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
Length: 2.6 miles
Difficulty: 4/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: August 2015
Overview: A rolling loop hike featuring creekside habitats.

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.
            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.
            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.

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