I grew up in a family of five on the Gulf of Mexico in South Texas. My parents moved us from Canada in the early 90s, the first in generations of Canadians to permanently relocate south of the border.
But we stayed close to our extended family, and it was always a priority to visit them. It goes without saying that road treks from Texas to Canada are long and involved. In my memory, they were times filled with interesting and educational stops (we were home schooled–education bled into every moment of life), beloved family memories, and dips in mountain springs to stay sane…because it wasn’t until high school that our vehicles had air conditioning!
Children are impressionable, no more so than when parental opinions are involved. This phenomenon has been an incredible blessing in my life because my parents are amazing human beings. Their likes, dislikes and beliefs have influenced my life in countless ways–big and small. Love for the Natchez Trace Parkway is one of their legacies. It was part of our family road trips whenever we were anywhere nearby on our route north.
But we never traveled the whole thing. So when Eric and I bought Meriwether and started planning the first leg of our journey, the Natchez Trace Parkway in its entirety was added to our bucket list. Mile marker 0 to 444–we wanted to drive every mile!
Introduction to the Natchez Trace Parkway
Every American should be familiar with the Natchez Trace Parkway. It’s 444 miles of rich history, from Natchez, MS in the south to just shy of Nashville, TN in the north. Casual observers would note that it’s a two-lane road with a speed limit of 50 mph at the most, twisty in parts. They might mention that there are no gas stations, hotels or other businesses of any kind directly on the parkway.
The right sort of person will view these casual observations with relish. The opportunity to slow down and observe this beautiful country, no eyesores allowed, is a treasure.
If the sirens are already calling to you, we’ll dig a little deeper. The Natchez Trace Parkway was first a Native American pathway, with archaeological evidence dating back 10,000 years. In the early 1800s, it served a vital role as a road home for Kaintucks, men who floated down the Mississippi with goods to sell, sold their boats as lumber and then walked hundreds of miles back north. The advent of the steamboat would change all this, but in the meantime, “stands” were developed up and down the Natchez Trace to put a one-night roof over travelers’ weary heads.
Slaves were sold, soldiers were buried, a nationally-known explorer killed himself, all surrounded by the most beautiful landscape and natural formations…and some not-so-natural formations. With so many stories to be told (and the drama I’ve mentioned is only scratching the surface), it’s no wonder the Daughters of the American Revolution started erecting explanatory markers and signs at different sites along the parkway.
How to Travel the Parkway
Your trip on the Natchez Trace Parkway can be flexible. Travel as many miles as you like; stop as many times as you like. Hopefully our journey chronicled here will serve as an example that will help you decide what you want to see and where you can stay along the way.
A few resources you should be familiar with:
- National Park Service website
- The NPS maps, which are available in one amazing brochure that you can pick up at many convenient stops along the way (including at Mount Locust near the south end of the Parkway). The brochure includes a map of the entire Parkway and a list of every stop along the way, with a short description. The NPS kindly suggests the most important highlights, for those with limited time.
Natchez, MS: Mile Marker 0
I look back on our week there with immense fondness. Our RV adventure was still so new. We were still complete RV babies. The sound of the woodpeckers in the trees was a sweet and fresh delight. We had an early chance to learn to smile at our quirky neighbors, rather than resent them (“Evil Knievel,” obviously a long-time resident, was never quite done working on that truck, and the ear-shattering test drives were part of the process).
To this day, Natchez State Park is still one of my favorite places we’ve stayed since we started full-timing. Call me sentimental!
As for our adventures, we jumped in with both feet.
Pig Out Inn
This Texas girl can’t recommend Pig Out Inn in good conscience–the meat just didn’t pass muster–but perhaps you’re not so highstrung in your BBQ opinions?
Walking by the Mississippi
The food may not be the best, but Pig Out Inn’s location was perfect for an early evening stroll through Natchez, MS. The restaurant is a mere block from the riverfront, and that “Old Man River” was calling to me.
Forks of the Road
During our week at Natchez State Park, we visited the historic Forks of the Road. This site is no more than an empty lot now, but detailed plaques tell a sobering story of the injustice that took place right under our feet before 1863 when Union troops arrived.
