Friday, July 4, 2014

Pipestem Resort State Park: River/County Line/Lake Shore Loop (Blog Hike #474)

Trails: River, Canyon View, County Line, Lake View, Lake Shore, and Den Tree Trails
Hike Location: Pipestem Resort State Park
Geographic Location: northeast of Princeton, WV
Length: 7.4 miles
Difficulty: 8/10 (Moderate/Difficult)
Last Hiked: June 2014
Overview: A grand tour of Pipestem Resort State Park featuring Heritage Point and Indian Branch Falls.

Directions to the trailhead: From I-77, take exit 14 and follow signs to SR 20.  Turn left on SR 20 and drive 9.3 miles north on SR 20 to the park entrance.  Turn left to enter the park.  Drive the main park road 3.2 miles to the gravel parking area for the Arboretum on the right.  Park here.  If you reach the T-intersection for the lodge and the golf course, you have driven 0.2 miles too far.

The hike: For my general comments on Pipestem Resort State Park, see the previous hike.  This somewhat long dayhike tours most of the park’s points of interest except the river; a 1.25 mile one-way detour would even let you take in the river.  While no parts of this hike are exceptionally difficult, the last part of the County Line Trail is fairly steep.  Also, there are no easy ways to shortcut this hike: walking back along the park road actually makes the hike longer.  Make sure you pack plenty of water and know what you are getting into before you start out.
River Trail trailhead
            Your journey begins on the River Trail, which departs from a signed trailhead across the main park road from the arboretum.  Walk around a brown vehicle gate and begin a moderate descent on a wide two-track dirt trail.  The trail loses over 200 feet of elevation in the first 0.3 miles as you descend to reach a wide shelf in the Bluestone River gorge.  This shelf, which almost makes the Bluestone River gorge a gorge within a gorge, will contain the trail for the next few miles.
            Where the two-track switches back to the right at the bottom of the hill, continue straight to stay on the orange-blazed River Trail.  For the next mile the trail undulates slightly as it heads southwest with the outer gorge wall nearby on your left.  The park’s second-growth broadleaf forest consists mostly of oak, maple, and tulip poplar trees.  At 1.3 miles, you reach a junction with the Canyon Rim Trail.  We will continue straight on the River Trail later, but to get a view of the inner gorge, turn right here for a 0.3 mile side trip to Heritage Point.
            The Canyon Rim Trail descends moderately through woods and grassy areas as it passes back and forth across a power line clearing.  The sections through the grassy areas are rather narrow.  To make matters worse, some outdated signs point the wrong way.  The final descent to Heritage Point is rather steep, and the small clifftop viewing area has no railings to prevent you from falling into the gorge.  Honestly, there are better gorge views elsewhere in the park, but this view has the distinction of being the only gorge viewpoint located under the rim.  Some rocks make for nice places to rest and enjoy the view.
View from Heritage Point
            Retrace your steps back uphill to the River Trail and turn right to continue your southward journey.  2.1 miles into the hike, you pass under the famous aerial tramway.  Few people ever see the tram from this angle, another distinctive feature of this hike.
Looking up at the tramway
            The trail treads around a couple of shallow ravines, after which the gorge shelf on which you are traveling widens.  At 2.7 miles, you reach the junction with the County Line Trail.  Turn left to begin your journey out of the gorge on the County Line Trail.  This trail gets its name from the fact that it crosses into adjacent Mercer County from Summers County, which contains the majority of the park.
            The next 0.9 miles are an easy cruise on what appears to be an old roadbed.  The trail follows the contour of the land as it heads into the broad and deep ravine of Indian Branch, which falls away to your right.  At 3.6 miles, you reach the short spur trail to Indian Branch Falls.  A small overlook area gives the top/side view of this ledge-type low-water-volume waterfall.  The view is somewhat encumbered by shrubs in the warm months, but the waterfall still makes a nice diversion.
Indian Branch Falls
            Just past the waterfall, the County Line Trail turns left to leave the old road just before you reach a metal vehicle gate.  You may hear vehicles on the gravel road beyond this gate.  The next mile is the most difficult part of the hike, so now is the time to get your mojo on.  The trail climbs and descends a couple of low, steep arms that jut out from the main ridge, which rises to the left.  The ravine gets shallower as you continue along the left (south) side of the ravine.
