Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Pinnacle Mountain State Park: West Summit and Base Trails (Blog Hike #622)

Trails: West Summit and Base Trails
Hike Location: Pinnacle Mountain State Park
Geographic Location: west of Little Rock, AR
Length: 4.1 miles
Difficulty: 9/10 (Difficult)
Last Hiked: March 2017
Overview: A steep rocky hike to the summit of Pinnacle Mountain followed by a moderate trip around its base.

Directions to the trailhead: On the west side of Little Rock, take I-430 to SR 10 (exit 9).  (Note: Little Rock has both an I-430 and an I-440; do not get them confused.)  Exit and go west on SR 10.  Drive SR 10 west 6.1 miles to SR 300 and turn right on SR 300.  Drive SR 300 north 1.7 miles to Pinnacle Mountain State Park’s signed West Summit Picnic Area on the right.  Turn right to enter the area, and park in the large paved parking lot.

The hike: As you journey west up the Arkansas River from its mouth at the Mississippi River, the first significant landmark you reach is a small 18-foot high rock outcrop that French explorers in the 1720’s called le petit rocherLe petit rocher marks the transition from the nearly flat Mississippi River plain to the low, fold-type Ouachita (pronounced WASH-ee-tah) Mountains, a now-separate chain that used to be part of the Appalachians.  As anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of French would guess, le petit rocher is the site of present-day Little Rock, the largest city and capital of Arkansas.
            Only 10 miles west of Little Rock stands a much bigger rock known as Pinnacle Mountain, the centerpiece of 2356-acre Pinnacle Mountain State Park.  Established in 1977, Pinnacle Mountain State Park was Arkansas’ first state park in a suburban area. The park is solely a day-use park, and it features only a boat launch, Visitor Center, and some picnic shelters in terms of facilities.
            Pinnacle Mountain State Park offers many trails for bikers and hikers, and it is the eastern terminus of the 233-mile Ouachita Trail, one of Arkansas’ premier backpacking trails.  By far the park’s most popular hiking destination is the 1011-foot summit of Pinnacle Mountain, which can be seen standing more than 700 feet above the West Summit Picnic Area, the trailhead for this hike.  The steep, bare, boulder-covered mountain looks intimidating, and getting to the summit is as hard as it looks.  This hike combines a trip to the summit with a loop around Pinnacle Mountain’s base, thus allowing you to explore all aspects of the mountain.
West Summit Picnic Area trailhead
            The hike starts with a trip up the West Summit Trail, which begins at a colorful covered bridge-looking portal near the center of the picnic area.  Some park brochures and a trail map are also available here.  The stone steps begin immediately, and after only 300 feet you reach a junction with the Base Trail, which goes left and right.  We will eventually go clockwise around the Base Trail, but for now continue straight on the West Summit Trail.
            Soon you pass marker #1 as you head up 5 switchbacks and pass an iron railing that protects you from a small vertical drop on your left.  The West Summit Trail features 10 trail markers that you pass in increasing order as you climb to the summit.  5 benches also lie between you and the summit, and the benches combine with the trail markers to give this trail a front country feel in spite of the persistent steepness and rockiness.  I also encountered quite a bit of traffic on this trail even though I made the ascent on a cloudy seasonally cold mid-March morning.
            Just past marker #5, you pass the second bench.  This bench offers a nice view to the southwest during the leafless months.  At marker #6, the difficulty increases as the trail enters the first boulder field.  The boulder field is fairly exposed to the sun, and I would not want to be climbing over these boulders if they were slippery due to rain or ice.  Yellow blazes have been painted on the boulders to keep you on the trail.
Entering the boulder field
            At marker #7, the trail splits only to merge again in a few hundred feet.  As a sign explains, the left option is longer but less rocky, while the right option goes directly up the boulders.  Just past marker #8, the two options re-merge for the final steep, rocky push to the summit.  The last 1000 feet is a true New England-style boulder scramble.  An unofficial slightly less rocky line can be found to the left, but that area has been closed to help prevent erosion.
            At 0.7 miles, you reach a high saddle in between Pinnacle Mountain’s two summits: the slightly higher east summit and slightly narrower west summit.  The two summits offer different views, so you will want to climb over the remaining boulders and visit both of them.  The view east features the Arkansas River and, on a clear day, downtown Little Rock, while the view west features Lake Maumelle.  These views are hard-earned, so take some time to have a trail snack and see what you can see.
View east toward Little Rock