Fat Mama’s Tamales
Another dinner out found us at Fat Mama’s Tamales. “Knock You Naked” margarita, ham and cheese poboy and–of course–tamales. Eric had good things to say about his poboy, and I enjoyed the bite I had. The tamales left something to be desired…or maybe I was just thrown off that they were served with crackers.
Crackers and tamales? Is that a Deep South thing? We were mystified.
Under the Hill Saloon
One of the highlights of our week was the opportunity to meet the crew of Tales From the Mutiny: the marvelous Lynn and Clark. The conversation was stimulating, and we heard of so many adventures that we couldn’t wait to keep going with our own!
Lynn and Clark introduced us to Under the Hill Saloon. I can’t resist quoting the saloon’s home page:
“Now there is one place on Silver Street that is in business for YOUR pleasure and that is –UNDER THE HILL SALOON! You won’t find cheap whiskey, but you will find the beverage of your choice…You won’t find illicit love, but you may fall in love…And there is no more gambling, but there’s always entertainment…Sometimes a rinky tink piano, or a jazz band will play…”Pretzel” the chicken is usually on hand, and there are old photos, artifacts, riverboat models and river memorabilia to interest most anyone…Or just sit and watch the river roll by…”
Ghosts gush from the walls of this place, and the locals gathering out front know where to find one of the best vistas in town.
Biscuits & Blues
Drinks are nice, but the four of us got hungry! We squeaked into Biscuits & Blues before closing, and I think we were all quite pleased with our meals.
I’m a huge sucker for biscuits, and I made a point of trying some of Biscuits & Blues’ apricot butter (which was ah-may-zing). I believe I ended up ordering Pete’s Smokin’ Chicken for my meal, and it was a rather large meal for one person. Seriously. That was half a chicken.
What did we miss in Natchez that we wish we’d had a chance to see? I heard great things about Melrose Plantation and would’ve liked to tour it. Actually, the Spring Pilgrimage was going on during our visit. We passed for budgetary reasons, but it looked like an awesome event!
Natchez, MS –> Rocky Springs: Mile Markers 0-54.8
10.3. Our first stop on the parkway, Emerald Mound, was less than three miles from Natchez State Park. The drizzling rain couldn’t keep us away as we hiked the second largest mound in North America. It’s 770 by 435 feet at the base, and 35 feet high. This ritual site for the American Indians was created and used between 1250 and 1730 A.D.
15.5. Remember the “stands” I mentioned, where Natchez Trace travelers could stop and spend the night before moving on? Well, Mount Locust is the only stand still standing. Tour the house and stroll the grounds, where you’ll find a cemetery and brick kiln.
30.0. Though Windsor Ruins isn’t right on the parkway, it’s well worth the short detour. This sprawling mansion burned down in 1890, but not before being used as a Civil War hospital and observation site. Some say that Mark Twain visited, and you may have seen the ruins in a movie or two. To get there from the parkway, take Mississippi Highway 552 at milepost 30, then go west and follow the signs.
Old Country Store and Restaurant
Before you rejoin the parkway, stop at Old Country Store and Restaurant in Lorman, MS. Trust me, you’ll remember your visit for a long time.
When you first walk in, you may wonder what you stumbled into and consider leaving. The shelves are filled with items most would consider worthless. And, at first glance, the cafeteria-style buffet may bring back memories of middle school.
Live large. Fill your plate, take a seat and be amazed by the excellent fried chicken, southern biscuits and other southern delicacies.
While you’re eating, Mr. D himself may stop by your table. He is one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met. His business on the way to nowhere is his pride and joy. A smile constantly illuminates his features, as his personality draws you in and forces you to lower your defenses.
If you’re lucky, he’ll serenade you as you eat. We were treated to an Oldies tune and couldn’t help but chime in. Meet this man while you have the chance. He’s an exceptional human being.
Old Country Store and Restaurant is located at 18801 U.S. 61 in Lorman, MS. Turn left out of Windsor Ruins. After about a mile, continue onto MS-552. Before 10 miles, turn right onto US-61. It’ll be on your right in a mile.
