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
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.

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.
            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.

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