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.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

New Market Battlefield State Historical Park (Blog Hike #547)

Trails: (unnamed)
Hike Location: New Market Battlefield State Historical Park
Geographic Location: New Market, VA (38.66152, -78.67055)
Length: 2 miles
Difficulty: 2/10 (Easy)
Last Hiked: August 2015
Overview: A pair of walking tours through a Civil War battlefield.
Park Information:
Hike Route Map:
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: In northern Virginia, take I-81 to US 211 (exit 264).  Exit, but instead of taking US 211 east, go west on SR 211.  In only 0.2 miles, turn right on George R. Collins Parkway.  The parkway deadends in 1.1 miles at the Virginia Civil War Museum, where this hike begins.  Park in the blacktop lot in front of the museum.

The hike: It was the spring of 1864, at the start of the Civil War’s fourth year, when Union Lieutenant General Ulysses Grant set in motion a grand strategy to finalize a Union victory.  The strategy called for a three-pronged southward offensive.  Grant himself would lead an army south out of Washington D.C. into northeastern Virginia to attack General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.  Union General William Sherman would lead more forces west of the Appalachians toward Chattanooga and Atlanta.  In between, Union Major General Franz Sigel would lead an army of 10,000 men into the Shenandoah Valley, the heart of Virginia’s agricultural economy.
            Realizing the threat posed by Sigel’s advance, Confederate General John Breckinridge summoned all available forces, which included cadets studying at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) in the southern Shenandoah Valley.  On May 15, 1864, Breckinridge’s forces met Sigel’s forces at New Market, VA.  Though outnumbered more than 2 to 1, Breckinridge employed an aggressive strategy that made heavy use of the VMI cadets.  At the end of the day, Sigel was forced to rapidly retreat northward to Strasburg, VA, and Breckinridge won one of the Confederacy’s last major Civil War victories.
            Today I-81 runs through the midst of the historic battlefield, but the Virginia Museum of the Civil War and adjacent New Market Battlefield State Historical Park tell the story of the battle.  The museum features artifacts and dioramas from the battle, while the state park offers two walking tours that access all of the battlefield’s major points of interest.  Combining the two walking tours using a pedestrian tunnel under I-81 forms the hike described here.  Note that a small admission fee is charged to access the grounds, so make sure you check in at the museum before heading out.
Start of western walking tour
            The walking tour starts at a gap in the split rail fence to the right (east) of the museum.  The mowed-grass trail heads northeast toward the battlefield, and the historic white Bushong Farm buildings visible straight ahead are your first destination.  Off in the distance Massanutten Mountain towers 1400 feet above you, thus giving this hike scenic as well as historic appeal.  The mountain was covered in fog on the unusually cool summer afternoon I came here.
            Just shy of 0.2 miles, you reach the Bushong Farm.  The federal-style home built by Jacob Bushong dates to 1825.  The Confederates occupied the area around the farm, while the Union held the land to the north.  The Bushong family hid in the cellar during the battle, and both the house and barn served as hospitals in the battle’s aftermath, a common practice during the Civil War.  The historic farm site consists of 11 structures including 2 historic homes, a barn, a blacksmith shop, and a wheelwright shop.
Bushong homestead
            You have to make a decision at the Bushong Farm.  The 1 mile western walking tour you are on continues straight, and this description rejoins this tour later.  To also tour the eastern part of the battlefield, turn right and walk through the concrete pedestrian tunnel that passes under both lanes of I-81.  I was disheartened to find the modern interstate built through the middle of an historic battlefield, but such is the situation.
            Now east of I-81, the eastern walking tour starts by heading down the original Bushong Farm driveway.  Red cedar trees now line this historic lane.  At 0.35 miles, the trail curves left to leave the driveway and head north toward the Union’s battlefield position.
Original Bushong Farm driveway
            After dipping through a small grassy hollow, the rolling mowed-grass trail reaches the 1905 stone monument to the 54th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment.  The 54th Pennsylvania was the last Union regiment to retreat, and they suffered one of the highest casualty rates of the battle.  A small parking area that serves the monument provides an alternate place to access the trail system if desired.
54th Pennsylvania monument
            The trail ends at the monument, so next you must retrace your steps to the Bushong Farm and turn right to continue the western battlefield walking tour.  The walking tour next passes the Woodson Monument, a small concrete plaque erected in 1905 by veterans of the Battle of New Market.  The monument honors Company A of the Confederate 1st Missouri Cavalry, which lost 40 of its 62 men in the battle.
            Continuing north, the trail exits the farm site and enters an area called the Field of Lost Shoes.  This area was the Bushong’s wheat field, and the 3 days of heavy rain that preceded the battle had turned the field into a muddy quagmire.  Thousands of soldiers charging over the field exacerbated the issue, causing many soldiers’ shoes to get sucked into the mud.
Union cannon display
            At 1.3 miles, you reach a cannon that marks the Union’s main line during the battle.  The trail curves left here and climbs slightly to reach another cannon and a two-track gravel road.  We will eventually turn left on the gravel road to head back for the museum, but first turn right and walk a short distance to a well-constructed west-facing overlook.  This overlook provides a nice view of the North Fork Shenandoah River some 120 feet below you while the Allegheny Mountains rise in the background to the west.
Overlook of Shenandoah River
            Back on the gravel road, the final southbound segment back to the museum is rather unexciting.  The route gives a close-up view of the Bushong Farm barn.  The Civil War-era barn was destroyed by fire in 1939, so this barn dates only to 1940.  A relatively flat walk across more open field brings you back to the gap in the split rail fence, thus concluding the hike.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

