Friday, March 28, 2014

Carolina Sandhills NWR: Woodland Pond and Longleaf Pine Trails (Blog Hike #461)

Trails: Woodland Pond and Longleaf Pine Trails
Hike Location: Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge
Geographic Location: northeast of McBee, SC
Length: 1.3 miles
Difficulty: 1/10 (Easy)
Last Hiked: March 2014
Overview: A pair of short nature trails offering a good introduction to sandhill habitats.

Directions to the trailhead: From the intersection of US 1 and SR 151 in McBee, drive US 1 north 3.5 miles to the signed refuge entrance on the left.  Turn left to enter the refuge.  Take the refuge’s Wildlife Drive 1.1 miles to a sandy parking area on the left that you reach immediately after passing Pool A.  Park here. 

The hike: For my general comments on Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge, see the previous hike.  This hike explores four of the sandhills’ major habitats: freshwater pond, freshwater stream, loblolly pine, and longleaf pine.  Due to its short length, this hike provides a good sandhills introduction before tackling one of the area’s more substantial trails.
Trailhead: Woodland Pond Trail
            The Woodland Pond Trail leaves the rear of the parking area at an information kiosk.  A metal dispenser at the trailhead may contain some trail guides.  The Woodland Pond Trail is marked with white paint blazes, and unlike some other trails in the refuge, you may need the blazes here: this path can be hard to find on the ground at times.
            At 0.1 miles, the trail curves left and crosses one of Pool A’s feeder streams on a nice metal bridge with plastic-plank decking.  Notice how the clarity of the water allows you to clearly see the sandy stream bottom.  For the next 0.4 miles the trail stays near the boundary between brushy pondside habitat on the left and dry loblolly pine habitat on the right.  Despite the trail’s name, Pool A comes into view only occasionally due to the dense understory.
Pool A
            The trail increases its distance from the pond and crosses a couple more nice bridges including a long one at 0.7 miles.  After crossing an old sandy road, the trail ends on the west shoulder of Wildlife Drive at 0.9 miles.  You could walk back up the road to your car now, but directly across the road lies the 0.25 mile Longleaf Pine Trail.  Considering you are already at the trailhead, why not take 10 minutes and add the Longleaf Pine Trail to your resume?
The Mathprofhiker's shadow on Longleaf Pine Trail
            Starting at another information kiosk, the Longleaf Pine Trail is a short interpretive loop through the refuge’s longleaf pine with wiregrass understory habitat.  Notice how these longleaf pine trees differ from the loblolly pines you saw near the pond.  Interpretive signs give information about the flora and fauna of the longleaf pine/wiregrass habitat.  The trail completes its loop as an old logging road comes into view downhill to the right, and you soon arrive back at the Longleaf Pine Trail trailhead.  NOW is the time to turn right on the Wildlife Drive and walk back past Pool A to return to your car and complete the hike.


Sunday, March 23, 2014

Carolina Sandhills NWR: Tate's Trail to Pool D vista (Blog Hike #460)

Trail: Tate’s Trail
Hike Location: Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge
Geographic Location: northeast of McBee, SC
Length: 4.5 miles
Difficulty: 4/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: March 2014
Overview: An out-and-back hike through rare longleaf pine forest to a vista overlooking Pool D.

Directions to the trailhead: From the intersection of US 1 and SR 151 in McBee, drive US 1 north 3.5 miles to the signed refuge entrance on the left.  Turn left to enter the refuge.  Drive the refuge’s Wildlife Drive 4.1 miles to the signed turn-off for Martin Lake on the right.  Turn right and drive the narrow gravel Martin Lake access road 0.6 miles to the loop at its end, where you will find the trailhead for Tate’s Trail.

