Thursday, September 4, 2014

Holmes Educational State Forest (Blog Hike #487)

Dedication: Blog hikes #487 and 488 are dedicated to my dad, John Prager, who went home to be with the Lord 23 years prior to the day I hiked these trails.

Trails: Demonstration and Wildcat Rock Trails
Hike Location: Holmes Educational State Forest
Geographic Location: southwest of Hendersonville, NC
Length: 3.3 miles
Difficulty: 8/10 (Moderate/Difficult)
Last Hiked: August 2014
Overview: A steep climb followed by a rolling loop through young forest.

Directions to the trailhead: From downtown Hendersonville, drive Church Street south 0.5 miles to Kanuga Road and turn right on Kanuga Rd.  Kanuga Rd. becomes Crab Creek Rd. after leaving town.  Drive Kanuga/Crab Creek Rd. 9.5 miles to the signed state forest entrance on your left.  Turn left and drive the gravel forest road to the parking area and cul de sac at its end.

The hike: Often overlooked in favor of its larger cousin DuPont State Forest immediately to its south, Holmes Educational State Forest protects 235 acres of forest land in various stages of succession.  Unlike the state forests, which are managed for timber production and recreation, North Carolina’s seven educational state forests mainly serve as environmental classrooms.  In fact, park rangers instruct classes in these forests on a regular schedule.  This particular educational state forest was originally known as Holmes State Park when the land was purchased between 1938 and 1942.
            Being overlooked can have its advantages.  When I came here on Labor Day weekend, the parking lots at DuPont State Forest were overflowing with cars, but I only passed one other person on this hike.  Also, while the forest is only open mid-March through Thanksgiving weekend, the large amount of up-and-down on the forest’s longer trails make them good early season preparation for longer, harder mountain treks.
            The forest offers hiking trails of many shapes and sizes.  The Crab Creek Trail and the Soil and Water Trail offer short loops near the picnic shelters and parking lot; they are not used on this hike.  The short Talking Tree Trail is of interest because it features some trees that play recorded messages about the forest when you push buttons attached to their sides.  This hike combines the forest’s two hardest trails, the Demonstration and Wildcat Rock Trails, to explore the forest’s higher elevations.
Trailhead beside parking area
            Finding the start of the Demonstration Trail is a bit of a challenge.  Of the two trail entrances on the south side of the parking area, choose the one on the left.  Walk uphill on a gravel trail with a grassy area to your right.  When you reach the base of the wooden steps that lead to the Forestry Center, do not climb them: the Forestry Center will be the end of our hike.  Instead, turn left on a wide trail that used to be a logging road; this is the Demonstration Trail.
            As its name suggests, the red-blazed Demonstration Trail contains numerous signs (many of them quite old) that provide information about best forestry practices.  Numbers correspond to a trail guide that may be available at a dispenser about 500 feet into the trail.  A sign warns that the Demonstration Trail will take about 2 hours to hike, an accurate estimate based on my experience.
            The trail heads east at a level elevation using the old logging road.  At 0.2 miles, the trail curves right to leave the logging road and begin climbing the steep hillside just before it passes a small spring.  You will gain 400 feet of elevation over the next 0.5 miles, but switchbacks and wooden steps keep the grade manageable.  Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) construction workers in the late 1930’s used this trail daily to access the campground construction site at the top of the mountain.  Can you imagine climbing this hill every day just to go to work?
Starting the climb
            At 0.7 miles, you reach a wooden observation deck that signals the top of the hill.  The view is completely blocked by trees, but some benches beckon you to sit and rest after the hard climb.  Though it was selectively cut in 1969, the cool, mature forest with large tulip poplars dates to the 1930’s.  Unlike state parks, logging is allowed in state forests, and you will soon see its effects as you continue along the trail.
Observation deck
            The trail curves left, passes a wildlife food plot (an area of dense, green shrubbery grazed by deer and other wildlife), and enters an area that was clear-cut in 1969 and 1970.  At this point, it is out with the old stately trees and in with the small trees and dense ground cover.  In particular, Eastern White Pine trees dominate this area.  The trail also becomes a bit narrower with plants, including briars and poison ivy, whisping at your legs.
            0.8 miles into the hike, the Demonstration Trail forks to form its loop.  As directed by a sign, ignore the old logging road that goes straight and angle left to begin walking the loop clockwise.  The trail undulates moderately as it crosses some small drainages on high wooden bridges.
            At 1.1 miles, the blue-blazed and slightly overgrown Short Cut Trail exits to the right.  As its name suggests, you could use this trail to shorten the hike by about 0.5 miles, but this description angles left for the full tour.  A gradual descent on another old logging road will bring you to a small pond.  My approach frightened some small frogs off of logs and into the water, but otherwise the pond seemed quiet and tranquil.
Small pond
            The trail arcs around the pond before leaving the pond area via a moderate climb.  At 1.8 miles, you cross the gravel campground access road.  The gravel road follows the top of the ridge, so next you descend partway into a deep hollow.  More undulations and meanders bring you to the west end of the Short Cut Trail at 2.4 miles.
Wildlife opening
            After skirting the campground area to the right, a sunny wildlife opening comes into view on the left.  The grasses in this area provide food for deer and other wildlife, while the nearby woods offer them protection from predators.  Past the clearing, the trail curves left and then right to reach the upper end of the yellow-blazed Wildcat Rock Trail at 2.8 miles.  You could continue straight to complete the Demonstration Trail loop, but for a shorter and more scenic route back to the parking lot, turn left to begin the Wildcat Rock Trail.
Cliff along Wildcat Rock Trail
            With an elevation change of almost 400 feet in just over 0.3 miles, the Wildcat Rock Trail is the steepest trail in the forest, so be glad you are descending rather than ascending its many steps and switchbacks.  The trail becomes slightly rocky as you descend through some low cliffs, and small waterfalls appear on the right.  At 3.1 miles, the rough Wildcat Rock Trail mercifully ends at a junction with the wide, gravel Talking Tree Trail.  You could go either direction here, but the shorter and easier choice is to angle left.
            A gradual descent brings you to the Forestry Center, an open air wooden structure that contains exhibits about the forest.  After viewing the exhibits, take one of the gravel trails on either side of the grassy clearing to go downhill.  These trails quickly arrive at the parking lot, thus marking the end of the hike.
            Before you leave, there is one other place you should check out.  On the other (north) side of the parking lot is an exhibit area that features some machinery used in forestry.  A helicopter and fire tower take center stage, and interpretive signs help you learn more about this equipment.  This exhibit makes for an educational way to end your visit to Holmes Educational State Forest.

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