Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015 Reflection Post

Cheraw State Park marks the end of the trail for me for 2015, so it is time for what has become an annual tradition: my year-end reflection post!  In my first year with my mom in glory, I had a rather prolific year on the trail.  I hiked 52 new trails totaling over 141 miles.  Both of those numbers are all-time highs for me.  I hiked in 16 different states including 2 new states: Connecticut and Rhode Island.  I only have 13 states to go now to get all 50 of them.

I should get off to a fast start in 2016: I am scheduled to go down to Baton Rouge to do some bayou hiking in January.  Normally I would take that trip in December, but some nuances in the academic calendar at my university force me to take it in January.  [I am a full-time math professor, after all :)]  I also tentatively have trips planned to eastern North Carolina, northern California, and central Ohio this coming year.  Hopefully I will get a couple of new states on my way out to California; that's one advantage to driving rather than flying.

See you on the trail in 2016!

David, aka the Mathprofhiker

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Cheraw State Park: Boardwalk Trail (Blog Hike #555)

Trail: Boardwalk Trail
Hike Location: Cheraw State Park
Geographic Location: southwest of Cheraw, SC (34.64125, -79.90058)
Length: 1.2 miles
Difficulty: 0/10 (Easy)
Last Hiked: December 2015
Overview: An out-and-back across a fabulous boardwalk and the dam of Lake Juniper.
Hike Route Map:
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: From downtown Cheraw, take US 52 south 4.3 miles to the first of two state park entrances on the right.  Turn right to enter the park, then turn left at the T-intersection 0.9 miles from US 52.  Drive a total of 1.2 miles from US 52 to the large gravel/sand parking area in front of the park office.  Park here.

The hike: For my general comments on Cheraw State Park, see the previous hike.  Whereas the previous hike led to the backwaters of Lake Juniper, this hike takes you to the main part of the lake and across the boardwalk for which this park is famous.  I had been trying to get to Cheraw to hike this boardwalk for several years, and the experience I had on a late December afternoon did not disappoint.  Come here and enjoy this easy stroll often.
            The Boardwalk Trail connects the park office with the park campground, so you can start at either end.  I chose to start at the park office, which is located in the main section of Cheraw State Park.  If you insist on not walking the same trail twice, you could set up a car shuttle, but most people will not go to that extreme on a hike this short and easy.
Trailhead sign for Boardwalk Trail
            From the front of the park office, look for the large red/brown sign that marks the start of the trail to the boardwalk and the boatdock picnic shelter.  The well-worn sandy-dirt path heads northeast with the park’s playground and Lake Juniper to your right.  At 0.1 miles, you pass the large boatdock picnic shelter as a side trail exits right for the park’s swimming beach.
            Just past the shelter, you reach a raised wooden lake observation platform that features a picnic table.  Nice views appear up and down the shallow lake.  Soon thereafter you reach the start of the boardwalk.  A sign tells you that this boardwalk was financed by the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a federal fund established in 1965 to protect natural areas and develop recreation infrastructure.  Not only is the boardwalk over 1000 feet long, but some siderails make it wheelchair accessible.  Unfortunately, the trails leading to the boardwalk might be too rough for a wheelchair.
Crossing the boardwalk
            Take your time crossing the boardwalk.  The lake is only a couple of feet deep here, and the sandy soil acts like a filter and keeps the water quite clear and reflective.  The golf course can be seen to the left, while the campground appears across the lake to the right.
            The other end of the boardwalk deposits you on Lake Juniper’s dam.  Some people turn around here, but there is more to see if you turn right and start walking down the dam.  Views open up down the length of Lake Juniper, and a well-placed bench allows you to sit and admire the scenery.
View down Lake Juniper

Spillway "waterfall"
            At 0.5 miles, you cross the dam’s spillway on an iron bridge with wooden floor.  The “waterfall” created by water running over the concrete spillway is 100% man-made but pleasant to the ears nonetheless.  Another 0.1 miles of dam walking brings you to the trail’s unceremonious end at the park’s campground access road.  On the down side, you will need to retrace your steps 0.6 miles to complete the hike, but on the bright side you get to walk across the fabulous boardwalk again.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Cheraw State Park: Turkey Oak Trail (Blog Hike #554)

Trail: Turkey Oak Trail
Hike Location: Cheraw State Park
Geographic Location: southwest of Cheraw, SC (34.64061, -79.92576)
Length: 4.2 miles
Difficulty: 3/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: December 2015
Overview: A lollipop loop through longleaf pine forest to the backwaters of Lake Juniper.
Hike Route Map:
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: From downtown Cheraw, take US 52 south 4.3 miles to the first of two state park entrances on the right.  Turn right to enter the park, then turn right again at the T-intersection 0.9 miles from US 52.  The asphalt becomes a little rough after the T-intersection, so drive carefully.  Drive a total of 2.3 miles from US 52 to the park road’s end at the trailhead parking area.  Park here.  (Note: the park road used to continue to US 1, but it is now closed beyond this parking area.)

