|Hikers on the Potkopinu Trail near the Natchez Trace Parkway. The south trailhead and parking area is south of Cole Creek picnic area at mile post 16.8.|
A hike on the Potkopinu Trail in southwest Mississippi is a walk in the footsteps of history. The three-mile fragment of the original 450-mile Natchez Trace, the major transportation and communication corridor through the "howling wilderness" that was the Old Southwest, is in about the same condition it was in the early 1800's when thousands walked the historic dirt path from Natchez, MS to Nashville, TN.
That is to say it is beautiful and scenic but, in places, a rough walk. Potkopinu is the longest stretch of "sunken" historic Trace remaining, say historians with the Natchez Trace Parkway, a unit of the National Park Service managing both the trail and the nearby 444-mile greenway with a two-lane highway in the middle. "Sunken" in this case means the deep ravines worn into the soft loess soil by the labored plodding of thousands of travelers returning to the Ohio Valley by foot or horseback after trading expeditions to New Orleans in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Some sunken sections are narrow with nearly vertical walls rising 20 feet above the heads of walkers picking their way along the rutted gully floor. Others are wider, like miniature valleys, the floor strewn with clay boulders and shallow ledges that challenge even surefooted hikers. Beards of dark green moss cover the walls in some places. In others the tawny loess soil is exposed, the smooth surface rudely defaced by a gnarled tree root jutting from the wall or even a whole tree trunk angling skyward, punching its branches at the sun.
The elevation change from sandy wash to ridge top is about 150 feet at maximum but most ups and downs are less than that and gradual. That does not mean modern day Trace travelers will not be hearing the sound of their own heavy breathing a time or two.
One sound hikers will not hear is the noise of traffic intruding from the near by Parkway. None of it penetrates the dense woods surrounding the trail.
Sometimes the trail climbs to forested ridgelines or drops through hardwood groves to cross broad, sandy, shallow streams, the clear trickling waters etching a braided path across the tan sands. To maintain historical correctness there are no bridges at stream crossings. True enough, the water in the creek can rise high enough to require wadding across but only after heavy rains or periods of wet weather.
The Natchez Trace began as a trail blazed by Indian tribes to facilitate trade among Indian nations living along it--the Natchez, Chickasaw and Choctaw. Later European explorers in the 17th century found the rugged path was easier to walk back north than fight going upstream against the strong currents of the Mississippi River in dugout canoes.
The Trace experienced a boom of traffic after about 1790. Raucous boatmen, aka, "Kaintucks," would float the great rivers to New Orleans in keel boats or flat boats loaded with lucrative cargo from the Ohio Valley, then, after arriving in the city, sell everything and walk home on the Trace. The trip took weeks. A teenaged Abraham Lincoln is said to have made the trip twice.
The Trace was important during the War of 1812. Andrew Jackson led his Tennessee Volunteers home on the Trace after beating the British in the Battle of New Orleans in January of 1815, the most victorious of his several trips on the Trace.
Postal service began on the Trace in 1800, post riders braving the elements and outlaws to make up to three deliveries a week until the service was discontinued in the 1830's. The silhouette of a brave post rider on horseback adorns NPS signs along the parkway.
Traffic on the Trace quickly tapered to a trickle after steamboats began regular runs from New Orleans to as far north as Pittsburgh beginning in the early 1820's. The one-way up river trip from New Orleans to Cincinnati took 16 days in the early days of steamboats compared to up to two months of walking or riding horseback on the Trace. As steamboat technology improved travel times on the river quickened, attracting more and more passengers. By 1840 the Trace was all but abandoned.
You can be forgiven if you have never heard of such a beautiful and historically significant trail. Until recently there were no signs on the parkway or MS 553 pointing out the path's trail heads or parking lots and it was not drawn on the Parkway map distributed to visitors.
If you knew about it at all, the information probably came from an entry in the book "Hiking Mississippi: a Guide to Trails and Natural Areas," by Helen McGinnis, published in 1994. McGinnis considered the trail to be the wildest trail along the Natchez Trace Parkway.
It was from McGinnis' book that Al Troy, a retired engineer and veteran hiker now living in St. Francisville, LA learned of Potkopinu, then known as the Old Trace Trail.
At first, Troy found hiking Potkopinu a rough row to hoe. There was little if any reason to maintain the Trace for 190 years and it showed. Over the years, numerous trees had fallen across the trail making hiking through the sunken portions especially difficult. Crossed by a tangle of ATV trails and walking paths used by locals, the trail was hard to follow when not tracking one of the sunken sections. About 20 years ago, a Boy Scout troop blazed the trail by nailing tin can lids painted orange to trees but these did not last long.
Troy was not alone in wanting to see Potkopinu rehabbed for visitors. About 10 years ago, Greg Smith, scenic resources coordinator for the Natchez Trace Parkway, began pushing to make "the most pristine section of the historic Trace," ready for prime time.
In 1983, five unconnected sections making a total of 60 walkable miles of the historic Trace, including Potkopinu, were designated as a National Scenic Trail by Congress. A map of Potkopinu is available at the NPS Natchez Trace Parkway website--navigate through "Things to Do" then "Hiking."
