Like the little engine that could, after about twenty years of trying, the Longleaf Trace, is complete. The asphalt recreation path is about ten feet wide and runs through the Piney Woods country of south Mississippi from the historic district in Hattiesburg, MS, 42.5 miles northwest to Prentiss, MS.
The Trace became one of the longest railroad-right-of-ways to be converted to a recreational trail in the southwestern U.S. when in 2000 about 40 miles of the Trace opened to walkers, runners, hikers, skaters and cyclists. A partially complete side path for horseback riding parallels the Trace. The Gateway Center, at the University of Southern Mississippi, serves as the eastern trailhead for the Trace. There is free parking near the Gateway Center (there is no fee to use the Trace). Bicycles can be rented at the Gateway Center.
But the Gateway Center is not the beginning of the Trace. Milepost 0.0 for the Trace is the railroad station in Hattiesburg's historic downtown district, about two miles to the east of the Gateway Center. (Unless you are shipping freight by train or a passenger boarding Amtrak's "Crescent" connecting New Orleans with New York, there is nothing to see or do at the station. But the historic downtown is fun to explore.)
Those driving to the Gateway Center to park for their ride of the Trace are no longer permitted to park in the large parking lot next to the high rise dorms in front of the Gateway Center. A new lot, exclusively for the Trace parking, has been built just north of the dorm lot. Access it via 4th St.
That last, short stretch of the Trace bringing the trail into downtown Hattiesburg was opened in June 2016, completing the vision of a trail leading from the train station to Prentiss. (In the 1990s it was thought a rights-of-way for a recreation trail could be secured all the way from Hattiesburg to Natchez, MS.) The Trace is blacktop and separate from busy 4th street as it leaves east of the Gateway Center but becomes a painted lane as it moves closer to downtown. The lane is well marked and well signed.
The train station is in an historic district of brick and timber warehouses mostly abandoned when business gravitated west to be closer to Interstate-59. Not everybody left. A first class supplier of outdoor equipment and apparel, Sacks, stayed. Try to schedule your ride on the trail at a time you can visit this icon of Hattiesburg.
The Crescent, an Amtrak passenger train connecting New Orleans with New York City, stops at the station twice a day; once heading northbound and once heading southbound. There was a time when the station offered baggage service. This permitted bicycles to be loaded on and off-loaded the baggage car. There is no baggage service offered now at Hattiesburg. Only carry on luggage is permitted. Baggage service is offered at some other stations; the closest to Hattiesburg is Meridian, MS. How cool would that be to load a bicycle on the train early in the morning in New Orleans, have breakfast on the train, then off-load the bike in Hattiesburg and begin riding the Longleaf Trace right from the station!
The main draw of the Longleaf Trace is the 40-mile stretch from USM to Prentiss. This is piney woods country and the right-of-way slices through a number of woodsy vistas and verdant farms. Several small towns; Sumrall, Bassfield, Carson and of course, Pentiss, offer opportunities to stop, rest and snack on a nearly 80 mile out and back trip from Hattiesburg. Sumrall has a casual dining restaurant next to the Trace. Away from the widely spaced commercial areas flanking the trail are numerous rest areas and picnic tables and benches.
-30-For more information on the Longleaf Trace visit the blog post "Longleaf Trace: Mississippi's Premier Rails to Trails", 4/25/2013, in new orleans outdoor companion.