The hike: Tucked in the northeast corner of South Carolina, Cheraw State Park (pronounced with the accent on the second syllable) sits on the first tract of land that the State of South Carolina designated for a state park.  Citizens of Cheraw and the U.S. Government donated the park’s 7361 acres to the state in 1934, and the depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built the park’s original buildings, some of which are still in use today.  The park centers around 360-acre Lake Juniper and an 18-hole championship golf course designed by Tom Jackson.  8 small cabins and a cozy 17-site lakeside campground provide lodging accommodations.
            In terms of trails, Cheraw State Park seems to have a trail to suit every ability and interest.  9.2 miles of mountain bike trails lie north of US 1, and 5 miles of horse trails depart from the campground area south of Lake Juniper.  The park also has two hiker-only trails, the short Boardwalk Trail described in the next hike and the more substantial Turkey Oak Trail described here.  Combining this hike with Tate’s Trail at nearby Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge makes for a nice full day of sandhills hiking.
Trailhead: Turkey Oak Trail
            From the parking area, the Turkey Oak Trail starts at a mileage sign and a pair of information signs.  One of the signs tells you that this trail was built in 1994, thus making it the park’s newest hiking trail.  The trail actually consists of two nested loops, a 1.9 mile inner loop and a 4.2 mile outer loop (which is signed as 4.5 miles long, but the distance I give here is more accurate based on my calculations).  The inner loop is marked with red painted triangles, while the outer loop is marked with white painted triangles.  The two loops use this common entrance trail, so you see both red and white blazes here.  Some older aluminum blazes also mark the trail.
Short boardwalk over wet area
            The trail heads south through flat sandy terrain with minor undulations.  Short boardwalks carry you over particularly wet areas, but for the most part the sandy soil remains well-drained.  The scenery alternates between open longleaf pine plantings and closed scrub forest that features loblolly pines, dogwood, sweet gum, American holly, and, of course, turkey oaks.  Burn marks on trees remind you that park officials conduct controlled burns to maintain the longleaf pine habitats.
            Longleaf pines are a favorite nesting place for the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, and some signs nailed to these pines mark land set aside as woodpecker habitat.  These areas are closed to public entry, but keep your eyes in the trees while staying on the trail to look for the rare woodpeckers.  I did not see or hear any woodpeckers on my visit, but I did see some common songbirds such as chickadees.
Hiking through longleaf pines
            At 0.3 miles, the trail curves sharply right to join an old road.  The Turkey Oak Trail follows old logging roads for much of its distance.  These sections of the path are wide enough to support a stroller or wheelchair, but the trail surface is far too rough.
            Just shy of 0.4 miles, you reach the trail intersection that forms the loop portion of this hike.  As directed by a sign, this description turns right to hike the loop counterclockwise.  The trail heads through the heart of a longleaf pine planting as it passes over a low ridge.  The old road becomes more eroded at it descends into shrubby scrub forest and curves left to resume its southbound course.
            0.9 miles into the hike, you emerge into another longleaf pine planting.  A sign marks this area as “red-cockaded woodpecker cavity trees” because park officials carved cavities into these longleaf pine trees in an effort to improve woodpecker nesting opportunities.  The effort worked, as evidenced by the woodpecker colony that still lives here today.
Woodpecker cavity trees
            Just past the cavity trees, you reach the trail intersection at which the inner and outer loops part ways.  Angle right to stay with the white-blazed outer loop.  A picnic table also sits at this intersection, and interpretive signs help you identify common trees.
            The trail stays with the meandering old logging road as it continues in the general direction of south.  At 1.4 miles, the logging road abruptly ends at the edge of a former logging tract, and the trail takes on a single-track character.  The gradual descent toward Lake Juniper becomes more noticeable now, and at times the winding route of the trail makes you wonder where the trail is going.
Crossing a small stream
            At 2.1 miles, you cross a small stream on a wooden bridge.  This stream is only noteworthy because it is the only moving water you see on this hike.  At 2.3 miles, you reach the spur trail to the Lake Juniper overlook.  Turn right to hike a short distance out a narrow dike to reach the overlook.  The lake here looks more like a marsh, as bald cypress trees dot the standing water.  I could hear some waterfowl in the lake, but the thick understory prevented me from seeing any birds.  A bench provides a nice place to sit, rest, and watch the lake near the midpoint of the hike.
Lake Juniper overlook
            Begin your return route by heading directly away from the lake on another old road.  At 2.7 miles, the trail curves sharply left to leave the old road before turning sharply right to resume the gradual uphill course.  Signs mark both of these turns.
Heading away from the lake
            Soon you rise out of the closed scrub forest and reenter the open longleaf pine forest.  The trail becomes a little hard to discern among all of the pine needles littering the ground, so watch for the white blazes.  3.3 miles into the hike, you cross a dirt maintenance road just before the red-blazed inner loop rejoins from the left.  The white-and-red-blazed trail going straight that continues the loop is obvious from this direction, but finding this turn would be more challenging if you were hiking this loop the other direction.
            The wide sandy-dirt trail continues its gradual climb through open longleaf pine forest.  Views through the forest open up for long distances in all directions.  At 3.8 miles, you close the loop.  A quaint sign that simply says “home” directs you to turn right on the entrance trail, and 0.4 miles of retracing your steps return you to the trailhead to complete the hike.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Croft State Park: Nature Trail (Blog Hike #553)

Trail: Nature Trail
Hike Location: Croft State Park
Geographic Location: southeast of Spartanburg, SC (34.86247, -81.83941)
Length: 1.5 miles
Difficulty: 3/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: November 2015
Overview: A short lollipop loop featuring ridgetop and creekside segments.
Hike Route Map:
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: Near Spartanburg, take I-26 to SR 296 (exit 22).  Exit and go east on SR 296.  Drive SR 296 east 1 mile to SR 295 and turn right on SR 295.  Drive SR 295 6 miles to SR 56 and turn right on SR 56.  Drive SR 56 south 2.3 miles to Dairy Ridge Road and turn left on Dairy Ridge Road; there is a sign for Croft State Park at this intersection.  The park entrance is 0.3 miles ahead on the right.  Turn right to enter the park, pay the nominal entrance fee, and follow the main park road 3 miles to the park office.  Park in any of the large gravel/dirt parking lots behind the park office.

