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- Maps and Driving Tools: Over 20 easy-to-use maps keep you oriented on and off the parkway, along with site-to-site mileage, driving times, and detailed directions for the entire route
- Get to Know the Music of the South: Catch up-and-coming musicians play at quaint cafes, and hit the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. Bask in the sounds of blues on Beale Street, and pay homage to "The King" at Graceland. Listen to a soulful live jazz group, or learn about the South's musical legacy on the Mississippi Blues Trail
- Savor Southern Food: Enjoy authentic hot chicken, get your barbecue fix in Memphis, and indulge in Creole cuisine and fresh beignets in New Orleans
- Itineraries for Every Traveler: Drive the entire two-week route or follow suggestions for spending time in and around Nashville, Memphis, and New Orleans. Take an introspective moment at influential Civil Rights Movement sites, hike past dramatic waterfalls, spend a peaceful morning fishing, or bike along the Mississippi River
- Local Expertise: Nashville local Margaret Littman shares her love for the Natchez Trace
- Planning Your Trip: Know when and where to get gas, how to avoid traffic, and tips for driving in different road and weather conditions, plus essential advice for biking the route and suggestions for LGBTQ+ travelers, families, seniors, and visitors with disabilities
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DISCOVER the Nashville to New Orleans Road Trip
10 TOP EXPERIENCES
PLANNING YOUR TRIP
Preparing to Bike the Trace
If You’re Looking For…
HIT THE ROAD
Best of Southern Cuisine
With Less Time
Connecting some of the most iconic cities in the American South, these paths trace the very root of the American experience. Travel from Nashville, where country music came into its own, or Memphis, birthplace of the blues, to New Orleans, home of that Dixieland jazz, and you’ll better understand not only the nation’s musical legacy, but also its creation and expansion.
Your road trip starts in Nashville with the Grand Ole Opry, a radio show that brought country music to the masses. It also boasts a rich civil rights legacy, and a reputation as a cosmopolitan city with world-class food and entertainment.
You’ll end in boisterous New Orleans, where jazz is perhaps the loudest sound in a heady mix of blues, rock, soul, zydeco, and Cajun music. It’s also a place where gardens bloom, streetcars run, and beignets make everything sweeter.
Connecting these cities is the Natchez Trace Parkway, a verdant landscape rich in history and lore. Along this route your pace will slow as the sounds of raucous music give way to the melodies of birds and the rustling of leaves and grass. Follow in the footsteps of Native Americans, Civil War soldiers, and thousands of others who helped to mold this region into its current form. Continue back north to Memphis through the Mississippi Delta and lose yourself in barbecue and blues.
This journey is an outdoor adventure, a concert on wheels, a history lesson, and a culinary quest. Start it with a biscuit and a country tune and end with a beignet and a sax riff.
10 TOP EXPERIENCES
1 Listen to Live Music: Country at the world-famous Grand Ole Opry in Nashville? Blues at Memphis’s Juke Joints? Jazz at Preservation Hall in New Orleans? Whatever sound you like, you can—and should—hear it on this trip.
2 Let the Good Times Roll: Mardi Gras in New Orleans is something you shouldn’t miss. But if you can’t make it before Lent begins, you have a year-round opportunity at Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World.
3 Get Lit: From Eudora Welty to Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner, literary legends have deep roots in the region.
4 Eat like a Local: Nashville’s hot chicken, Memphis’s barbecue, Mississippi Delta’s tamales, and New Orleans’ Cajun and Creole cuisine are just some of the unforgettable foodie fun.
5 Honor the Civil Rights Movement: Learn about the fight for equality that continues to shape the South at the Civil Rights Room at the Nashville Public Library, the Medgar Evers Home Museum National Monument, the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, and the National Civil Rights Museum.
6 See Mississippi River Views: Enjoy the sky’s color show over the water in Memphis —or anywhere along the Mississippi Delta.
