Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Shirley Prager Memorial

This post is a memorial to my mom, Shirley Prager, who went home to be with the Lord on
December 30, 2014 due to complications arising from COPD.

She grew up at the end of a 5-mile dirt road in the foothills of eastern Tennessee.  As a young girl living on a subsistence farm, hiking was a way of life for her.  She would hike to go to school, hike to go to church, hike to go to the store, hike to visit her relatives over the mountain.

As a young woman, she moved to the City of Cincinnati, but the big city never took the country out of her.  She insisted on washing most of our clothes by hand even though we had an automatic washer/dryer.  She built a desk from scratch using nails and wood so that I could do my grade school homework.  She saved pieces of old fabric to sew together to make quilts. 

When I was a young boy, she took me for hikes in the woods behind our house.  We did many of the early hikes in this blog together.  She taught me to value God’s creation in its natural state, to treat animals kindly and respectfully, to never throw away something you can use again, to earn every dollar you spend, and to never spend more than you earn.

As time did to her body what it does to all of us, her ability to hike diminished.  We took our last hike together at Totem Bight State Park in July 2011 on our Alaska cruise, a gift I gave her for her 75th birthday.  Although she could no longer hike, she would ride with me to the trailhead and wait around the trailhead while I hiked.  She preferred a day at a woodland trailhead over a day in our city home.

She won’t be waiting at the trailhead any more.  A true backwoods angel in the flesh during her life, henceforth she will come with me on every trail.  Shirley Ruth Prager, 1936-2014.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Huntington Beach State Park (Blog Hike #501)

Trails: Marsh Boardwalk and Sandpiper Pond Nature Trails
Hike Location: Huntington Beach State Park
Geographic Location: south of Murrells Inlet, SC
Length: 2.9 miles
Difficulty: 3/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: December 2014
Overview: A combination nature hike and beach walk with good bird-viewing opportunities.

Directions to the trailhead: The entrance to Huntington Beach State Park is located 3 miles south of Murrells Inlet on the east side of US 17.  Enter the park and pay the small entrance fee, then drive across a short causeway with wetlands on either side.  Once across the causeway, turn left and drive another 0.1 miles to the Nature Center, which is on your left.  Park in the asphalt parking lot in front of the Nature Center.

