Saturday, April 21, 2012

Trekking the Trace

Having read about the wonders of the Natchez Trace Parkway in previous Derailleur articles and heard the accounts of fellow CCCers who have gone before, Phyllis and I decided to see for ourselves what the fuss was all about.

We departed Chicago on a Saturday and met Trace veteran Tom Grose and his lovely spouse Jill at their winter Nashville abode.  That evening we had the pleasure of seeing the Blackhawks beat the Predators, as well as sampling the wares of a couple of local microbreweries on our way to the game.  To our delight, a good 40% of the fans at the game appeared to be wearing Hawks red.

We spent Sunday in Nashville riding locally and sampling the wares of several of the local food trucks before we set out on the Trace the following day.  We chose to avoid the hilliest part just outside of Nashville and spent the first day driving to Florence, Alabama, where we spent the first night.  On that portion to the Trace is the grave of Meriwether Lewis of Lewis and Clark fame, who died or was murdered under mysterious circumstances at a local tavern along the Trace.

Crossing the Tennessee Tombigbee Canal
In Florence we visited the Rosenbaum House designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.  We also made the acquaintance of a group of teachers from Kalamazoo, Michigan, who also were riding on the Trace. We kept seeing each other along the Trace over the next few days.

Wildflowers along the Trace
The next day (Tuesday) we began our actual riding at a location with the ominous name of Buzzard’s Roost.  In a very short time, we had crossed into Mississippi, where we were to spend the next six days.  We rode over the Tennessee-Tombigbee Canal, a waterway providing a shortcut for shipping from the area to the Gulf of Mexico, had a picnic lunch by Indian mounds and stopped for the night in Tupelo. Tupelo is, of course, the birthplace of Elvis Presley. We made the pilgrimage to see the preserved house where the King was born, a two room shack that (at least when it was built) had no electricity, running water or indoor plumbing of any sort.

Elvis Presley birthplace, Tupelo
The forecast for Wednesday was for rain all day. Even though the sun was shining when we left, we kept waiting for the rains, which never came.  During the day, we passed through an area that had been devastated by tornadoes the year before.

Tornado Damage
This wound up being the longest day of riding we did on the trip, 73 miles, ending up in the picturesque community of French Camp.  French Camp is the site of a Christian School which has been in continuous operation since the 1820s. It currently specializes in the education of children with behavioral problems.  It is also the site of a bed and breakfast where we stayed.

Rain finally came on Thursday but was over by mid morning, so we were able to get in a full day of riding.  This day was my turn to drive the sag van, so my riding this day was limited.  We stopped at an information center outside of Kosciusko, Ms.  Named after the Revolutionary War hero, the town is also the birthplace and childhood home of Oprah Winfrey.  We spent the night in Canton, MS.

Friday saw us passing through the Jackson area.  Jackson is the state capital and has a population of around half a million. In this area, the Trace sees very heavy commuter traffic.  We did have a couple of alternatives.  Starting just north of Jackson, we were able to ride on a parallel urban bike path that provided a detour around the most congested part of the Trace.  At the time we were there, nine miles of the Trace were closed to automotive traffic but still open to bicycles.  Our overnight stay was in Vicksburg.

We spent the early morning touring the site of the Vicksburg battlefield, which commemorates the Union victory on July 4, 1863. Along with the Battle of Gettysburg, which ended the day before, Vicksburg marked the turning point of the Civil War.  We then returned to the Trace to ride the final 65 miles to the terminus at Natchez.

Antebellum Mansion, Natchez
Featuring numerous antebellum mansions, Natchez is a popular tourist destination, in addition to being the southern terminus of the Trace. We stayed at a bed and breakfast overlooking the Mississippi.  The following morning we visited two of the restored/preserved houses and began our journey back.  Since there are no direct roads from Natchez to Nashville, we drove back on the Trace and stayed a second time at French Camp.

I'd like to add a few observations about the Trace in general and as a cycling destination in particular.  The parkway is a 444 mile two lane road with no shoulders.  There are very few crossroads. Almost all intersections are in the form of on and off ramps.  Commercial traffic is banned, however, numerous huge RVs (many towing an additional vehicle) approach semi-trailers in size.  Except near the few large cities on the route, traffic volume  is very low and makes for an excellent cycling environment.

Group along the Trace
Along the route, numerous pullouts highlight sites of either historic or natural interest.  Those with restroom facilities are much more limited.  Cyclists should also be aware that are no places to buy food anywhere along the Trace itself. Opportunities for food and lodging are available at towns along the way, but often involve driving/cycling substantial distances from the Trace proper.  With the exception of French Camp, which is directly on the Trace, all of our overnight stops were five to fifteen miles from the Trace itself.  For those so inclined, there are three large campgrounds on the Trace and several smaller ones that support bikers only.  Those wishing to stay in hotels/motels will either need a support vehicle to transport riders to and from overnight stops or be prepared to ride bonus miles to find a place to sleep.

We were particularly lucky on this trip to enjoy beautiful weather with ideal riding temperatures. We had the bonus of a profusion of wild flowers along the length of the ride.  Tom, a veteran of many previous Trace trips, assured us that such is not always the case.  Weather in April can be very chancy. Before long, temperatures begin to get brutally hot.  Another nice time to travel might be late fall with color changes.

We had a great time and would consider a return trip, as well as highly recommend the Trace as a cycling destination.

 -  Joe Dickstein

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