Get outdoors for slow travel on the Natchez Trace Parkway
The ribbon of time, Natchez Trace Parkway, begins at Milepost 0 in Natchez, Mississippi and ends at Milepost 335 in Nashville, Tennessee. It runs from south to north because this was the direction of travel on the Trace during its busiest years between 1790 and 1820.
This 444-mile-long, narrow federal preserve is ideal for slow travel in a vehicle (50 mile-per-hour speed limit), on a bicycle, and by foot or horseback. The road and only 412.5 feet on either side of the road are federal lands. The terrain is flat with croplands, pastures, fields, and forests decorated with Spanish moss.
Begun as an ancient trail for animals heading to the salt springs in current-day Nashville, the Trace was used by Native Americans, Kaintuck boatmen, and merchants. The U.S. Government also used it for mail delivery - the Pony Express.
Merchants on trading expeditions brought their products by barge down the Mississippi River. They delivered their goods in Natchez, sold everything including the wood from their boats, and walked back to the Ohio Valley to do it all over again. There was only one direction of travel on the Mighty Mississippi until the steamboat changed that in the 1830s.
We embarked on our slow trek by car of the Natchez Trace Parkway at Milepost 100 in Ridgeland, just outside of Jackson, Mississippi, on a hot, humid summer day. We drove south with stops at some of the Trace Top Twenty sites.
Located near the southern terminus at Milepost 10.3 and on the Trace Top Twenty, is Emerald Mound. Visible evidence remains of a Native American ceremonial site, resembling small flat-topped pyramids. You can climb the trail to the top of the largest mound and see other smaller mounds. These are all consecrated grounds.
Sunken Trace, located at Milepost 41.5, are deep paths worn down by hooves and feet. It’s a short section, but it stirs the imagination about the people who actually used this trail. I could see how the high earthen walls made an excellent place for outlaws to ambush travelers along the Trace.
Speaking of outlaws, the Parkway has a low crime rate probably because of constant patrols by rangers and police. Don’t leave your vehicle unlocked, however, and use caution just as you would anywhere. .
Best time to go
Most travelers visit Natchez Trace Parkway in the spring and fall. Summers are hot and humid (yes! And more so the closer you are to Natchez on the River), and winters are cold and damp.
What to Wear
Closed-toed shoes are a must if you are hiking. Also, long pants and long sleeves are recommended.
There is poison ivy throughout the Parkway and is worst in winter because the stalks and stems can be unrecognizable without leaves, but are just as dangerous.
Chiggers and ticks are plentiful, as well as poisonous snakes. You’ll definitely want insect repellant on your hikes and beware of those slithering creatures hiding under downed logs.
White-tailed deer are hazardous for drivers, so always stay alert.
There are numerous chain motels and bed-and-breakfasts in the towns all along the Parkway within a 15-minute bike ride.
If you prefer to camp and hang out in your hammock, this link will help you find private and state campgrounds along the Parkway.
There are also nonvehicular campgrounds for bicyclers and hikers at Kosciusko (Milepost 159), Witch Dance (Milepost 234), Parkway Visitor Center at Tupelo (Milepost 266), Colbert Ferry (Milepost 327), and Tennessee Highway 50 (Milepost 408). They all have picnic tables, fire grates, and water, along with pit toilets or restrooms.
We ended our day-long excursion at Natchez. A quiet town with countless, well-maintained antebellum mansions, it is the oldest city on the Mississippi River, and they are known for their historic preservation.
Plans are already in the works for our return to the Natchez Trace Parkway and to journey north in the footsteps of the original travelers.
Tough Old Traces
“This early interstate road-building venture – snake-infested, mosquito beset, robber-haunted, Indian-traveled forest path – was lamented by the pious, cursed by the impious, and tried everyone’s strength and patience.”
National Park Service sign at