Thursday, June 26, 2014

Pipestem Resort State Park: Dogwood Trail (Blog Hike #473)

Trail: Dogwood Trail
Hike Location: Pipestem Resort State Park
Geographic Location: northeast of Princeton, WV
Length: 0.7 miles
Difficulty: 3/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: June 2014
Overview: A short after-dinner nature trail.

Directions to the trailhead: From I-77, take exit 14 and follow signs to SR 20.  Turn left on SR 20 and drive north 9.3 miles to the park entrance.  Turn left to enter the park.  Drive the main park road 1.6 miles to the parking area for the Nature Center on the left.  Park here; the trail starts behind the Nature Center.

The hike: Consisting of 4050 acres in and around the Bluestone River gorge in southern West Virginia, Pipestem Resort State Park is one of the crown jewels of West Virginia’s state park system.  The park’s name comes from the locally common meadowsweet plant, the hollow stem of which was historically used to make tobacco and other pipes.  Perhaps the park’s most famous feature is its aerial tramway, which takes visitors down 1100 feet to the bottom of the gorge.
            The park has 2 lodges: Mountain Creek Lodge and McKeever Lodge.  Mountain Creek Lodge sits in the gorge next to the river; it is accessible only by trail or the tramway.  McKeever Lodge sits on the canyon rim and offers several gorge view rooms, one of which housed me for two nights.  An 82-site campground and 26 cabins round out the park’s lodging options.  In terms of other amenities, the park boasts two golf courses, a regulation course and a short par-3 course, tennis courts, picnic shelters, a recreation center featuring disc golf among other things, 20 hiking trails, and the Nature Center.
My long hike at Pipestem is described in the next blog entry, but the night before my long hike I chose to hike the short Dogwood Trail described here.  The Nature Center, where this hike begins, is only open from 12:30 to 4:30, but it has an excellent bird-viewing window.  I sat in a rocking chair beside the window for about 30 minutes and saw several goldfinches, several house finches, a woodpecker, a mourning dove, and some titmice among other birds.
Dogwood Trail trailhead (low-res)
            From the grassy area behind the Nature Center, pick up the Dogwood Trail as it dips across a small meadow and heads into the woods on the far side.  Some frogs were croaking up a tune in the small pond to the left of the trail as I walked past.  After climbing slightly, you cross the much wider horse trail.  Continue straight to stay on the blue-blazed Dogwood Trail.
            The trail continues climbing on a gradual grade and comes out beside the main park road.  Rather than crossing the road, the trail stays about 10 feet below road level on the west side of the road, as directed by trail signs.  Daisies grow on the roadside bank in season.
Daisies beside the park road
            At 0.25 miles, the trail curves left to follow an old dirt road as it descends away from the main park road.  2 minutes later, another sign directs you to turn left and leave the old road.  The balance of the trail climbs and descends repeatedly.  At 0.45 miles, a particularly steep climb and descent makes you wonder if a masochist built this trail.  The descent takes you beside the bottom of some low rock outcrops, thus easing your fears.
Hiking the Dogwood Trail
            You pass the other side of the frog pond as you approach the end of the loop.  At 0.6 miles, the County Line Trail and horse trail enter from the right.  100 feet later, turn right to enter the grassy area behind the Nature Center, thus closing the loop.  Stop in the Nature Center for more bird watching if it is open, or browse the pioneer exhibits throughout the grassy area before returning to your car to complete the hike.


Sunday, June 22, 2014

Bluestone State Park: Overlook/Big Pine/River View Loop (Blog Hike #472)

Trails: Overlook, Big Pine, and River View Trails
Hike Location: Bluestone State Park
Geographic Location: south of Hinton, WV
Length: 1.9 miles
Difficulty: 7/10 (Moderate/Difficult)
Last Hiked: June 2014
Overview: An occasionally steep hike on primitive trail featuring an overlook of Bluestone Lake.
Park Information: http://www.bluestonesp.com/

Directions to the trailhead: From I-64, take exit 139 to SR 20 and go south on SR 20.  Drive SR 20 to the town of Hinton, then continue on SR 20 another 5.3 miles to Bluestone Park Road, which is reached just before crossing Bluestone River.  Turn right to enter the park.  Drive past the park office to the tent camping area, which is located on the left just after passing the main campground entrance.  Park in the tent camping area, taking care not to block any of the camp sites.  From I-77, take exit 14 and follow signs to SR 20.  Turn left on SR 20 and drive north 18.2 miles to the park entrance on the left.  Follow the remainder of the directions above.

