What is the Natchez Trace Parkway?
Good question. I’ve wondered the same thing myself and heard wildly different descriptions of the “444-mile recreational road and scenic drive through three states” according to the National Park System website.
After biking the 476-mile Blue Ridge Parkway in 2017, this route brought some natural intrigue. A few years of “one of these days” chatter, I finally got the chance to bike the parkway from end-to-end over 4 days last month. It was everything and nothing that I expected all wrapped up into one. I wouldn’t do it again. Let me explain.
Let’s back up and start with the ride itself. Like other National Park unit scenic drives, the Natchez Trace Parkway does not allow commercial vehicles, has zero stop lights, maintains reduced speed limits and are a road cyclist’s dream for mile upon mile.
Lance Kinerk, Brien Boswell, Jeff Meier, Jeff Wise (also see “Bikepacking the Huracan 300 Route”), and myself were the last suckers standing for this venture after a slew of group texts. Someone also tricked Jenn Velie, another former co-worker, into joining the rolling circus and driving the sag wagon which massively eased the logistics of the trip and assuredly allowed for a more “efficient” pace throughout.
We left from Lance’s house in Nashville in 40-degree weather to casually take the “scenic route” to the Northern Terminus of the parkway.
The casual “scenic route” involved gaining 1300ft of elevation over 17-miles of “burst out of the gate” style riding while battling AM rush hour traffic, pace-lining the stunning Belle Meade neighborhood and climbing/descending through the 3000+ acre Warner Parks. With the entrance of the parkway in site, we couldn’t pass up a few orders of homemade steaming biscuits at historic Loveless Café.
Once we hit the parkway on-ramp and experienced a drastic drop in vehicle traffic, the excitement and pace escalated again. We immediately transformed into a new world of undulations and winding turns lined with hardwood trees, beautiful wildflowers, and historically significant sites every few miles. As if straight out of the brochure, we saw a family of deer meander across the parkway 15 yards in front of us, quickly posed at the entrance sign and rode across the famed, and most photographed location on the parkway, double-arched bridge, all within the first 5 miles. This was going to be pretty cool.
With this idyllic start, you’re now wondering why I began this Journal Entry with “I wouldn’t do it again”. Turns out, that statement isn’t entirely true. I would do it again. I would just tweak the trip a bit the next time around since there is so much to offer through the route.
As is typical with our hyper busy lifestyles, commitments, and responsibilities, it’s often hard to get away for multi-day trips. Tack on a few travel days on the front and back, and you’re starting to push the proverbial limits for many.
The goal of this trip was to complete the entire route in 4 days which translates to an average of 120+ miles a day (factoring extra mileage to/from the parkway itself). This schedule required a speedy and sustained riding pace and didn’t allow much of an opportunity to take in the massive amount of history that is bursting from this route. History that I admittedly wasn’t fully aware of before setting out on this trip.
To be clear, and I think everyone else on the trip would agree, our experience was absolutely incredible from start to finish. I wouldn’t take it back for a second. Endless smiles, laughs, inside jokes, conversations, and connections where exchanged. These types of trips lend themselves to forming a unique camaraderie when that much time and effort is shared. I owe everyone on that trip another heartfelt “Thank You” for the shared experience. (I also did minimal “pulling” on the front of the paceline throughout, so I owe them for that as well!)
It’s now been a few weeks since our trip and I’ve been intrigued and driven to further understand the historical significance of the Natchez Trace. We weren’t able to fully embrace the history during our style of ride, but here is a quick overview that I have been able to learn post-ride.
Large game grazers, like bison and deer were the first footprints that began stomping a pathway through the natural curvature ridgelines of the region. Unsurprisingly, the indigenous people further cultivated and established this route as a means of hunting and trading amongst their nations, mainly the Native American Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes thousands of years before the first European settler first experienced this trading route in 1742.
The early 1800’s saw The Natchez Trace serve as the primary corridor for commerce and transportation from the American East to the South and Gulf Coast and back. In 1810 alone, it is documented that at least 10,000 “Kaintucks” (boatmen) navigated down the Mississippi River in flatboats to deliver and sell a wide variety of supplies and goods in Natchez, MS and New Orleans, LA. Once they sold their supplies, including the wood from their own boats, they would then begin their return trip to Nashville and beyond via The Natchez Trace Trail.
Due to the ruggedness and remoteness of the land along the route, Inns or “Stands” were established to provide much needed provisions and reprieve for the travelers which provided yet another new sub-industry of The Old Trace. We rode by many of these "stands" and sites each day. Merriweather Lewis (of Lewis and Clark fame) famously and mysteriously died at a Grinder’s Stand in Tennessee while traveling the Trace in 1809.
With widespread adoption of the steamboat which afforded travel back up the Mississippi River and with further development of other towns and commercial hubs beyond the route, The Old Trace saw a significant decline in usership and relevance in the second half of the 1800’s.
Even with a decline in active use, the impact on American History cannot be denied. The National Park Service established the route as a NPS unit in 1934 to and finished connecting the multitude of segments of the route into one uniform parkway as recent as 2005.
You might also be surprised to know a few other nuggets of info:
My point to all this? The Natchez Trace Parkway offered us an unbelievable cycling experience that we enjoyed at an 18 MPH average pace over 27 hours of aggressive pedaling but it also sparked an internal fire for me to learn, understand, and appreciate how this “scenic drive” (and other recreational options) has much more to offer us in understanding American History.
The answer to my original question: The Natchez Trace Parkway is a lot of things to a lot of people. Everyone can find their own way to experience it. There is plenty to go around.
Regardless of where you live, do some research to learn about the historical relevance of a national, state, or local park, the “scenic drive” or state trail that you’ve always wanted to check out, or the river that runs through your area. There are untold stories that are waiting to be shared and experienced both mentally and physically. Find what works for you and go.
Sorry I lied to you. I would definitely do the trip again. Maybe I’ll fire up the “one of these days” chatter again and put it on different type of bucket list.
Journal - What is the Natchez Trace Parkway?
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Human Powered Journal
Writings and musings of an active lifestyle
Adam Bratton is the Founder and Head Enabler at Human Powered Movement.
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