Trans-America trail trip report: part 2 (central Tennessee - Arkansas/Oklahoma border)

March 28, 2018  •  1 Comment

Hi again!

After the last blog and all it's details, this one is lighter in content. 

Just to recap, the first part of this trip report took me from the start of the Trans-America Trail (TAT) in Andrews, North Carolina through to Tim's Ford State Park in Tennessee. This would be 2 full days of driving (in a vehicle) if one started from Andrews in the morning and drove fairly steadily.

After a heavy overnight rain storm at Tim's Ford, I headed back down to Winchester to pick up the TAT. From there it was a super enjoyable drive through to the Alabama border, largely on country roads and through some forest roads. This section is really an exploration of rural Tennessee and traverses places that no tourist would ever get to. At times, it seems one is driving through farm yards and there are a couple of water crossings along the way. There's great rural scenery and some very cool cemeteries and churches, which made me very happy.

Only a little way out of Winchester the TAT goes right past the first great old log cabin of the day.

A little while after that, after a long stretch on gravel roads through forest plantation land, the TAT comes to the Mt Zion church, this impeccable church sort of out in the middle of nowhere (N35.065 W87.232). 

The church was cool for a few reasons. First they had this sign on the back of the building by the parking lot (below). To the left of the church in this picture is a fairly good size river. I arrived coming down the road you can see, and there's really no homes up in that area, but the river does not have a vehicle bridge over it. There's an old pedestrian suspension bridge behind the church (imagine Granny having to walk across a foot bridge to get to church) but it is not used any more. The only other way to get here for people on the other side of the river is to drive your vehicle through the river at Peach Road - Sunday water crossings! While not bad for the jeep, the crossing was not trivial and there was a steep muddy hill on the far side of the river. That left me wondering exactly who kept this place up so immaculately and how many people did the water crossing each Sunday. The questions that become important on the TAT....

After the church, the TAT winds through country roads is way rural Tennessee. There's one steep, rough hill to go up that had me wondering where I was going. Sam's maps are pretty well spot on though, and it turns out that the farther one goes into the wildlife management area (don't have my TAT maps with me and cannot remember the name), the better the roads become. 

I had a long steady day driving and made it to the Pickwick Dam State Park - think I left Tim's Ford around 7 a.m. and arrived into Pickwick around 6:30 p.m. The area near Waterloo, on the east side of the Tennessee River was very interesting - steep, winding roads along the river through a recreational residential community. There's supposed to be a Pickwick west campsite but I did not visit it as it was a long day already and I had campsite reservations that night for the main (boring) campsite (I would not do this again, but it was not clear prior to departure how many informal camping sites there might be - and I was trying to push to get to Clarksdale on time). Motorcycles could do more miles in the day, but for a truck this is about as much as most people would want. This also works well for getting through to either Clarksdale or the Arkansas border the next day, providing the Mississippi mud isn't bad. 

Quickly after leaving Pickwick Dam, I arrived in Mississippi and spent most of the day driving forest plantation roads. The soil here is red and the mud slippery. It had rained heavily a couple of days prior but with the heat most mud holes had dried out adequately so as to allow steady travel and good speed. This area is somewhat barren. That vegetation in the back of the photo below - a plant imported from China and meant to be used for stabilizing road cuts - has gone crazy and is gobbling up much of Alabama and Mississippi. Trees are shrouded in vines and it covers hundreds of square miles of previously forested area that has been clear cut. I heard that goats really like it, so who knows, maybe Mississippi will be the next goat farming capital of the world?? There's quite a few places on these roads to camp but I didn't see many attractive campsites.

Mississippi kudzuMississippi kudzuCrazy infestation of the invasive vine Kudzu in rural Mississippi. This stuff was choking hundreds of square miles of trees and fields. On the Trans-America Trail, 26 May 2017.

Further along in Mississippi, while on some rural paved roads, I came around a corner to find a vinyl-sided, plain Jane church. I needed a coffee, so pulled around the back to brew some up and found there was a great old cemetery out back. It would be possible to camp behind this church and have a nice private place. I don't think the church is used anymore, so even Saturday night should be okay. Coordinates are N34.375 W89.284 (between New Albany and Oxford, in the Holly Springs National Forest). 

From here on towards Lake Enid, there are a few informal campsite possibilities (just south of Paris, just before the Tombigbee National Forest). These might be necessary if the road through Mississippi is wet, as it looks like it could be really slow when it gets fully muddy. With mainly dry roads when I came through, I did Pickwick Falls to Clarksdale in about 13 hours. 


Once west of I-7, there are more rural roads in the forest prior to getting into the Mississippi delta farmlands. And more churches of course...

From here the TAT winds up through the farm land and rejoins the highway at Helena to cross the Mississippi. There are some campsites on the west side of the Mississippi, up in the Ozark-St Francis National Forest. 

