Friday, January 29, 2016

Wind Creek State Park: Reunion Trail (Blog Hike #561)

Trail: Reunion Trail
Hike Location: Wind Creek State Park
Geographic Location: south of Alexander City, AL (32.85928, -85.93578)
Length: 3.5 miles
Difficulty: 4/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: January 2016
Overview: A rolling loop hike exploring the hills above Lake Martin.
Hike Route Map:
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: From Alexander City, take SR 63 south 4.1 miles to SR 128.  Turn left on SR 128.  Drive SR 128 east 1.5 miles to the park entrance on the right.  Pay the park entrance fee at the park office, then park either behind the park office or in the dirt trailhead parking area across SR 128 from the park entrance.

The hike: Perched on the west shore of Lake Martin, the largest lake in Alabama by water volume, Wind Creek State Park is best known for its massive 586 site campground, the largest state park campground in Alabama and one of the largest in the United States.  The lake was formed by the construction of Martin Dam on the Tallapoosa River in 1926.  The dam is located many miles south of the park, and the lake was the largest man-made reservoir in the world at the time of its construction.  The dam and lake are named for Thomas Martin, the President of Alabama Power Company during the lake’s construction.
            Lake Martin’s long irregular shape is due in part to the dam’s location at the mouth of the now-underwater Tallapoosa River Gorge.  The part of the lake nearest the dam is more than 150 feet deep, but the area near the park is much shallower.  The park was a private recreation area for the employees of Russell Corporation (the famous athletic gear maker) until it was purchased by the State of Alabama in 1969 to be used as a state park.
            The lake remains the park’s main attraction.  In addition to some lakeside campsites, the park offers a marina, a beach, and plenty of fishing opportunities.  The park also has over 25 miles of trails, including 20 miles of horse trails.  Hikers have several options to choose from, but most experts view the Reunion Trail as Wind Creek’s best hiking option.  The Reunion Trail is a loop bisected by SR 128, the road you drove in on, with almost 2 miles north of the road and 1.5 miles south of it.  A road walk is required if you only want to do half of the loop, so it makes sense to do the full loop as described here.
Trailhead across SR 128 from park entrance
            There are a couple of places from which you could start, but this description starts at the trailhead immediately across SR 128 from the park entrance.  An information kiosk and metal vehicle gate with a stop sign mark this trailhead.  The trail passes the vehicle gate and heads north following a two-track dirt road.  This land has a long industrial history: this track was used first as a quarry access road and later as a logging road.
            The initial part of this hike passes through a longleaf pine restoration area.  Longleaf pine, a tall, beautiful, straight pine tree, once covered over 90 million acres in southeast USA, but heavy harvesting for industrial use in the early 1900’s reduced the area to less than 5 million acres.  Efforts such as this one are underway to reintroduce the longleaf pine to its native land.  In accordance with the restoration, the other trees and vegetation had recently been removed on my visit, so the area had a barren look with only some tall grass.  Some longleaf pines from a nursery had just been planted, so this area should develop nicely over the next few years.
Recently planted longleaf pines
            Where the two-track road splits, stay right to remain on the Reunion Trail.  The trails north of SR 128 are marked with colored PVC pipe placed over iron rods, a most unusual way to mark trails indeed.  Watch for the red PVC pipe to ensure you stay on the Reunion Trail if you are north of SR 128.
Climbing through longleaf pine restoration area
