These last eight years living in Tennessee have been spent catching up on all the Southern travels I overlooked when growing up. It’s true that often you don’t appreciate what’s in your backyard—until you leave, circumnavigate the globe and come home again, that is. Natchez Trace Parkway was always this tourism giant that loomed large over our region, starting not far north of where I grew up, right west of Nashville.
To me, it sounded like this mystical pathway that was traveled by the ghosts of legends in centuries’ past, and it held so much intrigue for SVV and me. So no one was more excited than us when we got the opportunity to kick off a year traveling this celebrated trail by soaking up the colors of fall on the Natchez Trace Parkway.
About the Natchez Trace Parkway
It’s easy to forget that migration pathways are primarily based on the organic flow of life. It’s no mistake that our roads cut along mountain ranges, skirt adjacent to rivers or follow the natural slopes of geological sculpting. The corridors that we travel on a daily basis are etched with the shadows of what came before, and the Natchez Trace is no different. Prehistoric times found the land along the spine of the south and east of this country shaped by herds of bison, elk and native peoples, themselves beholden to the whims of Mother Nature and the changing seasons. Food availability—before fast food, grocery stores and on-demand shipping—was a critical metric of where you could survive and whether you could stay put.
The 444 miles of trail that is preserved for posterity by the National Park Service has since been replaced with more direct routes between major hub cities, but the traces of history—and the vibe of the land itself—are reflected along its winding roads.
Comprising a contiguous piece of territory in Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi, the Natchez Trace Parkway is jam-packed with informational markers, hiking trails and cool cities that span the ages of these contested lands. Native Americans fought over it; the French, English and Spanish fought over it; and, finally, in a fit of expansionism, a bit of double-dealing and some truly terrible chapters from the history of our government, the United States acquired ownership of its entirety by removing the Cherokee, Chickasaw and Choctaw—among other original peoples—to the state of Oklahoma along the infamous Trail of Tears.
Starting the Trace in North Alabama
The most overwhelming thing about the Trace is perhaps the fact that it spans 444 miles, from the north terminus just outside of Nashville down south to Natchez, Mississippi—but don’t be intimidated. Chances are you’re within a few hours’ drive of portions of it, and these sections are easily conquered with a little bit of gasoline, a map and some walking shoes. In fact, at the end of our year exploration of the Trace, we’ll be breaking down itineraries by length: for those with just a weekend, travelers who can tackle it over a week, and those with more time to spare and explore at leisure. In the past, I’ve spent time in the Shoals with SVV and also my family, as well as visited the point where the Natchez Trace Parkway crosses over Franklin many times—but I’ve never actually driven the road itself for more than a few miles at a time.
photo by Matthew Maxey
Experiential travel along this breathtaking byway includes: Civil War history, Native American culture, craft beer, culinary adventures, musical explorations and, of course, scenery for days. We’ve been mapping out our long-term, deep exploration of the Natchez Trace over the past few months and decided our first trip would be three days tackling the North Alabama portion in the height of fall colors when the leaves begin to explode like a Renoir painting. This, of course, varies by season, and nowadays peak foliage tends to hit this area of the South more around early November, so the timing is right at this very moment if you’re nearby! The entire Natchez Trace Parkway in fall is a gorgeous sight to behold, but we were excited to hit North Alabama just as the leaves were turning tinges of red, orange and gold.
What to do in North Alabama + Tishomingo
We drove from our home south of Nashville and hopped on the trail right at the Tennessee-Alabama border just beyond Cypress Inn (which is the actual name of the town, FYI, and no “inn” exists there). From here, we kept our eye out for historical markers and directional signage as we cruised down the parkway into the heart of Dixie.
The Shoals is most notable and famous for its musical roots that literally defined the sound of multiple generations and comprises the towns of Sheffield, Florence, Tuscumbia and Muscle Shoals along one of the prettiest sections of the Tennessee River. We’ve delved into the storied studios of the Shoals in the past and suggest anyone passing through take time to visit Fame, Muscle Shoals Sound and Cypress Studios. For a full look at Florence’s musical attractions, check out this local website, and if you’re touring through the entire region in search of Americana, a trifecta of destinations pass through New Orleans, Memphis and Nashville, conveniently connected by the Natchez Trace Parkway.
We also love these parks, hikes, and attractions between Tennessee and North Alabama and highly recommend you put them on your Trace itinerary:
Rock Springs Nature Trail
I’m not going to lie, beavers are on my bucket list. While we have the land-based version, the woodchuck, guarding over our Victorian, I’ve yet to see the water-based iteration of this creature in the wild. As integral as this svelte, pelted rodent has been to the history of our continent, it only makes sense that we snap some photos with one. Along with buffalo, it’s arguable that the furs harvested during the formative years of European expansion were at the forefront of settlers minds as they pushed into the frontier and shouldered aside the inhabitants. Rock Springs has the luxury of being protected land now, and while we didn’t spy a beaver this time, their mark was everywhere: via piles of sticks and trees, flooded marshland and a pure habitat teeming with migratory birds and water foliage. The walk is an easy one around the largest pond, looping back in less than a mile, and has explanatory signs about the ecosystem of the area every few hundred yards.
Tishomingo State Park
After we passed Colbert Ferry, we were almost to Mississippi, so we went just a tad bit further and found ourselves immersed in a state-run park that straddles the Natchez Trace. Set in pristine land that rolls up and down as this area of the country is wont to do, the park is brimming with outdoor activities like hiking, kayaking, disc golf, rock climbing and camping, to name a few. Sixty-two RV campsites, 17 primitive camping areas, and multiple pavilions and washrooms round out the sprawling outdoor areas available for overnighters. Online booking is available here while day-use entry can be paid at the gate ($4 per vehicle).
