AS A TEXAS RESIDENT from San Francisco by way of Sydney, Australia, I’ve seen my fair share of trails, both official and off-road. But none blend the visual splendor and the history you’ll see while traveling the tracks that cut across the American South. Evergreen oaks and flowering magnolias set the scene for cultural landmarks that dot the region like wildflowers.
An ideal base camp for a trip through the best of the region is the city of
1. Tupelo Automobile Museum – Tupelo, MS
You’ll see a lot of awesome cars on the road, but you probably won’t see anything that tops Elvis Presley’s 1976 Lincoln. Find it at the
Home to $6 million worth of classic and collectible cars, this is a huge, 120,000-square-foot institution where the self-guided tour takes you from a 1886 Benz — the world’s first automobile, a three-wheeler that topped out at 10mph on its first test drive — to a super slick, never-driven 1994 Dodge Viper that can apparently cruise at 188mph (maybe don’t try to find out if your own ride can hit these speeds). On a visit, you’ll be able to peek into the restoration area to see how things are going on the museum’s latest acquisitions.
2. Tombigbee State Park / Natchez Trace Parkway – Tupelo, MS
In the digital age, it often seems like every preserve and park in the country has been discovered — and Instagrammed — but they don’t all feel that way.
When you’re ready to hit the road, you’re in for a treat. The
3. Mississippi Museum of Art / Tougaloo College – Jackson, MS
You’ll reach Jackson after 175 miles southwest along the Natchez Trace Parkway, with plenty of time for landmark hopping. Right downtown, the
Stay a night in Jackson after experiencing the City of Soul at music venues like
5. Pascal’s Manale / Preservation Hall – New Orleans, LA
From Jackson, it’s a straight shot south on I-55 to NOLA. You probably don’t need my help finding something to do here, whether your interests are artistic, culinary, or outdoorsy. But you can’t go wrong with a fancy meal of turtle soup and crawfish étoufée at Amy Schumer’s favorite restaurant,
From NOLA, point your car northward again and follow signs for US-61, otherwise known as the Blues Highway. The origin of the name will become obvious shortly, as you travel back into Mississippi, and on up towards the Delta.
4. Natchez National Historical Park / Carriage House – Natchez, MS
From The Big Easy to The Little Easy — Natchez is another major music hub. Mick Jagger filmed much of his 2014 biopic Get on up here, chronicling the life of the “Godfather of Soul,” James Brown; Johnny Depp and Paul McCartney filmed the “Early Days” video here that same year.
Established in 1988, Natchez’s
6. Vicksburg National Military Park – Vicksburg, MS
During the Civil War, General Ulysses S. Grant and the Union Army bombarded the city for 47 grueling days. Civilians sheltered in caves dug into the hillsides until the city’s surrender on July 4, 1863. The Mississippi, America’s great river, was now in the hands of the North. This was a vital turning point in the Civil War, and it’s well worth visiting
7. Historic Blues District – Clarksdale, MS
The Mississippi Delta — “the most Southern place on Earth,” not to mention one of the Blues-iest. Clarksdale, the ideal base for exploring the region, is where the Blues began. Legend has it that this is where Robert Johnson sold his soul in exchange for his supernatural musical talent. It’s where Muddy Waters and Son House were born and raised. And these days, it’s where the Historic Blues District, also known as Blues Alley, is located. Here you’ll find the
8. Square Books / Rowan Oak (William Faulkner House) – Oxford, MS
Drive east from Clarksdale and you’ll hit the ultimate college town: historic Oxford. Bookstores around the country are dying out, so we’re lucky to have
9. Graceland / Civil Rights Museum / Cooper-Young – Memphis, TN
Seventy-five miles from Oxford is
But the real trick to fully experiencing Memphis these days isn’t found on Beale Street or downtown, it’s southeast in the Cooper-Young neighborhood, a blossoming community in the vein of Williamsburg. The neighborhood has its own newspaper, The Lamplighter, and keeps a calendar of the local goings-on. Take your pick from its range of restaurant choices — locally sourced fried green tomato sandwiches or shrimp and grits at Sweet Grass, for example — or scout out the craft beer selection; this is the home of the annual Cooper-Young Beerfest.
10. Cheekwood / Hattie B’s Hot Chicken / Bourbon St. Blues & Boogie Bar – Nashville, TN
If Memphis doesn’t wipe you out, the longest wall-to-wall drive on the itinerary is NE on I-40 for about three hours to Nashville. My travel mates last year introduced me to the beautiful
In Nashville, you’ve reached the northernmost stop on this tour. Now it’s time to hop back on that mellow, scenic road — the Natchez Trace Parkway — and head on down to Tupelo for some end-of-trip sightseeing. It’ll be all the more worthwhile, given the new perspective you’ve gained on this special part of the country.
11. Elvis Presley Driving Trail – Tupelo, MS
Back in Tupelo, there are a dozen significant sites that relate to Elvis’ younger years. They’re marked with interpretive bronze plaques as part of the
Also on the trail: Elvis’
12. The Elvis Presley Birthplace & Museum – Tupelo, MS
If you like Tupelo as much as I do, you’ll probably end up staying a while.
Tupelo, MS -> Natchez Trace Parkway -> Jackson, MS -> New Orleans, LA -> Blues Highway (US-61) -> Natchez, MS -> Vicksburg, MS -> Clarksdale, MS -> Oxford, MS -> Memphis, TN -> Nashville, TN -> Natchez Trace Parkway -> Tupelo, MS