Apparently the days of neglect are over for Potkopinu. Last spring big brown signs went up on the parkway pointing the way to the south trail head and its small parking lot and on highway MS 553 denoting the north trailhead's parking area, Smith said.
Recently youth with the Southwest Conservation Corps spent two weeks clearing Potkopinu of large mature trees that had fallen, blocking the sunken trail. Crews with chain saws cut the logs, some more than two feet in diameter, into chunks and pushed them to the side clearing the path. Numerous trail markers, flat brown slats about four feet high with arrows pointing out the way, now make it almost impossible to lose the trail.
But that is about as far as improvements are going to go, Troy said he has been told by Parkway officials. He said he frequently talks to Natchez Trace Parkway management about the trail and said the trail, except for maintenance and the trail markers, will be left as untouched as possible to preserve it as it looked and felt 200 years ago.
Smith said the historic Trace between the Potkopinu and Mount Locust, a restored historic inn about a mile to the south, is in federal hands but there are no plans now to extend the trail to the inn.
Midday one warm and partly cloudy Saturday in mid-November, Troy is standing in the parking lot at Cole's Creek picnic area of the Natchez Trace Parkway greeting stragglers from the Louisiana Hiking Club's annual trek to Potkopinu. It is the first time he has seen the trail since the clearing work was done and the trail markers were installed. He is clearly pleased his fellow club members have enjoyed the hike.
"I love this trail. It is a beautiful trail and I love showing it to people. I don't know why the park service ignored it for so long," Troy said.
If You Go:Coles Creek Picnic Area on the Natchez Trace at mile post 17.5 is 181 miles northwest of New Orleans, LA
The headquarters for the Natchez Trace Parkway in Tupelo, MS can be reached by calling 662-680-4027 or 1-800-305-7417. For computer users, www.nps.gov/natr is the web site for the Natchez Trace Parkway and www.nps,gov/natt is the website for the Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail.
The marauding bands of bad people robbing, stealing and sometimes murdering Trace travelers 200 years ago are gone but hiking Potkopinu still has its hazards. The onus is on you to be careful. Remember that the goal of the National Park Service is to keep the trail conditions as close to the conditions faced by travelers on the Trace two centuries ago. So it is a rough trail in places. The trail is rutted and uneven, especially in the "sunken" ravines. You must step over debris on the trail there and be prepared to lean forward and "ape walk" up some of the steeper sections. Sturdy footwear is recommended. No bicycles or horses allowed on trail.
There are no bridges over the streams. These streams may swell after a day or more of rain requiring some wading but normally they can be walked across with little risk of wet feet.
The trail is flanked by private property open for in-season hunting. White-tailed deer season runs from October thru the end of January. If hiking during hunting season wear copious amounts of bright hunter orange, don't hike the trail early mornings and late evenings. Do sing lustily or make other loud human noises when on the trail so hunters hear you before they see you. Or wait until hunting seasons are over in the spring.
Hiking the trail in summer exposes you to a world of biting and stinging insects, the most common of which are chiggers, ticks and mosquitoes. There is beaucoup poison ivy. Poisonous snakes-rattlesnakes, copperheads and cottonmouths--rarely are found along the Trace but just the same watch where you put you hands. There is no water at either trailhead. Get drinking water at Coles Creek picnic area where there is a restroom too. The parking area at the south trailhead, off a gravel road leading north from Geoghegan Rd., is too small for an RV. Park at Coles Creek and walk due east. Turn right at the gravel road and walk south to the trail head. Or begin your hike at the north trailhead 1.3 miles east of the parkway on MS 553.
Fit hikers will want to make the trail a six-mile out and back trip, stopping for lunch along the way. Figure taking less than three hours to hike it round-trip, more if you take breaks. Stay in the area after the hike to explore exhibits sprinkled along the Parkway explaining the history and geology of the historic Trace. Don't miss Mount Locust, a restored home used as a "stand" (crude 19th century inn) built in the 1780's. Or with the rest of the day, mosey on in to the city of Natchez to check out the opulent plantation homes there. Or visit the Natchez Historical Park Visitor Center. There is a gift shop there.
Hungry and on a budget? Stop by Pig Out Inn Barbeque, 116 Canal St. for some fine and sloppy barbecue. Sandwich, two sides and a drink, $10 plus tax. Phone 601-442-8050.
Camping? The closest public camping is Natchez State Park. This is another park that takes the "primitive" part of "primitive camping" seriously. The site is shady and has a few sturdy picnic tables but there are no numbered sites, tent pads, fire rings or bathrooms. Get potable water from the developed campsite bathrooms. $13 per tent. The park is "dry" (no alcohol) as all Mississippi State Parks are--at least on paper. The park also offers modern cabins, some with fireplaces, (no TV) and developed camping. The vibe in the park is low key, kind of quiet. The large lake is for fishing; swimming is not allowed. Also there is not much for young children to do in the park so you won't see, or hear, a lot of them in the campgrounds.