The hike: Like many of the federal lands in the east, 47,850 acre Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge has its roots in the Great Depression.  The sandy nutrient-poor sandhills’ soil made for marginal farmland from the start, but the extreme droughts of the 1930’s combined with poor soil conservation practices left the area a desolate wasteland with little ground cover or wildlife.  In 1939, the federal government purchased the land under the Resettlement Act and placed it under the domain of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
            Work to restore native longleaf pine habitat began quickly, and today the scars from the 1930’s are well on their way to healing.  Longleaf pine forest once covered much of the southeast, but presently the refuge’s longleaf pine replanting comprises one of the region’s largest longleaf pine forests.  Waterfowl, songbirds, amphibians, and reptiles have returned to the area in large numbers.  I came to the refuge in the early afternoon, the worst time of day for wildlife viewing, and I still saw a large number of turtles, songbirds, ducks, and a heron.
            The refuge also has several hiking trails, but most of the trails are less than 1 mile long and therefore make for only short leg-stretcher walks.  The exception is Tate’s Trail, a 3-mile one-way hike with a short loop on its north end.  Tate’s Trail is named for Louis Tate, a long-time refuge employee who lost his life while performing trail maintenance.  Due to time constraints, I hiked only the southern 2.25 miles of the trail, the portion described here.
Martin Lake trailhead for Tate's Trail
            The entrance trail departs the parking area at an information kiosk and heads into the longleaf pine forest with Martin Lake visible through the trees straight ahead.  In less than 0.1 miles, you intersect Tate’s Trail, which goes left and right.  The segment going right deadends at Martin Lake dam in 0.3 miles, so you should turn left.  An observation tower used to stand here, but it was no longer present on my visit.
            The trail dips through a low area that sits right beside the lake before rising to join an old access road.  For the rest of the hike you will be walking on sandy two-track trail usually at an elevation 30-50 feet above lake level.  White paint blazes mark the trail, but the trail is wide and obvious for its entire route.  Wiregrass dominates the understory in the drier areas to the left while dense shrubbery blankets the ground in the lower wetter areas.
Hiking Tate's Trail
            After tracing around a wide ravine, the trail climbs a few wooden steps to cross paved Wildlife Drive at 1.2 miles.  Now on the west side of Wildlife Drive, Martin Lake lies behind you, and the lake to the right is Pool D.  Despite the uninspiring name, I saw logs full of turtles in this pretty pool.
Turtles in Pool D
            The trail increases its distance from Pool D as it heads up and then crosses Poplar Branch on a nice plastic/metal footbridge.  Songbirds like to hide in the dense shrubbery to the right.  The trail weaves around a couple of smaller drainages until, 2.25 miles into the hike, it arrives at a pair of concrete benches that give a broad but partially obscured vista of Pool D.  I chose to turn around here, but Tate’s Trail continues another mile, passing more of the same scenery to reach Pool 12 and then the Lake Bee Recreation Area.  The trail does not loop back to Martin Lake, so unless you arranged a car shuttle at Lake Bee you will have to retrace your steps to complete the hike.
Pool D vista

Friday, March 21, 2014

N. R. Goodale State Park (Blog Hike #459)

Trail: Nature Trail
Hike Location: N. R. Goodale State Park
Geographic Location: northeast of Camden, SC
Length: 1.5 miles
Difficulty: 1/10 (Easy)
Last Hiked: March 2014
Overview: A short lollipop nature trail loop.

Directions to the trailhead: From downtown Camden, drive US 1 north 3.2 miles to Old Stagecoach Road.  Take a soft right on Old Stagecoach Rd.  Drive Old Stagecoach Rd. 2.5 miles to Park Road and turn left on Park Road.  The park entrance is 0.4 ahead on the right.  Turn right to enter the park, pass a nice new picnic shelter with bug-netting, and park in the sandy lot in front of the park office/canoe rental center.

The hike: Known primarily as a canoeing and kayaking destination, N. R. Goodale State Park consists of 743 acres northeast of Camden.  The area boasts a rich history, starting with the Revolutionary War Battle of Camden fought in August 1780 some 5 miles north of town.  The British won a resounding victory that day, as the Patriots took over 900 casualties and had 1000 soldiers captured, thus losing nearly their entire southern force.
            The area also saw action during the Civil War.  During his devastating rampage, Union General Sherman marched his troops on a path through what is today the Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge some 20 miles north of here.  Goodale State Park itself contains a millpond that was active during the Civil War.
            Things are much quieter around Camden these days.  The waters of this area are filtered clear by the sandhills’ sandy soil, so this area’s ponds are some of the clearest bodies of water this side of Florida.  Paddlers come from near and far to paddle their boats through the maze of cypress trees contained in the park’s lake.  For hikers, the park has only one short nature trail, the one described here.  Note that this park is only open seasonally, so check the park’s website to make sure it will be open when you plan to visit.
Nature Trail trailhead
            Either before or after your hike make sure you take the short walk past the park office to the lake’s edge to take in the lake view: this is one of the prettiest lakes in South Carolina.  When you tear yourself away from the lake, the signed Nature Trail trailhead is located a short distance back out the park road.  The trail heads into the loblolly pines on a wide needle-covered treadway that appears to be an old road.
            At 0.2 miles, the trail forks to form its loop.  As directed by a metal marker nailed to a pine tree, I turned right here to leave the old road and hike the loop counterclockwise.  Some numbered posts along this trail indicate the presence of an interpretive guide, but you will have to come during this park’s very short office hours if you hope to obtain one.  See the park’s website for current office hours.
Plank bridge over wet area
The trail assumes a meandering eastward course as it alternates between dense greenery in the wetter areas and open loblolly pine forest in the higher and dryer areas.  A few southern magnolias dot the pine woods to the left.  The wetlands to the right make you think that the lake might come into view any minute, but throughout the entire hike it never does.  Some plank bridges take you over a few small creeks, and overall the going is quite easy.
Hiking toward the uplands
At 0.9 miles, the trail curves left and climbs slightly to leave the lower areas for good.  1.1 miles into the hike, you re-intersect the old road you started this hike on.  As directed by more metal markers, angle left on the old road.  In another 0.2 miles you close the loop, and 0.2 miles after that you arrive back at the trailhead to complete the hike.  Make sure you go down and view the lake before you leave if you did not do so before the hike.
Park lake

