My wife and 4-year old son are spending a couple of weeks with her family in Oklahoma, and while I've certainly had my fair share of "Honey-do" projects around the house, I swore to myself that I would take some time to do some things for me. 2020 has been a challenge for me just as it has for lots of other people, and for my own mental health I needed to give myself a break.
Now, under normal circumstances that might be nice dinners out with friends, Nashville Sounds games, and maybe a couple of concerts at our local independent venues. But 2020 is far from normal, isn't it? But one of the amazing things about living in Tennessee is that there's no shortage of places to explore as long as you're up for a little outdoor action. I spent a couple of weekends at Rock Island State Park out past Woodbury, and it was absolutely awe-inspiring.
Saturday I kept it a little closer to home and took a VERY early morning hike around Radnor Lake, which was immensely peaceful.
Yesterday, though, I just decided to hop in the car and drive down Natchez Trace Parkway. Obviously I knew that Natchez Trace came through Tennessee, but as busy as life tends to get I've just never really thought about it. Jim from the morning show mentioned it to me the other week and I thought "Oh yeah, I still need to do that!" If you're not familiar, the Natchez Trace was one of the first well-developed trading routes in America. Originally blazed by herds of bison traveling to salt licks in Nashville, it was made into a well-traveled road by Native Americans and then improved by European settlers as they created a path from Tupelo, Mississippi up to Nashville. There's a deep, rich (and sometimes dark) history dating back thousands of years.
So with a beautiful fall Sunday and nothing but time on my hands, I decided to get in the car and drive until I couldn't drive anymore. And let me tell you, it was SO worth it, and it makes a perfect fall getaway for anyone - no matter how much of an outdoorsman you are.
I live in Spring Hill, so the easiest place for me to get on the Parkway was off of Highway 50 in Columbia, which worked out perfectly because one of the most Instagrammable spots along the way is only a few miles from there. Jackson Falls and the Baker's Bluff Overlook are BEAUTIFUL and separated by only about 3/4 mile of trail around mile marker 404. Both have parking areas right by them, and neither require a lot of walking. Baker's Bluff overlooks fields of farmland and green pastures, and especially at 7:00 in the morning when I got there it was a reminder of just how big and quiet the world really is. There wasn't a soul here, and the only sounds you could hear were birds and the occasional cow bellowing down below.
Jackson Falls has a separate parking area, with a steep but manageable 900-foot descent to the falls. If you're really adventurous, you can climb down some rocks closer to the base of the falls, but even a novice hiker can get pretty close and get that perfect picture. My one recommendation would be to get here early. It's one of the most popular spots along the trail, and while I got there early enough to have the place to myself, by the time I drove back by a few hours later the parking lot was full. It's BEAUTIFUL though, and it's easy to see why people flock to it.
Note: If you're up for a little more of a challenge, there IS a 3/4 mile trail between Baker's Bluff and the Falls. It's not terribly strenuous, but it's narrow and a little overgrown, so it might not be the best trail for a beginner.
The thing about Natchez Trace is that there are stops like every couple of miles, and it's a good mix of stuff for everyone - the history buff can stop at Meriweather Lewis's Gravesite near Hohenwald, the War of 1812 monument near Leiper's Fork, or "Sheboss Place" closer to Centerville. Hiking enthusiasts can stop off at trails as short as 1/2 mile to the 20-mile Highland Rim trail that runs from near Columbia all the way up to Franklin. And families can stop off at picnic areas that are scattered along the parkway.
I'm more of the hiking enthusiast, so my next stop was the Devil's Backbone trail and then Fall Hollow down around mile marker 394. While Devil's Backbone sounds super intimidating, it's not that bad of a trail, and it definitely gets you back into the woods a bit. Fall Hollow was probably my favorite spot of the whole day. It's a trail that winds down to three waterfalls, and it's by far the most challenging trek. You can actually SEE the first waterfall just off the road by taking a short paved path. But to advance on the trail is a bit tougher. There's a sign that says "unimproved trail ahead" and they're not kidding. There's quite a bit of navigating rocky terrain as you wind down but the end result was awesome, with a really serene waterfall and pool nestled in a cove that you can pretty easily walk behind for a cool experience.
Continuing to head south you run into several short offshoot trails, including one that leads to an old collapsed phosphate mine, and another quick one around an old steel factory that provides for some pretty nice views of the Buffalo River.
If you're feeling adventurous, you can also jump on Old Trace Drive, a 2-1/2 mile piece of the original Trace that winds through the woods and stops off at a couple of pretty peaceful overlooks.
I made it down pretty close to the Alabama State Line before deciding to turn around...there's several more short hiking trails along the way, and that trend continues as you get into the Alabama and Mississippi portions of the trail, but I wanted to head back north.
You'll pass the War of 1812 Monument around Mile Marker 426 near Leiper's Fork, along with the southern trailhead of the 20-mile Highland Rim. You'll also find another one of my favorite spots - the Garrison Creek trail. It's a great picnic area as well, with a quick half-mile path up to another great overlook. If you keep going past that though, you'll wind down an INCREDIBLY narrow and a little more strenuous mile back down to the parking area. There was NO ONE on this trail when I went. I mean it. I didn't see a soul - but did catch some beautiful plants and flowers, and even a fox off to the side of the trail.
Head a couple miles back up on the road, and you'll hit one of the most notable landmarks along the trail - the double arch bridge - also home to countless people taking Instagram selfies (and with good reason). Park and take a walk along the bridge, but also take a quick walk down a short paved path that gives you a little better perspective.
I wrapped up my day with the reward of some takeout from Loveless Cafe. All-in-all I was out on the road for about seven hours, drove around 150 miles round-trip, and hiked for seven miles along about 5 different trails. I'd do it again and a heartbeat, and the best part is that most of the trails are easy enough that even my 4-year old son could handle them. There are a couple that I wouldn't recommend for novice hikers (the Garrison Creek and Fall Hollow trails could be a little rough), but the whole Natchez Trace is pretty accessible to just about anyone.
Guys, it's RIGHT HERE in the Tennessee and even though I've lived here five years, I've never even driven on it. It's beautiful, it's historic, and it's waiting for you to explore it. GO. Put down your phones, turn off the TV, and get out to enjoy all that our state has to offer.