My wife and I took our annual trip the other day and enjoyed it as much, if not more, than our past trips. On every trip down the Trace we discover something different, learn something new about the centuries-old trail and its travel back through time.
The Natchez Trace Parkway is a 440-mile two-lane road stretching from Natchez, Miss., to Highway 100 a few miles west of Nashville, cutting through a sliver of south Alabama in the process.
Designated a national park in 1938, the modern Parkway follows the route of the original Trace, sections of which are preserved and open to foot travel.
It is an almost mystical experience to hike along a stretch of the narrow Trace, worn four or five feet deep in places, and realize you are treading in the exact footsteps of Indians, pioneers, soldiers of Andrew Jackson’s militia, highwaymen and other frontier settlers and adventurers who wrote the early chapters of Tennessee history.
The Trace began as a travel rout for buffalo and other large migrating animals some 10,000 years ago. Various Southeastern Indian tribes used the trail as an early-day interstate, giving the trail the Indian term “trace.”
The first recorded European explorer traveled the Trace in 1742. Frontiersmen from Kentucky and Tennessee floated trade goods down-river to New Orleans, then followed the Trace home on foot. Some didn’t make it, waylaid by outlaws and highwaymen that gave the Trace a reputation for dangerous travel. (Most of the Indians were non-hostile, and some assisted the settlers along the way.)
Regiments of Andrew Jackson’s troops marched along the Trace on their way to New Orleans during the War of 1812, led by Old Hickory himself. Monuments mark the lonely graves of many who died from wounds and illness on the trip.
The Trace’s most famous traveler was Meriwether Lewis of Lewis & Clark fame. He was traveling the Trace in October, 1809 when he stopped for the night at an inn near present-day Hohenwald. Sometime during the night he was fatally shot; historians debate whether it was murder or suicide.
The stone foundation of the inn remains today, along with a replica of the log structure. Lewis is buried in an adjacent Pioneer Cemetery. The stretch of the Trace on which Lewis trod his fateful final steps leading to the inn is preserved and can be walked.
There is no charge for traveling the Trace or for using the picnic areas and rest stops along the way. Restrooms and water are available at the rest stops, but there are no restaurants, gas stations or motels on the Trace. Travelers can consult a map for facilities located at various exits along the way.
Depending on the pace you set and how many stops you choose to make, you could spend a week traveling the entire Trace. Or you can make an easy day trip by traveling a section of it.
Portions of the Trace are heavily used by cyclists who have the same right-of-way as motorists. Also, deer and turkeys wander across the road, oblivious to traffic.
Most of the Trace has a 50 MPH speed limit, dropping to 40 near the Nashville trailhead. But the point of traveling the Trace is not to go fast – just the opposite.
Slow down, savor the scenery, and allow centuries of Tennessee history to sink in.
Larry Woody is The Democrat’s outdoors writer.