State Arboretum of Virginia (Blog Hike #546)

Trail: Native Plant Trail
Hike Location: State Arboretum of Virginia
Geographic Location: southeast of Winchester, VA (39.06451, -78.06432)
Length: 1 mile
Difficulty: 1/10 (Easy)
Last Hiked: August 2015
Overview: A mostly flat hike featuring plants native to Virginia.
Arboretum Information:
Hike Route Map:
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: In northern Virginia, take I-81 to US 50 (exit 313).  Exit and go east on US 50.  Drive US 50 east 8.8 miles to the signed arboretum entrance on the right.  Turn right to enter the arboretum, and park in the gravel visitor’s parking lot on the right in 0.5 miles at the start of the arboretum’s gravel loop road.

The hike: Owned and operated by the University of Virginia (UVA), the State Arboretum of Virginia features a collection of over 5500 trees and shrubs.  The arboretum is actually part of the 700 acre Blandy Experimental Farm, which UVA manages for recreation, education, and research.  The farm has given many graduate and undergraduate students in UVA’s agriculture programs valuable hands-on training in their fields.
            For visitors, the arboretum’s main attraction is a 2 mile gravel loop drive that features parking areas at most of the arboretum’s major sites.  The arboretum also offers several walking trail loops, but most of the walking loops use parts of the gravel roads, thus putting hikers in the path of vehicles.  One exception is the Native Plant Trail described here.  As its name suggests, the Native Plant Trail explores the area of the arboretum devoted to plants that are native to Virginia.  Though short, the Native Plant Trail provides a quiet, educational hike near the arboretum’s center, and it is my favorite trail at the arboretum.
Walking out of the parking area
            The Native Plant Trail does not start at the parking area, so a short walk is required to access the trail of interest.  Start at the information kiosk at the right (west) side of the parking area.  Walk south along the shrub-lined gravel path toward the headquarters building, an historic white building with orange roof called The Quarters.  Once a slave quarters for the plantation that occupied these grounds, today The Quarters contains administrative offices, a gift shop, and dormitory-style accommodations that are often used by arboretum researchers.
Native Plant Trail trailhead
            Walk through The Quarters’ breezeway, then angle left to head slightly downhill through a mowed grass area for the signed Native Plant Trail trailhead.  The cinder path heads east through a small cluster of trees.  This area features plants native to Virginia’s forests, and some signs help you identify plants of interest.
            At 0.2 miles, you reach a trail intersection at the east end of the woods that forms the loop portion of the Native Plant Trail.  For no particular reason, I chose to continue straight and use the trail going right as my return route, thus hiking the loop clockwise.  The cinder trail continues east as it heads into a meadow area that features plants native to Virginia’s prairies.  Many of these plants were in bloom when I hiked here on a seasonally cool mid-August morning, and a family of deer welcomed me to the prairie.
Walking through the meadow
            0.45 miles into the hike, the trail curves right as it crosses a boardwalk over a small wet area, which contains many grasses and shrubs native to Virginia’s wetlands.  After climbing slightly, you reach the wooden Overlook Pavilion.  A ramp leads up to the small covered structure that provided me shelter during a light rain shower.  The pavilion also overlooks a small pond that contained some turtles and birds on my visit.
Turtles and bird in pond
            Continuing around the loop, you next pass some limestone rock outcrops that remind you how close to the surface the northern Virginia bedrock lies.  Now heading west, the native meadow area lies to the right, and a mowed grass area lies to the left.  A final right curve onto what appears to be an old road leads you to the close of the loop.  Retrace your steps to The Quarters and the parking area to complete the hike, or explore other parts of the arboretum.  The arboretum has a nice conifer collection, and Dogwood Lane makes for a scenic stroll in the spring when the dogwoods lining the trail bloom.  Either before or after your hike, be sure to drive the Loop Road for a tour of some of the arboretum’s research areas.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Powder Mill Ledges Wildlife Refuge (Blog Hike #545)