The hike: Often overlooked in favor of its bigger and better-amenitied brother Pipestem Resort State Park just 10 miles to the south, cozy Bluestone State Park protects 2157 acres of hilly terrain on the north shore of Bluestone Lake.  If you drove down on SR 20 from Hinton, you passed the modern-looking concrete dam that creates this lake on your way in.  A flood-control dam authorized in 1935 by President Roosevelt via executive order, Bluestone Dam was completed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1949; the park opened in 1950.  The lake and park get their names from the blue/gray limestone outcrops that line the river upstream.
In addition to boating and fishing opportunities in the lake, the park features 26 cabins, 2 developed camping areas, a tent camping area, and some picnic areas.  For hikers, Bluestone State Park offers 7 trails, none of which form loops if hiked by themselves.  However, there are several ways to combine the park’s trails to form nice dayhiking loops.  The best loop option is the one described here: it features some of the park’s best trails and minimizes the amount of road walking required.
Trailhead: Overlook Trail
            Start by walking back out to the park road.  To get the longest road walk out of the way first, turn right and walk east on the road’s shoulder.  You are looking for the signed trailhead for the Overlook Trail, which sits on the left side of the road 1000 feet ahead.  The Overlook Trail climbs the steep hillside in spits and spurts using several switchbacks.  The trail is occasionally hard to see on the ground, but red plastic squares and some older red paint blazes mark the way.
            At 0.6 miles, you reach the ridge crest and an intersection with the Big Pine Trail.  This hike will eventually turn left here to continue climbing on the Big Pine Trail, but for now turn right to head for the lake overlook.  The trail undulates slightly over and around some rock outcrops for just over 0.1 miles to reach the overlook.  A small opening in the trees frames the lake, surrounding hills, and the SR 20 bridge across the lake.  The main park road lies in sight directly below you.  There are no railings at the cliff edge, so take care where you step as you position yourself for the best view.
Bluestone Lake view from overlook
            The Overlook Trail ends at this overlook, so next you must retrace your steps to the intersection with the Big Pine Trail.  Continue straight on the Big Pine Trail, which climbs along the spine of the ridge.  Contrary to the trail’s name, young maple and oak trees make up the majority of the forest on this ridge.
The trail on the ground is hard to discern in places, so you will need to use the green plastic circle blazes or old, faint green paint blazes to guide you.  In general, the trail stays very close to the ridge crest.  I have noticed a trend in West Virginia state parks: the large state resort parks have well-marked and well-trodden trails, while the smaller parks such as this one have primitive trails that can be hard to follow.  Make of the trend what you will, but know what you are getting into with this hike.
Hiking the Big Pine Trail
            Just shy of 1 mile, the trail crosses a power line clearing that offers decent views down either side of the mountain.  One more short, steep climb brings you to the highest elevation on this hike, roughly 325 feet higher than the tent camping area.  Some red paint on trees mark the park boundary; do not mistake them for blazes.
            After descending the west side of the knob into a high saddle, the white-diamond blazed Boundary Trail exits right at 1.2 miles.  The Boundary Trail leads to the park’s cabin area by tracing around the ravine to the right.  Continue straight to stay on the Big Pine Trail.  300 feet later, you reach the junction for the River View Trail, which exits left. (Note: the park map shows the Boundary Trail coming in at the wrong place.)  Turn left on the River View Trail to begin the final leg of the loop.  Note that you could continue straight on the Big Pine Trail to increase the length of this loop, but such a route also increases the length of the road walk at the end.
Junction: Big Pine and River View Trails
            The blue-blazed River View Trail descends on a moderate to steep grade using what appears to be an old roadbed.  At 1.6 miles, the trail leaves the old road by curving right and beginning a series of switchbacks.  Many hikers have cut these switchbacks, but do not yield to this temptation: not only does it make the grade steeper, but cutting switchbacks increases soil erosion. 
At 1.85 miles, you reach the bottom of the switchbacks, where the trail intersects the paved park road.  This intersection marks your exit point from the trail system.  The River View Trail continues straight across the road toward the main campground, but your car sits in the tent camping area, which is located 200 feet down this road to your left.


