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Natchez Trace - June 15-20, 2019

Deb and I at the Louisiana Border

Deb and I at the Louisiana Border

Way back in February of 2019, Deb and I were riding to the Jonquil Festival in SW Arkansas.  Along the way, one of the people we were riding with brought up the Natchez Trace and what a good ride it is.  Surprisingly independent of each other, plans started forming in our minds to ride the Trace at our earliest convenience.  After talking about it throughout the day, and realizing that both of us wanted to do it, we set a date and got the proverbial ball rolling on what would become a rather enjoyable ride.

By March, hotel reservations had been made and the route to and from pretty much decided on.  The only things left to do was to pick out stops along the Trace and recruit more people to join us.  Finding things to do and stops to make along the Trace proved easy with the help of RoadTrippers and soon, we had tentative itineraries planned.  As for the latter, it seems like most of the people at 501 Riders couldn’t take the time off work or had other commitments during the planned ride, so it ended up just being me and Deb riding.

 

As the days turned into weeks and the weeks into months, our departure date grew ever closer.  Since this was my first multi-state motorcycle trip, let alone long distance, I wanted to make sure everything was in order on my bike before I left.  Perhaps going overboard, I purchased a few security devices for my bike.  First up was the Trimax THEX50 THEX Super Chain and the Trimax MAX60 Shackle U-Lock.  While certainly heavy enough and thick enough to dissuade any would-be thieves from attempting to steal your ride, I really wish I would have gotten a longer chain.  The one I got was 5′ long and wouldn’t fit around Deb and my tires, let alone a hotel post of some sort.  So I only got to use this once.

The second thing I got was the Yohoolyo Disc Lock Alarm system.  Designed to fit into the holes in your disk brakes, all you have to do is push the key lock in and it will arm itself.  Once armed, the alarm sounds a warning tone when someone barely touches your bike.  If they keep messing with it, it goes off louder and for a few minutes, hopefully discouraging the idiots from stealing your bike.  The alarm itself is LOUD.  It’s also very, very touchy.  So much so that when attached to my front disc brake, the mere act of unbuckling my saddle bag makes it chirp in warning.  It also is very sensitive to wind.  Our last night on the trip, a storm blew through and I could hear the alarm going off several times throughout the night. Poor night auditor at the hotel 🙁

After all my security gear arrives, I set out in search of proper rain gear as the forecast calls for scattered rain showers throughout the week we are riding.  I ended up getting a mid-range set of Frogg Toggs which ended up serving me well for the brief bouts of rain we received.

 

Finally, the big day arrives and Deb meets me at my house for an early morning (830 am?) departure.  Originally, we were going to have some friends of mine follow along in an SUV with spare gear and supplies, but due to work constraints, they had to bail out.  So my wife decided to take the car instead of riding with me on the bike.  So now that the bikes and car are loaded with everything we need for this adventure, we leave home and head south towards Monticello, where we stopped at Rays Hamburgers for lunch.  After lunch, we pulled out our Dept. of Heritage Passports and headed up to the old post office to get a stamp, but since they were closed, we had to settle on selfies instead.  Leaving Monticello, we continue south towards Louisiana with a brief stop in Crossett for another selfie at an old post office and gas.

With full tanks and a strong desire to get out of Arkansas, we high tailed it out of Crossett and back south towards the border, crossing into Louisiana a few minutes later.

The inside of Rays Hamburgers in Monticello, AR

The inside of Rays Hamburgers in Monticello, AR

Entering Louisiana, we continue south towards Monroe as Deb wanted to check out the Harley-Davidson store there and get a poker chip for her collection.  After a quick break at the Harley shop and some much-needed water, we hit the Interstate to get back to US-425 which takes us all the way from Pine Bluff to Natchez.  Getting back on US-425 a few miles later, we stop for fuel before heading south to finish up the first day’s ride.

Within an hour of arriving in Natchez, just past the town of Sicily Island, LA, the heavens opened up with a massive thunderstorm.  Pulling off on the side of the road to don rain gear, we make the decision to head back to town to wait out the storm and get gas.  Unfortunately, while putting on my rain gear, I took my goggles off and put them on the back of the bike and forgot about them, only for them to fall off when we took off and get run over by my wife.  Luckily, I had other lenses for them, so I swapped them out after finding the frames when we came back through.  That, by the way, was NOT a happy time for me.

20 or so minutes after arriving at the gas station in Sicily Island, the rain stops and we continue on our way towards Natchez, stopping to pick up my goggle frames and for a quick assessment of the weather when we reached Ferriday.  Turning east, we made our final push into Natchez, stopping at Fort Rosalie for some photos of the bridge before turning in for the night at our hotel.

