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
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.

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.
            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.


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