Just to be safe, call ahead to make sure they’ll be open: (601) 437-3661.
41.5. It’s a quick jog to get back to the Natchez Trace Parkway from Old Country Store and Restaurant. At milepost 41.5, you’ll want to stop and see the Sunken Trace.
This is your first chance to experience the Old Trace, trod over the centuries by Indians, Kaintucks and soldiers from the War of 1812. As you walk along the eroded land, allow your imagination to run wild. Ghosts surround you.
54.8. You may want to stop at Rocky Springs Campground for a night, like we did. There are no hookups and we had no Internet connectivity (Verizon/AT&T), but there are clean bathhouses and the area is secluded and peaceful. The campground is free, with no reservations available.
Whether you stay to camp or not, make sure you visit the historical town of Rocky Springs, settled before the turn of the 19th century. Eric and I really enjoyed our leisurely walk through the area. The informational signage provided a fascinating look into the history of the area and provided a lot of fodder for conversation.
Detour: Vicksburg National Military Park
60.0ish. We left the parkway again at MS-27, before milepost 60, for the half-hour drive to Vicksburg, MS. The town of Vicksburg charmed us and made us want to return later (which we did; see our Captain’s Logs here and here). But on this first visit, we only had time to see Vicksburg National Military Park.
President Lincoln referred to Vicksburg as the key to the South during the Civil War. The Union’s epic siege there ended up being the turning point of the war.
When you visit, make sure you go through the U.S.S. Cairo Museum. This ironclad ship represents a unique part of our country’s naval history, and you’ll be able to walk up, down and through the restored vessel!
Rocky Springs –> Natchez Trace RV Park: 54.8-251ish
122.0. Driving right past Jackson, MS, we meandered along the two-way parkway until we reached the other-worldly Cypress Swamp. This ecological playground holds a trail through a forest of water tupelo and bald cypress trees. Watch for alligators!
French Camp and Council House Cafe
180.7. Depending on your interest level and schedule, you could spend a day at French Camp. This historic district features a variety of 1800s-era buildings, including homes, a carriage house, a sorghum mill and a blacksmith shop. There’s also a gift shop and cafe. You’ll enjoy learning all the history associated with this area.
203.5. There isn’t much to see here, and that’s the problem. Pull your vehicle over to read the sign, then continue on your journey.
Natchez Trace RV Park
250.0ish. Between milepost 250 and 255, we exited at County Road 506 to stay at Natchez Trace RV Park. This is a quiet campground, perfect for a one- or two-night stay as you travel the parkway.
260.0ish. Less than 10 miles north of Natchez Trace RV Park, Tupelo waits to be explored. We grabbed dinner at Johnnie’s Drive-In (908 E. Main St.). Johnnie’s is known as an Elvis haunt–before his days of fame–and the dough burger.
This is a small joint. But if you get there when it isn’t too busy, you might be able to sit in the Elvis Booth.
Order one Depression-era dough burger to share. You probably won’t care for it, but this bite out of history will cause you to appreciate everything we have today.
Elvis Presley Birthplace is located nearby (306 Elvis Presley Drive). We just walked around the grounds, read the signs and took photos. If you’re a big Elvis fan, you’ll probably want to make time to see the museum, too.
Natchez Trace RV Park –> Red Bay, AL: 251ish-302ish
Chickasaw Village Site
261.8. You’re standing on what used to be a Chickasaw Indian village with multiple dwelling places and a fort. Though this archaeological site has been reduced to a field, walk around and you’ll find outlines of a winter home, summer home and the fort on the ground. Trailheads for a short nature trail and the Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail are here.
269.4. Thirteen unknown Confederate soldiers lie buried here, on the Old Trace. As with many places along the parkway, a short stroll under a canopy of aged trees offers an opportunity to reflect on our nation’s history and imagine what life was like then.
286.7. As you pull into the parking lot at Pharr Mounds, stop to count the eight artificial hills laid out across the sprawling field. These mounds are older than Emerald Mound, built between 1 and 200 A.D.