The next morning, we are up bright and early, ready to start the Trace in earnest.  However, before we started the trace, I wanted to check out some more of Natchez and perhaps get my National Park passport stamped along the way.  After consulting RoadTrippers, I learned that there is also a Natchez Historical Park in Natchez, so we stopped there first for some sightseeing and stamps before heading to the Trace.

The Start of the Trace – June 16

After leaving the Melrose Estate, we drive the short distance to the southern terminus of the Natchez Trace where we truly begin our adventure.  For those of you who don’t know what the Natchez Trace is, at 444 miles long by roughly 300 feet wide on average, the Natchez Trace is a national park consisting solely of the parkway itself and adjoining points of interest such as Pharr mounds and Meriwether Lewis’ gravesite.  The modern Trace largely follows a geologic ridge line from just southwest of Nashville, TN to Natchez, MS and parallels the original foot trail used by Native Americans for centuries.

Our first major stop along the Trace was Mount Locust, where we got our NPS passports stamped and Chloe and I got to spend some time exploring an old inn along the historic Trace.  Mount Locust is one of the oldest structures still standing in an area known for historic homes. John Blommart began what would become Mount Locust by 1780.  

After a quick refresher after the walk up to Mount Locust, we hop back on the trace towards Jackson with a brief stop in Port Gibson for fuel.  Since everyone except me was hangry at this point, we skipped over some of the smaller stops during this segment, with Rocky Springs being the one stop on this segment I really wanted to see, but due to the circumstances, I couldn’t.  Maybe next time.

Arriving in Jackson, we leave the Trace and hop on I-20 (again) to head down to the Harley-Davidson shop so Deb could get another poker chip.  Surprisingly, they were closed when we arrived so we called my sister who lives in the area and told her we were nearby and made arrangements to eat at the Pelican Cove Grill.  As is typical of restaurants on a body of water, this place offered water-side seating in a boat-themed atmosphere.  A live band was playing some super loud country music which made it hard to have a conversation, but the food was decent and the company was good (the service was slow, but they were slammed, so I forgive them).

After lunch, we quickly leave the Jackson area behind with only minimal stops at the Barnett Reservoir overlook and another stop a few miles further down the Trace for an emergency bathroom break.  Squarely out of the Jackson area, we make a stop at the Old Trace and Red Dog Road before ending our day in Kosciusko.

 

Day Two:  June 17

We start the day leaving Kosciusko and after passing another stop I wanted to see because I didn’t know exactly how to get to it, we make our way to Jeff Busby park, one of the many campsites along the Trace.  Driving up to the overlook, we stop for a rest and a drink before heading back down to get back to the Trace.

Leaving Jeff Busby, we make our way further up the Trace to another stop along the Old Trace where we let the kids out to explore a little bit while I made some adjustments to my gear.  A few miles later, we pull into Bynum Mounds — ancient Native American mounds used as bases for other structures where Chloe and Deb held a footrace to see who could get to the top first.

Our next stop is at Davis Lake where we stop and check out the campgrounds and Davis Lake while letting Chloe get out and roam and play at the playground to burn off some energy.  Leaving the campgrounds, we make a short drive over to Owl Mounds which, like Bynum Mounds, are bases to ancient structures that no longer exist.  

Our next stop was Tupelo, the birthplace of Elvis Presley (and Oprah!).  We didn’t bother checking out Oprah’s gigs, but we did pay homage to the King with a visit to his birthplace.  Unfortunately, most of the cool things here are inside and you can’t take photos without paying for the tour, which we were loathe to do, so we got a few of the grounds and the house itself before moving on.

Leaving Tupelo after a brief lunch at a national chained fast food joint that shares a name with Elvis’ nickname, we visit an overlook with a great view of the Trace from altitude before heading off to Twentymile Bottom, where we got out for a brief rest.

After an extended stop at Twentymile Bottom, we head up to Pharr Mounds which is the largest and most important archeological site in northern Mississippi where we hop off the bikes for a few photos before moving on to Cave Springs, which is actually a large sinkhole and adjoining cave, both of which are inaccessible to explore beyond the barrier put in place by NPS.

A few miles later, we reach the state line of Alabama and Mississippi where we stopped for a few photos before heading on to Florence, hopefully before the rain.

Unfortunately, we didn’t escape the rain which hit just as we pulled off the Trace onto US-72 towards Muscle Shoals.  Along the way, we stopped at the Harley Davidson shop for another poker chip.  By this time, the HD shop was about to close, so deb made her visit short and we hopped back on our iron horses and headed into Muscle Shoals, where we passed our hotel and ended up in Florence.  But at least the rain stopped back at the Harley dealership.  The way back into Muscle Shoals was actually really beautiful as you cross the Tennessee River and head up a small bluff before leveling out again.

