Thursday, April 25, 2013

Longleaf Trace: Mississippi's Premier Rails to Trails


Map of the Longleaf Trace, at 40 miles, one of the longest rails to trails in the South.


     The Longleaf Trace is a 40.25-mile long paved multi-purpose recreational trail running from Hattiesburg, MS to Prentiss, MS. through the piney woods of southwest Mississippi.  One of the longest rails to trails in the South, since opening in 2000 it has drawn users from across the nation and around the world, earning it a place in the Rails to Trails Conservancy's  Hall of Fame.
       In the early 20th century this was a busy rail corridor with steam engines huffing and puffing hauling long freight trains carrying lumber and turpentine, all day and long into the night.  By the time all the trees were cut in the early 1920's, rail service that had supported up to four passenger trains a day from Natchez, MS to Mobile, AL, dropped to a trickle, then stopped.
      Today it's the trail users doing the huffing and puffing as they bicycle, run, jog, power walk and skate through the second-growth stands of longleaf and loblolly pine that flank the trail's smooth asphalt.  There is also a 22-mile equestrian trail parallel to the trail. 
     Massive steam engines hauling heavily loaded trains of lumber needed easy, flat grades through the low rolling hills.  But the Longleaf Trace is not flat.  At least not flat from end to end, like the Tammany Trace in Louisiana.  Heading northwest from Hattiesburg, the trail takes its time--about 35 miles-to climb 300 feet to the trail's "summit" Carson-- 519 feet above sea level.  From there the trail gradually drops in steps to the bridge at Jaybird Creek before it makes the gentle rise to Prentiss, the most noticeable uphill on the trail.  Not a lung-busting, sweat-fest but you may have to shift down a gear to keep momentum up for a couple of stretches.
     Also, unlike the mostly arrow-straight 28-mile long Tammany Trace, the Mississippi trace has curves.  Not sharp curves but long turns that gradually, a degree or two at a time, gracefully carve shallow arcs through the patchwork of farmland and forest.
      Near Hattiesburg, the state's fourth largest city, the trail feels like a skinny city park, its broad asphalt and groomed shoulders crowded with runners, cyclists, families with strollers, people out for a stroll, university students and seniors. (Because of first-class medical care, Hattiesburg is one of the state's most popular retirement destinations).  Be wary of the kids, dogs and other trail users not aware of speeding cyclists on this stretch of the Trace and save the 20 mph pace lines for the remote sections of the Trace west of Sumrall. 
     But crowds thin the more away from the city you ride.  The scenery becomes more rural with farms and large homesteads becoming the dominant feature.  Shade from tall pines covers much of the trail.  There are rest stops and "rain stops" (rest stops with a roof) along the trail, each sponsored by a local business, service club or individual.  Public support for the trail began even before the trail was built when, at the request of the residents of the counties through which the trail would pass, the Mississippi legislature created a special recreational district and a small property tax millage to pay for the maintenance of the trail.
    Six trail heads offer parking, restrooms and drinks.  The small market towns of Sumrall and Bassfield can be explored on foot.  The A.F. Carraway Store in Bassfield is an old-time hardware store with everything and Lau-Tori's Fine Foods, within sight of the Trace in Sumrall has an extensive menu of Southern favorites and lots of ice cream treats.  Open seven days a week for lunch and dinner.
     A two-mile spur along Ed Parkman Rd. leads to a small campground in a wooded grove on the shore of Jeff Davis Fishing Lake, a unit in the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks.  The lake and camping are closed now but will reopen May 22, 2013, a Wednesday, when re-construction work on the lake is complete.  The campground offers hookups for water and electricity and hot showers.  A fee for camping is charged.  There is a free primitive camping site for trail users at Carson Station.
     Just east of Prentiss perched on high ground on the right is the site of the Prentiss Institute, a private black high school founded in 1907.  The academically rigorous boarding school graduated as many as 200 a year before closing in 1989.
     There is a livery and riding stable in Bassfield that also offers RV camping and tent camping.  Another livery in Sumrall offers horse rentals.     
     From New Orleans the easiest access to the trail is the eastern terminus at the Gateway on the campus of the University of Southern Mississippi (USM) in Hattiesburg. (See directions below.)  Here, those without bikes can rent them--geared comfort bikes are popular--get a soft drink, pick up a map of the trail, buy Trace T-shirts and caps.  Park where the signs designate Longleaf Trace parking.  The row of  parking spaces closest to the high rise dorm is for Trace users only and is under camera surveillance.
     Plans call for extending the trail 3.4 miles east from the Gateway at USM to the railroad station in downtown Hattiesburg but no one knows when that will be.  Mileage markers on the Trace are calculated from the railroad station.  Maps of the Trace mark 0.0 at the Gateway at USM, 3.4 miles west of the downtown station.
     The Amtrak train the Crescent stops daily at the station on its way to and from Atlanta, Washington D.C. and New York, to take on and let off passengers; northbound in the morning, southbound in the afternoon.  However the station has no baggage service--carry on luggage only--so no bicycles can be put on or taken off the train there.  There are baggage stops in New Orleans and Meridian, MS.
Milepost 10 of the Longleaf Trace
       From New Orleans the trail's eastern terminus at USM is about a two-hour drive.  Take I-10, then I-59.  At Hattiesburg exit east at the Hardy St. exit (towards downtown).  With USM on your left, turn left at U.S. 49.  Follow the signs to Fourth St. West and the parking lot for the Gateway at USM.
     Coming from the south,  at Hattiesburg I-59 signs direct Trace-bound traffic to the Jackson Rd. Station trail head, 4.1 miles west of the Gateway at USM.  Turn right at Hardy St. to go to W. 4th St. and the Gateway at USM.

Gateway, Southern Mississippi University, 2895 W. 4th St., Hattiesburg, MS.   Phone 601.450.BIKE.
Moore's Bike Shop, 1607-C Hardy St., Hattiesburg, MS.  Phone; 601.544.1978.  Bike sales,accessories, repairs.
Lau-Tori's Fine Foods, Highway 42, Sumrall, MS. Phone; 601.758.3586.
4K Stables, Bassfield, MS  601.943.5003 or
Circle S Riding Stables, Sumrall, MS.  601.270.9243 or

1 comment:

Elizabeth V Killinger said...

As of around March 2016, the Longleaf Trace was finally extended to Hattiesburg downtown. This ends the trace near several great eateries and bars, the SoPro brewery, Hattiesburg library, and the African American Military museum. For a full listing of restaurants please check out: