Thursday, December 29, 2016

Closing Out 2016

Phinizy Swamp Nature Park marks the end of another prolific year on the trail for me.  Though I didn't plan it this way, there has been a swamp theme to my hiking trips this year.  I started back in January in the Louisiana swamps, then went to Dismal Swamp in southeast Virginia, later did Cedar Bog in Ohio (not quite a swamp, but close), then went to the swamps of eastern North Carolina, and finished with Phinizy Swamp near Augusta, GA.  Counting swamps and everything else, I hiked 57 new trails this year for 165 miles in 17 different states, including 2 new states: Missouri and Nebraska.  Overall, I have had a fantastic time observing God's creation in its natural state on the trail this year.

Looking forward to 2017, I should get off to a fast start: I have a trip planned to southern Alabama in January.  I also hope to get to Arkansas (new state!), Kentucky, Michigan, and western Pennsylvania this coming year.  (Aside: I have under-hiked Pennsylvania, considering it is not that far from where I live.  There are a lot of fine state parks up there, and I have only done 9 Pennsylvania hikes, which ranks 16th out of the 39 states I have hiked in.)

Thank you for reading, and see you on the trail in 2017!

David, aka the Mathprofhiker

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Phinizy Swamp Nature Park (Blog Hike #612)

Trails: Rain Garden, Constructed Wetland, River Scar, and Blue Trails
Hike Location: Phinizy Swamp Nature Park
Geographic Location: south side of Augusta, GA
Length: 5.3 miles
Difficulty: 3/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: December 2016
Overview: A very flat hike featuring good birding and many wetlands.
Park Information: http://phinizycenter.org/

Directions to the trailhead: On the south side of Augusta, take I-520 to Doug Bernard Parkway (exit 10).  Exit and go south on Doug Bernard Pkwy.  Drive Doug Bernard Pkwy. 1.2 miles to Lock and Dam Road.  Turn left on Lock and Dam Rd.; there is a sign for Phinizy Swamp Nature Park at this intersection.  Drive Lock and Dam Rd. 0.6 miles to the signed park entrance on the left.  Turn left to enter the park, then park in the visitor’s parking lot, which is the first gravel parking lot on the left.  6 old silos stand at this parking lot’s rear.

The hike: The history of Phinizy Swamp Nature Park is a story of urban environmental reclamation.  From the 1880’s through the 1960’s the City of Augusta dumped untreated wastewater and stormwater directly into Butler Creek, which runs along the west boundary of today’s park.  Many years of this dumping caused Butler Creek and adjacent parts of the Savannah River to become a dead zone incapable of supporting life.
            The passage of the Clean Water Act in 1968 forced the City to construct a wastewater treatment plant, which you drove past on your way in.  When the plant became insufficient to treat Augusta’s wastewater, the City chose to construct a system of man-made wetland cells to function as a tertiary (third-order) treatment step.  These man-made wetlands comprise the majority of Phinizy Swamp Nature Park today.
            The park gets its name from Ferdinand Victor Francois Phinizy, an Italian entrepreneur who in 1778 became the first businessman to set up shop in this area.  In the 1950’s the State of Georgia operated a beef farm here that was staffed by mental health patients, hence the silos at the rear of the parking area.  The City of Augusta bought the land in 1973, but it remained undeveloped until the wetland cells were constructed in 1993.  The non-profit Phinizy Center for Water Sciences, which runs the nature park, was founded a few years later.
            The Center today offers several education classrooms, some research labs, and a Swamp Shop and Visitor Center that is open only on weekends.  The dikes that separate the wetland cells offer many miles of hiking, and the park contains some boardwalks and nature trails that offer a more traditional hiking experience.  The route described here explores both the wooded nature trails and the sunny wetland cell area.  Because the majority of this hike is exposed to the sun, this is not a hike for a hot summer afternoon.  However, my winter visit here was very pleasant, and I saw a lot of waterfowl in the wetlands.
Trailhead at front of parking area
            The trail that starts behind the silos at the rear of the parking area will be our return route.  This hike starts at the front of the parking area where a trail marked “Visitor Center” heads east.  An information board with trail maps also stands here.  Another short trail that starts across the entrance road leads to the Cason Family Cemetery, a pioneer family that lived here in the 1800’s.
            The Visitor Center Trail heads east and quickly reaches a boardwalk over the wetlands of Butler Creek.  This point sits just downstream from where the untreated wastewater entered Butler Creek before 1968, and therefore it was one of the most polluted streams in Georgia back then.  50 years later, this wetland teams with Spanish moss-draped trees and waterfowl, so much so that the park has been named an Important Bird Area.  My bird sightings included egrets, ibis’s, herons, and cranes, in addition to common songbirds such as sparrows, cardinals, and robins.
Butler Creek wetland

