Saturday, May 24, 2014

Blackwater Creek Natural Area: Ruskin Freer Loop (Blog Hike #466)

Trails: Blackwater Creek Bike Trail; Ruskin Freer Loop
Hike Location: Blackwater Creek Natural Area
Geographic Location: north side of Lynchburg, VA
Length: 3.1 miles
Difficulty: 3/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: May 2014
Overview: A nice forest and creekside hike partly on an old railroad grade.

Directions to the trailhead: This hike starts at the Ed Page entrance for the Blackwater Creek Bike Trail, which is located on US 501 Business (Langhorne Road) 1.9 miles north of Memorial Avenue.

The hike: For my general comments on Blackwater Creek Natural Area, see my blog entry for the natural area’s Creekside Trail.  The Freer Loop is probably my favorite among the trail offerings at Blackwater Creek.  The Freer Loop passes through some of the nicest forest in Lynchburg, including a wide variety of habitats, and it is far enough away from the bike trail that most joggers and bikers never make it this deep into the woods.  This section of the natural area is named for Dr. Ruskin S. Freer, a noted botany professor at nearby Lynchburg College.
The only downside to the Freer Loop is the lack of direct trailhead access: you must hike other trails to reach it.  The shortest route to the Freer Loop starts at the Thomson Drive trailhead near Lynchburg General Hospital, but a lack of reliable parking on Thomson Drive makes that access a risky proposition.  Thus, I chose to start at the Ed Page Trailhead, which has a large and easily located parking area.
Ed Page Trailhead
Leaving the Ed Page Trailhead, the first 0.6 miles follow the paved Blackwater Creek Bike Trail, which in turn follows a series of abandoned railroad grades.  The blacktop is well-shaded by mature forest on either side of the trail, and some exposed rock cuts make the hiking more interesting.  While bike paths never make for the best hiking, this one ranks above average for its category.
Hiking the bike path
At 0.6 miles, the connector trail to the Freer Loop exits the paved bike path on the right.  This location is marked by a wooden post that bears trailhead and trail names.  Turn sharply right to begin the connector trail, which is appropriately called the Freer Link.
Leaving the blacktop; starting the Freer Link
The single-track dirt trail climbs slightly and curves left to reach the Freer Loop at 0.8 miles.  The Freer Loop is indeed a loop, so you could go either direction here.  The loop is a little easier to hike clockwise, so this description will angle left here and use the trail going right as the return route.  The Freer Loop is marked with occasional red paint blazes, but the treadway is clear and obvious on the ground.
Freer Loop in upland forest
The Freer Loop descends gradually through oak-hickory-beech upland forest before descending more steeply using two switchbacks to reach the creekside forest.  The hillside here is steep, but the switchbacks keep the grade moderate.  Upon reaching Blackwater Creek, the Beaver Trail exits left, as indicated by another wooden post.  Turn right here to continue the Freer Loop.
The next 0.6 miles parallel the creek, which remains in view most of the way on the left.  The nice upland forest is replaced by nice creekside forest, which includes some large sycamore and walnut trees.  For the most part Blackwater Creek is placid and murky, but a couple of areas feature some small ripples created by rocks just underneath the water surface.
Blackwater Creek
At 1.7 miles, you reach a high wooden suspension bridge across Blackwater Creek.  This bridge is used by the Creekside Trail, described elsewhere in this blog.  The Freer Loop stays on the north side of Blackwater Creek and, 200 feet later, reaches another trail intersection.  The Creekside Trail continues straight here, but the Freer Loop turns right.  Another wooden post marks this intersection.
The trail climbs moderately but only for a short distance to leave behind the creekside area and regain the upland.  Some tulip poplar trees join the broadleaf forest here, and a steep drop back to the creek occasionally appears on the right.  At 2.3 miles, you close the Freer Loop.  A left turn will take you back to the bike path, where another left turn will return you to the Ed Page Trailhead, thus completing the hike.

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