Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Douthat State Park: Tuscarora Overlook Loop (Blog Hike #347)

Trails: Blue Suck Falls, Tuscarora Overlook, Stony Run, and Locust Gap Trails
Hike Location: Douthat State Park
Geographic Location: north of Clifton Forge, VA (37.90177, -79.80532)
Length: 9.1 miles
Difficulty: 9/10 (Difficult)
Last Hiked: May 2011
Overview: A long lollipop loop up the eastern face of Middle Mountain.

Directions to the trailhead: In western Virginia, take I-64 to US 220 (exit 27).  Exit, but instead of going south on US 220, head north on CR 629.  CR 629 takes you into the park in 5 miles.  Stay on CR 629, pass the park office, and turn left into the Camp Carson Picnic Area, where this hike begins.

The hike: Located in the Allegheny Mountains of western Virginia, Douthat State Park is one of the crown jewels of the fine Virginia state park system.  The park’s original land consists of a 1920 acre donation from the Douthat Land Company, a consortium of Virginia businessmen.  The remaining land was purchased in 1933 as part of the state’s initial fund allocation toward developing a state park system.  The park opened in 1936 as one of Virginia’s six original state parks.  The tall, old trees found here today make this park a real treasure.
          From 1933 to 1942 the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) worked here and built many of the park’s structures and 38 miles of hiking trails.  The park has a 50-acre lake (created by the CCC) and several campgrounds, but most readers of this blog will be interested in the trails.  Unlike many other mountain trails, the trails here are wide and well-graded with good switchbacks thanks to the work of the CCC.  Nobody builds mountain trails like these anymore.
            CR 629 runs north-south bisecting the park along with the park’s trail system.  The most popular trails are located on Middle Mountain west of CR 629, and that is the location of the loop hike described here.  This loop gains over 1700 feet of elevation, and as a result it involves some level of difficulty.  Even if you do not have the time or energy to do the entire loop, a walk up to the first overlook above Blue Suck Falls and back makes for a very rewarding hike of 2.4 miles with less than half of the overall elevation gain.
Blue Suck Falls Trailhead
            The trailhead is located at a green and brown signboard at the end of the picnic area access road just after it crosses Wilson Creek on a low concrete bridge.  Fishing is allowed in the creek here below the dam, and there were plenty of anglers testing the water on the gorgeous Saturday morning of my visit.  Pick up the wide Blue Suck Falls Trail as it heads upstream to within sight of the dam before curving left to leave the picnic area.  The Blue Suck Falls Trail is the main trail artery west of CR 627, but there was surprisingly little traffic when I hiked it.
Beginning the ascent-Blue Suck Falls Trail
            The trail begins a gradual to moderate ascent.  Since this is the main trail in this part of the park, side trails exit right and left.  First the Heron Run Trail exits right, then the Tobacco House Ridge Trail exits left, and then Huff’s Trail exits right.  All of these intersections are well-marked, and the Blue Suck Falls Trail itself is marked with blue blazes.  Thus, it should be hard to make a wrong turn.
Stepping across a creek
            The trail crosses a couple of small streams without a bridge, but in each case stepping stones allow crossing without getting wet feet.  At 0.5 miles, the Laurel View Trail exits to the right.  The next section of the Blue Suck Falls Trail has been relocated.  The old trail continues straight and is blocked by a pair of logs while the new trail turns left and ascends gradually.
            At 0.8 miles, you reach the trail intersection that forms the loop portion of this hike.  The Locust Gap Trail going straight will be our return route, so you should turn right and continue climbing on the Blue Suck Falls Trail.  The forest at this elevation is beautiful, mature forest with some tall maple, beech, oak, and hickory trees.  Some benches made of rocks make for interesting places to sit and rest on the climb.
Stone bench beside trail
            After a little more climbing, you reach the top end of the trail relocation.  Next comes a short flatter section where the trail treads right beside the cascading creek to your right.  Some mountain laurel begins to appear beside the trail here.
            The trail leaves the creekbank and begins the first steep section of the climb.  This section takes you to the base of Blue Suck Falls, the scenic waterfall that gives this trail its name.  A low to moderate volume of water falls in several segments including a couple of waterslides.  The area around the falls is rather rocky, but algae lives on the waterslides, and small trees manage to eek out an existence among the rocks.  A bench at the base of the falls allows you to stop and rest while observing the falling water.
Blue Suck Falls
            At the base of the falls, the trail crosses the creek on a footlog and then reverses courses to head for the rim of Blue Suck Hollow through a dense area of rhododendron.  At 1.2 miles, you reach the first overlook.  This overlook gives a nice view of Beard Mountain through a gap in the beech-maple forest.
            From the overlook, the trail curves left and continues climbing, soon to reach an intersection with the Pine Tree Trail.  The yellow-blazed Pine Tree Trail continues straight, so you need to turn left to remain on the Blue Suck Falls Trail.  For the next 0.7 miles the trail ascends several moderate to steep switchbacks through a dense mountain laurel thicket.  Some of these switchbacks offer nice additional views to the south and east.  Blue Suck Falls can still be heard in the hollow to your left, but no additional views of the waterfall can be had.