Trails: Orange, Blue, and Yellow Trails
Hike Location: Powder Mill Ledges Wildlife Refuge
Geographic Location: south side of Smithfield, RI (41.86837, -71.53041)
Length: 1.7 miles
Difficulty: 2/10 (Easy)
Last Hiked: August 2015
Overview: A gently undulating loop through a wide variety of habitats.
Hike Route Map:
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: On the west side of Providence, take I-295 to US 44 (exit 7).  Exit and go west on US 44.  Drive US 44 west 0.6 miles to SR 5 and turn left on SR 5.  Drive SR 5 south 0.2 miles to the refuge entrance on the left.  Turn left to enter the refuge, and park in the gravel parking lot beside the Audubon Society headquarters building.

The hike: Owned and operated by the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, Powder Mill Ledges Wildlife Refuge protects 120 acres in highly developed central Rhode Island.  The refuge’s name comes from a gunpowder factory/mill that operated in the area during our nation’s early days.  The exact location of the mill is uncertain, but the road we know today as US 44 was originally chartered as the Powder Mill Turnpike in 1810.  An inn for pioneer travelers operated on this site in the early 1800’s.
            Today the refuge serves as the headquarters for the Audubon Society of Rhode Island.  The headquarters building beside the parking lot contains a gift shop, a teacher’s resource center, and a bird feeding station, but it is only open Monday through Friday.  The refuge’s three trails, on the other hand, are open dawn to dusk seven days per week.  The three trails form successively longer loops, and hiking the longest loop forms the 1.7 mile hike described here.
Orange Trail trailhead
            From the side of the headquarters building, the Orange Trail, the first of the three successive loops, leaves in two directions: left and right.  This trail description uses the right option as the outbound route and the left option as the return route, thus hiking the loop counterclockwise.  The trail heads roughly south with a meadow through the trees first on the left and later on the right.  The meadows were full of colorful purple flowers when I hiked here in mid-August.
            Where the inner loop of the Orange Trail exits left, angle right to hike the full Orange Trail.  After passing some old stone walls that separated farm fields long ago, you reach a narrow wooden boardwalk.  This boardwalk crosses a small seasonally wet area that features some young pine trees.  Once across the boardwalk, the trail curves left to climb gradually to reach the top of a small hill.
Boardwalk on Orange Trail
            At 0.4 miles, you reach the intersection with the Blue Trail, which exits right.  If you wanted a short hike of only 0.8 miles, you could continue straight and hike only the Orange Trail.  For a longer tour, turn right to begin the Blue Trail.  The Blue Trail assumes a gently rolling course as it heads east through a pine planting.
            Just past 0.6 miles, you come out at a wide high voltage power line clearing and an intersection with the Yellow Trail.  Again you can choose to short circuit the hike if you wish, but this description turns right to begin the Yellow Trail.  After passing a bench, the Yellow Trail continues this hike’s eastward course as it heads under the power lines.  I counted no less than 17 power lines in this corridor, and the shrubby, slightly rocky terrain gives this area all the charm of an urban industrial park.
