Friday, June 23, 2017

Cherokee National Forest, Ocoee Whitewater Center: Old Copper Road Trail (Blog Hike #640)

Trail: Old Copper Road Trail
Hike Location: Cherokee National Forest, Ocoee Whitewater Center
Geographic Location: west of Ducktown, TN
Length: 5.4 miles
Difficulty: 3/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: June 2017
Overview: An out-and-back along the north bank of the Ocoee River.

Directions to the trailhead: The Ocoee Whitewater Center is located on the south side of US 64/74 6 miles west of Ducktown.  The parking around the center’s main building is 30-minute gift shop parking, so you need to park in the large day-use parking lot just downriver.  Park as close as possible to the lower wooden bridge over the Ocoee River because the hike begins and ends there.

The hike: Located on the main road heading east out of Cleveland, the Ocoee Whitewater Center was built for the canoe/kayak slalom events at the 1996 Olympic Games hosted by Atlanta, GA.  The Center has the distinction of being the only Olympic whitewater course to be located on a natural river, the Ocoee River.  The portion of the river used for the Olympics was modified to build a suitable whitewater course, and on many summer weekends water is released from a dam upstream to create whitewater conditions.
            The Ocoee Whitewater Center today serves as a Visitor Center for Cherokee National Forest, Tennessee’s only national forest, and as a trailhead for many hiking and mountain biking trails.  One of the area’s most popular trails is the Old Copper Road Trail described here.  Under the lead of John Caldwell, the Old Copper Road was built in 1853 to connect the copper mines of extreme southeastern Tennessee with the railroad terminus in Cleveland.  Teams of oxen would take 2 days to make the journey one-way.  Today modern vehicles make roughly the same journey in about 45 minutes on US 64/74.
            Three other preliminary notes need to be mentioned.  First, the trail distance I give here differs from the 4.6 mile distance given by the forest service.  The forest service measures from the Old Copper Road Trail’s trailhead at the upper end of the Ocoee Whitewater Center, but to reach the trailhead you have to hike 0.4 miles through the Olympic whitewater area.  Thus, the mileage difference is due to the distance through the Whitewater Center.  Second, you could do this hike as a two-car shuttle by leaving one car at the upper end of the Old Copper Road Trail, which is located at the private boater put-in on FR 334.  Third, because this trail is open to mountain bikers and because of the water release schedule, I recommend that you avoid this area on summer weekends.  I came here on a Thursday in mid-June, saw two other trail users (both bikers), and had a nice hike.
Start of concrete riverside trail
            With the preliminaries out of the way, let’s get hiking!  Start with a walk through the Olympic whitewater course, which is accessed by a concrete riverside trail that starts just below the lower bridge over the Ocoee River.  A sign warns you to beware of rising water levels.  Indeed, this trail stays close enough to the river to make it underwater during a sufficiently large water release.  Sirens and flashing lights warn of impending water releases, so you need to get off of this trail by any means necessary if the sirens sound.
Olympic whitewater area
            The concrete trail heads up the Ocoee River’s north bank.  Notice the large number of small boulders along the river’s bank and the unusually-shaped rocks in the river’s channel, and file this look in your memory for later use.  After crossing Rock Creek on a footbridge, the trail curves right along with the river as the Ocoee Whitewater Center’s main building comes in sight.  The two-story red-roofed building contains restrooms with flush toilets, a small gift shop, and a staffed information desk with trail maps.
Ocoee Whitewater Center
            Stay to the right of the main building to arrive at the Center’s upper bridge across the Ocoee River.  Just past this bridge lies the trailhead for the Old Copper Road Trail (Cherokee National Forest Trail #306).  The trail drops steeply but only for a short distance to return to river level and begin heading upstream.  The trail surface starts as concrete but soon turns first to gravel and then to dirt.  Some strategically placed stepping stones get you over Laurel Creek with mostly dry feet.
Start of Old Copper Road Trail
            0.8 miles into the hike (or 0.4 miles into the Old Copper Road Trail), you reach an opening on the right that gives a nice river view.  This area marks the upper end of the constructed whitewater area, and notice how different the river upstream to your left looks compared to the Olympic whitewater area you walked through earlier.  Some rhododendron was just starting to bloom on my mid-June hike.
Upper end of whitewater course
            Continuing upstream, the road noise from US 64/74 disappears uphill to the left as the highway and river part ways.  The Old Copper Road Trail is marked with a few purple i-shaped paint blazes, but the trail is wide and easy to follow.  Each mile is also marked with a sign.  Soon you pass a couple of rock outcrops on the left.  A rattlesnake startled me as it slithered off the trail and into one of these outcrops. 
At 1.4 miles, you cross a wooden replica of the 1841 Howe Thru Truss Bridge that carried the original Old Copper Road across this creek.  Some ferns and sweet gums appear among the flora as you continue upstream, and more small streams are crossed via wooden footbridges.  These streams make nice cascading sounds as they approach their confluence with the Ocoee.  Most of this hike is shaded, but some sunnier areas are encountered as you head further upstream.
Hiking along the Ocoee
Just past the 2 mile marker, you pass a poorly maintained observation/contemplation area on the right.  After climbing slightly to reach the highest point on this hike, a gradual descent brings you to the private boater put-in on FR 334.  A restroom building and some picnic tables also stand here.  The Old Copper Road Trail ends at the put-in, so after a brief rest and trail snack you need to retrace your steps back to the Ocoee Whitewater Center.
To add a little variety, instead of walking the concrete path along the river below the Center’s main building, cross the upper bridge and walk the last segment back to your car along the river’s south bank.  Just before you walk across the lower bridge to return to the parking area, note the Rhododendron Trail on the left.  The Rhododendron Trail is a 1 mile one-way trail that offers a hike similar to this one but shorter and on the other side of the river.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Sumter National Forest: Big Bend Trail to Big Bend Falls (Blog Hike #639)

