Biking the Trace (Jackson to Natchez) A Ride through History
By Joey Lee
Long before SUVs and family sedans cruised the modern highway that connects Natchez and Nashville, pre-historic herds forged that ancient trail from their grazing areas in southwest Mississippi to the salt and nutrient-rich soils of central Tennessee. Later, Native Americans, European explorers, and eventually early settlers followed the well-worn trail, dubbed the Natchez Trace, to take their goods to market. Today, the Trace is a National Park and is among the top ten bicycling routes in the United States. Avid cyclers from all over the world, dream of coming to trek the Trace. It’s a national treasure that is literally in our own back yard.
My bike and I have logged thousands of miles on the Trace, but they’ve all been out-and-back rides, beginning and ending at my house. One thing I’ve always wanted to do is take a weekend and ride from Jackson to Natchez, stay the night and then ride back the next day. Of course, to entice my wife to join in, we’d look at staying in one of Natchez’s many fine Bed & Breakfasts or historic inns. In fact, Natchez is known as the bed and breakfast capital of the South, with more than 40 Antebellum and Victorian venues offering the beauty and ambience of bygone eras with all the modern comforts we’ve come to expect.
The distance from Jackson to Natchez ride is about 100 miles if you get on the Trace in Ridgeland and about 90 if you enter near Clinton. And yes, that’s one way. But don’t let the distance deter you; it’s definitely worth it. The scenery is as stunningly beautiful as it is varied. You’ll experience long, sweeping curves through rolling hills, swamps, hardwood forests, farmlands and massive pasturelands. You’ll want to keep a camera handy because along with the scenery, you’re bound to see a lot of wildlife. I’ve seen deer, turkey, fox, hawks, water birds, turtles and even a snake or two.
The Trace closely follows the original trails that ancient animals, including the American Bison, made in their migration between the grazing pastures of central Mississippi and the salt deposits of the Cumberland Plateau. Native Americans eventually began following this trail and improved it to make it more friendly for human foot traffic between major villages. The route is often circuitous, going around most of the larger hills, allowing the first animals, and later humans who walked the Trace, to avoid steep grades. When you ride the Trace, you’ll definitely thank our ancestors for their wisdom in selecting the less strenuous path.
The trail eventually became a popular trade route. It was a way home for weary traders, many of whom had drifted on flatboats loaded with goods down various rivers to New Orleans, selling everything, including the logs they’d used to construct their rafts. Then, they would follow the Trace to head home on foot, to places as far away as Pennsylvania. I “Mapquested” the route and it’s about 1,200 miles! When you think about that, biking 100 miles on a nicely paved road doesn’t seem too hard.
Eventually steamboats, stagecoaches and railroads made the Trace somewhat obsolete for passenger and trade traffic, which is actually a good thing because it meant the trail remained relatively undeveloped and unspoiled. There are still many sections of the original footpath visible from the Parkway.
President Roosevelt signed the legislation to create the Parkway in 1938 and construction began in 1939. Today, the Natchez Trace is 444 miles long and begins (or ends, depending on how you look at it) in Natchez. It’s designated as an All-American Road commemorating the Old Natchez Trace.
One thing I’ve come to love, and hate, about the Trace are those pesky mile markers. They start in Natchez at zero. On a good day, when your legs are strong and the wind is at your back, they’re awesome and seem to fly by, but on a bad day, it seems that they’re just mocking you. But, they are a great way to tell how far you’ve gone, how far you have to go, where the historic sites are and how far it is until the next water stop.
There are many historic and scenic sites along the Trace and the section between Natchez and Jackson is no exception.
Emerald Mound, located at milepost 10, is the second largest Mississippian period ceremonial mound in the United States and the largest mound along the Trace. It provides a glimpse into the lives of the ancient people who lived along the trail. The mound covers nearly eight acres and was used for about 350 years by prehistoric Native Americans, precursors to the Natchez Indians.
Mount Locust, at about milepost 15.5, is the last remaining inn (called a “stand”) on the Trace. This station is open year round, except on Christmas, and rangers are available from 9:00 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. Mount Locust provides a glimpse into what those traveling the Trace might have experienced at road side stands.
The Sunken Trace, at milepost 41.5, is one of the most photographed sites along the Parkway. The trail appears to be sunken several feet in this spot, the result of erosion caused by the thousands of travelers navigating this path throughout the centuries. Hiking here you can easily imagine what it was like to walk this route hundreds of years ago.
A half-mile walk from milepost 54.8 brings you to the abandoned town of Rocky Springs (and a picnic area with restrooms and a campground). Rocky Springs was first settled in the late 1790s and grew from a place travelers would stop for water, taking its name for the water’s source. In 1860, the town had about 2,600 people. The Civil War, yellow fever, destructive crop insects and poor land management killed the community. Today, all that remains intact is the Methodist church. You can hike a short loop trail to see remnants of the town.
There are many places to stop and sit in the shade, let your legs rest a little and refill your water bottles. The Park Service has water available at miles 15.5, 17.5, 54.8 and 89; but there are also many other places to pull off and refill, or visit a convenience store and get a cold drink. Miles 8, 30.4, 37.7, 79, 87, 89 and 93.2 offer those.
Biking this leg of the Trace is a grand adventure, which offers great riding and beautiful scenery by day, and numerous options for historic accommodations and delectable dining at night.
So what are you waiting for? There’s really no excuse. The Trace is one of the most beautiful cycling routes in the country and it’s right here in our own backyard. Just get on your bike and experience the ride that people from around the world only dream about.
Top 10 reasons why the Natchez Trace Parkway is an excellent bike route:
1. National Park Service designates the entire parkway as a bike route. Numerous signs instruct cars to share the road with bicycles.
2. Commercial traffic is prohibited.
3. Maximum speed limit for cars is 50 mph.
4. Motorized traffic is generally very light except around Tupelo and Jackson.
5. No stop signs or stop lights. Access on and off the Trace is via on/off ramps which means no need to worry about cross traffic.
6. Scenery is awesome. Instead of utility poles and buildings, the Trace is lined with forests, farmland, creeks and beautiful vistas.
7. All along the Trace through Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee, historical and nature attractions offer interesting breaks and rest stops.
8. Restroom facilities on the Trace are available about every twenty miles.
9. Numerous side trails take you past Antebellum and Victorian homes, sunken roads, civil war battlefields and southern towns.
10. There are many “cycling friendly” bed and breakfasts located along and near the Trace.
For more information about the Natchez Trace Parkway visit www.nps.gov/natr/.