A bird-filled tree
            At the east end of the boardwalk, you reach the Visitor Center and the park’s research/education buildings.  Turn left and walk through the grassy playground area to reach the William Bartram Rain Garden, which is named after the famous explorer who came to this area in the late 1700’s.  The small shallow pond at the center of the Rain Garden contained numerous ducks, coots, and cormorants on my visit.  An observation deck gives a good view of the pond.
Rain Garden pond
            After seeing what you can see at the observation deck, turn right to hike the wooden boardwalk that traces three sides of the pond.  When the boardwalk ends, turn right and then continue straight to begin hiking north along the western boundary of the wetland cell area.  A sewage treatment area may not seem like a nice place to hike, but there are rewards for hiking here.  I did not detect any sewage odor (except at one point that I will note later), and the lack of trees make great sight lines for bird viewing.  The abundance of open wetlands make this area feel more like a coastal wildlife refuge than somewhere in east-central Georgia.  Only an occasional low-flying jet from nearby Augusta Regional Airport disturbs the ambiance.
Windshear Tower
            At 0.7 miles, you reach Windshear Tower.  Although this tower looks like a cell phone tower from a distance, closer observation reveals that it is actually a weather monitoring station.  Upon reaching the tower, turn right to begin walking atop an earthen dike between two wetland cells.  The wetland cells are numbered 1 through 12, but it can be hard to identify which cell is which on the ground.  Cell #2 is on your left and cell #3 is on your right during this segment.
            At the eastern end of cells #2 and #3, you reach the Distribution Canal, so named because it distributes partially treated wastewater to and from the cells.  The reedy Distribution Canal is surrounded by a chain link fence, so it does not make the most scenic hiking.  While this route minimizes the time near the Distribution Canal, avoiding it entirely is hard because it runs through the middle of the cell area.  Turn right to begin hiking the gravel road beside the chain link fence.
Wetland cell area
            At 1.5 miles, you reach a gazebo that offers a bench and a trash can.  Turn left here to leave the Distribution Canal and begin a northeastward course with cell #11 on your left and a smaller canal on your right.  Expansive views across the wetland cells spread out to the left.  Just shy of 2.5 miles, you reach the northeast corner of the cell area and a trail intersection.  Angle right to follow a two-track dirt path into the woods.
            Another wetland area sits to the left, but this area features algae-covered water and many Spanish moss draped bald cypress trees in contrast to the sunny cell area.  At 2.7 miles, you reach the eastern end of cell #4, which sits apart from the other wetland cells, and another trail intersection.  Turn left to hike west along the dike that is the southern edge of cell #4.
View from River Scar Deck
            The trail curves gradually left as it passes the only part of the hike that smelled like sewage on my visit.  Just past 3 miles, you reach the wooden River Scar Deck, which offers a nice view of the wooded wetland to the left.  The dike continues to angle left to reach the end of cell #4.  Continue straight to return to the main wetland cell area, then turn right to head around cell #1.
            At 3.8 miles, you reach wooden 3 Ton Bridge, which gets its name from its weight limit.  Turn right to cross the bridge and exit the wetland cell area for good.  At the west end of the bridge, you reach Equalization Pond.  Turn right to begin heading counterclockwise around the pond.  A wooden fence between the trail and the water circumnavigates the pond, which contained numerous ducks, coots, and cormorants on my visit.
Ibis in Equalization Pond
            On the north end of the pond, pass an outdoor classroom on the right and a gravel road that exits right; it leads to the main wastewater treatment plant.  At 4.5 miles, look for a wooden staircase that descends to the right.  Turn right to leave the pond area and begin an unmarked single-track dirt trail the park map calls the Blue Trail.  A boardwalk called the Green Trail used to head left through a wooded wetland, but it is closed now.
            The Blue Trail passes through a loblolly pine forest to come along side Butler Creek at the point where untreated wastewater used to enter the creek.  Butler Creek here flows in a well-defined channel that is lined with Spanish moss draped trees.  After crossing the creek on a wood/iron bridge, the trail curves left with the Mayor’s Fishing Hole, a large pond, on the right.  Ironically, fishing is not allowed at Phinizy Swamp Nature Park.  The trail surface turns to gravel just before you come out behind the silos at the parking lot, thus completing the hike.


Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Bunched Arrowhead Heritage Preserve (Blog Hike #611)

Acknowledgement: special thanks to my friend Tom King, aka the Waterfallwalker, for recommending this hike to me.

Trail: (unnamed)
Hike Location: Bunched Arrowhead Heritage Preserve
Geographic Location: northeast of Travelers Rest, SC
Length: 1.3 miles
Difficulty: 2/10 (Easy)
Last Hiked: November 2016
Overview: A short loop through interesting prairie and wetland seep habitats.

Directions to the trailhead: From the US 276/US 25 split in Travelers Rest, take US 25 north 1.9 miles to Tigerville Road; there is a traffic light at this intersection.  Turn right on Tigerville Rd.  Drive Tigerville Rd. east 1 mile to Shelton Road and turn left on Shelton Rd.  Drive narrow but paved Shelton Rd. north 0.9 miles to McCauley Road and turn right on McCauley Rd.  Drive McCauley Rd. 0.6 miles to the preserve’s parking lot, which is located on the right behind a chain-link fence; you will see the fence before you see the parking lot or preserve sign.  Park in the fenced-in lot, making sure you plan to exit before the gate gets locked at sundown.