            A horse trail marked with blue PVC pipe crosses our trail just before the Reunion Trail begins a gradual climb and curves right.  After 0.6 miles of gradual climbing and 150 feet of elevation gain, the horse trail marked with orange PVC pipe exits right.  At 0.7 miles, the unmarked Cutoff Road horse trail exits right where the Reunion Trail curves left to leave the longleaf pine restoration area.
            What has thus far been a rather ugly hike through barren terrain now becomes a pleasant ridgetop excursion through more mature pine forest.  The two-track trail assumes a rolling course as it follows the crest of the ridge.  The blue horse trail crosses our trail several times and dips into surrounding hollows, but the Reunion Trail stays near the top of the ridge.
Hiking along the ridge
            1.25 miles into the hike, you reach a roped-off area marked as private property.  The ridge crest briefly passes onto private property at this point, so to avoid trespassing the trail drops off the left side of the ridge only to immediately regain the ridge crest a couple hundred feet later.  The steep trail goes straight down and up the hillside here, but the elevation difference is less than 50 feet.  After regaining the ridge crest, turn left to continue the Reunion Trail.
            At 1.7 miles, you need to turn right where the horse trail marked with orange PVC pipe turns left.  A bench at this intersection makes a nice place to sit and rest near the midpoint of this hike.  After a little more ridgetop hiking, you begin the moderate descent toward SR 128.  You pass the old quarry, easily identified by the deep gashes cut into rocks, and then head through a smaller part of the longleaf pine restoration area to reach the north shoulder of SR 128 just shy of 2 miles into the hike.  Your arrival at SR 128 marks the end of the northern section of the Reunion Trail.  Note that your car and the park entrance is 0.7 miles left of here following the road.
Start of southern part of loop
            The start of the southern part of the loop is not obvious from this point.  The black arrows that appear directly across the road mark the Speckled Stake Trail, not the Reunion Trail.  The Speckled Stake Trail does connect to the Reunion Trail in 0.2 miles, so it could be used to short-cut this loop.  To hike the full Reunion Trail, you need to turn right on the paved state road and walk about 300 feet to a gated gravel road (an old residential driveway) on the left.  Turn left to head down the gravel road, which follows a low voltage power line.  Ignore some narrow horse trails that exit left.
            After dipping to cross a small stream on a wooden vehicle bridge, the gravel road climbs to reach the old homesite once served by this gravel road at 2.4 miles.  Turn left at the homesite to stay on the Reunion Trail.  There is no PVC pipe to mark trails south of SR 128, so you have to rely on instinct and the state park trail map to find the right route.
Crossing a wooden footbridge
            The wide single-track trail descends slightly to recross the small stream on a wide wooden footbridge.  The Speckled Stake Trail enters from the left just after crossing this stream.  The balance of the Reunion Trail is an undulating course with the backwaters of Lake Martin visible through the trees on the right and vehicle sounds from SR 128 audible uphill to the left.  A couple more small streams are crossed by footbridges, and a dense stand of privet borders the trail.
At 3.3 miles, you come out at the west shoulder of the paved state park marina access road.  A pair of left turns and a brief road walk return you to the state park entrance to complete the hike.  Before you leave, there is at least one more point of interest that is worth a stop.  Drive the main park road past the park entrance, campground, and beach to reach the park’s nature center.  The lakeside nature center features a grain silo built in 1915, and a viewing platform on top of the silo gives excellent views of Lake Martin and its surrounding hills.  What a fantastic way to complete your visit to Wind Creek State Park!

