Trails: Chata, Headwaters, and Lakeside Trails
Hike Location: Tombigbee National Forest, Choctaw Lake Recreation AreaGeographic Location: southeast of Ackerman, MS (33.27327, -89.14497)Length: 4.5 milesDifficulty: 6/10 (Moderate)Last Hiked: March 2019Overview: A loop hike, first primitive with lots of up-and-down, then developed along the shores of Choctaw Lake.Area Information: https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/mississippi/recreation/hiking/recarea/?recid=28861&actid=50Hike Route Map: https://www.mappedometer.com/?maproute=736817
Directions to the trailhead: From the intersection of SR 12 and SR 15 in Ackerman, take SR 15 south 3.3 miles to the signed entrance for Choctaw Lake on the left. Turn left and drive the winding entrance road downhill 1.2 miles to the recreation area entrance. Turn left to enter the recreation area, pay the day use fee, and drive 0.2 miles to the Chata Trail parking area on the left. There is room for 3 or 4 cars here. If this parking lot is full, you can either park at the nearby picnic area or at the Noxubee Hills Trailhead parking area, which this hike will pass near its end.
The hike: As the entrance road slowly descends the narrow ridge that leads down to Choctaw Lake, top-down views into the beautiful open forest hint at the experience that awaits. Indeed, Choctaw Lake Recreation Area is widely regarded as one of the best national forest recreation areas in Mississippi. The area offers a cozy 18-site developed campground, 35 picnic sites, a disc golf course with a real water hazard, and fishing, swimming, and boating on its namesake lake. Choctaw Lake is also the trailhead for numerous hiking and mountain biking trails. The area’s most popular and most developed trail is the gravel 2.5 mile Lakeside Trail, which circumnavigates Choctaw Lake. The Noxubee Hills Trail System offers more than 30 miles of trails and starts at its namesake trailhead on the northeast side of Choctaw Lake’s dam. The hike described here uses part of the Lakeside Trail but also ventures onto some of Choctaw Lake’s more isolated and primitive trails, thus offering a sample of all the area has to offer.

Chata Trail trailhead

This hike starts on the Chata Trail, a wide dirt path that departs from a large signboard located at the small Chata Trail parking area. Marked by white plastic diamonds, the Chata Trail appears to follow an old road as it passes through a stone portal. Most of Tombigbee National Forest was farmland before the forest was established in 1959, and this portal appears to predate the national forest. Past the stone portal, the trail climbs steeply but only for a short distance as it heads straight up the hill. Although the difference between maximum and minimum elevation on this hike is only about 200 vertical feet, the hills are quite steep, and the trails at Choctaw Lake tend to go straight up or straight down the hills. Thus, the going can be harder than you might expect for central Mississippi.

Hiking the wide Chata Trail

After crossing up and over a pair of low ridges, you drop to intersect the gravel Cabin Lake Trail at 0.5 miles. Visible off to the right, Cabin Lake is a small impoundment located just upstream from the much larger Choctaw Lake. Turn left to continue the combined Chata and Cabin Lake Trails.

Start of Headwaters Trail

In only another 200 feet, you reach the signed west end of the Headwaters Trail, which is marked with orange plastic diamonds. Angle left to leave the gravel and begin the Headwaters Trail. The Headwaters Trail is Choctaw Lake’s most primitive trail, and you will need to use the orange plastic diamonds to direct your steps because the path on the ground is often indistinguishable. I hiked here in mid-March before spring had sprung in earnest, but I suspect this trail becomes quite overgrown in the summer. The steep grades up and down the ridges persist, and overall the going is fairly difficult. The trail stays along the south wall of a ravine as it climbs toward its highest point. Pine trees dominate the ridges while large numbers of sweetgum and hickory trees live in ravines. During the leafless months the entrance road you drove in on can be seen uphill and to the left.

Crossing a steep-banked creek

After curving right and dropping to cross a steep-banked creek on a wooden footbridge, the trail climbs to intersect closed dirt FR 969A. The trail turns right to join the ridgetop forest road for a few hundred feet before turning left to leave it and descend into the next ravine. Watch for the orange plastic diamonds to stay on the trail in this area. The trail drops into and climbs out of three more steep ravines as it embarks on a northward course. Another closed forest road is crossed on the ridge between the second and third ravines. After climbing out of the third ravine, the trail curves right and descends into a lowland area with a wetland on the left.

Hiking through a lowland area

At 2.7 miles, you reach the end of the Headwaters Trail at its intersection with the gravel Lakeside Trail. Turn left to begin heading clockwise around the Lakeside Trail. Now you quickly realize that your time in the primitive backwoods is over. A scarcely visible dirt trail with few constructions or amenities is replaced by wooden boardwalks crossing the main creeks that feed Choctaw Lake, a front-country gravel path, distance markers every 0.25 miles, and numerous benches overlooking the lake. Surely one of these benches is worth a sit, rest, and trail snack while you watch the ducks and other waterfowl that enjoy the lake.

Choctaw Lake

The trail crosses two boardwalks and begins heading south along the east bank of Choctaw Lake. My approach on a cool afternoon sent several turtles that were sunning on logs plopping into the lake. Choctaw Lake’s disc golf course, which goes all the way around the lake, passes near the trail. This disc golf course looks like a wild one: one hole requires a forced carry over one of the lake’s wider inlets! At 3.6 miles, you reach the northeast end of Choctaw Lake’s dam and the Noxubee Hills Trailhead’s large parking lot. The Lakeside Trail turns right and begins a long, sunny walk across a wooden boardwalk built along the dam. After crossing the lake’s spillway on an iron bridge with wooden deck, the trail curves right and reenters the woods.

Choctaw Lake's spillway

The balance of the hike heads northwest with Choctaw Lake immediately to your right. At 4.3 miles, you reach a large cluster of picnic tables and a small swimming area. Angle left and climb the steps to reach the entrance road. The Chata Trail parking area that contains your car is a couple hundred feet down the entrance road on the left.