Biking the Lower Mississippi: Seeking a Plan

I had rarely gone on long bike rides, and it had been a long time since the last one (not to mention the one before). I could proudly claim to have at least planned one, in western Michigan, though I didn’t actually carry through with it. But now, by golly, I thought I might just get out there and do something. (A later post sketches out some plans for a few other trips.)

The Basic Layout of the Southern Section

I had just discovered or rediscovered that they apparently had a bike trail, or at least some kind of bike route, running more or less the length of the Mississippi River. They seemed to have divided this Mississippi River Trail (MRT), conceptually at least, into northern, central, and southern sections. The northern section looked like it began right around Bemidji, Minnesota, which seemed to be near the headwaters of the Mississippi.

Since winter was approaching (or, in Minnesota, had been prevailing for the past several months), I was understandably more interested in the southern section of the MRT. Whether reading the web-based or PDF presentation of this southern section, it seemed that we were talking about the segment starting at Reelfoot Lake State Park, near Tiptonville, Tennessee, and running on down to the trail’s end at the Delta National Wildlife Refuge, near Venice, Louisiana.

My first question was, how many miles would this segment cover? I had noticed that they were describing the whole MRT as consisting of “3000+” miles. This suggested that perhaps they were not too sure. Neither the website nor the PDF were specific on this point. Following roads rather than the vastly more meandering riverbanks of the southern Mississippi, Google Maps calculated that the drive down from Tiptonville would amount to about 570 miles.

That was further than I cared to ride my bike. In the interests of biking just a fraction of that, the MRT’s Resources page prompted me to look particularly at the webpages for the Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana portions of the trail.

Each of those three states’ webpages offered PDF maps for their segments. The Arkansas webpage warned me that some sections of the trail were still in development and that cyclists should use other sources “to identify road routes.” Indeed, the link to the PDF map provided on the Arkansas webpage gave me a 404 error (i.e., page not found). Further, it said, “Segments under development are marked in red and indicate dangerous cycling conditions.”

There was nonetheless a bit of content on that Arkansas webpage. I gathered that there were signs in place, at least, indicating the location of the trail, starting at West Memphis, AR and continuing as far as Helena, AR. That would be about 75 miles by road, according to Google Maps, and it looked like it would account for about one-quarter of the total of Arkansas’s frontage on the Mississippi. The trail itself apparently swapped sides, running sometimes on the Arkansas side and sometimes on the Mississippi side of the river, so it was not as though Arkansas would have a full 300 miles of Mississippi River Trail all to itself.

One such switch to the Mississippi side apparently began south of Helena, AR. The Arkansas website then said that, after a stint in Mississippi, the MRT switched back into Arkansas at Greenville, MS, for what appeared to be a final 25-mile run to the Louisiana border. A glance at the route on Google Earth suggested the presence of side roads that, depending on road condition and the fatigue factor, might prove more interesting than the highways they were recommending there on the website.

As I was scoping out that segment, I noticed a number of wildlife management areas and national wildlife refuges in the vicinity. I wondered whether a more rewarding ride would entail a slower pace and/or a more roundabout route, rather than trying to chase down a semi-nonexistent trail on busy highways. But I postponed that question for the moment, seeking just to trace out where the trail was.

The Arkansas webpage provided a link to an MRT blog set up by the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism. Sadly, the blog had only one post, about 2.5 years old at this point, and it primarily pointed to Bob Robinson’s Bicycling Guide to the Mississippi River Trail ($16.95). This 200-page volume reportedly treated the entire river in hundred-mile segments, with bits of history and points of local interest. I was not sure how much things might have changed at various places (in terms of both the route and the restaurants and other local establishments along the way), in the four years since that book’s August 2008 publication date.