Monday, January 25, 2016

Buccaneer State Park (Blog Hike #560)

Trail: Pirate’s Alley Nature Trail
Hike Location: Buccaneer State Park
Geographic Location: west side of Waveland, MS (30.26279, -89.40523)
Length: 1 mile
Difficulty: 1/10 (Easy)
Last Hiked: January 2016
Overview: A short hike with nice views of a tidal marsh.
Hike Route Map:
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: Buccaneer State Park is located in the boot heel of Mississippi flush against the Gulf of Mexico, but it is not easy to access from the interstate.  The best route is to take I-10 to SR 603 (exit 13).  Exit and go south on SR 603.  Drive SR 603 south 3.4 miles to Kiln Waveland Cutoff Road and turn right on Kiln Waveland Cutoff Road.  The road’s name changes to Waveland Ave. when it crosses US 90.  Drive a total of 3.7 miles from SR 603 to Waveland Ave.’s south end at South Bay Boulevard and the Gulf of Mexico.  Turn right on South Bay Blvd.  Drive South Bay Blvd. west 1.7 miles to the main park entrance on the right.  Turn right to enter the park, pay the entrance fee, and park in the first parking lot on the right in front of the restroom building and Buccaneer Bay Water Park.

The hike: Once upon a time Buccaneer State Park had beautiful, towering oak trees and wonderful park structures to accommodate visitors.  Then on August 29, 2005 the eye of devastating Hurricane Katrina made landfall just west of the park’s south entrance, the one you entered if you followed the driving directions above.  The hurricane’s 30 foot tidal surge and 160 mile per hour winds destroyed every structure and amenity in the park, including its trail system.
            The rebuilding process took more than 8 years, but in November 2013 the last phase of reconstruction was completed.  The rebuilt park features a massive 276-site campground including 70 beach sites, some picnic pavilions, a disc golf course, and a fabulous waterpark.  The park is named for the famous French pirate Jean LaFitte, who lived in this area and smuggled goods along the Gulf Coast in the late 1700’s.
            The park lists only one trail, the Pirate’s Alley Nature Trail described here, but this “trail” is actually a trail system with many interconnecting routes and options.  The trail system is difficult to navigate: no trail markings exist, and the dead flatness of the land combined with the persistent sameness of the coastal scrub forest ensure that every trail looks exactly like all the others (except the one along the marsh).  The only saving grace is that the trail system covers a rather small area, so it is hard to get seriously lost even if you take a few wrong turns like I did.
Pirate's Alley Nature Trail trailhead
            From the signed trailhead across the park road from the parking area, three trails head into the woods.  Choose the one in the center; the path going right will be our return route.  One of the baskets for the park’s disc golf course is also located here.
            The grass/dirt trail heads west into the coastal scrub.  The young trees include longleaf pine, loblolly pine, and live oak.  At 0.1 miles, you reach a trail intersection that presents 3 more options.  The trail going right is one of the interior short-cut trails, and the trail leaving at a sharp angle left takes you directly back to the trailhead.  Thus, you should angle softly left to continue following the outer-most loop toward the marsh.
Hiking through the coastal scrub
            The meandering trail continues in the general direction of west.  When I hiked here a few days after a major rain, there were a large number of wet areas I had to negotiate.  Despite this hike’s flat terrain and short length, I was glad I wore my waterproof hiking boots.
            At the next intersection, turn left again.  Soon thereafter the tidal marsh comes into view, and what has thus far been a rather uninspiring hike starts to get more interesting.  The grassy tidal marsh is nearly a half-mile wide, so the bird and wildlife viewing opportunities are plentiful.  I saw several egrets and herons during my time along the marsh.
Grassy tidal marsh
            The trail follows the marsh for more than 0.3 miles.  Ignore interior trails that exit right.  At 0.45 miles, you pass a small wooden pavilion that extends a few feet out into the marsh.  The pavilion gets you out past the grass and next to more open water.  The South Street vehicle bridge can be seen up the marsh to your right.
View from pavilion near sunset
            At 0.6 miles, the trail curves right to leave the marsh for good.  The route becomes a little more primitive as it heads first south and then east.  A couple more interior trails come in from the right.  Soon the park road comes into view through the trees on the left, and then the trail curves right to arrive back at the trailhead, thus completing the hike.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Fontainebleau State Park (Blog Hike #559)

Trails: Sugar Mill Nature and Bayou Cane Hiking Trails
Hike Location: Fontainebleau State Park
Geographic Location: east of Mandeville, LA (30.33725, -90.03756)
Length: 5.1 miles
Difficulty: 3/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: January 2016
Overview: A flat hike featuring views of Bayou Cane and Lake Pontchartrain.
Hike Route Map:
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: In southeastern Louisiana, take I-12 to SR 59 (exit 65).  Exit and go south on SR 59.  Drive SR 59 south 3.7 miles to US 190 and turn left on US 190.  Drive US 190 east 2.7 miles to the park entrance on the right.  Turn right to enter the park, pay the small park entrance fee, and drive the main park road 1.1 miles to the small perpendicular parking area on the right in front of the sugar mill ruins and the Visitor Center, which was closed for repairs on my visit.  Park here.

