When the votes were tallied in this year's BACKPACKER Reader Ratings poll ("The Best Backpacking in America,"), the outcome included a happy coincidence. You picked the Black Creek National Recreation Trail as Mississippi's best hiking destination, a place I'd just visited.
For those who have yet to discover this southern gem, take my word for it: The Black Creek Trail is worth your time. The 41-mile path can be as wild as a feral hog, yet it's only a stone's throw from New Orleans, Biloxi, and Mobile.
The hikers-only trail follows Black Creek, a Wild and Scenic canoeing mecca (best paddled in fall and spring), through the coastal plains of DeSoto National Forest. The low-country hiking won't tax you with any serious ups and downs, but there are other challenges. Just try to track all the wildlife in the creek bottoms, piney uplands, oxbow lakes, and swamps. Each zone has unique plants and critters, including longleaf pines, lush hardwoods, beavers, blue herons, red foxes, and wood ducks.
The best section of trail is the 10-mile segment that snakes through the 5,000-acre Black Creek Wilderness. From the segment's start at MS 29, I hiked through a sun-dappled canopy of lodgepole pines, magnolias, oaks, and dogwoods (good fall colors and great spring flowers), then rambled for several miles across shallow drainages and modest ridges. Good backcountry campsites abound. Choose between hardwood stands and piney uplands.
After crossing Beaverdam Creek via the MS 29 bridge, I descended into the Black Creek floodplain. Here, the trail follows a Native American travel corridor used for thousands of years. Ascending from the floodplain to the top of multicolored bluffs, I watched the creek morph from wide placid stream to narrow frenetic chute and back again. Creekside hiking provides a great opportunity to keep an eye out for wildlife, or just to find a cozy sandbar, close your eyes, and listen to all the critters around you.
Expedition Planner: Black Creek Trail, MS
DRIVE TIME: The Black Creek Wilderness is about 1 hour (50 miles) from Hattiesburg, Mississippi. The trail is less than 3 hours from Jackson, New Orleans, and Mobile.
THE WAY: From Hattiesburg, take US 98 east for 20 miles to New Augusta and turn south onto MS 29. Proceed 19 miles to the Black Creek Wilderness trailhead and parking area.
TRAILS: The main artery is the Black Creek National Recreation Trail, with 10 of its 41 miles in the Black Creek Wilderness. Do an end-to-end hike with a car shuttle, or a 20-mile out-and-back trek through the wilderness area (go south from the wilderness trailhead).
DAYHIKE: For the best creekside hiking, start at the trailhead on MS 29 and trek southeast into the wilderness. Go 5 miles and turn around, or use a car shuttle to hike 10 miles one way.
ELEVATION: The creek bottoms out near 100 feet, and the upland ridges rise to 270 feet.
CAN'T MISS: An afternoon siesta on a quiet sandbar, listening to the Black Creek slip by and watching a blue heron wing overhead.
CROWD CONTROL: The trail is rarely crowded. October through April is cool, sunny, and relatively insect-free. Wear blaze orange clothing during deer-hunting season (November to January).
GUIDES: USGS topos Brooklyn, Janice, and Bond Pond. A Black Creek Trail map is also available from the DeSoto National Forest (see Contact below; $5). Hiking Mississippi: A Guide to Trails and Natural Areas, by Helen McGinnis (University Press of Mississippi, 800-737-7788; www.backpacker.com/bookstore; $15.95).
WALK SOFTLY: Be sure to camp at least 200 feet from the stream so you don't contaminate the water.
CONTACT: DeSoto Ranger District, DeSoto National Forest, (601) 928-4422; www.fs.fed.us/r8/miss.