The hike: If you have done a fair amount of hiking in South Carolina, then for sure you are well-acquainted with South Carolina’s fine state parks and national forests, but have you ever heard of the state’s Heritage Preserves?  Unbeknownst to many, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources owns and operates a system of 93 Heritage Preserves scattered throughout the state.  Typically Heritage Preserves are small tracts of land whose amenities amount to at most a parking area and a primitive trail system.  Other states (including Ohio, where I am from originally) call this type of area a State Nature Preserve.  Thus, while Heritage Preserves do not make ideal destinations for a resort-style vacation or a company picnic, they are perfect for quiet dayhikes on secluded trails.
            This post features Bunched Arrowhead Heritage Preserve, a 179 acre tract of land located in the upper reaches of the Enoree River watershed.  The preserve is named for the bunched arrowhead plant (binomial name Sagittaria fasciculate), a federally endangered species that has only been found in four counties: Henderson and Buncombe in North Carolina and Greenville and Laurens in South Carolina.  The bunched arrowhead grows in wetland seeps including the ones found on this property.
            The preserve has only one official trail, a 1.3 mile loop through the heart of the preserve, but I found several unofficial trails here as well.  The trails are more or less unmarked, so I recommend taking a picture of the trail map at the information board for reference during your hike.  The route described here follows the official trail for its entire loop.
Information board at trailhead
            From the information board, angle left to pick up the trail as it descends slightly through tallgrass prairie.  The preserve consists of about one-third prairie and two-thirds mixed deciduous and pine forest, so the trail persistently goes back and forth between prairie and forest.  A large number of bird houses hang beside and above the trail.
            Where an unofficial trail exits right, the official trail angles left to enter the forest for the first time.  The next segment passes beside a wetland area.  This kind of habitat is prime territory for the bunched arrowhead.  After curving to the right, you meet the other end of the unofficial trail, where another left turn is required.
Re-entering the prairie
            For the next 0.3 miles the trail heads generally west near the edge of the forest with the prairie visible through the trees uphill to the right.  When I hiked this trail in late fall, numerous large bean-like seed packets from black locust trees littered the ground.  After some minor undulations, you reach the lowest elevation of this hike where a wooden bridge takes you over a small stream.  A few old green aluminum disks bearing the universal hiking symbol indicate that this trail used to be marked, but the markers are too few and far between to be of any help now.
            At 0.8 miles, a brief climb brings you to the west end of a small earthen dam.  As indicated by a metal marker nailed to a wooden post, you need to turn right here to continue the official loop.  The unofficial trail continuing straight leads to McCauley Road but not to the preserve parking lot.
Hiking across the dam
            The trail heads east across the dam, which drops off steeply on either side.  At the east end of the dam, follow another arrow that points right; the unofficial trail going straight leads to private property.  The trail treads through forest around the southern end of the private property to reach the edge of the prairie just shy of 1 mile into the hike.  Where another unofficial trail exits left, stay straight to remain on the official trail.
            The trail heads directly across the prairie before dipping again to pass through one last seepage area, which is crossed via a sequence of short wooden boardwalks.  A left curve and gradual climb brings you within sight of McCauley Road.  A final short roadside segment deposits you at the west end of the parking area, thus completing the hike.


Sunday, October 16, 2016

Chattahoochee National Forest, Brasstown Bald: Summit and Wagon Train Trails (Blog Hike #610)

Trails: Summit and Wagon Train Trails
Hike Location: Chattahoochee National Forest, Brasstown Bald
Geographic Location: south of Hiawassee, GA
Length: 3.6 miles
Difficulty: 6/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: October 2016
Overview: A steep climb to Brasstown Bald followed by a fairly flat course to a secluded overlook.

Directions to the trailhead: From the intersection of SR 17 and SR 180, which is located 10 miles north of Helen or 9 miles south of Hiawassee, take SR 180 west 5.3 miles to SR 180 Spur.  Turn sharply right on SR 180 Spur.  Drive winding SR 180 Spur uphill for 3 steep miles to the huge parking lot for the Brasstown Bald Visitor Information Center.  Pay the $5 per person entrance fee and park as close to the restroom building on the right as you can.  The hike starts at the restroom building.

The hike: If you come to Brasstown Bald on most days, you may wonder why the parking lot was built five times larger than necessary.  If you come on a weekend in late October, you may feel lucky to get a parking space.  At 4784 feet, Brasstown Bald is not only the highest point in Georgia, but it is also one of the top leaf-peeping destinations in the entire southeast.  I had been trying to get to Brasstown Bald every fall since I moved to Georgia in 2005, and my first visit here in October 2016 did not disappoint.
            Brasstown Bald gets its name not from the fall leaf color but from a translation error for the name of an ancient Cherokee town located in this area.  English settlers confused the Cherokee word Itseyi (“new green place”) for the Cherokee word Untsaiyi (“brass”).  The mountain’s elevation gives it a climate more akin to Massachusetts than Georgia, causing the new green colors of spring to come later and yellow/orange/red fall colors to come earlier here than at surrounding areas.  Thus, Brasstown Bald occupies a special place in the north Georgia mountains.
            In addition to Brasstown Bald’s touristy summit that all visitors flock to, several hiking trails start at the huge parking lot and offer more solitude by exploring the mountain’s natural areas.  The Jack’s Knob Trail heads south for 4.5 miles to intersect the Appalachian Trail at Chattahoochee Gap, the headwaters of the Chattahoochee River.  The Arkaquah Trail heads west for 5.5 miles past a rocky overlook, while the Wagon Train Trail heads north and down for 6 miles to the campus of Young Harris College.  Only the asphalt Summit Trail goes to the summit of Brasstown Bald.  The hike described here combines the Summit Trail and part of the Wagon Train Trail to explore both the mountain’s touristy and wilderness sides.
Brasstown Bald summit tower, as seen from parking lot
            The Forest Service van shuttle to Brasstown Bald’s summit departs on the left side of the restroom building, while the asphalt Summit Trail starts on the right side at a signed trailhead.  The free van shuttle offers access to the summit for people in poor health, but people in good physical condition should choose the trail instead.  Not only will walking to the summit let you experience the mountain’s natural environment, but you also get the satisfaction of earning your views at the top.  Make no mistake: you will earn your views on the Summit Trail, as the 0.5 mile trail gains 424 feet of elevation. 
Summit Trail trailhead
The series of broad switchbacks begins immediately as the parking lot soon disappears from view.  At 0.1 miles, the signed Wagon Train Trail exits right.  This hike will go up the Wagon Train Trail later, but for now stay on the asphalt and continue pushing toward the summit.  The grade is persistently steep, but some benches and some interpretive signs offer reasons to stop and catch your breath when needed.  Walls of rhododendron and mountain laurel on either side of the trail forbid any views.
At 0.4 miles, you cross the asphalt shuttle road.  Signs warn that the shuttle road is closed to pedestrians, but I would not be tempted to hike up the road: it is just as steep but less scenic than the trail.  In another 0.1 miles, you reach the summit area, which contains a small picnic area, the van shuttle pick-up area, and a large summit building.
Built in 1966, the present Visitor Information Center at the summit replaced several earlier summit watchtowers and buildings, including one built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1935.  The center features some exhibits and a theater that shows a short movie about the mountain’s four seasons, but the main attraction is the extensive outdoor observation deck, which offers 360-degree top-of-the-world views.  On my visit on a sunny mid-October afternoon, the leaves in the highest elevations had turned red, orange, and yellow, while the lower elevations were still completely green.  The most colorful leaves were on the mountain’s north face.  I was able to see mountains in four states: Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee.  I have read that you can see downtown Atlanta from here on a clear day, but it was not visible on my visit.  I spent much time and took many photos here, so enjoy the literal high point on this hike.
Parking area, as seen from summit

