Saturday, March 26, 2016

Nags Head Woods Preserve: Center, Sweetgum Swamp, and Blueberry Ridge Trails (Blog Hike #567)

Trails: Center, Sweetgum Swamp, and Blueberry Ridge Trails
Hike Location: Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve
Geographic Location: north side of Nags Head, NC
Length: 3.5 miles
Difficulty: 4/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: March 2016
Overview: A triple lollipop loop over and between forested sand dunes.

Directions to the trailhead: Between Nags Head and Kill Devil Hills, take US 158 to Ocean Acres Drive.  This intersection is located near mile marker 9.5 on US 158, and there is a traffic light at this intersection.  Go west on Ocean Acres Dr.  Drive through a residential neighborhood for 0.8 miles, at which point the road turns to gravel.  Park in the signed preserve parking area on the left 1 mile from US 158.

The hike: Located on the boundary between the towns of Kill Devil Hills to the north and Nags Head to the south, Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve protects over 1100 acres of forested sand dunes on North Carolina’s outer banks.  The area was designated a National Natural Landmark in 1974, and shortly thereafter the Nature Conservancy began purchasing land to establish the preserve.  Some of the original 420 acres were also donated by John and Rhoda Calfee and Diane St. Clair.  Partnerships with the adjacent towns bring the land total to the present acreage.
            The Nature Conservancy maintains 6 trails at the preserve totaling more than 6.5 miles.  Most of the trails require a short road walk to reach their trailheads, but the network of three trails described here enjoys the privilege of being accessible directly from the Visitor Center parking area.  The preserve’s trail map lists this semi-loop as 3.75 miles long, but that number is a little high based on my estimates.  Regardless of the exact distance, combining this hike over forested sand dunes with one over the bare sand dunes of nearby Jockey’s Ridge State Park makes a nice full day of hiking that explores all of the outer banks’ major ecosystems.
Start of Center Trail behind Visitor Center
            This part of the trail system consists of three consecutive lollipop loops: the Center Trail, the Sweetgum Swamp Trail, and the Blueberry Ridge Trail in that order.  Thus, our hike starts on the Center Trail, which is reached by walking across the wooden deck outside the Visitor Center.  The Center Trail starts by crossing a wooden arch bridge over a small pond.  Several small ponds sit near the Visitor Center, and all of them were covered with green algae on my visit.
            Almost immediately the Center Trail forks to form its loop.  For no real reason, I chose to turn right and hike the loop counterclockwise.  The trails at Nags Head Woods Preserve are unmarked except at intersections, but they are well-maintained and easy to follow.  The trail soon crosses another wooden arch bridge over another algae-covered pond.  Large amounts of American holly live in the forest here.
            At 0.25 miles, the Sweetgum Swamp Trail exits right.  This intersection is marked with a tan plastic post, and in agreement with the trail map the Center and Sweetgum Swamp Trails are numbered #1 and #2 on the post, respectively.  Turn right to begin the “stick” of the lollipop loop that is the Sweetgum Swamp trail.
Dune-top hiking
            Soon you climb the first forested sand dune.  Although these sand dunes are only about 20 feet high, they are quite steep, and they provide the only real difficulty of this hike.  The trail then curves left to head northeast along the top of the dune.  The dense holly forest prohibits any real views.
            0.4 miles into the hike, you pass through a stile to enter a power line easement.  After curving right to begin following the power line, you descend the south side of the dune over some of the softest sand and steepest trail on this hike.  While going down the dune is easy, climbing back up the soft sand will be a brief but arduous task you will be undertaking in an hour or so.
            The trail curves left and passes through another stile to exit the power line easement.  At 0.7 miles, you reach the intersection that forms the loop portion of the Sweetgum Swamp Trail.  As with the first loop, I chose to turn right and hike the loop counterclockwise.
Wooden steps over sand dune
            The south arm of the Sweetgum Swamp Trail drops off the dune to pass through a marshy area only to go up and over the next dune.  Some wooden steps built into the sandy soil help you scale the steep dune.  After descending and ascending one more time, you reach the start of the last lollipop loop, the Blueberry Ridge Trail, at 1.1 miles.  Turn right at the signed intersection to begin the Blueberry Ridge Trail.
            Marked on the map as trail #3, the Blueberry Ridge Trail descends to enter a low area with numerous ponds.  These dark-water ponds line both sides of the trail, and they were teeming with life on my visit.  At every pond my approach sent numerous turtles and frogs plopping into the relative safety of the water.
Pond on Blueberry Ridge Trail
            1.4 miles into the hike, the Blueberry Ridge Trail splits to form its loop.  Given the counterclockwise mood I was in on this day, I again chose to turn right and hike the loop counterclockwise.  The trail passes beside more ponds and uses a short boardwalk to get over the wettest area.
            At the far end of the farthest loop, the trail fakes you out by climbing part-way up a dune only to curve left and return to pond level.  More pondside hiking precedes a climb to more dune-top hiking before the Blueberry Ridge Trail’s loop is closed.  Continue straight to retrace your steps to the Sweetgum Swamp Trail, then turn right to continue the Sweetgum Swamp Trail’s loop.
Sunny area atop sand dune
            The trail finishes climbing a dune before curving left to descend slightly.  At 2.4 miles, you reach the sunniest part of the hike as you top a dune that is just starting to be colonized by young pine trees.  You may hear some gunshots in this area from a police firing range that sits just beyond the preserve’s eastern boundary, but all was quiet on my visit.
            After reentering the forest, the trail descends the dune using a wooden staircase before crossing another wooden arch bridge at 2.6 miles.  At 2.8 miles, you close the Sweetgum Swamp Trail’s loop.  Continue straight to retrace your steps back through the power line easement to the Center Trail, then take a soft right to continue the Center Trail.  The Center Trail very quickly returns you to the Visitor Center to complete the hike.