The hike: Established in 1938, Fontainebleau State Park (pronounced like “fountain blue”) is one of the oldest state parks in Louisiana.  The park occupies 2800 acres of land that used to be a sugarcane plantation owned and operated by the famous planter and politician Bernard de Marigny.  Marigny named the plantation Fontainebleau due to his admiration for the famous Fontainebleau Forest near Paris.  The plantation’s location on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain ensures that temperatures stay a few degrees cooler here than in Marigny’s home of New Orleans, thus making Fontainebleau a favorite summer retreat for Marigny.
            The state park today offers a 143 site campground, a small lodge, a group camp, and 12 deluxe cabins.  The park also features a water playground for kids, a small beach on Lake Pontchartrain, and a reservable picnic pavilion.  The Visitor Center near this trailhead interprets the human history of this land.
            For hikers, Fontainebleau State Park offers two trails: the gravel 1.25 mile Sugar Mill Nature Trail and the more primitive 4.8 mile Bayou Cane Hiking Trail.  Combining these two trails forms the 5.1 mile barbell-shaped hike described here. (Note: the park’s official Bayou Cane Hiking Trail distance of 4.8 miles also includes part of the Sugar Mill Nature Trail, thus accounting for the difference between the combined trail lengths and the round-trip distance I list for this hike.)
Sugar mill ruins
            Before heading out on the trail, take a minute to view the brick sugar mill ruins located directly in front of the parking area.  An interpretive sign explains how raw sugar cane was heated to produce molasses and other sugar products.  The plantation’s location beside a railway and Lake Pontchartrain allowed for easy transport of the finished products.
Trailhead: Sugar Mill Nature Trail
            After viewing the sugar mill ruins, pick up the Sugar Mill Nature Trail, which starts at a signed trailhead located across the park road from the ruins.  The crushed limestone trail heads southeast through lowland forest with a dense understory of palmetto.  Interpretive signs help you identify common trees and shrubs of the forest.
            Just past 0.2 miles, you reach a trail intersection where the Sugar Mill Nature Trail turns right and the Bayou Cane Hiking Trail turns left.  Turn left to leave the gravel and head for Bayou Cane.  The meandering dirt/grass trail heads in the general direction of east.  The trail is mostly exposed to the sun overhead, so wear a hat to provide sun protection.  In spite of the sun, wet areas will need to be negotiated if it has rained recently because most of this trail is only 5-10 feet above sea level.  Short wooden bridges carry you over the worst of the wet areas.
Backcountry picnic site
            You pass several benches and shaded backcountry picnic tables on your journey toward Bayou Cane.  These areas make nice places to stop and have a snack if bug numbers are tolerably low.  At 1.2 miles, the Bayou Cane Hiking Trail splits to form the eastern loop of this barbell-shaped hike.  An official-looking “do not enter” sign urges you not to turn left, so this hike will angle right to hike the eastern loop counterclockwise.
            The trail climbs slightly through more of the same scenery to reach the highest elevation of the hike: 15 feet above sea level.  This point also marks a trail intersection.  We will eventually continue the loop by turning left, but this trail description first turns right to hike the spur to Bayou Cane.
Start of spur to Bayou Cane
            Beginning with a brief but noticeable descent, the spur trail to Bayou Cane is the park’s lowest trail in terms of elevation, and therefore it is also the park’s wettest trail.  I came here a few days after a major rain, and I ended up slogging through a few inches of water in a couple of places.  2.2 miles into the hike, the spur trail ends at the west bank of Bayou Cane.  From the viewpoint at the trail’s end, two Spanish moss-draped cypress trees perfectly frame the bayou’s dark, still waters.  This point would be a nice place to do some bird watching provided the bugs are not too onerous.
Bayou Cane
            The spur trail ends at Bayou Cane, so your only choice from here is to turn around and head back to the height of land.  A bench near the spur trail’s beginning makes a nice place to rest and perhaps dry out your socks near the midpoint of the hike.  When ready, keep going north to continue the eastern loop.
            At 2.5 miles, you reach another trail intersection.  The spur trail to the group camp continues straight here, so you need to turn left to keep following the Bayou Cane Hiking Trail loop.  Two official-looking signs that say “wrong way” discourage you from taking the spur trail to the camp.
Spur trail to group camp
            The northern arm of the eastern loop heads west following a course that roughly parallels the route you took in the opposite direction earlier with much the same scenery.  At 3.2 miles, you close the eastern loop as you exit the trail that was marked “do not enter” from the other direction.  Angle right to begin retracing your steps and continue your westward journey.
Bayou Cane Hiking Trail
            4.1 miles into the hike, you arrive back at the Sugar Mill Nature Trail.  Turn left to continue the western loop, the one formed by the Nature Trail.  A couple of wet areas are crossed using wooden planks placed lengthwise between logs.  I could hear some birds in the surrounding woods, but the dense understory limits sight distances.
At 4.4 miles, a spur trail exits left for the Alligator Marsh Boardwalk.  The boardwalk used to extend out into the reedy northern edge of Lake Pontchartrain, but most of it was destroyed by Hurricane Isaac in 2012.  The destroyed section had not been rebuilt as of my visit in early January 2016.  Thus, presently the spur trail ends at the edge of the lake.
Large live oak tree
Continuing around the Sugar Mill Nature Trail, you quickly pass a couple of very large Spanish moss-draped live oak trees.  4.6 miles into the hike, the main Nature Trail turns right where a spur trail continues straight to head for the park’s developed beach area.  The beach area features a pier that extends well out into Lake Pontchartrain, so it is worth a visit either now or on your drive out.  The pier gives a distant view of the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway as it heads south to New Orleans, and I saw a nice egret when I stopped at the beach area.
Lake Pontchartrain
The main Nature Trail stays in the edge of the woods before turning left to enter a mowed grass area beside the main park road.  This area is called the Alley of Oaks because several large live oaks grow here.  Turn right to head through the alley and get back to the park road.  Your car sits in the parking lot just ahead on the left.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Bluebonnet Swamp Nature Center (Blog Hike #558)

