Saturday, October 8, 2016

Lake Waccamaw State Park: Lakeshore, Pine Woods, and Loblolly Trails (Blog Hike #608)

Trails: Lakeshore, Pine Woods, and Loblolly Trails
Hike Location: Lake Waccamaw State Park
Geographic Location: east of Whiteville, NC
Length: 4.6 miles
Difficulty: 3/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: September 2016
Overview: A loop hike through swamp and longleaf pine forest along Lake Waccamaw.

Directions to the trailhead: From Whiteville, take US 74/76 east 11.5 miles to Fire Tower Road.  Turn right on Fire Tower Road.  Drive Fire Tower Road south 0.5 miles to SR 214 and turn left on SR 214.  Drive SR 214 east 1.1 miles to Jefferson Road and turn right on Jefferson Rd.  Drive Jefferson Rd. south 1.2 miles to Bella Coola Road and turn left on Bella Coola Rd.  All of these turns are marked with brown state park road signs.  Drive Bella Coola Rd. 2.6 miles to the state park entrance on the left.  Turn left to enter the park, and drive 0.2 miles to the parking area in front of the Visitor Center on the right, where this hike begins.

The hike: Located on an ancient coastal sand dune deposited when sea levels were much higher, secluded Lake Waccamaw State Park protects 2176 acres on the east bank of its namesake lake.  Lake Waccamaw is a large example of a geological oddity called the Carolina bay.  The “bay” in the name comes from the large number of bay trees in the area, not because the freshwater Carolina bays are inlets of oceans, which they are not. 
Hundreds of Carolina bays exist in eastern North Carolina, but most of them are small in size and filled with trees.  On the other hand, Lake Waccamaw covers nearly 9000 acres, most of which are open water.  Despite the lake’s size, its maximum depth is only 10 feet, and some areas are shallow enough to allow people to wade across the length of the lake.  Also, while most Carolina bays are highly acidic, some limestone bluffs along the north shore neutralizes the lake’s water, thus allowing it to support many species of plants and animals.  Finally, Lake Waccamaw gets some of its water from nearby Friar Swamp, but most Carolina bays have rainfall as their only water source.  Thus, Lake Waccamaw stands apart from other Carolina bays.
Much of Lake Waccamaw’s 14 miles of shoreline have been developed with camps, resorts, and houses, but the state park’s portion remains in its natural state.  The park’s only amenities are a Visitor Center, four primitive campsites, and four hiking trails.  The hike described here consists of two very different halves.  The outward half passes through a shady swampy area along the shore of Lake Waccamaw, while the inward half features drier sandy soil and sunny longleaf pine forest.  Due to the swampy and sunny conditions more akin to Florida than to most of North Carolina, I recommend a winter visit to Lake Waccamaw State Park: heat and bugs can make for unpleasant hiking in the summer.
Start of trail near Visitor Center
Start on the asphalt trail to the left of the Visitor Center (as you look at it from the front) that is marked with a small sign that says “trails.”  After walking through a stand of loblolly pines, you cross a now closed extension of the park road.  If you look across the active park road to your left, you will see a sign for the Loblolly Trail, which will be our return route.  Continue straight for now to begin a wooden boardwalk.
The wide boardwalk heads southeast over a wetland area that was inundated on my visit.  At 0.2 miles, the boardwalk ends at your first Lake Waccamaw overlook.  Located near the lake’s extreme eastern end, this observation platform faces west across the length of the lake.  Grass growing in the water verifies how shallow this lake is.  You may see some alligators or other wildlife here, but all was calm on my visit.
Lake Waccamaw overlook
Walk back a few feet from the overlook and look for the signed Lakeshore Trail, which exits the boardwalk to the right as you walk away from the lake.  The Lakeshore Trail is marked with blue aluminum markers, and as its name suggests it follows the park’s lakeshore for its entire distance of 4 miles.  The Lakeshore Trail starts here and ends at a secondary parking area near the lake’s dam.  Lake Waccamaw has only one outlet: the Waccamaw River.  The Waccamaw River flows southwest through the Green Swamp into South Carolina where it joins the Pee Dee River, which in turn empties into the Atlantic Ocean near Georgetown, SC.
The Lakeshore Trail starts on an ancient coastal sand dune, a reminder that ocean levels were once much higher than they are now.  The shrubby forest atop the sandy dune is dominated by oak.  The dune stands only a few feet above the lake level, but that elevation is enough to keep your feet dry in most weather.
Unfortunately for your hiking comfort, the sandy dune soon ends, and subsequently you enter the boggy lakeside environment.  Except during times of drought, many wet areas will need to be negotiated.  A few of these wet areas are spanned by wooden planks that may offer dry passage, but most of them will require slogging through several inches of water.  As you would expect for a wetland, mosquitoes are very plentiful here during the warmer months.
Hiking through a wet area
At 0.8 miles, an unsigned short-cut boardwalk trail exits left if you decide you have had enough bugs and water slogging.  Tough and prepared hikers will continue straight on the Lakeshore Trail.  You pass more of the same scenery before reaching the primitive campground shelter and fishing pier at 1.5 miles.  The pier extends well out into Lake Waccamaw’s open water and provides nice lake views from the southeast corner of the lake.
Pier near primitive campground
The boardwalk heading away from the lake opposite the pier leads directly to primitive campsite #1, and it offers another opportunity to short-cut the hike.  This description continues southwest on the Lakeshore Trail and into more boggy areas.  2 miles into the hike, you reach primitive campsite #2, though no signs here indicate such.  Among the park’s four primitive campsites, only this one has a lakeside location.  A fire ring, two picnic tables, and a garbage can are the campsite’s only amenities.
Just past the campsite, you reach a trail intersection with the Pine Woods Trail, which exits left.  Turn left to leave the Lakeshore Trail and begin your return route along the Pine Woods Trail, which is marked with yellow aluminum diamonds.  The trail climbs briefly to leave the boggy lowland and obtain the sandy higher ground.  After passing primitive campsites #4 and #3 in that order, the trail joins a sandy/dirt two-track road as it heads northeast.  The park map shows another trail called the Sand Ridge Trail in this area, but I was not able to find it.
Hiking the sand/dirt road
At 2.6 miles, you pass the campground comfort station on the right just before the boardwalk to the fishing pier exits left.  Continue straight on the two-track trail, which soon passes primitive campsite #1 and enters a narrow strip of longleaf pine forest with the paved park road to the right and the swampy lakeside area to the left.  At 3.2 miles, the trail curves sharply left to leave the old sand/dirt road.  A small brown sign marks this turn, but it is easy to miss if you are not looking for it.
Just shy of 3.5 miles, the trail comes out at the main park road.  You need to turn left here and walk about 500 feet along the seldom-used asphalt road to find where the trail re-enters the longleaf pine forest on the right.  The re-entry point is marked by a small sign and yellow diamond, which is good because it would be hard to find otherwise.
Trail leaves park road
The rest of the Pine Woods Trail passes through some of the nicest pine forest on this hike.  The trail comes very near the park’s eastern boundary before curving left to end at an intersection with the Loblolly Trail, which goes left and right.  Turn right to begin the final leg of this hike.  The nearly dead straight Loblolly Trail follows an old logging road through its namesake pine forest for 0.3 miles before coming out at the paved main park road.  Cross the road and angle right on the asphalt trail to return to the Visitor Center and complete the hike.

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