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
Length: 7.2 miles
Difficulty: 5/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: March 2016
Overview: A fairly long but fairly flat lollipop loop through upland and creekside forest.

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.
            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.
            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 2.2 miles of retracing steps return you to the picnic area trailhead and complete the hike.

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