Like the little engine that could, after years of trying, the Longleaf Trace, a rail-trail in southeast Mississippi, is finally complete.
It was always in the plans that the trail would use the right-of-way of an abandoned railroad to connect Hattiesburg, to the small town of Prentiss, two counties away. The train station was (and is) mile post 0.0. However finding a way to get the trail built two miles from the University of Southern Mississippi to the downtown station proved to be elusive.
So when the trail opened in 2000 it ran from Prentiss in the northwest to USM's Gateway Center on the USM campus, off 4th St-a trail length of about 39 miles. At the time it opened it was one of the longest rails to trails conversions in the southeastern U.S. Bicycles can be rented at the Gateway Center.
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.
In June 2016, the Longleaf Trace was finally completed to connect with the train station-- extensively renovated several years ago. The station is in an historic district of brick and timber warehouses mostly abandoned when business gravitated west to be closer to Interstate-59. There signs the area is being renovated. A first class supplier of outdoor equipment and apparel, Sacks, never left. Try to schedule your ride on the trail at a time you can visit this icon of Hattiesburg. The Trace is blacktop and separate from busy 4th street beside it, but becomes a painted lane as it moves closer to downtown. The lane is well marked and well signed.
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. Only carry on luggage is permitted. The nearest baggage stops are New Orleans and Meridian. 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 39-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. 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.