Last month, we were able to pick up where we left off in Tupelo along the Natchez Trace Parkway at the beginning of the year, kicking off our nine-day Mississippi trip with a weekend in Ridgeland. I knew nothing about this affluent Jackson suburb prior to our arrival, but immediately was smitten with all the green space it offered, particularly in a time when we all we want to do is get away and outside at that.
Home to roughly 25,000 people, Ridgeland is just 20 minutes north of Jackson and located directly along the crossroads of the Natchez Trace Parkway. It’s anchored by a leisure hub, the 33,000-acre Barnett Reservoir, known to locals as “The Rez,” that boasts five campgrounds, 16 parks, 22 boat launches, handicapped accessible trails and 18 miles of paved walkways. In other words? It’s a water enthusiast’s playground.
This central Mississippi town, named a Tree City for the 12th consecutive year, is a great destination to escape to during the pandemic thanks its dedication to green space and livability, as well as its many wildlife habitats. Want somewhere to spread out for a weekend in Mississippi? This is your place.
The Old Town Railroad District is a mixed-use neighborhood that comprises restaurants, fitness studios and other small businesses like a bicycle rental shop for those who want to explore Ridgeland via the ease of two wheels.
To experience “new Ridgeland,” on the other hand, you needn’t look further than the Renaissance at Colony Park, a high-end pedestrian mall that’s a mix of national retail chains (Anthropologie, Apple, LOFT, Barnes & Noble) and local and regional boutiques. I hadn’t been in a mall or shop for that matter since the beginning of the year, so I appreciated the outdoor nature of this shopping center where we also attended a classic car show during the daylight hours.
As always, no matter if you’re visiting Ridgeland or beyond, please be sure to wear a mask anytime you’re indoors or around others. It’s the safe thing to do and a common courtesy to your fellow humans.
Getting outdoors in Ridgeland
Arriving from the north, your first glimpse of Ridgeland will be an expanse of mirror-blue water that stretches out over 33,000 acres. Not only is Barnett Reservoir a peaceful respite, but it’s popular for cardio enthusiasts who jog, walk or hike the multi-use trails, often with dog companion in tow. You could easily rent a waterfront home and spend the entirety of your weekend in Ridgeland making use of Barnett Reservoir’s many facilities.
One of the best-kept secrets of the area is Pearl River State Wildlife Management Area, an area adjacent to the Natchez Trace Parkway that’s alive with native flora and fauna; just past the trace before you cross the bridge, there’s also bird-viewing station where you admire the various waterfowl that inhabit the marsh from close up.
Over the weekend in Ridgeland, SVV and I returned to this refuge on two separate occasions to enjoy the fresh air and peaceful nature of this region of Mississippi. Keep your eyes peeled for alligators; we spotted quite a few lurking just beneath the water’s surface!
Closer to the heart of the city are the Ridgeland Wildflower Fields, right off of Interestate 55 next to the Seabrook Paint Company, that were planted two years ago by the Ridgeland Chamber of Commerce and Keep Ridgeland Beautiful as a local beautification effort and way to provide residents and visitors alike with a joyful experience. This time of year, you may catch the multi-colored zinnias during the tail-end of the fall season bloom.
But even if the fields aren’t awash in color, they’re still fun and interesting to visit—not to mention, outside and free!—as they feature walking paths adorned with whimsical sculptures created from recycled and upcycled metal.
Exploring the Mississippi arts scene
Speaking of quirky and whimsical art, by far the most unexpected discovery for us was the 20,000-square-foot Bill Waller Crafts Center, run by a non-profit organization of craftsmen who aim to preserve and promote folk, traditional and contemporary crafts of the region. For the past 13 years, the Craftsmen’s Guild of Mississippi have occupied this sleek midcentury modern-style building—named for former Governor Bill Waller, who was the guild’s first president in 1973—that’s a work of art itself.
More than 400 artists and crafters from across Mississippi and neighboring states comprise this guild, many of whom also sell their creations in the gift shop that’s open seven days a week. In normal times, many of them host workshops and other educational series in the many studios upstairs, but well … check back once things have normalized a bit for a more regular schedule. Regardless, the center is free to visit, so worth stopping by no matter when you’re passing through.