Power lines
            The trail enters the woods on the other side of the power lines and continues east to intersect another sign of suburbia: a gravel road used by utility crews to access a transformer.  Look for the yellow paint blazes to find where the trail reenters the forest on the other side of the road.  Nearing the refuge’s eastern boundary, the trail curves left to begin heading north through young broadleaf forest.  Honestly, the young forest, power lines, and gravel road ensure that the Yellow Trail does not make for the most scenic hiking.
Hiking the Yellow Trail
            More gradual left turning brings the trail back first to the gravel road and then to the power lines.  Upon reaching the power lines, the trail curves left and begins climbing gradually under the wires on a two-track gravel path.  This turn is not marked, but the thick undergrowth below the power lines makes it difficult to get off of the trail.  I also heard some ATV’s on this path, so keep an open ear and eye as you walk.
            1.2 miles into the hike, you close the loop of the Yellow Trail.  The gravel path continues south under the power lines here, so be on the lookout for this intersection.  Turn right to get back to the Blue Trail, then turn right again to continue the Blue Trail.  The Blue Trail stays on the edge of the power line clearing before curving left to leave the power lines for good (finally!) and reenter the more scenic pine forest.
Wolf tree
            Now heading slightly downhill, you pass some large trees with limbs very close to the ground.  These trees have lived here since the days when this land was cleared, and they are known as wolf trees.  At 1.5 miles, you reach the end of the Blue Trail at its intersection with the Orange Trail.  Turn right to continue the Orange Trail, then turn right again where the Orange Trail’s inner loop exits left.  After passing through another old stone wall, the Orange Trail curves left as it nears the refuge’s north boundary.  A brief walk through a meadow brings you back to the headquarters building to complete the hike.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Vaughan Woods Memorial State Park (Blog Hike #544)

Trails: River Run and Bridle Path Trails
Hike Location: Vaughan Woods Memorial State Park
Geographic Location: south of South Berwick, ME (43.21199, -70.81274)
Length: 1.7 miles
Difficulty: 3/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: August 2015
Overview: A rolling loop hike with good Salmon Falls River views.
Hike Route Map:
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: In extreme southwestern Maine, take I-95 to SR 236 (exit 3).  Exit and go north on SR 236.  Drive SR 236 north 6.2 miles to SR 101 and turn left on SR 101.  Drive SR 101 0.2 miles to Oldfields Road and turn right on Oldfields Rd.  The state park entrance is on the left after 2.6 miles on Oldfields Rd.  Turn left to enter the park, pay the small entrance fee, and park in the gravel parking lot beside the picnic tables.