Climbing through mountain laurel
            2.1 miles from the trailhead, you reach the short spur trail to Lookout Rock, which exits to the right.  The brown sign attached to a wooden post that announces this trail may be partially hidden by mountain laurel.  Although it would be possible with minimal skill, you do not have to climb Lookout Rock to get a nice view of Beards Mountain as it stretches to the north.  Lookout Rock is also a nice place to rest about 2/3 of the way up Middle Mountain.
Spur trail to Lookout Rock
            Past Lookout Rock, the trail continues climbing on still more switchbacks.  The mountain laurel that was so dense at the lower elevations behind you is now replaced by more open forest characterized by young trees and low understory.  At 2.5 miles, you top the last switchback, but the trail continues climbing moderately as it turns southwest by cutting into a very steep hillside.  The summit of Middle Mountain is visible through the trees uphill to your right.  An enterprising bird had built her nest right into the hillside beside the trail.
Bird nest beside trail
            At 2.95 miles, the yellow-blazed Tuscarora Overlook Trail exits left at a soft angle, heading downhill.  To continue the loop, head down the Tuscarora Overlook Trail.  Note that continuing straight on the Blue Suck Falls Trail another 300 feet (gaining another 40 feet of elevation) will lead you to the summit of Middle Mountain where the Blue Suck Falls Trail ends at the Middle Mountain Trail.  The dense young forest here precludes any views, so there is really nothing to see at the summit except a trail intersection.  The only thing you will gain is the satisfaction of having reached the top of Middle Mountain.
            The Tuscarora Overlook Trail begins with a gradual to moderate descent.  Your current trail is narrower than the main trail you traversed earlier, but it is still well-maintained and easy to follow.  3.5 miles into the hike, you reach the signed spur trail to Tuscarora Overlook, which is reached in 300 feet.  Now this is a world-class view!  Douthat Lake and Beards Mountain lie below you in the foreground with Rough Mountain and Mill Mountain behind them.  Bearwallow Mountain can be seen in the distance to the south.  Some interpretive signs describe the area as the pioneers would have seen it.  A rustic cabin provides shelter, and its front porch provides a nice place to sit and have a snack while taking in the view.
View from Tuscarora Overlook
            Back on the Tuscarora Overlook Trail, the trail undulates gradually as it negotiates a couple of windfalls while heading southwest around a hollow in Middle Mountain’s east slope.  At 4 miles, the Tuscarora Overlook Trail ends at its junction with the Stony Run Trail.  A soft left turn will get you heading downhill on the Stony Run Trail and back toward the trailhead.
            As its name suggests, the orange-blazed Stony Run Trail has more rocks underfoot than the Blue Suck Falls Trail on which you climbed.  Also, while the Blue Suck Falls Trail went through the center of the trail system, the Stony Run Trail lies on the southern flank, so you will not encounter any exiting or entering trails for awhile.
Descending switchbacks on Stony Run Trail
            For the next 2 miles the Stony Run Trail engages in a gradual to moderate descent using many switchbacks.  You first pass through the high-elevation stunted forest, then through the zone with dense mountain laurel.  Finally, you hear a creek below you and to the right, and you descend into a hollow with very thick rhododendron.  Although it is only a few feet away, you will have a hard time seeing the creek due to the rhododendron.
6 miles into the hike, the Stony Run Trail crosses the small creek on stepping stones.  The official park map indicates a waterfall.  To see it, immediately after crossing the creek you will have to leave the official trail and make your way upstream about 150 feet on rough trail.  This waterfall is a smaller version of Blue Suck Falls, as the small stream drops over several ledges, many of which are covered with green algae.  We can thank the park officials for including this waterfall on the trail map, for otherwise most people would never find it.
Small waterfall on Stony Run
Back on the Stony Run Trail, the trail undulates gently as it heads down a wide hollow.  Continue straight where a horse trail exits right to head out of the park.  Soon the trail again crosses Stony Run with the aid of stepping stones.  At 6.7 miles, you reach a trail intersection where the Locust Gap Trail exits left.  To continue this loop, turn left to begin the Locust Gap Trail.  Note that continuing straight on the Stony Run Trail will lead to a small parking area on CR 629 in another 1 mile.  Unfortunately, this parking area is more than 1 mile south of where your car is parked.
Intersection with Locust Gap Trail
              The yellow-blazed Locust Gap Trail climbs gradually but for a long duration along a side ravine of Stony Run Hollow.  Several times you think you are near the ridgetop, but the trail continues climbing nonetheless.  Near the boundary between Stony Run and Blue Suck Falls hollows, the narrow Beard’s Gap Hollow Trail exits to the right.  The Beard’s Gap Hollow Trail also takes you back to CR 629 but again does so at the wrong location.  Thus, you should continue straight on the Locust Gap Trail to avoid road walking.
After a little more gradual climbing, you reach the height of land and begin a gradual descent into Blue Suck Falls Hollow.  At 8.3 miles, you close the loop portion of this hike when you intersect the Blue Suck Falls Trail.  A right turn and 0.8 miles of downhill walking on a moderate grade will return you to Camp Carson Picnic Area to complete the hike.

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