Saturday, January 11, 2020

Restoration Park (Blog Hike #785)

Trail: (unnamed)
Hike Location: Restoration Park
Geographic Location: West Monroe, LA (32.50802, -92.17211)
Length: 1.1 miles
Difficulty: 1/10 (Easy)
Last Hiked: December 2019
Overview: A gravel and boardwalk lollipop loop through an old sand/gravel mine.
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: In West Monroe, take I-20 to Downing Pine Road (exit 113).  Exit and go south on Downing Pine Rd.  The signed parking lot for Restoration Park is on the left less than 0.5 miles south of I-20.  Park in the only lot.

The hike: Owned and maintained by the City of West Monroe, tiny Restoration Park protects 70 acres just south of busy I-20.  Before it became a park, a sand/gravel mine operated here for more than 50 years.  After the mine was fully depleted in the 1970’s, the site became an unofficial landfill where many people illegally dumped their trash.  The City of West Monroe purchased the land in 1989, and after 14 years of clean-up and development the park opened to the public in 2003.
            Today the old sand/gravel mine has been converted to a wetland that is traversed by a nice wooden boardwalk.  The park is too small to be a major hiking destination, but its simple trail system with two loops makes a nice leg-stretcher hike if you need a break from driving boring I-20 across northern Louisiana.  While not the longest possible loop, the route described here offers good bird watching by taking you across the wetland boardwalk, the trail system’s main feature.
Trailhead at Restoration Park
            The gravel entrance trail leaves the rear of the parking area and curves left around a park restroom/maintenance building to reach a wooden information board.  Continuing a couple hundred feet past the information board brings you to the trail intersection that forms the outer loop.  To get to the boardwalk, turn right and walk across an arched iron bridge with wooden deck.
Arched iron bridge
            The gravel trail winds through mixed pine and deciduous forest and soon approaches the park’s south boundary.  Numerous woodpeckers pecking on trees got my attention.  An industrial and professional park soon appears across the south boundary.  At 0.25 miles, the trail forks to form our loop.  Continue straight to maintain an eastbound course along the park’s south boundary and hike our loop counterclockwise.
Hiking through woodlands
            Next the former sand/gravel mine turned wetland area comes into view to the left.  The mostly open water appeared reflective but dark on my visit, and I saw some waterfowl here including herons and egrets.  Some wooden platforms overlook the wetland, and some interpretive signs help you identify common plants in the forest.
Boardwalk in wetland
            At the 1/2 mile marker, you reach a trail intersection where the boardwalk begins.  Turn left to leave the outer loop and walk across the boardwalk.  The excellent wooden boardwalk had been recently rebuilt on my visit, and it takes you across the open water, thus allowing for good wildlife viewing.  Walk slowly across this boardwalk to see what you can see.
Wetland view from boardwalk
Second, muddier pond
            At the other end of the boardwalk, the trail curves left and passes by a second pond that has muddier water than the first one.  Traffic noise from nearby I-20 filters in here.  The final segment of the loop takes you along the west rim of the old sand/gravel pit.  At 0.8 miles, you close the loop.  Turn right and retrace your steps to the trailhead to complete the hike.  Alternatively, you could turn left and hike around the entire outer loop if you want more distance and do not mind highway noise.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Sam Houston National Forest: Big Creek Scenic Area (Blog Hike #784)

Trail: Big Creek Trail
Hike Location: Sam Houston National Forest, Big Creek Scenic Area
Geographic Location: north of Cleveland, TX (30.50592, -95.08864)
Length: 1.9 miles
Difficulty: 3/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: December 2019
Overview: A rolling loop hike featuring nice mixed forest and sandy-bottomed streams.
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: From the intersection of I-69 and Farm-to-Market Road 2025 in Cleveland, drive FM 2025 north 10 miles to FM 2666 and turn right on FM 2666.  Drive FM 2666 east 2.5 miles to Big Creek Scenic Road and turn left on Big Creek Scenic Rd.  Drive dirt/gravel Big Creek Scenic Rd. north 0.5 miles to unsigned Forest Road 217 and turn right on FR 217.  The signed dirt/gravel parking area for Big Creek Scenic area is 0.8 miles ahead on the left just before the road crosses Big Creek.