The hike: Consisting of 7054 acres in rapidly developing suburban Spartanburg, Croft State Park (also known as Croft State Natural Area) is one of the largest state parks in South Carolina.  Human habitation on this land dates to the late 1800’s when several farming communities relied on the current park’s Whitestone Springs as a water source.  A four-story hotel and bottling business on this property also used water from the spring.
            During World War II the land was used as a US Army training camp.  Over 250,000 soldiers trained here.  After the war, the camp was closed, and the area opened as a state park in 1949.  The park today features a 50-site campground, two small lakes, several picnic areas, and 37.5 miles of trails.
            For outdoor enthusiasts, Croft State Park is mainly known as an equestrian and mountain bike destination.  12.6 miles of the multi-use Palmetto Trail, the 500+ mile master path of South Carolina, lie within the park.  While hiking is allowed on all of the park’s trails, only 2.5 miles of trails are designated as hiking-only.  Among the hiking-only trails, the park’s best option is the short Nature Trail described here.  Though not long, this trail has a rolling foothills feel reminiscent of places deeper in the mountains.
Nature Trail trailhead
            The Nature Trail does not leave directly from the parking area.  To find the start of the Nature Trail, keep walking southeast down the gravel road toward the equestrian center.  First you pass the signed Palmetto Trail entrance on the right, then you pass the signed Fairforest Loop Trail (a bridle trail) entrance on the right.  After 0.2 miles of walking along the gravel road, you reach the signed Nature Trail entrance on the right.  Turn right to leave the gravel park road and begin the Nature Trail.
            The Nature Trail passes through a wooden entrance stile and heads slightly downhill.  Metal diamonds nailed to trees mark the trail, and interpretive signs identify and describe common trees of the forest.  Thus, this trail makes for a good introduction to the habitats of upstate South Carolina.
Hiking the Nature Trail
            0.3 miles from the parking area, the trail splits to form its loop.  As directed by a black arrow on another metal diamond, this description turns left and uses the trail going right as a return route, thus hiking the loop clockwise.  The trail undulates somewhat as it heads east through open ridgetop forest.  Some red cedars appear in the tree mix up here.  The atmosphere is serene except for one factor: you may be able to hear gun shots from the park’s rifle range located across the ravine to your right.
            Just past 0.6 miles, you pass a very new wooden bench before descending moderately.  At 0.8 miles, you reach the bottom of the hill and the site of the Foster Mill ruins.  A small town centered around a grist mill stood here in the late 1800’s.  The mill was powered by falling water from Fairforest Creek, and the shoals upstream provided the elevation change needed to make the water fall.  Only foundations of town structures remain today.
Departing the mill area
            From the mill area, the trail curves right and begins heading upstream with Fairforest Creek downhill to your left.  The creek is not in full view, but you can hear water rushing over the rocky shoals when stream flow is sufficiently high.  The rushing creek and sidehill trail give this area more of a mountain feel than a Piedmont feel.
Fairforest Creek
            At 1.1 miles, the trail descends to reach a streamside bench beside the last shoal.  As evidenced by the soft sand underfoot, this bench was built in the creek’s floodplain, so hopefully it still will be here when you arrive.  After a brief stint of creekside hiking, the trail curves right to head out of the floodplain and close the loop.  Turn left on the entrance trail and then left again on the gravel park road to return to the parking area and complete the hike.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Tims Ford State Park: Lost Creek Overlook and Marble Plains Trails (Blog Hike #552)

Trails: Lost Creek Overlook and Marble Plains Loop Trails
Hike Location: Tims Ford State Park
Geographic Location: west of Winchester, TN (35.22028, -86.25531)
Length: 3.5 miles
Difficulty: 5/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: November 2015
Overview: A double loop featuring two swinging bridges and nice lake views.
Hike Route Map:
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: From Winchester, drive SR 50 west 5.3 miles to Mansford Road and turn right on Mansford Rd.  Drive Mansford Rd. north 4.8 miles to the signed park entrance on the left.  Turn left to enter the park and park in the large blacktop lot in front of the Visitors Center.

