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
Length: 3.5 miles
Difficulty: 4/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: January 2016
Overview: A rolling loop hike exploring the hills above Lake Martin.

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.
            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!

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