The smallish and cozy for a national park, Mississippi District of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, packs a lot of opportunity for outdoor recreation despite its size. The park, bordering artsy-craftsy Ocean Springs, offers a small developed campground, a fishing pier, biking, a concrete boat launch, a short paddling trail and group camping all offered in a footprint of about 400 acres.
However it was the chance to hike through the park's compact coastal forest and walk the edge of a saltwater marsh that drew nearly 30 members of the Louisiana Hiking Club to the federal preserve, Saturday September 14, 2013.
Gulf Islands National Seashore was formed in 1971 to include beaches in the Pensacola, FL area, several barrier islands in the Gulf of Mexico and the Davis Bayou District (MS). Locals show their love for the park by keeping it clean and quiet despite heavy usage of the shelters for reunions, picnics and just general socializing. Runners, walkers and cyclists from adjacent subdivisions and packs of kids on afternoon training runs from nearby schools take advantage of the park-like setting of the former state park to get in aerobic workouts throughout the day.
Partly cloudy skies and warm weather greeted the LHC group as they trooped through the short and shady Nature's Way Loop trail and the out-and-back CCC Spur Trail. The group took a breather at the William M. Colmer Visitor Center, where some watched a film about the seashore or ambled off to the nearby fishing pier for a snack. Total distance for the out-and-back trek from pavilion #2 to the visitor center and back, including the two side trails, was about four miles. Except for the two side trails the hike follows the road shoulders in the park.
Some hikers bivouacked in the grassy and shady group camping area the Friday night before the hike and Saturday after the hike. After the hike Saturday, campers forsook the joys of making dinner in camp choosing instead to sample the restaurant scene in nearby bustling Biloxi or upscale, casino-free Ocean Springs. Back at the campsite, bugs were surprisingly scarce for a September evening but the raccoons, though few, were not shy. Freight trains with blaring whistles rumbled on tracks about a mile away adding rhythm and harmony to the buzzing insects as the group hit the sack.
Veteran hiker and LHC member Tom Rogers led the affair, making all of the arrangements for the primitive camping ($20 per night, reservations required, must be group of 10 or more) and guiding the group.
Campsites in the 51 pad campground (water, electric, hot showers) are $22 per site. The campground does not take reservations (reservations are mandatory for the group camp) and the busy season is from January through March. For more information about the camping call 228.875.3962.
Three short water trails winding through the adjoining salt marshes radiate from the boat launch. The three bayous, Stark, Halstead and Davis were designated the Davis Island Blueway in 2012. It takes about an hour and a half to paddle all three in one trip. More than 300 species of birds have been identified in the park (which includes a much larger unit in Florida and several barrier islands), and there are of course, alligators.
Paddle craft can be launched through the marsh grass bordering the unpaved overflow parking area but the sharp-edged oyster shells carpeting the path and the shallows are tough on fragile paddle-craft hulls. The stiff marsh grass makes it difficult to launch a canoe or kayak parallel to the shore so paddlers must float the boat perpendicular to the shore and board from shin-deep shallows. There is a $3 fee to use the boat launch.
Water levels in the bayous are affected by tides. There may not be enough water to float some of the Blueway at low tide in winter. Be sure to pick up a copy of the Mississippi Tide Tables from the visitor center when picking up the map showing the Blueway. (The bayou trails are not signed but navigation is easy because of the landmarks in sight on high ground surrounding the basin.)
Because of federal funding cutbacks, the visitor center is closed on Wednesday and Thursday but the park and its boat ramps and picnic areas, are open. The campground is closed Thursday and Friday but you can camp the closed days, paying when the campground office re-opens.
The park is at the eastern end of the Live Oaks Bicycle Route, (15.5 miles round-trip) winding through the park and the Ocean Springs arts and entertainment district. The route utilizes existing streets and is marked with green and white bike route signs. Part of the route is a paved path along Ocean Springs Beach and runs by the site where some say Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville, in the spring of 1699, built Fort Maurepas, the first capital of the French colony of Louisiana. (New Orleans was named the capital of the colony in 1722.) Roads in the park, all two lane, have recently been resurfaced and are a little wider than before. The park connects to Ocean Springs via a short pedestrian/bicycles only path extending Brumbaugh Rd. to Shelter #2. From the other end, bikers turn off Halstead Rd. on to Brumbaugh Rd. A sign alerts riders to the turn but can be seen only if approaching from the south.
For more information about the park call 228.230.4100. When the Davis Bayou unit is closed (Wednesday and Thursday) call the Florida Unit at 850.934.2600. or visit www.nps.gov/guis.