After many months at home this year, we were able to get back on the road for a safe week in Mississippi along the Natchez Trace. The Natchez Trace Parkway is all about the spirit of the communities that exist within and are interlocked into its history, and we got a taste firsthand of Mississippi culture and hospitality when we picked it up again this fall in Tupelo and continued south toward the state capital of Jackson.
Note: Travel looks a lot different right now than it did before this year, and we feel like we can’t encourage you to hit the road without making a disclaimer to please, please, please do so safely. Wear a mask at all times when you’re indoors or around others; wash and/or sanitize those hands; opt for outdoor dining when you can if you’re eating at restaurants; socially distance at all times. We do this anytime we leave our home, whether we are traveling one mile or 100. It’s the safe thing to do, the smart thing to do, the respectful thing to do. Thanks for being A+ travelers in this weird year!
Witch Dance (milepost 234)
In the context of travel along the Natchez Trace, Witch Dance is notable for being a bicycle-only campground. Located right near the Witch Dance Horse Trailhead, this primitive camping spot and restroom is alongside the road, with picnic tables and drinking water. The trail itself is mostly used by horse enthusiasts and during wetter days may not be suitable for hikers due to water crossings and the churned up nature of the 15-mile-long walk through the Tombigbee National Forest, on which it rests.
Bynum Mounds (milepost 232.2)
The mystery of the ancient inhabitants in the southeastern part of North America continues to this day, and these mounds, which are part of a lexicon of what archeologists call the Middle Woodland Period, belong to an era extending through about 2,000 years ago. The shifting fortunes of tribes and groups accelerated through the time that Europeans encountered native peoples in the 1500s, but there are distinct signatures of this period (from 200BC to 100AD) that were defined by trade across the continent; because of the artifacts discovered here from the Great Lakes region and the Gulf Coast, there’s no doubt that this land was very well traveled and occupied at least 5,000 years before today.
Jeff Busby (milepost 193.1)
This free 18-spot campground and park is a great place to pull off on the NTP and stretch your legs; it’s also the highest point on the parkway at 603 feet above sea level. Many of the locations along this corridor of the Trace are more informational in nature (i.e. pit-stop only), but this site boasts the 1.6-mile, round-trip Little Mountain Trail that offers clear views of the surrounding countryside and glimpses of the forest and farmland that make up the bulk of the state.
The heavily wooded campsites are suitable for trailers up to 30 feet long, and while there aren’t showers or electricity, the campground does have flush toilets and level ground along with fire rings and benches.
French Camp (milepost 180.5)
Entirely surrounded by the 900-acre French Camp Academy, which is a well-known and successful interdenominational Christian boarding school, the town of French Camp itself has only a few hundred residents. The largest point of attraction is the pet-friendly bed and breakfast, a welcoming fusion of mid-1800s log cabins that are about half a mile off the NTP. The main cabin is set up like a traditional B&B, with two common areas and four guest rooms divided over two levels. Two other cabins on the property have a more private setting, with kitchenettes, central living rooms and accommodations for four people each. There is also a carriage house that has sleeping for six, a full kitchen and large living room.
Please note that this is an alcohol- and tobacco-free facility.
Because of its close proximity to the cycling trail, the community sees regular visits of intrepid road warriors that want a hot shower, big breakfast and syrupy southern hospitality. In addition, the Historic Village of French Camp is a lovely walk just off the back of the buildings, with recreated exhibits like a blacksmith, pottery studio and frontier structures.
Also—bonus!—there’s a little pen of pigs who desperately want you to feed them acorns, which are just out of reach, along the path if you need a dose of cute for the kiddos.
The Council House Restaurant, which is currently on reduced hours due to the pandemic, is owned and operated by French Camp Academy and serves guests breakfast, lunch, and dinner with bread made in-house for sandwiches, burgers, and meat-and-twos. If you’re wise, you’ll save room for a generous helping of Mississippi Mud Cake or bread pudding.
For astronomy lovers, this section of Mississippi is the place for dark skies, and while programming is up in the air because of the pandemic, the Rainwater Observatory, managed by the French Camp Academy, regularly hosts educational groups and annual conferences.
Cypress Swamp (milepost 122)
Regrettably, Cypress Swamp—which would have been our next stop along the Trace after French Camp—in Canton was not open during our visit due to wind damage earlier this year from a tornado. I was bummed we weren’t able to walk the half-mile trail and boardwalks to see alligators (though, spoiler alert, we’d find some in Ridgeland!). It remains temporarily closed for the time being.