7 Raise a Glass: There’s no shortage of options: wine along the Natchez Trace, craft beer in Memphis, and legendary cocktails at Cathead Distillery, to name a few.
8 Learn Civil War History: Stories of the traumatic conflict that changed the Nation are told at Fort Negley, and Vicksburg and Shiloh military parks.
9 Get Artsy: Pick up a pre-made concert poster or make one at Hatch Show Print. Join a class taught by a Mississippi expert at the Bill Waller Mississippi Craft Center, or admire masterpieces in New Orleans.
10 Take a Hike: You may just want to stretch your legs or enjoy the scenery, but you’ll discover that even the trails are full of stories.
PLANNING YOUR TRIP
Where to Go
This drive along the Natchez Trace Parkway originates in Nashville, crosses through Tennessee, cuts across the northwest corner of Alabama, and then traverses much of Mississippi before ending in Natchez. From there, you’re just a short drive from New Orleans.
Nashville is the epicenter of country music. It’s home to the Grand Ole Opry, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, and hundreds of recording studios. It’s the place where thousands of musicians and songwriters come to make it, and the city’s nightlife is all the richer for it. Fine arts and a contemporary culinary scene appeal to sophisticates, while museums, historical sites, and the unusual Tennessee State Capitol recall the city’s history.
The Trace: Tennessee
This is where your drive starts: at the northern terminus of the Natchez Trace Parkway. This northernmost stretch features rolling hills, secluded hikes, and significant historic sites, including the somber and reverential Meriwether Lewis Monument and Gravesite. Close to the parkway are quaint suburbs and towns, including Franklin and Leiper’s Fork, where you can visit Civil War sites and spot country music celebrities.
The Trace: Alabama
The shortest section of the Natchez Trace Parkway covers just the tiny northwest corner of Alabama but contains tons of history. Contemplate the somber Wichahpi Commemorative Stone Wall, an homage to the Trail of Tears. Close to the Trace, the Shoals region is home to Muscle Shoals, an important part of music history, and Florence, which is a charming epicenter of fashion and design.
The Trace: Northern Mississippi
This part of the state is known as “the hills” of Mississippi. And along this winding stretch of the parkway, you’ll find scenic views and opportunities for camping, hiking, and bicycling. This section ends in Tupelo, birthplace of the King of Rock ’n’ Roll, Elvis Presley. The Natchez Trace Parkway Headquarters and Visitor Center is the essential stopping point for information about the Natchez Trace.
Memphis and the Mississippi Blues Trail
This route starts in Memphis, Tennessee, and winds south for 170 miles into the Mississippi Delta. The blues were born in Memphis, and they still call Memphis home in nightclubs on Beale Street and around the city. But Memphis is more than music. It’s an urban center with fine dining, parks, and art museums. Watch the resident ducks at The Peabody Memphis or fuel up with a plate of barbecue.
Drive through the Mississippi Delta to explore the roots of American music and listen to the blues in juke joints. Visit small towns that are home to big history, like Clarksdale, Cleveland, and Greenwood.
The Trace: Central Mississippi
Through farmland and past Indian mounds, the Natchez Trace Parkway is a leisurely, easy drive in this section of the Magnolia State. Exit the parkway for two of the state’s academic and tourism treasures: Oxford and Starkville. Plan leisurely stops to stroll these quintessential college towns.
The Trace: Southern Mississippi
The southernmost stretch of the parkway is bookended by two of the state’s most significant cities—the capital city of Jackson and historic Natchez, the southern terminus of the Trace. This is an opportunity to explore civil rights sites, Civil War battlefields, and antebellum homes and gardens.
New Orleans is unlike any other city, steeped as it is in many unique cultures. Its reputation of being a party place is accurate, but it’s also home to beautiful architecture, museums, gardens, and, of course, tempting Cajun and Creole food. Louisiana capital Baton Rouge has some of NOLA’s similar charms, but also its own traditions, institutions, and a mammoth campus.