The hike: Located less than 15 miles south of world-famous Myrtle Beach, 2500-acre Huntington Beach State Park was the second beach state park I visited on my December 2014 South Carolina lowcountry hiking trip.  I thought Myrtle Beach was nice…until I came here.  The park’s somewhat remote location, wide beach, tall sand dunes, and numerous saltwater and freshwater wetlands make it a major birding and sightseeing destination in northeast South Carolina.
            The park is named for Archer and Anna Hyatt Huntington, who owned a winter home named Atalaya on this property.  Archer Huntington was a noted scholar in Hispanic art and culture, while Anna was a noted sculptor who has a work featured at Andrew Jackson State Park, which is described elsewhere in this blog.  Their former home is open for tours 9am-5pm daily.  The park came to be in 1960 when the state leased 2500 acres from Brookgreen Gardens, which is located directly across US 17 from the park.  Brookgreen Gardens is another worthy destination for nature lovers, but its entrance fee is considerably higher than the park’s.
            In addition to the obvious amenities, the park offers a 130-site campground, 3 reservable picnic shelters, and a nature center.  Huntington Beach State Park is also a top birding destination, as everything from shorebirds to woodland songbirds to wading birds to ducks will be seen on these grounds.  The park features only one hiking trail of substance, the 1-mile one-way Sandpiper Pond Nature Trail.  By combining the nature trail with a marsh boardwalk and a beach walk, you can form the semi-loop described here that gives you a taste of almost everything the park has to offer.
Heron on marsh boardwalk
            Either before or after your main hike, you should take a few minutes and walk the Nature Center’s marsh boardwalk.  The wooden boardwalk extends 0.2 miles into the park’s saltwater marsh, thus providing great views down the marsh toward the ocean.  On my visit, I saw a blue heron, several egrets, and schools of small fish.  The park also has a freshwater marsh.  Whereas the saltwater marsh is located here on the north side of the causeway you drove in on, the freshwater marsh is located on the causeway’s south side.
Trailhead: Sandpiper Pond Nature Trail
            The main part of this hike starts on the Sandpiper Pond Nature Trail, the signed trailhead for which is located across the park road from the Nature Center parking area.  Very quickly a trail exits right for the campground; it will be our return route.  Angle left to continue on the gently rolling sandy track through a maritime forest featuring stunted oak trees.
Hiking through stunted forest
            0.3 miles from the trailhead (or 0.7 miles from the start if you hiked the marsh boardwalk), you reach the first of three overlook platforms for Sandpiper Pond.  Sandpiper Pond is a long but narrow shallow-water pond that was filled with ducks and geese on my visit.  Sand dunes can be seen beyond the pond.  The Atlantic Ocean beyond the dunes can be heard but not seen from here.
            The trail continues north through a dense shrubby understory.  My approach flushed out a large number of songbirds including cardinals, robins, and sparrows.  The soft sand under foot makes the going a little more challenging than would otherwise be the case.  0.9 miles into the hike, a spur trail exits right to the second overlook platform.  This platform is located closer to the pond than the first one, and your approach will scare off any nearby birds if you are not careful.
Sandpiper Pond
            Back on the main trail, the trail crosses a couple of the pond’s small feeder streams on wooden footbridges.  At 1.5 miles, you reach the north end of the pond and the final overlook platform.  This wheelchair-accessible platform is reached by walking up a ramp; it offers a view down the length of the pond.
            Just past the last overlook, the Sandpiper Pond Nature Trail ends at the beach access parking area.  To continue this loop, turn right and hike the wooden boardwalk through the sand dunes to reach the beach.  The firmly packed sand on this wide, gently sloping beach is perfect for many activities including beach combing, bird watching, and of course hiking.
Looking north up Huntington Beach
Seashell on Huntington Beach
            The state park beach extends to the left (north) 1.5 miles to a jetty.  Your poor depth perception beside the ocean makes the jetty look closer than it is.  You could extend your hike by walking up to the jetty if you want some extra beach time.  To begin heading back to the trailhead, turn right and start walking south along the beach.  This beach walk lasts for almost 1 mile, and I enjoyed every inch of it.  Shorebirds such as plovers and gulls are sure to make an appearance.
            2.5 miles into the hike, our route turns right to leave the beach via the campground beach access.  This point would be almost impossible to find but for a white plastic post planted in the sand dune bearing the word “campground.”  Be sure to keep an eye out for this post, or else you will surely miss this turn.
Campground beach access
The campground beach access trail passes through the dunes on soft sand, crosses the edge of Sandpiper Pond using a wooden boardwalk, and enters the campground near campsite #35.  To get back to the Nature Center, turn right on the paved campground road, then angle right again on the paved road that accesses campsites #103-133.  The signed trail to the Nature Center exits the campground to the right near campsite #105.  The trail immediately plunges into the maritime forest and quickly intersects the Sandpiper Pond Nature Trail to close the loop.  A left turn and short forest walk return you to the Nature Center parking lot to complete the hike.


Thursday, December 25, 2014

Francis Marion National Forest: Palmetto Trail, Awendaw Passage (Blog Hike #500)

Trail: Palmetto Trail, Awendaw Passage
Hike Location: Francis Marion National Forest
Geographic Location: south of McClellanville, SC
Length: 8.6 miles ROUND-TRIP
Difficulty: 4/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: December 2014
Overview: A long but flat out-and-back or shuttle hike featuring wide, grassy Awendaw Creek.

Directions to the trailhead: This hike starts at Francis Marion National Forest’s Buck Hall Recreation Area.  The recreation area’s signed entrance is located on US 17 29 miles south of Georgetown or 23 miles north of Mount Pleasant.  Drive in the paved entrance road, pay the parking fee, and turn left at the first intersection.  Park in the circle-shaped day-use parking area.  If you want to do this hike as a 2-car shuttle, leave your other car at the Awendaw Canoe Launch, which is located off of US 17 on Rosa Green Road 3 miles south of Buck Hall Recreation Area.