Sunday, March 20, 2016

Occoneechee State Natural Area: Occoneechee Mountain Loop Trail (Blog Hike #566)

Trail: Occoneechee Mountain Loop Trail
Hike Location: Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area
Geographic Location: west of Hillsborough, NC
Length: 2.4 miles
Difficulty: 6/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: March 2016
Overview: A suburban loop hike around Occoneechee Mountain.

Directions to the trailhead: Just north of the I-85/40 split west of Durham, take I-85 to Churton Street (exit 164).  Exit and go north on Churton St.  Drive Churton St. 0.2 miles to Mayo Street and turn left on Mayo St.  Drive Mayo St. 0.3 miles to Orange Grove Rd. and turn left on Orange Grove Rd.  Drive Orange Grove Rd. 0.4 miles to Virginia Cates Road, which is reached right before you pass back under I-85, and turn right on Virginia Cates Rd.  Virginia Cates Rd. turns to gravel and deadends at the Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area’s only parking lot in 0.4 miles.

The hike: With a summit that is more than 840 feet in elevation, Occoneechee Mountain on the west side of Durham is the highest point in northeastern North Carolina.  The mountain derives its name from the Occoneechi Indians, who lived in a village less than 2 miles down the Eno River during the 1600’s.  After European settlers arrived, the land was used for several industrial purposes including a textile mill and a quarry.
            The last textile mill closed in the 1950’s, and the mountain was purchased by the North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation in 1997.  The site is classified as a state natural area rather than a state park because it has no facilities except a small picnic area, a pair of fishing lakes, and 4 trails totaling 3.4 miles.  Because the mountain’s summit is still owned by Orange County and thus is not open for hiking, the area’s main trail is the 2.2 mile Occoneechee Mountain Loop Trail described here.  This trail circumnavigates the mountain while taking you to the Eno River and the old quarry site, thus exploring every major point of interest in the natural area.
Trailhead: Occoneechee Mountain Loop Trail
            True to its name, the Occoneechee Mountain Loop Trail forms a loop, and a clockwise journey around the loop begins behind the restroom building and information board at the rear of the parking area.  A sign warns of recent vehicle break-ins and recommends hiding any valuables, which is good advice at any trailhead parking area.  The red-blazed dirt trail climbs gradually with the mountain rising to your right.  On my visit a very recent controlled burn had left the surrounding area charred black.  I could still faintly smell the burnt organic matter from the fire.
            At 0.2 miles, you pass under some low-voltage power lines that serve the communication towers at the top of the mountain.  The clearing created for the power lines provides views of the mountain summit to your right and I-85 to your left.  The constant reminders of suburbia are this hike’s only downside.  Indeed, the initial segment of this hike stays so close to I-85 that I could barely hear a woodpecker directly above me due to the highway noise.
            After passing through the power line clearing, the trail continues its gradual climb via two short switchbacks.  Some rocks recently placed beside the trail better define the path.  At 0.4 miles, the orange-blazed Chestnut Oak Trail exits right as you approach the highest elevation of this hike.  The Chestnut Oak Trail makes a tighter and higher loop around Occoneechee Mountain, and it could be used to shorten the hike to 1.3 miles.  To get the full tour including a visit to the quarry and river, angle left to stay with the Occoneechee Mountain Loop Trail.
Hiking the loop trail