Trails: Outer Loop and Library Trails
Hike Location: Bluebonnet Swamp Nature Center
Geographic Location: southeast side of Baton Rouge, LA (30.36943, -91.10598)
Length: 1.1 miles
Difficulty: 1/10 (Easy)
Last Hiked: January 2016
Overview: A short hike on boardwalk and gravel trail along the eastern edge of Bluebonnet Swamp.
Hike Route Map:
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: On the east side of Baton Rouge, take I-10 to Bluebonnet Boulevard (exit 162A).  Exit and go south on Bluebonnet Blvd.  Drive Bluebonnet Blvd. south 2.2 miles to North Oak Hills Parkway and the signed entrance for the Bluebonnet Swamp Nature Center.  There is a traffic light at this intersection.  Turn right on North Oak Hills Parkway, which deadends at the Nature Center.  Park in the only parking lot, and walk the boardwalk to the main Nature Center building where you will need to pay a small entrance fee before beginning the hike.

The hike: Created by the State of Louisiana in 1946, The Recreation and Park Commission for the Parish of East Baton Rouge (known as BREC for short) owns and operates numerous parks in East Baton Rouge Parish.  Despite the commission’s limited geographic scope, BREC operates under the state government and not under the parish or city government.  Twice BREC has won the prestigious National Recreation and Park Association’s (NRPA) Gold Medal Award, and it has been a finalist for the award 12 other times.  The people of Baton Rouge are fortunate to have such a great system of parks in their area.
            Consisting of only 103 acres, BREC’s Bluebonnet Swamp Nature Center is definitely not the largest of BREC’s properties, but it may be the best.  The Center sits on the eastern edge of Bluebonnet Swamp, a classic Louisiana cypress-tupelo swamp.  Bluebonnet Swamp’s only building features a large number of live animal exhibits.  The Center offers three short trails: the 0.35 mile Inner Loop, the 0.5 mile Outer Loop, and the 0.3 mile one-way Library Trail.  The route described here combines the Outer Loop and the Library Trail to form a 1.1 mile tour of the swamp.
Information kiosk at trailhead
            The two trails that start at the front door of the Nature Center building form the two arms of the Outer Loop.  Choose the one on the left nearest the information kiosk to begin hiking the Outer Loop clockwise.  The gravel trail heads south through hardwood forest with a dense shrubby understory, which includes some holly and magnolia.  In a few hundred feet where an unmarked trail exits right, stay left to remain on the Outer Loop.
            Major trail intersections at Bluebonnet Swamp are marked by wooden stakes bearing trail names, and at 0.1 miles you reach the first such intersection.  This stake tells you that the Library Trail exits left here.  The Library Trail does not loop and goes nowhere of interest, but it does increase the hike distance.  Thus, this hike turns left to begin the Library Trail.
Bluebonnet Swamp along Library Trail
            For its entire distance the Library Trail stays in a narrow strip of dry woods with the swamp on your right and the back of a commercial area on your left.  The trail surface is gravel in the higher areas, but it turns to wooden boardwalk when you descend into the edge of the swamp.  As such, your first good views of the grassy swamp emerge here.  The difference between high and low areas is only a few feet, so the going is quite easy.  Nevertheless, in this part of the country a few feet makes the difference between high well-drained soil and submerged wetland.
Boardwalk at Bluebonnet Swamp
            After a slight climb, the Library Trail ends at perhaps the oddest trail end I have ever seen: a wooden gateway with a locked door!  The gateway stands beside the parking lot for the Bluebonnet Regional Branch Library, a location in the East Baton Rouge Parish Library system.  The odd wooden structure prevents people from accessing the swamp’s trails except via the Nature Center.
End of Library Trail
            Because the door in the gateway is locked, you have no choice but to turn around and retrace your steps along the Library Trail back to its junction with the Outer Loop.  Angle left to continue the Outer Loop.  The Outer Loop soon turns to boardwalk and reaches an observation deck at the edge of the swamp.  Some bird feeders have been placed here to enhance bird viewing opportunities, but the surrounding area is too developed for Bluebonnet Swamp to be a top-notch birding destination.
            Just past the observation deck, the Highwater Trail exits right to avoid the lowest section of the Outer Loop.  If water levels allow, continue straight to remain on the Outer Loop.  At 0.8 miles, the Inner Loop exits right.  Continue straight on the boardwalk once again to keep following the Outer Loop.
Wetter area of Bluebonnet Swamp
            0.9 miles into the hike, you reach a wooden escarpment deck that sits right on the edge of the swamp.  The deck and numerous other benches provide plenty of opportunities to rest if needed.  Small green interpretive signs help you identify trees and shrubs of the forest.  The trail curves right as it hits the home stretch and passes beside a small meadow.  The Inner Loop comes in from the right, and shortly thereafter you arrive back at the front of the Nature Center to complete the hike.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Cypress Island Preserve: Levee and Boardwalk Trails (Blog Hike #557)