View of Lake Maumelle
            Another trail, the East Summit Trail marked by white rectangles with red borders, also departs the summit area, but it is even steeper and rockier than the West Summit Trail you came up on.  Also, going down the East Summit Trail would cause you to miss half of the Base Trail.  Thus, this hike goes back down the West Summit Trail to its junction with the Base Trail.  If all you want to do is visit the summit, the trailhead is only 300 feet past the Base Trail junction.  To get the full tour, turn right on the Base Trail to begin a clockwise journey around Pinnacle Mountain’s base.
            The Base Trail does not provide any grand views, but it does offer other rewards such as a nice wildflower display in the spring.  Also, because most people only hike to the summit, you will likely leave the crowds behind when you start the Base Trail.  Just as the West Summit Trail featured 10 trail markers, the Base Trail features 29 trail markers that you will pass in increasing order as you hike clockwise.  The trail markers on the Base Trail are painted neon green, as are the blazes that mark this trail.
Hiking the Base Trail
            The Base Trail ascends and descends on gradual to moderate grades, and although the Base Trail has a few rocky sections, it seems like a breeze compared to the steep and rocky West Summit Trail you just descended.  The trail curves gradually right as noise from SR 300 comes in from the left.  The road noise brings up the only down side to hiking the Base Trail: it stays near the park’s boundary for most of its distance, so the park’s suburban location ensures that signs of civilization such as roads, buildings, power lines, and railroad tracks are nearly always in sight.
            1.6 miles into the hike (or 0.2 miles into the Base Trail), you cross a gravel service road as you begin a moderate descent.  At 2.2 miles, the long-distance Ouachita Trail mentioned in the introduction enters from the left.  For the next 0.5 miles the blue blazes of the Ouachita Trail and the neon green blazes of the Base Trail run conjointly as the trail heads east along the north slope of Pinnacle Mountain.  Some short metal bridges carry you over some small creeks.
Metal bridge over small creek
            At 2.7 miles, you reach a junction with the East Summit Trail less than 100 feet from the East Summit Trail parking lot.  The Ouachita Trail exits left here, and the East Summit Trail briefly joins the Base Trail before exiting right to begin its steep, rocky climb to the summit.  Follow the neon green blazes to stay on the Base Trail.
Little Maumelle River
            Now on the east side of the mountain, some high voltage power lines come very near the trail on the left, but the trail stays on the west side of the power line clearing.  The power lines are soon replaced by railroad tracks and then by the Little Maumelle River, which was calm and cloudy on my visit.  The trail passes through one final rocky area as the West Summit Picnic Area comes into view downhill ahead and to the left.
Just past 4 miles, you close the Base Trail’s loop.  Turn left and hike the remaining short segment of the West Summit Trail to return to the picnic area and complete the hike.  While you are at Pinnacle Mountain State Park, be sure to stop by the Visitor Center, which has some interesting exhibits and offers a postcard view from its back patio high above the Arkansas River.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Keowee-Toxaway State Park: Natural Bridge and Raven Rock Trails (Blog Hike #621)

Trails: Natural Bridge and Raven Rock Trails
Hike Location: Keowee-Toxaway State Park
Geographic Location: northwest of Pickens, SC
Length: 4 miles
Difficulty: 7/10 (Moderate/Difficult)
Last Hiked: March 2017
Overview: A double loop with lots of up-and-down past a natural bridge and to a fantastic view of Lake Keowee.

Directions to the trailhead: Keowee-Toxaway State Park is located on the north side of SR 11 in northwestern South Carolina 8.7 miles west of SR 11’s intersection with US 178 (or 0.2 miles west of its intersection with SR 133).  Enter the park, and park in any of the three small parking lots near the park office.