Red Bay, AL –> Tishomingo State Park: 302ish-304.5
295.0ish. For Tiffin owners, Natchez Trace Parkway provides a scenic route to the factory and service center in Red Bay, AL. In fact, the small town of Red Bay is a mere 12 miles off the parkway! We stopped at Tiffin for a week or so to get some work done, which we’ve chronicled in another article.
By the way, even if you’re not a Tiffin owner, the factory tour is pretty cool.
303.0ish. We left Red Bay late on our day of departure, and only had time to relocate to Tishomingo State Park. We absolutely loved this beautiful campground, especially in contrast to the dirt parking lot we had just stayed in for a week!
Don’t miss the magical Swinging Bridge when you visit. But beware: this campground is barely big rig friendly. To date, it’s the tightest squeeze we’ve had with Meriwether (who is 40 feet long).
Tishomingo State Park –> Northern Terminus: 304.5-444
308.4. It’s the final leg of our journey up the parkway! As we walked the nature trail, I almost fell into Cave Spring and Eric had to pull me out. Whew!
327.3. Before you take the bridge across the Tennessee River, the Colbert Ferry site provides a beautiful photo opportunity–especially if you’re there at sunset.
We visited during an overcast midday, but that didn’t stop us from imagining the entrepreneurial George Colbert charging Andrew Jackson $75,000 to ferry the Tennessee army across the river. What a sight that must have been!
Meriwether Lewis Site
385.9. Our RV is named after Meriwether Lewis, of Lewis and Clark fame. Lewis led an amazing life, completing a two-year expedition through wilderness to the Pacific Northwest by the time he was 32 years old. When he returned, he was made governor of the Upper Louisiana Territory.
Unfortunately, Lewis died along the Natchez Trace Parkway three years later, under mysterious conditions. Most historians have concluded that his gunshot wounds were self-inflicted, for reasons we can only guess at now.
Today, a humble memorial marks Lewis’ grave, near the cabin where his death occurred. I often wonder what Lewis would have accomplished, had he lived a full life. Although, I suppose “full” is open to interpretation. He lived more life in 35 years than most of us ever will.
391.9. There are a number of waterfalls along Natchez Trace Parkway, but Fall Hollow is my favorite. I love taking the walkway over the stream that rushes towards the narrow incline. Depending on the time of year and whether rain has made the trail wet, you can carefully hike down to the base of the fall for a completely different view.
401.4. Tobacco Farm displays a tobacco farm from the early 1900s. A short trail leads you to an old barn where tobacco hangs from the timbers.
I’ll never forget the moment when Eric and I walked out of the barn and looked over the hills and fields in front of us. We thought to ourselves, “We’re really doing it.” It was still surreal that we had taken the leap to fulltime RVing. In that moment, we realized that our dreams were coming true. The drastic lifestyle change was already allowing us to make memories we never would have otherwise.
404.7. The trail at Jackson Falls is one of the most popular along the parkway. It is a moderately strenuous hike, but well worth it. Jackson Falls is named after Andrew Jackson.
428.0. Hungry yet? Exit the parkway onto Tennessee Highway 46 and go east to the village of Leiper’s Fork! A short drive will lead you to this pleasant Registered National Historic District, with shops, restaurants, and bed and breakfasts.
Puckett’s Grocery is our meal pick. Everything is good. Eric loves the burgers, and I love the mashed potatoes! If you’re lucky, you’ll get to hear live acoustic music while you dine. Walk off your meal with a stroll down the street to see the various boutique shops.
At this point, you’re only 45 minutes from the center of Nashville.
Believe it or not, these are only the highlights of our 444-mile drive up the parkway. There are many more sights to see, all outlined in the map you’ll receive from the National Park Service. Choose the locations that interest you most. But, above all, prepare yourself for a slow, scenic drive. Interstates can never offer you an experience like this.
I am so glad we began our fulltime RV adventure with such an amazing trip. Though some of our travels between then and now have blurred together, the Natchez Trace Parkway is etched in my mind. I highly recommend that you see all or some of it during your own travels.
If you have any questions about logistics, let me know in a comment!