More than a park or an attraction with paid admission, the National Heritage Areas designated by Congress are “lived-in landscapes”—places that tell the stories that make our country what it is today. Each of these unique areas—there are 55 of them around the country—possesses a rare combination of natural, historic and cultural assets that makes it a must-see for visitors. In Mississippi, there are three such areas, all of which welcome modern-day explorers to take a closer look.

The Delta

It’s fitting that the region that’s home to the “Blues Highway,” US Highway 61, is the place where so many areas of interest converge. Take that music, for example: it was right here in the Delta that the blues genre got its start, and here that gospel music is still a part of everyday life. Then there’s the fertile landscape, its rich soil rooted in the mighty Mississippi River that for centuries has deposited sediments ideal for agriculture. That soil drew Native Americans to settle here in prehistoric times, and evidence of their lifestyle still stands in the form of earthen mounds and artifacts. More recent history shone a spotlight here as well, in the form of the civil rights movement that was sparked by injustices here and saw some of this state’s bravest citizens step forward in the struggle for equal rights. The modern-day Delta thrives with a new generation of artists, activists, musicians and culinary masters.

The Gulf Coast

Where the crashing waves meet the sandy shore, six counties showcase how memorable bygone days and modern innovations merge. Lighthouses along the coast shine as beacons to the past, pointing toward the island where a historic fort still stands and to the spots where Spanish and French explorers sailed. But sea and sand aren’t all that make up this landscape—bays, swamps, marshes and more serve as habitat to a vast array of animal and plant life. Those waters are also teeming with seafood, an important part of what makes the cuisine here world famous. Acclaimed local artists have captured this region’s beauty in paintings, pottery and sculpture. And some of the nation’s most brilliant minds are at work here as well, testing rocket engines before sending them into outer space and building mighty ships that will sail around the world.

The Hills

William Faulkner’s “little postage stamp of soil” is filled with countless stories worth telling again and again. Nestled near the Appalachian Mountains, this lush region is where towering pine trees and fertile farmland draw adventurers and agriculturists alike. The Civil War saw some of its fiercest fighting here, and an unforgettable itinerary takes history buffs into the heart of the action. The King of Rock ’n’ Roll, Elvis Presley, was born here, and blues great Howlin’ Wolf. Tammy Wynette and John Grisham have also all called this area home. Other local legends hold a prominent place in national history books, like Ida B. Wells, who was born into slavery and later fought for freedom for all, and James Meredith, the first African American student at the University of Mississippi. Their bravery helped pave the way for a future filled not with fear but with hope.

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