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Stone Mountain Park: Walk-Up and Cherokee Trails (Blog Hike #458)

Trails: Walk-Up and Cherokee Trails
Hike Location: Stone Mountain Park
Geographic Location: Stone Mountain, GA
Length: 6.7 miles
Difficulty: 10/10 (Difficult)
Last Hiked: March 2014
Overview: A long hike, steep in spots, first to the summit and then around the base of Stone Mountain.

Directions to the trailhead: From I-285 on the east side of Atlanta, drive US 78 east 8 miles to the Stone Mountain Park exit (exit 8).  Exit and pay the admission fee to enter the park.  After entering the park, turn right on Robert E. Lee Boulevard, the main road around Stone Mountain.  Take Robert E. Lee Blvd. 1 mile to the parking area for Confederate Hall on the left.  Park here; the Walk-Up Trail starts behind Confederate Hall.

The hike: Of Georgia’s many natural icons, none are quite so iconic as Stone Mountain.  The granite monolith, located less than 20 miles from downtown Atlanta, rises over 800 feet above the surrounding area.  The mountain greets travelers along I-85 and US 78 north and east of Atlanta with a hearty, “You’re in Georgia now.”  In fact, the park is owned and operated by the State of Georgia.
            Most hiking guides shun Stone Mountain as a hiking destination due to its theme park atmosphere complete with rides, a high admission fee, and a Disney World-style entrance gate.  True, the park leaves much to be desired as a nature park, but there is no better way to see Stone Mountain than on foot.  (You could ride the tram to the top, but where’s the fun in that?)  The hike described here lets you see the mountain from every angle by starting with a steep climb to the mountain’s summit and then engaging in a hillier-than-you-might-expect journey around the mountain’s base.  I completed this hike on a warm spring day, and my legs were completely spent by day’s end.
Trailhead: Walk-Up Trail
            From the back of Confederate Hall, walk east to cross some railroad tracks and reach the signed trailhead.  These railroad tracks are only used by the park’s scenic railroad, but you should look and listen carefully for trains nonetheless.  You can probably find this trailhead by simply following the crowd: despite its difficulty, the Walk-Up Trail is the most popular trail in the heavily-used suburban park.
Immediately the trail heads onto the bare granite and begins climbing.  At only 0.1 miles, you pass the flag plaza bearing American, Georgia state, and Confederate flags on the right.  Soon you reach the first big rock step, a reminder of this area’s history as a quarry.  Look for drill marks in the stone.
The trail continues climbing as it goes back and forth between sunny open rock and stands of pine trees.  At 0.3 miles, you cross the Cherokee Trail, which goes right and left.  This hike will eventually use the Cherokee Trail going right, but for now press onward and upward on the Walk-Up Trail.
Halfway House
            The trail briefly follows the power line corridor that serves the Top of the Mountain Building at Stone Mountain’s summit.  At 0.6 miles, you reach the Halfway House, a shelter with several picnic tables.  The “Halfway House” is a bit of a misnomer: it is located nearly two-thirds of the way up the mountain in terms of distance or elevation.  However, the steepest areas are still to come, so I would call it even.
            Just past the Halfway House, the Walk-Up Trail exits the last pine grove and heads onto the sunny bare granite for good.  Make sure you follow the yellow dashed line marking the Walk-Up Trail and not the solid white line that marks the vehicle Safety Road.  The grade intensifies, and some metal railings have been installed to help hikers over the steepest areas.  On the bright side, views start to open up to the right and left.
Metal railings along Walk-Up Trail
            1 mile into the hike, you reach the bare-rock summit of Stone Mountain.  Three distinct clusters of tall buildings can be seen to the west: Midtown Atlanta lies to the left, Buckhead in the center, and Sandy Springs off to the right.  There is no telling what else you might see: birds in mid-flight, a jet flying below you, trains moving slowly along a railroad track.  Just be aware you will not be enjoying these sights alone: in addition to the traffic you walked up with, you will have to contend with people who rode the tram up.
Stone Mountain summit marker
Atlanta skyline, as seen from Stone Mountain
