After traveling the Trace from Tennessee through North Alabama last fall, the next logical section for us to tackle was Tishomingo down to Tupelo. With a swath of land from the Tennessee River down through the northeastern section of Mississippi, this area of the Trace carves in and out of rolling hills and woodland, cutting a path through land that had been contested for thousands of years.
Major native tribes flourished in this fertile landscape and fought, won, and lost territory before the Spanish made their first incursion up from La Florida in the 1500s, scrambling the uneasy alliances and dominance of a few powerful tribes. The terrain, while mostly owned by individuals now, reflects back a fairly idyllic lifestyle for the peoples that once populated this part of North America. Food sources abound, with a network of rivers, lakes and densely-forested hardwood trees sculpting the topography. Off the Trace, it’s hard to visualize because modern agricultural practices tend to define boundaries, but on the Trace, which as federal land cannot be built upon, you get a glimpse of why these lands were so valuable in the first place.
Tishomingo is named after a Chickasaw chief, one of the last full-blooded American Indians to hold any sort of power in the region. The history of this area, according to Western knowledge, starts with remnants of first-hand documentation by, first, the Spanish and, later, the French, who both fought bitterly over the New World. Our understanding of the politics, settlements and migrations of the many, many tribes that lived and hunted on this land is limited, at best. Archeological science in addition to linguistic forensics forms the basis of the historical review of these multi-state territories and is … complicated. State lines did not exist to the first peoples, and the ebb and flow of tribes throughout the eons as power shifted from one to the next is fascinating but not fully understood by scholars.
In any case, a trading trail formed by topography and geology was evident from at least 1,000 years ago and likely trafficked by early humans as far back as 10,000 years ago. First peoples traded precious resources with one another across the continent, and they did so by walking, not cars or horses or train. The Natchez Trace was and is a natural formation of transportation that served as the backbone of transit through the South, for people and animals like the bison, which used to roam free with the seasons until they were hunted into near extinction. This network of interlinked trails eventually became known as the Natchez Trace Parkway and was immortalized as such in 1938.
Once you cross the Alabama-Mississippi border and see signs of Tishomingo, you’ll be able to explore this history more intimately. Here are your must-see stops along the North Mississippi section of the Natchez Trace Parkway.
This is a long-term content project with the Natchez Trace Compact. All opinions are our own.
Tishomingo (mile marker 304)
While Tishomingo the town is little more than a couple gas stations, fast food joints and hardware stores, the local state park is a surprising sprawl of activity and offerings: camping, rock climbing, hiking, fishing, you name it, they’ve got it in Tishomingo State Park.
With hiking trails through 13 miles of boulder-strewn mountainsides and none of the individual trails longer than three miles, Tishomingo State Park is an approachable destination for getting outdoors, particularly with larger groups or families with children. Scampering opportunities abound, and secret nooks of big, blocky rocks with overhangs, verdant ferns and multiple creek crossings with flat rocks for hanging out are scattered through the state park. It’s also home to one of the most photographed stops along the Natchez Trace Parkway: a swinging bridge over Bear Creek that was built in 1939.
For those travelers with a day on the water in mind, the park authorities run a Bear Creek canoe float trip that travels about six miles through the region. For $40, adventurers just need to make reservations and show up at the office, and the park will take care of everything else (canoes, lifejackets, drop-off and pickup, etc.). If you’re lucky enough to have a boat, Hayes Lake—a gorgeous, 45-acre body of water on the smaller side—is kept stocked with sport fish and has a launch for day use.
Picnic sites are spread throughout the park, and the playground has plenty of features for the younger kids in your group in addition to volleyball and a disc golf course. A swimming pool is also available for a small fee in the campsite area.
Day use of the park is $4 per vehicle. Note: a free permit available at the front entrance is required for rock climbing, so be sure to pick one up if you plan on officially scaling the overhangs.
A nice feature of Tishomingo is its accessibility from many of the major cities and tourist hubs in the region: two hours from Memphis, Birmingham and Huntsville; just under three hours from Nashville; and less than an hour from both Florence and Tupelo. If you’re living in Memphis, for example, it’s very easy to drive to the campground in the evening after work, set up a tent, start a fire, roast some s’mores and, in the morning, take a scramble through the wilderness before lounging in a lawn chair until it’s time to return home for dinner.
Florence is a major stop on the Americana Music Triangle thanks to the Swampers and other greats who recorded in the studios of the Shoals, so if you’re coming to the area to explore North Alabama’s musical roots, you can stay a few days in North Alabama, then continue on your way down the Natchez Trace to Tishomingo State Park, ending with an evening in Tupelo—a natural progression of that pilgrimage.
Pharr Mounds (milepost 286)
Beautifully preserved examples of the prehistoric mound building cultures are still intact at Pharr Mounds. The 90-acre landmark and quick pull-off from the Natchez Trace overlooks a series of eight burial mounds built during the Middle Woodland period that’s said to be one of the largest ceremonial sites of its kind in the southeastern United States.
The mounds are as tall as 18 feet in height, and four of them were excavated in 1966 by the National Park Service. Per the NPS: “The mounds covered various internal features, including fire pits and low, clay platforms. Cremated and unburned human remains were found in and near these features, as were various ceremonial artifacts, including copper spools and other copper objects, decorated ceramic vessels, lumps of galena (shiny lead ore), a sheet of mica, and a greenstone platform pipe. The copper, galena, mica and greenstone did not originate in Mississippi; they were imported long distances through extensive trade networks. Such ritually significant nonlocal items typify the Middle Woodland period.”
