Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Claytor Lake State Park (Blog Hike #350)

Trails: Lakeview, Claytor Lake, and Poplar Leaf Trails
Hike Location: Claytor Lake State Park
Geographic Location: southeast of Dublin, VA (37.05713, -80.62057)
Length: 2.5 miles
Difficulty: 4/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: June 2011
Overview: A state park hike on the north side of Claytor Lake.

Directions to the trailhead: South of Blacksburg, take I-81 to State Park Road (exit 101).  Exit and go south on State Park Road.  As you would expect, State Park Rd. takes you into the park.  Pay the entrance fee, and turn left where the road forks at the lake.  Park in the asphalt parking lot in front of the Visitor Center.

The hike: Cutting a mostly northward course through the heart of the Appalachian Mountains in West Virginia, western Virginia, and extreme northwest North Carolina, the New River is actually one of the oldest rivers on earth.  While glaciers and seas radically changed the geography of the Midwest and Piedmont areas, the mountains and rivers of the Appalachians have remained unchanged for many millennia.  The New River is in the easternmost portion of the Mississippi River watershed, and thus it was one of the first rivers in that watershed settled by pioneers moving west, hence the name.
            In contrast with the river, Claytor Lake is in fact rather new.  Claytor Lake was formed in 1939 when the Appalachian Power Company built a hydroelectric dam on the New River.  This dam is still the largest of the 12 hydroelectric dams the company uses to generate electricity today.  The lake is named after Graham Claytor, an Appalachian Power executive who supervised construction of the dam.  In 1946, private citizens from the surrounding communities raised enough money to purchase 437 acres from Appalachian Power to form the park.  The land was donated to the state, and Claytor Lake State Park began operations in 1951.
            As you might expect, the lake still takes center stage today.  In addition to a large campground and cabin area, the park has a beach area, a marina, and several boat docks, all of which get plenty of use in season.  When I visited this park on a very warm, sunny Saturday afternoon, the area by the lake had the traffic of a small theme park.  Even on my visit, the hiking trails were seldom-used, and I had a very pleasant leg-stretcher hike to interrupt my long drive from Virginia to Georgia.
            There are several places from which you could start this hike, but I chose to start at the Visitor Center partly to avoid the worst of the crowds on my drive in.  Also, there are a couple of points of interest in this area before you hit the trail.  The Visitor Center is located in the historic Howe House, a three-story brick house that today sits right on the lake.  The Visitor Center contains some interesting exhibits on the lake and its inhabitants.  Also, just west of the Visitor Center stands a log cabin’s stone chimney that was moved from a point now in Claytor Lake to here.
Stone Chimney near Visitor Center
            After you have seen these two sights, continue walking toward the park road and pick up the asphalt Lakeview Trail as it exits to the left through a gap in the wooden fence and heads for the marina and beach area.  The trail stays right beside the park road as it passes picnic areas, lake inlets, the marina, and the beach in that order.  Interpretive signs describe how rocks are placed along the lake shore to reduce shore erosion.  As you pass the beach area, notice the large overflow parking lot across the road to your right and the paved trail that exits from its rear; that trail will be our return route.
            Staying on the Lakeview Trail, the trail crosses the park road past the beach area and assumes a course just inside the forest boundary.  The crowds are now left behind as you approach the cabin area.  At 0.7 miles, you reach the intersection of the Lakeview and Claytor Lake Trails.  The paved Lakeview Trail quickly ends at the cabin area, so you should turn right to leave the pavement and begin the dirt Claytor Lake Trail.
Beginning of Claytor Lake Trail
            The blue-blazed wide single-track Claytor Lake Trail ascends moderately through broadleaf forest dominated by maples and tulip poplars.  At first the understory is dense and green, but as you approach the top of the hill, you enter an area that has burned recently as evidenced by burn marks on the trees and bare dirt on the ground.  An occasional boat can be heard humming along in Claytor Lake, which is now 50 feet below you to the left through the trees.
Recently burned area
            At 1.4 miles, you reach the intersection of the Claytor Lake and Poplar Leaf Trails.  You could continue straight on the Claytor Lake Trail to Campground C and return using the Shady Ridge Trail, but to avoid the campgrounds this description turns right here to begin the Poplar Leaf Trail.  The orange-blazed Poplar Leaf Trail undulates moderately as it heads across the peninsula that contains the park.
            At 1.8 miles, you reach a forest boundary where you leave behind the taller broadleaf trees and enter younger trees.  The younger forest includes some red cedars and planted pines.  The trail goes on and off of an old road until, 2 miles into the hike, you reach the start of the Bent Tree Trail loop, which exits to the left.  The Bent Tree Trail, mainly used by campers, leads to a wildlife observation area.  The 0.75 mile loop could be added if you want a longer hike, but it is not described in detail here.           
Poplar Leaf Trail
            The trail next passes around the fringes of Campground D, which is located uphill to the left.  At 2.1 miles, the Poplar Leaf Trail ends at the paved trail connecting the campground with the beach area.  Turn right and head downhill on the paved trail to reach the beach area overflow parking and the Lakeview Trail.  A left turn on the Lakeview Trail will return you to the Visitor Center and complete the hike.

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