Sunday, December 31, 2017

60 New Hikes in 2017!

I have 2 more hikes to post from my Christmas break hiking trip to southeast Texas, but the turning of the calendar says it is time for my annual summary and reflection post.  2017 has been a bountiful year for me on the trail.  I did 60 new hikes totaling 185.6 miles, and I got most of the old picture-less hikes updated with photos.  Those high totals came as a result of a couple of extra hiking trips including two Christmas break trips in the same calendar year (necessitated by a quirk in my university's academic calendar).  The hikes came across 19 different states including two new states: Arkansas and Texas.  I also did my first Canada hike; more on that below.

Looking ahead to 2018, the upcoming year marks a milestone for me: I will be celebrating 20 years on the trail and therefore 20 years of writing trail descriptions, all of which are in this blog.  To mark the occasion, here are some memorable "firsts" from my first 20 years of hiking:

First trail description* (summer of 1998): Winton Woods County Park: Kingfisher Trail (Blog Hike #3)
First road trip dedicated to hiking (April 2001): Hocking Hills State Park: Grandma Gatewood Trail (Blog Hike #89)
First hike after moving to Georgia (to earn my PhD, August 2005): Georgia Botanical Garden: Orange Trail (Blog Hike #181)
First hike as a college professor (September 2009): Blue Ridge Parkway: Otter Creek Trail (Blog Hike #288)
First hike after moving to South Carolina (to take a different and better professor job, September 2011): Paris Mountain State Park: Sulpher Springs Loop (Blog Hike #359)
First hike with my students (on a trip where they presented their mathematical research at an undergraduate research conference, April 2014): Ijams Nature Center: South Cove/River/Discovery Loop (Blog Hike #463)
First hike outside the USA (July 2017): Pigeon River Provincial Park: Middle Falls (Blog Hike #647)

I will probably get fewer hikes in 2018 than I did in 2017, partly because of the extra trips in 2017 and partly because I have some (prayerfully minor) physical/health issues to address as the new year starts.  Nevertheless, I have some good hiking trips planned.  I hope to get to the Potomac River area in northeast Virginia/southeast Maryland, the Monongahela National Forest in eastern West Virginia, and Glacier National Park in Montana.  The Montana trip should also include another trip across the border to Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta, Canada, and I should be in Canada for 2 days as opposed to 2 hours last summer.  I also hope to reach 700 blog hikes next year, probably while on my Montana trip this coming summer.

See you on the trail in 2018,

David, aka the Mathprofhiker

*In the unlikely event you are as obsessed about numbers and order as I am and are wondering why my first trail description is Blog Hike #3, the hikes in this blog are presented in chronological order based on when I first hiked that trail.  I did Blog Hikes #001 and #002 during my teenage years, but I re-hiked them and wrote the trail descriptions in my early 20's after I got interested in writing about hikes.  I have updated those descriptions over the years for changing trail conditions, but I have kept the writing style intact rather than doing a complete re-write in my newer (and hopefully better) style.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Sea Rim State Park: Gambusia Nature and Dune Boardwalk Trails (Blog Hike #670)

Dedication: This hike is dedicated to my mom, who died exactly 3 years prior to the day this hike was posted.  One of her favorite vacation activities was to walk along a beach and pick up shells, so she would have loved the beach at the end of this hike.

Trails: Gambusia Nature and Dune Boardwalk Trails
Hike Location: Sea Rim State Park
Geographic Location: southwest of Port Arthur, TX
Length: 1.9 miles
Difficulty: 1/10 (Easy)
Last Hiked: December 2017
Overview: A pair of boardwalks, one through a marsh and another to a beach.

Directions to the trailhead: From the intersection of SR 82 and SR 87 on the southwest side of Port Arthur, take SR 87 south 21.3 miles to the signed park entrance on the left.  Turn left to enter the park, pay the small entrance fee, and park in any of the day-use parking lots.

