The Natchez Trace Parkway is so much more than a 444-mile drive. It is a journey through thousands of years of history. Native American tribes used the road as a trade route between the various tribes. Early American settlers used the road as a way to get to what was then known as the Southwest, bordering the Mississippi River. Now, this route is perfect for a relaxing Natchez Trace road trip.
President Thomas Jefferson ordered the construction of a postal road connecting Nashville with the Mississippi River, connecting trade with the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers as well. The native and settler footpath was improved by the US Army and entrepreneurs built ferries and stands, or roadside inns.
The path was not well regarded by travelers, who decried the often muddy conditions of the road, the remoteness of the territory and the frequency of highway robbery. But, it did its job, encouraging trade, which in turn developed the port city of Memphis. Eventually, better routes and steamboats replaced the Natchez Trace and it fell into disuse and disrepair.
The current Natchez Trace Parkway was proposed by Rep. Jeff Busby of Mississippi during the 1930s as a Civilian Conservation Corps project during the Great Depression. While much of the road was completed in the 30s, there were still several sections that remained incomplete until 2005.
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Planning your Natchez Trace Road Trip
You can drive the road in either direction, from Nashville, TN to Natchez, MS or vice versa, without any difficulty. We chose to drive from Nashville south, so our article is based upon going north to south. The mile markers go south to north, so bear in mind you will count down as you go south.
The single biggest piece of advice for planning your Natchez Trace road trip we have is to download the National Park Service app. I cannot tell you how useful this app was. We were able to download the content for the Natchez Trace to our phone and use it offline as we traveled south. This app gave us a stop-by-stop listing so we could decide which pullouts were worth our time and which weren’t.
You can do the Natchez Trace road trip in two days and feel like you saw everything you need to see. If you are planning on staying in a hotel, Tupelo, MS makes a great halfway point to stop at. If you are planning on camping, there are three free NPS campgrounds along the Trace. There’s one between Natchez and Jackson, one about an hour south of Tupelo and one about 60 miles south of Nashville. None of the campgrounds have hookups.
We highly recommend taking both snacks and a picnic lunch with you for your Natchez Trace road trip… This road goes through fairly remote areas and it can take a bit of driving to find a town of any size.
Last tip: slow down and enjoy the drive! The best part about this drive is there is no stress and the speed limit forces you to slow down and enjoy the journey.
Where to Stop in Tennessee
Here are our favorite stops in order on the Tennessee section of the Natchez Trace:
Mile Post (MP) 438 Birdsong Hollow: Stop here on the north end of the Double Arch Bridge. This bridge is more than worth the stop. This graceful bridge arches over Highway 96 as it snakes through Birdsong Hollow. You can also find a brochure/map of the parkway here. Just south of the turnout is an exit road that takes you down to the highway. Head down to this exit for a great view of the bridge.
MP 404.7 Jackson Falls: Follow the steep trail down 900 feet to see this branch of the Duck River as it cascades over the bluffs. This is one of two waterfalls along the Trace.
MP 401.4 Tobacco Farm and Old Trace Drive: There is an old tobacco barn here. The Park Service works with local farmers to supply this barn with actual tobacco so you can see how the drying process works. There is also a small section of the Old Trace you can drive. It makes for a pleasant drive through the woods but it is too tight for an RV.
MP 391.9 Fall Hollow Waterfall: Just off of the parking lot is a short trail to a viewing area for this 20-foot waterfall. It’s not a long stop but the waterfall is worth a few minute’s of your time.
MP 385.9 Meriwether Lewis: This area preserves where the famous explorer, Meriwether Lewis, died while traveling along the Natchez Trace. Here you will find a recreation of the cabin-like Grinder’s Stand, where Lewis died, and the monument constructed to honor him.
Where to Stop in Alabama and Northern Mississippi
MP 328.7 Trail of Tears Water Route Overlook: This pullout tells the story of the Cherokee Indians who traveled via the Tennessee River from Chattanooga to make their way to Indian Territory in modern-day Oklahoma while on the Trail of Tears. This stop also gives you an excellent view of the Tennessee River.
MP 308.8 Bear Creek Mound: Built nearly 900 years ago, the Bear Creek Mound is one of several earthen mounds built by the Mississippian people. The mound was used as a platform for a ceremonial building. The nearby Bear Creek provided an early method of easy travel.
MP 308.4 Cave Spring: Be sure to stop at Cave Spring to walk this brief paved trail to see a cave that housed a water source for Native Americans. Note: the water is no longer safe to drink.
MP 266 Parkway Visitor Center: We always recommend stopping at the visitor center to learn more about the park and get advice from the rangers.
Spend the Night in Tupelo on Your Natchez Trace Road Trip
Tupelo, MS makes for an excellent stop to spend the night on a Natchez Trace road trip.
Our first stop was the Elvis Presley Birthplace Home because you can’t visit Tupelo and not pay homage to the King! Seriously, seeing this small house is pretty cool and if you are an Elvis fan or haven’t visited Graceland before, be sure to hit up the museum as well.
