Driving along the Natchez Trace Parkway is like driving back in time. This stretch of road, which covers over 400 miles, was believed to have been created by migrating mastodons and giant bison over 10,000 years ago. Since then, the parkway has been traversed by both Native American hunters and famous patriots such as Andrew Jackson and Thomas Jefferson. Today, this stretch of paved American history draws hundreds of cyclists, motorists, civil war enthusiasts, and, of course, road trippers every year. From mile marker one to mile marker 444, we highlight some of the best stops, sights, and stays.
We kick off our trip at the very start of the Natchez Trace Parkway—mile marker one. In Natchez, Mississippi, you'll split off from Highway 61 and embark on 444 miles of lush pastures, scenic bridges, and endless historic monuments. A National Park Service sign will welcome you onto the Parkway, right next to a scenic pull-out, where you can stop and take a picture to document the beginning of your journey. Be sure to check out the stone plaque that shares a bit about the Daughters of the American Revolution's role in the development of the Parkway.
Designated a National Historic Landmark, Emerald is one of the largest mounds in North America. It was built by the Plaquemine Mississipians (ancestors of the Natchez Indians) in the 1300s and used as a ceremonial center for religious and social events. But don't let the word mound fool you. Emerald Mound stands 35 feet tall and covers eight acres of land. An excellent place to stop and stretch your legs, there's a grassy path that leads straight to the base of the mound, where you can either climb up the side or take the wooden stairs to the top. Once at the top, you'll have some pretty cool views of the surrounding lawn and forests. The mound is open to the public from sunrise to sunset (roughly 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.) and pets are welcome, just be sure to clean up after them!
If you're looking for a quiet nature break, or a shady spot to stop eat lunch, then the Clinton Community Nature Center is the perfect place. Located just off the Parkway in the town of Clinton, Mississippi, this stretch of woodlands offers close to three miles of scenic trails, walkways, even a butterfly garden. There are numerous activities for kids as well, including a "Play Forest" where they can splash in buckets of water, play in the mud kitchen, or build towers in the sandbox. And for the adults, the Nature Center offers things like summer yoga classes, painting lessons, and plant sales. The Center is actually a non-profit, so all proceeds go towards preserving and maintaining this precious plot of land.
A quick detour off the parkway will take you to the state capital of Mississippi. There—right in the heart of downtown Jackson—you'll find plenty of museums, galleries, and historic places. But one museum in particular seems to stand out above the rest: The Mississippi Museum of Art. The largest art museum in Mississippi, not only does it have a wide variety of exhibits—including paintings, art installations, pottery, costumes, and photography—but there are beautiful gardens, outdoor murals, and mosaic fountains, as well. And the best part? It's all free. In the summer, the museum hosts "Screen on the Green," where visitors can watch a variety of outdoor movies on the front lawn (local food trucks are usually around to provide food and snacks). The museum is open every day of the week, except Monday. If you go, be sure and stop by the museum's La Brioche cafe and try one of their macaroons.
There are an equal number of hiking and walking trails along the Parkway as there are biking trails. Natchez Trace has become well-known for its many stunning bike trails, and the Ridgeland Bike Trail is no exception. There are over ten miles of tracks, with separate courses for both beginner and experienced cyclists. You'll find yourself cruising through tall forests, rushing over wooden bridges, and rarely ever hitting the breaks. Most people bring their own bikes and gear, but if you need to rent, there are places in the town of Ridgeland that will let you take bikes out for the day (try The Bike Crossing on Jackson Street). Before heading out, be sure to get a visitor's pass at the trailhead kiosk, and don't forget to place $3 in the drop box!
The town of French Camp, Mississippi, is full of incredible American history and authentic log cabins. So, if you really want to see how early Americans lived, then be sure and stop by the Log Cabin Gift Shop. This cabin, located right in the middle of town, is believed to be from the the 1840s. The Gift Shop is actually located on one side of a long log cabin, while the other side is home to the Historic District's Hospitality Room. Take some time walking around the grounds and imagining what life might've been like back in the 1800s. Inside the Gift Shop, you'll find beautiful pieces of art, pottery, woodwork, handmaid quilts, local jams and honey, even the occasional crafting demonstration. Many of these pieces are made by local students and artisans, and all profits go towards the students of the French Camp Academy.
