Thursday, June 27, 2013

McDowell Nature Preserve (Blog Hike #376)

Trails: Pine Hollow, Creekside, Sierra, and Chestnut Trails
Hike Location: McDowell Nature Preserve
Geographic Location: west side of CharlotteNC (35.10066, -81.01997)
Length: 3.2 miles
Difficulty: 4/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: May 2012
Overview: A loop hike through a wide variety of forests.
Hike Route Map:
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: On the west side of Charlotte, take I-485 to SR 49 (exit 1).  Exit and go west on SR 49.  Take SR 49 4 miles to the preserve entrance on the right.  Turn right to enter the preserve, then follow signs to the Nature Center.  Park in the large blacktop parking lot just beyond the Nature Center.

The hike: Operated by Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation, McDowell Nature Preserve consists of 1108 acres along Lake Wylie on the west side of Charlotte.  All of the land in the preserve was farmland a few decades ago, but with Charlotte’s expansion, the preserve now sits just off a busy suburban highway.  As Charlotte’s footprint continues to expand, the people of Charlotte will be very happy to have this green space in a few decades.
            The waterfront section of the preserve is highly developed with picnic areas, boat ramps, and fishing piers, but the park has chosen to maintain 90% of the acreage in its natural state.  9 trails totaling 7 miles traverse the natural area and also connect to the developed area, should such a connection be desired.  The route described here avoids the developed areas of the park, providing a nice, quiet, substantial hike through a wide variety of forest.
            Before hitting the trail, take a few minutes and stop in the Nature Center, which contains exhibits on various plants and animals you may see on the trail.  On my visit, the Nature Center featured an exhibit on lizards.  This exhibit proved to be apropos, as reptiles and amphibians seem to be abundant in the preserve.  During my hike, I spotted 5 brown toads, 3 black snakes, 2 brown lizards, and a partridge in a pear tree.  (OK, just kidding about the partridge bit.)
Trailhead behind Visitor Center
            The hike starts on the Pine Hollow Trail, which leaves from the rear of the Nature Center, going straight and left.  Turn left to follow the wide dirt trail as it gradually descends with the Picnic Pavilion park road just through the trees to the left.  The Pine Hollow Trail is blazed with yellow squares, but you will hardly need them because the trail is so easy to follow.  Despite the trail’s name, the largest trees in this forest are beech, maple, and oak.
Four Seasons Trail
            At 0.2 miles, you intersect the paved Four Seasons Trail, where you should turn right.  The Four Seasons Trail is a handicapped-accessible trail that forms a short loop through creekside forest.  The Pine Hollow and Four Seasons trails combine for a short distance until, 0.3 miles into the hike, the Pine Hollow Trail exits the pavement to the right.  Turn softly right to remain on the Pine Hollow Trail.
            At 0.4 miles, you reach an intersection where the Creekside Trail continues straight and the Pine Hollow Trail turns right.  We will eventually continue the Pine Hollow Trail, but to explore the secluded eastern part of the preserve, continue straight to begin the Creekside Trail.  Note that skipping the Creekside Trail would shorten this hike by 1.25 miles.
Creekside Trail splits to form loop
            The Creekside Trail, blazed with blue circles, quickly splits to form its loop.  I chose to hike the loop clockwise by turning left and using the right trail as the return route.  The trail climbs moderately to leave the creekside and pass under some high-voltage powerlines.  The forest east of the powerlines is considerably younger than what you have encountered thus far, and numerous red cedars join the assortment of trees.  Red cedars are among the first trees to take root in reverting farm fields, so their presence always indicates very young forest or very shallow soil.           
Passing under the power lines
            At 0.9 miles, you reach the eastern boundary of the preserve where the trail curves right.  Shopton Road can be heard through the trees to the left, and litter from the road can be seen beside the trail.  Unfortunately, one low area has collected so much litter that it looks somewhat like a trash pit.
            The trail descends gradually back to the creek and, just shy of 1 mile into the hike, reaches an intersection with the Cedar Ridge Trail, which exits left.  The Cedar Ridge Trail is a short loop that begins and ends at the Creekside Trail.  Because the Cedar Ridge Trail takes you closer to the busy road, I turned right to continue on the Creekside Trail.  For the remainder of its distance, the Creekside Trail stays along the creek while crossing it twice using wooden bridges and descending gradually.  I spotted several of the toads, snakes, and lizards mentioned in the introduction on this segment of trail.           
Trail junction along Creekside Trail
            After passing back under the power line and closing the loop, you arrive back at the Pine Hollow Trail.  Turn left to continue the Pine Hollow Trail.  The trail climbs up and over a low ridge before crossing another small stream on a wooden bridge and, 2 miles into the hike, intersecting the Sierra Trail.  A bench here makes for a nice place to rest near the midpoint of this hike.           
            The Nature Center lies just uphill from this point, but to see more of the preserve’s trail system, continue straight on the short Sierra Trail.  Numbered wooden posts indicate the existence of an interpretive brochure for this trail.  The trail curves right and rises moderately to reach an intersection with a connector trail, which exits to the left and heads for the Chestnut Trail.  To explore the area closest to Lake Wylie, turn left to head for the Chestnut Trail.
Crossing the park road
            At 2.2 miles, the connector trail reaches the height of land and crosses the main park road.  Be very careful at this road crossing: many drivers come through here too fast due to the absence of speed bumps, and the trail crossing is not obvious from a driver’s perspective.  On the bright side, an island in the middle of the road breaks the road crossing into two shorter segments.           
Intersection with Chestnut Trail
            At 2.3 miles, you reach a signed T-intersection with the Chestnut Trail, which goes right and left.  For no particular reason, I chose to turn left and hike the loop clockwise.  The small ravine encircled by the Chestnut Trail looks different compared to those you saw earlier in the hike: it sustained a direct hit from a tornado in 2004, knocking down many of the mature trees.  Today a lush, green, leafy understory covers the ground, and few large trees grow here.  That green, leafy understory contains a large amount of poison ivy, some of which grows very close to the trail.  I remember the motto, “anything with leaves of three, let it be.”
            The trail dips and rises abruptly around the head of the ravine, after which a spur trail to the campground exits up some wooden steps to the left.  For the next 0.3 miles the trail gradually descends the south side of the ravine to reach the lowest point along this hike.  At this point, the trail turns right, crosses the ravine’s creek on another wooden footbridge, and begins heading back up the north side of the ravine.  Two connector trails near the footbridge lead a short distance to the developed area of the preserve.
Spur trail to campground exits Chestnut Trail
            The trail ascends at a gradual to moderate rate to close the Chestnut Trail loop at 3 miles.  A wooden post tells you to turn left to head back along the Sierra-Chestnut connector trail toward the Nature Center.  Take extreme care at the road crossing a second time and return to the Sierra Trail at 3.1 miles.  Turn left on the Sierra Trail and head downhill for the final 0.1 miles to return to the Nature Center and complete the hike.

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