The hike: Completed by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in 1970, the Tims Ford Dam on the Elk River produces 36 megawatts of hydroelectric power for residents of south-central Tennessee.  The dam forms 10,700 acre Tims Ford Lake, which provides flood control and water recreation.  Although Tims Ford Dam stands a respectable 175 feet high and 1580 feet long, it is only medium-sized by TVA standards.
            As you would expect, Tennessee’s Tims Ford State Park sits on the shore of its namesake lake.  The rural 2200 acre park features many amenities, including a 52-site campground, 20 cabins, a marina, and a lakeside restaurant.  The park’s most famous attraction is Bear Trace at Tims Ford, one in the Tennessee State Parks’ collection of Jack Nicklaus designed signature golf courses.
            For hikers, the park offers several trails that total 27 miles, some of which are shared with mountain bikes.  Many of the trails make for excellent walks, but most experts appraise the Lost Cove Overlook Trail to be the park’s best trail.  The Lost Cove Overlook Trail leads 1.3 miles from the Visitors Center to its namesake lake overlook.  Combining this trail with the adjacent Marble Plains Loop and the paved ADA-accessible Overlook Trail forms the 3.5 mile double loop described here.
Trailhead: Lost Creek Overlook Trail
            From the Visitors Center, head west to find the signed Lost Cove Overlook Trail where the somewhat narrow dirt trail enters the woods.  The trail undulates slightly as it passes behind the old Visitors Center (now closed) and under a powerline.  In about 700 feet, you come to the first of two suspension bridges.  The long, high bridge takes you over one of the steep, narrow ravines that characterize this part of Tennessee.  The bridge sways quite a bit, but the metal cables holding it in place are sturdy, so persistent forward stepping will get you across.
First suspension bridge
            The young but nice forest that surrounds the trail features some maple, oak, and beech trees with some pine trees mixed in along the higher areas.  The lake remains a constant presence through the trees on the left, but no clear lake views emerge.  Red aluminum disks mark the trail, and they come in handy occasionally even though most of the trail is easy to follow.  Numerous small but occasionally steep ups and downs need to be negotiated.  The vertical elevation change between high and low points is less than 100 feet, but that vertical distance will be covered many times.
At 0.7 miles, you cross the second of the two suspension bridges.  This bridge seems to be a near-twin of the first.  More ups and downs bring you to the wooden overlook platform at 1.3 miles.  While the view from here was probably quite good at one time, trees have since grown up to almost completely block the view.  Use some nearby benches to enjoy what view there is.
Lost Creek Overlook
The overlook also serves as a major trail intersection.  The Lost Creek Overlook Trail you have been following ends here.  The asphalt ADA-accessible Overlook Trail leading away from the lake will be our eventual route back to the Visitors Center.  The two arms of the Marble Plains Loop Trail, which is marked by orange aluminum disks, continue further west.  This description will take the left (south) arm of the Marble Plains Loop Trail now and use the right arm as its return route, thus hiking the loop clockwise.
The Marble Plains Loop Trail is narrower and less-traveled than the Lost Creek Overlook Trail, as evidenced by the deeper cover of leaf-litter that I had to negotiate on my early November hike.  However, the terrain is generally flatter than the previous trail, and therefore the overall going is somewhat easier.  After a gradual descent, the trail curves right to head briefly uphill into younger, shrubbier forest before descending again. 
Tims Ford Lake
At 1.9 miles, you reach lake level where the best lake views of the hike emerge.  This point sits at the head of a narrow inlet that empties west into the main lake.  The trail next curves right to join an old dirt road as it climbs away from the lake.  2 miles into the hike, you reach another signed trail intersection just below the ridge crest.  The Ray Branch Shoreline Trail exits left and continues another 6 miles down the lake shore, so you need to turn right to stay on the Marble Plains Loop Trail.  More orange aluminum disks mark this turn.
The remainder of the Marble Plains Loop Trail stays in the young shrubby ridgetop forest.  The solid white building of Marble Plains Baptist Church sits through the trees to the left.  Minor undulations and a final left turn return you to the overlook area to close the Marble Plains Loop.  To begin the final leg back to the Visitors Center, turn left on the asphalt ADA-accessible Overlook Trail.

ADA-accessible Overlook Trail
Asphalt trails never make for the best hiking, but since this trail stays in the woods or prairie for its entire length, the scenery is better than you might expect.  The nearly flat Overlook Trail stays on the ridgetop, thus by-passing all of the up-and-down you did on the Lost Creek Overlook Trail.  Rest areas with benches appear roughly at 400 foot intervals.  First you pass Marble Plains Baptist Church again, then Marble Plains Road comes into view, then you pass the park entrance gate.  1 mile after leaving the overlook, you come out at the north end of the Visitors Center parking lot, thus completing the hike.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve: Quarry and Overlook Trails (Blog Hike #551)

Trails: Quarry and Overlook Trails
Hike Location: Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve
Geographic Location: east side of Birmingham, AL (33.55864, -86.70721)
Length: 2.8 miles
Difficulty: 5/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: October 2015
Overview: An out-and-back to a fantastic overlook of downtown Birmingham.
Preserve Information:
Hike Route Map:
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: On the east side of Birmingham, take I-59 to Oporto Madrid Blvd. (exit 131).  Exit and go south on Oporto Madrid Blvd.  Drive Oporto Madrid Blvd. 0.7 miles to Rugby Ave. and turn left on Rugby Ave.  (Alternatively, take I-20 to Oporto Madrid Blvd. (exit 132) and go north 1.5 miles to Rugby Ave.)  Drive Rugby Ave. 0.7 miles to 81st Street and turn right on 81st Street81st Street deadends at Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve.  Leave a donation at the preserve entrance and park in the only parking lot.