Another thing I noticed, as I was looking at Google Earth and such, was that the river had carved out countless islands and meanders, where what used to be a part of the river was now just a lake or gully off to the side of the river’s new route. The image above is a shot from the Greenville area. The Mississippi Delta was not known for its mountains, so I did not expect to have many opportunities to view these landscape features from a high angle. The more likely effect, for a bicyclist on a semi-existent trail, seemed to be that I would be riding across or alongside various fields and bodies of water, wondering now and then exactly where the Mississippi River was.

For instance, shortly after crossing the bridge from Greenville back to Arkansas, I might see something like the “Sunrise Over Lake Chicot” photo uploaded to Panoramio by Doug Wilhite – Lake Chicot being a name for one such old Mississippi River meander. It certainly was a pretty photo, and a shot from Google Maps’ Street View suggested that a bicyclist on Highway 82 at that location might enjoy wide shoulders and light traffic.

The webpage for the state of Mississippi provided links to three different PDF maps. One covered the full length of the state; the other two divided that length into north and south sections. These maps conveyed the impression that there simply was no Arkansas section of the MRT near Greenville. It appeared, that is, that the state of Mississippi had provided a “fully designated” and “signed” trail running from Lula, located just 50 miles south of the Tennessee border, all the way down to Natchez, MS, far south of the Arkansas – Louisiana border. I wondered whether the Mississippi people seized an opportunity, or whether they had just given up on the slow progress I was sensing on the Arkansas side. For practical purposes, it seemed that mine would be a largely Mississippi and/or Louisiana trip.

But then I moved on to the Louisiana MRT webpage. There, to my surprise, I beheld concurrence with Arkansas. It seemed, in other words, that Louisiana was not entirely in agreement with Mississippi’s seeming attempt to dominate the trail from Memphis to New Orleans. Rather, by the reckoning of the Bayou State, the MRT really did cross the Mississippi into Arkansas at Greenville, proceeding due south to the nearest point on the Louisiana border, and remaining in Louisiana for the rest of the way to the Gulf of Mexico except for a break from Vicksburg to Natchez on the Mississippi side. Here, as before, the maps seemed to follow roadways, with no indications of any actual bike trails.

I still didn’t have a clear indication of how long any of these segments would be. Google Maps appeared to be my best friend for that purpose. But I wasn’t feeling too inspired by the prospect of endless road miles. Given a preliminary sense that I would be witnessing mile after mile of field, forest, and lake- and riverside, with hardly any hills to speak of, I guessed that the trip would be most interesting if I focused it on wildlife and perhaps on exposure to local people, places, and culture. I wanted a good workout – maybe 20 to 60 miles per day, for at least several days – but the precise distance, I decided, was not important.

Biking on the Mississippi River Trail

So it seemed this would not be a long-distance biking trip. In that case, if I was going to be forced to slow down and enjoy myself, it seemed I would have to identify a target zone where there would be a good chance of succeeding in some such enjoyment. I decided that, if I could get access to people, the birds, the music, and the other things just hinted at, the main thing would be to ride on an actual trail, if possible, rather than on the sides of roads.

With that general concept in mind, I began by trying to find out if any parts of the MRT in Mississippi or Louisiana actually did consist of bike trails. The Mississippi MRT webpage presented some very touristy concepts – the Natchez Trace National Parkway, Delta farm country, Blues Highway 61. But this all seemed designed for drivers. Yes, I would like to see Vicksburg, but could it please be located somewhere near a bike path?

If any part of the so-called Mississippi River Trail in these states stood a chance of being on a dedicated path, I thought that perhaps the Natchez Trace Parkway would be a good place to look. In Google Maps Street View, I homed in on that road, starting northeast of Natchez, between Mt. Locust and Port Gibson, in a location clearly designated as a part of the river trail on the Mississippi state map and uncontested by the maps of Arkansas and Louisiana.

Upon viewing that roadway (above), I could say definitively that the Natchez Trace Parkway at that location was in no sense a bike trail. It had no shoulder whatsoever. It would take just one big RV, followed by one texting teen, to block visibility and, a moment later, to permanently erase all options for a bicyclist who came here to see the sights. (Another post provides more detail on my experiences and conclusions in the area of road safety for bicyclists.)

