hiking trailheads, and waterfall overlooks.
But the Trace is far more than a scenic byway. For thousands of years, it was the way animals and people traversed the southeast to find food and water. By retracing their steps, you’ll learn about Native-American communities, the Trail of Tears, military operations, music from country to soul to blues to jazz, and, of course, the foods that sustained them all. From north to south, here are six stops for experiencing the Natchez Trace Parkway.
Jackson Falls: At milepost (MP) 404.7, a waterfall spills over limestone rock, the force of which depends on recent rain levels. Take a short, but steep, hike to the base and back, and be rewarded with the sound of a splashing pool and an absence of road noise. Just 20 miles away is the Natchez Hills Vineyard and Winery, where you can taste local wines, cheeses, and chocolates.
Meriwether Lewis Monument, Gravesite and Campground (MP 385.9) is the final resting place of the explorer who helped chart the western half of the United States. He died here in 1809, many believe by suicide, and the site includes a memorial, seasonal museum, hiking trails, and a popular campground. Stock up for a picnic at Yoders Homestead Market, just 5 miles east. Fresh-made baked goods are good post-hike carbs–don’t sleep on the chocolate chip cookies.
Crossing into Alabama, Wichahpi Commemorative Stone Wall (MP 338) is a powerful monument to one woman’s trek on the brutal Trail of Tears. Her great-great-grandson built this winding wall, said to be the longest unmortared wall in the country, to honor her forced removal and return home. Stick with the outdoor stone theme by dining at Rattlesnake Saloon, a restaurant positioned under a rock about 30 miles from Wichahpi, and then stay overnight on-site at the Seven Springs Lodge.
The unofficial halfway point on the Trace, Tupelo, Mississippi, is home to the Birthplace of Elvis Presley, which skips some of the flashiness of his later life at Graceland and focuses on his modest upbringing. The nearby Chickasaw Village Site (MP 261.8) was once home to a fort and dwellings of the Chickasaw people. Today it is a wildflower meadow with trails and interpretive signs and plans for more in the future. If you eat only one thing on your Trace trip, it should be the sublime blueberry cake doughnut at Connie’s Fried Chicken, which also sells chicken and biscuits.
Mississippi’s capital city, Jackson, is known for its soul music as well as its roots in the civil rights movement. The Medgar Evers Home Museum and National Monument and the Two Mississippi Museums are powerful stops to better understand the fight for civil rights, not just in the 1960s, but as it continues today. End your day at Cathead Distillery, where you can take a tour and have a cocktail or have dinner at Mayflower Cafe, the city’s oldest restaurant and once a favorite of writer Eudora Welty. (Welty fans can also visit her home while in town.)
The Trace is dotted with Native-American mounds, verdant green expanses that help us remember the people and cultures who once lived in these hills. Emerald Mound (MP 10.3) is the second-largest ceremonial mound in the US. A steep walkway gets you to the base of the mound where you can take in its size and significance. It’s just 12 more miles south to the finish line, the city of Natchez, which is chock-full of B&Bs and inns. Monmouth Historic Inn offers lovely gardens with live oaks and magnolia trees under which you can stroll.
- by Hannah Lee Leidy
- by Amber Chase
- by Hannah Lee Leidy