The hike: Located on the east side of Birmingham between I-59 and I-20, 1225-foot Ruffner Mountain stands as the main guardian of the city’s eastern gates.  During Birmingham’s early days in the late 1800’s, the mountain was more valued for its industrial resources than its scenery.  Numerous iron and limestone mines operated on the mountain, and the ore they produced helped fuel Birmingham’s bountiful steel industry, which earned the city the nickname The Pittsburgh of the South.
            The mines shut down in the late 1950’s, and in 1977 a grassroots community movement formed the Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve.  Today the preserve protects 1038 acres on its namesake mountain, and over 12 miles of trails traverse the preserve.  The only other amenities at the preserve are an amphitheater and a Nature Center.  The preserve’s most famous site is its Hawk’s View Overlook of downtown Birmingham, which is accessible only by trail.  At its core, this hike is an out-and-back to the overlook, but some other options to form semi-loops are described at the end.
Start of the Quarry Trail
            From the front of the Nature Center, pick up the white-blazed Quarry Trail as it ascends Ruffner Mountain on a gradual to moderate grade.  The wide Quarry Trail is the preserve’s main trail in the sense that most of the preserve’s other trails branch off of it.  On point, the Geology Trail quickly exits left just before you pass a small limestone rock outcrop.  The Geology Trail passes several unusual limestone rock outcrops; this one looks like a big mushroom.
Limestone outcrop
            The Quarry Trail levels off before dipping slightly to cross an asphalt road.  This road services the fire tower and communication towers atop the mountain, and a secondary trailhead with an information kiosk lies just beyond the road.  The Hollow Tree Trail then exits left to climb to the ridge crest.  The Hollow Tree and Quarry Trails come back together in 0.3 miles, so the choice is yours.  The ridge crest offers no views, so this description will stay on the easier and more straightforward Quarry Trail.
            At 0.4 miles, the Hollow Tree Trail reenters from the left just before you reach a small saddle where the Ridge and Valley Trail exits left.  The Ridge and Valley Trail is the preserve’s hardest trail: it features more than 1000 feet of elevation change as it repeatedly goes up and down Ruffner Mountain’s ridges and valleys.  This description continues southwest on the Quarry Trail.
            The remainder of the Quarry Trail stays at or near the ridge crest.  Interpretive signs point out the various trees of the forest, which is a mixture of broadleaf deciduous and shortleaf pine trees.  Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve has a local reputation for being dog-friendly.  Indeed, nearly everyone I passed on my Saturday morning hike had at least one dog on leash.  Plan a weekday visit if you want more solitude, but note that the preserve is closed on Mondays.
Hiking the Quarry Trail
            The narrow spur trail to the Jimmie Dell White Overlook soon exits right, but the view is almost completely blocked by trees except in winter.  After the green-blazed Silent Journey Trail exits right, the trail curves left to descend moderately toward a low point in the ridge.  The dark red iron-rich soil for which Birmingham is famous becomes fully apparent under foot here, and near-constant highway noise and train bullhorns remind you that the city is near.
Gray Fox Gap
            At 1.1 miles, you reach Gray Fox Gap, which marks the end of the Quarry Trail and a major trail intersection.  The south end of the Silent Journey Trail exits sharply right, while the south end of the Ridge and Valley Trail exits sharply left.  The Overlook and Possum Loop Trails start at the other side of the gap.  To head for the preserve’s main attraction, pick up the Overlook Trail as it climbs moderately out of Gray Fox Gap.  This part of the Overlook Trail is marked with paired red and yellow blazes.
            The trail gains almost 100 feet of elevation to arrive at an overlook called the Cambrian Overlook.  This northwest-facing viewpoint provides a great view of the largest of several abandoned limestone quarries that operated on the mountain.  Vertical mining cuts can be seen in the quarry walls and floor, and the punctuated knobs of north Alabama’s hill country can be seen in the distance to the right.  Past the Cambrian Overlook, angle left and continue climbing toward the big prize.
Old quarry at Cambrian Overlook
            1.4 miles into the hike, you reach the famous west-facing Hawk’s View Overlook.  You can see the entire city of Birmingham from here.  The tall buildings of downtown Birmingham take center stage, while Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport lies to the right.  The long ridges of Birmingham’s south side rise to the left.  This postcard view makes Ruffner Mountain to Birmingham what Georgia’s Stone Mountain is to Atlanta or what Lookout Mountain is to Chattanooga, so spend some time up here and enjoy the view.
Downtown Birmingham, as seen from Hawk's View Overlook
            The Overlook Trail continues a short distance to 1105-foot Sloss Peak, but the peak is wooded and offers no views.  To return to the trailhead, you could retrace your steps along the Quarry Trail or choose the Silent Journey and/or Hollow Tree Trails for a change of scenery but little added distance or difficulty.  The Silent Journey is a nice narrow forest trail, while the Hollow Tree Trail takes you to the communication towers and past a small spring.  You could also tack on the 1.8 mile Possum Loop Trail, which loops around the quarry area and includes a trip to the old quarry entrance. 
For a bigger challenge, try the Ridge and Valley Trail or the Crusher Trail, which features an old iron mine.  Several easy trails stay near the Visitor Center.  For more nice views, a trip along the asphalt road to the restored fire tower might be in order.  Many options are present, so pick whatever option suits your fancy to conclude your day on Ruffner Mountain.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Campbell County Environmental Education Center at A.J. Jolly Park (Blog Hike #550)

Trails: Interpretive and Homestead Trails
Hike Location: Campbell County Environmental Education Center at A.J. Jolly Park
Geographic Location: south of Alexandria, KY (38.89283, -84.37482)
Length: 1 mile
Difficulty: 2/10 (Easy)
Last Hiked: October 2015
Overview: A short loop around the backwaters of A.J. Jolly Lake featuring an historic homestead site.
Hike Route Map:
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: From the intersection of SR 10 and US 27 in Alexandria, drive US 27 south 5 miles to SR 824.  Turn left on SR 824.  Drive SR 824 east 0.8 miles to the signed Campbell County Environmental Education Center on the right.  Turn right to enter the center and park in the first gravel lot on the right.