View west from summit

View north from summit

View east from summit
After you tear yourself away from the observation deck, head back down the Summit Trail.  When you reach the Wagon Train Trail at 0.9 miles, turn left to leave the asphalt and begin the Wagon Train Trail.  Unlike the summit and parking areas, the Wagon Train Trail is seldom-used, so any crowds that might have accompanied you so far will quickly be left behind.
After a brief moderate climb at the outset, you curve left and begin a steady gradual descent that will comprise the rest of our outward journey on the Wagon Train Trail.  The Wagon Train Trail is unblazed and lightly maintained because it travels through the federally designated Brasstown Wilderness, but it is wide and easy to identify because it follows an old wagon road for its entire distance.  This route was once planned to be upgraded to become Georgia SR 66, but those plans were cancelled in 1982 when this area gained wilderness status.
Hiking the Wagon Train Trail
The trail descends gradually along the east and north faces of Brasstown Bald.  1.3 miles into the hike, you walk around a metal vehicle gate and pass an information board shortly before you officially enter the Brasstown Wilderness.  Some rocky areas present themselves on this part of the trail.  Be careful if you are walking this trail during or just after leaf fall because leaf litter will cover up the rocks.
Now heading north atop one of Brasstown Bald’s finger ridges, the trail passes to the left of a small unnamed knob.  Some low cliffs rise to the right of the old roadbed here.  Look for drill marks in the rock to confirm that these cliffs were made by road-builders and not by God via natural forces.  Icicles cover these cliffs in the winter.
Cliffs beside roadbed
2.2 miles into the hike (or 1.3 miles from the start of the Wagon Train Trail), you arrive atop a cliff that creates a natural west-facing vista.  Young Harris and Brasstown Valley lie in the foreground, while ridge after ridge unfold in the background.  The view here is not as expansive as at the summit, but this overlook’s wilderness location means that you may have this view to yourself, which will almost surely not be the case at the touristy summit observation deck.
Wilderness vista
The Wagon Train Trail continues past the vista, but the entire 6 mile one-way trail is too long for a comfortable day-hike unless you can arrange a car shuttle down at Young Harris.  Thus, the vista makes a nice spot to turn around and begin the gradual climb back up to the Summit Trail.  Turn left on the Summit Trail and descend to the parking lot to complete your visit to the roof of Georgia.


Monday, October 10, 2016

Lumber River State Park: Griffin's Bluff Trail (Blog Hike #609)

Trail: Griffin’s Bluff Trail
Hike Location: Lumber River State Park
Geographic Location: south of Lumberton, NC
Length: 0.7 miles
Difficulty: 1/10 (Easy)
Last Hiked: September 2016
Overview: A short loop along the Lumber River and atop Griffin’s Bluff.

Directions to the trailhead: These driving directions start at the community of Orrum, NC, which is located on SR 130 6.7 miles east of Fairmont or 2.4 miles west of US 74.  Take Creek Road south out of Orrum for 3.6 miles to Princess Ann Road.  Turn left on Princess Ann Road.  Drive Princess Ann Rd. 2.1 miles to the state park entrance on the left.  Turn left to enter the park, pass the park office, and park in the blacktop picnic area parking lot on the left immediately past the park office.

The hike: Established only in 1989, Lumber River State Park consists of 14 access points and recreation areas along its namesake river.  The river, park, and nearby City of Lumberton all get their names from extensive swamp logging operations that took place here in the late 1700’s.  The park is a major destination for paddlers, as 115 miles of the Lumber River have been designated as a natural and scenic river.
            For hikers, two of the river access points have official trail systems: the Chalk Banks Access northwest of Lumberton and the Princess Ann Access south of Lumberton.  This hike features the Princess Ann Access, which also contains the park’s main office and a 9-site primitive campground.  Though short, the 0.7 mile Griffin’s Bluff Trail described here passes scenic river views and tops a steep bluff overlooking the river.
Start of Griffin's Bluff Trail
            From the rear of the parking lot, pick up the asphalt trail that goes through a gap in a wooden fence.  Where the trail splits, stay right to walk to the right of the picnic area’s restroom building.  Past the restroom building, head downhill and look for the signed trailhead for the Griffin’s Bluff Trail, which leaves the picnic area and enters the forest.
            The trail surface turns to gravel with wooden side rails as the trail heads north with the bluff rising to your left and the Lumber River downhill to your right.  At 0.25 miles, you reach the wooden Lumber River overlook platform, which extends out into the river.  This overlook is located at a sharp bend in the river, so the black, still water extends both straight ahead and to the right.  The area to the left is an odd area called Griffin’s Whirl, a whirlpool that forms where the river reaches the base of Griffin’s Bluff.  Provided the mosquitoes are not too bad, this overlook makes a scenic spot to stop and observe the river.
Lumber River
            Past the overlook, the trail continues north and soon crosses a dirt canoe launch access road.  The trail now assumes more of an undeveloped nature trail feel as it curves left away from the river.  At 0.4 miles, you reach another scenic spot with some benches that overlook a blackwater tributary of the Lumber River.
Tributary of Lumber River
            The trail next curves left again to begin its brief moderate ascent up Griffin’s Bluff, gaining 30 feet of elevation in the process.  Moss and roots form the trail surface here.  After re-crossing the canoe launch road, you top the bluff and reach the overflow group camping area.  Angle left and then right at a brown metal sign that says “trail” to continue the Griffin’s Bluff Trail.  A short hike through brushy blufftop forest returns you to the parking lot to complete the hike.


Saturday, October 8, 2016

Lake Waccamaw State Park: Lakeshore, Pine Woods, and Loblolly Trails (Blog Hike #608)

Trails: Lakeshore, Pine Woods, and Loblolly Trails
Hike Location: Lake Waccamaw State Park
Geographic Location: east of Whiteville, NC
Length: 4.6 miles
Difficulty: 3/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: September 2016
Overview: A loop hike through swamp and longleaf pine forest along Lake Waccamaw.

Directions to the trailhead: From Whiteville, take US 74/76 east 11.5 miles to Fire Tower Road.  Turn right on Fire Tower Road.  Drive Fire Tower Road south 0.5 miles to SR 214 and turn left on SR 214.  Drive SR 214 east 1.1 miles to Jefferson Road and turn right on Jefferson Rd.  Drive Jefferson Rd. south 1.2 miles to Bella Coola Road and turn left on Bella Coola Rd.  All of these turns are marked with brown state park road signs.  Drive Bella Coola Rd. 2.6 miles to the state park entrance on the left.  Turn left to enter the park, and drive 0.2 miles to the parking area in front of the Visitor Center on the right, where this hike begins.

The hike: Located on an ancient coastal sand dune deposited when sea levels were much higher, secluded Lake Waccamaw State Park protects 2176 acres on the east bank of its namesake lake.  Lake Waccamaw is a large example of a geological oddity called the Carolina bay.  The “bay” in the name comes from the large number of bay trees in the area, not because the freshwater Carolina bays are inlets of oceans, which they are not. 
Hundreds of Carolina bays exist in eastern North Carolina, but most of them are small in size and filled with trees.  On the other hand, Lake Waccamaw covers nearly 9000 acres, most of which are open water.  Despite the lake’s size, its maximum depth is only 10 feet, and some areas are shallow enough to allow people to wade across the length of the lake.  Also, while most Carolina bays are highly acidic, some limestone bluffs along the north shore neutralizes the lake’s water, thus allowing it to support many species of plants and animals.  Finally, Lake Waccamaw gets some of its water from nearby Friar Swamp, but most Carolina bays have rainfall as their only water source.  Thus, Lake Waccamaw stands apart from other Carolina bays.
Much of Lake Waccamaw’s 14 miles of shoreline have been developed with camps, resorts, and houses, but the state park’s portion remains in its natural state.  The park’s only amenities are a Visitor Center, four primitive campsites, and four hiking trails.  The hike described here consists of two very different halves.  The outward half passes through a shady swampy area along the shore of Lake Waccamaw, while the inward half features drier sandy soil and sunny longleaf pine forest.  Due to the swampy and sunny conditions more akin to Florida than to most of North Carolina, I recommend a winter visit to Lake Waccamaw State Park: heat and bugs can make for unpleasant hiking in the summer.
Start of trail near Visitor Center
Start on the asphalt trail to the left of the Visitor Center (as you look at it from the front) that is marked with a small sign that says “trails.”  After walking through a stand of loblolly pines, you cross a now closed extension of the park road.  If you look across the active park road to your left, you will see a sign for the Loblolly Trail, which will be our return route.  Continue straight for now to begin a wooden boardwalk.
The wide boardwalk heads southeast over a wetland area that was inundated on my visit.  At 0.2 miles, the boardwalk ends at your first Lake Waccamaw overlook.  Located near the lake’s extreme eastern end, this observation platform faces west across the length of the lake.  Grass growing in the water verifies how shallow this lake is.  You may see some alligators or other wildlife here, but all was calm on my visit.
Lake Waccamaw overlook
Walk back a few feet from the overlook and look for the signed Lakeshore Trail, which exits the boardwalk to the right as you walk away from the lake.  The Lakeshore Trail is marked with blue aluminum markers, and as its name suggests it follows the park’s lakeshore for its entire distance of 4 miles.  The Lakeshore Trail starts here and ends at a secondary parking area near the lake’s dam.  Lake Waccamaw has only one outlet: the Waccamaw River.  The Waccamaw River flows southwest through the Green Swamp into South Carolina where it joins the Pee Dee River, which in turn empties into the Atlantic Ocean near Georgetown, SC.
The Lakeshore Trail starts on an ancient coastal sand dune, a reminder that ocean levels were once much higher than they are now.  The shrubby forest atop the sandy dune is dominated by oak.  The dune stands only a few feet above the lake level, but that elevation is enough to keep your feet dry in most weather.
Unfortunately for your hiking comfort, the sandy dune soon ends, and subsequently you enter the boggy lakeside environment.  Except during times of drought, many wet areas will need to be negotiated.  A few of these wet areas are spanned by wooden planks that may offer dry passage, but most of them will require slogging through several inches of water.  As you would expect for a wetland, mosquitoes are very plentiful here during the warmer months.
Hiking through a wet area
At 0.8 miles, an unsigned short-cut boardwalk trail exits left if you decide you have had enough bugs and water slogging.  Tough and prepared hikers will continue straight on the Lakeshore Trail.  You pass more of the same scenery before reaching the primitive campground shelter and fishing pier at 1.5 miles.  The pier extends well out into Lake Waccamaw’s open water and provides nice lake views from the southeast corner of the lake.
Pier near primitive campground
The boardwalk heading away from the lake opposite the pier leads directly to primitive campsite #1, and it offers another opportunity to short-cut the hike.  This description continues southwest on the Lakeshore Trail and into more boggy areas.  2 miles into the hike, you reach primitive campsite #2, though no signs here indicate such.  Among the park’s four primitive campsites, only this one has a lakeside location.  A fire ring, two picnic tables, and a garbage can are the campsite’s only amenities.
Just past the campsite, you reach a trail intersection with the Pine Woods Trail, which exits left.  Turn left to leave the Lakeshore Trail and begin your return route along the Pine Woods Trail, which is marked with yellow aluminum diamonds.  The trail climbs briefly to leave the boggy lowland and obtain the sandy higher ground.  After passing primitive campsites #4 and #3 in that order, the trail joins a sandy/dirt two-track road as it heads northeast.  The park map shows another trail called the Sand Ridge Trail in this area, but I was not able to find it.
Hiking the sand/dirt road
At 2.6 miles, you pass the campground comfort station on the right just before the boardwalk to the fishing pier exits left.  Continue straight on the two-track trail, which soon passes primitive campsite #1 and enters a narrow strip of longleaf pine forest with the paved park road to the right and the swampy lakeside area to the left.  At 3.2 miles, the trail curves sharply left to leave the old sand/dirt road.  A small brown sign marks this turn, but it is easy to miss if you are not looking for it.
Just shy of 3.5 miles, the trail comes out at the main park road.  You need to turn left here and walk about 500 feet along the seldom-used asphalt road to find where the trail re-enters the longleaf pine forest on the right.  The re-entry point is marked by a small sign and yellow diamond, which is good because it would be hard to find otherwise.
Trail leaves park road
The rest of the Pine Woods Trail passes through some of the nicest pine forest on this hike.  The trail comes very near the park’s eastern boundary before curving left to end at an intersection with the Loblolly Trail, which goes left and right.  Turn right to begin the final leg of this hike.  The nearly dead straight Loblolly Trail follows an old logging road through its namesake pine forest for 0.3 miles before coming out at the paved main park road.  Cross the road and angle right on the asphalt trail to return to the Visitor Center and complete the hike.


Saturday, October 1, 2016

Carolina Beach State Park: Sugarloaf, Oak Toe, and Flytrap Trails (Blog Hike #607)

Trails: Sugarloaf, Oak Toe, and Flytrap Trails
Hike Location: Carolina Beach State Park
Geographic Location: south of Wilmington, NC
Length: 4.1 miles
Difficulty: 3/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: September 2016
Overview: A semiloop along the Cape Fear River, over a large sand dune, and past several small ponds.

Directions to the trailhead: From Wilmington, drive south on US 421 for 13.6 miles to Dow Road, which is reached at a traffic light just after crossing the Snows Cut waterway.  Turn right on Dow Rd. and drive 0.3 miles to the state park entrance on the right.  Turn right to enter the park, stop at the Visitor Center to pick up a trail map, and then drive the main park road to its end at the marina.  After passing the marina’s boat ramp, the truck/boat trailer parking is on the right, and the trailhead parking is on the left.  Park in the small paved lot for the trailhead.

The hike: Although Sugarloaf Dune, the major landform in Carolina Beach State Park, stands in a very natural setting today, such has not always been the case.  The dune received its name in 1663 because its white sand looked like crystallized sugar.  The dune has been a major landmark on boating navigation charts ever since.
During the Civil War, Confederate troops built a series of earthworks from here down the Cape Fear River to the Atlantic Ocean, some of which can still be seen today.  In the late 1800’s, a pier was built at the base of the dune, and a steamer called The Wilmington would stop here and unload passengers heading for nearby beaches.  At the onset of the automotive age, the area became a major destination for off-road vehicle and dune buggy enthusiasts, which it remained until the state park was established in 1969.
Today 761 acre Carolina Beach State Park is most famous for its marina and boat ramps, which are located on the busy intracoastal waterway, an inland passage for Atlantic Ocean boat traffic.  From this marina, the intracoastal goes south down the Cape Fear River and north through the Snows Cut you drove over on your way in.  The park’s 83-site campground sits on the south bank of Snows Cut, which as the “cut” in its name implies is a man-made waterway built in 1930. Contrary to the park’s name, the park offers neither a natural nor a manmade swimming beach.
            While boating takes center stage here, the park is also home to 13 different plant communities including some rare and unusual plants.  To experience most of these plant communities, you will need to get out of the park’s marina and onto the park’s hiking trails.  The park’s main hiking trail is the 3-mile Sugarloaf Trail, a loop that features the trail’s namesake sand dune.  Combining the Sugarloaf Trail with two side excursions of roughly 0.5 miles each forms the 4.1 mile hike described here.
Marina trailhead
            Start at the information board near the rear of the trailhead parking lot.  Almost immediately the trail forks with options going left and straight.  This fork forms the loop that is the Sugarloaf Trail.  I chose to continue straight and use the left trail as my return route, thus hiking the loop counterclockwise.  The Sugarloaf Trail is marked with orange aluminum circles that seem bright enough to glow in the dark, but I did not stay after sunset to test that hypothesis.
            The trail heads south and soon enters hot, sunny, soft sand.  More than half of this hike is exposed to the sun, so make sure you dress accordingly and carry enough water, especially in warm weather.  At 0.2 miles, you reach a narrow grassy and sandy beach along the Cape Fear River.  Broad views extend up and down the wide waterway, but swimming is not allowed anywhere in the park because the river bottom drops off quickly.
Narrow grassy beach
            Past the beach, the trail curves sharply left to head directly away from the river on what appears to be an old sand/dirt road.  The Sugarloaf Trail is joined here by the Swamp Trail, which is marked with red circles.  Some wetlands appear on either side of the trail, but wooden bridges keep your feet dry for the most part.
Hiking on an old road
             At 0.4 miles, the Sugarloaf and Swamp Trails part ways.  Turn right to leave the old road and stay on the Sugarloaf Trail as it heads into forest dominated by turkey and live oaks.  0.75 miles into the hike, you reach another intersection where the Sugarloaf Trail goes left and the Oak Toe Trail goes right.  We will eventually continue the Sugarloaf Trail, but for possibly the park’s best Cape Fear River view, turn right to begin the Oak Toe Trail.
            Marked with blue circles, the Oak Toe Trail is a 0.4 mile one-way out-and-back that follows the west bank of the Cape Fear River.  When I looked for tracks in the wet sandy soil, I could tell that coyotes and deer had been here recently.  I also noticed some small holes in the ground, and my approach caused some sand beetles to crawl back into the holes.
