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Exploring the Natchez Trace

The scenic Natchez Trace is right in your backyard—and there’s no time like the present to explore the past.

Written By:  Margaret Littman

Photographers:  Supplied

What is spring good for, if not for an old-fashioned road trip? Think: buds on the trees; fresh herbs and spring vegetables on restaurant menus.

The Natchez Trace Parkway is a 444-mile road that runs from Nashville (near Loveless Cafe, not the street by Vanderbilt called Natchez Trace) to Natchez, Mississippi. The historic road rolls through the hills of Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi without billboards or Cracker Barrels. You’ll have to exit to eat, sleep, and get gas—but you’ll pass through some of the most interesting cities in the south en route.

The Old Trace, a dirt trail now sunken with use, has been tread on for 10,000 years. Among those who walked on its leaves were Native Americans looking for a route inland from the mighty Mississippi River. The “Kaintucks,” boatmen from Kentucky looking to get home after floating down river, used the Trace for their return. Andrew Jackson and his troops crossed the Trace on the way to the Battle of New Orleans. Since 1938, the Trace has been managed by the National Park Service, with a paved road close to where the old, sunken route ran.

So, open the sunroof, put gas in the tank, and follow our itinerary for a historic, educational, and delicious Southern road trip.

Day 1

Even if you’re a local and tired of the crowds, a biscuit at Loveless Cafe is a good way to start the trip. (We suggest setting out on a weekday.) From there, head south on the Parkway. Nashville is its Northern Terminus at milepost 444. Each mile is marked along the Parkway itself.

Almost immediately, you’ll stop at the Double Arch Bridge (milepost 438). Opened in 1994, this bridge allows the Natchez Trace to span State Highway 96. It’s a great selfie spot, with its asymmetrical arches that mimic Franklin’s rolling hills. From here, drive to Meriwether Lewis Monument and Gravesite (milepost 385.9) near Hohenwald, a somber, yet inspiring, memorial to an explorer who help America look west.

Due to bridge repairs, the Parkway is currently closed between milepost 391.1 and 385.9, so you have to exit, but detours are clearly marked. The upside is that you drive right by Yoders Homestead Market, an Amish bakery with bread and chocolate chip cookies worth the rerouting.

Continue on to the Quad Cities of Tuscumbia, Muscle Shoals, Sheffield, and Florence, Alabama. See if a one-night special is available at the Muscle Shoals Music House, where stars such as Bob Dylan stayed when they came to town to record.

Day 2

This January, the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio reopened to the public, so be one of the first to take a tour. The Shoals are filled with lots of other significant music sites. Choose from the W.C. Handy Birthplace, Museum, and Library or The Alabama Music Hall of Fame, and then get back on the Parkway.

Your first stop should be the Wichahpi Commemorative Stone Wall (milepost 338), the largest unmortared wall in the country. But, more than an outsider art exhibition, it is one family man’s tribute to his great-great-grandmother’s walk on the Trail of Tears.

Just south of Wichahpi is Rock Spring (milepost 330.2), one of the best places to see wildflowers on the Parkway. Look for Butterfly Milkweed, buttercup, coneflower, and Black-eyed Susan.

Day 3

Legend is that the name Tupelo comes from the Native American word, “Tuh Pu Lah,” which is said to mean “to scream and make a loud noise.” You may, in fact, do just that when listening to music in this Mississippi town. Stop first at the Elvis Presley Birthplace, a museum collection that is more tasteful than kitsch. See his small home, his childhood church, and more. Then, let’s hope you came hungry.

Kermit’s Outlaw Kitchen, in the heart of downtown, named for a bakery that once made Elvis’ birthday cake, is a farm-to-fork restaurant owned by two chefs and their mothers. Blue Canoe is the place to hear live music and eat from a better-than-average bar menu and taste local beers, plus there’s a dessert that locals love, made from blueberry doughnuts from another Tupelo restaurant, Connie's Fried Chicken. Connie’s, which should be on your breakfast route, is a chicken shack with only one kind of doughnut (blueberry). Maybe it doesn’t make sense to have a doughnut amid the biscuits and fried chicken, but it is delicious, and even better in Blue Canoe’s bread pudding. Pop your head in Midnite Pottery, a studio filled with works by self-taught potters, while at Blue Canoe.

When it is time to continue south, you have a few quick stops on the way. The Confederate Gravesites (milepost 269) is home to 13 soldiers’ headstones, complete with flags and coins left by those paying their respects and a section of the Old Trace, the sunken path that was walked before the Park Service paved what exists today.

If you have unanswered questions from signage at each stop, the Natchez Trace Parkway Headquarters & Visitors Center (milepost 266) is a must. The Park rangers know everything you wanted to about the historic road. If you need to stretch your legs, opt for a pretty, wooded four-mile hike to the educational Chickasaw Village Site (milepost 261.8).

On this section of the Trace, tune your radio to 1610-AM for recorded information about some of the sights. As you drive, look for wild turkey and deer on the road, and dwarf crested iris and trillium on the trails.

Day 4

The capitol of Mississippi has a complex story to tell. The Medgar Evers Home Museum, where the civil rights leader was slain, was made a National Historic Landmark in January. Drive by there, the Farish Street Historic District, which is chockfull of blues music sights; then, take a tour at Eudora Welty House and Garden, which feels like the author just stepped out for lunch, leaving all her books and art and correspondence in place.

Check in to the Fairview Inn, a sweet place with Old-World Southern charm and modern amenities. It’s close to the Fondren Arts District, home to boutiques and restaurants, including Brent’s Drugs, an old-fashioned soda fountain featured in the movie The Help. Behind Brent’s is Apothecary, a speakeasy-style cocktail joint only open at night; you must walk through the closed Brent’s to get to it. Don’t skip dinner at downtown Jackson’s Parlor Market, an ingredient-focused eatery housed in a former grocery store.

There are several Parkway must-sees between Jackson and Natchez. Among them: Mount Locust Historic House (milepost 15.5); an 1800’s building and grounds, with cemeteries and walking trails; and Emerald Mound (milepost 10.3), Indian mounds on which you can climb.

Day 5

Natchez is known for its antebellum architecture. Don’t miss the opportunity to stay in one of these sweet, restored homes. At Devereaux Shields House, you’ll get a wine reception at night, perfect for after you pull off the road. Check in, wander the manicured garden, and then head to King’s Tavern for a flatbread and local beer dinner. The restaurant, which may be haunted, is in the oldest building in the state.

On your way back north, have lunch at Mammy’s Cupboard, which, with its skirt-shaped dining room, is the ultimate selfie spot—not to mention, they offer some of the best pie on the planet.

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