The hike: Located on the south side of greater Cincinnati, the Campbell County Environmental Education Center at A.J. Jolly Park consists of 50 acres within the county’s largest park.  Dating to 1998, the Center is a cooperative effort between Campbell County and the University of Kentucky.  The Center’s lone interpretive building contains some aquariums, a bird blind, an observation beehive, and a solar energy system among other items of interest.
            The adjacent areas of A.J. Jolly Park feature many amenities including a scenic lakeside golf course, a 75-site campground, athletic fields of many types, and a disc golf course.  This impressive list of amenities makes A.J. Jolly Park more resemble a large state park than a small county park.  The park proper offers 20 miles of trails, but the park’s trails are also open to equestrian use.  Therefore, the park’s best hike can be found on the short hiker-only Interpretive and Homestead Trails offered by the Education Center.  These are the trails used to form this hike.
Beginning of Interpretive Trail
            Two trails leave from the south side of the gravel road connecting the gravel parking lot and the Center’s interpretive building.  The two trails come together in only a few hundred feet to form the Interpretive Trail, so the choice is yours.  The trail closer to the creek is more scenic because it crosses a short boardwalk over a wetland, the backwaters of A.J. Jolly Lake.  True to the Center’s educational directive, numerous interpretive signs describe the flora and fauna seen on this trail.
            After the two initial trail options come together, the wide grassy Interpretive Trail heads southeast with an inlet of A.J. Jolly Lake visible on the right.  When I hiked this trail on a warm sunny mid-October afternoon, a large group of mallard ducks was plying the shallow grass-filled lake waters.  At 0.2 miles, the trail passes through a sunny grassy area marked as a wildlife opening.  I saw no wildlife here on my visit, but deer would frequent areas such as this one on early mornings and late afternoons.
Ducks in A.J. Jolly Lake
            Just shy of 0.3 miles, the trail seems to end at an intersection with a faint gravel road.  To continue the loop, you need to turn right and cross A.J. Jolly Lake on a secondary dam.  An unusual metal-grate walkway provides passage over the dam’s concrete spillway.  At the north end of the dam, turn right to continue the loop.  The park’s famous golf course can be seen to the left here, but a sign warns that trespassing on the golf course is strictly prohibited.
Looking across A.J. Jolly Lake
            You now enter an area of dense honeysuckle as the trail climbs slightly to assume an elevation some 20 feet above the lake.  Just past 0.4 miles, explore an area to the left marked as a “succession area.”  This area features many red cedar trees, which are some of the first tree inhabitants of former farm fields as they revert to forest.  The process of reverting to forest is known as forest succession, hence this area’s name.
Entering the Succession Area
            At the front of the succession area, the Interpretive Trail continues north around the lake.  For a little extra adventure, take the narrow dirt Homestead Trail, which departs from the rear of the succession area.  The Homestead Trail heads further uphill to pass an old well and homesite before curving right to head back downhill to the wider Interpretive Trail.  Turn left to continue the Interpretive Trail.
            The balance of the Interpretive Trail descends slightly as it heads up the south side of a narrowing A.J. Jolly Lake.  Several side trails exit left to head out of the park.  After passing an exhibit on tree growth, the trail curves right to cross the lake’s feeder stream on a wide wooden bridge.  Very soon thereafter you exit the woods at a cluster of picnic tables located beside the parking lot, thus completing the hike.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Pisgah National Forest: John Rock (Blog Hike #549)

Trails: Cat Gap Loop, Cat Gap Bypass, and John Rock Trails
Hike Location: Pisgah National Forest
Geographic Location: northwest of Brevard, NC (35.28418, -82.79183)
Length: 5.5 miles
Difficulty: 7/10 (Moderate/Difficult)
Last Hiked: September 2015
Overview: A mostly moderate but occasionally steep loop hike featuring views from John Rock.
Hike Route Map:
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: From the US 276/US 64 split on the north side of Brevard, take US 276 west 5.3 miles to Fish Hatchery Road (FR 475).  Take a soft left on Fish Hatchery Rd.  Drive Fish Hatchery Rd. 1.5 miles to the combined fish hatchery and Pisgah Center for Wildlife Education on the left.  Park in the large blacktop lot in front of the center.

