Thursday, April 7, 2016

William B. Umstead State Park: Sycamore Trail (Blog Hike #569)

Trail: Sycamore Trail
Hike Location: William B. Umstead State Park
Geographic Location: between Raleigh, NC and Durham, NC (35.87258, -78.76083)
Length: 7 miles
Difficulty: 5/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: March 2016
Overview: A fairly long but fairly flat lollipop loop through upland and creekside forest.
Hike Route Map:
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: William B. Umstead State Park’s Crabtree Creek (north) entrance is located on the south side of US 70 1.5 miles east of I-540 (exit 4).  Enter the park and drive past the Visitor Center to the last parking area, where this hike begins.

The hike: The first European settlers arrived at what is today William B. Umstead State Park as a result of a series of land grants issued in 1774.  The dry clay soil made for submarginal farm land, but cotton farming was successful here until the Great Depression of the 1930’s.  Under the Resettlement Administration, the federal and state governments bought over 5000 acres of land to develop as a recreation area.  The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built 4 camps here along with picnic and day-use facilities, and the park opened to the public as Crabtree Creek Recreation Area in 1937.
            Under the segregation era’s ugly doctrine of separate-but-equal, 1000 acres of the site were developed as a park for black people called Reedy Creek State Park.  In 1966, Crabtree Creek Recreation Area and Reedy Creek State Park were united under the name William B. Umstead State Park.  The park’s name honors North Carolina’s 63rd Governor, who served from 1953 to 1954 and was known for his conservation efforts.
            The park today forms a large green oasis in the middle of the rapidly developing Raleigh-Durham metro area.  In addition to the amenities built by the CCC, the park offers 3 manmade lakes for fishing and canoeing, 13 miles of multiuse trails, and 9 hiking trails totaling over 20 miles.  The large number of hiking options can seem daunting at first, but most hiking trails branch off of two main trails: the 5.8 mile Company Mill Trail in the southern part of the park and the 7.2 mile Sycamore Trail in the northern part of the park.  The latter of the two main trails is described here.
Trailhead: Sycamore Trail
           The Sycamore Trail is marked with plastic blue triangles, and this hike follows the Sycamore Trail for its entire distance.  Thus, the route-finding aspect of this hike is a simple exercise in following the blue triangles with the only problem being finding the first one.  That first blue triangle is located behind picnic shelter #2 at the rear of the picnic area that lies adjacent to the parking lot.  A sign that says “Sycamore Trail” also sits here.
            The trail uses a pair of broad switchbacks to descend moderately through a mixture of pine and broadleaf trees.  Some wooden waterbars help prevent trail erosion.  At 0.25 miles, you cross the Pott’s Branch Trail, which is marked with orange diamonds.  The Pott’s Branch Trail offers an easy 1.3 mile loop adjacent to the picnic area.  Continue straight to remain on the Sycamore Trail.
Crossing the Pott's Branch Trail
            Soon the trail curves left to cross Pott’s Branch on a nice wooden footbridge.  As you cross the creek, notice the layers of rock exposed in the creek bed, evidence that this area once lied under the sea.  The trail follows the east bank of Pott’s Branch, heading upstream.
Rock strata in Pott's Branch
            At 0.5 miles, you reach a former settlement site.  Some stone work can be seen uphill to the left, and a foundation for one of the buildings (probably a small mill or cellar house) sits between the trail and the creek.  Just after passing the old foundation, you cross the dirt/gravel group camp access road before beginning a gradual ascent.