The hike: Often called the master path of South Carolina, the route of the Palmetto Trail traces a 500 mile journey across the entire Palmetto State.  The trail starts at Oconee State Park in the state’s northwest corner and heads northeast roughly paralleling I-85 to the Spartanburg/Cowpens area.  From there, the trail turns right and roughly parallels I-26 down the length of the state to its end along the intracoastal waterway north of Charleston.  The segments of the Palmetto Trail are called passages.  For updates on the Palmetto Trail’s continuing construction, visit http://www.palmettoconservation.org/.
            The southeastern-most 54+ miles of the Palmetto Trail pass through Francis Marion National Forest, the smaller of South Carolina’s two national forests.  The forest gets its name from the American Revolutionary War Brigadier General Francis Marion, who earned the nickname “Swamp Fox” for his guerilla-style attacks on the British in South Carolina’s lowcountry swamps.  The name Awendaw comes from the nearby town of Awendaw, a name given to the area by the Sewee Indians.
            The Palmetto Trail’s Awendaw Passage featured here is the trail’s southeastern-most segment.  This hike starts at the trail’s very end, the Buck Hall Recreation Area, which also features a small campground and a major intracoastal waterway access point for boaters.  The trail then follows Awendaw Creek 4.3 miles upstream to the Awendaw Canoe Launch.  If you have a second car in your hiking group, you can leave one car at each end and hike the trail one way.  Otherwise, you will have to do this hike as an out-and-back for a round-trip distance of 8.6 miles.
Palmetto Trail's southeastern trailhead
            From the signed trailhead, the Palmetto Trail starts on a nice boardwalk that passes over a small freshwater swamp.  On the other side of the boardwalk, the trail curves left, and you pass the first of the Palmetto Trail’s many i-shaped paint blazes.  At 0.1 miles, you cross the paved Buck Hall Recreation Area entrance road and reenter the woods on the other side.
            The next couple hundred yards angle around the grassy overnight parking area, which appears through the trees to the right.  This parking area is used by backpackers intent on hiking long segments of the Palmetto Trail.  A spur trail exits left to the recreation area’s campground.
            After the parking area fades into the woods, the trail crosses a couple of wet areas using short boardwalks.  The next 1.6 miles form a horseshoe-shaped route around some private property to your left.  Just past 0.6 miles, you pass under a power line.  This point marks the first of three times you will pass under this particular power line, and I consider the power line clearings to be the only real downside to this hike.
i-shaped Palmetto Trail blaze
            At 0.75 miles, the trail curves left to leave an old road; numerous blazes mark this turn.  Just after passing the 1-mile marker, you cross a private gravel road and its associated power line.  The trail curves left again to pass under the main power line for a second time as it gradually dips into a low area.  Black plastic mesh has been buried under parts of the trail to help combat muddy conditions.  I had no trouble with mud on my hike, but hiking after one of the heavy rains that frequently come through this area might yield a different story.
            1.8 miles into the hike, you complete the horseshoe and arrive at the bank of Awendaw Creek.  Upon reaching the first creek view, what has thus far been a pleasant but unremarkable forest hike starts to really come alive.  If the Everglades in Florida is the River of Grass, Awendaw Creek must be the creek of grass.  Unless you live near the coast, the wet, grassy saltwater marsh extending south and east as far as the eye can see give you that wonderful “I’m not in Kansas anymore” feeling.  This area is close enough to the ocean so that the direction water moves in the creek depends on the tide.  Take your time along the creek and enjoy the views.
First Awendaw Creek view
            The creek stays in view for most of the next 1.7 miles.  Whoever routed this trail segment is a genius: the trail traces the very edge of the marsh so that the wet, muddy, sunny marsh stays in near-constant view on the left yet your feet remain completely dry.  The trail crosses several wooden bridges over marsh inlets, which also give fantastic views up and down the marsh.
Awendaw Creek, looking upstream

