This is the first of a series of posts about a bike trip I took in April of 2011. The tour covered 800 miles through Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee, most of which was ridden on the Natchez Trace Parkway. The Natchez Trace is a 440 mile paved road which roughly follows a historical route used by Native Americans and early settlers. Along the way there are nature trails, picnic areas, camping spots and signs pointing out historical sites; all maintained by the National Park Service. Traffic was light, the scenery along the Trace was beautiful, and every day there were interesting attractions to stop at. Whether you keep reading or not, if you're thinking about a bike tour in the south consider the Natchez Trace. It's a great ride, and should be pretty easy for anyone with basic equipment and a little time.
The Natchez Trace Parkway is unlike most other bike trips that go from town to town. Most of the land adjacent to the Trace is government owned, and there are no commercial services or advertisements allowed directly on the road. The scenery is beautiful, but this also means you'll have to plan trips into nearby towns to purchase food and supplies. The National Park Service provides free campgrounds and restrooms along the Trace, including several bicycle only camps. Along with nearby paid campgrounds, there are always places within a day's ride to stop and camp for the night. If you're okay going several days without showers or real laundry you can easily complete the Trace without spending much money.
During this tour I rode my Long Haul Trucker, equipped with Tubus racks and Ortlieb front and rear panniers. For camping I brought along my new Hennessy Hammock and EMS sleeping bag. My cooking equipment was a simple Coleman propane stove and one small cooking pot. I carried one rain jacket, two pairs of shorts and bike jerseys, three pairs of socks, padded short liners and undershirts. Along with my basic tools, personal items and sunscreen I brought my iPad so I could read a few books and keep up with the outside world when I came across wifi. I didn't think I packed too many luxuries, but when I weighed my bike the night before I was surprised to find it was 92lbs fully loaded. I've heard of people doing a coast to coast tour with less gear than that! I suppose a large portion of the weight was food, water and my heavy bike lock.
Day 1 - Baton Rouge to Natchez
100 miles / 100 miles total
The first day isn't as much about the Trace as it is getting there from Louisiana. I started from Baton Rouge, about 90 miles south of Natchez MS and the start of the Trace.
I woke up an hour before sunrise, knowing I'll need as much daylight as I can get for biking. I had packed and prepared everything the previous day, all that was left is to eat breakfast and wait for the sun to come up. I'm a little nervous about riding through Baton Rouge since I'm still unfamiliar with the city and what traffic I might run into. At this hour I don't have much to worry about though, traffic is light and I find plenty of room on the shoulders for riding. I make it out to "old scenic" highway 61, about 30 miles of uneventful riding past factories and undeveloped land.
Eventually I turn off where Google Maps had directed me to a mix of rural country roads. The scenery is nicer here. There are turns every two or three miles, and I had to consult my iPhone's GPS a couple times, but otherwise things go smoothly. There are a few dogs who start to chase me along the way, but fortunately none of them get close enough for me to have to use the pepper spray I brought along for this reason. Once they get close I yell at them first, and they mostly back away and looked confused. It's a warm day, and during the afternoon I start getting cramps in my legs when I'm riding up the hills. It's bad enough that I have to get off the bike and rest a few times. The horseflies were starting to get to me too. On the bright side, I did find the best bridge in all of Mississippi.
After 30 or so miles I turn back onto highway 61, where I immediately find a gas station. It's just what I needed. I had stopped for water in the late morning, but since then I hadn't come across anywhere to get supplies and I was running low. I filled my bottles in the restroom, bought a Gatorade, and pick up some candy to snack on. I feel great after a short rest, but unfortunately it doesn't last. This section turned out to be one of the worst parts of the trip. Outside of Baton Rouge highway 61 was a nice ride, but here the road seemed grow worse after every mile. The shoulders are narrow, and I'd frequently hit the rumble strip or slip off the pavement. The breakdown lane was all thick gravel stone, impossible to ride on and annoying when it spilled onto the pavement. Cars and trucks were usually nice enough to move over into the next lane, but traffic was too fast for me to safely travel outside of the shoulder. On top of that I was getting tired, and there was no shade from the afternoon sun. I was starting to regret not stopping to camp at an earlier state park, and considered trying find a spot of woods along the highway. I keep at it though, and after some confusion with the directions I find myself in Natchez. A few more miles and I'm at the start of the Trace!
