Sunday, November 10, 2013

Richardson Creek Trail in Homochitto NF

Looking at a waterfall on Richardson Creek from the Richardson Creek Trail in the Homochitto National Forest.

 The Clear Springs Trail Complex      

       Rangers in the Homochitto National Forest, in southwest Mississippi, report that most of the visitors to the Clear Springs Recreation Area and its small campground are from Louisiana.
       Not a surprise, really.  Hikers and mountain bikers from the flat lands of south Louisiana are drawn to the 25 miles of rugged paths through the wilderness there.   Elevation changes of 120 feet or more take hikers up and down steep root-strewn trails carved into the sides of heavily wooded ravines; a challenging terrain often compared to the foothills of the Smoky mountains in Eastern Tennessee or the Ozark mountains in Arkansas.
       Fall is a favorite time for the cult of the self propelled to visit Clear Springs.  Just a forecast of brisk weather is promise enough for hikers and bikers in the New Orleans area--dreaming of a chilly evening around a glowing campfire sipping a steaming mug of hot chocolate--to pack their boots or bikes for the 150-mile drive to the campgrounds (both primitive and developed) at the recreation area.
       The 10.8 mile Talley's Creek Trail, the first trail in what is now known as the Clear Springs Trail Complex, was completed in the late 1980's.  But it was little used by the hikers it was built for.  As luck would have it, the sport of mountain biking was just becoming popular across the U.S. and Talley's became ground-zero for off-road bicyclists from south Louisiana.  The only really hilly trail within a reasonable drive of New Orleans, riders quickly became buddy-buddy with Homochitto management, helping with trail maintenance, (which benefited both hikers and bikers) and organizing races.  Now more than 20 years later the trail is still one of the top rated mountain bike trails in the Southeastern U.S.
       Two newer loop trails-- the 5.6-mile long Mill Branch Trail and the 7.4 mile long Richardson Creek Trail--share a trail head, parking lot and bike wash with Talley's.  A one-mile long easy trail loops around the 12 acre lake, the centerpiece of the recreation area developed as a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) project in the 1930's. 
        (Everything you do in Homochitto costs something so be sure to visit the honor box before hiking, biking or camping there.  Day use is $5 per day.  Camping is $7 for primitive and $20 for a developed site with water and electricity by the 12 acre lake.  Parking areas are monitored by park staff so be sure to have that pink tag hanging from your rear view mirror before you leave your vehicle to hike or bike.)
     The trails can be combined to make loop trails of various lengths and all are open to mountain bicyclists and hikers.  Horses and motorized vehicles are prohibited.   All-weather forest service roads crisscross the trails providing a bailout option if necessary.  Opinions differ on each trail's level of difficulty.  All three are physically challenging and distinctions among them would be hard for hikers to discern.  For most trail users, the trail's length determines its difficulty.
       Homochitto is also popular with hunters who enjoy hunting seasons for one animal or another from October through May.  Trail users should take full precautions when on the trails during any hunting season.  Wearing lots of hunter orange is a must.  In the 2013-2014 hunting season, white-tailed deer are hunted in the Homochitto N F between October 1 and January 31, 2014.  For more information about hunting seasons in Mississippi and non-resident license and permit requirements, track down a copy of the "Mississippi Outdoor Digest" a glossy, full color free publication by the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks.    
       In most cases hikers can expect a challenging and dry hike.  Bridges span named creeks and intermittent creeks.  Stepping stones dot low, damp sections so wet feet are only a problem after periods of heavy rain.  Each trail tracks through a variety of environments from piney ridge tops to hardwood forests flanking sandy creek bottoms.  Frequently trails descend into shady "coves" with ferns clinging to vertical clay banks sheltering little creeks splashing over logs and ledges.
       The elevation change can be 140-150 feet in the extreme.  While the ups and downs are usually more moderate than that, they are constant. There is very little level ground on any of the trails so even the very fit will be challenged hiking here.  Figure a pace of about two miles an hour without stops for an average person in good physical condition on a day hike for exercise.
        From the trails hikers can view deep into the forest as undergrowth is sparse; the Forest Service maintains a periodic proscribed burning schedule in Homochitto.  Look for the charred pine tree trunks as evidence.   Short sections of high grass and bushes apparently not touched by the protective fires appear occasionally.
       The scenery is fall-like but not spectacular.  Hikers expecting the intense color of an autumnal tableaux in New England will be very disappointed.   The leaves of most of the deciduous trees in Homochitto just turn brown, usually by the end of November.  However windy days in Clear Springs can bring the sound of rustling dried leaves in the tree crowns.  A constant but sparse fluttering of leaves from the high branches carpet the trails with yellow and brown and, every now and then, a splotch of crimson.  That, with the crisp kiss of frosty air on bare cheeks, makes a hike in this southern forest a pretty good time.
       All good times need good food.  When hanging out at Clear Springs, the closest, dependable sources of good food are a busy grocery store and small country restaurant at the "T" intersection between Meadville and Bude on highway US 98.  Both were open the Sunday I was there.  This intersection is about five miles from the turn off from US 98/84 to Clear Springs Rd.  A service station/small truck stop on  Meadville's west side on highway US 84/98, a divided highway is a source for snacks and fried chicken.  There is a "meat and three" restaurant serving dinner (the mid-day meal) only, near the courthouse in Meadville, the county seat of Franklin County.  There may be other feeding options the day you visit so ask around.  But the food service biz is probably tough in a town of less than 600 people, so it may be best to leave New Orleans with everything you intend to eat on the trip. 
        There are soft drink machines in front of the bathrooms in Clear Springs.  