Trails: Levee and Boardwalk Trails
Hike Location: Cypress Island Preserve
Geographic Location: east of Lafayette, LA (30.20251, -91.90025)
Length: 5.5 miles ROUND-TRIP
Difficulty: 3/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: January 2016
Overview: A flat out-and-back on levee and boardwalk along the west shore of Lake Martin.
Hike Route Map:
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: From downtown Lafayette, take SR 94 east 2.3 miles to SR 353.  Turn right on SR 353.  (Alternatively, take SR 94 west 5.2 miles from Breaux Bridge and turn left on SR 353.)  Drive SR 353 south 5.3 miles to the preserve Visitor Center on the left.  The Visitor Center is unsigned, but you reach it immediately after passing Rookery Road.  Park in the gravel lot in front of the Visitor Center.

The hike: Owned and operated by The Nature Conservancy, Cypress Island Preserve protects 9500 acres around Lake Martin (also known as Lake la Pointe) in south-central Louisiana.  The preserve lies on the western edge of the ancient Mississippi River floodplain, and it boasts one of the best bottomland hardwood forests in the entire lower Mississippi River valley.  The preserve also features one of the largest waterbird rookeries in the country.  The rookery combined with the semi-open waters of Lake Martin make Cypress Island Preserve a top-notch birding destination especially during the spring.
            In the early 1950’s private landowners constructed a 5 mile levee around Lake Martin with the intention of opening the area to public recreation.  The eastern half of the levee features gravel Rookery Road, some swamp tour operators, and some fishing/boat ramp sites.  The western half of the levee travels through less developed areas, most of which are now owned by The Nature Conservancy. 
The western half of the levee contains the Levee Trail featured on this hike; the preserve’s short Boardwalk Trail is added for a little variety.  Parking lots at both the north and south ends of the levee allow you to do this out-and-back hike as a two-car shuttle if you wish.  The preserve is open every day, but parts of the Levee Trail are closed in late summer and early fall for alligator nesting.  The season restriction is not very restrictive: I would not even consider doing this hike in the summer due to heat and bugs.
Visitor Center trailhead
            The hike starts at the Visitor Center, which has some nice exhibits but only opens on weekends most of the year.  From the front porch of the Visitor Center, take the gravel trail with wooden berms that heads to the left (east) away from the picnic pavilion.  Notice the brick stilts on which the Visitor Center sits, a reminder that you are only 10 feet above sea level.  Some large Spanish moss-draped live oaks live in the Visitor Center’s front lawn.
            Very quickly you cross gravel Rookery Road and begin the preserve’s boardwalk.  The short U-shaped wooden boardwalk explores the cypress forest at the southern end of Lake Martin.  The shallow algae-covered water attracts many birds, but the thick cypress forest restricts your sight lines.
Southern end of Lake Martin
            At the west end of the boardwalk, you arrive back at Rookery Road.  To get to the Levee Trail, turn right and walk a short distance down the gravel road to the Levee Trail’s south trailhead on the right.  The trailhead is unsigned, but the yellow iron vehicle gate and portal make it hard to miss.
Levee Trail's south trailhead
            The Levee Trail heads north northwest with Lake Martin on your right and a water-filled borrow pit on your left.  As you would expect for a levee, the trail is dead flat and nearly dead straight.  As you head north, the cypress forest starts to thin, and better sightlines for bird viewing open up.  The bird tally from my visit included blue jays, wrens, sparrows, cardinals, chickadees, red-winged blackbirds, herons, gold finches, an egret, and a roseate spoonbill.
            At 1.3 miles, you reach an extension of the levee that protrudes out into the lake on the right.  The extension provides your best view yet of open waters.  Continuing north, the preserve’s Nature Trail exits to the left and drops off the levee 1.8 miles into the hike.  The Nature Trail explores an area that was clear-cut in the late 1970’s but has now been reforested with hardwood trees such as elm, ash, oak, pecan, and tupelo.  You can add on the Nature Trail if you wish, but many of the interpretive signs are dirt-covered because the trail floods during times of high water.  Thus, the preserve’s best hiking option remains the Levee Trail.
Hiking the Levee Trail
            The levee curves right as you approach the more open waters of northern Lake Martin, and soon Ruth Canal appears on the left.  On my visit the waters of Lake Martin were dark and foreboding while the waters of Ruth Canal were muddy brown from runoff.  I saw the spoonbill in the canal near the northern end of the trail.
Northern end of Lake Martin
            At 2.8 miles, you reach another yellow iron vehicle gate and portal, this one marking the north end of the Levee Trail.  There is also a wooden fishing pier here that makes a nice place to sit and rest while observing the lake, and the parking lot that serves this fishing pier lies just beyond the portal.  You can make a complete circumnavigation of Lake Martin on foot, but hiking the eastern half of the levee requires walking a narrow gravel road that sees significant vehicle traffic.  Thus, I chose to turn around and retrace my steps along the Levee Trail to return to the Visitor Center and complete the hike.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Chewacla State Park: Deer Rub/Mountain Laurel Loop (Blog Hike #556)