Awendaw Creek, looking downstream
            As you proceed west along the north bank of Awendaw Creek, large numbers of palmettos appear in the understory.  Just shy of the 3 mile marker, you cross a large inlet of Awendaw Creek on a fairly new bridge that is labeled as The Time Warner Bridge.  At 3.1 miles, you reach a bench constructed by Jason Stanley as an Eagle Scout Project in 2011.  This bench sits on a sandy bluff that overlooks the meandering creek channel at a point where it comes right to the bluff’s base.  This area offers this hike’s best wildlife viewing.  I saw several aquatic birds, some ducks, and even an orca swimming back toward the ocean.
Awendaw Creek, as seen from bench on bluff
            If you are doing this hike as an out-and-back and find yourself getting tired, then this bench is a good place to turn around: the trail’s next segment heads inland away from the creek.  At 3.5 miles, you pass under the main powerline for the third and final time.  Just shy of 4 miles, the trail arrives back at the creekside bluff, which now stands 15-20 feet above the creek’s water.  Another bench allows more seated creek viewing.
Ramp to Awendaw Canoe Launch
            Just past 4.2 miles, you reach the wooden ramp that leads down to the Awendaw Canoe Launch.  The Palmetto Trail turns right here to leave the creek for good and head deeper into Francis Marion National Forest.  The parking area for the canoe launch is a couple hundred feet ahead.  If you left a second car in the canoe launch parking area, then your hike is over unless you want to explore more of the Palmetto Trail.  Those of us without a shuttle will need to retrace our steps 4.3 miles back to Buck Hall Recreation Area to complete the hike.


Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Myrtle Beach State Park (Blog Hike #499)

Trails: Sculpted Oak and Yaupon Nature Trails
Hike Location: Myrtle Beach State Park
Geographic Location: south side of Myrtle Beach, SC
Length: 1.6 miles
Difficulty: 1/10 (Easy)
Last Hiked: December 2014
Overview: A flat lollipop loop nature hike to a world-famous beach.

Directions to the trailhead: From downtown Myrtle Beach, drive Kings Highway (US 17 Business) south 4 miles to the signed state park entrance on the left.  Turn left to enter the park, and pay the small entrance fee.  Park in the Activity/Nature Center parking area on the left, which is reached immediately after passing the park office on the right.