Richardson Creek Trail

Finding your way

        A fine map of the Clear Springs Trail Complex is sometimes available at the trail head just ahead of the honor fee box at the entrance to Clear Springs Campground.  The map is also available on line.  I met a guy on the trail who was following the Richardson Creek Trail on his smart phone.
       On the map, each of the four trails is marked a different color: Talley's Trail, yellow; Mill Branch Trail, navy blue; Richardson Creek Trail, red and Clear Springs Lake Trail, purple. 
       The trails are not blazed the traditional way with strips painted on trees.  Here, triangular signs at trail intersections match the colors on the map.  Each triangle also has a different letter of the alphabet.  Match the color and letter on the trail sign with the color and letter on the map and you know where you are.
       Between junctions there is little to guide you but the trail itself.   Occasionally a red, blue, yellow or purple diamond-shaped blaze, will be nailed to a tree but these are few and are not that helpful as they do not mark direction changes.  But most of the trail is worn into the forest floor from hiking boot and lugged mountain bike tire traffic so it is not that difficult to find your way if you pay attention.

Measuring the distance

        The Richardson Creek Trail, by itself is 7.2 miles long.  But a portion of two trails, the Talley's Creek Trail and the Mill Branch Trail, must be used to complete the loop with the trail head.  The total distance is ten miles.  Same way with Mill Branch.  The Mill Branch loop is 3.8 miles but to connect it to the trail head requires an additional 1.8 mile out and back walk making the total hike 5.6 miles.
       Sometimes diamond shaped blazes nailed to the trees along the trail identify these connecting trails by just their name, sometimes by just the root trail name--in this case, Richardson Creek and sometimes with both names.  The signage is most confusing when following the Richardson Creek Trail on its Mills Branch section.  When hiking the loop in a counter-clockwise direction, at the Richardson Creek Trail/ Mills Branch Trail junction, turn LEFT.  After you walk for a while you will see a confirming red Richardson Creek blaze nailed to a tree.
       Also look to the left to rejoin the Mills Branch Trail when crossing FS 187 and look to the LEFT again when crossing FS 187 a second time, when traveling the loop in a counter-clockwise direction.

Map Error

    Talley's Creek Trail is shown on the Clear Springs Trail Complex Trail Identification and Distance Map as passing north of FS 104E where the primitive campground is.  Talley's Creek Trail actually passes just south of the primitive campground on its way west to Richardson Creek.  It is much easier to start the Richardson Creek Trail from the trail head than try to find it from the primitive campground.