It was a great relief to have made it. I had come 100 miles, and managed to finish with an hour of daylight left to set up my camp. Unfortunately the nearest campground was ten miles ahead, and even if I had enough energy to reach it before sundown I'd certainly miss some historical sites along the way. I decided instead to stealth camp near the start of the Trace. I rode ahead to get a sense of what the land was like, checked Google Maps on my phone, and decided on what seemed like a good patch of woods. There was a nice recessed area a few yards back into the woods that was hidden from the road and had some good trees for me to hang my hammock. It was my first time using the Hennessy Hammock, and it took a couple attempts to keep the rope from slipping and get the rainfly adjusted just right. I still managed to get everything comfortable before the last of the daylight disappeared.
That night a thunderstorm rolled in shortly after dusk and lasted until early morning. I got up a few times to check the rainfly and my panniers, but everything stayed dry. The night was filled with constant thunder and heavy rain. I was also a little worried about being caught stealth camping, since there was a residential area behind the patch of woods I was in. Between all the noise and my own nervousness I didn't get much sleep that night.
Day 2 - Natchez MS to Rocky Springs
60 miles / 160 miles total
I woke up with the sunrise. I'm eager to get back on my bike, even after yesterday's ride and my lack of sleep. After packing up camp I made my way back to the start of the Trace where I ate a can of corn beef hash and fruit for breakfast and planned my day. Using my phone I find a Walmart about a mile away, so I head out to pick up some more food (mostly fruit and snacks) and fill my water bottles before I begin.
The rain had stopped some time the night before and the weather was nice. Fortunately I don't feel very tired, even after pushing myself the previous day. There are lots of great places to stop the first day, including the old Mount Locust historic inn, Sunken Trace and Emerald Indian Mound. At Emerald Mound I stopped to have a cup of coffee and eat a couple donuts for a mid-morning snack. I managed to boil over the coffee and spill it all over my cooking equipment, but still end up with some left for drinking. While I'm eating I talk to a few other visitors about bike touring, including one man who told me about doing trans-America in his youth. He mentions he saw another cyclist on a recumbent about 50 miles north of me from Portland OR. Since I'm considering moving to the west coast, I hope I have the chance to catch up with him.
At Mount Locust Inn I stop at a ranger station where I find a "I bicycled the Natchez Trace" sew-on patch for sale. I had to buy it, even though it was still my first day. I figured now that I had that patch I couldn't make any excuses to turn back before I reached the end. While I'm there the ranger tells me about a great fried chicken place in Lorman, a small town a couple miles off the Trace. I considered stopping, but wouldn't get there until 3 or 4. Since I don't want to camp too late in the day I stop at a picnic area and make my own food.
That evening I camp at Rocky Springs, having gone a bit over 60 miles. I don't see any designated camping spots and the ranger station is closed, so I put my hammock up in the woods behind the RV campground. The ranger at Mount Locust had mentioned primitive camping and I see another tent in the general area so I don't feel guilty about it. Rocky Springs was one of the first free campgrounds maintained by the National Park Service, and was typical of the campgrounds along the Trace. There are bathrooms, cold water, and nearly everyone else there was "camping" in RVs. A shower and electricity would have been nice, but I don't need them. I fall asleep soon after setting up my hammock.
Day 3 - Rocky Springs to Timber Lake
60 miles / 220 miles total
I start the day early after eating breakfast at camp. I didn't explore Rocky Springs the night before, so I take a quick look around before leaving. It's not until later in the day that I realize I missed the old church and abandoned cemetery I had wanted to see there.
In the morning I run into another bike tourist just entering the Trace from an adjoining highway. He's heading to a route down the Mississippi and eventually to New Orleans. We talk for a few minutes, and he tells me how bad the road he was just on is. I can tell he seems a little frazzled. I wish him luck, knowing that he'll have an easy time with traffic on the Trace. It's been my experience that cars are extremely friendly towards cyclists here. Even though there are no shoulders and a 50mph speed limit, cars give you plenty of respect when passing. Most move over entirely to the other lane, even waiting patiently behind you when there's oncoming traffic. It seems like most motorists are there to enjoy the parkway, and know you're there for the same reason they are.
