By Jonathan Olivier
It’s easy to make excuses to stay indoors when the mercury rises above the 90 degree mark virtually every day – I’m guilty of it myself.
But if I’m anxious to hit the trail despite the heat, the only place on my radar lies just across the state line among the bluffs of Clark Creek Natural Area in Mississippi.
Hills and valleys – actual elevation change, a Southern rarity – rising several hundred feet are characteristic of Clark Creek located near Pond, Miss., often referred to as Tunica Hills. And because of that elevation change, several creeks and streams pour over drop-offs more than 30 feet in a stunning display that would make any south Louisianan’s mouth drop.
I often opt for the primitive trail, a 2.6-mile loop traversing the 250-foot hills, when visiting Clark Creek in the fall or early spring. But during the summer, stream chasing is the best way to stay cool and keep the strenuous hill climbs to a minimum while leaving ample time to lounge around the falls.
From the trailhead, the path follows a wide, gravel walkway on a high ridge. Views abound on both sides as the hillside drops – almost vertically in some areas – a few hundred feet to the valleys full of bottomland hardwoods habitat.
The trail descends .56 mile and forks; here, keep left at the fork and walk toward the first waterfall. A wooden staircase carved into the bluff-side guides hikers down toward the stream bed.
When I witnessed my first Clark Creek waterfall, I was stunned – to say the least. The falls aren’t raging, Niagara-like torrents or reminiscent of the cascades of the Smoky Mountains, but they have a particular character to them that I was drawn to immediately.
Clear water, scarce in this part of the South, gently pours through small channels cut into the first waterfall and drops around 25 feet to a refreshing pool surrounded by grey-colored boulders.
There’s normally a small pool of water under the falls, but it’s not large enough for swimming. Instead, most first-timers often spend the first few minutes gawking at a scene unfamiliar to sea level dwellers.
Instead of linking back up with the improved trail, trek down the stream toward waterfall number two. The stream often comes to just a trickle among sandy shores, boulders and scattered pebbles – presumably washed down from the improved trail. The walk is quite serene among the engulfing canopy, and the feeling of seclusion is immediate.
The stream bends and shortly after leads to waterfall two, abruptly halting the path as it drops into the ravine below. But, to the right of the creek, another wooden staircase has been constructed to assist hikers descend the fragile hillsides. The hills are comprised of loess soil, deposits of wind-blown silt that accumulated over thousands of years to create the terrain, which makes the hills delicate – especially the waterfalls.
Waterfall two is ridden with even larger boulders than the first, and hikers must scramble through them to make their way to the water pool nestled into the hill.
The bluffs seem especially high here, and rise vertically on all sides of the waterfall. There’s not much cover from the sun, though, so a brief visit and a few pictures usually lead to trekking toward the final waterfall farther downstream.
After a rocky walk, the creek forks; stay left and after just a few yards of hiking, boulders stretch nearly a hundred yards leading up to waterfall three.
The last falls of the trip can be spotted long before reaching it. The boulder-strewn creek flows straight, offering a tunnel view unlike any other along the trail. The waterfall, wide and positioned perfectly under a break in the canopy to allow a flutter of sunlight to peak as the water pours into a rocky pool beneath, is an aesthetic display of Mother Nature at its finest.
Years of erosion by water has carved out a pool perfect for swimming – ranging from four to more than six feet in some places when the creek is higher – that is full of murky but surprisingly cool water.
The natural beauty of the area begs to keep hikers around, and it’s easy to spend an afternoon lounging in the pool among the tree-lined bluffs enclosing the cove. I often forget I’m just two hours from the flat expanse of Baton Rouge.
And after hikers have had their fill, retracing back to the trailhead or following the primitive trail back to the improved trail are the best ways out. The only catch: the hike back is steep at times and ascends numerous hills.
But after a day traversing the hills and creeks of Clark Creek, the challenge won’t seem that daunting. In fact, you’ll be hooked and, as is the case for me, a trip to the Tunica Hills is always on the summer agenda.