Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Poinsett State Park: Coquina and Scout Trails (Blog Hike #492)

Trails: Coquina and Scout Trails
Hike Location: Poinsett State Park
Geographic Location: southwest of Wedgefield, SC
Length: 3.4 miles
Difficulty: 4/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: September 2014
Overview: A pair of loop hikes that tour the park’s highs and lows.

Directions to the trailhead: From Wedgefield, drive SR 261 south 6.6 miles to signed Poinsett Park Road.  Turn right on Poinsett Park Road, which deadends 2 miles later in the park.  Poinsett Park Rd. is paved but bumpy, so take it easy on your drive in.  Park in the paved cul-de-sac parking area at the road’s end.

The hike: Located at the end of a 2-mile-long dead-end road, rustic and remote Poinsett State Park protects 1000 acres between the High Hills of Santee to the east and the Wateree Swamp to the west.  The park’s location allows plants common to both the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Atlantic coastal plain to flourish here, thus yielding an unusually high amount of botanical diversity.  The park is named for John Roberts Poinsett, an amateur botanist and South Carolina native who popularized the poinsettia as a Christmas flower.
            The area containing Poinsett State Park is sometimes called the mountains of the midlands.  Though these “mountains” are molehills compared to those of the upstate, this land has more relief than any area southeast of Columbia.  In terms of human history, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) worked in these mountains.  The CCC quarried local coquina rock (a type of limestone) and used it to build several trail shelters and the Old Levi Mill Pond.  They also built the trails near Old Levi Mill Pond, some of which will be traversed on this hike.
The park’s rural location means that it sees far fewer visitors than many state parks.  The park has a small campground, which features 24 full-service sites and 26 tent sites.  Four picnic shelters, canoe/boat rentals, and five cabins round out the park’s facilities.
Perhaps the park’s main feature is its extensive network of trails open to hikers and mountain bikers.  The Palmetto Trail, South Carolina’s master path that treads northwest to southeast across the state, passes through the park.  The route described here uses part of the Palmetto Trail as it combines two short loops both of which leave from the main parking lot.  The 1.5 mile Coquina Trail, generally regarded as the park’s best trail, circumnavigates Old Levi Mill Pond, while the 1.9 mile Scout Trail explores the sand hills and some of the park’s primitive facilities.
Start of Coquina Trail
The sign for the Coquina Trail located right beside the parking area marks the end of that loop trail for us.  To find the beginning, angle right through the grassy area to the park office, then continue to the right to the spillway and dam that forms Old Levi Mill Pond.  A stone bridge crosses the spillway, and a wooden post marks the start of the Knot and Coquina Trails.  If you look even further to the right, you will see the ruins of an old grist mill that predated the Revolutionary War.
Grist mill ruins
The trail crosses the dam before swinging right and then left to cross the pond’s main outlet stream on an old but sturdy wooden bridge.  Now heading upstream with the pond to the left, you climb one of the midlands’ “mountains” to an elevation some 50 feet above the pond.  At 0.2 miles, the Knot Trail, used mainly by mountain bikers, exits to the right at a signed trail junction.  Turn left to follow the lime green blazes of the Coquina Trail.
Old Levi Mill Pond
After dipping toward the lake, the trail curves right to climb again.  The Knot Trail rejoins from the right, and after a steady moderate climb, you reach a CCC-era trail shelter at 0.5 miles.  Notice the steep stone steps up to the shelter and the shelter’s excellent brick construction.
CCC-era trail shelter
A little more climbing brings you to the Coquina Trail’s highest point, which at roughly 200 feet of elevation is 100 feet higher than Old Levi Mill Pond.  At 0.7 miles, you pass a post that states you are half way around the Coquina Trail.  This point is very near the park’s southwestern boundary, so do not stray from the trail hoping to get hilltop views (that turn out not to exist anyhow).
Just past the halfway marker, the Knot Trail exits right for good, and shortly thereafter the red-blazed Hilltop Trail does the same.  The Coquina Trail traces the rim of a deep ravine before curving left to descend somewhat steeply toward the pond using two switchbacks (yes, these are bona fide mountain switchbacks!).  If you see some of the Coquina bedrock for which this trail is named, examine it carefully for fossils: this kind of rock is famous for housing fossils of prehistoric aquatic creatures.  The presence of said fossils reminds you that this land was underwater many millennia ago.
After completing the descent, the purple-blazed Laurel Trail exits right.  Turn left to stay on the Coquina Trail as it enters Shank’s Creek’s wetland area at the head of Old Levi Mill Pond.  Wooden boardwalk constructed patchwork style gets you over the wettest areas, but some muddy areas will still need to be navigated without aid.  The sparse canopy lets in plenty of sunlight, so this is a hot, muddy, buggy section of trail in the summer.
Boardwalk through wetland
After crossing the wetland, the trail curves left to begin the Coquina Trail’s final segment.  At first the wetland and then the pond are visible to the left, and the park entrance road can be heard through the trees to the right.  At 1.5 miles, you come out at the grassy area beside the parking lot, thus marking the end of the Coquina Trail.
Heading toward Scout Trail
To start the Scout Trail, walk across the parking lot and look for the brown carsonite posts with arrows that direct you to the trail.  The orange-blazed Scout Trail heads north on a wide sandy two-track old road.  A hill rises to the right, but the initial segment of this trail is nearly level.
Just past 1.6 miles (or 0.1 miles into the Scout Trail), the Scout Trail splits to form its loop.  The faint orange-blazed trail that climbs the hill to the right is easily missed, so this description will continue straight on the old road and use the faint trail as its return route, thus hiking the loop clockwise.  The Palmetto Trail shares this path.  In the direction you are walking now, the Palmetto Trail would eventually take you to Oconee State Park near Walhalla.
Trail to Campbell Pond exits left
2.1 miles into the hike, the Palmetto Trail exits left to head for Campbell Pond and Campbell Creek.  Our hike stays on the wide Scout Trail as it begins a long, gradual climb away from Campbell Creek.  As the trail curves right, the yellow-blazed Whippoorwill Trail crosses the Scout Trail a total of 3 times over a span of 0.3 miles.  The Whippoorwill Trail extends for 5.3 sharply curving miles, and it is used mostly by mountain bikers.
At 2.6 miles, the Scout Trail comes out at a primitive campground, where the old road you have been following ends.  Though orange blazes have been abundant up until now, you may not find one up here where you need it most.  You want to walk near the woods on the right side of the campground and look for an orange blaze on a pine tree at the edge of the woods; this marks where the Scout Trail exits the grassy campground area and reenters the woods.
Scout Trail reenters woods
Now on a narrower less well-maintained track, the trail heads south and, 2.9 miles into the hike, arrives at a collection of picnic shelters.  One shelter in particular is called the Overlook Shelter.  This shelter exhibits a CCC-era stone base and provides a partially obstructed view west toward Wateree Swamp.
View from Overlook Shelter
Just beyond the Overlook Shelter, the trail reenters the forest and begins a moderate descent.  The trail on the ground is rather faint here, so watch for the orange blazes to stay on the trail.  The trail meanders downhill, and at 3.3 miles you intersect the wide sandy two-track to close the loop.  Turn left and walk the final 0.1 miles back to the parking area to complete the hike.

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