Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Day hiking Black Creek Wilderness and Red Hills in De Soto National Forest in Mississippi

Black Creek Trail between Melvin Breland Rd and Red Hills Cemetery
       When hikers hear of the 41-mile Black Creek Hiking Trail in Mississippi's De Soto National Forest, about a two-hour drive northeast of New Orleans, right away they want to hike the whole thing in one trip.  They think: Start at Big Creek Landing, hike southeast to Cypress Creek Landing, the trail's eastern terminus.  Takes four to five days.  Done.  Next!
        But not everybody has the kind of time or even interest to take the Magnolia State's longest hiking trail in one big bite.  Fortunately for the rest of us, Black Creek Hiking Trail can be broken into much shorter chunks suitable for weekend backpacking or even day hiking using car shuttles to connect various trailheads along the trail.
        Shuttles?  The only problem with hiking the Black Creek Trail is that it is linear.  No loops.  So any distance you hike one-way on the trail, from five miles to the whole 41 miles, will require either turning around and retracing your steps or at least two cars, one parked at the start and one at the finish, to complete the trip.
       After accepting this one negatory, you will find Black Creek Trail has some lovely short hikes that match any level of interest in exploring up close and personal the Piney Woods region of southeast Mississippi.  Each season has its pluses and minuses.  Summer is hot, humid and buggy.  In winter deer hunting takes place from late November to the end of January.  The website: mdwfp.com, has all the hunting seasons in the national forest.  Spring is very nice, the weather is good and the wildflowers are in bloom.  Fall is also nice, October and November are the driest months.  Always pack insect repellent especially in the late spring, summer and fall to repel deer flies, deer ticks and mosquitoes.
        Many experienced hikers say the 5058-acre Black Creek Wilderness and/or the adjoining rugged Red Hills offer the most scenic hikes in the entire 382,000 acre De Soto National Forest.   Black Creek Wilderness, about a two-hour drive northeast of New Orleans, is the closest federally designated wilderness area to the Crescent City.
       "Parts of the trail in the wilderness area are gorgeous, if you know where to look," said Robert Reams, a veteran hiker who has hiked portions of Black Creek Trail many times as part of his job as archaeologist with the De Soto National Forest's De Soto Ranger District based in Wiggins, MS.
      Black Creek Hiking Trail twists and turns 10.8 miles through the pristine wilderness.  Heading west to east hikers enter the wilderness area from the trailhead on highway MS 29 near Janice Landing and Black Creek.  The trail is well marked with white diamonds nailed to the trees.  But machinery and wheeled vehicles are prohibited in federal wilderness areas so all trail maintenance must be done manually with hand tools.  This leaves the trail a bit rugged as big chores, such as removing large trees that have fallen across the trail, apparently are a low priority. 
      "It took us almost three years to reopen this section of the Black Creek Trail after hurricane Katrina in 2005," said Reams.  Black Creek Hiking Trail, both inside and outside the wilderness area is maintained by a contractor.  Pruning and cutting is done every two to three years as needed.  If the trail looks especially trimmed this year it is because the trail was recently groomed, Reams said.
The walk around Beaver Creek, in the wilderness, is especially scenic though there is access to the creek only on its eastern bank.  Leaving the confluence of Beaver Creek and Black Creek, the trail courses through a hardwood flood plain of red maple, oak, pine and bald cypress.  The bridge at Mill Creek, a creek too wide to jump across, is out.  Hikers have to wade across the shallow creek or brave balancing on a log above it to cross.  After Mill Creek the trail then turns south and gently rises onto a piney flat at the eastern edge of the wilderness at Melvin Breland Rd. (FS 382B).  There is parking here for about three to five cars at an undeveloped dirt pull-out.
       (Searching the Internet will return several references to parking and access to the trail at St. Andrews Church on Florida Gas Road, often mistakenly identified as New York Rd. That may have been true 20 years ago but not now. Now the "church" grounds are festooned with menacing no trespassing signs and the satellite dishes on the building are a good indication that the building is now used as a home. Topo maps of the area show the building and grounds sit within national forest property lines but Reams said even a public employee in a marked vehicle would be taking a risk parking there for any reason.)
        Melvin Breland Rd. marks the eastern boundary of the wilderness. Continuing east after crossing the road the trail changes dramatically, widening to about 10 feet.  The forest highland becomes more open with fewer tall trees and more bushy understory.  The opening of the tree canopy is in part due to the severe toll the high winds of Hurricane Katrina took on trees in De Soto.  Also, now outside the wilderness area,  the trail can be maintained with power tools and motorized equipment carts. 
      Right after crossing Melvin Breland Rd. he trail drops gradually from the piney highlands down to the flood plain, 10-15 feet above Black Creek flowing at the edge of a steep cutbank  The only access to the creek here is a well-worn, short unsigned spur leading to a sad narrow sandbar which looks like it is eroding away.  But on a hot day any access to the cooling waters of the creek would be welcome.
