This is a guest post by Ron Friedel
We've been going south the last few winters, looking for bike trails that we can ride on and get away from the cold Wisconsin winters. Some of our favorite trails are the West Orange and South Lake, the Withlacoochee, the Nature Coast, the St. Marks and the Timpoochee, all in Florida, the Tammany Trace in Louisiana, and finally, the best of all, and the Longleaf Trace and the Tanglefoot Trail in Mississippi. There are other trails we would like to ride but we can park our RV on or within riding distance of these trails.
The Longleaf Trace is a 10 to 14 foot-wide paved rail-trail that runs between Hattiesburg and Prentiss, just over 40 miles. There is no charge to ride on this trail. The eastern gateway is on the campus of the University of Southern Mississippi, with a western gateway at Prentiss. In addition to these two places, there are 6 more trail-heads, also offering parking, shelter and restrooms with flush toilets. There also are rest stops every 3 miles, or so, along the trail, some with roofs, where you can get out of the rain.
This trail was built on the right-of-way of the Mississippi Central RR, a logging railroad, built in about 1904. There are hills and curves on this trail, which make for interesting biking. The railroad stopped running in the 1980s, the route was abandoned in the 1990s, and the trail opened in 2000. This rail-trail is consistently rated in the top ten trails in the U.S. since it was built.
Another feature of the Longleaf is that there is an equestrian route alongside for much of the central portion. The horse trail is wide enough for wagons and buggies with turning areas. These “turns” are like interstate interchanges, with a horse trail on each side of the paved trail so that the horse drawn wagons can make easy U-turns without having to back up.
Last year I found that there are numerous 5K and 10K walking/running routes marked on the trail. These are marked with start/finish lines and turn around locations. Some of these are sponsored and have wooden posts marking the start and even more elaborate signs at the turn around place. Obviously there are more of these walking/running routes near Hattiesburg.
One feature I really appreciate is a tree identification project, where trees, bushes, and shrubs, even vines, are identified with metal signs on 4x4 wooden posts. I was able to see what a Longleaf pine looked like and now can pretty easily pick them out in the forest. (The Longleaf is a tall, straight, yellow pine, very valuable for timber and turpentine, which has very long needles, 10 to 12 inches, in pom-pom shaped bunches with big pine cones.)
There are mile markers along the trail. These are wooden posts set in concrete, many with sponsorship signs.
They even have an official, substantial sign, on the trail, at Melba, a ghost town, pointing to a nearby convenience store, having food, refreshments and restrooms.
The trail manager aggressively sells sponsorships, for signs, on mile posts, horse trail markers, rest stops, and other places of interest. The official restrooms on the trail are named after a local person. Perhaps they also gave donations to the trail.
They are more realistic about crossing traffic on this trails. Cars on driveways to homes have stop signs to stop for the trail, because there is more traffic on the trail. The trail users get warning signs only. There are even signs for the county lines, Forrest, Lamar, and Jeff Davis on the trail.
There are two primitive campsites on the trail, one at the Beaver Pond, between mile posts 12 & 13, the other at Carson, near mile post 37. There is an improved campground at Lake Jeff Davis, on a side trail, going off the main trail at about mile post 41. There are serious hills on this side trail, which is not on a RR right-of-way.
I've seen three Longleaf Trace pick-up trucks on the trail, one belonging to the trail manager, another clearing brush and tree limbs, and a third pulling a trailer with blowers to clean off the trail, especially on Friday, before the busy weekends. Apparently local farmers are hired to cut the grass on the side of the trail. Mississippi has a “Share the Road” license plate. In addition, golf carts are allowed on the trail. Their owners purchase and display a yearly license sticker on the cart.
The Hattiesburg Gateway sells stuff like tee shirts, tire patch kits, tire irons, and car bumper stickers, all promoting the trail. They also sell a superb guidebook which details a mile by mile description of the trail with a lot of history which I especially appreciate. The guidebook even has a mile to mile grade profile showing that, yes, there are hills on this trail. You can also rent bikes at the Hattiesburg gateway.
There is a pet memorial, “Buddy’s Place,” at the Hattiesburg gateway.
There are signs on the Longleaf Trace thanking the Mississippi DOT and the taxpayers of the state for their 20% of the share of the cost of the trail.
Here, in Wisconsin, we have an old trail, the Elroy-Sparta, which should have a lot of community support, but it is still gravel, and paid trail passes are necessary to use it. Yes, tunnels are nice, but pavement would be even better.
Some people complaining about the politics in Wisconsin are saying Wisconsin is becoming more like Mississippi all the time. Mississippi is doing way better than Wisconsin with this trail. Yes, Wisconsin has more trails. But the Wisconsin state trails are seriously lacking compared to the Longleaf Trace. (Mississippi now has another trail, the Tanglefoot Trail, between Tupelo & Oxford, which is a copy of the Longleaf, with all of the same kind of features. We have spent a week on that trail each of the last two years.)
In fact, we prefer to use the free and paved trails in Minnesota, especially the Root River Trail. And spend money in Lanesboro. (We were there last year. I was on a nearby bike tour and my wife Sandy stayed in our motor home in a campground. She went to a couple of performances of plays by the local Lanesboro Summer Stock players, spending money locally.)
Can Wisconsin do better?
Tanglefoot Trail Longleaf Trace Public Service Announcement