            Just past 1.1 miles, you reach the wooden observation deck at the end of the Oak Toe Trail.  Only some boats and a port facility downstream encroach on the natural environment visible from this overlook.  The Oak Toe Trail ends here, so you next have to retrace your steps to the Sugarloaf Trail and angle softly right to continue your counterclockwise journey on the Sugarloaf Trail.
View from Oak Toe overlook
            The trail continues southeast soon to cross another old sandy road and reach the base of Sugarloaf Dune.  After climbing gradually along the left (inland) side of the dune, you reach the spur trail to the Sugarloaf Overlook at 1.9 miles.  Turn right and climb a short distance on the short spur trail to reach the overlook.  Pine trees dot the sandy dune that falls away before you toward the Cape Fear River.  At 55 feet above sea level, this overlook is the highest point on this hike, so enjoy the high-level views of the surrounding water and terrain.
View from Sugarloaf Overlook
            Back on the main trail, the Sugarloaf Trail goes east to head away from the Cape Fear River for good.  You may notice an extensive network of old sandy roads in this area.  These roads are remnants of this land’s pre-park days as an off-road vehicle destination.  Some of these roads look like trails, so be sure to watch for the orange circles to stay on the official trail.
Hiking under longleaf pines
            The trail now assumes a meandering course through some nice longleaf pine forest.  Next you pass three very shallow ponds: Cypress Pond, Lily Pond, and Grass Pond in that order.  True to their names, Cypress Pond features some bald cypress trees, Lily Pond features a few water lilies, and Grass Pond features thick areas of grass growing in the water.
Lily Pond
            At 3.2 miles, you reach successive junctions with the Campground and Swamp Trails, where you need to turn left and right respectively.  The numerous orange circles keep you from making wrong turns.  3.3 miles into the hike, you cross a paved park road and reenter the woods on the other side.
            Almost immediately after crossing the park road, you reach another trail intersection where the Campground Trail exits right.  Turn left to stay on the Sugarloaf Trail.  The trail heads west as the paved parking lot for the Flytrap Trail appears through the trees on the left.  When you reach the spur trail to the parking lot, you could continue straight for the shortest route back to your car.  However, the Flytrap Trail is possibly the park’s most interesting trail, so I recommend turning left, walking through the parking lot, and picking up the Flytrap Trail, the start of which is marked by an orange diamond on the right side of the parking lot.  Note that this parking lot would also make an alternative starting point if the marina trailhead parking lot is full.
            The Flytrap Trail gets its name because it passes through wetland areas where unusual carnivorous plants such as the pitcher plant and the venus flytrap live.  The trail forms a short loop that might be handicapped accessible with some assistance.  Boardwalks carry you over the wetland, where you are likely to see the carnivorous plants.
Pitcher plant in wetland
            Where an unmarked side trail heads right toward the group camping area, angle left to stay on the Flytrap Trail.  After passing more carnivorous plants, you arrive back at the parking lot and at the end of the Flytrap Trail.  Retrace your steps to the Sugarloaf Trail to begin the final leg back to the marina area.
            The trail crosses a long wooden boardwalk over a final wetland before reaching drier ground.  Now passing through the center of the park, the woods features short live and turkey oak trees with a dense understory that includes some yaupon.  At 4.1 miles, you close the Sugarloaf Trail loop.  A right turn will quickly take you back to the marina parking area.  The marina store offers a snack bar that overlooks the river, a nice way to complete your visit to Carolina Beach State Park.


Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Jones Gap State Park: Jones Gap Trail to Jones Gap Falls and Beyond (Blog Hike #606)

Trail: Jones Gap Trail
Hike Location: Jones Gap State Park
Geographic Location: north of Cleveland, SC
Length: 5 miles
Difficulty: 5/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: September 2016
Overview: A slightly rocky but never steep out-and-back passing Jones Gap Falls.

Directions to the trailhead: From the east intersection of SR 11 and US 276 in Cleveland, drive US 276/SR 11 west 1.4 miles to River Falls Road.  There is a brown road sign for Jones Gap State Park at this intersection.  Turn right on River Falls Rd.  After driving 3.7 miles on narrow and winding River Falls Rd., the name changes to Jones Gap Road.  The road ends at the state park entrance 5.7 miles from US 276/SR 11.  Park in the signed day-use parking area on the right after entering the park.

