They say getting there is half the fun, but in a few special cases, the journey itself is the destination. Think Route 66 or California’s Pacific Coast Highway. Mississippi is in the enviable position of having two such iconic roadways: the ancient path now known as the Natchez Trace Parkway and Highway 61, also known as the “Blues Highway” or the “Great River Road.”
Natchez Trace Parkway
Thousands of years ago, Native Americans hiked a dirt trail that stretched diagonally across what is now Mississippi and up into Tennessee. Today travelers along this route see a paved parkway in its place, but the scenery is surprisingly similar; dense forests, cypress swamps, abundant wildlife and a stillness that belies the bustle of the cities that have cropped up beyond this linear park’s borders. “The variety of natural and cultural resources that can be found along the Parkway are staggering,” says Terry Wildy, chief of interpretation and partnerships for the Natchez Trace Parkway, which is part of the National Park Service.
Nature lovers will be enchanted by the sights along the Trace. Here, you’ll find fields of wildflowers that paint the roadside yellow and red each spring, hardwood forests that show their colors in autumn and more than 200 species of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians. Such unspoiled beauty has made the Trace the eighth most popular unit of the National Park System, with more than six million visitors in 2013. Even as society speeds up, there’s something almost mystical about this ancient road that continues to draw travelers who are ready to slow down a bit.
“National parks like the Natchez Trace Parkway provide access to some of the most important stories of the American people, stories which we as a nation have found worthy of protecting for future generations,” Wildy says. “Such stories contain universal concepts—things that all visitors can relate to.”
For more on the Natchez Trace, see nps.gov/natr.
What makes this road that winds along the Mississippi River so special? Just ask the dozens of blues musicians—and folk superstar Bob Dylan—who all found it worthy of writing songs about. Officially designated a National Scenic Byway, Mississippi’s portion of U.S. Highway 61 stretches south from the outskirts of Memphis through the Delta region down to the town of Woodville before crossing into Louisiana. This 1,400-mile highway, known nationally as the Great River Road, actually runs from Minnesota to New Orleans, but it is the segment secured by the Magnolia State’s borders that draws visitors from around the world. Here, the river has broken free of its banks so many times that the land is as fertile as you will find, plum for planting cotton or rice. This Delta soil has been a source of riches, from the finery of plantations to the rise of musical legends and culinary treasures.
“This region once had the nation’s highest concentration of millionaires,” says Bill Seratt, president of the community coalition for Mississippi’s Great River Road. “Today the treasures of the Great River Road are here for everyone to enjoy.”
Highlights of the highway range from the world-famous to the obscure. Travelers can stand at the Clarksdale crossroads where blues legend Robert Johnson was said to have sold his soul to the Devil, then have lunch at Ground Zero Blues Club, the restaurant and blues club owned by Oscar winner Morgan Freeman and local mayor and attorney, Bill Luckett. In less than an hour, you can go from a Natchez plantation to the very Vicksburg spot where one of the most important battles of the Civil War was fought. For a taste of rugged beauty, a hike beside the waterfalls at the Clark Creek Natural Area near the highway’s southernmost Mississippi town, Woodville, is a must.
Seratt adds, “Each of our historic communities has such unique character that there’s always something new—or should I say wonderfully old and new—just up ahead.”
For details on Highway 61, see msgreatriverroad.com.
© 2016, Mississippi Tourism Association | All rights reserved.