Thursday, June 12, 2014

Blue Ridge Parkway: Price Lake Trail (Blog Hike #471)

Trail: Price Lake Trail
Hike Location: Blue Ridge Parkway: Julian Price Memorial Park
Geographic Location: south of Boone, NC
Length: 2.3 miles
Difficulty: 3/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: May 2014
Overview: A circumnavigation of Price Lake.

Directions to the trailhead: Price Lake Overlook, the starting point for this hike, is located at mile marker 296.7 on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  This mile marker is located 5 miles south of the Parkway’s intersection with US 321.

The hike: Consisting of 4200 acres near the base of famous Grandfather Mountain, Julian Price Park is the southern-most of several person-named parks between mile markers 240 and 300 on the Blue Ridge Parkway (known as “The Parkway” for short).  The park is named for Julian Price, a former President of Jefferson Standard Life Insurance Company in Greensboro who purchased the land for use by his employees as a retreat and recreational facility.  When Price died unexpectedly in 1946, the insurance company donated the land to the National Park Service for public use via The Parkway.
            Today the park boasts the largest campground on The Parkway, a 300-seat amphitheater (seen on this hike), and several picnic facilities.  Man-made 47-acre Price Lake sits at the center of the park, and the lake offers excellent fishing and canoeing opportunities.  For hikers, the park features several trails, the most popular of which is the Price Lake Trail described here.  The Price Lake Trail forms a loop around the lake, so it gets used by anglers as well as hikers.
Price Lake Trail leaving the parking lot
            There are several places from which you could start the Price Lake Trail.  I chose to start at the Price Lake Overlook, which has a decent-sized parking area on the east side of The Parkway.  I hiked the loop counter-clockwise to get the developed campground section of trail out of the way first.  To accomplish this, pick up the blacktop trail that exits the south side of the parking area with the lake to your left and The Parkway to your right.  The trail descends slightly into a dense area of rhododendron as the blacktop turns to dirt.
            At 0.1 miles, the trail curves left where some unofficial trails exit right and straight.  The Price Lake Trail is not marked, so junctions such as this one can lead to momentary confusion.  Green walls of rhododendron line the trail here and elsewhere.
Rhododendron walls
0.2 miles into the hike, you cross the paved campground road and begin another brief paved section of trail.  Some trail signs direct you through the campground area, as the trail passes some picnic areas, the campground amphitheater, the campground’s Lakeview Overlook with its large adjoining parking area, and finally the canoe rental shack.  At the canoe rental area, walk down the ramp and pick up the gravel trail that continues around the lake.
The developed area is now behind you as the trail curves left to cross Cold Prong and Boone Fork, two of the lake’s three main feeder streams, on wooden footbridges.  A nice boardwalk takes you over a wet area, and more good lake views emerge to the left.  Just shy of 1 mile, you pass a wooden fishing platform that juts out into the lake.
Price Lake view
At 1.2 miles, you reach a confusing trail intersection created by a recent trail re-route.  The old trail goes straight, but it now dead-ends at a small lake inlet.  Thus, you should turn right to follow the new trail, which takes a higher route around the inlet.  If you look carefully on the other side of the inlet, you can see where the overgrown old trail comes in from the left.
1.5 miles into the hike, the trail crosses Laurel Creek, Price Lake’s third major water source, on a new wooden footbridge.  The smaller wrecked old footbridge lies in the wetland to the left, making you thankful for the effort and money that went into building the new one.  The next 0.7 miles parallel Price Lake’s east shore.  For the most part the going is easy, but some rock outcrops will need to be negotiated.  A few trees over here bear the scars of beaver activity.
Crossing a rock outcrop
At 2.2 miles, you emerge from the woods on the east shoulder of The Parkway near the dam that forms Price Lake.  Turn left and walk along the dam, using the sidewalks on the Parkway’s bridge to cross the spillway.  The Price Lake Overlook lies just beyond this bridge, thus marking the end of the hike.