The hike: Often overlooked in favor of Looking Glass Rock, its larger and more famous neighbor, John Rock rises nearly 800 feet above the south side of the Davidson River valley.  During the Great Depression the parking lot at this hike’s trailhead was the site of Camp John Rock, a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp that operated from 1933 until 1941.  The young men of Camp John Rock built many of the roads and trails in this part of the national forest.
            The area’s main attractions today are the more modern Pisgah Center for Wildlife Education and its adjacent fish hatchery.  The center contains some interesting exhibits about the forest, and both the center and fish hatchery are worth a stop either before or after your hike.  Speaking of which, the large center parking area also serves as trailhead parking for this popular and excellent loop hike to John Rock.  While you likely will not have this trail to yourself, many of the people that come here visit only the center and fish hatchery, so it may not be as crowded as it appears.  When I came here on a Labor Day weekend, the parking area for nearby Looking Glass Rock was overflowing with dozens of cars parked in ditches on either side of the road, but I had no trouble finding a parking spot here.
Fish hatchery trailhead
            Begin by walking down the paved extension of the entrance road that runs between the parking lot and the fish hatchery.  Very quickly you come to a metal vehicle gate and a brown carsonite post that marks the fish hatchery trailhead.  Walk around the gate, cross John Rock Branch on an old vehicle bridge, then immediately arrive at an intersection with the Cat Gap Loop Trail.  Turn right to begin hiking the orange-blazed Cat Gap Loop counterclockwise.
Start of Cat Gap Loop
            The trail climbs steeply for a brief time before leveling out in a grove of pine trees.  A metal chain link fence has been installed immediately to the right of the trail to prevent unauthorized access to the fish hatchery area.  At 0.3 miles, you cross a gravel road that leads to another fish spawning pool.
            Across the road, the trail curves left and begins climbing again on a moderate grade.  Some unmarked spur trails exit left and lead steeply downhill to some scenic cascades in Grogan Creek.  If you have a little extra time and energy, these side trips are worth taking for the aquatic scenery and audio they offer.
Cascade in Grogan Creek
            At 0.8 miles, you reach an area called Picklesimer Fields and an intersection with the blue-blazed Butter Gap Trail, which exits right.  Another brown carsonite post marks this intersection.  The Cat Gap Loop turns left to cross Grogan Creek on a bridge built out of three tree trunks.  Bridges like this one look suspect, but they are common on trails in this part of the national forest.  Large numbers of mountain laurel grow here and make this area especially scenic in June.
Crossing a tree-trunk bridge
            1 mile into the hike, you reach a dispersed campsite located in a pine planting.  Follow the orange paint blazes to stay on the trail.  The trail crosses a tributary of Grogan Creek twice, once via another tree trunk bridge and again via a rock hop.  The grade intensifies after this last creek crossing as the trail uses switchbacks to summit a finger ridge before curving right to climb along the ridge.
Climbing on Cat Gap Loop
            At 1.8 miles, the Cat Gap Loop turns right where the Cat Gap Bypass Trail continues straight.  Yet another brown carsonite post marks this intersection.  If you insist on visiting Cat Gap, you can turn right here to continue the Cat Gap Loop, but Cat Gap requires another 200 feet of climbing that earns you no views or other scenic rewards.  Thus, most hikers heading to John Rock continue straight to start the Cat Gap Bypass Trail, as does this trail description.
            After the long moderate climb you just endured, the yellow-blazed Cat Gap Bypass Trail is surprisingly flat and easy.  Indeed, the Cat Gap Bypass Trail gains only 100 feet over its 0.6 mile length.  The ravine containing John Rock Branch drops to your left, but no real views emerge.
            2.4 miles into the hike, you reach the east end of the Cat Gap Bypass Trail and a major trail intersection with trails going straight, left, and right.  The Cat Gap Loop goes straight and right with the downhill route going straight heading back to the fish hatchery and the uphill route going right leading to Cat Gap.  This hike turns left to begin the John Rock Trail and head for its namesake rock.
Climbing on John Rock Trail
            Now comes the steepest part of the hike, as the rough and eroded John Rock Trail gains more than 150 feet of elevation in less than 0.2 miles.  At 2.6 miles, you top a small knob that is the highest elevation of the hike (950 feet above the fish hatchery).  The narrow trail now descends more than it ascends as it heads north out a narrow finger ridge.  You pass a couple more established campsites as you head out the ridge.
            Just past 3 miles into the hike, the unsigned spur trail to the John Rock overlook exits left.  Turn left here and very quickly reach the highlight of this hike.  The bare granite outcrop known as John Rock offers excellent views to the north across the Davidson River valley.  Looking Glass Rock takes center stage, while the ridge that contains the Blue Ridge Parkway looms in the background.  The fish hatchery can be seen directly below, and you may be able to pick out your car depending on which part of the parking lot you parked in.  The overlook area is not particularly large, and no railings protect you from the vertical cliffs that lie ahead, so watch your footing and children at this overlook.
Looking Glass Rock, as seen from John Rock
            After taking in the view, retrace your steps back up the spur trail to the John Rock Trail and turn left to continue the John Rock Trail.  The somewhat narrow trail passes through a tunnel of mountain laurel as it descends at first gradually and then more steeply.  At 3.7 miles, you cross a small spring-fed stream before curving left to begin heading downhill through the stream’s ravine.  A couple more tree-trunk bridges are used to cross other streams.
            4.2 miles into the hike, the John Rock Trail ends at a junction with the Cat Gap Loop, which goes left and right.  Turn left to continue descending on the Cat Gap Loop.  You are now descending into a hollow known as Horse Cove, and the descent becomes more gradual the lower you get.  At 4.5 miles, you cross a gravel forest service road just before crossing wide but shallow Horse Cove Creek on stepping stones.
Davidson River
            The remainder of the hike passes through creekside and riverside habitats as it curves left to head west for the fish hatchery.  A couple of less rustic footbridges (as opposed to tree-trunk bridges) are crossed, and the Davidson River comes into sight downhill to the right.  Some more campsites are also located to the right, and at a double orange paint blaze you need to turn left to stay on the main trail rather than take the campsite spur that heads right.  At 5.3 miles, you cross John Rock Branch on a large trail bridge that has seen its better days.  Continue straight after crossing the bridge to return to the east end of the fish hatchery parking lot and complete the loop.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Occoneechee State Park: Tutelo Birding/Mossey Creek/Big Oak Loop (Blog Hike #548)

Trails: Tutelo Birding, Mossey Creek, Plantation, and Big Oak Nature Trails
Hike Location: Occoneechee State Park
Geographic Location: east of Clarksville, VA (36.62955, -78.52770)
Length: 2.6 miles
Difficulty: 4/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: August 2015
Overview: A rolling loop hike featuring creekside habitats.
Hike Route Map:
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: From the US 15/US 58 split east of Clarksville, drive US 58 east 0.6 miles to the park entrance on the right.  Turn right to enter the park, pay the entrance fee, then immediately turn left on the main park road.  Drive the main park road 0.7 miles to the small trailhead parking lot for the Big Oak Nature Trail on the right.  The lot will only hold 2 or 3 cars, but additional parking can be found nearby in several directions should the lot be full.