The hike: True to its name, Sea Rim State Park sits at the present-day intersection of saltwater marsh and the Gulf of Mexico, but such has not always been the case.  During the Ice Age’s lower sea levels, the Gulf of Mexico’s north shore was several miles south of its current location.  During this time, Paleoindians lived on the former gulf shore that is now underwater.  Artifacts from their civilization still occasionally wash up on the present-day shore of Sea Rim State Park.
            The park itself dates to 1972, when the State of Texas purchased the seaside land from the Planet Oil and Mineral Corporation and Horizon Sales Corporation.  As is common for gulf coast parks, the park’s facilities have been destroyed twice by hurricanes: Hurricane Rita in 2005 and Hurricane Ike in 2008.  The park’s headquarters building is still a trailer, but the park’s recreation facilities have been rebuilt.  Amenities include a 15-site campground, over 16 miles of canoe routes, a day-use area with numerous picnic tables, and a pair of boardwalks.  The two boardwalks start at opposite ends of the day-use area, and combining them with a walk through the day-use area forms the 1.9 mile hike described here.
            To save the beach for last, I chose to hike the Gambusia Nature Trail through the saltwater marsh first.  If you are parked at the headquarters building like I did, you will need to walk the park road east through the day-use area to reach the marsh boardwalk.  The park road passes numerous picnic tables and ponds that contain large numbers of sea birds and ducks.  The signed start of the Gambusia Nature Trail is located on the left side of the eastern-most parking area.
Trailhead: Gambusia Nature Trail
            The entire Gambusia Nature Trail is a boardwalk, and though the wooden boardwalk starts in a grassy area it quickly reaches open water.  I was amazed by how much open water this marsh has, enough to make you feel like you are in the middle of a shallow lake.  The open water is great for bird viewing; I saw coots, egrets, herons, ibis, red-winged blackbirds, and a pelican (engaged in a successful fishing exercise) during my time in the marsh.  I was also amazed by the clarity of the water: I was able to see many guppies and two blue crabs under the water near the boardwalk.
Boardwalk through marsh

Blue crab
            Where the boardwalk splits to form its loop, I chose to continue straight and use the left boardwalk as my return route, thus hiking the loop counterclockwise.  An interpretive sign located near one of the few clumps of grass explains the different kinds of grasses found in this marsh.  The Gulf of Mexico lies less than 500 feet to your right, and though you cannot see it because of the dunes its pleasant dull roar is your constant companion on this hike.  The utility poles of SR 87 can be seen about the same distance to your left, but the dead-end state highway sees little vehicle traffic.
Snake clinging to boardwalk
            The boardwalk curves persistently left as you round the eastern end of the loop.  I passed a small snake clinging to the boardwalk before closing the loop just past 1 mile from the headquarters building.  Turn right to head back to the parking area and complete the Gambusia Nature Trail.
Start of dune boardwalk

Fog-shrouded beach on Gulf of Mexico
            To reach the Dune Boardwalk, walk back through the day-use area and past the headquarters building to the signed start of the second boardwalk.  Only 600 feet in length, the Dune Boardwalk takes you up and over a single row of dunes to reach the beach along the Gulf of Mexico.  I was the only person on this wide, firm, and flat beach on the foggy mid-December afternoon of my visit.  Rows of seashells littered the beach waiting for someone to come and pick them up.  After enjoying your beach time, retrace your steps back over the Dune Boardwalk to complete the hike.


Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge: Willows Trail and Shoveler Pond Loop (Blog Hike #669)

Trails: Willows Trail and Shoveler Pond Loop
Hike Location: Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge
Geographic Location: southwest of Winnie, TX
Length: 4.4 miles
Difficulty: 3/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: December 2017
Overview: A double loop mostly on asphalt road offering excellent waterfowl viewing.

Directions to the trailhead: From Beaumont and points east, take I-10 to SR 124 (exit 829).  Exit and go south on SR 124.  Drive SR 124 south 10.5 miles to Farm-to-Market Road 1985.  Turn right on FM 1985.  Drive FM 1985 west 10.5 miles to the signed refuge entrance on the left.  (Alternatively, from Houston and points west, reach the refuge entrance by taking exit 812 from I-10 and following SR 61 and SR 562 to FM 1985; the entrance will be on the right if coming from this direction.)  Enter the refuge, and drive the refuge entrance road 3.2 miles to the Visitor Information Station where this hike begins.