            The descent to the Eno River begins as the trail curves right around the western side of the mountain.  The surroundings get quieter as you move further from I-85.  Also, the west side of the mountain contains some interesting rock formations that are exposed portions of the bedrock that underlies the mountain.
Rock formation
            The descent steepens as you drop into a ravine that will eventually lead you to the Eno River.  The west and north park boundaries lie just left of the trail here.  Just shy of 1 mile, you reach the south bank of the Eno River near another interesting rock formation that technically lies on adjacent private property.  The river flows deep, wide, and slow here, and some benches provide opportunities for rest and contemplation.
Eno River
            For the next 0.4 miles the trail heads east as it follows the south bank of the Eno River.  At 1.3 miles, some steps lead up to what appears to be an old road or railroad grade.  Shortly thereafter you reach the spur trail to the old quarry, which exits right.  We will eventually head left to continue the loop, but for now turn right to visit the quarry.
Very quickly you reach the floor of the quarry.  This quarry produced pyrophyllite, a mineral known for its thermal stability.  Pyrophyllite is often added to other materials such as clay before they are heated, and the Deep River valley west of Durham has large deposits of pyrophyllite including this one.  The cliffs created by the quarry now tower over 100 feet above the quarry floor where you stand.  If you see some people up on the quarry rim, they are standing at an overlook where you will be in a few minutes.
Old pyrophyllite quarry
Back on the main loop, the hardest part of the hike comes next, as the trail gains 200 feet of elevation over the next 0.2 miles.  Unfortunately, this climb is made in a high-voltage power line corridor, another reminder of this area’s suburban location.  Some wooden steps make the terrain easier to navigate, and some world-class waterbars help prevent trail erosion.  All of these features were built within the past decade by scouts as eagle scout projects, so be sure to thank a boy scout the next time you see one working on the trail.
After exiting the power line corridor, you reach another trail intersection, this time with the Overlook Trail, which exits right.  We will eventually turn left to continue the loop, but a short detour on the Overlook Trail will bring you to the quarry overlook you stood below earlier.  This north-facing overlook provides one of the best views in Raleigh-Durham.  The quarry and Eno River lie directly below, while the forested Piedmont and suburban Durham lie beyond.  Some benches make nice places to rest after the climb and enjoy the view.
View from north-facing overlook
Retrace your steps to the Occoneechee Mountain Loop Trail at 1.7 miles.  Next the trail descends to briefly re-enter the high voltage power line corridor.  After turning right to leave the corridor for good, a gradual climb using a single broad switchback leads to a shoulder ridge of Brown Elfin Knob, where the Brown Elfin Knob Trail exits right.  The knob and trail are named for the brown elfin butterfly, a small butterfly found nowhere else in the region except Occoneechee Mountain.  Normally found in cooler climates such as the higher mountains of western North Carolina, the brown elfin butterfly colony found here is thought to be a remnant from the last ice age.
Brick structure remnants
The trail’s last segment heads downhill with Brown Elfin Knob visible uphill to the right.  As you approach the area’s fishing ponds, the trail curves right to pass what appears to be an old brick structure just before coming out at a gravel road near the ranger’s residence.  A left turn and brief road walk will return you to the parking area to complete the hike.