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(Above) Land and sky in Nashville’s Big Back Yard. Photo by Anthony Scarlati. (Click on images to view larger versions.)

Chicago Traveler heads back to explore Nashville’s Big Back Yard, the charming towns and small cities off the scenic Natchez Trace Parkway in the heart of Tennessee.

19-Oct-21 – Nashville’s Big Back Yard is a constellation of vibrant small towns and cities between two world-famous music meccas, Nashville and The Shoals. Connecting them is a 100-mile stretch of the Natchez Trace Parkway, a glorious two-lane drive and designated National Scenic Byway.

In addition to wide, open spaces and an unhurried pace of life, the attractions along the parkway are myriad. We discovered magnificent landscapes, recreational adventures, historical sites, cultural gems, hearty good eating, and legions of friendly folks. Plus, our newest favorite libation, wine made from tea.

Nashville’s Big Back Yard is a mighty fine getaway from urban congestion and distraction.

First, let’s talk about the 444-mile Natchez Trace Parkway, a unit of the National Park Service that extends from Natchez, Mississippi, to Nashville. The original walking trail was established by Native Americans (and probably large roaming animals before that) and became an important trade and travel route for generations after.

Construction of the modern-day Natchez Trace Parkway, closely following the trail, began in the late 1930s. Owing to delays and funding shortages, it was finally completed in 2005. Dozens of side roads lead to trails, overlooks, campgrounds, and other points of fascination. Commercial vehicles are not allowed, but bicycles are encouraged. The maximum speed limit is 50 mph, less in some areas.

Our road trip began in The Shoals, just south of the Tennessee-Alabama border. From there, we headed north toward Music City, and we dawdled plenty along the way.

Here are several of our don’t-miss recommendations:

Photo by Pamela Dittmer McKuen

Wayne County Welcome Center, Collinwood

The knotty pine cabin is a good starting point, but not just for tourist information and advice.

It’s also a museum of artifacts and memorabilia relating to local history, and a collection of hand-sewn quilts. Displayed prominently are a poster and script from the 1959 movie, Natchez Trace, starring Zachary Scott. Many local residents were cast as extras. The actual film, alas, seems to no longer exist. If you have one, please share.

When you’re done browsing, head for The Dragonfly emporium behind the welcome center for specialty drinks, pastries, and made-in-Tennessee arts and crafts.

Natural Bridge, Waynesboro

Stunningly gorgeous, this historic landmark is the only known double-span natural bridge formation in the world.

Photo by Pamela Dittmer McKuen

Created eons ago by a nearby freshwater spring, it later became a meeting ground for Native American tribes and a hideout for notorious outlaws like Jesse James and the Bloody Harpers. Local lore has it that Davy Crockett gave one of his early political speeches overlooking the bridge. The Natural Bridge is located on the grounds of the privately owned Tennessee Fitness Spa, but guided tours are open to the public on Sundays.

• T.S. Stribling Museum, Clifton

Long-time resident and best-selling author T.S. Stribling in 1933 was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in literature for his novel, The Store.

Photo by Pamela Dittmer McKuen

He was the first Tennessean to earn such an honor. The 1920s two-story bungalow he shared with his wife, Louella Kloss, is today a museum dedicated to their well-traveled and well-read lives.

• The Elephant Discovery Center, Hohenwald

The greatest elephant sanctuary is in Nashville’s Big Back Yard, and you can’t go there. You can, however, learn the resident pachyderms’ stories, loves, and heartbreaks at the Elephant Discovery Center. Years ago, these fine creatures were captured in the wild, then forced into entertainment and exhibition. Most were confined to tiny, cramped quarters, and often they were beaten and chained. Today they roam free with minimal human contact like elephants should.

The discovery center is alive with museum-quality interactive exhibits and educational programming, so you can “meet” Flora, Nosey, Debbie, and the others. Then view them IRL on large-screen monitors as they go about their daily elephant business. It’s the next best thing to being there. Really.

• Meriwether Lewis Monument, Mile Marker 385.8

About five miles east of Hohenwald is the gravesite of the early American explorer who met his mysterious death here in 1809. He and his partner, William Clark, first documented large areas of the Louisiana Purchase. The monument design is a broken column to represent a life cut short. Was it suicide or murder?

• Lady’s Bluff Loop Trail, Linden

The moderately strenuous, 2.7-mile trail within the Lady’s Bluff TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) Small Wild Area in Perry County is a designated National Recreational Trail.

It winds through hardwood forest and diverse ecosystems to arrive atop a majestic limestone bluff overlooking the Tennessee River. The far-reaching views are well worth the climb.

Photo by Tennessee Valley Authority

Tennessee Valley Authority

• Wine Tasting Rooms, Hampshire

Tucked within the rolling hills and verdant vineyards are two small-batch wineries with homey tasting rooms and special twists on turning tea into wine.

Photo by Pamela Dittmer McKuen

Amber Falls Winery & Cellars produces a wide range of reds, whites, bubblies, and novelty fruit wines. The popular Wine TeaZer blends peach wine and black tea for a crisp, clean refreshment.

Natchez Hills Vineyard & Winery is notable for dry and semi-dry Old World wines. Outselling them all is Naughty Tea, an easy-drinking libation that contains only sweet black tea and no grapes. The name is a play on “not tea.”

Where to dine

Clifton Marina, nestled on the Horseshoe Riverbend of the Tennessee River, is a casual open-air eatery and full-service marina and RV park. Feed the turtles from the dock while watching boats of many sizes come and go.

Junkyard Dog Steakhouse in Hohenwald dishes generous portions of American comfort classics, including several steak cuts, chicken, seafood, and pasta. The gumbo, a menu mainstay, is a huge hit with locals.

Mount Pleasant Grille is a century-old, fully restored building transformed into a destination eatery and community anchor with live music on weekends. The menu features classic Southern delights like homemade pimento cheese fritters, fried catfish, and chicken-and-waffles.

An old-timey soda fountain (right) specializes in homemade small-batch ice cream creations.

Photo by Pamela Dittmer McKuen

The Commodore Music Café, attached to the Commodore Hotel in Linden, serves up Southern comfort food and features live music on Friday nights. Try to catch a performance by Professor and the Bull. These clean-cut, bow-tie-clad lads are a toe-tapping hoot!

Photo by Pamela Dittmer McKuen

Where to stay

The Commodore Inn (left) and Pillow Street Bed & Breakfast, both in Clifton, are two gracious Victorian-era homes teeming with perfectly restored period details.

Also in Clifton is The Landing at 100 Main, a late 1800s commercial building turned into chic vacation rental apartments.

The Commodore Hotel (right) in Linden (not to be confused with the Commodore Inn in Clifton) is a restored 1939 commercial building, transformed into a boutique hotel.

Photo by Pamela Dittmer McKuen

Take a selfie with the life-size statue of Minnie Pearl in the lobby. Next door is the equally charming sister hotel, Miss Bertie’s Boarding House.

A trigger warning for shopping mavens: Downtown Linden bustles with bodacious boutiques purveying chic apparel, antiques, arts and crafts, gifts, and sweets.

 More info: Nashville’s Big Back Yard

Photos by Pamela Dittmer McKuen except where noted otherwise.