By Catherine Royka
Your next fall day or weekend trip is just a drive away. There’s no better place to be this autumn than the Natchez Trace Parkway. This incredibly scenic and historic stretch of 444-mile road attracts cyclists, campers, hikers, history enthusiasts, photographers and travelers alike, to take in the beauty and rich history. The Parkway stretches from Tennessee, with a quick dip through Alabama and then into Mississippi.
If you aren’t familiar, the Parkway roughly follows the “Old Natchez Trace,” a historical travel corridor previously used by American Indians, “Kaintucks” (boatmen who floated merchandise down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers), European settlers, slave traders, soldiers and even future presidents.
History & Notable Stops
The Natchez Trace Parkway was established as a unit of the National Park Service in 1938, but the rich history began years before this. The Natchez Trace was a significant location for events throughout history, ranging from key spots from the War of 1812, Civil War, historic homeland territory for the Chickasaw, the Choctaw tribe and much more. We could fill the entire magazine with all the notable places and the history behind the trace, but we will keep it brief so you can discover the other places for yourself!
“There’s a story for everybody here,” says Andy Danneker, Park Ranger (Interpretation) for the Natchez Trace Parkway. “Along the Parkway, there is history about the American Indians, Indian removal, the War of 1812, Andrew Jackson, The Trail of Tears, various cities along the Parkway were home to important Civil Rights movements. Along the Trace, you can find something that interests you.”
The Colbert Ferry hits around milepost 327.3 and is a prominent location site in history. Andrew Jackson would have crossed over during the early days of The War of 1812 and it was a historic route for the Trail of Tears. Today, there is a bridge over the Tennessee River.
Meriweather Lewis, of the Lewis & Clark expedition, died along the Parkway as he was making his way to Washington to defend several bills from his expedition travels. The site is at milepost 385.9, where you can see a memorial to Lewis, an information cabin to learn more, a campsite and hiking access.
For those interested in the Civil War, you might enjoy the Tupelo National Battlefield and Brices Cross Roads National Battlefield, both close to Tupelo, Mississippi.
To learn more about the rich legacy of American Indian cultural achievements, visit the seven mound groups located along the Natchez Trace Parkway (all in Mississippi). These mounds reflect the diverse and prehistoric Indian groups that made their homes in Mississippi, with the bountiful wildlife, warm climate and fertile soil, for thousands of years before the first Europeans and Africans arrived. These mounds are the most prominent remains left on the landscape by these native peoples of Mississippi.
The Natchez Trace Parkway Visitor Center, located at milepost 266, offers passersby the opportunity to talk with a park ranger, view an orientation film and see interpretive displays about the natural and cultural history of the trace.
Activities & Hidden Gems
Scenic overlooks, lakes, rivers, beautiful sites and history are basically everywhere you look! There is no shortage of activities along the Parkway. Between cycling, running, horseback riding, fishing, hiking, walking the trails and camping, there is definitely a little something for everyone. Hiking and walking trails are ample, varying from short half mile walks to a couple miles – a perfect range for any hiker.
October is the peak month for cyclists along the parkway, with cooler weather and the opportunity to see the fall foliage. If you are driving out on the Parkway, please be mindful of the cyclists out there – bikes are allowed a full lane on the road, you may pass cyclists on the opposite lane when safe!
There is a total of three campgrounds directly along the Parkway, and all are free and first come first serve. The three campgrounds are Rocky Springs (milepost 54.8), Jeff Busby (milepost 193.1) and Meriweather Lewis (milepost 385.9). These sites range from eighteen to thirty-two camping sites with hiking accessibility, water and restrooms.
For a scenic walk by water, the Ross Barnett Reservoir parallels the parkway for about eight miles as you are driving from Jackson to Tupelo. Walk from the West Florida Boundary (milepost 107.9) or enjoy views from the Reservoir Overlook (milepost 105.6). Another interesting stop along that drive is Cypress Swamp (milepost 122), with a self-guiding trail through a water tupelo/bald cypress swamp. You could be the lucky visitor that spots an alligator through this half mile boardwalk trail.
If you are looking for a tranquil and peaceful spot past the Meriweather Lewis site, Andy recommends stopping at Metal Ford. It is the perfect hidden gem for a place to stop for lunch and enjoy a picnic (south of Meriweather Lewis site).
According to Andy, the best places to see fall foliage is the Highland Rim section of the Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail that stretches from milepost 407.9 to 427.6 and the Old Trace Drive, milepost 375.8. The Old Trace Drive is about ten miles south of the Meriweather Lewis Site, and is a two-and-a-half-mile one-way drive along the Old Natchez Trace (this area is not accessible by RVs or trailers). If you are looking for more time to appreciate the fall colors, a day hike along the Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail from the Old Town Overlook Trailhead (milepost 263.9) or the Beech Springs Trailhead (milepost 266) will be a rewarding experience.
It is a great privilege to have this parkway at our fingertips and opportunity to enjoy the parkway and all its amenities. The dedicated volunteers and team members of the National Park Service strive to make this enjoyable for all. Volunteer opportunities are available short or long term, ranging from assisting a couple days a week or helping with single day trail events through the Natchez Trace Parkway Association (active throughout Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama). If you are interested in giving back and volunteering at the Natchez Trace Parkway or another park, visit volunteer.gov to see what volunteer opportunities are available. For additional information about the Natchez Trace Parkway, please visit nps.gov/natr. Now, get started on your National Park adventure!