Friday, May 31, 2013

Pilot Knob State Nature Preserve: Oscar Geralds, Jr. Trail (Blog Hike #26)

Trail: Oscar Geralds, Jr. Trail
Hike Location: Pilot Knob State Nature Preserve
Geographic Location: north of Clay CityKY (37.91208, -83.94513)
Length: 2.4 miles
Difficulty: 8/10 (Moderate/Difficult)
Last Hiked: September 1998; some pics taken May 2017
Overview: A moderate climb to an historic point offering great views of Kentucky’s Bluegrass.

Directions to the trailhead: Take the Mountain Parkway to SR 15 (exit 16).  Exit and go west on SR 15.  Take SR 15 west 3.5 miles to Brush Creek Road in the town of Westbend.  Turn right on paved Brush Creek Road.  In 1.5 miles, Brush Creek Road ends at a gate and a cul de sac.  Park in this cul de sac, taking care not to block the gate.

The hike: The land today comprising Pilot Knob State Nature Preserve is of significance for a couple of reasons.  First, Pilot Knob, a 450-foot knob at the center of the preserve, is one in a line of knobs that form the boundary between the flat Bluegrass to the west and the rugged mountains to the east.  As you travel east on the Mountain Parkway from Lexington, these knobs appear as giant cone-shaped mountains in the distance providing you a first indication that the mountains are approaching.  In fact, these knobs are small compared to the mountains further east, but they loom large over the flat Bluegrass
If an opportunity to explore one of these interesting knobs were not enough, Pilot’s Knob in particular possesses some unique interest.  Daniel Boone’s explorations included a trip across Kentucky, entering at Cumberland Gap in the southeast and proceeding northwest at first through the mountains and later into the Bluegrass.  Many historians believe that Daniel Boone first saw the Bluegrass region of Kentucky from the top of this knob as he stood atop the rock outcrop that lies at the end of this trail. 
The preserve itself is fairly young and has been in state hands only since 1985.  The preserve contains no facilities and is accessed by only two trails.  The seldom-used Minestone Quarry Trail offers a short hike along the base of the knob, but the main attraction is the Oscar Geralds, Jr. Trail that ascends to the summit of the historical knob.  Despite the fact this trail is only 2.4 miles total (up and back down), it took me nearly 2 hours to complete this hike, as the trail is quite steep, making progress very slow for long periods of time.  On the bright side, even though this preserve is located only 30 miles southeast of Lexington and near the interstate standard Mountain Parkway, you will likely have this trail largely to yourself.  Take your time ascending the knob and enjoying the view at the top.
Trailhead (in the rain)
             The trail begins at the rear of the cul de sac past the gate where the road turns to gravel.  The road continues for a short distance as a narrow, rutted road overhung by low branches.  The road ends at Brush Creek, which was dry during our late summer visit but might contain water at other times of the year.  There is no bridge, so this creek must be forded.  Bring water shoes to keep your feet as dry as possible, and if the creek looks too high, turn back and wait for a drier day. 
            Once across the creek, pick up the single track dirt trail and pass through a row of white posts which signal the boundary of the preserve.  In rather quick succession, the trail passes a registration box, a wooden gate, and then an information box where a map of the preserve may be found.  
Climbing toward Pilot Knob
            A few feet past the information box, the poorly maintained Minestone Quarry Trail goes off to the right while the well-worn Oscar Geralds, Jr. Trail goes straight ahead.  Continue straight to ascend the knob.  Just past this junction, the trail starts to climb steeply for the first time, using some logs as erosion controls.  The young open forest at this point consists mostly of poplar and maple trees with very little underbrush.  At the top of this first steep section, Brush Creek lies in a ravine to the left and the side of Pilot Knob rises on the right.  After flattening out for a very short distance, the trail begins climbing again, this time up the steepest climb of the hike.  This climb climaxes with a ladder-like staircase and a switchback.  This switchback marks about the halfway point for the trip up the knob. 
            For the next 0.2 miles the trail becomes level and begins traveling around the south face of the knob from the west to the east.  The trail gently curves to the left around the knob.  A nice view of the Cumberland Plateau is to the right, in addition to a steep cliff.  Do not waste too much time looking at this view, as the summit offers a much better one.  To the left is the sandstone cliff that you will be standing atop at the end of this hike and the one Daniel Boone stood upon many centuries ago. 
Spring beside trail
            The trail passes a small spring on the left, where you must be careful of tree roots in the trail, then reaches the east side of the knob.  The trail now begins climbing again, this time up the east side of the knob for the last steep section of the hike.  The forest has changed significantly now.  Gone are the large maples and poplars.  They have been replaced by some smaller oak and Virginia pine that thrive in areas where the sandstone bedrock is close to the surface.  The top of this climb affords nice views to the east and north especially during the leafless months. 
            The trail makes two last turns to the left, passes some exposed sandstone to the left, then comes out at the summit of the knob.  Be careful here, as there is no railing to lean on, there are several roots that could easily trip you, and the drop is about 50-75 feet straight down the sandstone cliff.  The view is impressive.  Some more knobs lay straight ahead, the Cumberland Plateau rises to the left, and the Bluegrass opens up to the right.  When you have taken in the view, turn around and retrace your steps down the knob; there is only one way down, and it is the same way you came up.
View west into Kentucky's Bluegrass

Summit overlook
            If you are as fortunate as I was, you may get an unusual guided tour of the preserve.  A medium-sized black dog met me shortly after I left the gravel parking area.  I am not particularly fond of dogs, so I tried to ignore it as I started along the trail.  The dog followed me at first, then passed me and walked only a few feet ahead along the trail for several minutes.  When I hit the first major climb, the dog disappeared ahead out of sight, and I figured that I had lost it.  To my surprise, after climbing the ladder staircase and the switchback, I found the dog sitting on the trail as if it were waiting for me to catch up.  Sure enough, when I caught up to it, the dog got up and continued to lead me up the trail. 
Dog at summit of Pilot Knob
            When I reached the top, the dog sat down a few feet from the edge of the cliff and waited for me to take in the view.  When I turned around and began walking back down the knob, the dog got up and began walking behind me again.  It eventually walked right up beside my legs, and I reached down to pet its head, which it gladly received.  Shortly thereafter, the dog ran ahead of me, and I never saw it again for the rest of the hike.  Rarely does a solo hiker experience such companionship on the trail as I did that day.  If you find a new hiking companion when hiking this trail, do not be afraid of it.  Let it lead you and it will be your friend as it was mine.

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