The hike: So you want to go to world-famous Myrtle Beach, but you also want to lose the crowds and do some hiking.  This combination sounds impossible, but it is obtainable if you come in the winter and do the short nature hike described here.  The winter part of this recommendation is essential: on nice-weather summer weekends the park can become so crowded that you must wait for someone to exit the park before you can enter it.  When I came here on a mid-December afternoon, parking lots designed to hold hundreds of cars had only 5-10 cars in them.
            The park exists today thanks to a land donation from Myrtle Beach Farms in 1934.  The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) also worked here; they built some picnic shelters and other structures that are still in use.  Today the park is an oasis of trees and sand amidst the development that typifies the Grand Strand.
            For hikers, the park features two short nature trails neither of which form loops by themselves.  However, combining the two trails with a short beach walk forms the nice lollipop loop described here.  As such, this hike lets you see everything the park has to offer and get some relaxing beach time in the process.
Inland trailhead: Sculpted Oak Nature Trail
            From the parking area, cross the park entrance road using the marked crosswalk to reach the signed trailhead for the Sculpted Oak Nature Trail.  The single-track dirt trail heads west through the maritime forest across nearly level land.  Some interpretive signs help you identify the more common trees in this forest, which include oak, witch hazel, and holly.
            Just shy of 0.2 miles, the Sculpted Oak Nature Trail turns left where a signed spur trail to a pond continues straight.  The pond is only a couple hundred feet away, so you may as well hike the short spur.  A small wooden platform overlooks the shallow algae-covered pond, which featured no observable activity on my late-afternoon visit.  The fact that the park entrance road lies immediately on the other side of this pond may be one reason little wildlife frequents this area.
Algae-covered pond
            The trail going forward from the pond leads out of the park, so you need to retrace your steps to the Sculpted Oak Nature Trail and turn right to continue your journey toward the beach.  At 0.3 miles, you reach the intersection that forms the loop portion of this hike.  For no particular reason, I chose to turn right and begin the Yaupon Nature Trail, thus using the rest of the Sculpted Oak Nature Trail, which continues straight, as my return route.
            The Yaupon Nature Trail derives its name from the yaupon holly, which has oval-shaped leaves in contrast with the pointy leaves of the more common American holly.  The word yaupon comes from the Catawba Indian word yop for tree.  The yaupon holly lives mostly in coastal areas, while the American holly is common throughout the southeast.
            The trail meanders through more maritime forest as it gradually curves left while some man-made dirt mounds appear on the right.  The sounds of busy Kings Highway remain audible until you get almost to the beach, where they get drowned out by waves lapping on the shore.  0.7 miles into the hike, the trail passes a small freshwater wetland on the left.
Freshwater wetland
            Just after passing the wetland, you come out beside a picnic shelter and restroom building, where the Yaupon Nature Trail ends.  To get to the beach and continue the hike, angle right across a parking area and walk down a concrete walkway labeled “Walk S4.”  This walkway uses a wooden boardwalk to cross a narrow set of sand dunes covered with sea oats to reach famous Myrtle Beach.  Turn left to begin the beach portion of this hike with the ocean on the right and sand dunes on the left.
            There is nothing like a walk on the beach.  The soft white sand by the dunes contrasts with the darker firmly wave-packed sand closer to the water.  Sea shells dot the sand, and small birds comb the shallow water for a meal.  The wooden state park fishing pier juts far into the seemingly infinite ocean.  There were only a few people here when I came in mid-December, but this area becomes very crowded in the summer. 
Plover
State park fishing pier
            The beach walk lasts for 0.3 miles.  To continue the loop, exit the beach at the point marked “Walk S1,” which is the last beach access south of the fishing pier.  Note that the state park beach continues another 0.6 miles to the north past the pier, so a detour may be in order if you wish to spend more time on the beach.
            The other end of Walk S1 deposits you at another parking area, where you need to angle left to find the signed trailhead for the Sculpted Oak Nature Trail, our return route.  This trailhead is located beside another restroom/changing building.  You quickly pass some live oak trees with twisted trunks, likely the sculpted oaks for which this trail is named.
Beach trailhead: Sculpted Oak Nature Trail
            The trail soon crosses the freshwater swamp on a short boardwalk as it heads back into the maritime forest.  At 1.3 miles, the Yaupon Nature Trail enters from the left as you close the loop.  Continue straight and retrace your steps 0.3 flat miles to return to the Activity Center parking area and complete the hike.


Thursday, December 18, 2014

Halfway to 1000 Hikes!

This post is a reflection/celebration post marking the fact that I did my 500th blog hike this week on a hiking trip to South Carolina's lowcountry (yes, I am a few hikes behind in terms of posting).  When I started writing up hikes back in 1997, I had no idea it would go this far, but I am glad it did.  Now I hope to get 1000 hikes by age 50, a very obtainable goal if I keep doing hikes at near my current rate.

My lowcountry hiking trip also probably marks the end of my hiking for calendar year 2014.  Despite some personal issues, I have had a pretty good year on the trail.  I did 47 new hikes this year totaling 120 miles in 9 different states.  A few years ago 40 new hikes in one year seemed like a lot; these days I do 40-50 new hikes every year.  I also upgraded (by adding pictures) more than 35 old hikes.  I hiked in 2 new states in 2014: New Mexico and Oklahoma.  My state hiking count now stands at 35 with the goal being all 50 states by age 50.  15 more states over the next 12 summers shouldn't be a problem, should it?

Looking forward to 2015, I hope to get back to New England next summer.  I have not been northeast of New York since 2004.  Besides, if I plan to hike in all 50 states, I need to hike in Connecticut and Rhode Island at some point.  I also hope to spend some time in Alabama/Mississippi/Louisiana next year.  I have not been to those states enough given their proximity to South Carolina.  Finally, I will probably get back to southwestern Ohio next year: I have a lot of old hikes in need of an upgrade there.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

David, aka The Mathprofhiker

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Harbison State Forest: Stewardship Trail (Blog Hike #498)

Trail: Stewardship Trail
Hike Location: Harbison State Forest
Geographic Location: northeast of Irmo, SC
Length: 3.6 miles
Difficulty: 4/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: December 2014
Overview: A woodland interpretive loop with Broad River views.

