Imagine a national park that’s 450 miles long… It may sound impossible, but it exists! Starting in Nashville, Tennessee, and ending in Natchez, Mississippi, the Natchez Trace Parkway is widely recognized as one of the most beautiful scenic drives in the U.S. While you won’t see any strip malls or fast food joints along the way, you will come upon lovely waterfalls, historic structures, rugged hikes, and even a 200-year-old unsolved mystery. Intrigued? Read on!
The Natchez Trace Parkway loosely follows the original Natchez Trace; a path first carved out by prehistoric animals, then nomadic Indians, European explorers, and finally wagon trains — By the early 1800s, it was a major thoroughfare for goods headed to and from the Mississippi River.
Once the steamboat came on the scene, traffic slowed substantially on the Natchez Trace, and eventually, the dirt road returned to nature. The National Park Service made plans to build the parkway in 1938, but it wasn’t until 2005 that the Parkway as we know it was finally completed.
Today, the Natchez Trace Parkway is a winding, two-lane roadway where bicycles are welcome, pulling over to take a look around is encouraged, and speeding is all but impossible.
Don’t opt for the Trace if you’re in a hurry to get to your destination- On this road, it’s all about the journey and the hidden treasures you find along the way, and several of those treasures can be found in and around Franklin, Tennessee. Here are our favorite spots to stop when we venture out on the Natchez Trace Parkway from Franklin.
Natchez Trace Parkway Bridge (milepost 438)
Stretching majestically across Birdsong Hollow in Franklin, the Natchez Trace Parkway Bridge is a marvel of modern engineering and one of Tennessee’s landmark structures. And if the throngs of young people posing along the bridge’s railings are any indication, it’s also a major Instagram/TikTok hotspot. The parkway and bridge are must-sees for any visitor.
As bridges go, the Natchez Trace Parkway Bridge is a relatively new one. In the early 1990s, the federal government was planning to bulldoze the steep hills on both sides of Birdsong Hollow to complete the parkway’s long-planned terminus in Nashville. Members of the Natchez Trace Parkway Association convinced the park system to leave the hills intact and build a bridge across the hollow instead.
$15 million in federal funding was secured, and award-winning structural engineer Eugene Figg, Jr. was hired to design the new bridge.
Figg was known for creating bridges that were as beautiful and artistic as they were functional. He drew up plans for a concrete double-arch bridge that would be 1,572 feet long and rise 145 feet over State Route 96. It would be the first bridge to be built in the United States using pre-cast concrete segments — the only other one like it at the time was located in Germany.
Although many bridges use spandrel beams to distribute the bridge’s weight along its arch evenly, the Natchez Trace Parkway Bridge deck’s weight is supported at the center of each arch. The lack of spandrel columns gives the bridge its iconic, spare design — Architecturally, it’s known as a cathedral arch bridge.
If you want to see the bridge for yourself, two great vantage points provide for stunning views. A parking area on the north side of the bridge includes an overlook of the bridge and valley.
Cross the bridge and drive down the exit ramp that leads to State Route 96, and you’ll find parking spots at the bottom of the hill that allows you to view and photograph the entire bridge in all its glory.
If you do choose to walk on the bridge, please be careful — The bridge’s railings are only 32-inches tall, the bridge attracts lots of car and bike traffic, and the shoulders on either side of the road are narrow. The National Park Service is currently working on designing bridge barriers to make it safer for pedestrians. That project is expected to be finished by 2023.
Timberland Park (milepost 437.2)
Just beyond the Double Arch Bridge, you’ll find Timberland Park, a fantastic and still little-known spot for a hike. Stop by the park’s cozy interpretive center before you start your hike to borrow a handmade walking stick and grab a map. All the trails here are lovely, but we especially recommend the Big East Fork Reserve loop trail, which includes a stunning pond and meadow filled with birds and other wildlife.
Leiper’s Fork (milepost 428)
There’s a reason so many celebrities live in this Franklin-area outpost. With its quaint antique stores, fantastic southern restaurants, and local art galleries, Leiper’s Fork is a favorite destination for locals and tourists alike.
Gordon House (milepost 407.7)
This historic home once belonged to ferry operator John Gordon in the early 1800s. It’s one of the few buildings connected with the Old Trace that’s still standing.
The house is locked up, but you can take a 10-minute walk from the site that leads to a section of the original Natchez Trace and the Duck River ferry site, which was in operation until a bridge was finally built at the end of the 1800s.
Baker Bluff/Jackson Falls, (Milepost 405.1)
This popular stop on the Trace includes both a portrait-worthy scenic overlook and a short (but steep) .2-mile paved hike into a small gorge to see Jackson Falls, named for Tennessee President Andrew Jackson. At times, the falls are only a trickle, but after a rain, they’re quite a sight to see.
Old Trace Drive at the Tobacco Barn (milepost 401.4)
The historic tobacco barn here is a visible landmark that will help you find this two-mile, one-way drive along the actual Old Trace trail.
You’ll see some beautiful views of the valley and get a taste of what it felt like to travel the Old Trace on this bumpy dirt road, which makes for a fun and adventurous detour– Our kids loved it. The Old Trace rejoins the parkway at the end.
Fall Hollow (Milepost 391.9)
If you can handle a somewhat steep (though not dangerous) descent, the payoff here is definitely worth it. Fall Hollow starts with an easy, paved walk to an observation deck that overlooks a waterfall cascading down a sheer rock face.
Continue past the deck and on down the dirt trail, and you’ll soon come across even more waterfalls, including one with a crystal-clear pool of water that’s perfect for kids (and adults) to play in beneath the falls.
Meriwether Lewis Death and Burial Site (milepost 385.9)
The ruins of the Grinder House, an inn on the Old Trace where famed explorer and statesman Meriwether Lewis lost his life, are at this site, along with Lewis’s grave.
e sure and read up on the strange circumstances of Lewis’s death before you arrive — It’s a dark mystery historians are still trying to solve. There are also several hiking trails around this site, and they aren’t always well-maintained, so follow a hiking app map if you decide to set out on one.
The drive from Franklin to the Meriwether Lewis site takes about an hour, and at this point, we generally turn around and head back. If you make a few stops, plan on setting aside about half a day for your Natchez Trace Parkway adventure. Have fun!