The hike: The largest of Texas’ four national forests, Sam Houston National Forest protects 163,264 acres just north of metro Houston.  All four of Texas’ national forests were established in 1934, when the State of Texas invited the federal government to buy up land that had been overlogged or damaged by fire.  Today the forest has recovered nicely, and the four national forests are major recreation destinations in east Texas.
            Perhaps the most popular way to see Sam Houston National Forest is by scheduling a multi-day backpack hike on the Lone Star Hiking Trail.  Winding for 128 miles, many of which are in Sam Houston National Forest, the Lone Star Trail is frequently regarded as the best backpacking trail in Texas.  The trail is maintained by the private not-for-profit Lone Star Hiking Trail Club, which also provides an excellent map and guide to the trail.
            For dayhikers, one of Sam Houston National Forest’s best options is the Big Creek Scenic Area featured here.  Established in 1962 due to its scenic properties, the somewhat remote 1420 acre area features three short loops of increasing distance, each of which uses the Lone Star Hiking Trail for part of its route.  This hike describes the longest of the three loops, thus keeping you in the scenic area for as long as possible while minimizing the retracing of steps.
Trailhead at Big Creek Scenic Area
            The entrance trail leaves the back of the parking area and heads north by crossing a wooden bridge over a small stream.  A trailhead marker for the Lone Star Trail stands here, as does an information kiosk.  In only a couple hundred feet, you intersect the Lone Star Trail proper at the intersection that forms the loop part of this hike.  A large wooden board with a trail map stands here.  To get to Big Creek quickly, I chose to turn right and hike the loop counterclockwise.
Bluff overlook of Big Creek
            Just shy of 0.2 miles, you reach a bench located atop a small bluff overlooking Big Creek.  The low bluff gives a nice view of the clear-flowing sandy-bottomed creek and the nice forest that occupies this ravine.  A short distance later, the Pine Trail, the first of the three loops, exits left.  The main Lone Star Trail is marked by plain aluminum rectangles, while the three loops are marked by aluminum rectangles with a horizontal paint stripe (yellow paint, in the case of the Pine Trail).  Continue straight to remain on the Lone Star Trail.
            For the next 0.6 miles the trail stays close to Big Creek, which is crossed and recrossed once via wooden footbridges.  Some of the trail bridges were quite springy when I hiked here, but they got me across the creeks without incident.  Just after you recross Big Creek, the White Oak Trail, the second of the three loops, exits left.  Stay right to remain on the Lone Star Trail.
Hiking along Big Creek
            At 0.8 miles, you reach the start of the Big Creek Trail, the last of the three loops.  The Lone Star Trail angles right to exit the Big Creek Scenic Area and head for Double Lake, which is 5 miles away.  Thus, you should turn left here to begin the Big Creek Trail, which is marked by aluminum rectangles with an orange horizontal paint stripe.
            Lesser used than the Lone Star Trail, the Big Creek Trail follows a rolling course that goes up and over a couple of low ridges.  The difference between maximum and minimum elevations on this hike is only about 100 vertical feet, but this area has more relief than you might expect for metro Houston.  The forest is a nice mixture of pine and deciduous trees, and some benches make nice places to sit and rest near the midpoint of this hike.
Hiking over a ridge
            The White Oak Trail enters from the left just before the Big Creek Trail ends at another junction with the Lone Star Trail.  As directed by a sign, turn left on the Lone Star Trail to head back for the parking lot.  The trail heads gradually downhill and passes mile marker 80 on the Lone Star Trail before closing the loop.  Turn right and hike out the entrance trail to return to the parking lot and complete the hike.