Friday, July 22, 2016

Bear River State Park: Nature Trail (Blog Hike #594)

Trail: Nature Trail
Hike Location: Bear River State Park
Geographic Location: south side of Evanston, WY
Length: 3.1 miles
Difficulty: 2/10 (Easy)
Last Hiked: June 2016
Overview: A series of short, flat loops along the Bear River.

Directions to the trailhead: In southwestern Wyoming, take I-80 to Bear River Drive (exit 6).  Exit and go south on Bear River Dr.  Take Bear River Dr. less than 0.1 miles to the park entrance on the right.  Turn right to enter the park, then drive the main park road 0.5 miles to a small parking area on the right opposite the bison/elk pen.  Only a brown nature trail sign marks this parking lot.  Park here.

The hike: Although the Bear River starts and ends in Utah, its unusual 350 mile horseshoe-shaped course carries its agriculturally valuable water through three different western states.  The river’s source lies in the high Uintas Mountains of northeastern Utah, so snowmelt is a major contributor to the river’s water.  In fact, when I first came to Bear River State Park in July 2011, extremely rapid snowmelt had caused the river to flood, and I was unable to hike any of the park’s trails because they were all underwater.  After leaving Utah, the Bear River flows north through extreme western Wyoming before curving west into Idaho and finally curving south to empty into Utah’s Great Salt Lake.
Conveniently located just off of I-80, Wyoming’s Bear River State Park protects 280 acres along its namesake river.  Bear trappers named this river in the early 1800’s due to the large number of bear that lived here.  The park opened only in 1991, and a concrete bike path connects the park to the nearby town of Evanston.
            The park today is most famous for its elk and bison pastures, though I saw no elk or bison on my visit.  The park’s only amenities are a few picnic shelters and trails, so in some sense Bear River State Park feels more like a city park than a state park.  The park’s developed area lies on the east side of the river, so this hike explores the multiple loops of the Nature Trail on the west side of the river.
Beginning of Nature Trail
            Two footbridges cross the Bear River within the park’s boundaries, a northern downstream bridge and a southern upstream bridge.  This hike starts by crossing the downstream bridge, which is a fairly new iron/wood structure that departs the rear of the Nature Trail parking area.  At the west side of the bridge, you reach a T-intersection with options going left and right.  Nature Trail loops lie in either direction, so you could go either way here.  I chose to turn right and hike the two downstream loops first.
            At 0.2 miles, the gravel trail splits to form the first loop.  The trails at Bear River are unmarked, so I suggest turning right at every intersection to avoid hiking in circles.  Such a choice will hike all of the loops counterclockwise.  Choosing the trail going right here will keep you close to the river bank on your right as you continue a northward course.
            Where the trails come back together at the northern end of the first loop, continue straight to begin the second loop, the northern-most loop.  Some seasonal ponds appear to the left of the trail, and the abundance of water here compared to the surrounding semi-arid region makes this park an above average destination for birding and wildlife viewing.  On my visit, I saw numerous red-winged blackbirds among other common mountain birds, some rabbits, and some deer.
Seasonal wetland
            As you curve left to round the northernmost loop, first I-80 and then an active railroad track come within earshot on the right.  After closing the northernmost loop, make two right turns to hike the western arm of the next loop.  This area features more grassy/shrubby terrain interlaced by seasonal wet areas.
            1 mile into the hike, you close another loop, where another right turn brings you back to the western end of the footbridge on which this hike started.  Continue straight to head for the southern upstream Nature Trail loops.  The wide gravel trail winds its way south with the river on the left, sometimes close and sometimes several yards away.  Large rocks have been placed in some areas to stabilize the river bank.
Hiking along the Bear River
            After briefly joining a two-track gravel road under a power line, the trail splits to form the southern loop.  Keeping with the right-turn oriented route identified above, angle right to hike the loop counterclockwise, and then stay right at the next two trail intersections.  At 1.7 miles, you reach yet another trail intersection.  Continue straight to hike a short 0.15 mile side loop through an area that features some odd piles of logs, possibly piled-up debris from river flooding.  Upon closing the short loop, turn right at this same intersection again to continue the main loop.  This section of trail also features some nice new wooden footbridges.
Pile of flood debris
            2 miles into the hike, you approach the park’s southern boundary, which is marked by a wire fence.  The trail now curves left as the west bank of the Bear River comes into view.  At 2.25 miles, you intersect an old gravel road.  Turn right on the old road to quickly reach an old steel and wood road bridge that now serves as the park’s southern upstream footbridge over Bear River.  Turn left at this bridge to keep heading downstream along the west bank of the river.
Old road bridge over Bear River
            The final 0.8 miles parallel the Bear River, sometimes close and sometimes at a distance.  Wherever other trails exit left, choose the trail closest to the river.  Just shy of 3 miles, you reach the west end of the northern downstream footbridge for a third and final time.  A right turn and short walk over the bridge returns you to the trailhead parking area to complete the hike.

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