by Al Troy
Hike a piece of early American history along this 3.5 mile stretch of the Old Natchez Trace. This recently designated section of Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail is the longest remaining stretch of the pristine Natchez Trace. Over 10,000 years old, the Trace is considered the oldest trail in North America. Originally a buffalo migration route, it was utilized by both Native Americans and European settlers as a trade corridor. During the 1700s, thousands of “Kaintucks” traversed this “path through the wilderness”. They would travel the Mississippi by flatboat, transporting their goods to markets in Natchez and New Orleans. They would then make an overland journey home, 450 miles or more along the Trace, headed for areas near Nashville, Tennessee, and beyond.
The Trace was abandoned around 1820 with the invention of the steamboat, rendering the arduous overland journey obsolete. Although portions of the Trace continued to be utilized as local roads, it mostly fell into obscurity with nature taking its course. This all changed in 1938 when Congress established the Natchez Trace Parkway to commemorate the ancient trail. In 1983 Congress established the Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail. Although the Parkway is the backbone of the trail, there are developed sections for both pedestrian and equestrian use.
In August 1992 I stumbled across the existence of the 3.5 mile “Old Trace Trail” at the Parkway’s Visitor Center in Tupelo, Mississippi. My wife, Cathy, and I came to Tupelo to attend my 35th Tupelo High School Class of 1957 reunion, having enjoyed 266 miles along the Parkway from our home in Baton Rouge. We inquired about trails and were provided a list of trails among which was the 3.5 mile section of Old Trace. No map was available, and the staff warned of hazardous conditions since it was not maintained. Nevertheless, we were intrigued and found the trailhead on our way back. As warned, the trail was crisscrossed with downed trees so we decided not to proceed!
In January 1993 Cathy and I gave it another go and hiked the entire 3.5 miles, surmounting numerous obstacles along the way including two creeks. The trail was a very different from any other hike we had done, and we felt a sense of history as we followed in the footsteps of the Kaintucks, encountering the same obstacles they did, and overcoming them just as they did. The trail was a sunken road created by thousands of years of animal and human traffic. The banks were over twenty feet high in places and lined with huge oaks.
In February 1993, I led a Sierra Club hike on the trail, but in the following years only hiked it a few times with friends because I was afraid that sooner or later I would not be able to get through all the obstacles, which were always different from one hike to the next. In March 2001 three of us met our match with obstacles so formidable we dubbed it the “Hike from Hell” and vowed to never do it again. We had intended to hike the length and back again. However when we finally got to the other trailhead we were so physically and mentally spent we decided to return along a side trail along Coles Creek and hopefully in the direction of our cars. We wound up hacking our way through thorny bushes and muddy sloughs for 3 miles! We were scratched up and bleeding from the thorns and covered in mud.
After several years of licking my wounds from the 2001 hike, I contacted Parkway Headquarters to check on the status of the trail and was referred to Greg Smith, who today is the coordinator for the Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail. He came on the scene in 2001 about the same time I had given up on the trail ever being improved. To my surprise he was passionate about making the trail not only passable but a major attraction along the Parkway. He seemed driven to improve the trail, and I heartily joined him in our common quest.
He emphasized that user support was necessary for Parkway management to devote the necessary resources and encouraged me to contact them with suggestions. Of paramount importance was the extent to which the trail should be left “as is” for historical accuracy. After discussing with Greg and fellow hikers who had experienced the trail, we agreed that the trail should only be maintained enough to be passable without infrastructure improvements such as bridges. This meant that tree debris, clay boulders, and other obstacles would be left in place unless they prevented reasonably experienced hikers from using the trail.
In 2006 Greg told me that the trail had been improved, was well marked, and that the name had been changed to Potkopinu (Paht-kahp’-ih-noo). This name was obtained from the Natchez Indians and means ”Little Valley”. With this assurance, I set out with the same friends from the “Hike from Hell”. We completed the trail without encountering the awful obstacles from 2001.
In January 2008 I led the first official Louisiana Hiking Club (LHC) hike on the trail. It drew 56 participants, a club record that still stands today. Since then, LHC has offered six more hikes and today the trail has permanent markers and is regularly maintained.
In 2009 the trail was added as an official section of the Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail. I am proud of my role in transforming this once abandoned trail to that of national significance. My only regret is that for some 15 years my friends relied on me to lead them on the trail without getting lost. Now that it is well marked and maintained I’m no longer necessary and can be put out to pasture. At age 78 that’s probably where I’m going anyway.
For maps and information visit https://www.nps.gov/natt/planyourvisit/potkopinu-trail.htm.
Also, the above story will make more sense if you view the maps while reading it.
Al Troy is a retired engineer and longtime outdoor enthusiast. His interests include bicycling, hiking, trail construction and maintenance, birdwatching, and gardening. He is an active member and leader in various outdoor recreational and environmental organizations. Now that he is firmly entrenched in senior citizenry he’s had to slow down a bit and curtail some of the above activities, but still participates in them insofar as he is able.