Trail of the Month: April 2008
Mississippi's Tuxachanie National Recreational Trail
Weston Anderson first visited the Tuxachanie National Recreation Trail in southern Mississippi in October of 2005—two months to the day after Hurricane Katrina swept through the state. He had hoped for an overnight hiking excursion on the 22.8-mile trail, but as he reached the western trailhead on Highway 49, just north of Saucier, he found trees toppled all over the forest and in the parking lot. Red warning signs from the U.S. Forest Service cautioned visitors to stay away. The trail was closed.
Feeling plucky with his 45-pound backpack, Weston drove to the next trailhead five miles away at Airey Lake, a popular, no-fee recreation spot for fishing and primitive tent camping.
"I had to climb over and under a bunch of downed trees there, so it was kind of tough," he says. "There was debris all over the place." He still pressed on for a mile on the hard-packed dirt trail until a huge trunk completely blocked his way, and a tangle of branches and gnarled underbrush made passing it nearly impossible. He thought about bushwhacking his way through but instead retreated to another part of the trail, where again he found himself face-to-face with a tree across the pathway. "I didn't even attempt it," he says.
A disappointed Weston sat down in the pine needles, broke out his stove and cooked a hot lunch.
Not sure how long it would take for the trail to get cleared, he waited two and a half years before returning to the Tuxachanie Trail (pronounced just like it looks, tux-a-chainy) from his home in Slidell, La. And for Weston, the second time on the "Tux," as he calls it, was the very much the charm.
In March of 2008, he walked the western five miles of the pathway—the Tux is hiking only—and barely recognized it. The Forest Service, which manages the trail and surrounding parks, had greatly restored the landscape. "They did an outstanding job," Weston says, from re-marking the route to reinforcing its bridges.
"It wasn't very long after Katrina, about six months," says Andy Hunter, recreation program manager for De Soto Ranger District, before the trail was open to the public again. There is yet some work to do, he says, and visitors will be able to see evidence of Katrina's footprint for years. Indeed Wayne Stone, who wore many hats with the Forest Service—including working on hurricane detail after Katrina—says they salvaged about 10 years of timber in one year from all of the storm's tree casualties.
But the Tuxachanie is no stranger to tree clearing. The rail-trail had its roots, in fact, as an old logging grade, called a "dummy line," that hauled lumber to the sawmill in Howlison for the Dantzler Lumber Company. "This part of the world was pretty much clear-cut between 1850 and 1950, and a lot of it was done using logging trains," Wayne says. Visitors can still see some of the logs and supports of the original tram trestles over the trail's many creeks.
Since its logging heyday, though, and then after Katrina, the Tuxachanie has undergone a remarkable natural revival and continues to showcase southern Mississippi's wealth of biodiversity. "It's like a garden of Eden here," Wayne says. "The vegetation grows very rapidly, and it seems like there's some kind of flowers blooming all times of year." Right now, it's the dogwoods, and when the dogwoods bloom, that means everything else with a blossom is "fixin' to go."
At the western trailhead where Weston began his hike, the Tux Trail ambles through well-wooded, mixed pine and hardwood forests. From there, Wayne says, the ecological slideshow begins. As users walk east from creek to creek, they can pass through sandy longleaf pines to palmetto stands and dense oaks, and through wetlands and titi swamps near the eastern end.
A titi (pronounced tie-tie) is a thick, leafy shrub that can grow 25-30 feet in wet areas and provides dense canopy and dangling white blossoms. "They're blooming right now," Wayne says, "and they make a heavenly smell." Titi honey is famous in Mississippi, and trail visitors get to tour these unique swamps, and their scents, along an elevated berm.
Another wildlife specialty along the Tux Trail are endangered gopher tortoises, which can live 40-60 years. The Forest Service manages the area with controlled burns to prevent future fires and encourage new growth, and these periodic burns actually benefit the "gophers," as they're called, by creating more open sandy habitat for their burrowing and foraging. These little tortoises are not always an easy find, and Weston wasn't lucky enough to spot one. Then again, that didn't surprise him. "I'm a pretty big guy, and I do a lot of stomping," he says. "I wasn't trying to be quiet."
Nor does he think this trip will be his last to the Tuxachanie. He's recently retired after 27 years in the Navy and excited about all the hiking and backpacking ahead of him—including on the eastern portions of the trail past Airey Lake and into the titi swamps. Seeing how much he enjoyed the tall pines, bright sunshine and springtime blush of Mississippi, he's sure the rest of the Tux will be an equally perfect fit.
Do you have any other pictures of the Tuxachanie Trail you'd like to share? Please visit TrailLink.com to upload photos or post a review, or e-mail shots of the Tuxachanie to firstname.lastname@example.org, because we don't have any images of the eastern portion of the trail—including the titi swamps.