De Soto National Forest

Text: Troy Hendrick • Photography: Troy Hendrick

Day trips through the De Soto National Forest appear most suited for those passionate about forestry or fishing. The best that riders can expect are the sparsely populated roads. And even though there aren't too many choices for good touring destinations in western Alabama and eastern Mississippi, this national forest can be a lot of fun if you're willing to look beyond ramshackle living conditions and the lack of good curves.

The De Soto National Forest, located in the southeastern corner of Mississippi, is 501,000 acres of protected woodlands, the largest national forest of the six located in the state. The serpentine creeks and rivers coursing through the longleaf, slash, and loblolly pine forests are tinted black - the result of tannic acid seeping from the vegetation on the forest floor. The humid southern climate and steady Gulf rainstorms support the thick forest, which in turn sustains a healthy conglomeration of wildlife, including large populations of deer, turkey and quail.

One good way to start a tour through the area is to get lucky in a Biloxi casino, and then head north on MS State Road (MS) 67, pockets stuffed with cash. In my case, however, I was fortunate to have credit left on my card to pay for the gas. And gaming losses aside, not having deep pockets mitigated some of the guilt I felt upon encountering the living conditions around Airey Lake. Most homes are mobile, which is ironic in light of the fact that the majority seems rooted in the very earth. Every once in a while, I notice a statelier abode that quite probably, given the front-yard evidence elsewhere, belongs to the regional trampoline merchant.

Turning north on US 49 in Saucier, the four-lane road moves north into gently rolling terrain. My Gold Wing purrs softly past the deafening roar of a couple of modified Harleys as I continue north to Perkinston. A quick detour on Silver Run Road to Old Highway 26 gives me another chance to zip through the remote woodlands where creeks flow through the forest floor like varicose veins. Old Highway 26 takes me into Wiggins, the seat of Stone County. It's an old train depot town with several venues for food and shopping (mostly antiques). Following MS 29 north from town leads me to the Flint Creek Water Park, a scenic, 650-acre lake in the 1,900-acre park preserve. The thick piney wood forests generally conceal most of the landscape from the roads, and the open space here is a nice respite. Camping and fishing are offered in abundance at Flint Creek, and a waterslide park operates throughout the summer.

From this point, it's on up MS 29 toward Janice. Further up MS 29 near Oak Grove, the Rand McNally is showing me a road I can't find. While the popular map company makes the most accessible maps in the business, in some cases they simply drop the ball. A road is definitely marked from Oak Grove over to McLain, but I can't seem to find it, and it has no name or number on the map. After a few misguided attempts to find it on my own, I stop for directions. I determine that Progress Road is the name of a cut-through to McLain. Unfortunately, it is completely washed out, and the Mississippi Department of Transportation hasn't made much progress in repaving Progress Road. The result is a wash-boarded nine miles of totally remote De Soto National Forest acreage, but I try to hold the course in a manner that would make the great discoverer whose name this national forest bears proud. With both feet lightly hitting the ground to keep me stable, I manage to maneuver the 800-pound Gold Wind through a road that is more suitable for a motocross race. All that's living here appears to be the plant growth that's so dense the sun didn't even make it to the road. Finally popping out on MS 15 and feeling like a lucky version of Little Red Riding Hood, I immediately run into another map problem trying to make my way north to Neely, and then to Avera. Fortunately, this other cut-through, also absent from the Rand McNally, is aptly named Neely/Avera Road.

The woods are even thicker and more remote up here, and the forest floor looks like a blackened mirror only inches from the shoulder. A few more roads through Brewer and Richton, and I can finally join MS 29, head south to MS 15, and then return to Biloxi. Thinking I could emerge from the mapping nightmare by reducing the number of roads I need to find to only two, I begin following the signs for MS 15 south. But the odds of this working in Mississippi are about as slim as the likelihood of a taxi cab responding to a call in the area. The signs are wrong, backwards, upside-down, half-missing, and generally more confusing than the Rand McNally. Finally, I make it to Runnelstown, fill up with gas, chuck my map, and turn to reliance on the sun to get me south. Using the oldest directional trick known to man, I barely make it back to Biloxi before the sun goes down.

We've got to be honest with our readers when writing about the roads we ride. And although rural Mississippi is a destination I normally wouldn't include in plans for a riding vacation, it's not a total waste of time either. This is a great place to find out-of-the-way barbecue shacks, remote areas with little traffic, and a way of life that hasn't changed much over the years. The Confederate flag flies freely down here, the maps and road signs are nearly useless, and other than fishing and hunting, not much seems to be happening. But it is a part of America, and no doubt an area in which local riders enjoy Sunday scoots and group rides with friends. Every ride is a discovery. This one is no exception. And getting lost - another part of the culture we enjoy - happens as quickly here in the De Soto National Forest as losing your stake in Biloxi does.