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Falling for a State Park

9/19/2017 10:48:51 AM
By Debora Roberts

Whether it is the allure of seeing the fall colors or the roar of the home-team crowd, Mississippi State Parks have much to offer in autumn.

With lodging options ranging from primitive campsites to hotel suites, there is something for everyone, and all at a reasonable price that does not fluctuate with the season.

Best advice: Make reservations early.

J.P. Coleman State Park (Iuka)

Bill and Tracy Hill of Southaven spend every weekend from mid-April through October camping at J.P. Coleman State Park. They slept in a tent for a few years before buying a camper. “It’s so pretty up there, and it’s so peaceful,” Tracy Hill said.

“The water is lower (in the fall) so you can walk around in places that you can’t reach when the water is higher.”

The Hills spend a lot of time boating on Pickwick Lake, and they enjoy cooking out and campfires with friends.

Two years ago Park Manager Gary Ray asked the Hills to help run the annual Halloween carnival the Saturday before Halloween. “I bring my own games and Gary gets the carnival prizes,” Hill said. “We donate the larger prizes for the costume contest.” Last year’s event drew close to 200 children and their families.

John Kyle State Park (Sardis)

Bob and Carol Pyron of Madison enjoy the convenient location of John Kyle State Park to their beloved Ole Miss, only

25 miles away. For the past six or seven years, the Pyrons have made the park their second home during football and baseball seasons, driving the two hours to Madison between games.

“Each fall and spring we pull our fifth wheel camper to the park,” Carol Pyron said. “It’s close and it has all the amenities. We feel comfortable staying there and stay for three months at a time each season.”

The Pyrons are in good company.

“Our cabins, overlooking Sardis Lake, provide a perfect setting for (Ole Miss football) fans and their families to gather, visit, and cookout,” said Park Manager Kay Nix. “We also have many Ole Miss fans that enjoy camping and stay in our campground.”

Wall Doxey State Park (Holly Springs)

“We have a lot of guests during Ole Miss football games,” said Lordish Matheney, assistant park manager at Wall Doxey State Park near Oxford. “When the schedule comes out, our phones start ringing.”

Other major draws are the annual hummingbird festival in September and the park’s Halloween festival in October. “Every cabin and campsite books up a year in advance,” Matheney said. “A lot of families like to come to our cabins to celebrate the holidays in November and

December, as well as New Year’s and Valentine’s Day.”

But none of these are the main draw for Ole Miss fan Paul Walker of Houston, Texas, although he and his two children are all alums. “We have a family farm at Holly Springs, and we come two or three times each year to visit,” Walker said. “It’s my wife, Diane, our two children, and their spouses and our grandchild. When my children were in school at Ole Miss, though, we did come more often.”

Lake Lowndes State Park (Columbus)

Mississippi State season ticketholder Beth Williams of Cartersville, Ga., misses very few home football games.

“My husband and I are both MSU graduates, and four generations of my family have graduated from Mississippi State,” she said.

They had stayed in Columbus hotels for years before switching to Lake Lowndes State Park three seasons ago.

“It’s a well-kept secret,” said Williams, who frequents a local steakhouse and enjoys walking the nature trails when it’s not too hot. “It’s quiet. We like it out there.”

“The fall campers enjoy the cooler nights and warm days. They come to fish and hike our trails. They come to watch Mississippi State or Alabama football games (Tuscaloosa, Ala., is slightly less than an hour away)—they even set up TVs at their campers to watch college football and grill out with friends and family,” said Penny Wyers, park manager.

Lake Lowndes State Park participates in Bike Your Park Day on the last Satur-day in September. “We also have an arts and crafts show the first Saturday in December inside on our basketball court,” Wyers said. “Local vendors set up to sell their resale and homemade items.”

Legion State Park (Louisville)

Because of its proximity to Mississippi State University, Legion State Park draws many avid Bulldog fans during football season.

Chelsae Knight has season tickets and travels four hours from Centreville for all home games. His family started staying at Legion State Park about five years ago and alternates between the cabins and the campground. “For the price, you can’t beat it,” he said.

