Spring Break Road Trip 2022 | Days 7-8 | Driving the Natchez Trace Parkway from Rocky Springs, MS to Hohenwald, TN | Woodall Mountain, Mississippi’s Highest Point | March 2022
We started our second day on the Natchez Trace by visiting the remains of the town of Rocky Springs close to where we had camped the night before. There wasn’t much to see aside from a couple of rusted safes, but the old Church was still standing and is technically still in use.
From here we continued Northeast along the trace, not really stopping until we reached I-20 where we left the trace briefly to go into Jackson, Mississippi and see the Mississippi Capitol Building. It was very quiet downtown this Saturday morning and a bit chilly, but the Capitol was nice – if a bit identical to the Capitol building in D.C. But our drive through Jackson with all the traffic and stoplights made us anxious to get back onto the Natchez Trace where there is no traffic or stoplights…one day on the Trace and we were already spoiled.
Just Northeast of Jackson we stopped at an overlook of the Ross R. Barnett Reservoir, an impoundment of the Pearl River. We briefly considered getting the kayak out, but the wind and waves were high and we questioned whether it was legal to put in where we were.
Further along the Trace we stopped again to walk through a swamp of cypress and water tupelo trees, all very reminiscent of Congaree National Park. The ranger the day before had said that this would be the best place to see alligators, but it was still much to cold for them to come out of hibernation.
We then drove for a ways, stopping occasionally to read signs and take pictures, most notably of Charlotte at ‘Red Dog Road’ – though the other dog we saw here was significantly more red than Charlotte. We grabbed some big cookies in French Camp (another recommendation of the ranger) and then pulled into Jeff Busby – the second campground along the Trace. We drove into the campground and were immediately skeptical. It had started to precipitate, and every single unoccupied campsite was on a slope. To make matters more peevish – there were places to set up a tent on a flat area, but every single one was occupied, not by fellow tent campers, but by RVers.
We discussed it and decided that driving further North and paying for a campsite in the Tombigbee National Forest would be better than camping here. So we pressed on, not really stopping because of the light rain, until we reached Davis Lake, a few miles west of the Trace.
Rest assured, this was a great decision. For less than $15, we got a flat place to set up a tent AND showers! An added bonus that we had never really considered was that all the electric sites meant none of the RV’s were running their generators at night.
Because of the light rain and wind, we stayed off the water and took the opportunity to set up and break in our new backpacking tent — even though it is smaller than our car camping tent, it was somehow more comfortable. We were definitely out of place with our tent though – of the 30 some occupied sites there was only one other tent camper, a woman (trail name Stambler – a portmanteau of Steady Ambler) who was currently backpacking the Old Trace which is quite impressive considering that less than 75 miles are marked, for the remaining ~400 miles she was effectively blazing her own trail, following the rutted trail through the woods and walking the old county roads. We exchanged stories and may have even convinced her to try out the Centennial Trail this Spring!
The night was fortunately uneventful and we got up with the sun and continued on our last day on the Trace. We stopped right away to see a grouping of mounds (Owl Creek Mounds) as well as a monument to Hernando de Soto who wintered near here in 1540-1541. De Soto is also one of the only explorers to have had contact with the groups of people known collectively as the ‘Mississippian Culture’ and who built most of the mounds we saw along this trip. After his expedition, the Mississippian culture changed dramatically due to social upheaval and epidemics ultimately fragmenting into the various peoples who inhabited the South East.
Still further along the trail we stopped in the town of Tupelo to see a collection of monuments to the Battle of Tupelo, a minor action in 1864 over Sherman’s supply lines during the Atlanta Campaign. The park was only a city block, so we read our history and then continued along.
From here we continued Northeast, stopping once for a short walk, before crossing over the Tennessee-Tombigbee waterway, a collection of canals and rivers that directly connects the Tennessee River to the Gulf of Mexico. The trace near here was closed for construction, but that was fine with us, we had planned to get off near here anyway to visit Woodall Mountain, the highest point in Mississippi.
We followed state roads generally North toward Iuka, Mississippi where we followed an access road to the summit. The ‘peak’ is littered with radio towers, and there wasn’t much in way of a view, but we found a letterbox and made sure to get a picture standing on top of the summit rock bagging our 28th State Highpoint.
Our journey then immediately added another milestone when we crossed into Alabama, my 50th state! We couldn’t stop for a picture on the highway so we got back onto the Natchez Trace and snagged some completion pictures at the Tennessee/Alabama state line instead. Our time in Alabama was very short but we enjoyed it sitting along the Tennessee River – or at least tried to enjoy it. This was the only place on our entire trip where bugs were an issue…thanks ‘Bama.
Our time on the Natchez Trace was coming to an end as we entered into Tennessee. But we had one final stop to make: Meriwether Lewis’ grave. Lewis (of the Lewis and Clark expedition) traveled the trace in 1809 while Governor of Upper Louisiana. On his way to D.C., Lewis stopped to spend the night at Grinder’s Stand, 70 miles Southwest of Nashville. There, he was shot twice, and later bled out and died. The cause of death was reported as suicide; a conclusion that was accepted by both Thomas Jefferson and William Clark, and seemingly consistent with Lewis’ mental state at the time. But, historians have questioned this hypothesis, believing that Lewis was murdered, likely by highwaymen for which the trace was notorious, though some have manufactured a conspiracy of libel, intrigue, and assassins. Personally, Curtis believes that Lewis killed himself in a moment of despair.
Lewis remains one of Curtis’ personal heroes, and it was important to him that we stop to see his grave. Lewis was buried near the inn where he died, and then later reinterred beneath a monument. Notably, the monument features an unfinished column representing a fruitful life cut short.
We considered staying at a campsite nearby for the night and even completing the remaining 70 miles of the trace, but the forecast promised thunderstorms across the Midwest followed by a cold front, so we browsed our maps and came up with a plan for the next couple of days, left the trace for the last time, and headed West to Jackson, TN. There we got a hotel, some mediocre barbeque, and the promised rain.