The hike: Somewhat of a hidden gem among upstate South Carolina’s many top-tier hiking destinations, Keowee-Toxaway State Park (also known as Keowee-Toxaway State Natural Area) owes its existence to a land donation from Duke Energy in 1970.  The park protects 1000 acres on the east shore of Lake Keowee, which is a long narrow lake that was constructed partly to supply water for Duke Energy’s three nuclear power plants located on its shores.  A short hike at Duke Energy’s World of Energy Visitor Center, located at one of these nuclear stations, is described elsewhere in this blog.
            One of the reasons Keowee-Toxaway State Park flies under the radar is its lack of amenities.  On point, the park features only a 24-site campground, a few cabins, canoe/kayak access to Lake Keowee, and three hiking trails.  The short Lake Trail (not described in this blog) connects the campground and cabin areas.  The park’s other two trails, the Natural Bridge Trail and Raven Rock Trail, are both moderate-to-difficult lollipop loops.  The Raven Rock Trail is only accessible from the Natural Bridge Trail, so it makes sense to combine them and form the 4 mile figure-eight route described here.
Trailhead behind park office
            The hike starts at an information board behind (east of) the park office where the Natural Bridge Trail enters the woods.  The information board features a nice trail map, which may be helpful because the park office is only open 11am-noon and 4-5pm.  The trail descends slightly, and in less than 500 feet you reach an unsigned but obvious fork.  This fork forms the loop portion of the Natural Bridge Trail.  For the shortest and easiest route to the natural bridge, I chose to turn right and eventually use the left option as my return route.
            The trail follows the ridge crest northeast with some traffic noise from SR 11 filtering in from the right.  The park’s trail system was partially rebuilt in the early 2010’s, and at 0.2 miles the old and new Natural Bridge Trails converge.  Look for a wooden fence to the right that blocks the old route.  Trails at Keowee-Toxaway are marked with metal diamond markers, so it is hard to get lost.
            At 0.4 miles, you begin a moderate descent over dirt waterbars that will deposit you at the west end of the natural bridge.  The trail uses the rock bridge to cross Poe Creek, but the trail never goes to the base of the bridge.  Moreover, the dense understory of mountain laurel that lives along Poe Creek makes it hard to get a good view of the bridge.
Crossing the natural bridge

Poe Creek flowing from under natural bridge
            At 0.6 miles, you reach a signed trail intersection with options going straight and right.  If you want a short hike, you can continue straight on the Natural Bridge Trail and skip the Raven Rock Trail, thus shortening the hike to only 1.3 miles.  To see some of the park’s most scenic areas, turn right to begin the Raven Rock Trail.
            The Raven Rock Trail climbs briefly over some wooden steps built into the ground before beginning a gradual-to-moderate descent into one of Poe Creek’s side ravines.  During the descent, you pass some scenic rock outcrops that rise vertically to the right of the trail.  At the base of the ravine, the trail makes a sweeping left curve to begin an equally gradual-to-moderate ascent up the other side of the ravine.
Rock outcrop beside trail
            1 mile into the hike, the Raven Rock Trail splits to form its loop.  To make the climbing a little easier, I chose to turn up and right and use the trail going down and left as my return route, thus hiking the loop counterclockwise.  The gradual ascent continues, and at 1.25 miles you reach this hike’s highest point, which is nearly 1200 feet in elevation.
Descending toward Lake Keowee
            Next comes perhaps my favorite part of the hike, as the zig-zag trail descends on a persistently moderate grade into the remote northern corner of the park.  Overall, you lose about 300 feet of elevation over 0.5 miles.  When Lake Keowee comes into view, the trail curves left to begin heading west along the lake’s south shore.  At a couple of points the trail comes within 10 feet of the lake, and the elevation changes on this section are gradual.  The golf course you see across the lake is the private Cliffs at Keowee Vineyards, and it along with some mansion-type homes remind you that civilization is only a lake away.
            At 2.2 miles, the signed spur trail to the park’s primitive campground exits right as the trail climbs moderately away from Lake Keowee.  The grade intensifies somewhat before you reach the open rock ledge known as Raven Rock.  This rocky perch offers a fine view to the southwest down the length of Lake Keowee, the waters of which have a characteristic mountain-fed blue color.  Stop, have a trail snack, and enjoy the view.
Lake Keowee, as seen from Raven Rock
            Past Raven Rock, the moderate climb continues as the serpentine trail slithers in and out of several tight ravines.  A hiker friend told me that timber rattlesnakes are abundant at Keowee-Toxaway.  While I did not see any rattlesnakes on my hike, they are more common in the fall than in the spring, and the rocky areas along this trail are prime rattlesnake territory.
            At 2.8 miles, you close the Raven Rock Trail’s loop at the top of a finger ridge.  Continue straight to retrace your steps 0.4 miles to the Natural Bridge Trail, then turn right to continue the Natural Bridge Trail’s loop.  The Natural Bridge Trail descends some wooden steps to reach a bench beside Poe Creek just below some small waterfalls.  Stop here to rest a few minutes in the tranquil creekside setting before crossing Poe Creek on some strategically placed boulders.
Boulder-hopping Poe Creek
            The trail heads downstream beside rhododendron-choked Poe Creek for a few hundred feet before curving left to begin the climb back toward the trailhead.  This section of trail goes straight up the hillside for part of the climb, thus making this climb the steepest one of the hike.  Just as the trail starts to level out, you close the Natural Bridge Trail’s loop.  Retracing your steps for 500 feet returns you to the trailhead to complete the hike.