Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Mistletoe State Park: Rock Dam Trail (Blog Hike #227)

Trails: Canyon Loop, Cliatt Creek, and Rock Dam Trails
Hike Location: Mistletoe State Park
Geographic Location: north of ThomsonGA (33.64327, -82.38517)
Length: 5.9 miles
Difficulty: 8/10 (Moderate/Difficult)
Last Hiked: November 2007; some pics taken November 2015
Overview: A backcountry hike with many steep ravines and several shorter options.
Park Information: https://gastateparks.org/Mistletoe
Hike Route Map: https://www.mappedometer.com/?maproute=721519
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: In eastern Georgia, take I-20 to SR 150 (exit 175).  Exit and go north on SR 150.  Take SR 150 north 8 miles to Mistletoe Rd. and turn left on Mistletoe Rd.  Follow Mistletoe Rd. 3 miles to the park entrance; continue straight to enter the park.  At the first intersection inside the park, turn left, heading for the nature center and park office.  Park in the blacktop parking lot in front of the nature center and park office.

The hike: Located some 25 miles northwest of Augusta, Mistletoe State Park is the southernmost in a string of parks located on the west bank of Clarks Hill Lake.  Like the other parks, Mistletoe offers a campground, several cabins, and some boat ramps from which one can access the lake.  However, Mistletoe State Park offers one thing that none of the other parks along Clarks Hill Lake offer: a well-developed system of hiking trails.
            The 1920 acres that comprise the park consist almost entirely of recovering farmland.  Once a productive agricultural area, by the 1930’s the land had become depleted of nutrients due to centuries of poor farming practice.  The scars from these practices can still be seen in the deep canyons that have been eroded into the clay soil.  The park’s name comes not from cultivated plants but from the large collection of mistletoe that used to grow in the oak trees in this area.
            The 15 miles of hiking trails that allow access to all major points of interest in the park are a real treat for hikers.  While most of these trails connect various points in the developed portion of the park, a wonderful backcountry experience can be had by hiking the 5.25 mile Rock Dam Trail.  One note of caution about this trail: the Rock Dam Trail requires 4 creek crossings, none of which are bridged.  While these crossings are fordable most of the year, you will have better luck keeping your feet dry during the dryer months (such as December!).
Trailhead: Canyon Loop Trail
            Pick up a nice and colorful hiking trail map at the park office.  While the Rock Dam Trail is the featured part of this hike, you may as well see some other interesting features on your way to that trail.  This description begins with the Canyon Loop Trail, with leaves the rear of the park office and enters the forest.  This trail is a short, easy 0.4 mile trail manageable by almost anyone.  The surface of the trail is springy mulch, and the sides of the trail feature rubbery logs probably made from recycled tires.
            After only 0.2 miles, the canyon for which this trail is named comes into view on the left.  At first the nearly vertical canyon is only about 10 feet deep, but in another 250 feet the canyon becomes much larger and deeper.  A waterfall is formed by the creek’s entrance into this larger canyon, and a wooden overlook platform provides the hiker with a good view.
Overlook of canyon
            Just past the overlook, the Canyon Loop Trail ends, and the white-blazed Cliatt Creek Trail goes straight and left.  Continue straight to begin the Cliatt Creek Trail.  The trail climbs gradually, crosses the main park road, and then begins a short but steep descent with the staff residence visible uphill to the right.  The trail levels out as it begins paralleling a small tributary of Cliatt Creek, heading downstream.  Lettered posts correspond to a self-guiding brochure, and several interpretive signs aid those without a brochure.
            At 0.9 miles, the trail reaches the bank of Cliatt Creek, at which point it turns 90 degrees to the right to begin following the creek upstream.  In another 300 feet, you reach the beginning of the Rock Dam Trail, which exits to the left while the Cliatt Creek Trail continues straight.  Turn left to begin the Rock Dam Trail.
            Immediately the hiker is confronted with the first of four creek crossings, this one of Cliatt Creek.  During times of normal water levels the water is around 6 inches deep.  When I hiked this trail on the day after Thanksgiving, the water was only about 1 inch deep.  If the water is more than knee-deep, do not attempt to cross: enjoy the Cliatt Creek Trail on this day and save the Rock Dam Trail for another.
Crossing Cliatt Creek
            Across the creek, the trail curves left and begins following Cliatt Creek downstream with the creek on the left and the hillside rising to your right.  Soon the trail begins climbing the hillside at a moderate to steep grade.  Chunks of white granite rock stick out of the trail and make footing more challenging.  The trail curves right as it assumes a level contour, clinging to the hillside as many of the trails do in the mountains.  During times of normal water levels, the backwaters of Clarks Hill Lake are visible downhill to the left.
Backwaters of Clarks Hill Lake
            With the highest point in the park uphill to your right, the trail descends moderately to reach a flattish area about 30 feet above the normal lake level.  At 1.9 miles, the trail drops to cross the first of several shallow but very steep ravines.  Crossing the creek at the bottom of these ravines is never difficult, but the nearly vertical descents and ascents required to reach these creeks confirm this trail’s backcountry feel.