Thursday, June 5, 2014

Shenandoah National Park: Story of the Forest Trail (Blog Hike #470)

Trail: Story of the Forest Trail
Hike Location: Shenandoah National Park, Byrd Visitor Center
Geographic Location: south of Luray, VA
Length: 1.9 miles
Difficulty: 2/10 (Easy)
Last Hiked: May 2014
Overview: A nature trail loop through high elevation forest.

Directions to the trailhead: The Byrd Visitor Center is located on the west side of Skyline Drive at mile marker 51.  This mile marker is located 15 miles north of US 33 or 19 miles south of US 211.

The hike: For my introduction to May hiking in Shenandoah National Park, see the Blackrock Summit loop blog entry.  The Story of the Forest Trail may be the easiest trail of significant distance at Shenandoah.  The trail explores the forest surrounding Big Meadows, a rare fairly flat area located atop the park’s main ridge crest.  The Big Meadows Campground and Lodge lie adjacent to the trail, so it is best to think of this trail as a campground trail.  Nevertheless, the Byrd Visitor Center also lies along this trail, so all visitors can easily access this interesting hike.
Trailhead near Visitor Center
            From the Visitor Center, exit the front door, turn right, and walk along the sidewalk beside the parking lot.  The trail starts across the Visitor Center entrance road at a wooden sign bearing this trail’s name; there is also a white sign for Dark Hollow Falls here.  The Story of the Forest Trail is marked with powder blue paint blazes, but the path on the ground is obvious and easy to follow.
            The trail descends gradually through young high elevation forest as it passes over some wooden waterbars.  At 0.3 miles, you reach the lowest elevation on the hike as you use a stone bridge to cross a small creek.  Immediately after crossing the creek, you reach an intersection.  The trail to Dark Hollow Falls turns right, so you need to turn left to stay on the Story of the Forest Trail.
Crossing creek on stone bridge
            What has thus far been a gradual descent now becomes a gradual ascent beside the gurgling, rocky stream.  At 0.4 miles, you cross the stream again, this time on an ugly concrete/steel bridge.  Just after crossing the stream the second time, your trail crosses the yellow-blazed Skyland/Big Meadows Horse Trail.  Continue straight to stay on the hiker-only Story of the Forest Trail.
            The trail curves left to leave the stream as the gradual ascent continues.  With a name like “Story of the Forest,” I was expecting this trail to have an interpretive brochure or some nice interpretive signs.  Unfortunately, the Visitor Center did not have any brochures when I inquired, and I did not see a single interpretive sign along this trail.  I guess park rangers leave the forest to tell its story on its own.  A large number of songbirds enjoying the brushy high elevation forest were chirping away, but I could not decipher the story they were telling.
Climbing gradually
            At 0.8 miles, you reach the outskirts of the campground picnic area.  As directed by a metal directional band wrapped around a concrete post, you need to turn left here to continue the loop.  A little more gradual to moderate climbing will bring you out at the campground road at 0.9 miles.  Turn left to begin the paved campground access trail that runs adjacent to the road.
            The final 0.9 miles follow the paved campground trail back to the Byrd Visitor Center.  The rock-strewn forest to the left makes for interesting observation, but the cars driving on the road just feet to your right are a constant nuisance.  Upon reaching the Visitor Center at 1.8 miles, turn left and walk across the parking lot to your car to complete the hike.


Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Shenandoah National Park: Frazier Discovery Trail (Blog Hike #469)

Trail: Frazier Discovery Trail
Hike Location: Shenandoah National Park, Loft Mountain Wayside
Geographic Location: northeast of Waynesboro, VA
Length: 1.4 miles
Difficulty: 8/10 (Moderate/Difficult)
Last Hiked: May 2014
Overview: A persistent climb and descent beside interesting rock outcrops to fantastic westward views.