Trails: Big Bend and Chattooga River Trails
Hike Location: Sumter National Forest
Geographic Location: northwest of Walhalla, SC
Length: 6.4 miles
Difficulty: 6/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: June 2017
Overview: An out-and-back to the Chattooga River and powerful Big Bend Falls.

Directions to the trailhead: From Walhalla, take SR 28 west 8.2 miles to SR 107 and turn softly right on SR 107.  Drive SR 107 north 8.5 miles to an unsigned gravel pullout on the right that serves as the trailhead parking area.  The easiest way to find this pullout is to drive to Sumter National Forest’s signed Cherry Hill Recreation Area and backtrack about 500 feet.  The trail starts on the opposite side of the road from the pullout.

The hike: Cutting a 57-mile gouge along the Georgia/South Carolina border, the Chattooga River is one of the southeast’s longest free-flowing rivers.  The Chattooga rises near Cashiers, NC and flows roughly southward over many roaring rapids before ending with a whimper at the backwaters of Lake Tugaloo.  The river’s most famous moment came in 1972 when scenes from the movie Deliverance were filmed along its banks and in its rapids.  In 1974, the Chattooga was designated a National Wild and Scenic River, thus making it the first river east of the Mississippi to receive this designation.
            For most of its distance the Chattooga River’s west bank lies in Georgia’s Chattahoochee National Forest while its east bank lies in South Carolina’s Sumter National Forest.  Thus, large segments of the river are preserved in their natural state.  The hike described here does not provide the shortest or easiest Chattoga River access, but it takes you to a secluded section of the river (several miles to road access in either direction) and to Big Bend Falls, a major river waterfall.
Big Bend Trail trailhead
            The Big Bend Trail starts on the west side of SR 107 across from the gravel pullout described in the Directions to the trailhead.  The first of the Big Bend Trail’s many powder blue paint blazes marks this point, as does a warning sign stating that the trail is open only to foot travel.  A wooden sign with trail mileages also stands here, but it is located a few feet into the woods and may be harder to see.
The trail descends moderately to reach the bank of Crane Creek, which contains some small cascades.  The cascades make great audio, but dense rhododendron makes them hard to see.  After crossing the creek on a nice wooden footbridge, the trail curves right to climb gradually away from Crane Creek.  A double powder blue blaze (two blazes on a single tree) marks this turn.  Although the trail had been cleared recently on my visit, the trail’s narrowness and lack of traffic may require you to watch the blazes to stay on the trail.
Over the next 0.7 miles the trail gains 130 feet of elevation on a grade that is mostly imperceptible.  Along the way you pass in and out of numerous ravines, all of which feed into unseen Pigpen Branch.  Gravel and seldom-used Big Bend Road (FR 709) roughly parallels this trail, and occasionally it comes into view on the right.  The entire trail passes through broadleaf forest with tulip poplars being the largest trees in the forest.
Hiking the Big Bend Trail
Near 1 mile into the hike, you reach the hike’s highest point as you round one of many finger ridges.  The next 1.6 miles are a gradual descent that loses about 250 feet of elevation in fits and starts.  A few wooden steps improved footing in the past, but they are partly overgrown now.  Three side trails branch off from the road uphill to your right and cross your path.  The dull roar of the distant Chattooga River will be one of the few sounds you hear in this area.
At 2.3 miles, the trail curves left as it drops into the ravine that will bring you to the Chattooga River.  After crossing the ravine’s stream twice in quick succession, a creekside descent brings you to the Big Bend Trail’s western end and a junction with the combined Foothills and Chattooga River Trails, which go right and straight.  A national recreation trail marker also sits here.  Continue straight to begin hiking southbound on the Chattooga River Trail.
Intersecting the Chattooga River Trail
The green blazes of the Chattooga River Trail and the white blazes of the Foothills Trail run conjointly along this section of trail.  After crossing a steep angler’s trail that comes downhill from the end of Big Bend Road, the Chattooga River comes into sight for the first time.  The trail descends a pair of switchbacks to reach a charming riverside campsite right below a big rapid in the river.  The site makes a great place to stop, have a trail snack, and enjoy the sights and sounds along this secluded slice of river paradise.
Chattooga River above Big Bend Falls
Some people think this rapid is Big Bend Falls, but in fact the falls lie further downstream.  Continuing south on the Chattooga River Trail, the trail climbs a bluff before descending another pair of switchbacks.  Due to the rugged terrain and dense rhododendron, Big Bend Falls is more easily heard than seen.  The steep unsigned spur trail to Big Bend Falls exits right at the base of some rock steps just after the second switchback.  The waterfall is only 30 feet high, and it falls in numerous stages.  Nevertheless the river’s large water volume makes Big Bend Falls a powerful sight.  After viewing (or perhaps only hearing) Big Bend Falls, retrace your steps 3.2 miles to the trailhead to complete the hike.