When to Go
The Natchez Trace Parkway is compelling year-round. Visitors are steady throughout the year, with July and October slightly more popular times to travel the road. Spring is the most desirable time to visit. Colorful wildflowers will be in bloom, making overlooks and hikes stunning, but greenery won’t yet block vistas, as happens in summer. In spring the days will be long enough to get miles and stops in on the Trace before sunset, but summer’s crowds won’t yet be nabbing campground spaces. Spring weather is temperate, not the oppressive heat of summer.
Summer is the peak travel season for Nashville and Memphis, when crowds and temperatures are at their highest. It’s also when some of the biggest music festivals and events are going on. In New Orleans, summer is the least crowded time to visit; hurricane season is June-September.
Fall is also popular; the parkway is one of the best places in the South to see the leaves change. Stark white cotton bolls in bloom are a breathtaking contrast to the rich yellows and golds on the trees. Fall is a good time to explore Nashville, Memphis, and New Orleans, as the temperatures are cooler and the crowds have dispersed.
Winter is generally low season for this region—except in New Orleans, when people flock to the city for Mardi Gras and temperate weather. The Trace is rarely troubled by inclement weather, as the region sees little snow.
Before You Go
Fly into Nashville International Airport and out of New Orleans’s Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport. Memphis, Jackson, and Huntsville and Birmingham, Alabama, are other nearby cities that are good alternatives for those who want to do just a portion of the drive.
Pack light, particularly if you want to see the Natchez Trace by bicycle, motorcycle, or on horseback. Take hiking boots and sunscreen for exploring the Trace’s many scenic pleasures, and tents and sleeping bags if you plan to camp.
If you’re planning to stop over in the cities on this route, make advance reservations. Nashville sees demand spike during the summer music festival season. Football games in the Mississippi college towns of Oxford and Starkville make fall a tough time to find a hotel room. Everyone wants a New Orleans hotel during Mardi Gras (February or March) and Jazz Fest (April or May). Natchez is almost exclusively a B&B town, and these small inns are often booked in advance during the town’s Spring and Fall Pilgrimage.
Most B&Bs along the Trace accommodate bicycle travelers. Call ahead to confirm there are safe spaces to store your gear.
Investigating Our Shared History
People who take road trips down the Natchez Trace Parkway and the Blues Highway tend to be people who like to learn about history. Every turn in the road is an opportunity to learn about those who came before—but much of that history is not pretty. This land has been the ground for cruelty against Native Americans who were forced from their ancestral homes. It was the battlefield for much of the bloodiest combat of the U.S. Civil War. Year after year, the atrocities of enslavement were perpetuated—and racism persists despite the continuing fight for Civil Rights.
Travel provides us with important opportunities to learn more about our neighbors and our nation. We encourage you to travel with an open mind, to allow yourself to feel uncomfortable when you encounter darkness in our shared history, and to continue to talk about what you see and learn along the way. Great care was taken to include sites that accurately and sensitively represent U.S. History. Sites that focus solely on nostalgia or misrepresent experiences of Native Americans and Black Americans have been omitted. Many sites are re-examining the ways in which they present this material and may update tours and museum exhibits as time goes on. Ultimately it’s up to you to determine if particular sites are appropriate to visit.
The Natchez Trace Parkway is a scenic 444-mile paved road managed by the National Park Service. The entire parkway is well marked with brown mile markers on the east side of the road. Crossroads are also marked, and there are signs at intersections letting you know how many miles to the next major city. It is very difficult to get lost on the Trace if you pay attention. Some of the stops have maps posted in their parking areas as well.
There are virtually no commercial stops on the route. That means you must exit the parkway at major crossroads to get gas. Some of the stops on the parkway have restrooms and vending machines, and there are three official campgrounds on the Trace, but for the most part, you’ll need to exit for restaurants and accommodations as well.
Many people travel the Trace on bicycle. If you are in a car, you must allow at least three feet for cyclists when passing. You should pass in the opposite lane (when safe) when there are bicyclists present.