We get to our hotel and check in, and the front desk agent kindly let us park our bikes next to the front door under the portico to keep them dry.  If you are ever in the Muscle Shoals area and need a great place to stay, I highly recommend the Clarion.

Day Three: June 18

We started our third and final day of riding the Trace late because of rain.  I spent most of the morning trying to figure out the perfect time to place us between two rain pockets and after determining that 11:30 would be ideal, we were forced to leave at 11 because the hotel was fully booked and couldn’t offer late checkout that day.  So we leave at 11 and head to a gas station to fill up only to have the skies open up on us the moment we leave the gas station.  It was a miserable, windy and cold rain at that.  And it rained for about 20 miles or so — coincidentally the distance we had to travel to get back to the Trace.

Once back on the Trace, we pull off at the first stop so that we can dry off and wait for the previously mentioned rain to move on up the Trace a bit — remember, I was trying to keep us between two rain cells — here ya go.  So the place where we stopped at another spring, called Buzzard Roost Springs.  This stop has a natural spring that flows into a larger creek about 50 yards downstream from the trail.  If I didn’t have kids or anyone else around, this would be the perfect place to pitch a hammock and relax for a few hours.

Back on the Trace, we drive for a few miles until we reach the Tennessee River, and the longest bridge on the Natchez Trace.  There are parks on both sides of the river and we visited both while we waited for the rain to move a bit further out of the way.

Leaving the Tennessee River behind, we finish up our Alabama experience on the Trace at the state line where we stop, yet again, to keep us in the bubble of sun.  Finally in Tennessee, and ready for some curves in the road, we make our way further northeast towards Nashville, stopping again to stay out of the rain at Sweetwater Branch.

Sweetwater Branch is a small creek that receives its name from it’s clean and fresh ‘sweet’ flavor of water it produces.  There are lots of places to explore around Sweetwater Branch, and I took a few minutes to hike down the creek for some photos.

Leaving Sweetwater Branch in a pocket of sunshine, we head back on the Trace for a few miles.  The road here is smooth with long flowing curves — nothing major — and I’m enjoying the ride.  Traffic is a non-issue, there aren’t a lot of bicycles on the road and aside from the occasional spray from a passing car, I’m dry.  What else could I ask for?  Oh, yeah, backroads!

We came across a turnoff for what I thought would be a picnic / scenic area.  Instead, what we got was a several miles long almost dirt (it was barely paved) road called ‘Old Trace Road’ that takes you back into the woods, up and around a mountain, and back down to the new Trace. At the top of the mountain, we stopped to check things out and figure out if we should turn around or keep going — we kept going.  At the end of the Old Trace is a small bridge that crosses Jack’s Branch, a small stream running through the area.  Since most of these little streams have parks nearby, I was really hoping this would be no exception, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Jack’s Branch was one of the nicer stops along the Trace, at least in my opinion. The area itself is in a small valley on the side of the road.  The parking lot and restrooms are up top and a stone staircase cuts through rock to take you down to the bottom.

Tons of room to get out and walk around, picnic tables, rocks to climb trails and a creek make for a great pit stop.  Reaching the bottom of a rocky staircase, I make my way down to the creek for some photography before anyone else could get in my way and ruin my shots.  Since it had just rained, the creek was up and the water was flowing nicely through the natural steppes and small waterfalls.

 

 

After Jacks Branch, we ride the now twisty Trace a few miles up to Meriweather Lewis Park where the intrepid adventurer died and is now buried.  It’s a big park, not part of the Trace, but accessible on one of the off-ramps.  There are a few monuments, some reconstructed structures, and some trails.  This was mainly a photo stop for my son, the history buff, who also came along.  As I’ve been saying for most of this segment, we were trying to stay between two rain cells and one was catching up rapidly.  So we left Meriweather Lewis Park quickly and got back on the road….until we saw a sign for a waterfall.

Just past the interchange with US-412 lies Fall Hollow, a waterfall formed by the convergence of three streams.  Access is by a small trail that takes you to an overlook (that just happens to have a tree in the way, so it’s pretty much worthless) and then further down to the bottom of the falls.

Walking the 300 or so yards back to the overlook was a nice excursion.  I found a small trail near the overlook that takes you to a better spot for photos, so I snapped a few before heading back to the bikes as the trail further down was nothing but a mud slick.  Of course, at this point, our luck with the rain finally ended and the skies opened up for a good 30 or so minutes.

