Mississippi's Longleaf Trace
Trail of the Month: August 2010
In Mississippi's Piney Woods country, vast forests of longleaf and slash pines once ruled the landscape. Much of that original growth disappeared in the timber boom that lasted into the 1920s, but you can still find plenty of remnants and recovering woodlands that give the state its familiar matting of pine straw and pine cones. So if you're keen to needle your way across the Pine Belt, and to re-trace the path of industry and settlement in Mississippi, you won't find a more appropriate route than the 40.25-mile Longleaf Trace.
"The Trace is special in our communities," says Herlon Pierce, who has managed the rail-trail since it first opened on Labor Day in 2000. "The old railroad was really the reason that many of our towns and cities exist in this area. So the trail preserves a big piece of history—a big piece of what we were all about."
A retired civil engineer, Pierce had been asked to do the construction inspection on the Trace. He ended up staying on to manage the pathway, thinking it would only be for a short time because of his age.
"Now they'll have to run me off," he says. "I love it."
Owned by the Mississippi Department of Transportation, the trail begins in Hattiesburg, right at the campus of the University of Southern Mississippi. From there, following a Mississippi Central Railroad corridor, the asphalt pathway cuts northwest to the timber town of Prentiss (with a bit of a climb at the end).
Rolling with the hills around it—at times requiring a few more pedal strokes than usual for a rail-trail—the Trace visits wetlands, small lakes and a handful of community downtowns. And among the many pine forests, you'll get ample views of the trail's namesake, the longleaf pine.
Known formally as pinus palustris ("pine of the marsh"), longleaf pines once covered 30 to 60 million acres of the southeastern United States. They are highly resistant to fire and can grow to more than 100 feet. Some can live longer than 400 years, but they can take up to 150 years to reach full size.
Longleaf pines may be slow growers, but another local shrub has flourished and rather prickled trail managers. Privet hedges, popular for their blossoms and amenability to pruning, have taken root along much of the trailside. They can sprout a foot a week in the right weather, says Pierce, and folks compliment them all the time. But that heartiness proved troublesome along the dirt equestrian path that parallels the Trace for 22.5 miles from Epley Station west to Carson Station. Indeed privet hedges had choked out most of the route.
"Privet hedge," says Pierce. "I think that word kind of describes it. They will privatize and hide your yard in a hurry!"
Since there wasn't an easy way to manage the privet hedges on the woodsy equestrian path, Pierce had the trail widened and upgraded. It now has a minimum 15-foot width and can even accommodate wagon traffic. The equestrian path zigzags across the main asphalt Trace a few times because of terrain, but otherwise it is entirely separate and remains surfaced in dirt.
These careful management touches—and others, including covered rest areas and restrooms—have made the Trace a shipshape attraction. "We tried to put our money into maintenance," says Pierce. "I promise you, we've got a well-kept trail."
Not just well kept, but also well traveled. According to trail statistics, an estimated 65,000 users hit the Trace in 2009. And since the trail opened in 2000, visitors have come from all 50 states and a number of other countries.
Businesses have opened along the corridor, and new housing subdivisions advertise their proximity to the trail. Doctors are using it to prescribe physical activity for patients, and 20 percent of the estimated 40,000 residents who live within three miles of the Trace have reported an increase in regular exercise. "We have an awful lot of people who have incorporated the Trace into their daily routines," says Pierce.
The Trace is about to celebrate its 10th anniversary this September, and Rails-to-Trails Conservancy has fittingly named the pathway to the Rail-Trail Hall of Fame. So let the swoosh of longleaf pines whisk you into southern Mississippi. It's a perfect time to enjoy and appreciate a decade's worth of trail excellence.
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