I'd highly recommend a visit to Clarksdale, however, especially for any fans of American delta blues. This was the epicenter of American blues music and it has museums, blues clubs, and many music festivals (check online to see if you can time your arrival for a festival). I stayed several nights at a B&B that was walking distance to the clubs downtown. I also had a fashion photo workshop going on while I was there, so got some jeep shots that are a little out of the ordinary for the TAT!.

I spent a couple of evenings at Ground Zero, a club owned in part by actor Morgan Freeman. Our photo shoot was actually at the lakefront house of Freeman's fulltime pilot, but Morgan himself was filming something in Berlin so was not around. Music was great and they allow photography - I did not bring by camera along as we were shooting all day and I had good intentions of shooting the clubs on my TAT Backwards journey, but I did not make it quite far enough to get to Clarksdale in the evening as hoped. Memphis is only a short drive up the highway, if any Elvis fans are doing the TAT.

Ground ZeroGround ZeroClarksdale Mississippi is the home of the Delta blues. Ground Zero is one of the great blues bars here (it is owned by Morgan Freeman and partners, and set up in an old warehouse). Definitely worth a 30 mile diversion off the Trans-America Trail.

Once the shoot was over, I put on a different hat and got back to overlanding. Just over the Arkansas border by about 20 miles you arrive at the TAT check-in. You can see how many people have been through before (I was #33 registered for 2017, as I went through on May 28th). I had to divert out to the highway after this as some of the farm roads in this area were impassible due to flooding.

The TAT stopThe TAT stopJust into Arkansas, doing the official TAT stop. I was #33 for 2017, Many 28, 2017.

The drive towards the Ozark is very pleasant, mainly on country roads and through some quite affluent areas. The TAT cuts through the city of Beebe prior to heading up and entering the Ozark National Forest at Scotland, Arkansas. Be aware that there are few campsites in the national forest lands as many of the sites are taken up by private cabins. Though I had not been in a rush to get out of Clarksdale in the morning, I ended up driving way longer than I wanted to that evening and ended up with a logging road campsite at N35.501 W93.067, just down a spur road.

If you have a little more time, the best camping spot in the Ozarks for the TAT is about an hour further. As you go through the Piney Creek WMA, driving up on top of a ridge, there is a sharp spur road that cuts sharply back right and up a steep, narrow road. Stock Jeeps can probably get up with careful driving but high clearance definitely helps for the first bit. Coordinates here are N35.587 W93.250, at a place that is on the map called Pilot Knob. At the top of the hill is a parking area and one of the only clear views of the Ozarks that you get on the TAT. It would be easy to camp up here and get sunrise views of the Ozarks.

Below: brewing coffee and grilling bagels at Pilot Knob breakfast stop.   Coffee timeCoffee timeA break for a 2nd breakfast in the Ozarks, 29 May 2017.

From Pilot Knob, the next stop of interest is the Oark Cafe. You can gas up here and they have great food and pies. On the westbound trip, it was crazy busy as it was Memorial Day (busiest day of the year I found out later). On my TAT Backwards trip, I stopped in for a leisurely lunch and piece of pie, and had a good chat with the owner, who loves to have TAT riders and drivers stop in.

Oark CafeOark CafeEach time I've been through the Ozarks, I've stopped for a meal at the Oark Cafe. This is a gas and food stop on the Trans-America Trail, and a bit of a hub for overlanders on cross-country trips. July 24, 2017.

As much as I don't like to say it, and as much as I liked the countryside drive to the border of the Ozark National Forest, the national forest itself was disappointment to me. There were limited camping spots (I had my first night of logging road camping here) due to lots of private property with summer cabins. More importantly, there were few views of much other than forest (which I’d seen a lot of through the sections east of the Mississippi). 

On the TAT backwards trip, I took an alternate route and highly recommend it. Instead of following the TAT west, head north on Country Road 34. This is gravel, super rural, and winds up to meet with paved country roads at Arbaugh. To me, this is the real Ozarks - occasional small settlements, driving high up on ridges (often with good views, unlike the TAT), cool old family cemeteries, and even a couple of restaurant stops. I thought this was far superior for scenery and enjoyment, compared to rattling through a bunch more bumpy gravel roads in the forest. The picture below was from a cemetery about 5 miles north of Oark. This diversion will eventually meet up with the TAT again in Lincoln Arkansas; if you go on the TAT, the section west of highway 540 is much more pleasant than the road in the Ozark National Forest (there are some good local swimming holes in this section if it is hot!). 

That brings you to the Arkansas-Oklahoma border. I drove from here on to Big Cabin, Oklahoma and grabbed a hotel for my next night. Eastern part of the Ozark National Forest to eastern Oklahoma is reasonable for a day driving as the roads are quite slow for a large part. I'll elaborate more on the Oklahoma roads in my next post, which will cover the 2-day traverse across Oklahoma. 

Below - a silent swing just on the Arkansas-Oklahoma border.



kerry mcelligott(non-registered)
great blog and amazing photos. my son and some of his high school friends just finished the NC thru AR portion of the TAT . I enjoyed reading your blog was fun to see some of your pictures that match up to the same ones he took
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