Trails: Deer Rub, Eagle Scout, Troop 30, and Mountain Laurel Trails
Hike Location: Chewacla State Park
Geographic Location: south of Auburn, AL (32.54940, -85.47650)
Length: 3 miles
Difficulty: 6/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: January 2016
Overview: A loop hike, mostly easy but with a couple of steep rocky sections, featuring Chewacla Falls.
Hike Route Map:
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: In east-central Alabama, take I-85 to US 29 (exit 51).  Exit and go south on US 29.  Drive US 29 only 0.3 miles to Shell Toomer Parkway and turn left on Shell Toomer Parkway.  Drive Shell Toomer Parkway 1.6 miles to where it enters the park.  Pay the nominal entrance fee and continue straight on the main park road as it bends uphill around the park’s lake.  Park in the Upper Pavilion parking area at the very end of the main park road.

The hike: The tall, stately, mature trees, elaborate stone buildings, and narrow, winding park roads give away this park’s 1930’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) history.  Included in the CCC’s contributions are 6 stone cottages that were recently renovated and made available for rental.  Hardwood floors, stone fireplaces, and modern appliances make these cottages attractive places to spend the night.
At only 696 acres in size, Chewacla State Park offers numerous recreation opportunities in a small package.  The park’s amenities include the aforementioned 6 cottages, a cozy 36 site campground, a group camp, and fishing and swimming in a 26 acre lake.  Even better, all of these facilities are located within a few miles of Auburn University and I-85.
            For outdoor enthusiasts, the park features 27 trails, but many of the trails were built by the Central Alabama Mountain Pedalers for mountain bikers.  6 of the park’s trails are designated as hiker optimized trails, and the loop described here makes the most of these trails.  (Aside: I have no idea what qualifies a trail as “hiker optimized,” but it sounds appealing to me.)  This loop also features a visit to the park’s main natural attraction, Chewacla Falls.
Upper Pavilion trailhead
            The hike starts in front of the Upper Pavilion at a red wooden sign that says “Trail to Falls.”  The trail drops straight down the steep hillside over a jungle of protruding roots and rocks as it loses 140 feet of elevation in just over 0.1 miles.  The rough terrain demands caution, but with slow and careful stepping most people can get to the bottom without incident.
            At the bottom of the hill, you reach the base of the dam that forms the park’s lake.  Even though the waterfall formed by water spilling over the dam’s 34-foot spillway is man-made, the sights and sounds are pleasant to the eye and ear, so much so that some people mistake this spillway for Chewacla Falls.  To get to the real Chewacla Falls, you need to turn left and begin heading downstream.
Dam spillway
Next comes the hardest part of the hike as the trail heads downhill through a boulder field that lies beside the real Chewacla Falls.  The trail through the boulder field is poorly defined, so you have to pick your way downstream using whatever route looks most feasible.  Some steps and boardwalk here would improve accessibility to the falls and prevent further damage from foot traffic to off-trail areas.
At the end of the boulders you reach the base of the real Chewacla Falls, which is more of a cascade.  From your position on the east bank of the creek, the main branch of the waterfall is hidden by a rock outcrop, so you will need to wade out into the creek to get a good view.  With sufficient water, Chewacla Falls makes a very scenic attraction.
Chewacla Falls
After viewing the falls, exit the falls area by continuing downstream through a gash that has been cut into the rock cliffs.  The single-track dirt trail becomes better defined as you pass the confluence of Moores Mill Creek that you have been following and the much larger Chewacla Creek.  The park map calls this trail the Deer Rub Trail though nothing on the ground indicates such.
Chewacla Creek