The hike: Consisting of 34,000 acres along the Intercoastal Waterway, Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge is one of a string of national wildlife refuges that protects the bayous, coastal marshes, and coastal prairies along the Gulf of Mexico’s northwestern coast.  This chain of refuges provides an important resting area for migrating birds before or after they make the 600-mile flight across the Gulf of Mexico.  The top birding season is October through March, when 27 species of ducks are commonly seen here.  As many as 80,000 snow geese have been seen in Anahuac’s marshes.
            Like many national wildlife refuges, Anahuac is a bigger birding destination than hiking destination, and most of the hiking trails offer only short excursions into the refuge’s wetlands.  On point, two short hiking trails depart the Visitor Information Station area: the poorly maintained 0.5 mile one-way Hackberry Trail (not described in this blog) and the 0.6 mile Willows Trail.  For hikers wanting more distance, the refuge’s roads are also open to hikers.  This hike combines the short Willows Trail with the 2.5 mile Shoveler’s Pond Auto-Tour Loop to form a 4.4 mile double loop through some of the refuge’s most scenic areas.
Concrete path exiting butterfly garden
            From the Visitor Information Station, head north around a picnic pavilion and follow the concrete path first north and then west.  The concrete path heads through the refuge’s butterfly garden, an area featuring plants that attract butterflies.  Unfortunately, I came at the wrong time of year to see butterflies, but I did see several dragonflies on my hike.
            Continuing west, the concrete turns to wooden boardwalk as you enter an area known as the Willows.  Although they look insignificant, this cluster of low willow trees provides important resting habitat for migrating birds.  I saw very few birds here on my visit in mid-December, but I have read that this area teems with neo-tropical birds during the spring migration in March and April.
Boardwalk at the Willows
            At 0.3 miles, you reach the west end of the boardwalk and an intersection with the asphalt auto road at a parking area.  If you only wanted to hike the Willows Trail, you could take the other boardwalk that goes right to form a very short 0.6 mile loop.  To head into the marsh area, angle softly right to begin walking along the auto road.  Although the auto road sees little traffic, it is open to private passenger vehicles.  As with any road walk, you should move to the shoulder of the road if a vehicle approaches.
            Soon you pass another parking area for the Willows on the right; this Willows access point will be your return route after you have walked the auto tour road.  A group of turkey vultures greeted me as I kept walking down the road.  Stay on the asphalt as it curves sharply left; the levee on the right is closed to all visitors.  At 0.8 miles, the road forks to form its loop.  For no particular reason, I chose to turn right and use the route going straight as my return route, thus hiking the loop counterclockwise.
            The asphalt road heads due west with Shoveler Pond on the left and a water-filled ditch on the right.  Some road pull-outs feature wooden “guard rails” that also make nice benches.  Though expansive, Shoveler Pond features more grassy areas than open waters, so most waterfowl will swim for the grass as you approach.  Thus, the only waterfowl you will get to see are the ones you either sneak up on or sit and wait to come out of the grass.  The most numerous birds I saw were coots, but I also saw several mallards, ibis, egrets, herons, and cormorants.
Heron in Shoveler Pond

Ibis in Shoveler Pond
            At 1.4 miles, you reach the northwest corner of Shoveler Pond where the normally dead straight auto road makes a 90-degree left turn.  I saw a couple of adult alligators and some baby alligators on the left near this turn.  Now heading south, views west across the marshes to the right extend all of the way to Galveston Bay on a clear day.
Alligators beside Shoveler Pond
            Just shy of 2 miles, the boardwalk that is the main hiking feature of the auto tour road exits left.  This 750-foot wooden boardwalk winds over the grassy water to reach an elevated platform that offers a nice survey of Shoveler Pond.  In addition to the waterfowl I saw elsewhere around the pond, I saw some turtles and a colorful frog while walking this boardwalk.
View from boardwalk overlook
            Back on the auto road, soon you round the southwest corner where a greater than 90-degree left curve puts you on a north of east heading.  More of the same scenery, additional waterfowl, and another left curve bring you to the close of the loop at 3.6 miles.  Retrace your steps to the first parking area (going this direction) for the Willows, then angle left to leave the pavement and begin the dirt/grass Willows Trail.
Willows Trail
            Though only a couple of feet higher in elevation than the Shoveler Pond and marsh area, the extra elevation keeps this area dry enough for the willow trees to grow.  Where the boardwalk spur comes in from the right, angle left to maintain an eastward course on dirt/grass trail.  After negotiating a couple of potentially wet areas, you come out at the refuge entrance road, where a right turn and short road walk bring you back to the Visitor Information Station to complete your hike.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Gulf Islands National Seashore: Davis Bayou Trail (Blog Hike #668)