Directions to the trailhead: On the northwest side of Columbia, take I-26 to Harbison Rd. (exit 103).  Exit and go north/east on Harbison Rd.  Take Harbison Rd. to its end at US 176 and turn right on US 176.  The signed forest entrance is 0.5 miles ahead on the left.  Turn left to enter the forest.  Where the paved road turns right, angle left on the gravel road and pass through the forest gate, noting the time when the gate will close and paying the entrance fee.  Continue along the excellent gravel forest road 2.1 miles to parking area #6, which is located just before the public portion of the road ends at a vehicle gate.

The hike: For my general comments on Harbison State Forest, see my blog entry for the Midlands Mountain Trail.  If the Midlands Mountain Trail is the best trail at Harbison State Forest, as I claim in the blog entry linked to above, then the Stewardship Trail described here might be the second best.  While this trail does not lead to any waterfalls or magnificent vistas, it provides a nice woodland hike and leads to the best Broad River views Harbison State Forest has to offer.
Trailhead: Stewardship Trail
            The green-blazed Stewardship Trail forms a loop, so you could take the trail either east or west out of the parking area.  This description will start at the information kiosk on the east side of the parking area (in front of your car if you park with the usual orientation) and hike the loop counterclockwise.  The trail descends gradually through the first of several loblolly pine plantings.  At 0.2 miles, the connector to the Midlands Mountain Trail continues straight.  Angle left to remain on the Stewardship Trail.
            Just past this intersection you pass some holly trees that keep their green pointy leaves in the winter when all surrounding trees turn bare and brown.  The next 0.6 miles meander and undulate gradually as you head in the general direction of northeast.  The meanders and undulations of this trail seem to make it popular among mountain bikers.  If you hear bikers coming (you will usually hear them before you see them), simply step to the side of the trail and let them pass.
Wooden bridge across stream
            After crossing several small streams on wooden bridges, the forest’s canoe landing parking area comes into view through the trees on the right.  0.9 miles into the hike, you cross the gravel road that serves this canoe landing.  The best Broad River view lies just ahead, so you should continue straight to stay on the Stewardship Trail.  A sign here tells you that the loblolly pines you have been walking through were planted in 1999.  Some numbered posts indicate the existence of an interpretive brochure, but none were available at the trailhead, and the forest office could not provide one for me either.
            Just past 1 mile, you reach the signed spur trail to River Reststop.  Turn right to hike the faint spur trail 100 yards to some benches that overlook the Broad River.  The view is partially obstructed by trees, but this is a nice, peaceful, scenic section of the river.  Although no modern development can be seen from here, the sounds of industry remind you that you are only 10 miles from Columbia.
River Reststop
            Back on the main trail, a few more creeks are crossed via nice wooden bridges before you reach the next dirt service road at 1.6 miles; this intersection is denoted as point T.  The service road to the right quickly deadends at a small meadow beside the river.  The Stewardship Trail curves left to head west and begin a long, gradual climb away from the river.
            The trail climbs gradually through more pine plantings, some of which date only to 2003.  This section of trail passes very near the forest’s northwest boundary, so respect the private property to your right.  At 2.3 miles, the trail briefly splits with an easier option going right and a more difficult option going left.  The two options come back together in only 0.2 miles, so you can choose either route you wish.
Climbing the ridge
            After the two options re-merge, the trail becomes more rutted as you approach the top of the ridge.  Some plastic material has been buried under the trail in an effort to prevent erosion, but those efforts have been only moderately successful.  Just shy of 3 miles, you cross a service road twice in short order.  As you have probably concluded, Harbison State Forest has a network of unmarked service roads that make for nice hiking and mountain biking provided you can navigate them without the assistance of maps or blazes.
            At 3.1 miles, the connector to the Firebreak Trail exits at a soft angle to the right.  Angle left to stay on the Stewardship Trail.  The final 0.5 miles are a meandering ridgetop course through more loblolly pines.  The gravel forest entrance road comes into view through the trees on the right, and soon thereafter you arrive at the west end of the parking area, thus marking the end of the hike.