Stretching nearly 41 miles northwest from the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg to small-town Prentiss, Longleaf Trace traverses landscapes that range from the bustling heart of Mississippi's third largest city to the rural farmland that predominates in this area.
A designated National Recreation Trail, it runs atop a stretch of Mississippi Central Railroad line that saw much activity as the region's timber industry flourished between the late 1800s and 1920s. As the industry began to fade, so too did the need for the rail service, and although the railroad struggled into the 1970s, it eventually ceased to be economically viable. Fortunately, a concerted effort by local groups and individuals preserved the corridor, and in 2000 it opened as a trail.
Today, the route is again active, as cyclists, inline skaters and pedestrians ply the trail's smooth, well-maintained surface. Eight small covered rest areas along the route provide travelers with shade, restrooms and vending machines, while three small shelters offer places to wait out brief summer rain showers.
Start your trip at the Trace gateway on the Southern Miss campus, where welcome center staff can offer advice, provide maps and help visitors identify the many tree species that line the route, including the namesake longleaf pine. Bike rentals and parking are available here. (Note that by fall 2016 an additional 1.9 miles will extend the route into historical downtown Hattiesburg.)
Over the first few miles, the trail negotiates several tunnels and bridges. Leaving Hattiesburg behind, you'll progress through a range of quintessentially Southern landscapes, from piney woods and wetlands to small lakes and charming towns. In Epley, 15 miles northwest, the trail meets a dirt equestrian path that zigzags across the Trace some 25 miles to Carson.
Thirty-three miles out, just past Bassfield, is a stable, while 2 miles farther is a primitive camping site. The rolling hills that define this section may pose a challenge to less experienced cyclists. While the grades aren't particularly steep, factor them in if you're on a day trip or traveling with small children.
At trail's end in downtown Prentiss, an attractive trailhead provides restrooms, parking and vending machines. If you've chosen to end your trip in Hattiesburg instead, consider renting a canoe and plunging into Black Creek, a National Scenic River about 10 miles south of the Southern Miss gateway. Like the Trace itself, the creek will take you for a gentle, slow-moving ramble through central Mississippi's piney woods.
To reach the Hattiesburg gateway: Take I-59 to Exit 65/Hardy Street and head east. Following the brown trail signs, turn left on 38th Avenue then right at the next light on Fourth Street. Just past the Southern Miss football stadium, turn left into the trailhead parking lot.
To reach the Prentiss trailhead: From Hattiesburg, take US 49 about 27 miles northwest to Collins and turn west on US 84. Nearly 20 miles west in Prentiss, the Trace crosses the highway near its trailhead in a park. Just shy of this crossing, turn right on Front Street to access the trailhead.