Bay Springs Lake (milepost 293.4)
This reservoir on the manmade Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway is a quick cool-off getaway in the hotter months for Mississippians who don’t have time to get all the way up to Pickwick. The 234-mile system of canals, locks and dams—the northern terminus of which is right here in Tishomingo County—connects the Tennessee River to the Gulf of Mexico and is the largest construction project in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers history, requiring more earth-moving than the Panama Canal. It also links to 4,500 miles of navigable waterways serving mid-America.
Per the U.S. Department of Interior: In 1840s George Gresham erected a water powered sawmill and gristmill at the narrow rocky gorge on Mackey’s Creek. Rock overhangs in the gorge provided shelters which had been inhabited by Indians thousands of years before. In 1862, Gresham and two partners founded the Bay Springs Union factory. This company contained the original saw and grist mill and added a mill for spinning cotton yarn and carding wool. This small industrial center included not only the mill but a cotton gin, a blacksmith, post office and general store. In 1885, the factory was destroyed by fire and never rebuilt.
Nine miles long, the lake is a vibrant recreation area with two boat access ramps at Bay Springs Lake and the dam, and you literally pass over it while driving the Trace. There are also tent spots and 141 hookups at Piney Grove Campground right on the lake for those traveling by camper or RV. Note: The campgrouns are only open from the beginning of March through the end of September.
Twentymile Bottom (milepost 278.4)
Close to Tupelo, Twentymile Bottom personifies the swampy wetland that peppers Northern Mississippi and that early travelers of the Trace had to ford and wade through. The low area along the stream is typical of the landscape through which the Old Trace passed and is still the home of beavers, waterfowl and many other species of birds. In more vibrant months when the terrain is awash in foliage and color, the overlook at Twentymile Bottom is one of the higher points from which to gain a panorama of the area; from it, you can see the bottom land of Twentymile Creek.
Confederate Graves (milepost 269.4)
When the National Park Service discovered these graves, there had been wooden markers but they disintegrated over time, meaning these unknown soldiers were once known. Identifying the remains or even which battle they might have participated in has eluded discovery. The NPS erected stone markers to mark the spots where the original graves are located. This stop on the Trace is just a five-minute walk off the main road via a paved, then well-marked path.
The Natchez Trace Parkway cuts right through the city of Tupelo, which is home to the only national park-operated visitors center on the Trace. Hernando de Soto and his band of men, in 1540, were the first Europeans to come into contact with the original Chickasaw homeland and were almost destroyed by the tribe before fleeing and it wasn’t until the late 1600s that another group of Europeans, this time the French, reconnected with the warriors and were defeated. The tribe, one of many that inhabited this part of the world, was forced to relocate to Oklahoma in the 1800s as the inexorable push of settlers and the formation of the United States changed the political and social landscape forever.
You can’t pass through Tupelo without paying tribute to Elvis, of course—after all, the most famous rock ‘n roller of all time spent his first 13 years here—and there are plenty of ways to do so: by visiting his birthplace, via the Elvis Driving Tour (you can pick up a free map at the Tupelo Visitors Center), by seeing a show at the Lyric Theatre and through dining at all of Elvis’ former haunts like Johnnie’s Drive-In.
Tupelo also has some great dining and drinking options. Among our favorites are:
- Queen’s Reward Meadery
- Connie’s Chicken
- Blue Canoe
- Crave Tupelo
- Forklift Restaurant
- Kermit’s Outlaw Kitchen
If you’re looking for family-friendly activities in Tupelo beyond the Elvis offerings, check out these local attractions:
- Tupelo Buffalo Park & Zoo
- HealthWorks! Kids Museum
- Lyric Theatre
If you’re into tackling the Natchez Trace on two wheels, you could start in Florence, Alabama, camp at Tishomingo State Park, then continue on to Tupelo. It’s about 45 miles for the first leg and 48 miles for the second leg and is a fairly safe place to ride a bicycle because of the strict rules for vehicles along the Trace, including hefty fines for getting anywhere near a cyclist.
Chickasaw Village Site (mile marker 261.8)
Currently, the Chickasaw Village Site comprises markers, a short interpretive trail and a few informational signs about the history of the people. There are long-term expansion plans that would honor the homeland of the Chickasaw people with an expansive center, but so far that effort hasn’t born fruit, though we’re told it’s coming very soon. This stop is worth it as it’s one of the few places on the Trace that reminds us that the land here was populated with people with a history stretching back thousands of years.
The Chickasaw Nation, headquartered in Oklahoma, is a rare bright spot in the story of relocated tribes: a thriving community with investments in hundreds of sectors, including manufacturing, tech, healthcare, hospitality and tourism. Through all of that, the people still recognize that this land in Northern Mississippi is their ancient homeland, and pilgrims from across the tribe make their way to the Natchez Trace to take a step back into their history and honor the past.
Cave Spring (mile marker 308.4)
This quick and easy stop is located a short walk from the road and is a limestone cave that dissolved out of the hillside. Portions of the cave have collapsed so it’s not the best place to crawl into but the terrain is pleasing and makes for great photo opportunities.
For those looking for a crash course in Native American history in the South, this is a great stretch of the Natchez Trace Parkway to tackle if you don’t have time to do the whole thing. It fuses prehistoric markers with more modern understandings of the people that lived here when Europeans first discovered the vast lands in the heart of North America.
For more travel ideas along the Trace, check out these posts:
- 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
- Dismals Canyon: North Alabama’s Most Unexpected Natural Treasure