Here’s how the National Park Service describes it: “The swamp is home to dozens of tupelo and bald cypress trees. Unlike many other species of trees, tupelo and bald cypress trees love watery bogs. The trees originally took root when the swamp was nearly dry and have thrived in a place that most trees cannot. While you walk the trail, be on the lookout for a distinct feature of bald cypress trees—their unique root structures. Bald cypress trees produce roots known as ‘knees’ that protrude from the surface of the water. These ‘knees’ are thought to provide stabilization to the plant and allow the plant to access oxygen during flooding. Cypress Swamp, like other swamps throughout the Southeast United States, provides an ideal habitat for many wildlife species including frogs, snakes, and alligators.”
Reservoir Overlook (milepost 105.6)
One of our favorite spots along this section of the Trace is the 33,000-acre Barnett Reservoir, a popular spot for RV and primitive campers thanks to all the waterfront space. At milepost 105.6 just before Ridgeland, you can get off the NTP and enjoy the native flora and fauna that populate this area of Central Mississippi.
Ridgeland (milepost 102.4)
Flanked by a massive reservoir ringed with RV campgrounds and anchored by an affluent shopping mall, Ridgeland is the place to snatch a fancy steak, take a day on the lake or explore the marshy landscape in search of rare migrating birds. Located northeast of Jackson, this community loves its boats, cars and expansive Southern way of life.
Read more about our weekend in Ridgeland here.
Jackson (off the Trace)
At Ridgeland, you’ll want to hop off the Natchez Trace Parkway and drive the 12 miles south on I-55 to Jackson before picking the NTP back up in Clinton. You simply can’t visit Mississippi without experiencing the capital, particularly after being in Tupelo, which helps weave the state experience together for you.
As it turned out, we could have stayed forever in Jackson—I have no idea how neither of us has been here before—but as our luck would have it, we were in and out in 24 hours so we’ll have to save the full experience for later. That didn’t stop us from making the most of that period, though, starting with exploring the artsy Fondren neighborhood and finding a few murals there and along the train tracks.
After brunch in Fondren, we headed for the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, one of the more sobering places I’ve experienced in quite some time. Opened just three years ago, this museum pays homage to the Black populations who were enslaved, hanged, discriminated against, bullied, and worse through pictorial exhibits, facts, broadcast clips and sound effects of actual lynchings. It’s not for the faint of heart, but it’s also an extremely important part of our nation’s past, and if you do one thing in Jackson, make it this museum. Fair warning: You can take your children, but you’ll 100 percent be having hard conversations afterward.
Mississippi Civil Rights Museum and Museum of Mississippi History share a building and are collectively referred to as the Two Mississippi Museums. They’re also free to the public on Sundays, a nice surprise for us as that’s the day of the week we stopped by. We didn’t spend time on the history side of the building, but we did go upstairs to experience the Mississippi Distilled exhibit, which goes until 2021.
You know we like our spirits, and I had no idea that Mississippi was the final state to repeal Prohibition in 1966; it began locally in 1908, 12 years before it became a national law, and lasted 58 very long, painful years. Much of the state still comprises dry counties, which explains why the first legal distillery in Mississippi did not open until 2010, and there are currently less than a dozen breweries state-wide. The more you know!
We stayed in a spacious suite at the Old Capitol Inn, built in 1952 and a favorite among celebrities traveling through the area; it was the perfect base for a night thanks to being directly across from the two museums and walking distance to everything we wanted to see in town. It made me realize how much I miss living in a city and exploring capitals during our travels (something we’ve not been able to do this year at all).
Jackson has a robust dining scene—one we’re eager to get back and taste more of in the future—but we crammed quite a few stops in our 24-hour visit. A few of our favorite places to eat and drink in Jackson are:
- Saltine (for brunch)
- The Iron Horse Grill (for lunch)
- Fine & Dandy (for dinner)
- Urban Foxes (for breakfast, coffee or a snack)
When—not if—you go to the Iron Horse Grill, be sure and pop upstairs for 20 minutes or so to poke around the Mississippi Music Experience, the restaurant’s nod to the soul music that has long pulsed through the state.
The downtown Mississippi Museum of Art also has a gorgeous, free sculpture garden, as well as some decorative fountains that were dyed pink during our visit, and a mural by one of our favorite street artists Birdcap.
As we had limited time on this trip to Jackson, I’ve started compiling to-dos, eats and drinks for our next time in town: I’d love to tour Mississippi’s first distillery Cathead, which we were able to sample on many of the cocktail menus around town, and drink our way through the tap list at both the Bulldog and also Pig & Pint.
For more travel ideas along the Trace, check out these posts:
- Escape the Indoors for a Weekend in Ridgeland, Mississippi
- Exploring North Mississippi: Tishomingo to Tupelo on the Natchez Trace
- How to Do Tupelo, Mississippi Like a King (and The King)
- Finding Fall Colors Along the Natchez Trace Parkway in North Alabama
- From Music to Design, the Shoals is Alabama’s Cultural Secret Weapon
- Opt Outside: Fun Summer Things to Do in Franklin + Leiper’s Fork