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In This Chapter
* Walking the original trace
* Sampling deep-fried dill pickles
* Tracking down Elvis
* Playing sports announcer
Consider leaving the clogged arteries of crowded interstates behind to enter a shaded, curved, rural highway that doesn't allow commercial traffic or speeding - 50 mph is the limit. Along the way, you find campgrounds, craft shops, picnic tables, and nature trails to explore, including a boardwalk through an eerie swamp with lime-green water and sunken trees.
In spring and summer, the route is green with thick, lush grass and plenty of hardwood trees, with occasional glimpses of small farms and villages through the foliage. The highway is easy and undulating but not wide. Most but not all overlook turnoffs, however, are spacious enough for large motorhomes or vehicles pulling trailers.
The Natchez Trace meanders nearly 500 miles from a point northeast of Natchez, Mississippi, to a point southwest of Nashville, Tennessee, passing the places where TV megastar Oprah Winfrey, rock idol Elvis Presley, and blues musician W.C. Handy were born, and where Meriwether Lewis of Lewis and Clark fame died under mysterious circumstances.
Following an 8,000-year-old Indian trail, the trace - an old-fashioned term for a path or roadway - was turnedinto a scenic highway drive in the 1930s. The route preserves some 300 segments of the old trace that was commissioned in 1806 by Thomas Jefferson. And don't worry about the speed limit - it's so peaceful and scenic along the way that you won't even be tempted to rev up the RV.
Our Natchez Trace drive begins in Natchez and goes north to Nashville, but it's just as simple to begin in Nashville and drive south to Natchez. (For the route, see "The Natchez Trace" map in this chapter.) If you're driving from Nashville to Natchez and have extra time, check out the Gulf Coast drive between New Orleans and Tallahassee in Chapter 14.
The trace is unfinished at a couple of spots. It begins 8 miles northeast of Natchez, so you travel on U.S. 60 from Natchez to the marked beginning. Again near Jackson, you need to leave the parkway at the junction of I-20, follow I-20 to I-220 north, and then continue on I-55 to Exit 105, which reconnects you to the parkway.
Similar to the Skyline Drive and Blue Ridge Parkway drive described in Chapter 13, the Natchez Trace has well-marked entrances and exits that take you onto commercial highways and in and out of towns and villages. And the trace has numbered mileposts that double as addresses for sites along the route. The route begins at milepost 8 near Natchez, and finishes past milepost 440 near Nashville.
At the end of the parkway, you exit by a recently completed dramatic bridge past milepost 440 that swoops you down onto Route 100 about 10 miles west of Nashville. The total drive runs around 500 miles.
Although the parkway is comfortable to drive year-round, the best times are in early spring and fall when the weather is mild, the flowers are in bloom, and the pilgrimage tours through antebellum homes are on the agenda. (See "More cool things to see and do," later in this chapter.) Winter usually is mild but can be rainy and sometimes chilly; summers are hot.
You don't need campground reservations for any of the places in this chapter except for Ratliff Ferry and the Ross Barnett Reservoir campgrounds in summer. You also need reservations for the Opryland KOA, Nashville, in June when Fan Fair, a gathering of country music fans from around the world, takes place. (See "Our favorite campgrounds" later in this chapter.)
Allow three to seven days for the drive.
Stocking the Pantry
You won't find food outlets, restaurants, or stores along the Natchez Trace, but this itinerary frequently detours off the trace through a number of towns and villages. The major southern supermarket chains include Winn-Dixie, Kroger, Piggily Wiggily, and IGA, the Independent Grocers Association.
Keep your eyes open as you pass through small towns in the South during spring, summer, and fall; vegetable and fruit growers often put out produce stands in their farmyards or even on their front lawns during harvest time. The prices always are very low.
Driving the Natchez Trace
The Natchez Trace Parkway, like the Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive described in Chapter 13, is a federally designated scenic drive along a two-lane highway with a 50 mph speed limit where no commercial traffic is permitted. Frequent turnouts are indicated with half-mile warning signs shaped like arrowheads that tell you whether the spot ahead is of historic interest, a trailhead, or a segment of the original roadway.
