Saturday, June 29, 2013

Fort Yargo State Park: Lake Loop Trail (Blog Hike #418)

Trail: Lake Loop Trail
Hike Location: Fort Yargo State Park
Geographic Location: south side of Winder, GA
Length: 6 miles
Difficulty: 4/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: March 2013
Overview: A circumnavigation of Marbury Creek Reservoir.

Directions to the trailhead: From Athens or I-85, take SR 316/US 29 to SR 81; there is a traffic light at this intersection.  Go north on SR 81.  Take SR 81 north 2.5 miles to the main park entrance.  Turn right to enter the park.  Pay the entrance fee, pick up a trail map in the Visitor Center, and then proceed to the mountain bike trailhead and parking.  If this lot is full, you could also park at the tennis courts across the road or at the beach parking area at the end of the main park road.

The hike: For my general comments on Fort Yargo State Park, see the South Loop blog entry.  The Lake Loop Trail described here is the longest and arguably best hiking trail in Fort Yargo State Park.  The lake stays in view for about three-fourths of the hike, and the nice Piedmont forest of maple, sweet gum, loblolly pines, and slash pines keep you constant company.  Note that this trail is also open to mountain bikes, and the direction mountain bikers are allowed to ride alternates daily; it is posted at the trailhead.  I recommend walking the opposite direction as the mountain bikers to best avoid collisions.  I hiked this trail on a Saturday when bikers were instructed to ride counterclockwise, so this trail description will go clockwise.
            One last note before beginning: the park lists the distance for this trail at 7 miles.  However, but my calculations show that this loop is closer to 6 miles in length, and I have used my calculations in the description below.  It took me about 3 hours to complete this loop.
Trailhead: Birdberry Nature Trail
            Start at the Nature Center and head north, picking up the paved handicapped-accessible Birdberry Nature Trail.  A large wooden sign marks this trailhead.  The paved nature trail has a large number of interpretive signs and provides a good introduction to the Piedmont forest at Fort Yargo State Park.  Maple, oak, beech, and hickory are the dominant broadleaf trees, while loblolly and slash pines prevail among the conifers.  Some nice lake views open up to the right, and a sheltered overlook sits on a peninsula in the lake.
            After crossing one of the lake’s main feeder streams on a wide wooden footbridge, the Lake Loop Trail turns right to leave the pavement where the Birdberry Trail continues straight to make a short loop.  The Lake Loop Trail is marked with yellow blazes.  The other hiking trails are marked with orange blazes, and the Mountain Bike Trail is marked with blue.  The wide single-track dirt trail leads through bottom-land forest and crosses another shallow muddy-bottomed stream.
            In the middle of a gradual climb away from the lake, the trail crosses the paved access road to Will-A-Way Recreation Area at 0.6 miles.  Will-A-Way Recreation Area is a camp-type facility designed for special needs groups; it is not open to the general public.  Just after passing the 1 mile marker, the trail starts following an ugly sewer right-of-way that serves the Will-A-Way Recreation Area.  Numbered wooden posts with painted yellow tops mark each mile along this hike.           
Mile marker on Lake Loop Trail
            At 1.2 miles, the trail curves left to leave the sewer line and enter a young forest featuring many red cedars.  Soon a green-blazed spur trail exits left and leads out of the park to the Barrow County Recreation Department, and just a few hundred feet later the trail crosses the access road for the Philip H. Grace Group Home, another facility closed to the general public.  The trail next passes the highest point on this hike and begins a gradual descent to the lake.
            Just shy of 2 miles into the hike, the trail passes through the two main state park campgrounds.  Hiking trails are notoriously hard to follow in campgrounds, but the yellow blazes will keep you on course.  The trail exits the campground right beside the lakeshore at a canoe launch area.  The next 0.5 miles cling to the lakeshore and offer some of the best lake views on this hike.  Some sewer covers make unusual but well-sized places to rest and admire the water.           
Marbury Creek Reservoir
            At 2.3 miles, you reach the dam that creates Marbury Creek Reservoir.  The trail climbs to reach the dam and turns right to cross it; this is a hot sunny hike in the summer.  At the south end of the dam, you reach a complicated intersection.  An old gas line clearing heads straight, and the mountain bike trail goes both left and right at a soft angle.  This hike stays on the Lake Loop Trail by turning sharply to the right and taking the path closest to the water.
           
Approaching the dam
            The trail follows the curvature of the lakeshore as it curves left and passes several benches.  Some small but narrow steephead ravines can be seen to the left.  Just past the 3-mile marker, the trail curves more sharply left and rises away from the lake only to return again a few hundred yards later.
           
Steephead ravines
            Near 3.4 miles, the trail enters the sunny gasline clearing and reaches another intersection with the mountain bike trail.  Turn right twice to stay on the Lake Loop Trail.  Now heading northwest, the trail passes under two power lines with the lake in view to the right.  This part of forest is shrubby with only a few areas of tall pines.
            Just shy of 4 miles, you reach the south end of a wooden bridge that crosses a narrow section of Marbury Creek Reservoir.  The Old Fort Trail (also blazed in yellow) exits left here, but our trail turns right to cross the long wooden bridge.  On the warm Saturday afternoon when I hiked this trail, many anglers had stationed themselves on this bridge in hopes of getting a bite.  At the north side of this bridge, you reach a large boat ramp parking area.  This part of the park is sometimes called Area B.
Bridge across Marbury Creek Reservoir
            The trail turns right to exit the parking area.  The remainder of the hike follows the more developed north bank of Marbury Creek Reservoir, so expect plenty of company on this section of trail.  Soon you pass mile post 5 as the mountain bike trail comes within sight on the left.  At 4.7 miles, you reach the main picnic area as the trail briefly joins the picnic area access road to top a small hill.  At 4.9 miles, the trail turns right to leave the road and rejoin single-track dirt trail.
Trail exits picnic area road
            After dipping to cross a small creek on a wooden bridge, you reach a trail fork.  The trail going straight stays close to the lake, while the trail heading left takes a short-cut over a ridge.  The choice is yours: both trails sport yellow blazes, and the two trails come back together near the fishing area.  I recommend taking the trail that continues straight because it stays closer to the lake and is hiker-only.
            The trail makes a sweeping left turn as it passes first the beach area on the right, then the disc golf course on the left, and finally the main fishing area on the right.  After walking through the parking lot for the fishing area, the short-cut trail enters from the left.  Quickly you find yourself in an area called the Rock Garden where a large collection of small boulders sits beside the trail.  The treadway itself, however, remains clear and easy to walk on.
            At 5.8 miles, you exit the woods and reach old Fort Yargo, a collection of wooden structures that lies a couple hundred feet to the left of the trail.  When I came here on a warm Saturday afternoon, costumed interpreters were showing families around the structures.  The old fort makes a great opportunity to add an historical component to this hike.           
Historic Fort Yargo
            Past the fort, you quickly arrive at the main park road where the trail turns right and crosses an arm of the lake on the park road bridge.  You might be able to spot some waterfowl in the shallow reedy waters to the left.  On the north side of the bridge, the trail reenters the woods on the right/east side of the road.  A short, gradual uphill climb returns you to the mountain bike trailhead parking lot to complete the hike.

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