If you're a music lover and you're in Mississippi, then you have to stop and pay your respects to The King. Just a short detour off the Parkway, on Elvis Presley Drive, you'll find the birthplace and childhood home of America's biggest rock and roll legend. Located on 15 acres of rolling lawns, this special landmark has both Elvis' original childhood home and a small chapel full of memorabilia (an ode to how Elvis got his start singing). I think you'll be surprised at just how small the home is, which has been redecorated to look like it did when Elvis was a kid. There's also a museum on the property where you can see a lot of the famous costumes and outfits that Elvis wore throughout his career. Tours of the museum and the house cost money, but the chapel, statues, and various plaques throughout the grounds are all free. Photos (and singing) are welcome everywhere you go.
We keep the music going as we leave Elvis' birthplace and head into Alabama, reaching the halfway point of our trip. Here we'll make a stop at the Muscle Shoals Music House, a former music studio that has hosted the likes of Bob Dylan and Stephen Stills. This studio-turned-hotel overlooks the Tennessee River, where every room comes with a patio and a terrace. The Music House is located just five minutes away from Florence, Muscle Shoals, and Tuscumbia. In addition to large, comfy rooms and beautiful views of the water, guests can also enjoy free WiFi, free parking, and free access to canoes and kayaks. There is usually a two-night minimum but ask about the one-night special offer. And if you don't feel like cooking or going out to eat, no problem. The Music House will custom cater your dinner for you.
If you don't recognize the name Meriwether Lewis, then you might recall the Lewis and Clack Expedition—which was lead by none other than Capitan Meriwether Lewis. This national monument, which is located right along the Natchez Trace Parkway at mile marker 386, is a memorial to the great American explorer. The original roadtrippers, Lewis and Clark led a group of volunteers from Oregon all the way to Pennsylvania, charting the norther part of the U.S. as they went. Unfortunately, Lewis was shot and killed while staying at an inn along what is now the Natchez Trace Parkway. This tall, stone monument is dedicated to Lewis and everything he discovered. The monument sits near a small creek, where you can often spot fireflies in the summer. There is also a small reconstructed version of the inn where Lewis stayed when he was killed. Both the monument and the inn are open 24/7.
As you make your way into the heart of Tennessee, be sure to stop by the small town of Leipers Fork. This town, which joined the National Register of Historic Places in 1998, is unbelievably warm and comforting. Filled with picturesque surroundings, art galleries, and traditional Southern fare, visitors often find themselves staying for a few days, let alone a few hours. And if you're a fan of antiquing, Leipers Fork is a dream come true. You'll find plenty of old furniture, eclectic collectibles, and beautifully preserved artifacts. If you're hungry, stop by Puckett’s Grocery & Restaurant—a favorite for delicious, home-cooked meals and live, local music.
As you make your way into Nashville and cruise along the final stretch of the Parkway, the Natchez Trace Bridge is the perfect grand finale. This bridge is actually the first segmentally-constructed concrete arch bridge in the U.S. Before crossing the bridge, there are a few opportunities to stop and take a picture of the architectural masterpiece (which has won many awards for its design). There is even a sign noting the Parkway, exactly like the one that kicked off the trip at mile marker one. Driving over the bridge, you'll feel like you're hovering high above the ground and heading straight into the oncoming surrounding trees. The drive is smooth, straight, and, before you know it, you'll be on the other side making your way towards Music City, USA.
Our last stop along the route is the beautiful city of Nashville—where the Natchez Trace Parkway officially ends at mile marker 444. Most commonly known for its music (specifically country music), Nashville also happens to be one of the fastest growing cities, becoming a hotspot for things like art, culture, food, and technology. It's worth checking out the world-famous Grand Ole Opry, which has been around since 1925. And for ancient history lovers, there's The Parthenon—a full-scale replicate of the Greek masterpiece in Athens. There are endless places to eat and drink, but we recommend trying either Hattie B's Chicken or The Farm House—both are known for their southern-style chicken. Whatever you choose to do here, Nashville is truly a unique place—one where the historical echoes of the parkway meet the modern promotions of a major city.
From Native American landmarks to Civil War burials to quaint roadside eateries, Natchez Trace Parkway is as diverse as it is captivating. Take your time and let the smooth curves of the road transport you to a different time. And just remember—there's always more to explore on the Parkway.