As I had already seen, there were some road sections of the “trail” that did offer generous shoulders. But those could and did appear anywhere in this great nation; they were not generally conceived and implemented as bike-specific features. I had to conclude that the southern section of the Mississippi River Trail, in some of this nation’s least bike-friendly states, had nothing in particular to do with bicycling. One rare bicyclist’s account of his trip on that route confirms it. Having been hit by a few vehicles while bicycling, I was not eager to follow that man’s lead. If I was going to take a really enjoyable bike ride down there, I would have to look for actual bike paths, perhaps accompanied by a ride over the Mississippi at a bridge somewhere.

This state of affairs seemed to kill my hopes of repeating an experience I’d had in Missouri, where it was possible to ride the Katy Trail in one direction, camping along the way as needed, and then take an Amtrak train, bike and all, back to the starting point. Whatever the situation might be at the Minnesota end of the MRT, a search for such an arrangement at the southern end was not panning out. Maybe I could still Amtrak down, do a loop, and Amtrak back. But there was apparently not going to be an AC-DC option of riding one way and Amtraking the other way.

Finding a Touristy Bike Trail

I had not previously scrutinized the actual route of Amtrak’s “City of New Orleans.” A look now disabused me of the belief that it followed the Mississippi River. For example, the station at Jackson, MS – nearest to Vicksburg – was, in reality, about 45 miles away from the river, and the distance was even greater between Natchez and the Brookhaven station. Given no chance that I would be biking all the way from Memphis to New Orleans, and slim prospect of doing a loop out of either such city, it appeared that this trip was going to have either the Mississippi River or Amtrak, but not both.

If I did insist on mixing river and train, it seemed the best I could do would be to take the train to Jackson, bike over to Vicksburg, down to Natchez, and back to Brookhaven, and then take the train home from there. This would take in some sights. But it would still be all road biking, and on roads that were only of mixed suitability for biking. I didn’t like the constant roar of cars when biking on the highway, even when it did have an ample shoulder. This didn’t seem like much of a vacation.

Now, New Orleans did have a 21-mile bike path on top of a levee. There was also the 28-mile Tammany Trace trail on the north shore of Lake Ponchartrain. Other than that, though, it looked like Louisiana was weak in the bike path department. Mississippi, similarly, had two trails (one extant, one prospective) of about 40-45 miles each. And if Amtrak ran east instead of north from Natchez, it could actually connect with the extant one. Arkansas, likewise, was hoping someday to have something to boast about in this regard. But at the moment, a pleasant wintertime biking tour near the Mississippi was looking iffy. Other than that moderately long trail in southeastern Mississippi, the closest I could get to the Mississippi River on my bike, in trail-safe warmth and comfort, appeared to be on a 40-mile trail in western Louisiana, running from Jamestown to Winnfield. Unfortunately, the trail was evidently open to ATVs, and was reported to be in mediocre condition and to run adjacent to a noisy highway for half its length.

What were the real alternatives? Using Google Maps, I scanned the Gulf Coast states to the east and west. It looked like I would find a good network of bike trails in central Florida. There also seemed to be a long trail running west from Atlanta. Dallas had a few trails. Beyond that, there was always New Mexico and Arizona. No guarantees as to amenities or points of interest, though.

In summary, my concept of a winter bike trip within the U.S. was running into serious constraints. Unless I cared to shlep to Orlando or the Southwest, it looked like the best I was going to be able to do was to strap the bike on back of the car and drive around, here and there, picking at whatever crumbs of waterfront, country roads, or bike routes might present themselves. That plan would pretty much eliminate the sense of being away on a bike or train vacation. Basically, you’re still running errands in the car. Find a place to camp or a motel room, in some small town somewhere; tool around on the bike; see if anything turns up. That might not be a bad experience. It was just not a bike trip.

(This item was previously posted in another blog.)

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