The eight grandchildren enjoy riding their bikes at the park, and often the family tailgates there before heading to Starkville for the game. Afterward, they often build a campfire and roast marshmallows. Because this year’s Egg Bowl is at MSU, Knight has reserved two cabins to accommodate his crew. “It’s very quiet out there,” he said. “You kind of feel like you’re out in the middle of nowhere.”

Leroy Percy State Park (Hollandale)

“The song says, ‘I left my heart in San Francisco.’ We left ours at Leroy Percy State Park in Hollandale,” says Gisela Sorjonen of Slidell, La., who frequented the park with her late husband, Ronnie, more than 20 times since 1968. “We went mostly in November, many times over Thanksgiving.”

Sometimes others came along—their son, her in-laws, and a few different pets over the years.

“We explored all the trails. We almost always saw deer” she said. “We took rides through the countryside, and I tried to capture the uniqueness of the Delta with my camera.”

Leroy Percy Wildlife Management Area lures many guests for seasonal hunting of deer (primitive weapons only) squirrel, duck, and dove. “During the fall and winter months, our guests come to hunt here and other local areas such as Yazoo National Wildlife Refuge, which is about 15 miles away,” park worker Amber Hill said. “Some guests come to fish at Lake Washing-ton, which is about 10 miles from here and is listed as the second-best crappie lake in Mississippi.”

Paul B. Johnson State Park (Hattiesburg)

Gene and Karen Sowers have been making the 16–hour trek from Moline, Ill., to Paul B. Johnson State Park in Hattiesburg for 12 years. Their dog, Muffit, makes the trip, too. “We come by motorhome every October and stay until April,” Gene Sowers said. “We get away from the cold and snow.”

Sowers uses his chainsaw to carve bears and eagles out of fallen trees at the park. More than 20 of his carvings are on display there, while others grace other state facilities. They also enjoy sightseeing, trying area restaurants, and serving as an unofficial “park host” for other campers.

While the park attracts a lot of “snowbirds” each fall and winter, many of the park’s patrons are locals, like Erica Carter, who appreciate its cleanliness and family atmosphere. Growing up in Hattiesburg, Carter spent a lot of time at Paul B. Johnson State Park. Even though she lives only two miles from the gate, she and her husband, Kent, and three children call the park home several weeks each year, alternating between the cabins and campground. They bring a golf cart, bicycles, and their boat.

Percy Quin State Park (McComb)

Park Administrator Will Busby says Percy Quin State Park is a great place to visit during the fall because of the great weather and variety of activities. The entire park is reserved for the annual “Bike MS: Dat’s How We Roll,” a two-day cycling event from Hammond, La., to Percy Quin State Park raising money for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Participants stay overnight at the park before heading back to Hammond. “There is live entertainment, lots of different kinds of food and beverages, and a good time had by all,” Busby said.

Halloween became a major event at Percy Quin about 15 years ago and continues to grow. “Every site in the campground dec-orates and participates, so we have 100 places for kids to trick or treat,” Busby said. “After the trick or treat is over, we have a hayride through the park.”

Roosevelt State Park (Morton)

“It’s amazing how beautiful the park is, and, in the fall, the weather is perfect,” Park Manager Andre Hollis said of Roosevelt State Park. “Most of our campers are local people. They come because they can relax but still be close to home.”

Hollis said Roosevelt has a lot to offer for all ages: an 18–hole disc golf course, nature trails, tennis courts, ball fields, and a game room. Barter Day, when vendors bring items for sale or trade, brings many folks in October.

“During football season, a lot of people will set up TVs to watch the games and tailgate outside their campers,” Hollis said.

Tishomingo State Park (Tishomingo)

Bobbie Jackson Basden, 79, of the Hills Chapel community near Booneville has made the short trip to Tishomingo State Park the first weekend in October for 42 years. “The first time we did it was for my mother’s birthday on Oct. 7, and we have continued to have a family reunion that weekend every year since, ” she said.

About 60 to 85 members of the Jackson family converge on the park’s lodge, all the cabins, and many campsites. The weekend is full of good food and even better fellowship. Once an avid camper, Basden said she has stayed in lots of parks but hasn’t found one better. “I love that park,” she said. “To me, it’s the best park, and I’ve stayed in a lot of them. Tishomingo tops them all.”

Deborah Roberts is a freelance writer for Mississippi Outdoors.

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