HIKING THE HILLS
near St. Francisville, Louisiana

by Anne Butler

Clark Creek
Clark Creek photo by H.Cancienne
After the stress and overstimulation of the holiday season, however enjoyable, there’s something soothing, even healing, in seeking the solitude and stillness of unspoiled wilderness, especially when combined with strenuous physical activity. The Tunica Hills surrounding the St. Francisville area provide the perfect antidote for the post-Christmas crash.

The wintry winds whirl dead leaves from the hardwood trees, opening scenic forest vistas not visible in the lush crowded overgrowth of summer, while falling temperatures remove that triumvirate of aggravations suffered by the summer outdoorsman--snakes, poison ivy and mosquitoes, making late winter and early spring the perfect time for all sorts of outdoor activities in these hills, from biking to hiking, hunting to horseback riding, nature photography to unsurpassed birding.

Clark Creek
Clark Creek photo by H.Cancienne
Ranging from St. Francisville, Louisiana, northwest into neighboring Mississippi along the Mississippi River, the steep Tunica Hills provide the ideal backdrop for any outdoor activity, including some of the most challenging hiking in the gulf south. Rare rugged land formations found only in a narrow strip from West Feliciana on north into Tennessee, the Tunica Hills are loessial ridges created tens of thousands of years ago by dust storms of the Glacier period which swept in from the western plains carrying powdery fertile soil to form vertical cliffs up to 90 feet high resting on the sand-clay bottom of an ancient sea bed.

Botanists and zoologists find that the deep cool ravines harbor rarities like wild ginseng, Eastern chipmunks and other flora and fauna found nowhere else in Louisiana besides this unique microclimate. Bicyclists and Sunday drivers appreciate the area's quiet country roads, some so ancient they began life as prehistoric game trails stamped indelibly into the soil of lands claimed by Native Americans, first the Houmas and then the Tunica Indians, long before the first Europeans arrived. Birdwatchers find the area still provides habitat for the same rich abundance of birdlife that so inspired artist-naturalist John James Audubon in the 1820's that he painted many of his famous bird studies right here. And for experienced hikers, this is paradise, especially in the winter without the heat and humidity that can wilt the will of even the most determined summer outdoorsman.

Pond General Store
Pond General Store photo by H.Cancienne
The popular Clark Creek Natural Area just across the Louisiana state line near Pond, Mississippi, has challenging trails leading to a series of spectacular spring-fed waterfalls, some cascading 30 feet or more into pools lined with huge clay boulders. The hills here are heavily forested with mixed hardwood and pine; besides large beech, hickory, sweet gum, elm and magnolia trees, Clark Creek has several world-record-setting trees, a Mexican Plum and Bigleaf Snowbell. The damp cool creekbeds provide habitat for rare trilliums, jack-in-the-pulpit, violets and a huge variety of ferns, mosses, lichens and mushrooms, while the surrounding woodlands harbor a multitude of small mammals, whitetail deer, wild turkey and both resident and migratory birdlife, as well as endangered species like the black bear.

Creek Bed
Clark Creek photo by H.Cancienne
This 700+-acre preserve was established in 1978 as a cooperative endeavor between the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, the MS Wildlife Heritage Committee, the Nature Conservancy, Wilkinson County, David Bramlette and International Paper Co. which donated the core tract of 430 acres as the first industrial gift of land set aside specifically as a natural area in the state. In the Pond community 13 miles west of Woodville, MS, and 20 miles northwest of the intersection of US 61 and LA 66 just above St. Francisville, LA, the area is open for daytime public use only.

This is a steep, rugged area and a demanding hike; undulating ridges rise several hundred feet above the sandy creek bed in places. It is accessible only by foot; no hunting or motorized vehicles are allowed. There are primitive restroom facilities in the parking area just past the Pond Store, but the bulk of the area is pristine wilderness, undeveloped except for several established trails and some helpful stairs. Hikers should be sure to wear good sturdy footwear with traction and carry plenty of water. Daily Use Permit envelopes are available at the parking area kiosk for paying the $3 entry fee, and hikers should be sure to pick up park maps from the parking area (call 601-888-6040 for the Clark Creek Natural Area office) or from nearby Pond Store before entering the trail system.

Clark Creek photo by H.Cancienne
In the 19th century, a stockpond was built by the county as a watering place for the teams of oxen and mules hauling cotton down the steep hill to the riverport at Fort Adams, and from it the little store built beside it took its name. The present Pond Store & Post Office dates from 1881, when its predecesor, opened by early Jewish merchants Barthold and Karl Lehman, burned. This is the quintessential old-time country store, complete with creaking wood-plank floors, wood stove and old-fashioned display cases providing a veritable museum of the emporium’s wares in days gone by, including the 1916 inventory list featuring a one-bedroom suite (dresser, armoire and washstand) for $17.50 and an iron bed for the princely sum of $1.50. Visitors should take time to chat with congenial longtime proprietor Liz Chaffin, who dispenses Clark Creek maps, historic lore and plenty of southern charm along with bottled water and snacks all day Friday and Saturday, and Sunday afternoons. There are a couple of rustic cabins here that provide an ideal overnight spot for hikers just a few hundred yards from the Clark Creek Natural Area entry point (call 601-888-4426), and the St. Francisville area also abounds in B&Bs.

Other popular hiking spots are the Tunica Hills Wildlife Management Area, with several thousand acres of rugged hills, high bluffs and deep shaded ravines maintained by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (225-765-2360 for regulations governing its use) in two separate tracts for public hunting, trapping, hiking, riding, birding and sightseeing; and Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge along the Mississippi River west of St. Francisville. One of the largest tracts of virgin wetland forest along the Mississippi not protected by levees from cyclical flooding, Cat Island is sometimes inundated by 15 to 20 feet of water in the spring and supports huge populations of wintering waterfowl as well as the world's largest Bald Cypress tree, believed to be 800 to 1500 years old and an astounding 83 feet tall. Visitors to these areas should be cognizant of hunting seasons and take necessary precautions.

Less strenuous hiking is offered by the Nature Conservancy’s Mary Ann Brown Preserve southeast of St. Francisville near the Arnold Palmer-designed golf course at The Bluffs on Thompson Creek, with over 100 acres of deep ravines and loblolly pine forests traversed by interpretive trails (call the Nature Conservancy at 225-338-1040). Yet another enjoyable way to take in the scenery of the Tunica Hills is on horseback, and Cross Creek Stables (225-655-4233) offers gaited horses for three-hour morning or afternoon rides; advance reservations are a must for rides along the sunken roadbed of the historic Old Tunica Road or on trails in the wildlife management area.

Located on US Highway 61 on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge, LA, and Natchez, MS, the St. Francisville area makes the perfect base for hiking trips through the Tunica Hills and is a year-round tourist destination, with six historic plantations--Rosedown and Audubon State Historic Sites, Butler Greenwood, the Myrtles, the Cottage and Greenwood--open for daily tours, Catalpa Plantation open by reservation and Afton Villa Gardens seasonally. Reasonably priced meals are available in a nice array of restaurants in St. Francisville, and eclectic shops fill restored 19th-century structures throughout the National Register-listed historic downtown area Some of the state's best Bed and Breakfasts offer overnight accommodations ranging from golf clubs and lakeside resorts to historic townhouses and country plantations; a modern motel has facilities to accommodate busloads. For online coverage of tourist facilities, attractions and events in the St. Francisville area, see www.stfrancisville.us, www.stfrancisville.net or www.stfrancisvilleovernight.com, or telephone (225) 635-3873 or 635-6330.



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