Are you battling the expressways against tour buses, gleaming multi-colored double-bottom trucks, and snippy little cars desperate to pass your RV and tow car? STOP! If you are near Nashville or Natchez, take a 444-mile, three-state breather on the Natchez Trace Parkway.
Relax. Draw a deep breath. Feel the stress leave your body as your blood pressure drops. Whether you are headed northeast to Nashville, Tennessee, or southwest to Natchez, Mississippi, turn into this limited-access parkway. As RVers, you already have your comfortable shoes and bikes at the ready for hiking and biking. It is a great place for both.
Early on, giant sloths might have obstructed your path. Later, great mounds were built, the heritage of the Natchez, Chickasaw and Choctaw Indians who lived along the Trace. The Spanish explorers left their footprints while spending a mid-1500s winter with the Chickasaw Indians.
The heaviest use of the Old Trace was during 1785 to 1825, when Ohio River Valley farmers floated their cash crops, livestock and products down the Ohio River to the Mississippi and on to Natchez or New Orleans. If they survived the natural and human hazards, they sold their flatboats for lumber and returned home along the most direct route, either riding or walking the deeply rutted Old Trace.
Evidence of the military’s use of this convenient cross-country path is at milepost 426.3. A monument honors the brave soldiers of the War of 1812 who helped establish American independence. Soldiers who did not survive marching through the Mississippi wilderness are buried in unmarked graves along the Trace. The stands along the way served as hospitals.
Colbert’s Stand offered travelers shelter, a warm meal and ferry service across the Tennessee River. It was a good night for Colbert’s when General Andrew Jackson needed to ferry his Tennessee Army across the river. He was billed $75,000.
Stands were the rough-hewn inns or taverns that provided places to stay, food, drink, and if you were lucky, a trading post with supplies. In the 1930s, the Great Depression’s Civilian Conservation Corps built a replica of the 1807 Grinder’s Stand. Sadly, its claim to fame is that Meriwether Lewis, of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, died there of gunshot wounds on October 18, 1809. Was it suicide or murder; that is still the question. By 1820, more than twenty stands were operating, but thieves continued to be a danger, along with the natural hazards of swamps, floods, disease-carrying insects, and unfriendly Indians. Still, 25 cents for a meal and lodging wasn’t bad.
The Mount Locust Inn continues to serve visitors seasonally. The National Park Service refurbished and restored it to its 1820 appearance. Historic sites include the family and slave cemeteries, slave quarters, and overseer’s house. Rangers describe what life was like for the enslaved African-Americans who worked the farm.
The Natchez Trace Parkway became a part of the National Park Service in 1938, a year after construction began, but the final segments were not completed until 2005. Birdsong Hollow is a great stop to admire the magnificent $11.3 million concrete, double-arch Natchez Trace Parkway Arches Bridge. Stopping at the roadside park next to the John Coffee Memorial Bridge, I saw several men relaxed on campstools, bait boxes at the ready, fish poles in the water. I never did see any struggling fish but I heard a lot of chatting and laughter echoing against the bridge. What could be better than that?
Another man-made wonder is the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway. Completed in 1985, the waterway affords a navigable route between the Gulf of Mexico and Tennessee River for shipping all manner of products. The various water impoundments provide wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities.
Pharr Mounds at milepost 286.7 is the largest and most important archeological site in northern Mississippi. Middle Woodland Culture hunters and gatherers built eight dome-shaped burial mounds scattered over 90 aces (100 football fields) to bury their most important dead. In 1978, archaeologists uncovered a village site here that was occupied 400 years after the building of the mounds. Bear Creek and Emerald mounds have their own unique configurations and stories.
Much of the Old Trace had been abandoned by the start of the Civil War, but it left its mark. Thirteen Confederate soldiers known only to God are buried in a curved row of flagged graves at milepost 269. It is sad to think their families never knew where they were buried. Civil War buffs can find the Tupelo, Brices Cross Roads, Stones River, and Shiloh battlefields near the Trace.
History and Food
Plan to stop at the French Camp Academy. Well before 1810, this stand was known as Frenchman’s Camp, but it has operated as a Christian boarding school since 1885. A self-guided boardwalk presents its colorful history through an authentic antebellum home, an old graveyard, and the Alumni Museum with its stories of generals, pirates, explorers and bootleggers. I advise getting lots of exercise and going for lunch at the Council House Café.
You can eat inside the rustic dining room but I chose to sit outside on the deck overlooking the lawn and oak trees. Although they offered Ann’s Potato and Martha’s Black Bean Soup, I drooled over their famous “Big Willie” BLT with 10 pieces of crispy bacon, lettuce, tomato and spicy garlic mayonnaise on homemade sorghum wheat bread. Even a half was too big but it was delicious. I was too full to try their Mississippi Mud Cake but I thought about it a lot (I still do!).
Ghost towns like Rocky Springs have survived close to the parkway and like the Yockanookany (I’m not going to tell you what that is), they deserve a visit. A little exploring will take you to cascading waterfalls, caves, springs, cotton fields, a tobacco-growing exhibit, or maybe a walk on the bridges through the Scenic Cypress Swamp. Although many experienced this serpentine and sometimes sunken trail, they may not have noted that they crossed four ecosystems, eight key watersheds and a major creature habitat. Excellent NPS signs keep you informed.
Early on a foggy morning, I was drawn to the crumbling Windsor Ruins. The plantation once covered 2,600 acres and the mansion contained at least 25 rooms. While it survived both Union and Confederate usage, in 1890, it was destroyed by fire. Very possibly, my own imagination gave me goose bumps as I walked hesitantly through the remaining fog-swirled 45-foot columns. I couldn’t see anything and yet as I write this, I still get goose bumps. Was something or someone watching me? (Only the Shadow knows!) Hmmm.
Well, there you have it, a painless way to cover a good chunk of mileage and enjoy a great deal of our country’s heritage and history, along with some good camping, hiking, biking, eating, fishing and maybe a carriage ride. For what more could one ask? God Bless.
Winter in the Wilderness, Minshall’s first novel (e-book & hard cover), and the fourth edition of RVing Alaska and Canada are available through Amazon.com. Follow Sharlene Minshall’s blog, “The Silver Gypsy,” at rvlife.com.
IF YOU GO:
Numerous free and primitive campgrounds exist along the parkway, but they fill up incredibly fast.
Campgrounds away from the parkway offer electricity, dump stations, etc.
No fuel stations are on the parkway, but they can be found in nearby towns.
A number of visitor centers and cabins offer information and comfort.
For information, visit NatchezTraceTravel.com. For free itinerary planning and reservations, phone (800) 377-2770 or (615) 522-4865.Research Campgrounds, Plan RV Safe Routes & Turn your phone into an RV GPS.
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