Helen Keller’s Birth Place
Beyond music, this area of North Alabama is widely known as birthing one of the South’s most gifted authors: Helen Keller. Ivy Green, also known as Helen Keller’s Birth Place in Tuscumbia, belonged to the family since the mid-1800s. For those who grew up learning of Keller’s legacy, you’ll see so many familiar sights: from where tutor Anne Sullivan taught Helen to associate touch with words to where the infamous food fight happened.
I’d heard about Dismals Canyon for eons, but never had a chance to visit. While it’s a National Natural Landmark a bit off the Natchez Trace, it’s worth the detour for the plunging, canyon-like terrain and rainforest atmosphere, filled with waterfalls, mossy rocks and—crazily enough—glowworms in caves. This bioluminescent dipteran uses a naturally spun lantern to attract its prey. Viewing is good from spring through early fall and only happens at night.
In addition to these state parks along the way, the Natchez Trace Parkway is a haven for bicycle enthusiasts. The federal park police patrol the entire 444-mile stretch of smoothly paved road and are quite strict about speed limits and buffer zones around those on two wheels. In fact, the national park has designated bicycle-only campgrounds that are spaced at comfortable intervals throughout the length. SVV drove a support vehicle for a cycling group a few years ago, but we saw plenty of folks doing the trek without one. You can also let the park know you’re parking overnight for extended periods.
These are also useful resources for those of you planning on notching the park onto your road bike:
- Tourism page
- Official National Park Service page
- Natchez Trace Visitors Guide
- Printable PDF map to the Trace created by SVV
Where to stay in North Alabama
Florence was the perfect spot to make our base over three days of exploring the North Alabama portion of the Natchez Trace Parkway in fall, as there are many attractions located just off the trail within an hour’s drive of the area. One of North Alabama’s most prominent hotels is Marriott Shoals Hotel & Spa, a massive sprawl of a hotel perched over the Tennessee River with five floors of accommodations, 19 venues for meetings or special events, and the cherry on top: a rotating bar and restaurant.
This wasn’t my first time at the 360 Grille—rather, we’d gone there for cocktails for our family reunion a few years ago—but it was my first time staying at the Marriott Shoals Hotel & Spa. The location is ideal: a mere eight minutes by car from downtown Florence and about a half-hour to the easiest access point to hop on the Trace right before Colbert Ferry.
Where to eat in North Alabama
Our stomachs often drive our travels, and we have so many favorite restaurants in this part of the state, many of which are located in downtown Florence.
Be sure and try these following Alabama restaurants while driving the parkway:
- Trowbridge’s Ice Cream and Sandwich Bar. Open every day but Sunday for breakfast and lunch, this famed Florence diner that first debuted as a creamery in 1918 serves up some of the best sandwiches, shakes, malts and sundaes in town.
- Odette. Those looking for a fine-dining experience in downtown Florence need look no further than this contemporary American restaurant on the main drag with a top-notch cocktail program.
- Wildwood Tavern. Who doesn’t love a restaurant that serves flights of hot dogs? We love the selection of more than a dozen type of dogs paired with craft beer at this quirky tavern in downtown Florence.
- Rivertown Coffee. Need a shot of caffeine and a breakfast burrito to start your day? This is your spot, right next door to the iconic Shoals Theatre.
- Rattlesnake Saloon. This literal “watering hole under a rock” is a restaurant and bar carved into a cave that recently celebrated its 10th birthday. Think: burgers, PBRs, live music and Mother Nature. Just check before you make the drive as the Rattlesnake Saloon keeps odd hours and it’s a good half-hour’s drive from town.
- The Factory. This cafe inside the Alabama Chanin factory whips up a delightful menu of breakfast and lunch dishes. Bonus: You can shop after you eat or watch the employees work some textile magic.
- 360 Grille. You can’t beat a rotating restaurant, particularly one that serves steaks, pork chops and other classic American fare. Note: This is one of the pricier restaurants in town, but it’s also worth the cost for those views.
- Big Bad Breakfast. Chef John Currence now has more than a half-dozen Big Bad Breakfast locations across the South, but of the ones I’ve tried, both the setting and the food at the Florence location is the best. Expect: fluffy omelets, decadent chicken biscuits, oyster scrambles and skillet combos at this all-day breakfast joint.
- Stanfield’s River Bottom Grille. On a pretty fall day, there’s nowhere better to eat than waterfront at the floating River Bottom Grille offering plenty of regional delicacies like crab and shrimp dip, hush puppies, fried oyster and alligator tail.
- YUMM Thai Sushi and Beyond. If you had told me the best Asian food in Alabama would be in Florence, I wouldn’t believe you, but this is one of our favorite stops for curry and sushi in the area, whether for takeout or dine-in. It’s also got a great happy hour.
- Cold Water Books. If you’re meandering down the main drag in Tuscumbia, you’ll stumble upon an independent bookstore worth a poke around itself, but inside, there’s also a delightful coffee bar so you can take a cuppa to go.
- Palace Ice Cream & Sandwich. I’m a big fan of old-fashioned soda shops, and Palace checks all the boxes, from the stools at the bar to the heaping helping of banana split served to all willing patrons.
Natchez Trace Parkway summary: leg 1
- Path traveled: Cypress Inn, Tennessee to Tishomingo, Mississippi
- Mileage: 41 miles
We’ll be exploring the entirety of the parkway over the next year in partnership with the Natchez Trace Compact, so if you have any planning questions, let us know and we’ll be sure to dig deep and find answers!