      Right after the spur to the sandbar, the trail veers sharply to the west southwest leaving the shade of the hardwood flood plain and enters the more open Red Hills.  That is when things become challenging.  For the next two miles steep climbs--straight up, there are no switchbacks--of about 100 vertical feet will have some hikers on their toes and breathing heavily as they crest each hilltop.  Just as steep are the descents to the valley floor where wooden foot bridges cross small, clear creeks.  The clear rivulets, some named on the map, some not, tumble, bubble and burble over the sandy stream beds splotched tan, dark brown and olive.
     From Melvin Breland Rd. to where FS 318B-1 crosses the trail near Red Hill Cemetery only about 3.5 trail miles but the shuttle distance is much longer.  Where the trail crosses FS 318B-1 is space for a few vehicles to park.  Hikers parking here can make a nice out-and-back hike through the hills.  Head north. 
       From Red Hill Cemetery the trail tracks southeast and gradually looses elevation as the hills level out and the path returns to the flood plain.  Here the trail might be wet after a rainy spell.  The eastern terminus of Black Creek Hiking Trail is Fairley Bridge Landing, a primitive campground 2.6 miles from Red Hill Cemetery.  At Fairley Bridge there is a vault toilet and a few picnic tables but no potable water.
       Shuttles can be arranged with Black Creek Canoe Rental in Brooklyn, MS, (601) 582-8817, and Red Wolf Wilderness Adventures, (601) 598-2745, near the Janice trailhead.  Remember that cell phone service in this area is spotty.
       Despite the scenery and the unusually hilly terrain, the Wilderness Area and the Red Hills do not seem to be as popular with hikers as other sections of Black Creek Trail, Reams said.  WildSouth, an environmental advocacy group is helping to make the wilderness area more popular.  Beginning in 2012, both seasonal workers and volunteer wilderness rangers, trained by WildSouth have been walking the trail in the Black Creek Wilderness Area educating wilderness visitors, monitoring recreational resources and collecting visitor use data in addition to performing light trail maintenance and picking up litter, according to their website www.wildsouth.org.
       The volunteers have the blessing of the US Forest Service and carry US Forest Service radios.  The volunteers are trained in first aid and CPR, the website states.  They also offer assistance on the 21-mile stretch of Black Creek designated a Wild and Scenic River.
     Note:  The only drinking water available near the trail is at Janice Landing, across Black Creek from the Janice trailhead on highway MS 29.  No alcohol is permitted in any of the De Soto National Forest campgrounds.  No glass is permitted on the creeks.  The small free campground by the highway also has a flush toilet and small sink.  There is no drinking water at the Fairley Bridge Landing a primitive campground at the southeastern terminus of Black Creek Hiking Trail.  Water taken from streams along the trail must be treated, boiled or filtered before consuming


     The USGS topgraphical maps covering this part of the De Soto National Forest are Bond Pond and Barbara.  You can download 1:24000 scale maps for free from https://store.usgs.gov/.   You can order topos printed in full color from the site too. If you download and print, to maintain the 100 percent size of the map you will end up with nine sheets of 8.5" by 11" paper that will need to be carefully cut and taped together.  To make it easier to draw UTM grids download complete maps.  Once on the trail a black and white downloaded topo is much, much better than nothing.  If you are not in a hurry ordering the printed maps might be a good idea and save a little time.
      Maps are also available from the US Forest Service District Office in Wiggins, MS.  Call 601-528-6160 or write De Soto National Forest, P.O. Box 248, 654 West Frontage Road, Wiggins, MS  39577.  There are two: an 8.5 by 11 map of the entire Black Creek Hiking Trail with the distances between trailheads printed on the map and a larger scale map printed on one sheet of 11" by 17" paper, but no trail distances.   The larger map is better at showing the road system making it useful for finding your way for shuttles and to the campgrounds along Black Creek which are also access points for paddlers.  Both maps are free, at least they were free when I picked up mine  at the district office.  Also ask for the De Soto Ranger District Recreation Opportunities booklet which describes the features and facilities of each campground.  And for some scary reading ask for "Alligator Awareness in Mississippi." by the Mississippi Department of Wildlife Fisheries and Parks.  The gator population has exploded in Mississippi and these fearsome reptiles have begun to appear in streams that before had none.
     I hear an updated 1:24000 scale map is now in the works.  It may not have as much detail as the much beloved Black Creek topo map dated 1988 and printed on waterproof paper but it will be a welcome addition to the smaller two ink jet generated maps now available.  The new map might be ready by the end of 2014.  Drop a comment to the folks in Wiggins that you want to make sure there are UTM tics in the margins.  Or better yet, maybe a complete UTM grid!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the great post. I'm hiking this exact area this upcoming weekend, so this is very timely information for me.