The hike: Located in extreme western Maine flush against the New Hampshire state line, Vaughan Woods Memorial State Park protects 250 acres of old farmland along the Salmon Falls River.  Farming here dates to the late 1700’s, when farming practices called for cultivating a plot of land for only a decade or so before moving on to a new plot of land.  The old plot was then left to grow up through the natural stages of forest succession, which includes berry bushes, brush, and finally trees.
In 1898, Emily Tyson of Boston bought a plot of old farmland that was just starting to grow young white pine trees.  Emily and her daughter Elizabeth Vaughan managed the forest for its health and beauty, and Elizabeth, an accomplished equestrian, enjoyed riding horses through the forest.  In 1949, Vaughan bequeathed the land to the State of Maine to be maintained in a “natural and wild state,” thus forming the state park.
True to Vaughan’s wishes, the park today boasts only a small picnic area and a pit toilet for facilities, thus allowing the natural and wild woods to take center stage.  A single main loop trail of 1.7 miles traverses the woods, but numerous short-cut trails allow you to hike a shorter route if that is desired.  The longest loop takes about an hour to navigate, and that route is the one described here.
Trailhead beside pit toilet
The trail that goes left (south) from the parking area between the picnic tables will be our return route.  Our outbound route starts at the rear of the parking area beside the pit toilet at a wooden sign that says “Walking/Hiking Trail.”  This gravel trail is the newest in the park, and it drops steeply straight down the hillside to reach a trail intersection.  The path going right takes you down to the Salmon Falls River bank, but you will get more river views later.  Thus, I chose to angle left to begin heading south parallel to the river.
The trail crosses small Hamilton Brook on a wooden footbridge and heads south with the river downhill to the right and the hillside rising to the left.  Dark shady hemlock forest dominates the area near the river.  After climbing slightly at 0.2 miles, you need to angle right just before you intersect the Bridle Path, the return portion of our loop.  Some faint white blazes mark the outbound trail, which is called River Run on the park’s trail map.
Hiking River Run
The trail undulates somewhat as it dips in and out of a long sequence of small ravines.  Wooden footbridges get you over most of the streams in these ravines.  Salmon Falls River remains in sight through the trees on the right, and several benches placed sporadically along the trail allow you to sit and enjoy the forest and river.  You are so far west in Maine that looking across the river provides views into New Hampshire.
Salmon Falls River
Four different trails exit left at various points and allow you to short-cut the hike.  In the order you intersect them, these trails are named Porcupine Path, Windy Walk, Warren Way, and Old Gate.  At 0.7 miles, the trail passes around Cow Cove, a large, shallow, muddy inlet of the Salmon Falls River.
Just past 0.8 miles, you reach the furthest point from the trailhead at a location called Trails End.  The riverside River Run Trail and ridgetop Bridle Path both end at this point, which lies near the park’s southern boundary.  Another bench is located at Trails End, but the view is similar to several river views you have already passed.
Trails End
To continue the loop, leave Trails End on the Bridle Path as it climbs moderately to reach the hilltop.  Because this trail runs along the hilltop rather than along the river, it bypasses all of the small ravines, so the hiking is a little easier compared to the outbound route.  Some paper birch trees make an appearance in the ridgetop forest.  Though horses are allowed on this path, I saw no evidence of horse activity when I hiked here.
At 1.1 miles, you reach the historic Warren Home Site, the former home of James Warren.  Born in Scotland, Warren came to America in 1650 as a prisoner of war.  He settled this site in 1656, where he lived until he died in 1702.  Today only a small clearing and mound remain of Warren’s home.
Warren Home Site
Continuing north, the trail next passes through an old gate.  Only a concrete post remains of the gate.  At 1.5 miles, the Bridle Path drops slightly to reach Hamilton Brook, which it crosses on a new wooden bridge.  Where the Shady Stroll Trail continues straight upstream along Hamilton Brook, turn left for the final leg back to the parking area.  A steep climb over wooden waterbars brings you out at the picnic tables beside the parking lot, thus completing the hike.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Pawtuckaway State Park: Mountain Trail to South Mountain (Blog Hike #543)

Trails: Mountain and South Ridge Trails
Hike Location: Pawtuckaway State Park
Geographic Location: north of Raymond, NH (43.08415, -71.17419)
Length: 4.6 miles
Difficulty: 6/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: August 2015
Overview: An out-and-back to the fire tower on South Mountain.
Hike Route Map:
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: In southeastern New Hampshire, take SR 101 to SR 102 (exit 5).  Exit and go north on SR 102.  Drive SR 102 north 0.4 miles to SR 27 and turn left on SR 27.  Drive SR 27 west 0.1 miles to SR 156 and turn right on SR 156.  Drive SR 156 north 1.4 miles to Mountain Road and turn left on Mountain Rd.  Drive Mountain Rd. 2 miles to the state park entrance on the left.  Turn left to enter the park, stop at the Visitor Center to pick up a trail map, then pay the park admission fee at the toll booth.  The trailhead for the Mountain Trail is on the left 0.4 miles past the toll booth and just after passing an unnamed pond.  There is roadside parking for about a dozen vehicles.

