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December 12, 2013
We began at the Gateway near USM’s campus in Hattiesburg and headed toward Prentiss, some 40 miles up the trail. Within minutes we were away from city noise and encroaching buildings and were in the midst of quiet, excluding the sounds of nature that is. Squirrels chattered from the treetops and scurried across the trail; a cardinal sang its melodious song; a mourning dove cooed. The rhythmic patter of running shoes became audible as a jogger approached from the opposite direction and nodded as he passed.
At one point somewhere west of I-59, our near-silent passage allowed us to get within a few yards of a doe standing along the trail’s edge. She snorted and bounded away, flag up, into the pine and poplar and oak and sweet gum woods, her hoof falls crunching in leaves yet damp from morning dew. A crow scolded from the tall confines of a longleaf pine.
Not being long-range bikers and in condition for extended trips, we opted to set our maximum ride at 10 miles, a pronounced reduction in the 40.3 miles available one way. As a result, it was not long before we turned and retraced our tracks back to the Gateway and the truck. Still, it had been a glorious morning. We sat briefly in a picnic shelter and had a soft drink and snacks before loading up and heading home, this with a promise to do another portion of the trail soon.
The trail mentioned is the Longleaf Trace (www.longleaftrace.org), the only one of its kind in Mississippi. This is a Rails-to-Trails Conservancy project, which runs from Hattiesburg to Prentiss along an abandoned railroad track.
Longleaf Trace has a minimum width of 10 feet and is covered with asphalt, permitting easy navigation for walkers, runners or bikers. And while no petroleum-powered vehicles are allowed, concessions are made for electric carts by those who need them and who make the proper requests. Additionally, there is a 23-mile equestrian trail for horseback enthusiasts; this runs parallel to the paved trail between Carson and Epley.
On its route between Hattiesburg and Prentiss, Longleaf passes through portions of Forrest, Lamar, Marion and Jefferson Davis counties. It touches the towns of, from south to northwest, Hattiesburg, Sumrall, Bassfield, Carson and Prentiss. These offer various amenities for those who choose to leave the trail for a meal.
Benches, some with overhead covers, are located approximately every five miles. There are also six stations, plus the two Gateways at Hattiesburg and Prentiss, that offer restrooms: Jackson Road Station, Clyde Depot, Epley Station, Sumrall Station, Bassfield Station and Carson Station. A primitive campsite is located adjacent to Carson Station.
And if camping is to be a part of your adventure to Longleaf, there are ample choices in addition to the primitive site at Carson. Since we were coming from the north on Highway 49, we elected to set up on that side of Hattiesburg. We stopped at Okatoma River Resort RV Park to overnight before the morning ride. There is also Paul B. Johnson State Park south of Hattiesburg. Lake Jeff Davis and Lake Mike Conner near the Prentiss end of Longleaf both afford campsites with hookups. A bike rental and retail shop are housed at the Gateway at USM in Hattiesburg.
The Longleaf Trace is a true jewel. It is a means by which visitors can enjoy the natural world of south Mississippi from an asphalt track, as well as offering a variety of entry and exit points at the various stations along the way. It is open year-round to the public and simply should not be missed.
Tony Kinton has been an active outdoors writer for 30 years. His books, “Outside and Other Reflections,” “Fishing Mississippi” and his new Christian historical romance novel, “Summer Lightning Distant Thunder,” are available in bookstores and from the author at www.tonykinton.com, or P.O. Box 88, Carthage, MS 39051.
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