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
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.

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.
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.
Chewacla Creek
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.
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.

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