Biking Through Nature, Past and Present: The Natchez Trace

Like plants and animals which adapt to their environment over time, how we travel has also evolved in response to changing circumstances.   I recently learned this first-hand on a spring bike trip in Mississippi.

The Natchez Trace is an ancient route that angles northeast from the lower Mississippi River to the rich farmlands of central Tennessee.  Historically, native Americans followed the paths, or traces, created by bison who wandered from the plains to salt licks in the Appalachians.  With European exploration and settlement, these footpaths consolidated into an important transportation route.  In the early 19th century, before the development of steamboats, Kentuckians and others would float farm goods down the Ohio and Mississippi River for sale, along with the wood used to make their flatboats.  They would return home, with their proceeds, on foot along the Natchez Trace.

The use of the Trace diversified with the War of 1812, as some of Andrew Jackson’s troops travelled overland on foot to face the British in New Orleans.  Through its early history the trail served traders and innkeepers, preachers and proselytizers, and highwaymen and criminals.  By the end of the 19th century, the trail fell into disuse as first steamboats and then railroads became the preferred transportation system of the region.

The National Park Service helped revive the Natchez Trace as a Parkway in the 1930s, after a long campaign by history advocates, road boosters, and local congressmen.  The road was a Civilian Conservation Corps project to help move the South out of the depression, but World War II, limits on federal appropriations, and the rise of the interstate highway system delayed its completion, with the final segments not built until 2005

Today, the Natchez Trace Parkway runs for 444 miles from Natchez, Mississippi to just outside Nashville, Tennessee. The National Park Service maintains a number of historic sites, campgrounds, and visitor centers along its route.  Designed for leisurely driving, the speed limit is set at 50 miles per hour, access points are limited, and commercial truck traffic is prohibited.  It makes for one of the nicest bicycle trips I have ever taken on a road designed for automobile transportation.  And on the one occasion of an equipment failure beyond our abilities to repair, a Park Service ranger soon arrived to lend assistance.

Bicycling in Nature is a special way to experience the out-of-doors.  One travels faster than by walking, but still the environment is fully present in sight, sound, and smell (read more here about my thoughts on the environmental joys and spiritual benefits of biking).  The Natchez Trace in April was warm, the trees were leafing out, and the dogwood were in bloom.  Reptiles came out of hibernation, and snakes and turtles were on the move; we helped some, but sadly not all, cross the pavement.

Because of its development as a Parkway, the amount of structures on the route is quite limited and we enjoyed peaceful pedals through mature hardwood forests, took in park-like open spaces, and enjoyed a short walk through a flooded cypress and tupelo forest.  The regulated traffic and considerate drivers made it a pleasant trip, except for the morning we rode in a heavy rain.  There are quiet pull-offs with historical and natural interpretative signs, but being initially designed for motor traffic, the length between water and bathroom facilities is a bit longer than ideal for this two-wheeled traveller.

The Towns and History of Mississippi are linked by the Trace, and we enjoyed staying in bed & breakfast facilities in Natchez (where we started), Port Gibson, Kosciusko, and Houston (just south of Tupelo).  These evening stops gave us a first hand look at the beautiful mansions of the past, as well as the economic struggles of the present, neither of which are visible on the Parkway.  In suburban Jackson, we stayed the night in new town Ridgeland, where recently developed bike trails made negotiating modern traffic a bit easier (except for a scary traffic circle where the designated bike lane disappeared).  A shuttle service facilitated the trip, and we only had to carry a few clothes, some snacks for lunch, and water.  All in all, the trip was just the right combination of natural attractions and human comforts.

Parkways are a short branch on the evolutionary tree of transportation.  The first parkway, a term which now applies to any landscaped thoroughfare, predates automobiles.  Frederick Law Olmstead, the designer of Central Park, developed a parkway in the late 19th century in Brooklyn to segregate pedestrians, bicyclists, and horse carriages from one another as well as create a tree-lined linkage between public parks.  In 1908, William K. Vanderbilt, an early automobile enthusiast, constructed a limited access parkway with overpasses on Long Island that was conducive both to pleasure trips and auto races (until they were banned following several fatal accidents).  Portions of both of these early parkways still exist, and have in places now been converted to bicycle trails.

Parkways enjoyed their greatest popularity in the 1920s and 1930s as an urban planning tool and as a forced marriage between cars and parks.  However, after World War II, the increased speed and popularity of automobiles, the rise in commercial traffic, and the development of the freeway ended the segregation of cars and trucks.  Pedestrians and bicycle were either banished or forgotten as a transportation mode for several decades.

Fortunately, bicycling has enjoyed a resurgence in the last few years as Americans become more conscious of their own health and the health of the environment.  The use of bikes for both recreation and utilitarian transportation has been aided by the repaving of old railroad right-of-ways and by the creation of bike lanes on urban streets.  We were pleased to discover a rails-to-trails conversion on our trip:  The 44-mile Tanglefoot Trail with a terminus in Houston, Mississsippi.  These segregated bikeways are now the safest and most enjoyable ways to experience nature on a bicycle, but the Natchez Parkway offers a wonderful trip through history and a wonderful experience in the evolution of transportation.

If you go:  
Start your planning with the help of the National Park Service and the Natchez Trace Compact

We are able to book bed & breakfast lodging, and get helpful tips from

The entertaining and helpful Karla Brown provided our shuttle service

Great bike repair is available in Ridgeland, Mississippi at The Bike Crossing (thank you!)

If you are looking for good Rails-to-Trails for biking throughout the US, go to TrailLink

A word on safety: the traffic was light and drivers considerate on our trip, but there is always the danger of drivers who are inattentive due to sleepiness, substance abuse, or in-car distractions.  We wore highly visible colors, had reflective equipment and outfitted our bikes with bright flashing lights in front and back.

Thank you to the kind people of Mississippi for their hospitality, the staff of the National Park Service for their help, and Anna for the photos

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