There are also two battlefields nearby that do not take long to visit. Tupelo National Battlefield is located just off Main Street west of downtown and is not much more than a small park in town. There are a few informational signs and the obligatory cannon.
Brices Cross Roads National Battlefield Site is located about 20 miles north of town and does not have much more in the way of facilities.
For dinner, we chose Kermit’s Soul Kitchen, which had a few interesting dishes and we enjoyed our meal there. You can also try the Amsterdam Deli right next door, which had live music while we were there.
We decided to stroll around downtown Tupelo after dinner and found the hardware store that sold Elvis his first guitar. We also found Crave, a cool dessert joint right by the courthouse that serves a skillet cookie that was to die for!
Tupelo is not that far from Memphis and that lovely city makes a perfect detour off this route.
Where to Stop Between Tupelo and Jackson
MP 232.4 Bynum Mounds: This is the oldest mound site along the Natchez Trace, dating back more than 2,000 years. There used to be six mounds but five were excavated by Park Service scientists. The largest of the six were reconstructed, leaving a total of three.
MP 180.7 French Camp: A French-American trader established this post in 1812 to trade with the Choctaw people who lived nearby. The village there retains the name to this day. There is a small cafe and exhibits there.
MP 122 Cypress Swamp: This area used to be where the Pearl River flowed but the river changed course, leaving this area to become a swamp. There is a boardwalk through the area so you can observe the swamp and look for small alligators.
MP 105.6: Reservoir Overlook: Be sure to stop here to stretch your legs and check out the Ross Barnett Reservoir which is the largest source of drinking water in Mississippi.
MP 102.4: Parkway Information Cabin: This cabin used to be home to the Mississippi Crafts Center and now provides information on early Choctaw history and culture.
Where to Stop Between Jackson and Natchez
MP 78.3 Battle of Raymond: There is not much more than an informational sign for this skirmish during the Civil War but it led to the siege of nearby Vicksburg.
MP 54.8 Rocky Springs Town Site: There’s not much left of the town of Rocky Springs but as you walk the trail through the woods, you will find the remains of homes long since fallen down. The only remaining building is the church.
MP 41.5 Sunken Trace: There are ample places you can walk on sections of the original Natchez Trace but this spot is where the road “sunk” into a natural path between earthen banks. It’s a five-minute stop but provides an iconic image of the trace.
MP 15.5 Mount Locust Historic House: Settlement in this area dates back 1,500 years with various tribes occupying this area as recently as 1350 AD. The house presently there was built in 1784 and is the last remaining stand along the Natchez Trace. Plan on spending at least half an hour exploring this historic building and plantation.
MP 10.3 Emerald Mound: This is the second-largest Mississippian Period ceremonial mound in the US and was built more than 400 years ago. The large mound is 35-feet tall and has two secondary mounds on top of it.
MP 5.1 Elizabeth Female Academy: After a brief walk from the parking lot, you will find the remains of the first women’s college in Mississippi which was closed in 1845 and burned in the late 1870s.
Natchez, MS serves as the southern terminus for the Natchez Trace. This port city was established by the French and was, at various times controlled by the British and Spanish before being ceded by the British to the US after the Revolution. Once the capital of Mississippi, Natchez was one of the most prevalent slave-trading cities in the South.
Here, you will find the Natchez National Historical Park, which has several units, including Forks of the Road and Melrose.
Forks of the Road is a small, roadside park now but was once the second-largest slave market in the US and is worth a visit to see how this horrific practice impacted those on all sides of the trade.
Melrose is the quintessential example of an antebellum mansion and plantation in the South. This 15,000-square-foot mansion was built in 1848 and you can tour the grounds and the mansion.
We toured the mansion back in 2011 and were impressed with how well the Park Service has preserved not only the mansion but the various other buildings, making a point to tell the stories of the enslaved people who worked the plantation as well as those who owned it.
When we visited in 2021, the mansion was closed to tours due to COVID, so, alas, we have to rely on our memories of visiting a decade ago.
Where Stay and Eat in Natchez
In terms of finding somewhere to eat in town, we asked our dear friend and colleague who grew up just across the river in Louisiana where we should eat and she said we have to make a point to eat Under-the-Hill. Under-the-Hill is the historic port district. There’s not much is the way of parking but we found a spot and walked down to the Magnolia Grill for dinner.
We really enjoyed the lively seafood joint. In particular, the Cream Cheese Sausage Rotel appetizer was unique and tasty, while the redfish and shrimp and grits hit the spot in terms of entrees.
When it came time for a place to stay, the Hampton Inn is located right by the Natchez Visitor Center and was quite comfortable.
Final Thoughts on a Natchez Trace Road Trip
We really enjoyed driving this road. While you won’t find the stunning mountain views of the Blue Ridge Parkway, it offers an excellent drive that connects Nashville to very close to New Orleans (read more about visiting New Orleans here) and if you have the time, you can spend a couple of days in Memphis along the way to make this a music road trip.
There is a ton of history along this route that you can spend a few minutes or an hour exploring, depending on you and your interest. And, despite the lack of stunning views, you will find the subtle beauty of the rural South along the way.
We are looking forward to driving this route again if for no other reason than it forces us to slow down.
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