TUPELO — The four biggest elements of Mississippi tourism are history, heritage, culture and outdoor recreation opportunities. The Natchez Trace Parkway combines all four in a relaxing driving tour along some of the most scenic and historic sites in the state.
“At one time the Natchez Trace Parkway was the main highway in what was then the wild, wild west,” said Steve Martin, associate manager senior, Mississippi Department of Economic and Community Development’s tourism development division. “When working with the international press, we always make it a point to show them the Natchez Trace. The Natchez Trace gets a lot of domestic and international press coverage. It makes for a good story.”
Besides the historical and cultural sites along the Natchez Trace, it also provides numerous outdoor opportunities for “soft adventure” or ecotourism, which is becoming increasingly popular.
“It really is a different insight into the beauty of our country,” Martin said.
Only two small sections of the Natchez Trace remain to be completed on the 444-mile route that goes from Natchez to Nashville, Tenn. Stennis Young, acting superintendent of the Natchez Trace Parkway, which has its headquarters in Tupelo, said work is currently in progress on a $45-million, 15-mile section of roadway that will complete the Trace in Jackson. About half of the Jackson portion has been completed, and it will take two to four years to finish the remainder.
After the Jackson portion of the Trace is completed, work will begin on an eight-mile portion that will complete the road into downtown Natchez. That work is expected to be complete by 2005. Park officials believe the competition of the parkway will increase visitation because people won’t have to detour or exit onto state routes
“We have a lot of visitors from out of state who travel the parkway,” Young said. “Some are repeat visitors yearly. They enjoy the scenic drive, and visiting the cities and towns along the parkway. It brings a lot of people into this region. We’re seeing more RVs, campers and tour buses than in past, and we think that trend will continue to grow.
The Natchez Trace Parkway is a rolling, limited-access roadway with scenic easements that mean very little advertising or commercial development is seen. There are no stop signs or traffic lights, and the speed limit is 50 miles per hour except in some hilly portions of Tennessee where the speed limit is 40 miles per hour. Trucking traffic isn’t allowed, and there are frequent roadside stops to view historical, cultural and natural sites marked with interpretive signs.
Jane Winston, ranger activities assistant, Tupelo headquarters, said the Trace follows a route used by early settlers and, before them, Native Americans. People in the Ohio River Valley would float crops down to Natchez where they would sell their products and what was left of the boats, and then walk the Natchez Trace back to Nashville.
There were few comforts on the early Natchez Trace, but primitive stands or inns were located about one days travel by foot apart. People could shelter at the stands, and one such is still standing for tourists to tour near Natchez at Mount Locust.
The Trace also includes important ancient Native American cultural sites for the Natchez, Chickasaw and Choctaw Indians.
“One of the main things visitors see is the sense of history,” Winston said. “It is part of the Indians Trail of Tears, and you can also see evidences of the ancient culture. It is also very scenic. You see very little evidence of civilization around you. So many of the visitors are taken with the natural beauty, the scenery, as well as the history.”
Trace land near the parkway is leased to farmers who grow crops like cotton and corn, contributing to a landscape similar to what would have been present in the 1700 and 1800s.
While there isn’t a designated bike path on the parkway, it is popular with bicyclists. Traffic is slower than on state and federal highways, and the route isn’t really steep or at high altitudes, which makes cycling easier.
Camping is free on the parkway, and about 8,000 people per year take advantage of the campgrounds that have showers and water available, but no electricity or dumping facilities for RVs. All terrains vehicles (ATVs) are not allowed anywhere on the Natchez Trace.
About 60 miles of the Natchez Trace, including parts of Tennessee and Mississippi, are designated as National Scenic Trail. There is a system of bridges and trails in natural areas along that stretch that have been build by volunteers including Boy Scouts working in cooperation with the U.S. Park Service.
The headquarters for the Trace located in Tupelo has a visitor’s center that offers an orientation film and information. The headquarter is open every day of the year except Christmas. For more information about the Natchez Trace, call 1-800-305-7417.