I stopped at the Clinton visitor center in the early afternoon to fill my bottles and use the restroom. The ladies in charge are very nice, and pleasant to talk to. They even offered me a cup of coffee while I was there. When I mention camping they called the Timber Lake campground up ahead in Ridgeland to make sure they still offered tent camping, since they had heard the campground was considering getting rid of those spots. After my chat I stopped at the closest gas station in Clinton to buy some food, but decide against heading further into town. I also picked up an extra lighter, which I kept in a separate bag for the remainder of the trip. After spilling coffee the previous day, my lighter and back-up matches were damp and didn't work. Fortunately breakfast was the only hot meal I missed, but I was still mad at myself for not having a better backup.
By 4pm I'm near Ridgeland, just north of Jackson. There's a bike path up the Trace that's not on my map, but despite heavier traffic I stay on the main road since I'm unfamiliar with the area. I stop at a ranger station, where they provide me with a map of the town and directions to both the local bike shop and Timber Lake campground where I'll spend the night. The bike shop is easy to get to. I take a quick look around but realize I need to get to camp if I want to make it before dark, so I plan to come back the next day. Making it to the campground wasn't as easy. It's at least four or five miles away, and although Ridgeland has a few bike lanes I still find myself having to ride on the street during rush hour when traffic is fierce. It would have been better to wait a few hours until the roads cleared up, but then I would have been riding in the dark through an unfamiliar area. Fortunately as I get near the campground I meet a local cyclist riding a mountain bike down near the reservoir area. She shows me a shortcut to the campground, avoiding two busy intersections on the way.
Timber Lake campground is disappointing. Tent camping costs $17, and the place is right near a busy intersection where you can hear traffic all night long. There are only a dozen or so trees near the campground, but I still manage to find a spot for my hammock. I can see why they were thinking of getting rid of tent camping, it seems more like an RV park than a place where anyone would want to actually camp. The good news is they had pretty much every luxury you could think of. Showers, electricity, laundry, even free wifi. With all the traffic it's a noisy night, but I brought along earplugs so it doesn't bother me.
Day 4 - Timber Lake to Kosciusko Bike Camp
65 miles / 285 miles total
The next morning I take my time leaving camp. I have a long shower and do two loads of laundry so I can leave wearing clean clothes. I had rinsed out my laundry the day before at Rocky Springs campground, but it just seemed cleaner to put them through a real wash. While I'm waiting I charge my electronics and take advantage of the wifi to answer a few emails on my iPad. This turned out to be the last time I used my iPad to do anything Internet related on the tour. I had expected to stop at a coffee shop every couple of days to catch up on things, but finding wifi turned out to be a challenge on the Trace.
After camp I take a few pictures of the reservoir and stop at a grocery store for food. In addition to fresh fruit and dry meals I end up buying half a dozen donuts. Probably not the healthiest meal, but my body was craving calories at that point. With very few restaurants on the Trace I often had a hard time getting enough to eat, especially since dried foods like rice or beans were too heavy for me to eat much of after a long day of biking.
On my way out of town I head back to the bike shop, Indian Cycle, to buy a new pair of gloves. My old ones were well worn, and never had that much padding to begin with. Indian Cycle seemed oriented towards high end racing and definitely not to a bike tourist on a budget. I ended up paying nearly $40 on a pair of Pearl iZUMi Select Gel gloves. It was more than I wanted to spend, but my hands were killing me at that point. As soon as I got back on the bike I knew I had made a good decision. With the new gloves nearly all the pain I was having disappeared.
By the time I get back to the Trace it's nearly 11am. I ride the bike trail until it ends at the main road, avoiding any remaining traffic near the Jackson area. The first half of the day takes me past the Ross Barnett Reservoir, a beautiful lake area. I stop a few times to eat and enjoy the view. I also visit a nice nature trail at Cypress Swamp. I see a few gators sunning themselves, although they're small compared to some I've seen in Florida.
Around 6pm I reach Kosciusko and find the bicycle only campground near the ranger station. There's another tent already there, and it turns out to be the recumbent cyclist Dave Van Gundy I had heard about on my first day. He's a little surprised that word of his trip had made it that far. We talk about bike touring and our various trips and gear while I prepare dinner. I'm glad I was able to catch up to him, considering he seemed pretty far ahead when I started.
Kosciusko seems like a large town, and one of the main roads runs by the campground. Traffic is noisy, but again with earplugs it didn't bother me.