Old foundation beside trail
            The trail curves right as it ascends.  The primitive Maple Hill Lodge, one of the park’s original CCC structures, can be seen through the trees uphill to the right.  1 mile into the hike, a grassy clearing is passed on the left.  This section of trail is quite tranquil except for the occasional jet from nearby Raleigh-Durham International Airport zooming overhead.
            At 1.6 miles, you reach the highest elevation of this hike and another trail signboard.  The short spur trail exiting left leads to an abandoned road that is now called the Graylyn Multiuse Trail.  The wide, gravel, boring Multiuse Trail would be of no interest except for an old cemetery that lies near this intersection.  Truth be told, this cemetery has headstones dating to the mid 1900’s, so it is not too old.  A previously settled area lies beside the cemetery, as does a very modern iron bench that makes a nice place to sit and rest nearly 1 hour into the hike.
"Old" cemetery
            Continuing along the Sycamore Trail, you very quickly cross another gravel Multiuse Trail before beginning a moderate descent.  This descent will ultimately take you to the north bank of Sycamore Creek, but the trail takes the long scenic route to get there by dipping in and out of numerous ravines.  At 2.2 miles, you reach the signed intersection that forms the loop portion of the Sycamore Trail.  To make the climb away from Sycamore Creek a little easier, I chose to continue straight and use the trail going left as my return route, thus hiking the loop counterclockwise.
            The descent steepens as you use a pair of switchbacks to reach the trail’s namesake creek.  The creek was deep and muddy on my visit, swollen from thunderstorms earlier in the week.  Contrary to its name, there are very few sycamore trees growing along this segment of Sycamore Creek.  Some nice beech trees are the largest trees in this streamside forest.
Wooden footbridge
            The trail heads downstream with the creek to your right and the hillside rising to your left.  After passing under some high-voltage power lines, the trail climbs briefly away from the creek before descending back to the creek bank.  Wooden footbridges carry you over some small tributaries of Sycamore Creek.
Hiking along Sycamore Creek
            At 3.1 miles, you cross another wide gravel Multiuse Trail.  This Multiuse Trail crosses Sycamore Creek on a nice stone bridge right beside this intersection.  Also, the spur trail to the Company Mill Trail, the main route through the southern part of the park, begins just across the Multiuse Trail bridge.  You could choose this option if you wanted to combine both of the park’s main trails into one long 13.4 mile day hike.
            The Sycamore Trail remains on the north bank of Sycamore Creek and continues downstream.  After passing back under the high-voltage power lines, a brief steep ascent takes you away from the creek only to return to creekside hiking soon thereafter.  Some scenic rocks and rapids lie in Sycamore Creek here.
Rapids in Sycamore Creek
            3.9 miles into the hike, the trail curves left to head up a side ravine and away from Sycamore Creek for good.  You cross the tributary stream in the ravine several times, sometimes on wooden bridges and sometimes on stepping stones, before beginning a moderate climb back to the ridgetop.  At 4.9 miles, you cross the Multiuse Trail again just before closing the loop.  A right turn and 2.1 miles of retracing steps return you to the picnic area trailhead and complete the hike.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Northwest River Park: Indian Creek, Otter Point, and Molly Mitchell Trails (Blog Hike #568)