            There is only one trail to the summit, so after you admire the views you will have to head back down the way you came up.  Retrace your steps 0.7 miles to the Cherokee Trail (NOT all of the way back down to Confederate Hall), and then turn left to begin your trip around the mountain’s base.  Going downhill, the Cherokee Trail intersection is reached about 100 yards after passing Emergency Callbox #4.  There is also a stone marker and a white paint blaze on a pine tree to mark this intersection.
Turning onto the Cherokee Trail
            When you turn onto the Cherokee Trail, you leave the crowds behind and begin a more natural hiking experience.  The rock under the Walk-Up Trail has been scrubbed near-white by the passage of millions of feet, but the grey and pink hues in the rock become apparent on this lesser-trodden portion of the granite.  After crossing the Safety Road for the last time, the trail angles down across the bare rock guided by white blazes painted on the rock.  Be sure to wear shoes with good tread for this section of the hike, and I would not come this way if the rock was wet.
Cherokee Trail crossing bare rock
            At 2.2 miles, you reach the bottom of the mountain and leave the bare rock for a more traditional dirt treadway.  After crossing the railroad track for the second of four times, you reach a bench located near a reconstructed chimney.  Note that an orange-blazed trail that exits right here gives you your last chance to short-cut this hike before going around the mountain.
            The white-blazed Cherokee Trail descends gradually as it heads southeast through some nice broadleaf forest.  Yellow trout lilies carpeted the forest floor on the mid-March afternoon that I hiked this trail.  2.7 miles into the hike, you cross Robert E. Lee Boulevard and pass around the children’s playground.  Next you cross the dam that creates Howell Lake, and views of the lake open up to the right before the trail turns sharply left at the south end of the dam.
            For the next 0.8 miles the trail assumes a rolling course with lots of up-and-down as it traces the south shore of Venable Lake.  Views of Stone Mountain across the lake open up sporadically to the left.  At 3.3 miles, you pass a waterfall on the right that glistens in the afternoon sun.
Stone Mountain behind Venable Lake
            3.6 miles into the hike, the trail curves left to cross a footbridge and then the dam that forms Venable Lake.  Note that the orange-blazed trail that continues straight here leads to the Evergreen Conference Center.  After crossing the dam, the trail turns right to begin following the rockier north/west shore of Stone Mountain Lake.  I spotted several waterfowl including a heron and a mallard along this section of trail.  Also, some rock outcrops provide excellent views of the lake.
            At 4.6 miles, you pass a covered bridge that has been moved to this site from Athens, GA.  This bridge still carries vehicles to and from Indian Island on the far side, so watch for cars as you cross the road near this bridge.  The trail now hugs very close to the lake shore to soon arrive at the park’s grist mill.  Like the bridge, this grist mill was moved to this site from elsewhere, Ellijay, GA in this case.  The mill no longer operates, but it occupies a scenic spot beside the lake.
Grist mill
            Contrary to your intuition, the trail crosses the wooden bridge to the mill and then begins following the mill’s stone race.  Just shy of 5 miles, you cross Robert E. Lee Blvd. for the second and final time.  For the next 0.6 miles the trail stays near a small stream as it heads for the developed area of the park.  After crossing the railroad track for a third time, you may see the Skyride tram whiz overhead.
            The trail passes near a maintenance area and comes out at the water feature in front of the Confederate Memorial Carving, a work of art on Stone Mountain’s nearly vertical north face.  Originally started by Gutzon Borglum of Mount Rushmore fame, the carving took more than 45 years and 4 sculptors to complete.  The carving features Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis on horseback; it is the largest bas relief sculpture in the world.  Photographing the carving is difficult on a sunny day because the sunlight coming over the top of the mountain makes for challenging lighting conditions.

Confederate Memorial Carving
            Past the sculpture, the wide dirt trail heads back into the woods.  After undulating somewhat, the trail climbs moderately to reenter the bare granite.  At 6.4 miles, just when the trail starts to climb in earnest, turn right on the orange-blazed connector trail to Confederate Hall, this hike’s final segment.  A little more rock treading returns you to the Walk-Up trailhead, thus completing the hike.