The hike: Tucked in a deep and tight east-west valley at the foot of the Blue Ridge Escarpment, 3946 acre Jones Gap State Park lies directly east of the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area, one of South Carolina’s top hiking destinations.  The park’s location places it on the southern edge of the Eastern Continental Divide.  Rainfall in most of the park drains into the Middle Saluda River and heads southeast directly to the Atlantic Ocean, while rainfall in the extreme western part of the park drains north into the Tennessee River watershed and (eventually) the Gulf of Mexico.  The park’s land was acquired through a series of purchases between 1976 and 1986, thus making the park rather young despite its remote and rustic feel.  Indeed, hiking at Jones Gap State Park feels like hiking at nearby Table Rock or Paris Mountain State Park, but the latter two parks are much older.
            In terms of amenities, Jones Gap State Park offers only a small gift shop and some backcountry tent camping sites, so hiking takes center stage here.  The park has over 30 miles of trails including the Middle Saluda Passage of the statewide Palmetto Trail.  Trails vary greatly in length and difficulty, but the main artery of the park’s trail system is the 5.3 mile one-way Jones Gap Trail, the easternmost 2.1 miles of which are described here.
            A short hike is required to get from the day-use parking area to the trailhead for the Jones Gap Trail.  From the west end of the day-use parking area, pick up the mulch entrance trail that is signed as heading to the Visitor Center.  The westbound trail dips through a rocky area before crossing the Middle Saluda River on a wood/iron bridge and rising to reach an old trout hatchery pond.  This pond is a remnant of the Cleveland Fish Hatchery, which operated from 1931 to 1963 and was South Carolina’s first state-owned fish hatchery.
Historic trout hatching pond
            Past the hatching pond, you quickly pass a restroom building and the park’s Learning Center/Gift Shop on the right.  Turn left to cross the Middle Saluda River on another wood/iron bridge to reach the handicapped parking area and the signed trailhead for the Jones Gap Trail at 0.3 miles.  Turn right to begin heading up the Jones Gap Trail, which is marked with blue paint blazes.
Jones Gap Trail trailhead
            For most of its distance the Jones Gap Trail follows an old dirt turnpike built in the 1850’s by Solomon Jones, the man for whom this gap is named.  According to local legend, Jones chose the road’s route by turning loose a razorback at the top of the gap and following it down to the valley, knowing the hog would take the shortest feasible route down.  The road was commonly used by farmers going to and from markets in Greenville, and it remained open until 1950, when it was rendered obsolete by US 276.  All turnpike users including walkers had to pay a toll.  The $0.25 toll exacted for a horse-drawn carriage in 1858 translates to $6.91 today, making the current $5 per vehicle state park entrance fee seem like a bargain.
            Almost immediately the steep and difficult yellow-blazed Rim of the Gap Trail exits left at a signed intersection.  Continue straight to remain on the Jones Gap Trail.  The slightly rocky Jones Gap Trail heads almost due west as it climbs gradually.  The cascading Middle Saluda River stays in sight and sound for most of this hike, thus adding to the scenic appeal.
Middle Saluda River
            0.8 miles from the day-use lot, the red-blazed Rainbow Falls Trail exits right.  The Rainbow Falls Trail leads 0.5 steep and rocky miles to its namesake waterfall, which at 80-100 feet tall is one of the park’s tallest waterfalls.  Rainbow Falls makes a nice side trip if you have the time and energy, but this hike angles left to stay on the Jones Gap Trail.
Climbing on the Jones Gap Trail
            After a brief rocky climb through a dense understory of rhododendron, the trail levels out for awhile.  Numerous backcountry tent campsites sit beside the trail, and most of them were occupied when I hiked here on a Saturday afternoon in mid-September.  Just shy of 1.4 miles, another wood/iron bridge carries you across the river for the final time on the outward portion of this hike.  After crossing the bridge, you reach another backcountry campsite, where a left turn is required to stay on the Jones Gap Trail.  Watch for the blazes to stay on the trail here.
            1.5 miles from the day-use parking area (or 1.1 miles from the Jones Gap Trail trailhead), the signed spur trail to Jones Gap Falls exits right.  Turn right to begin the 200-foot long trail that ends at the base of Jones Gap Falls.  The 40-foot cascade-type waterfall was low on water when I visited during a minor drought, but the bare rock ledges surrounded by rhododendron still made an attractive setting.
Jones Gap Falls
            Jones Gap Falls makes a nice turn-around point for a round-trip hike of 3 miles, but I wanted to do a little more hiking to conclude my afternoon.  Thus, I continued up the Jones Gap Trail.  There are no more major waterfalls in this direction, but some interesting cascades appear in the river, which now lies downhill to the left.  The grade remains gradual, so the riverside hiking is very pleasant.
Junction with Coldspring Branch Trail
            2.5 miles from the day-use parking area, the orange-blazed Coldspring Branch Trail exits left.  I chose to turn around here and retrace my steps to the trailhead, but several other hiking options present themselves.  The Jones Gap Trail continues west on a moderate grade for another 3 miles to its western (upper) terminus at US 276 near the North Carolina/South Carolina state line.  The Coldspring Branch Trail can be combined with either the Bill Kimball Trail or the Tom Miller Trail to form long and difficult lollipop loops of 8 or 10 miles, respectively.  You could also add on the Rainbow Falls Trail, but that trail is significantly steeper and rockier than any trail described in this blog entry.  Consider your time and ability to decide how to conclude your day at Jones Gap State Park.