Natchez Trace Parkway, AL, MS & TN

This is generally in the top 10 national park units visited annually but (I must confess) I knew little of it before going there last year. I was one of over 5.8 million people who explored the park in 2014 when it was the eighth most popular national park unit. So what’s the draw?

Turns out this is a frigging fascinating park. It’s actually a 444-mile parkway, a kind of series of parks, which forms a near continuous greenway from the southern Appalachians to the Mississippi River bluffs. It provides habitat for thousands of animal and plant species, crosses eight major watersheds and four ecosystems.

The road runs alongside the natural corridor that was used for thousands of years by people on foot, horseback and wagons. There are spots where you can get out of your car and walk the Old Trace, sunken over time like a sun half-set, beneath the footsteps of countless travelers.

There are 10,000 years of history and likely just as many stories that could be told about life on the Trace. Once the traditional stomping-grounds of the Natchez, Chickasaw, and Choctaw nations, the popularity of the route rose in the 1820s when having sold their crops and other wares at New Orleans or Natchez, people (the so-called “Kaintucks”) would walk home to the Ohio River Valley along the Trace. Over time generals, future presidents and at least one famous explorer (who died under suspicious circumstances along it) plied this path.

When to go?

I traveled the Trace from north to south in early June and it felt mostly deserted. While I landed on it in Nashville in a rush it didn’t take long for that feeling to subside. It’s as if each gentle curve snatches away some of time’s momentum. It was warm and humid, for sure, but there’s much shady shelter to be had.

In spring the Trace is in bloom and, in fall, in colorful submission to cooling temps. Winter weather can close parts of the Trace so travel then would have to be more strategic.

The NPS provides info on food, gas and lodging. Details about biking the Trace are also available. There are many, many places to pause and learn along the way and ranger-led activities are plenty.

What not to miss? The Meriwether Lewis Monument and visitor kiosk near Grinder’s Stand in Tennessee at Milepost 385.9. The luminescent cypress swamps. And some of the seven mound groups—the prominent cultural remains of the first residents of Mississippi.

© Heather Hansen, text and photograph

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