Plan on spending a day or two exploring the Natchez area before you set out on the trace itself. Historic homes are open all year with hoop-skirted hostesses to show you around.
When you're ready to hit the road, drive northeast from Natchez on U.S. 60 about 8 miles to the designated entrance of the Natchez Trace. Just before the entrance to the parkway, stop at the Mississippi Welcome Center and pick up an official Natchez Trace map and guide, handy materials to keep with you. Almost immediately after entering the park, you come to the spot where a section of the original trace can be seen; look for the arrowhead-shaped sign. At mile 10.3 is Emerald Mound, the second largest Indian mound in the United States. The ancestors of the Natchez tribe built the mound around A.D. 1400. It covers some eight acres; you can walk to the top if you want.
At mile 15.5, you come to Mount Locust, a restored historical house that served as a "stand" or overnight stop for travelers along the trace. Jefferson had encouraged innkeepers to open these primitive lodging establishments to care for travelers; more than 20 were in operation by 1820, when the trace was at its peak.
WORTH THE SEARCH
Exit on U.S. 61 near mile 37 to drive a short loop detour into Port Gibson. General Ulysses S. Grant reportedly said this town was "too pretty to burn" and so Port Gibson survived the Civil War intact and was the first town in Mississippi to be designated a National Historic District. What strikes visitors initially today is the huge golden hand atop the 1859 First Presbyterian Church at Walnut and Church Streets, the index finger pointing heavenward. Southwest of town are the haunting ruins of Windsor, the largest antebellum house ever built in Mississippi, used in a memorable scene with Alec Baldwin in Ghosts of Mississippi. (See "More cool things to see and do.")
Back on the Natchez Trace at mile 41.5 is the Sunken Trace section, a five-minute walk along a deeply eroded section of the original trace. A designated parking turnout is nearby. In the right light, this is one of the spookiest parts of the trace.
At mile 54.8, you come to Rocky Springs ghost town, formerly a thriving metropolis with a population of 2,616. Take a short uphill trail from the upper parking area to the site of the notorious Red House Inn, where highwaymen sized up travelers and then robbed them later. The town fell into decline during the Civil War, when first the war, then the boll weevil, yellow fever, and soil erosion wiped it out. A campground without hookups (see "Runner-up campgrounds" later in this chapter for more on Rocky Springs Campground) and a foot trail are located along a section of the old road.
Around milepost 67 is the exit to Vicksburg, SR 27. You can also go to Vicksburg from Port Gibson at milepost 37, but you'd miss the points of interest on the parkway.
WORTH THE SEARCH
The Civil War seems to be the main preoccupation of Vicksburg, with the Vicksburg National Military Park on its northern boundary. Comparable to Gettysburg in scope, Vicksburg is known not only for its fine old houses but also for the bravery and endurance of its citizens during a 47-day siege in 1863, when General Grant's troops bombarded the city almost constantly. As if to add insult to injury, the Mississippi River itself abandoned Vicksburg in 1876, changing its route to cut across the neck of land that Grant had worked so hard to take. Years later, the waters of the Yazoo River were diverted into the Mississippi's old channel so Vicksburg could have its harbor back.
Vicksburg is famous for two beverages. It was the first city to bottle Coca-Cola; the Biedenharn Coca-Cola Company Museum displays replicas of the original bottling equipment and still sells 5¢ bottles of Coke. (See "More cool things to see and do.") And the mint julep was invented in Vicksburg.
A family-style restaurant in Vicksburg called Walnut Hills is the epitome of Southern home cooking with help-yourself bowls and platters filled with fried chicken, pork chops, a dozen vegetables, salads, corn muffins, biscuits, and iced tea. (See "Good eats.")
Back on the Natchez Trace, the drive is interrupted just past milepost 90 on the outskirts of Jackson. To return immediately to the trace, follow the parkway detour signage along I-20 to I-220, then to I-55, rejoining the trace at milepost 102.