Directions to the trailhead: The Frazier Discovery Trail starts across the road from the Loft Mountain Wayside, which is located on the west side of Skyline Drive at mile marker 79.5.  This mile marker is located 13 miles south of US 33 or 26 miles north of I-64.

The hike: For my introduction to May hiking in Shenandoah National Park, see the Blackrock Summit loop blog entry.  The Frazier Discovery Trail explores the summit of Loft Mountain, which is located north of Loft Mountain Campground and across Skyline Drive from Loft Mountain Wayside.  The trail is named for Floyd Frazier and his family, who lived on this mountain until the 1930’s, just before the park was established.
Don’t be deceived by the trail’s name and length: this hike involves some significant climbing.  The Frazier Discovery Trail gains 450 feet over the first 0.6 miles and loses the same 450 feet over the final 0.6 miles.  Only the 0.1 miles at the top are fairly level.  This trail is far from the hardest hike in Shenandoah National Park, but I needed almost an hour to complete this short loop. 
Trail sign at wayside
            From the north end of the wayside, start at the wooden sign that says “Frazier Discovery Trail” in white letters and cross Skyline Drive using the marked crosswalk.  Pick up the paved campground access trail as it climbs alongside the Loft Mountain Campground access road.  After 200 feet, the dirt Frazier Discovery Trail angles left to leave the pavement at a signed junction.
            After another couple hundred feet, the trail splits to form its loop.  To make the climbing a little easier, this description will turn left here and use the trail coming down from the right as its return route.  A metal box offering trail guides for sale also sits here.  The colorful trail guide is worth the $1 investment: you can stop and read about the area when you get winded on the climb up.
Climbing Loft Mountain
            The powder blue-blazed trail climbs on a persistently moderate to steep grade, meandering its way up the hillside.  At 0.4 miles, you reach a slightly rocky area underneath an overhanging cliff to the left.  Ancient travelers would have used this type of area as shelter during bad weather, but the only other life forms here on my visit were some stunted trees and some lichens.
Overhanging rock cliff
            After passing under the rock shelter, the trail curves left to continue climbing.  At 0.6 miles, you arrive atop a rocky outcrop that provides your first viewpoint.  Broad views open up to the west, featuring the wooded hills of Shenandoah National Park below you in the foreground, the cultivated fields of Shenandoah Valley in the middleground, and the jagged Allegheny Mountains in the background.  This rock outcrop offers the best views on this trail, so take a few minutes to see what you can see.
View west from first viewpoint
            100 feet past the viewpoint, the Frazier Discovery Trail intersects the Appalachian Trail (AT).  As directed by a stamped metal band wrapped around a concrete post, turn right to begin the combined Frazier Discovery and Appalachian Trails.  This section of trail bears both the white blazes of the AT and powder blue blazes of the Frazier Discovery Trail.  After the climb you just endured, the level hiking up here is pure bliss.
            At 0.7 miles, another rocky viewpoint presents itself to the right; the view is almost identical to what you saw earlier.  Just past the second viewpoint, you reach another intersection where the Frazier Discovery Trail turns right to leave the AT.  A double powder blue blaze marks this intersection.  Turn right to continue the Frazier Discovery Trail.
            As the old saying goes, “it’s all downhill from here.”  The trail descends on a gradual grade that gets steeper as you go down.  0.8 miles into the hike, you enter an area called Old Patterson Field.  The Fraziers used this land to feed cattle, and it contains the youngest forest on this hike.  The Pattersons were the people who actually owned the land.  Notice how small the trees are and the dense, shrubby understory.
Hiking through Old Patterson Field
            The trail curves right to exit Old Patterson Field.  At 1.1 miles, the descent steepens as the trail threads its way between a pair of rock outcrops.  Another 0.2 miles of descending closes the loop, and a final 0.1 miles of retracing your steps to the Loft Mountain Wayside completes the hike.