The Lower Mississippi River Water Trail

Vicksburg to Natchez

Bluff Beat

Like a deep earth drumbeat, the river and the bluffs resound in a profound resonance, the biggest river in North America periodically bouncing its muddy belly against the biggest piles of earth in this region.  If you make note of the Mississippi River mileage in accordance to where the river comes closest to the bluffs, a simple pattern becomes evident.   From the Vicksburg Bluff downstream it’s 28 miles to the Big Black Bluff at Grand Gulp (409).  Then another 15 to the next bluff at Petit Gulf Hills (394).  31 miles to the Natchez Bluffs (363).  16 to the Ellis Cliffs (347) above Old St. Catherine Creek.  35 to the Clark Creek Bluffs (312).  Around Angola 20 miles to reach the Tunica Hills (292).  37 miles more to the next bluff at Thompson Creek Bluffs(255) below Thompson Creek, near Port Hudson.  20 miles further brings the river past the very last loess bluff, Istrouma Bluff, which Baton Rouge is built on.  So there is some pattern there: 28 - 15 - 31 - 16 - 35 - 20 - 37 - 20, a repeating rhythm of a strong beat followed by a softer beat, kind of a like a blues shuffle, a strong beat followed by a backbeat, the sound of horse-hoofs clopping down a cobblestone alley, or the hammering piston arm of a stern-wheeled steamboat steaming up the Mississippi valley.  Why would the river and the bluffs create this kind of repeating pattern?  Some geologist or hydrologist will have to answer that question.  If you have any input, please leave a comment online on this page, or write me, or 291 Sunflower Avenue, Clarksdale, MS, 38614.  Thank you! 


The Nine Mississippi Loess Bluffs

Mississippi Loess Bluff #1 -- Walnut Hills (Vicksburg)

Mississippi Loess Bluff #2 -- Big Black Bluff (Grand Gulf)

Mississippi Loess Bluff #3 -- Petit Gulf Hills (Bondurant)

Mississippi Loess Bluff #4 -- Natchez Bluffs (Natchez) 

Mississippi Loess Bluff #5 -- Ellis Cliffs (Old St. Catherine Creek)

Mississippi Loess Bluff #6 -- Clark Creek Bluffs (Fort Adams)

Mississippi Loess Bluff #7 -- Tunica Hills (Angola)

Mississippi Loess Bluff #8 -- Thompson Creek Bluffs (Port Hudson) 

Mississippi Loess Bluff #9 -- Istrouma Bluff (Baton Rouge)


No Levees

There are no levees on the Mississippi side south of Vicksburg due to these loess hills, along which is found a series of towns (Port Gibson, Lorman, Natchez, Fort Adams), and many farms, trailer parks, stores, ranches and homesteads in between.  The loess bluffs are lacerated by a large family of noted Mississippi streams like the Big Black River, Bayou Pierre and the Homochitto River.  In between Vicksburg and Baton Rouge paddlers will find these loess bluffs crowding up along the river’s channel like a return of the Chickasaw Bluffs or the Kentucky Hills, and then retreating in the distance nowhere to be seen.  In fact they never retreat too far back over the forests.  Highway 61 rides along their edge not ten miles back from the river in most places.

436.5 RBD City of Vicksburg Riverfront Park

Another possible landing for paddlers needing resupply in Vicksburg in low or medium water levels is the Riverfront Park left bank descending at 436.5 (directly below the Washington Street Louisiana Circle Overlook).   Primitive landings only on shelves of rock, mounds of hardened mud, or if you’re lucky (and perceptive) one of the small beaches that usually form here in between the mud and the rock.   Make your landing and pull vessel completely out of the water (or risk capsize - the waves get big here).  Your gear should be safe here, no one else uses this location.  Scramble your way several hundred yards up the bluffs to the park.  Some bushwhacking might be necessary. 


Riverfront Park has a drinking water fountain, bathrooms and free electricity (outlets within the pavilion.  Within walking distance of the park (up the hill and down Washington Street) you will find a Kangaroo Gas Station, Shell Gas Station with a Subway attached, Waffle House and Ameristar Hotel, Days Inn and Suites and other economical hotel choices.  If you stay at the Dixiana you might be awakened out of your sleep by some of the all-night activity that seems to take place.


Not a good place to meet your shuttle (long portage up steep bluffs).  Use the Yazoo River Vicksburg Boat Ramp instead.  The physical address City of Vicksburg Riverfront Park 4100 Washington Street, Vicksburg, MS 39180.  For more information call (601) 634-4514.


435.7 Vicksburg Bridges: US80 and I-20

I-20 Bridge at Vicksburg is a 12, 974 foot cantilever style bridge built in 1973 that connects Delta, Louisiana with Vicksburg, Mississippi.  It is 60 feet wide with 116 feet of clearance at low water (0 VG) and 73 feet at high water (43 VG).


The old Highway 80 bridge over the Mississippi River at Vicksburg is now closed to vehicular traffic although the railroad still uses it. It is so narrow that big cargo trailers routinely had to rub tires on the siderails and then only cleared each other by inches. This often happened at speeds that made being anywhere close to them dangerous. The towboats have to shoot two sets of piers (the old bridge and the new I-20 bridge next door). Going upstream is no problem. However, going downstream means negotiating a ninety degree bend just above the bridge and then lining up to make it under the two bridges. I watch in utter amazement as the captains make the bend and shoot the bridges without slowing down. It is equally amazing watching those with less experience try to make the turn and thread the eye of the piers. Once in a while a tow hits the old bridge and scatters barges for miles downriver.  (From Bill Strong’s Eclectic Mississippi Photo Tour).

The US80 and I-20 bridges make parallel crossings one right after another.  They  present one of the most difficult challenges for towboat pilots on the entire Lower Mississippi.  Fast turbulent waters accumulate speed and focus as they come sliding around Brown’s Point and past Delta Point Dikes, and then gain even more turbulence as they are forced into a ninety degree bend to the South.  As they make the bend the waters ricochet off the Vicksburg Bluff and are focused into a single tongue of furious commotion.  The river here is deep and chaotic.  Paddlers can get an advance view of this stretch of river from the National Park turnoff at Louisiana Circle or the Mississippi Visitor Center at the Navy Circle Overlook.  Large upwellings of rising water hit the surface and blossom open into a train of giant boils, an endless train of boils that roll downstream like a sea full of giant jellyfish.  The channel narrows down to half mile wide, and during low water less.  Downstream tows have to slow their engines to a dead halt, and sometimes go into reverse to make the proper presentation for safe passage under the bridge.  Some tows are over 2500 feet long and 210 feet wide.  They have to maneuver a bridge span 870 feet wide.  They usually pass under the bridge at a slight angle as they try to make the turn.   They have little room for error, and will most certainly opt running over any ignorant or foolhardy paddlers rather than risk hitting one of the bridge abutments and possibly causing a collapse of the bridge.


Extreme caution should be exercised while navigating this stretch of river.  As discussed above use left bank spans (east side of bridge) in normal water conditions with no upstreamers.  Use right bank spans in the event of approaching upstreamers, or in case of strong south winds.