If you have a few hours, however, spend some time in Jackson, the state capital. The expansive and excellent Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Museum - much more interesting than it sounds for adults and children - features a 1920s town with costumed inhabitants and craftsmen (and hand-pumped gas for 15¢ a gallon), a crop-dusting museum, and an entire working farm that was moved here from southern Mississippi. (See "Must-see attractions.")
The Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum (see "Must-see attractions") also is in Jackson, sharing the same big parking lot. Here you can broadcast play-by-play action from a replica press booth that's stocked with videos of outstanding game highlights; walk through a museum salute to Dizzy Dean, Mississippi's own baseball great; stroll into a locker room housing uniforms and equipment used by sports heroes; and try your skills in golf, baseball, soccer, or football.
When you reenter the parkway at milepost 101.5, look for the sign for the Mississippi Crafts Center, a marvelous collection of hand-woven Choctaw baskets, pottery, weavings, jewelry, books, and carved wooden toys, to mention only a few of the treasures. (See "Shopping along the Way," later in this chapter.)
At 105.6, a road from a turnoff to the Ross Barnett Reservoir follows the Pearl River and parallels the parkway for 8 miles, accessing four campgrounds with hookups. (See "Runner-up campgrounds.")
One of the prettiest spots along the route is a tupelo and bald cypress swamp at milepost 122 with board walkways leading across yellow-green, algae-covered water so smooth it looks like a chartreuse mirror that you could walk on. The nature trail takes about 20 minutes to walk: first across the swamp, then along the other side through the woods, and back across the swamp on a second walkway.
When you drive past Kosciusko (pronounced koz-e-esk-ko) at milepost 159.7, take a moment to remember that this is where TV diva Oprah Winfrey was born January 29, 1954. Liberty Presbyterian Church has a sign outside pointing out that "she said her first piece here," in other words, made her first public appearance. (See "More cool things to see and do.")
French Camp at milepost 180.7 comes to life every fall when its time to demonstrate the making of sorghum molasses from sugar cane. The parkway's only bed and breakfast is here, along with a crafts shop, exhibits, and a lunch cafe.
One mile east of milepost 259.7 is Tupelo National Battlefield, site of a major Civil War battle in 1864. On this site, Union General A.J. Smith trapped Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, famous for quick strikes and tough fights. General William Tecumseh Sherman ordered Smith to "follow Forrest to his death."
Turn off the Natchez Trace on SR 6 for the Tupelo Battlefield and for the Elvis Presley Birthplace and Museum in downtown Tupelo. The rock icon was born in a simple two-room house that his father built; sometimes a relative or friend of Elvis is on hand to share personal memories. (See "Must-see attractions.") Tombigbee State Park with RV camping is just east of Tupelo. (See "Our favorite campgrounds.")
Return to the parkway by the same route you took to go off into Tupelo, so you don't miss any of the highlights.
A Chickasaw village site at mile 261.8 presents exhibits on Indian life, and a nature trail displays plants that were used in daily life for foods and medicine. The park headquarters at Tupelo Visitor Center, mile 266, also offers a 20-minute nature walk showing forest regrowth. At milepost 269.4, a short walk along the old trace leads to the graves of 13 unknown Confederate soldiers. A nature trail at 275.2 into Dogwood Valley takes about 15 minutes to explore a grove of dogwood trees.
Tishomingo State Park at milepost 302.8, shortly before the parkway crosses from Mississippi into Alabama, offers camping, swimming, canoeing, and picnicking. (See "Our favorite campgrounds.") At milepost 310, the parkway crosses into Alabama.
Although the parkway traverses only a 38-mile corner of northwestern Alabama on its way north, this little stretch of land is full of fascinating discoveries. Just past milepost 320, turn east on U.S. 72 to Tuscumbia, which, with its nearby sister towns of Sheffield, Muscle Shoals, and Florence, offers a great place to eat down-home Southern cooking and four not-to-be-missed attractions.
Plan to spend a day in lively northwestern Alabama, where attractions include:
Excerpted from RV Vacations For Dummies by Shirley Slater Harry Basch Excerpted by permission.
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