            1.7 miles into the hike, the trail reaches the lower terminus of the Return Loop Trail which exits uphill and to the right along an old road.  If a shorter hike was desired, you could use the Return Loop Trail to create a 4.8 mile hike that leaves out the eastern portion of the Rock Dam Trail.  To hike the full Rock Dam Trail, continue straight and follow the blue blazes.  The light traffic this trail receives causes the trail to become somewhat faint at times, but watching for the abundant blue paint blazes ensures that you will not get lost.
Hiking above Clarks Hill Lake
            After passing through a particularly steep ravine, the trail climbs moderately to reach an open area where a number of trees have recently been cut down.  The trees make for nice stumps on which to sit and rest.  The trail next curves to the right and begins its descent toward Bohler Creek and the second unbridged creek crossing.  This crossing is very similar to the first one and should not pose a problem unless the first one did.
            After rising from the creekbed, the trail does an S-curve before beginning to parallel the creek, heading downstream toward the lake.  Before the lake is reached, the trail curves right and begins climbing along a side ravine, at first gently, and then more steeply as the hillside is tackled directly.  At the top of this steep section, Split Rock, so-named for a large crack that runs perpendicular to the trail, lies to the left of the trail.  This landmark marks the midpoint of the hike.
            Past the rock, the trail soon reaches the top of the hill and enters a sunny area with no large trees.  This section of forest lies near the eastern park boundary, and ATV’s can be heard through the trees to your left.  The trail reenters the mixed pine/hardwood forest and begins descending back toward Bohler Creek.  At 4.4 miles, the trail reaches the creek and curves right to begin paralleling the creek downstream.
Rock dam
            In another 300 feet, the hiker reaches the stone formation for which this trail is named.  A single large boulder spans the entire creek, causing water to back up into a pool several feet deep behind the rock.  Water spills over a couple of low areas creating a nice 4-foot waterfall.  During times of low water and dry rock, you can walk across the creek on the dam and avoid getting your feet wet.  If the rocks are damp or covered in water, they will be slippery, and such a crossing should not be attempted.  In this case, your best bet is to cross below the dam, wading through about 6 inches of water.  A picnic table on the other side begs you to rest and dry your feet.
            Some wild trails lead up and down Bohler Creek, but the Rock Dam Trail continues between the dam and picnic table and heads away from the creek; watch for the blue blazes.  After staying in the creek’s floodplain for about 400 feet, you reach a double blaze where the trail turns right to head up a ravine.  Double blazes (two identical blazes on a single tree) are used to mark turns that would be otherwise easy to miss, and watching for them can save you unexpected detours.
            This section of the trail leads up the floor of a very steep and narrow ravine.  At several points you could reach out your arms and simultaneously touch both dirt walls of the ravine, which tower 10-15 feet high.  The floor of the ravine might turn into a stream during times of high water, so watch your step.  This unique section of trail breaks up the monotony of a simple forested trail.
Hiking on an old road
            After 300 feet in the ravine, the trail climbs steeply to leave the ravine, then continues to climb more gently.  At 4.6 miles, the trail joins what appears to be an old driveway; thick groves of pines line either side.  In another 400 feet, the trail turns right to begin following an old road gradually downhill.  Watch for the double blaze to mark this turn.
            The trail follows the wide two-track dirt road for about 500 feet before arriving at the upper terminus of the Return Loop Trail.  Continuing straight on the Return Loop Trail would return you to the outward portion of the loop, hence the name.  To “return” to the trailhead, turn left and continue along the blue-blazed Rock Dam Trail.  A stand of the mistletoe oaks mentioned in the introduction grow in this area.
            The trail heads gently downhill through predominately pine forest.  At 4.8 miles, a short 20-foot section of trail leads directly across a granite outcrop.  Although surrounded by forest, this section of trail is similar to that found at Stone Mountain and could become slippery when wet.
Hiking on bare granite
            At 5.2 miles, the trail comes to the final creek crossing.  Unfortunately, this one could also be the most difficult.  If you cross where the blazes “cross,” the water is around a foot deep during normal water levels, but if you go upstream about 30 feet, the water is shallower, and upon my visit, a log could be used to keep your feet almost completely dry.
            Across the creek, only a short distance remains to reach the Cliatt Creek Trail, the end of the Rock Dam Trail.  For the shortest route back to the trailhead, turn left on the Cliatt Creek Trail.  The trail tackles the hill directly and climbs moderately away from the creek.  As you climb, the trees become smaller and understory more dense.  At 5.8 miles, the trail crosses the park entrance road just inside the park gate.  The last 0.1 mile of trail leads through a small corner of forest pinched between the park roads and the park boundary.  After curving to the right, the trail comes out at an information board across the park road from the nature center, thus completing the hike.

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