March/April 2016 Issue
The Natchez Trace traverses thousands of years as it works its way from Mississippi to Tennessee.
Like other historic paths, the Natchez Trace began as an ancient game trail, as mastodons and bison moved through the forests seeking forage. Following in their footsteps were native hunters and gatherers who gave way to the Chickasaw and Choctaw. Whites came later, both explorers and settlers.
Adventurers, too, gave the Trace an aura of excitement. There were Kaintucks, boatmen who sailed goods south to Natchez, Miss., and sold everything—flatboat and all—before walking back all the way north to Nashville, Tenn. Danger lurked in the form of highwaymen, and war came in time with invading Union troops.
Eventually, the Trace was bypassed in favor of river travel, but its mark was indelible enough that legislators sought to preserve it for posterity. In 1938, the route became a parcel of the National Park Service though the 444-mile Natchez Trace Parkway would not be complete until 2005.
A Road for the Ages
Protection of monumental history was a primary driver for the creation of the parkway, but there is more to the story.
“While the primary purpose of the parkway was to preserve history, to preserve the Old Trace, there was great consideration of other factors,” said Natchez Trace Parkway Assistant Superintendent Stennis Young, “especially how the parkway could attract tourism while benefiting local communities.”
The result was a model of preservation, stewardship and forward-thinking policy that a half-century later would earn the Trace double distinction as a National Scenic Byway and All-American Road. Even within the elite category of All-American Road, the Natchez Trace Parkway is a standout. In order to earn the designation, a roadway must demonstrate significance in at least two categories—archaeological, cultural, historical, natural, recreational and scenic. The Natchez Trace Parkway qualifies in all six.
It is for the last quality, the scenic element, that the Trace is perhaps best known. No billboards, no crass development, just mile after exhilarating mile of gorgeous vistas and gentle curves, through forests, wetlands and prairies, with a generous spread of cropland in between.
That diversity in ecosystems is matched by the diversity and density of attractions that thread throughout the length of the entire parkway. Civil War history and American Indian heritage are two important draws, bringing tourists from all over the nation. Highlights for these pilgrims are the path of Ulysses S. Grant’s troops during the 1863 Union campaign in Mississippi, as well as Emerald Mound in Natchez.
Along the way, there are historical homes, mansions and districts aplenty. There is antebellum splendor, of course, but just off the parkway, there are also the bright lights and urban delights of thriving 21st-century cities with world-class cultural attractions and worlds of retail venues.
History is not the only selling point of traveling the Trace. In Tupelo, Miss., travelers will find the birthplace of Elvis Presley, while in in Florence, Miss., the birthplace of W.C. Handy, father of the blues, awaits. In Jackson, Miss., the blues are flourishing in a revitalized and vibrant historical downtown scene. And Music City, Nashville, regales all who stop. It is the mecca for country music fans, hopefuls and superstars, who come together to sing and celebrate America’s top-selling musical genre.
Building for the Future
To showcase more of the region’s talents, the Mississippi Craftsmen’s Guild opened a brilliant new crafts center in 2007. The 20,000 square feet of exhibit, educational and meeting space overlook the crystalline waters of the Ross Barnett Reservoir.
The reservoir is a man-made wonder and just a small part of the extensive array of recreational options available on the Trace. In all, almost 100 miles of hiking, horse and nature trails, nationally acclaimed biking, 12 state parks, 10 camping grounds and thousands upon thousands of acres of water, including the Ross Barnett Reservoir, Wilson Lake, Bay Springs Lake and Pickwick Lake, that start in Tennessee and spread for miles into Alabama.
Such recreational opportunities are evidence of the Trace’s ability to satisfy the growing demand for eco-friendly destinations that offer both authenticity and a deep level of involvement.
There have been accolades for birdwatching opportunities—to date, 157 types of birds have been counted along the Trace, and the parkway is fixture on lists of the top 10 and top 100 bike roads. Plus, the Trace has been hailed by the GORP outdoor guide as a “treat.”
That includes the kind of natural beauty and serenity rarely found in venues outside off-road trails. Motorcyclists also are drawn to the Natchez Trace for the same reason bikers are: mile after mile of gently curving roads and gorgeous vistas around every bend.
For those who do want an off-road experience on foot, the Trace offers more than 60 miles of National Scenic Trail for hiking, and 52 different hiking, horse and nature trails are open year-round. These paths allow for experiences such as a walk among the wildflowers along a free-flowing stream at Sweetwater Branch on the way to Nashville; a tramp through the moss-draped cypress trees of the darkly beautiful Cypress Swamp outside of Ridgeland, Miss.; a trek through the dramatic sandstone cliffs and outcroppings at Bear Creek Canyon in Mississippi’s Tishomingo State Park; and an encounter with gorgeous waterfalls in the lush foliage of the Shoals Creek Nature Preserve in the Shoals area of Alabama.
Quite a journey on what began with hooves chopping through the dirt. And like the stories that followed the animals on the Trace, there is always more on the horizon.
Planning Your Trip
For more information, visit scenictrace.com or call (866) 872-2356. For vacation-planning assistance, contact your AAA Travel agent or visit
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