The Natchez Trace Parkway - Historic, Scenic and Relaxing

Published: November 16th 2013
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For those unfamiliar with National Park Service parkways, they are (for all practical purposes) two-lane controlled access highways although there is an occasional side road intersection and the “access ramps” terminate at the parkway in a “T” intersection instead of the traditional “merging traffic” feature. The parkways prohibit commercial trucks, are absent of billboards and roadside businesses and have a speed limit of about 50 mph. In addition to the Natchez Trace Parkway, I know of only two other National Park Service parkways. The Blue Ridge Parkway is a 469-mile scenic connection between Shenandoah National Park VA and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park NC, and the Colonial Parkway is a twenty-three mile scenic roadway between Yorktown VA and Jamestown VA. All three parkways are All-American Roads, and all three have a Mile Post system incorporated into the roadway to identify points of interest and access/egress points along the route.

The Natchez Trace Parkway was established as a unit of the National Park Service in 1938 and was officially completed in 2005. Its central feature is the 444-mile road that extends from Natchez MS to Nashville TN and was built to commemorate the original route of the Natchez Trace. The Trace evolved as the American Bison and other game migrated between the grazing pastures of central and western Mississippi and the salt deposits of the Cumberland Plateau. Native Americans, following the "traces" of bison and other game, further improved this "walking trail" for foot-borne commerce between major villages located in middle Mississippi and central Tennessee.

The route is convoluted; however, by traversing this route the bison, and later humans, avoided the arduous drudgery of climbing and descending the many hills along the way. Also avoided was the danger to a herd (or groups of human travelers) of being caught en-masse at the bottom of a hollow or valley if attacked by predators. The nature of the route, to this day, affords good all-around visibility for those who travel it.

In the early period of America's (south) westward expansion following the Revolutionary War, the Trace became well-known. In 1801, President Thomas Jefferson designated the Trace as a national postal road for the delivery of mail between Nashville and Natchez. The Trace also was the preferred return route for flat-boat pilots from their southern destinations to their homes in the Ohio, Tennessee and Cumberland River valleys. The “Kaintucks” would construct flat-boats, load their cash crops, livestock or other commodities and drift south-southwestward to Natchez or New Orleans where they would sell their goods - including the salvageable wood from the flat-boat. Then, on foot or horseback, they would use the Trace to return to their homes as far away as Pittsburgh PA.

Improved transportation technology (steam boats, stagecoach lines and railroads) and the development of ports along the rivers (Natchez MS, Memphis TN, Paducah KY, Nashville TN and Louisville KY) made the route obsolete as a means of passenger and freight commerce. As a result, the Trace was not a contributor to the development of any major population centers. The two largest cities on the Trace (Jackson MS and Tupelo MS) developed for reasons other than their location on the Trace.

For those of you who don’t follow The Great Adventure regularly - - - well, shame on you! Seriously, my journey from Natchez MS to Nashville TN was quite unhurried with my departure from Natchez on August 7 and my arrival in Nashville on August 28. My three one-week stops in Mississippi included Vicksburg (which requires a slight diversion off the Trace), Jackson and Tupelo. The drive was totally enjoyable – no side road traffic to monitor, the unspoiled beauty of the landscape to enjoy and a slow, easy pace with numerous pullouts containing informative kiosks, historic structures, scenic vistas or other points of interest. There are also several cascading waterfalls to view; however, some require a bit of hiking from the Parkway. Access to the Parkway is limited, with about 50 access points total. There are no motels, restaurants or gas stations on the Trace so planning ahead is imperative.

The Mile Post (MP) numbering begins at zero in Natchez and includes several historic sites along the Parkway, including the Meriwether Lewis Monument (grave) and Museum (MP 385.9), the refurbished Mount Locust stand (the only remaining inn, or "stand" on the Parkway) and Emerald Mound (a ceremonial mound built by the Natchez people and used between 1200 and 1730 – MP 10.3). Nestled between the Parkway and Old Port Gibson Road is the ghost town of Rocky Springs (MP 54.8) that thrived in the late 19th century. Today the old Rocky Springs Methodist Church, the cemetery and several building sites are all that remain. Scenic Cypress Swamp is located at Mile Post 122. In addition, parts of the original trail are still accessible.

The Natchez Trace Parkway is a totally enjoyable and commonsensical way to travel between southwest Mississippi and central Tennessee. The speed is lower than the Interstate Highways but the route is more direct – 444 miles compared to 519 miles. Could one make the trip in one day? Let’s see, that’s almost nine hours of driving time at 50 mph with a stop for fuel and a meal – ten hours. Sure, it’s doable, BUT WHY? Enjoy the parkway and its bounty. An overnight stop in Tupelo MS would make an enjoyable trip. The history of the Parkway and that of the entire Trace is summarized at the Natchez Trace Visitor Center in Tupelo, Mississippi – close to the midpoint between the termini. I never saw any roses during my time on the Parkway, but I sure did enjoy their aroma!

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