The coolest part? It’s literally right off the trace with a boardwalk through a shady section of woods connecting the Natchez Trace parking lot with the back entrance to the center.
The woods behind Bill Waller Center are also home to a habitat of thousands of mesmerizing synchronous fireflies (or lightning bugs), whose light patterns align for just a couple weeks every year. The guild has started hosting a Snappy Sync Fireflies viewing each May when this novel light show occurs.
Another nearby stop for art lovers is the Prickly Hippie, which prides itself on selling cacti, coffee and cakes (what a combo!). Inside, there’s a gift boutique and a banquet bar upfront and a bakery in the back that whips up white chocolate raspberry lattes and handmade pop-tarts, along with a bevy of other sweet, Instagrammable treats.
Bonus: The Prickly Hippie is also a few doors down from the only craft beer shop in town where SVV and I went and stocked up on Mississippi brews. (Talk about having your cake and eating it, too!)
Where to stay in Ridgeland
The area engulfing the Township at Colony Park is dotted with hotels from brands you know and trust; we stayed at the Hampton Inn & Suites for two nights. The nice thing about this particular area of town is its walkability, as well as proximity to the bulk of Ridgeland’s restaurants and retail. There are plenty of shops and eateries—like Sombra, Anjou and Soulshine—at the Township at Colony Park so you can easily navigate the neighborhood without requiring the use of your car.
And as always, a reminder to mask up and distance yourself from others in all common areas.
Where to eat in Ridgeland
For most of our weekend in Ridgeland, we dined in and around Colony Park for both ease and convenience. Our favorite restaurant by far was Local 463. Chef Derek Emerson sources fresh local and regional ingredients to serve up a mishmash of Southern, Gulf Coast and Cajun food, like Florida rock shrimp and fried green tomato flatbread or fresh lump crabmeat. Our personal favorites were the Kung Pao popcorn shrimp, as well as the tamales, a regional specialty, with Chef Emerson’s take drizzled in sweet corn sauce, pico de gallo and chipotle-lime sour cream.
Another favorite discovery of the weekend was Zea Rotisserie & Bar, which has nearly a dozen locations in Mississippi and Louisiana. Not only were the sandwiches a slam dunk—think: pepper jelly chicken salad, chicken caesar and my personal favorite, the Sedona chicken panini (Rotisserie chicken, caramelized onion, roasted garlic, mozzarella, provolone, cilantro, diced tomatoes, roasted corn, chipotle aioli)—but Zea is also home to the best bar we found in Ridgeland, with several craft beers on tap and top-shelf spirits aplenty.
Due to many restaurants still being shuttered due to the pandemic, I advise you to call or check all restaurants’ websites before arrival. Due to distanced dining, those that are open are often on a reduced capacity, so reservations on weekend nights at hotspots like Ely’s steakhouse are advised (as we learned when we couldn’t get in day of!). For our one nice dinner out—our first fancy meal out since my birthday in February—we settled on Koestler Prime, a steakhouse at Renaissance at Colony Park that had a staff of masked-up servers and tables well-distanced more than 10 feet apart.
Being a town so close to the urban core of Jackson—and one with a youthful vibe at that—Ridgeland also has several restaurants that are more fast-casual like Soulshine Pizza Factory, where we dined one night, and Another Broken Egg if you’re not the kind of traveler who plans in advance but prefers to drop in when needed. There are also a few beach bar kind of motor-up restaurants and dive bars such as Shaggy’s On The Rez that overlook Barrett’s Reservoir; for those who prefer their domestic beers by the pail, these are great options with patio seating galore.
One thing is for sure, no matter where you wind up for dinner, the after-party is at the Renaissance every night without fail: The fountain in front of the Malco Renaissance theatre lights up in a Vegas-style show marrying light and audio on the hour from 6 to 9pm nightly.
To continue your travels in Mississippi along the Trace, start here:
- Exploring North Mississippi: Tishomingo to Tupelo on the Natchez Trace
- Finding Fall Colors Along the Natchez Trace Parkway in North Alabama
- How to Do Tupelo, Mississippi Like a King (and The King)
- From Music to Design, the Shoals is Alabama’s Cultural Secret Weapon