Driving the Natchez Trace Parkway

Imagine 444 miles of traffic-free bliss while driving on a gently curving road through the pine and hardwood forests, past cypress swamps, diverse waterways and prairies filled with wildflowers. A journey that can, for long stretches of time, pass without seeing another vehicle and may instead provide you with a glimpse of a wild turkey, deer or bald eagle. Traversing through three states without traffic lights or stop signs, all at a leisurely pace of 50 mph, you can afford to let your mind wander as you gaze at the dynamic landscape surrounding you. Although it may sound too good to be true, this road does exist. Welcome to the Natchez Trace Parkway.

Birdsong Hollow Double Arch Bridge, Tennessee

Once called the Old Natchez Trace, this national parkway has been designated an All-American Road and preserves sections of the primitive trace used by countless numbers of people and animals for thousands of years. The original route followed the early passage of American bison and other game as they migrated between the salt and mineral deposits in the Cumberland Plateau and the grazing pastures in Mississippi. Native Americans who followed the “traces” of bison, made further improvements to this route, and by the time of European settlement and exploration it was well established.

Beginning in the late 18th century, the Trace was used as a return route for the pilots of flatboats. These flatboats were used by farmers and others to transport agriculture goods and livestock south, on a one-way journey to the port in New Orleans. Once they arrived and their goods were traded, the flatboats were disassembled, the lumber salvaged and sold, providing them with a small allowance to return home. Prior to the invention of the steamboat, a return home upriver against the strong current of the Mississippi River was unthinkable, so many from the Ohio River valley region traveled along the Trace as they made their way home.

The Natchez Trace Parkway was begun in 1939 as one of the projects by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression. It was not officially finished until some 66 years later, when at long last, the final two sections were completed in May 2005.

Running from Fairview, Tennessee to the southern terminus of Natchez, Mississippi, there are 50 access points in the states of Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi. The parkway is open every day, year-round and best of all, it’s free. Commercial traffic is prohibited along the entire length and you won’t find a single gas station, restaurant or hotel either. Don’t fear – there are many communities that run parallel to the parkway and offer plenty of lodging, fuel and refreshment options, most of which are all found within a short drive of each exit, indicated by mile marker signs. This lack of development on the Trace enhances the stress-free travel, granting a panorama unobstructed by billboards and clear of transport trucks and other distractions associated with travel on major highways and interstates. As with any travel plan, it is always a good idea to check conditions before heading out. Visit the NPS website for alerts such as road or trail closures, construction or other problems.

Only the hauntingly beautiful columns and ironwork remain of this mansion built in 1861. Visit Windsor Ruins, the site of the largest antebellum Greek Revival mansion ever built in Mississippi. It’s worth the short drive off of the parkway.

More than just a scenic drive, you can also take advantage of the many recreational opportunities along the more than four hundred miles. For a break from driving and to stretch your legs, stop at one of numerous points of interest, picnic areas or take a short walk to a waterfall. If you have more time, there are also hikes several miles in length, some of which allow for a more in depth exploration of the original Trace route. For those interested in spending the night, there are three campgrounds, open year-round, on or near the parkway. Need some help in planning? You will find four visitors centers along the road where you can pick up a free map, see various exhibits and speak with rangers or volunteers for assistance. Days and hours are varied, so please check the NPS site for further details.

This is no ordinary hill. Emerald Mound covers 8 acres and is the second largest temple mound in the United States. Built to support temples, ceremonial structures and burials, it was used between 1300 and 1600 AD.

During the past sixteen years, I’ve had the opportunity to drive the Natchez Trace Parkway several times, although not always in it’s entirety. I’ve traveled in both spring and fall, each season offering something varied and unique to enhance the already pleasant drive. Having also driven on the Trace after dark, I would highly recommend against it. This is not to suggest that the parkway is unsafe once the sun sets, however, you would miss the beauty of the drive. More importantly, by not driving at night, you can avoid the numerous nocturnal animals that consider the road fair territory in the dark. Believe me when I say that creeping along at 20 mph or less, in the pitch black, with dozens of glowing eyes along the shoulder or on the road is not very fun, nor very safe. There are plenty of sleeping options just off the Trace, so when dusk arrives, find an exit that suites your needs and leave the driving for daylight hours.

A short walk at Cypress Swamp might reward you with a view of an alligator or two.

The next time you are headed out on the road, see if you can take advantage of the Natchez Trace Parkway. Take a break from the busy expressways and interstates, follow a more leisurely path and enjoy the journey as much as the destination. Safe travels!

Where to eat:

No journey on the Natchez Trace Parkway is complete without the possibility of enjoying some delicious food along the way. If you are starting or ending the drive in Tennessee, do not miss the opportunity to eat at the Loveless Cafe. This Nashville landmark, open since 1951, is located near the northern terminus of the parkway. The cafe makes everything from scratch and serves up some of the best food, including all-day breakfast, as well as lunch and dinner. A true southern gem, expect to be received with hospitality that you will not soon forget. Don’t even thinking of leaving without having a biscuit or two – they are out of this world!

For fantastic food choices at the southern terminus in Natchez, visit my blog post here.

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