During the rain, we met some other riders from Ohio who were leapfrogging us most of the day and we talked shop and shot the shit until the rain died down.  Since it was getting later in the afternoon, and we still had 40 or so miles to go, we left soon after the rain ended which meant that we ended up riding through some of that rain, but it was tolerable.

waterfall

Fall Hollow Falls

Finally escaping the rain after riding painfully slow through some of the best twists yet on the Natchez Trace, we make a few more stops at various parks and overlooks along the way north.  Of course, once the rain stopped, the speed limit dropped to 40 for the duration of the Trace, but the twists were still great, even that slow.

We took the advice of several people on the 501 Riders Facebook Group and made a small diversion to the town of Leiper’s Fork.  Since it was late and we weren’t trying to waste a lot of time, we passed through town quickly and turned around and came back, but not before snapping a photo of a couple of interesting cars.

 

cars from classic tv shows

Replicas of the General Lee and Barney Fife’s car sit on the side of the road outside Leiper’s Fork, TN

After the Leiper’s Fork diversion, we got back on the Natchez Trace for the last few miles of this great parkway.  The next 7.5 miles are some of the best on the Trace.  Nice, smooth, rolling curves that just never end.  One constant twist.  And then you reach the TN-96 Arch Bridge, AKA Suicide Bridge.  This bridge, shown at the very top of this post (and again below), is the tallest on the Trace and one of the tallest in Tennessee.  It is also, unfortunately, responsible for a high number of suicides every year with the toll now inching towards 40 since 2000.  This is such a large problem here that there is talk about changing the bridge to prevent these tragedies.  Anyway, we pull off the Trace and get to the bottom of the bridge where we snap a few photos before finishing the last 10 or so miles of the Natchez Trace.

Loveless Motel Sign

Vintage neon sign advertising the Loveless Cafe and Motel

The end of the trace was bittersweet.  Part of me wanted to turn around and do it all over again, while the other part of me wanted to finish up and get home.  You know, so I could write this post and share all these neat photos with you.  Yeah, that.  Anyway, the Natchez Trace comes ends its 444 mile run at Tennessee Highway 100, outside Franklin, TN.  At the end is a cafe and motel called the Loveless, where we stopped to eat, but since the lines were outrageous, we decided to head up to Dickson to our hotel and find something local there.

Leaving the Loveless, we drive about 20 or so miles into Dickson where we check into our hotel, the Super 8 — another property that offered bike accommodations — and called it an evening.

Days 4 and 5 – The Return Home: June 19,20

The next morning we hit the road around 9:30 to avoid any lingering rain showers that may crop up from the system we were avoiding the day before.  Heading south out of Dickson, we make our way back to TN-100 where we turn west to head home.  TN-100, at this point in it’s run, is a great road to ride on if you can avoid slow locals driving 30 in a 55.  However, once you cross the Tennessee River, the road becomes straight as an arrow and boring as watching your bike dry after a good wash.  

So we decided to head into Jackson and have lunch at Fazoli’s, one of the few still around because it’s cheap, my daughters favorite fast food place, and is on the list of Deb-approved foods (sorry Deb, I had to).  After being split up due to a traffic snafu in Jackson, we meet and eat our lunch before heading out on US-70 to the Memphis area where we stayed the night due to some pretty strong storms (as I write this, parts of my home metro are still without power from that storm).

Since we got to the hotel relatively early, Deb got back out and went exploring and evidently got in touch with some old friends in Nashville and made plans to extend her vacation by visiting them.  While she was exploring, I spent some time with Chloe at the pool and took a small car trip into town to get some supplies and kill some time.

The next morning, Deb and I say our goodbyes as she was heading back east to visit friends in Nashville and I was heading west back home with the wife and kids in the car behind me.  Leaving Memphis around 9:30, I made pretty good time home, stopping for a rest stop at Lake Greenlee near Brinkely before deciding to head into town for a quick lunch.

Leaving Brinkley and the McDonalds I swore I’d never return to after a chicken nugget ordeal a few years back, I made surprisingly quick time home, despite the large number of law enforcement out in the more rural segments of US-70.  Arriving in the Little Rock metro around 1, I put my full helmet on and hopped on I-40 to get home a bit faster than the backroads would take me.  I finally made it in around 1:30 and after taking care of my pets and some other business-related things I needed to tidy up, I started writing this.

All in all, I enjoyed this adventure immensely.  From start to finish, there was never a dull moment.  Even the rain offered some new experiences for me, and I learned a lot about what I can, and can’t do, on a motorcycle.  The Natchez Trace itself was a ride I will never forget — even the flat boring Mississippi parts offered enough to keep you engaged and learning.  I would give this ride an A- overall, with points being docked for the sheer monotony of sections in Mississippi.  If I had to do it again in the same direction, I would probably start in Tupelo and go north from there.  That said, I am planning another ride down the trace, this time north to south in the fall.  Maybe not this year, but definitely in the fall.  I hope you can join me.