There’s an incredible place on the map that gives a whole new meaning to the expression “Garden Tour”—with emphasis definitely on the word “tour!”
It’s the Natchez Trace Parkway—a “garden” that measures a few hundred yards wide by about 444 miles long! The Parkway extends through parts of the states of Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi.
The northern terminus of the road is just a few miles west of Nashville, Tennessee, while the southern terminus is in Natchez, Mississippi. Along the way, there are any number of exit and entrance points that allow you to access and traverse stretches of the parkway--if you don’t want to drive the entire length of it in just one outing!
So, what in the world is there that would cause anyone to want to spend time there anyway? Two of my favorite things—Nature (lots of it!) and History (lots of it!).
The Natchez Trace Parkway, which wasn’t officially completed until 2005, was first established as a part of the U.S. National Park System in 1938. However, the “trace” or trail that was the original pathway along which the Parkway now runs dates back literally hundreds of years into the history, exploration, and development of the southern United States.
The pathway was early used by many forms of wildlife, including buffalo that were common to this area. Also, much of the trace traversed through the homeland of several tribes of Native American people.
In the early 1800’s, the trace was designated as a postal delivery route between Nashville and Natchez. It was also a very important trade route in the early stages of commerce in the developing southern area of the country that was moving toward westward expansion. Farmers from the Ohio Valley area would transport their goods down the Mississippi River and then return home overland by means of the Natchez Trace.
On a somewhat inglorious historical note, Meriwether Lewis (of the famous exploring team of Lewis and Clark) met a tragic and mysterious death at the young age of 35 one night along the Parkway. His gravesite is memorialized near mile marker 385 in southern Tennessee.
Near Tupelo, Mississippi, the Parkway Visitor Center has some great informational and historical displays that paint a pretty complete picture of the trace from thousands of years back right on through the present, including much useful information and suggestions on getting the most from whatever time you have allocated to exploring the Parkway.
There are so many possible stops along the way, you really have to prepare yourself and anticipate which little side trips and hikes you want to add to your itinerary in order to see the waterfalls, wildflowers, Indian mounds, historical markers, and even some “sunken" stretches of the original trace along which you may park and walk.
And there are plenty of overlooks too, where you can catch glimpses of the surrounding countryside or of tranquil farm scenes "down in the valley."
On a personal note, we always have great fun and adventure when we wander off the beaten path and visit little towns along the way—like Collinwood, Tennessee near mile marker 354. At this exit, the Wayne County Welcome Center provided us with more interesting visitor information (not printed in any brochures), compliments of a very courteous hostess. She also pointed us to a great little coffee shop located just across the parking lot from the center! See also Mr. Hendrix's Amazing Stone Wall
As for the Nature part of it—it’s everywhere, and completely magnificent (yet in a very simple and humbling way) no matter what time of the year you may choose to visit the Natchez Trace Parkway. Springtime presents the early beauty of blossoming dogwood and redbud trees. Summer gives you wildflowers and many shades and shapes of distant woodland greens. Autumn closes out with a brilliantly colored foliage display from the oaks, hickories, maples, and other hardwoods in the surrounding forests.
Take a well-stocked picnic basket, and plan to spend as much time as you can exploring the Natchez Trace Parkway.