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.

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
Length: 3.5 miles
Difficulty: 5/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: November 2015
Overview: A double loop featuring two swinging bridges and nice lake views.

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
Length: 3 miles
Difficulty: 5/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: October 2015
Overview: An out-and-back to a fantastic overlook of downtown Birmingham.
Preserve Information: http://ruffnermountain.org/

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.
            At 1.2 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
            1.5 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.