            The trail curves left as it heads upstream with Chewacla Creek on the right.  An older path stays very close to the creek, but the official trail has been rerouted further away from the creek due to erosion issues.  Some white paint blazes keep you on the official trail.  The sounds of an active quarry located just outside the park boundary can be heard from your right.
Where another branch of the Deer Rub Trail exits left and heads uphill, stay right to remain near the creek.  At 0.6 miles, you hear what sounds like another waterfall off to your right, but you soon see the real sound-maker: water spilling into the creek out of a drainage pipe from the quarry.  Next the trail narrows as it climbs up and over a bluff before returning to near creek-level.
Climbing over a bluff
            After topping the bluff, you need to turn right to stay on the hiker optimized trails where a spur to the mountain bike trails continues straight.  If you reach a wooden post bearing the number 8, you have missed this turn by a few hundred feet.  The Deer Rub Trail stays in the lowland creekside forest as it passes over some seasonally wet areas.
Wet area
            The trail curves left and climbs gradually to reach another intersection with a mountain bike trail.  This intersection is also marked by a wooden post bearing the number 8.  Turn right to continue the gradual climb.
At 1.6 miles, you reach a major trail intersection where the Deer Rub Trail ends.  To continue the loop and head for the Mountain Laurel Trail, keep walking straight (northwest) to continue the gradual climb.  This trail is a mountain bike trail called Tiger Woods.  At this point I noticed the pattern that the newer mountain bike trails are well-signed and easy to discern while the older hiking trails are poorly marked and harder to follow.
Mountain bike trail intersection
Just before reaching the park road, turn right on the faint Eagle Scout Trail to get back on the hiker optimized trails.  A wooden post bearing the number 4 marks this intersection.  If you reach the intersection of the Tiger Woods and High Gravity mountain bike trails, you have gone about 100 feet too far.
The faint Eagle Scout Trail maintains a fairly level contour on the hillside as it curves left.  After crossing the easier to discern Tiger Woods bike trail again, the trail crosses a small creek and curves right to reach its end at the Troop 30 Trail.  Turn left and then right to begin the Troop 30 Trail.
Cascade in Moores Mill Creek
The well-signed Troop 30 Trail drops steeply to reach the bank of Moores Mill Creek right beside a small but pleasant rocky cascade.  The trail curves left to head downstream with the now still waters of the creek on your right.  As I slogged through a streamside sandy area, I realized that this hike is a microcosm of all Alabama hiking: the rocky area near the falls is similar to the mountains of northern Alabama, the rolling terrain in the middle is typical of central Alabama, and this sand slogging is similar to the areas along the Gulf of Mexico.
Under the park road bridge
2 miles into the hike, you cross the main park road.  The trail changes names here from the Troop 30 Trail to the Mountain Laurel Trail.  Also, although you drove across the road bridge to your right on your drive to the trailhead, you probably did not notice the graceful CCC-built stone arches that support the bridge.  These arches are clearly visible from this angle.
Where mountain bike trails exit left and head uphill, stay right to remain on the Mountain Laurel Trail.  The final leg of this loop is mostly a flat creekside hike with occasional wet or rocky areas.  Soon you reach the backwaters of the park’s lake, and shortly thereafter the park’s playground and picnic shelters come into view across the lake to the right.
Chewacla State Park lake
At 2.8 miles, you reach the dam that forms the park’s lake.  You could descend to the base of the spillway to close the loop, or you could turn left on one of the connector trails near the dam area.  Either option leaves a short uphill hike to return to your car in the Upper Pavilion parking area.  If you happen to be here late in the day (as I was on my first visit to Chewacla State Park in 2008), an overlook at the west end of the Upper Pavilion makes a spectacular place to watch the sun set over the central Alabama plains.