The Mississippi section of the Natchez Trace offers beautiful fall vistas and activities for outdoor enthusiasts.
Whether hiking or biking, motorcycling or camping, the Natchez Trace Parkway is the perfect venue for outdoor activities this fall. Established in 1938 under the umbrella of the National Park Service, the parkway commemorates the history and natural beauty of one of the country's most significant travel routes.
For thousands of years a significant route for American Indians and later American settlers, the parkway preserves portions of the original Natchez Trace and links a variety of structures and landmarks. There are scores of stops along the way for educational opportunities and breathtaking views set against a magnificent backdrop of fall colors.
The vast portion of the Natchez Trace Parkway–309 of the 444 miles of roadway–lies within the boundaries of Mississippi, from Natchez to Tishomingo State Park in northeast Mississippi near the border with Alabama. While beautiful autumn vistas are found along the entire Natchez Trace Parkway, a pilgrimage to see the colors of fall should focus on portions north of Jackson, from Kosciusko to Tishomingo State Park.
Predicting when the leaves will begin changing colors is not an exact science, but typically they will begin transforming mid- to late-October. As autumn approaches, the Natchez Trace Parkway Web site will be updated with weekly sightings and suggested areas with the best views of changing colors. One of Mississippi's highest points, a recommended site for a panoramic view of the changing leaves is at the Little Mountain Overlook in the Jeff Busby Campground.
Tishomingo State Park
Located about 45 minutes north of the Parkway Visitor Center in Tupelo, Tishomingo State Park is situated in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains with massive rock formations found nowhere else in Mississippi. Rich in history, the area's archaeological excavations confirm the presence of Paleo Indians as early as 7000 B.C. The Natchez Trace Parkway, a AAA Scenic Byway, runs adjacent to the park, which takes its name from the leader of the Chickasaw nation, Chief Tishomingo.
The park offers a 13-mile hiking trail system. Seven trails range from modest jaunts less than a mile long to a couple of three-mile trails. A perennial favorite is the Outcroppings Trail, which is a two-mile loop across a 200-foot swinging bridge over Bear Creek. The path winds along a ridge of huge rock outcroppings, popular with rock climbing enthusiasts. The park also features Haynes Lake for boating and fishing. Take a canoe on Bear Creek, or camp at one of the 62 sites. If you prefer not to rough it, there also are cabins for overnight stays.
Pedaling the Trace
The entire length of the Natchez Trace Parkway is a designated bicycle route and is a big draw for cyclists of all ages and skill levels, despite the fact that there are no shoulders and no striped bicycle lanes. The attraction is a combination of great vistas, varying levels of difficulty, and hundreds of miles of open road with few motorists.
While motorists travel large segments of the parkway, the National Park Service warns bicyclists to avoid specific areas–Tupelo and the Clinton-to-Ridgeland section–during peak commute hours when automobile traffic on the parkway is considerably denser.
Bicycles are strictly limited to the paved parkway; off-road biking is prohibited. The five bicycle-only campgrounds provide primitive camping for visitors who are biking the Natchez Trace Parkway, featuring tent sites, picnic tables, and fire grates.
How to best enjoy the parkway on bicycle is a personal choice. Some bicyclists establish a base camp and then set out together to explore the parkway before circling back to camp. Others want to cover more ground and choose to ride bikes separately while their partners break camp and drive ahead to the next stop where they will alternate turns bicycling on the parkway.
Hoofing the Trace
Another way to enjoy the historical route is by foot along the Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail running parallel to the parkway. The scenic trail consists of five sections covering more than 60 miles of pathways developed for hiking and horseback riding. Four of the five developed sections are in Mississippi, from just north of Natchez to Tupelo. Along the path, hikers can still see where the sunken Trace is obvious, so called because of the thousands of travelers who have walked on the easily eroded loess soil, causing it to sink. In these sections, visitors have an opportunity to follow in the footsteps of ancient American Indians and early American settlers.
The noteworthy three-mile Potkopinu Section is the longest continuous stretch of the sunken Trace, but be aware that some sections of it can be quite wet and muddy. The Rocky Springs section is highly recommended, but the ravines can make it a moderate challenge for some people. A highlight of the trail–Owens Creek waterfall–can be viewed by hikers, but access to the lower falls and that trailhead have been blocked by the National Park Service due to collapsed soil from the upper portion of the falls.
The National Park Service provides detailed maps of each of the developed sections, along with rules and regulations.
Where to Stay
Campers have a number of excellent options all along the route beginning with Natchez State Park located about 10 miles north of Natchez. The park features 50 developed camping sites for RV campers with all the requisite amenities, tent camping sites, and cabins, plus boat access to Lake Natchez.
Accessible from the parkway via Port Gibson, Grand Gulf Military Park is located between Vicksburg and Natchez along the Mississippi River. The park has a museum and other historical structures and artifacts from the Civil War, in addition to sites for RV and tent camping.
Rocky Springs at milepost 54.8 is a cozy site suitable for camper trailers and tents. The adjoining hiking trail highlights this special retreat.
Other campgrounds of note are Jeff Busby, featuring Little Mountain Overlook and several sites for camper trailers and tents; Davis Lake in the Tombigbee National Forest, about 21 miles south of Tupelo with pads for 27 RV campers; and the aforementioned Tishomingo State Park.
If you are seeking hotel lodging, the parkway crosses through several towns and cities with a variety of AAA-rated hotel options from Natchez to Jackson to Tupelo.
A wonderful little bed and breakfast can be found right off the Natchez Trace Parkway at French Camp Academy Historic District, between Tupelo and Jackson. The Bed and Breakfast Inn features a main house, two cabins fully outfitted with kitchenettes, and the Carriage House. Wi-Fi is not available in the cabins.
The inn is part of a larger complex called the French Camp Historic District that includes a museum, café, gift shop, and blacksmith shop. On every Saturday in October, French Camp offers a demonstration on cooking sorghum molasses. The annual Harvest Festival is Oct. 10.
The great attraction of the Natchez Trace Parkway is that it offers so much to so many different people: whether the outdoor enthusiast, the history buff, the avid bicyclist, or just the leisure day driver, the parkway offers visitors a variety of opportunities to enjoy whatever it is that adds color to their lives.
Don Redman is associate editor of the AAA Southern Traveler.
September/October 2015 Issue
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