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
Length: 1.5 miles
Difficulty: 3/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: November 2015
Overview: A short lollipop loop featuring ridgetop and creekside segments.

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.

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