The Great River Road

Old Man River, Father of Waters, “body of a nation,” Big Muddy—by any name the mighty Mississippi cuts a mythic figure across the American landscape.

Natchez Trace Parkway

A mile or so south of Port Gibson, US-61 and the GRR cross the much more relaxed Natchez Trace Parkway, which, like the Blue Ridge Parkway, is a scenic route managed by the National Park Service. The parkway follows the route of the old Natchez Trace, a pre-Columbian Indian path that grew into the major overland route between the Gulf Coast and the upper Mississippi and Ohio River Valleys in the years before steamboats provided a faster alternative. The Natchez Trace appeared on maps as early as 1733, and from the 1780s to the 1820s, when steamboats made it obsolete, the Natchez Trace was one of the nation’s most traveled routes. Farmers and craftspeople in the Ohio River Valley would transport their products by raft downstream to Natchez or New Orleans, then return on foot, staying at the dozens of inns along the route while doing battle with swamps, mosquitoes, and bands of thieves.

The entire 430-mile length of the parkway, which runs from Nashville south to the edge of Natchez, with a short break around Jackson, is well paved and makes a delightful driving or riding route, with places of interest marked every few miles. Just north of Port Gibson at milemarker 41.5, the Sunken Trace preserves a deeply eroded, 200-yard-long section of the trail, the canopy of moss-laden cypress trees offering one of the most evocative five-minute walks you can imagine. Between Port Gibson and Natchez, sights along this short (and eminently bikable) stretch include the prehistoric Emerald Mound, the second-largest prehistoric structure in the United States, which dates from around AD 1250 and offers a commanding view of the woodlands. Mount Locust at milemarker 15.5 is a restored Trace roadhouse and the best place to pick up parkway information; if you’re fortunate, you might get a tour guided by park ranger Eric Chamberlain, who was born in the house, and whose family lived there for five generations.

The National Park police keep the parkway under very thorough radar surveillance, by the way, so try to stay within the posted speed limit, often 35 mph with a maximum of 50 mph.

 

Natchez Trace Parkway