Trails: Indian Creek, Otter Point, and Molly Mitchell Trails
Hike Location: Northwest River Park
Geographic Location: south side of Chesapeake, VA (36.58462, -76.15220)
Length: 4.3 miles
Difficulty: 3/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: March 2016
Overview: A loop hike through swampy forest to the scenic Northwest River.
Hike Route Map:
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: From the intersection of I-64 and I-464 in Chesapeake, take SR 168 (the Chesapeake Expressway) south 14.3 miles to the expressway’s southern end at Gallbush Road; there is a traffic light at this intersection.  (Note: the Chesapeake Expressway is a toll road that costed you $3 each way as of this writing.)  Turn left on Gallbush Rd.  Drive Gallbush Rd. 1.7 miles to Indian Creek Road and turn right on Indian Creek Rd.  Drive Indian Creek Rd. east 1.4 miles to the signed park entrance on the right.  Turn right to enter the park, and park in any of the parking lots near the park’s Ranger Station and Store.

The hike: Owned and operated by the City of Chesapeake, Northwest River Park protects 763 acres on the north bank of its namesake river.  Contrary to its name, the Northwest River flows through extreme southeast Virginia, and the river’s name comes from its geographic location relative to an early European settlement in eastern North Carolina.  The river drains the eastern portion of Great Dismal Swamp before flowing into northeastern North Carolina and ultimately the northern part of Albemarle Sound.
            In terms of facilities, Northwest River Park more closely resembles a state park than a city park.  The park features a 66-site campground, 2 rentable cabins, a disc golf course, fishing and canoeing in the river, and trails for both horses and hikers.  This hike combines the park’s three hiker-only trails to form a grand loop through the park’s natural areas.  Because the natural habitat in southeast Virginia is swampland, I recommend waterproof boots rather than shoes for this hike due to the numerous wet areas that will need to be negotiated, and I would avoid this hike in the summer due to bugs.  If you come prepared for the conditions, you will have a good hike.
Hiking trail trailhead
            Your tour of the park’s natural areas starts on the Indian Creek Trail.  To get there from the Ranger Station and Store, walk to the left of the park’s fishing lake and past a small memorial garden with picnic tables.  The signed hiking trail trailhead sits at the top of a small hill.  This hill is noteworthy because the rest of the park’s land is almost dead flat.
            The trail undulates slightly as it heads south with the park’s fishing lake downhill to your right.  This area represents some of the park’s highest land, so mature pine trees appear in the swamp forest tree mix.  Just past 0.1 miles, the trail curves right to cross the fishing lake’s outlet stream on a nice high bridge called the Lake Bridge.
Northwest River Park's fishing lake
            After crossing the bridge, you intersect the Deer Island Trail, a two-track gravel hiking/biking trail that connects the developed park area to the north with a picnic area along the Northwest River to the south.  Our hike turns right on the hiking/biking trail and then almost immediately turns left to stay with the Indian Creek Trail.  Lime green paint blazes mark the Indian Creek Trail.
            The Indian Creek Trail heads west on a wide two-track dirt treadway that appears to be an old road.  The shallow borrow pit to the right of the trail keeps your path dry, and you may be thankful for it later in the hike.  At 0.4 miles, you cross the first of two horse trails just before crossing a short footbridge.  The park’s horse trails are marked with horseshoes nailed to trees.
Hiking along the borrow pit
            Past the first horse trail crossing, the borrow pit disappears, and the trail becomes noticeably wetter.  For the rest of the hike footbridges get you over the wettest areas, but many other muddy areas will have to be negotiated.  All of these footbridges were built as Eagle Scout projects, so this park has provided Eagle projects for many Boy Scouts.  After crossing another horse trail, the Indian Creek Trail curves left to begin heading south over some of the wettest trail in the park.  Indian Creek lies to the right along this section, but it never comes into view.  Some large beech trees dot the forest surrounding the trail.
Wet area on the trail
            At 1.9 miles, you reach the south end of the Indian Creek Trail.  A horse trail continues straight here, but a quick jaunt to the right will bring you to a gravel nature trail.  Turn left on the gravel nature trail to quickly reach the Southern Terminal, a restroom building beside a picnic and fishing area along the Northwest River.  The Southern Terminal contains a rare find in the woods: a working Coke machine.  This point marks your closest approach to the scenic river, so take some time to rest and enjoy the scenery near the midpoint of this hike.
Southern Terminal
            The Southern Terminal is also the southern end of the gravel hiking/biking Deer Island Trail you crossed early in this hike.  So if you have trudged through too much mud already you can hike only the western half of this loop by taking the Deer Island Trail back to the Ranger Station.  Hardy hikers will to continue to the eastern half of the loop by finding the Otter Point Trail.  The signed start of the yellow-blazed Otter Point Trail sits on the right side of the Deer Island Trail just north of the Southern Terminal.
            The Otter Point Trail heads east with the Northwest River out of sight through the trees to your right.  This trail is one of the park’s drier trails, and three bridges carry you over some small streams that feed the river.  Just shy of 2.5 miles, you reach the short spur trail to a creek overlook, which exits right.  The overlook consists of a wooden platform that extends a short distance out into a shallow bald cypress swamp.  Common songbirds such as robins and cardinals greeted me at this overlook, and some turtles were sunning on logs on the seasonally warm March afternoon when I hiked this trail.
Bald cypress swamp overlook
            The balance of the Otter Point Trail heads northwest parallel to the cypress swamp until, 2.6 miles into the hike, you reach the Shuttle Trail, another gravel two-track hiking/biking trail.  Turn right, cross the creek that feeds the bald cypress swamp on the Shuttle Trail culvert, then turn right again to begin the Molly Mitchell Trail.  The red-blazed Molly Mitchell Trail is the final leg of this loop.
            The Molly Mitchell Trail may be the park’s wettest trail.  Six bridges, all built as Eagle Scout projects, carry you over the year-round streams, but most of the trail lies in a seasonally wet area.  At 3.9 miles, the mud trudging is over as you (finally!) join the gravel Molly Mitchell Handicap Trail, which enters from the park’s day-use area to the right.  The packed gravel surface is rough enough that many wheel-chair bound visitors would need some assistance traversing this handicap trail.  The handicap trail ends at a gravel park road at 4.1 miles, where a left turn and short road walk will return you to the Ranger Station area and complete the hike.