Saturday, June 29, 2013

Tugaloo State Park (Blog Hike #414)

Trail: Sassafras Circle Trail
Hike Location: Tugaloo State Park
Geographic Location: northeast of LavoniaGA
Length: 3.6 miles
Difficulty: 4/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: February 2013
Overview: An interesting frontcountry hike with good lake views and wildlife viewing.

Directions to the trailhead: In northeast Georgia, take I-85 to SR 17 (exit 173).  Exit and enter north on SR 17.  In less than 0.2 miles, turn right on Gerrard Road, cross the railroad tracks, then immediately turn right to continue on Gerrard Rd.  Drive Gerrard Rd. its entire length to SR 328 and turn left on SR 328.  Drive SR 328 3.3 miles to the park entrance road on the right.  Turn right on Tugaloo Park Road, enter the park, and park in the blacktop old boat ramp parking lot behind the Visitors Center.

The hike: Formed by the confluence of the Tallulah and Chattooga Rivers some 20 miles northwest of here, the Tugaloo River used to flow southeast as it forms the border between Georgia and South Carolina.  The word “Tugaloo” comes from the Cherokee Indian name for this particular river.  The river’s days of flowing ended with the construction of Hartwell Dam in the 1950’s, and today Tugaloo State Park occupies a hilly peninsula that juts eastward into Lake Hartwell.
            The most popular activities at Tugaloo State Park center around the lake.  The park features a white sand beach area, a 6-lane boat ramp, 20 lakefront cottages, and 105 campsites.  Hikers have two trails to choose from: the 3.6 mile blue-blazed Sassafras Circle Trail and the 0.75 mile red-blazed Muscadine Trail.  This description will focus on the more substantial Sassafras Circle Trail.  Truth be told, 0.3 miles of the Muscadine Trail are also used on the Sassafras Circle Trail, so you could easily hike both in a single journey by making only a short detour.
            The Sassafras Circle Trail starts at a brown carsonite post to the right of the old boat ramp parking area downhill from the Visitors Center.  Information on the post gives the average hiking time as 4 hours, but I completed this loop is roughly half that time.  The trail heads through the grassy picnic area with the lake in full view on your left.  Some southern-style swings provide opportunities to sit and admire the water.           
Trail enters woods
            At the far end of the grassy area, a blue carsonite post marks where the trail enters the woods.  At 0.2 miles, the trail splits to form its loop.  I chose to turn left here and hike the loop clockwise.
            After crossing a small stream, the trail traces around a wide sunny peninsula that appears to contain a canoe launch area.  Notice the cut made into the hillside to create a level trail surface here and think of the labor it took to build this trail.  If rain has fallen recently, look for animal tracks in the soft disturbed soil underfoot.  On my visit I saw several sets of deer tracks in this area, and later in the hike I saw a group of white-tailed deer.
            After passing some wooden steps that exit right up to an old parking area, you enter a confusing area where the blue carsonite posts are needed to keep you on the trail.  The entire Sassafras Circle Trail is well-marked with blue paint blazes and blue carsonite posts, without which parts of this trail would become a real exercise in route-finding.
Lake Hartwell
            Now back in the woods, the trail briefly follows a wide old dirt road before crossing another creek on a wooden footbridge and climbing moderately.  1 mile into the hike, you cross the paved north cottage area entrance road.  With the north cottage area to your left, the trail tops a surprisingly steep hill before dropping to cross the paved north cottage area exit road. 
            The trail drops through two steep ravines, and in between it rises to cross a narrow paved boat ramp access road.  At 1.5 miles, you pass a bench that offers a nice view of Lake Hartwell through the trees.  On my visit, two anglers on a boat a few yards from me were trying their luck in the water.  Also, in this area the Sassafras Loop Trail starts following the much older Crow Tree Nature Trail, as indicated by a wooden sign.  Notice that the trail here is much more worn and easily distinguished from the surrounding ground compared to some sections of trail you hiked earlier.
Wooden footbridge
            1.7 miles into the hike, you reach the campground amphitheater.  Instead of taking the main lighted path to the right out of the amphitheater, stay with the blue blazes as the trail curves right and climbs slightly to reach a blue carsonite post at the shoulder of the northern campground road.  The trail’s designated route from this point is not clear, but the best option is to turn right and walk along the northern campground road back to the main park road.  Ignore a blue blaze to the left of the campground road near the Nature Hut.
            Upon reaching the main park road, cross the road and walk downhill through a grassy area to reach the southern campground loop.  Turn right on this loop, walk up to the next intersection, and then angle left as the trail reenters the woods.  Another blue carsonite post and a blue paint blaze mark this point.
Trail exits campground
            Leaving the campground behind, the trail dips through a steep but shallow ravine and begins a moderate climb toward the highest point on this hike.  An old trail bridge indicates that this section of trail has been rerouted in the recent past.  After crossing the access road for the south cottage area, the trail continues to climb and, 2.4 miles into the hike, reaches an intersection with the red-blazed Muscadine Trail, which goes straight and right.  The two options come back together in 0.3 miles on the right option and 0.4 miles on the straight option, so you could go either way here.  Being the purist that I am, I chose to turn right here to stay with the blue blazes of the Sassafras Circle Trail.
            The trail stays on the high ground for a short distance with some white silos to your right before curving left and descending moderately.  At 2.7 miles, the two arms of the Muscadine Trail come back together.  The Sassafras Circle Trail turns right here while the Muscadine Trail continues straight.  Again, follow the blue blazes to stay on the right trail.           
Intersecting the Muscadine Trail
            The trail descends to cross the beach access road and the beach access trail in quick order before turning right and climbing steeply for a short period of time.  A double blue blaze marks this turn.  After dropping to cross the paved road to the group picnic shelter, the trail crosses a creek on another wooden bridge and ascends again with the primitive camping area on your left.  A new road was being built here on my visit, and this section of trail may be the faintest on the entire loop.
            3.3 miles into the hike, the trail comes out at the primitive campground access road.  You need to turn right here and walk along the seldom-used primitive campground access road back out to the main park road, but there are no trail markings here to indicate such.  Upon reaching the main park road, cross it and reenter the woods where you will once again find the blue blazes.  After a short downhill stint, you close the loop.  A left turn and 0.2 miles of retracing your steps will return you to the Visitors Center and complete the hike.

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