Climbing on the County Line Trail
            At 4.4 miles, you start the steepest part of the climb.  The creek that has been hiding in the ravine to the right now merges with the trail, forming a deep rut down the middle of the trail.  After a pair of switchbacks, you reach the rim of the ravine and a junction with one of the park’s horse trails.  Turn left to reach an intersection with the Dogwood Trail (described elsewhere in this blog), then turn right to reach the Nature Center.  The Nature Center has some interesting exhibits and a nice bird watching window, but it is only open from 12:30 to 4:30.  I got lucky and arrived here just as the center opened.  Also, the drinking fountain in the Nature Center is the only potable water source on this hike.
            The next leg of this hike is the Lake View Trail.  To get there, walk out the Nature Center access road to the main park road, turn left, and pass a drive-up east-facing overlook.  The signed Lake View Trail trailhead sits on the right side of the road just past the overlook.  The park map shows a trail that goes directly from the Nature Center to this trailhead, thus avoiding the road walk, but this trail had become overgrown and unfindable on my visit.
East-facing park road overlook
Lake View Trail trailhead
            The Lake View Trail descends on another old road with a grassy area visible through the trees to your right.  Unlike some of the park’s other trails, this trail shows signs of heavy horse use.  5.3 miles into the hike, the Lake View Trail turns left to leave the old road.  There is a sign at this turn, but it is not in an obvious place.  I made the mistake of staying on the old road, which I followed for another 0.5 miles downhill to a vehicle gate at the park boundary.  I then paid for my mistake by retracing my steps 0.5 miles back uphill to this intersection.
            About 600 feet later, the trail forks with the signed horse trail taking the higher line to the left and the signed hiking/skiing trail taking the lower line to the right.  Of course, you should choose the option going right.  Although the park has designated this trail as hiker-only, I could tell that a large number of horses still find their way onto this trail.
            At 5.7 miles, the Lake View Trail ends at an intersection with the Lake Shore Trail, which goes right and straight.  Because the Lake Shore Trail circumnavigates Long Branch Lake, you could go either way here.  For the shortest, least developed, and most scenic option, I chose to turn right and hike up the east side of the lake.
Hiking the Lake Shore Trail
The wide blue-blazed dirt trail undulates gently as it dips in and out of ravines.  Ironically given its name, the Lake Shore Trail on this side of the lake always stays at least 30 feet above lake level.  The lake can be seen only through the trees during the leafy months.
            6.3 miles into the hike, the trail curves right and climbs moderately but only for a short distance to tread around a particularly large ravine.  The trail maintains this higher elevation as the concrete dam that forms Long Branch Lake comes into view through the trees to the left.  A single switchback brings the trail down to dam-level and a signed intersection with the Den Tree Trail, which is located in a grassy clearing.  Turn right to begin the Den Tree Trail, the final leg of this hike.
Intersecting the Den Tree Trail
            After wading through some tall grass, you enter the forest and cross Long Branch Creek on a small wooden footbridge.  As hard as it may be to believe, this small stream is indeed the outflow of Long Branch Lake.  The Den Tree Trail is harder to see on the ground than most of this park’s trails, but copious red paint blazes will keep you on course.
            7 miles into the hike, you cross the much wider Law Hollow Trail.  Continue straight on the Den Tree Trail.  The trail first tackles the hillside directly then angles up the hill more gently as the park’s cabins come into view on the hilltop above you to the right and the boat rental area comes into view at the lake beneath you to the left.  Some young pine trees grow near a power line clearing.
After passing under the power line, the trail seems to end as the blacktop trail to the boat rental area comes into view on the left.  Make your way down to the paved trail using whatever route seems most feasible, then continue climbing gradually on the paved trail.  Where the paved trail curves right, turn right on a grassy trail to climb a little more, soon reaching the arboretum.  A left turn and short walk across the mown-grass of the arboretum will return you to the arboretum parking lot and complete the hike.

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