Mill Branch is considered by bikers and hikers to be less strenuous than the 11-mile Tally's Creek Trail or the seven-mile Richardson Creek Trail. Unlike the other two trails, there are no short, steep lung-busting climbs to reach the rounded ridge tops along the Mill Branch pathway. Gentle grades transit to elevations ranging from about 400 feet at the highest point to about 260 feet at Richardson Creek.
Springtime hikers on Mill Branch see forested ridges of tall pines--loblobby mostly-- and at lower elevations, hardwoods leafy and green. But that is not what the area looked like just 90 years ago, says Dave Chabreck, operations team leader at the Homochitto National Forest District headquarters in Meadville, MS.
"The lumber companies came in here back then and cut everything they could, leaving nothing standing higher than a knee cap," Chabreck said, referring to the days before the land became a national forest and under the protection of the Department of Agriculture in the 1930's. "I have seen many photographs where it looks like you could stand on any hill here and see for miles in all directions with nothing to block your view," he said.
So, while the forest hikers enjoy today may look "old," all the virgin timber is gone: the trees seen now are 90 years old or younger, planted after the forest was clear-cut a century ago, Chabreck said.
Hikers who see blackened bark on the pines along the trail are seeing first-hand traces of one of the tools foresters have to control the risk of a devastating forest fire: fighting fire with fire. Sections of the forest, on a rotating basis, are burned under controlled conditions to keep the accumulation of dead leaves, pine needles, branches and smaller trees from building to a level that would make it nearly impossible to contain a forest fire should one erupt. The controlled burn along Mill Branch was about two years ago, Chabreck said.
Because regular burning removes the under brush, hikers can see long distances, making it easier to spot wildlife and see the trail ahead.
Getting an accurate count of trail users, both hikers and bikers, is not easy but Chabreck said he thinks the trails are popular. About a decade ago a forester at Homochitto making an informal count of license plates in the Clear Springs campground estimated that up to 90 percent of the campers were from Louisiana.
Spring can be a busy time on the trails at Clear Springs.
"The whole forest is full of dogwoods which will be blooming in three to four weeks. On a nice April day a lot of people are on the trails," Chabreck said.
The first recreation trail to be built at Clear Springs, the Tally's Creek Trail, was blazed in the early 1980's. Underused by the hikers it was designed for, mountain bike riders began to use it and to organize work details supervised by Homochitto NF staffers to keep the trail maintained. Mill Branch was the second trail to open, providing a trail easier and shorter than Tally's Creek. Lastly, Richardson Creek, designed by mountain bike experts, opened. That seven mile trail is considered one of the most technically challenging mountain bike rides in Mississippi.
Finding your way on the Mill Branch Trail is fairly easy. It is not heavily blazed--blazes are not painted on the trees. But the path sees enough use to be distinct from the surrounding forest and can be followed easily if you pay attention. Also pay attention to where you step. The trail is strewn with exposed roots and stobs ready to trip the inattentive hiker.
At the trailhead, hikers can pick up copies of an excellent map showing the trails, each trail a different color. These colors match with colored trail signs on the trail. Match the color and the letter on the sign with the color and the letter on the map and you know where you are. Signs are at trail junctions and when the trail crosses a FS road. As always, pack a compass, a map, snacks, water and rain gear. And bug repellent with DEET. A map of the Clear Springs Trail Complex can be downloaded free from http://www.fs.usda.gov/main/mississippi/maps-pubs For more information call the Homochitto District headquarters at 601-384-5876.
Day use at Clear Springs is $5 per car. Camping is $20 per night in the developed (water, electricity) campground and $7 at the primitive sites. Hot showers but the water in one bath house is reported to be hotter than the other. Money is collected at an honor box; have the correct change. Checks are accepted. A detailed description of the campground, and other NF sites, can be found at www.forestcamping.com. To the left of the opening page, click on national forests and campgrounds. From the list of all the national forests scroll down to Homochitto. Clear Springs is the only campground listed. An important prohibition omitted from the description is that alcohol is NOT permitted in the campground and that sharp-eyed law enforcement officers patrol the recreation area. The fines are stiff.
Okhissa Lake AnniversaryNovember 7, 2012 was the fifth anniversary of the opening of Okhissa Lake, a 1075-acre recreation reservoir three miles south of Bude, MS in the Homochitto NF.
The lake was a long time coming. There was local support for the construction of a recreation reservoir in the Homochitto NF for decades before the lake project impounding Porter Creek was approved in 1999. An observation deck was built overlooking the massive construction site so people could see the earthmovers build the impoundment. Opening day saw long lines of cars and pick-ups towing boat trailers waiting to launch into the new lake stocked with largemouth bass, channel catfish, black crappie, white perch, shad and others.
Its not just the fishers who enjoy the lake, Chabreck said. Paddlers in kayaks and canoes explore the many forested coves creasing the lake's 39-mile long shoreline, he said. The northwestern third of the lake, near the impoundment, is a designated ski area and can be reached launching from the northernmost boat launch. However, in the rest of the lake, motorized boats are restricted to idle speed. This is the area most popular with paddlers. It's where the lake's pool reaches deep into narrow ravines with steep sides covered with pines and prickly underbrush giving paddlers their best chance to spot wildlife. Launch from the southernmost boat launch for this part of the lake. The lake closes at 9 p.m. Overnight parking is not permitted.
There is an ongoing effort to attract a private sector partner to develop and operate major recreation facilities at the lake such as a lodge, cabins, restaurant, marina, and campgrounds. The original development plan drew no response from investors.