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Mississippi’s Grand Canyon

Mississippi’s best-kept secret, Red Bluff, offers hikers a sense of “unencumbered discovery” amongst its crumbling and destabilized slopes. It also offers a bit of danger, too.

by Brian Gordon

Set a few hundred yards off the Pearl River in south Mississippi’s verdant, sparsely-populated Marion County, Red Bluff offers a natural jungle gym of undulating mounds and steep clay embankments to climb up, plod over and slide down.

That the Bluff is unmarked and unmanaged instills in its visitors a sense of pioneering, of unearthing a natural gem that is not yet on a brochure. The geological formation is still expanding, having already eroded the original Mississippi Hwy. 587. In the mid-aughts, the state had to build a new highway a safe distance away.

Today, the old Hwy. 587 ends in a barricade of stop signs, beyond which slabs of asphalt road have fallen into the encroaching canyon. Encountering a jagged, cutoff highway can be eerie, like a scene out of a post-apocalyptic movie, but the wider view is serene: the unending green of the Pearl River floodplain mixing with the canyon’s clash of ruddy tones. It is far from the state’s typical topography of flat farmland and forests.

At Red Bluff, widely known as Mississippi’s Grand Canyon, the region’s vibrant underbelly is on full display. Majestic hues of red, orange and even purple invite visitors to explore below. People choose their own paths to descend. Some traipse semi-cut trails through the surrounding forest, while others start from the highway’s ledge and negotiate gingerly down shallower slopes. Falling is a real possibility if people are too careless or ambitious.

Entering the base of Red Bluff can feel like experiencing a foreign planet. The surface has the rusted colors and uneven terrain of Mars. From the bottom, the canyon walls engulf the wider world, leaving only a spectrum of sand, gravel and deep purple clay.

The composition is a tactile delight, highly moldable and not terribly adhesive.

Two theories exist to Red Bluff’s origins. Geologists point to a hot spring that began jutting out of the Pearl River long ago, carving a small incision in the elevated topography.

“The spring bubbling up from the foot of the stream destabilized the region,” Frank Heitmuller, associate professor of geology at the University of Southern Mississippi, says. “The spring cuts into the hill like a saw.”

Rain and its runoff take over from there, pounding away at the destabilized soil, in a process called headward erosion.

The second theory, favored among locals, swaps the spring for a 19th-century railroad track as the instigator of the terrain’s eventual erosion.

The formation is technically a gully—a permanent water-eroded feature without a present water source running through (Red Gully sounds even cooler). “Gullies are usually little ditches,” Heitmuller explains, “but this one is canyon-like in scale.” The gully grows around a meter each year. “I see it chipping into that old highway more and more and more,” Heitmuller adds.

State and local government considered turning Red Bluff into an official recreational site, but these efforts have been deterred by the logistical headache of building around unsettled soil. “You could put handrails, steps around the place, but they’d just fall in,” says Mississippi State Representative Ken Morgan. “It’s hard to build around something that gets bigger each time it rains.” Morgan, whose district includes Red Bluff, lives less than a mile from the gully. His lawn sign “Red Bluff – 1 Mile” is the only local marker.

The State of Mississippi owns the highway, but three out-of-state companies own parcels of the gully and its adjacent lucrative lumber-rich land. Despite private ownership, trespassing rules have never been enforced, and Red Bluff continues as the county’s pseudo-public park. A few hundred hikers visit each month. Heitmuller takes his college students. Service organizations go in to pick up trash. Still, with government agencies hesitant to take over, there is a threat that access to the gully could be cut off at any time with a fence and a few strictly-imposed signs.

For now, Mississippi’s best-kept secret is located about halfway between Jackson and New Orleans. The largest town within a 20-minute drive is Columbia, Mississippi (population 6,000). “It’s pretty remote,” Charlie Smith, a newspaper editor in Columbia, says. “It’s not like you go out there for any other reason than to go see it.”

Those who go face a place without the man-made trappings of modern outdoor excursions: info booths, safety rails, bathrooms and trail signs. Their absence creates some risk, but also a sense of genuine discovery.

All photos by Charlie Smith.

Brian Gordon is a freelance journalist in New York, studying at Columbia University. He taught middle school history in Jackson, Mississippi and sometimes misses its potholes.

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