 "And up from the ground come a' bubblin' crude"    
           The primitive camping at Clear Springs ($7 per night), is nice but...primitive.  Sites are strung out along FS 104E nestled in a grove of big pine trees.  Each site is numbered and each has a large fire pit/grill.  Again..primitive is taken seriously here.  The closest toilets are in the developed campground about a half mile away.  The showers have hot water and the bathrooms are heated.  And while you are there be sure to replenish your drinking water supply.  There is no drinking water at the primitive campground.  The one picnic table that was there in March is now gone.
        On the plus side, there is access to Talley's Creek Trail, from the campground's western most camping sites and if you have a good sense of direction you can connect with Richardson Creek and see the little waterfall on the creek.  This is a short, family hike but you pretty much have to find your own way.
        The worst thing about the primitive camping has nothing to do with the campground or even the national forest.  It is the noise from the pumpjack (nodding donkey) about a mile southwest of the campground.  Much of the national forest sits on an active oil field and there are many other pumpjacks in these woods.  I didn't notice the low rumbling noise of the pump jack  when I set up camp that afternoon but all that night and the next night I could hear it.  It sounds like someone in a vehicle stuck in the mud or deep gravel spinning their wheels trying to rock themselves out of the hole.  Every two seconds.  But they never make it.  Ever.
       There are about two dozen developed camping sites with water and electricity near the lake that are $20 per night.  This is a very beautiful, small campground and usually fills up on holidays and weekend, when the weather is nice and weekends during hunting season.  There are no reservations: first come, first serve.  No alcohol is permitted in the campgrounds (sometimes law enforcement will drive through checking for scofflaws) and pets must be leashed. 
       In the summer the 12-acre lake opens to swimmers.  But it's fall now, bringing cool temperatures, crackling campfires for warmth and a chance for a fine hike without dissolving into a sweaty puddle.  Enjoy it while you can.
Richardson Creek Trail is shown in red.  To complete a loop hikers must also walk a portion of the Mills Branch Trail and the Talley's Creek Trail which become de facto extensions of the Richardson Creek Trail.

 How to get to Clear Springs from New Orleans

     From New Orleans, take I-10 west to I-55.  Drive to Summit, MS (just north of McComb) and turn west on US 98, a two-lane.  As you near Meadville, turn left (the sign says Meadville) at the "T" intersection on US 98, then left again right after crossing the overpass over US 98/84, a divided highway to head west on US 98/84.  Drive west about four and a half miles and turn south on Clear Springs Rd.  Look sharp for this intersection and its left turn lane!  There is a sign but it is not big.
     Clear Springs Rd. dead ends at Clear Springs Recreation Area after about four miles.
     For more information telephone the Homochitto National Forest at (601) 384-5876.  On the internet visit:  If visiting the national forest on a weekday during business hours stop in at the headquarters at 1200 Hwy 184 East in Meadville, MS 39653 to get the latest information on the trails in Clear Springs.


Anonymous said...

We found the Talley's Creek trail to be woefully underblazed. While hiking on a straight section with no side trails, there would be a few aluminum signs with colored arrows, but at most intersections there were no arrows at all. The "A," "B," etc. "You are here" signs were only marginally helpful as they did not often show upcoming slight forks to subtle to show on the trailhead maps. Thank heavens for some mountain bikers who came along at just the right time. As an experienced and fairly in shape hiker, this wasn't too bad, but the trailhead sign that said 10.8 miles and 3.5 hours hiking time could easily get someone in trouble. We hiked almost 15 miles and finished at 4:15 instead of the 2 p.m. we expected. Someone could have easily found themselves out there in the dark in subfreezing temperatures. Will definitely volunteer to help with some blazing on my next trip/

jcurryjr said...

Thanx for the warning about the inadequate blazing on the Talley's Creek Trail. First-person trip reports are valuable to other hikers looking for a trail to match their interests. A poorly blazed trail is serious business especially if getting lost could mean real trouble. The maps at the trailhead provide a rough idea of the trails in the Clear Springs Complex but at individual junctions you are apparently on your own, not a good situation, as you say, for those who may not have food or water enough for a longer hike or even a flashlight for hiking out after dark, not to mention an unexpected change in the weather that might put lost hikers at risk of hypothermia. Mountain biking and hiking clubs work with management at Homochitto NF to maintain the trails and they will be interested to hear of the trail's lack of adequate blazing.