Touring the Natchez Trace on Two Wheels
Ready for a road trip? When you hear the open road calling and you’re eager to feel the wind in your face and adventure in the air, the Natchez Trace Parkway is your ticket to ride!
Around any curve you’re likely to see groups of two, three and four cyclists or motorcycles, out for a day’s ride or on a longer trek that may include stops at local campsites, area lodging and bed & breakfast inns.
The Natchez Trace is one of America’s most scenic parkways, stretching 444 miles from Nashville, Tenn. to Natchez, Miss., and is popular with travelers, whether on two wheels or four. Winding through scenic countryside flanked with deciduous forests, farmland, lakes, rivers, Native American burial mounds, Civil War battle sites and antebellum mansions, it offers an escape from the noise and commercial traffic on the interstate highways.
We’d driven the Trace many times on our way to or from the Gulf Coast, looking enviously at the numerous motorcycles leaning into the wide curves, and seasoned cyclists pumping up the hills and coasting down like low-flying birds.
My chance finally came when my son bought a Honda Goldwing and added a sidecar. “Let’s cruise the Trace!” I enthused, when a friend from Australia arrived for a visit. “We’ll show you the real beauty of Tennessee, away from the traffic, where the pace of life slows down.”
Designated a bicycle route by the National Park Service, with only light automotive traffic allowed and a 50mph speed limit, the Natchez Trace is especially popular for anyone on two wheels. You may be an individualist who wants to travel light and camp under the stars. Or you may prefer the camaraderie of traveling in a group. Many cyclists park a vehicle and ride out and back for a few hours. Other bikers follow the path of the early American settlers and explore the small towns and historic sites on either side of the Trace.
Pick up a copy of the Discover Tennessee Trails & Byways Nashville’s Trace from any tourist center or download a copy online. You can obtain maps and brochures about the Natchez Trace from ranger stations en route or visit the National Park Service website.
Make sure you visit the ranger station, small museum and grave site at Meriwether Lewis, Trace mile marker 385, the historic site where explorer Lewis (of Lewis and Clark fame) died mysteriously in 1809.
Along the entire length of the Natchez Trace are three general campgrounds (including Meriwether Lewis) and five bicycle-only campgrounds.
Any good adventure has to start right, so as we headed west out of Nashville on I-40, Yelp led us to the Thistle Stop Café. The café is an outreach of Thistle Farms and Magdalene, the community that supports women who have survived lives of trafficking, addiction, prostitution and life on the street. My Aussie friend from Melbourne, the mecca of coffee shops in Australia, declared it to be the best coffee she’d had since arriving in Nashville!
The Natchez Trace spans 10,000 years of history, back to the days of mastodons and giant bison. In the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, trappers floated their goods on flatboats down the Mississippi River to New Orleans, returning on foot or horseback to Tennessee, Kentucky, and Ohio along the old Trace, one of the most significant highways in the Old Southwest. It was a post road for mail delivery, and many famous Americans, such as General Andrew Jackson, John James Audubon, Jefferson Davis and Ulysses S. Grant traveled the Trace. Historic markers, remains of old stands (inns), and remnants of early Indian mounds and villages are also found along its route.
Today, you’re likely to pass many triathletes in training and a few long distance cyclists weighed down with panniers filled with camping supplies. Most motorcycle riders were like us – out for a day’s cruising to enjoy the scenery, feeling one with the bike, slowing down to watch deer and turkey grazing alongside the road, stopping at overlooks to gaze at the view, or taking a short hike to waterfalls or preserved stretches of the old sunken Trace.
We set Meriwether Lewis as our turnaround point, 70 miles south of Nashville, retracing our track to arrive at the Loveless Café on Highway 100 in time for an early dinner. The café sits within a stone’s throw of the start of the Natchez Trace, and is the perfect finish to a day’s ride. It’s the gathering place of travelers and local celebrities, and serves up award-winning country ham, Southern-fried chicken, made-from-scratch biscuits and their famous preserves.
So now the motorcycling dream has been fulfilled, the next adventure down the Trace will be by bicycle! If you haven’t toured its scenic byways, mark it on your calendar for a great road trip, and one of America’s most spectacular rides or drives in the fall.
Have you traveled the Natchez Trace? Share your favorite stories with us in the comments below.