The hike: Here’s a question: what do Crater Lake in central Oregon and Pawtuckaway State Park in southeast New Hampshire have in common?  One answer: they both lie on ancient volcanoes.  The volcano under Pawtuckaway is much more ancient and more eroded than Crater Lake, but it can still be made out on a topographic map.  Using the Google Map linked to above, look for the ring of high ground anchored on the south and north sides by South Mountain and North Mountain respectively.  Middle Mountain lies in the center of the ancient volcanic ring dyke.
            The volcanic features lie in the western end of 5500 acre Pawtuckaway State Park.  In terms of facilities, the park offers a major 195-site campground, but the park’s most popular attraction is adjacent Pawtuckaway Lake, which also gives the park its name.  The park’s beach on Pawtuckaway Lake is so popular that tickets are required to access it, and tickets often sell out on warm-weather weekends.
            Fortunately for hikers, no tickets are necessary to hike the 15 miles of trails that wind through the park’s natural areas.  In contrast to what you might expect in New Hampshire, most of the trails are fairly flat and easy except for the areas around the ancient volcanic ring dyke.  The trail system offers many hiking routes, but the park’s signature hike is the one described here.  This hike starts at the main park road, uses the Mountain Trail to climb gradually to the west arm of South Mountain, then embarks on a steep climb up the South Ridge Trail to the mountain’s summit where fantastic views await.
Trailhead: Mountain and Round Pond Trails
            Pick up the combined Mountain and Round Pond Trails as they leave the west shoulder of the paved park road at a wire vehicle gate.  The initial segment of trail stays close to a pond on the left, so be on the lookout for wildlife.  I saw a heron sitting on a log as I walked past the pond early on a Saturday morning.
Pond along Mountain Trail
            After passing the pond, the trail curves right and climbs gradually to top a low ridge before descending the other side.  The wide dirt trail remains quite straight as some old rock walls appear on the left, remnants of this land’s agricultural days.  Some official-looking signs that accompany the white hiking paint blazes remind you that this trail doubles as a snowmobile trail in the winter.
            At 0.5 miles, the Round Pond and Mountain Trails part ways.  As directed by a wooden sign, turn right to remain on the more heavily used Mountain Trail.  The trail undulates slightly as it passes near a couple of small ponds, but neither pond comes into view.  Just past 1 mile, the trail gets a little rockier and climbs slightly as it approaches the southeastern base of South Mountain.
Hiking the Mountain Trail
            After completing the brief moderate climb, the trail curves left to continue heading west.  You next tread a narrow area of high ground with ponds on either side, but again neither pond comes into view.  At 1.5 miles, the trail climbs on another moderate but more extended grade to ascend the west arm of South Mountain.
            1.8 miles into the hike, you reach an intersection with the South Ridge Trail, which exits right.  As directed by another sign, you need to turn right here to head for the fire tower atop South Mountain.  The South Ridge Trail is marked with white plastic diamonds nailed to trees.
Climbing South Mountain
After a brief level area, the climb up South Mountain begins in earnest as the trail becomes steeper and rockier.  As you gain elevation, hemlocks from the lower areas give way to stunted pines on the mountain.  In spite of the rockiness, the trail is manageable for most people if you take your time and plan your steps carefully.
North-facing viewpoint
            At 2.3 miles, you reach the top of a rock ledge that offers the first truly outstanding view.  This viewpoint faces north, so Middle Mountain and North Mountain sit in the foreground with taller mountains off on the horizon.  After taking in this view, turn right and walk across the bare rock to the fire tower, which stands nearly 20 feet above the treetops.  The top of the tower was not open on my visit, but climbing the steps to the landing below the top still gives 360-degree views of the surrounding area.
South Mountain fire tower
            I did this hike as an out-and-back, and therefore I turned around after climbing the fire tower and retraced my steps 2.3 miles to the roadside parking area.  If you wanted to extend your hike, you could form a small loop by taking the Tower Trail or the northeast section of the South Ridge Trail back down to the Mountain Trail and then turning left to hike the entire Mountain Trail.  For a longer loop, other trails access Middle and North Mountains, which also lie within the park boundary.  The options are many, but mind your ability and amount of daylight when deciding how to complete your hike.