Cell phone reception can be spotty on much of the parkway, though generally reliable in the cities. Most hotels, even small B&Bs, have Wi-Fi, making it possible to connect on the road.
Drought and soil conditions can cause what the Park Service calls “severe cracking and movement of the parkway motor road surface” in Mississippi. In a car, you may not notice these conditions, but on motorcycle or bicycle you may encounter a high number of potholes.
It’s rare for roads to be closed for inclement weather. Pay attention to alerts on this route for snow, tornadoes (during extreme temperature changes), dense fog, and flash floods; check with park rangers (662/680-4025) to get updated weather forecasts. They will also know about any unexpected road closures due to construction. That information is also posted on the parkway website (www.nps.gov/natr). Note that the Trace is a two-lane road with frequent pullouts. If a bridge or road is closed due to an accident, patience will be required. If a road is blocked due to an accident, you have to wait for it to clear or backtrack and find a detour.
HIT THE ROAD
The 12-Day Nashville to New Orleans Road Trip
With just under two weeks, you can wind your way from one epic music and food city to the next. The total drive is 620 miles; 444 of these curve down the National Park Service’s Natchez Trace Parkway. You’ll hear everything from country to Creole; visit the birthplace of the King and places where civil rights stood proud.
The trip will take longer on two wheels or horseback, and the Natchez Trace is well-suited for such modes of transport. Check out the Essentials chapter for more specifics on planning such a journey.
The parkway mileposts are numbered from south to north, so it’s easy to start your trip in New Orleans and follow this guide in reverse to end your journey in Nashville. Either way, your trip is bookended by good food and music. If you have more time, it is easy to add in the Mississippi Delta and Memphis and loop back to Nashville.
Days 1-2: Nashville
Spend your first two days in Nashville (see details and suggestions.
Day 3: Tennessee
NASHVILLE TO ALABAMA BORDER
(120 MI/194 KM)
Up and at ’em! Fuel up both yourself and your car with biscuits from Loveless Cafe and gasoline from a nearby station. Your first stop on the Natchez Trace Parkway is a prime photo spot: the Double Arch Bridge.
If you’re up for exiting the scenic parkway, you have several good options for food, drink, and entertainment in Franklin, Leiper’s Fork, and Columbia, which is where you’ll find the President James K. Polk Home & Museum. Other highlights include the Franklin Theatre. While in Franklin, you can visit Carnton and learn some Civil War history.
Along the Trace itself you should stop at the Meriwether Lewis Monument and Gravesite, which is a somber memorial to a man who helped the country expand. This is also where to camp for the night before crossing into Alabama.
Day 4: Alabama
ALABAMA BORDER TO MISSISSIPPI BORDER
(30 MI/48 KM)
You’ll be covering fewer miles on the Trace today but plenty of territory when it comes to Native American, music, and military history. Stop at the Wichahpi Commemorative Stone Wall and learn about the Trail of Tears.
Take a side trip to The Shoals region, where the namesake cities of Muscle Shoals, Florence, Sheffield, and Tuscumbia offer myriad opportunities. Muscle Shoals is home to important music sites like Muscle Shoals Sound Studio and FAME Studios. Shop for unique clothing items or souvenirs in Florence, then tuck in for the night.
Day 5: Northern Mississippi
MISSISSIPPI BORDER TO TUPELO
(45 MI/73 KM)
Don’t forget to get gas before heading back to the Trace. Next you’ll head south on the Trace, bound for Tupelo, stopping at Bear Creek Mound and Pharr Mounds on the way.
Once you arrive in Tupelo, sample the blueberry doughnuts at Connie’s Fried Chicken, and then head to the Elvis Presley Birthplace, where you’ll honor the King’s legacy and learn how he got to be who he was. Catch live music at the Blue Canoe, then head back to your hotel so you can be rested and ready to go in the morning.
- On Sale
- Mar 23, 2021
- Page Count
- 456 pages
- Moon Travel