The hike: Located in south-central Virginia less than 7 miles from the North Carolina state line, Occoneechee State Park protects 2698 acres on the north bank of John H. Kerr Reservoir, the largest lake in Virginia.  The man-made lake is formed by a dam on the Roanoke River that is located 12 miles east of the park entrance.  Completed in 1952, the dam provides flood control and hydroelectric power.
The park gets its name from the Occoneechee Plantation that used to occupy these grounds.  The plantation in turn is named for the Occaneechi Indians, who lived in this area until they were defeated in Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676.  Bacon’s Rebellion is thought to be the first Indian War in what would become the United States.
            The reservoir remains the park’s main attraction today.  A marina and three boat ramps allow boaters to access the lake, while 11 cabins and a 48-site campground provide accommodations.  The park office/Visitor Center contains some exhibits about the Occaneechi people.
            For hikers, the park offers 20 miles of trails.  The park’s longest trail is the 7.5 mile one-way Panhandle Trail, but that trail is also open to horses and mountain bikes.  A network of hiker-only trails exists in the western part of the park, and that area is the one explored by this hike.  Various routes are possible, but the route recommended here is one of the few routes that form a loop with no backtracking.
Start of Tutelo Birding Trail
            The Big Oak Trail that leaves from the front of the parking lot will be our return route.  This hike starts by crossing the road and picking up the Tutelo Birding Trail, which is marked with red rectangles nailed to trees.  The Tutelo Birding Trail is one of the park’s newest trails, so the treadway may not be as well-worn as the park’s other trails though it was wide and easy to follow on my visit.
            At 0.1 miles, you reach a narrow clearing (probably created by a buried pipe of some sort) that contains an observation tower.  Deer would frequent this type of habitat, but I saw only a few songbirds on the warm sunny afternoon that I hiked here.  One of the wooden steps broke under my feet on my descent from the tower, so this tower is in need of some maintenance and fresher wood.  Continuing east, the trail descends to cross a paved park road at 0.2 miles.  This road accesses the Panhandle Trail trailhead and the park’s cabin area before ending at the equestrian campground, so it is sparsely traveled.
View down pipeline clearing from observation tower
            The trail curves left and climbs slightly as it heads first north and then west.  A large number of sweet gum trees populate the forest, as do some shagbark hickory trees.  At 0.8 miles, you enter a mowed grass area and climb slightly to intersect the main park road.  The Tutelo Birding Trail ends here.  To continue this loop, turn left and walk a couple hundred feet on the park road to the start of the Mossey Creek Trail on the right.  A small parking area, post with trail signs, and wooden bench are located here.  This parking area could also serve as an alternate starting point for this hike, and walking further down the park road to our trailhead would form a shorter loop of only 1.1 miles.
Descending toward Mossey Creek
            The blue-blazed Mossey Creek Trail heads gently downhill into the ravine of its namesake creek.  Some large loblolly pines live in this part of the forest, and they cover the treadway with soft pine needles.  I also encountered a large number of spider webs across the trail, an indication that these trails do not see much use.  I did not pass another hiker on my hike, but I did bring my hiking staff so that it rather than my face could break the spider webs.
            Just past 1 mile, you reach the bank of tiny Mossey Creek.  Though small in width and water volume, I encountered a large number of frogs that call this creek home.  1.3 miles into the hike, you reach an intersection with the Warriors Path Nature Trail, which exits right to head for the boat ramps.  Our route angles left to stay on the Mossey Creek Trail as it heads upstream along another small creek.
Hiking along Mossey Creek
            After crossing the creek on a nice wooden footbridge, the trail climbs steeply but only for a short distance to reach the end of the Mossey Creek Trail at its junction with the Old Plantation Trail.  The Old Plantation Trail gets its name from William Townes’ Occoneechee Plantation that once stood here.  A crumbling brick chimney stands at this intersection, one of several remnants of old plantation buildings.
Chimney from Townes' Plantation
            The Old Plantation Trail forms a loop, and you could go either direction from the chimney.  This description will turn right to walk counterclockwise on the Old Plantation Trail.  The trail heads downhill to begin heading downstream along the same stream you just hiked upstream along a few minutes ago.  The Mossey Creek Trail is visible to the right across the small creek.
Intersecting Campground B connection trail
            The trail curves left to reach the Campground B connection trail, which exits right.  Turn right to leave the Old Plantation Trail and continue your journey around our loop.  After crossing a wooden footbridge built as a Girl Scout Gold Award project, the trail climbs to pass a slave cemetery where slaves at Occoneechee Plantation were buried.  No visible signs of the cemetery remain, but an interpretive sign helps you find the site.
            Just shy of 2 miles into the hike, the connection trail ends at the paved campground access road.  To head for the final segment of our hike, turn left on the campground road and walk uphill about 500 feet to the trailhead for the Big Oak Nature Trail, which sits on the right side of the road.  Another signpost and a large oak tree stand at this trailhead.
Hiking up the Big Oak Nature Trail
            The wide dirt Big Oak Nature Trail dips into another ravine before curving left to begin climbing gradually along another small creek.  A grassy area adjacent to Campground C can be seen to the right across the creek.  A gradual climb up through the wooded ravine brings you to the small parking lot that contains your car and the end of the hike.