Trail: Davis Bayou Trail
Hike Location: Gulf Islands National Seashore
Geographic Location: east side of Ocean Springs, MS
Length: 2.3 miles
Difficulty: 2/10 (Easy)
Last Hiked: December 2017
Overview: A mostly roadside walk with nice views of Davis Bayou.
Seashore Information: https://www.nps.gov/guis/index.htm

Directions to the trailhead: In extreme southern Mississippi, take I-10 to SR 609 (exit 50).  Exit and go south on SR 609.  Drive SR 609 south 2.8 miles to US 90 and turn left on US 90.  Drive US 90 east 2.9 miles to the signed entrance for Gulf Islands National Seashore on the right; there is a traffic light at this intersection.  Turn right and drive the park road to its end at the Visitor Center where this hike begins.

The hike: Stretching for 160 miles along the Gulf of Mexico’s northern coast, Gulf Islands National Seashore is the largest national seashore in the United States.  The national seashore was established in 1971 to protect the area surrounding the chain of barrier islands off the coast of Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi.  The sandy barrier islands are constantly being molded and shifted by wind and waves, and they provide an important layer of protection for the mainland during major storms.
            While the barrier islands off the coast of Florida can be reached by automobile, the barrier islands off the coast of Mississippi are accessible only by boat.  Fortunately for those of us without a watercraft, the national seashore also protects the area around Davis Bayou on the Mississippi mainland, which in turn features a nice Visitor Center, several fishing piers, and some short nature trails.  Some paths built along the national seashore’s roads allow you to combine Davis Bayou’s three short nature trails to form the slightly longer 2.3 mile hike described here.
Trailhead: Davis Bayou Trail
            After viewing the film and exhibits in the Visitor Center, walk to the left (east) across the parking lot to find the signed start of the Davis Bayou Trail.  The somewhat narrow sandy-dirt trail heads first north and then east through dense forest.  The forest along Davis Bayou consists mostly of mockernut hickory, southern magnolia, sweet gum, and loblolly pine with some saw palmetto in the understory.
            At 0.2 miles, you reach the park road, where you need to turn left to get to the next nature trail.  The seasonal pond located across the road contained several types of turtles on my visit.  A gravel path built on the shoulder of the road gives you refuge from vehicle traffic.
Roadside "boardwalk"
            Soon you reach the first of two roadside boardwalks that carry you over inlets of Davis Bayou.  These “boardwalks” are actually made of recycled plastic, and they provide excellent views of the wide and grassy bayou.  The expansive view makes for good wildlife viewing; I walked past a heron perched in a pine tree on the edge of the bayou.
Heron on pine tree
            After crossing the bayou inlet, you reach the signed spur trail to the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) overlook on the left.  To get away from the road, take this out-and-back spur trail as it leads out a narrow peninsula.  The trail ends in 0.2 miles at the site of a CCC camp that existed here from 1938 to 1941.  Only the concrete block foundation of the camp’s dining hall remains, and trees have grown up to block any view that may have been had here.  Thus, history rather than scenery is the main attraction for this side trip.
CCC dining hall foundation
            Back on the roadside trail, continuing north along the shoulder of Robert McGee Road leads to the last short nature trail excursion, the Nature’s Way Loop Trail on the left.  This point is also signed but not with the trail’s name.  Turn left to leave the road again, and quickly reach the intersection that forms this trail’s loop.  I chose to turn left and hike the loop clockwise.  Numbered posts indicate the existence of an interpretive guide for this trail, but none were available at the Visitor Center when I inquired about one.
Hiking on Nature's Way
            At 1.1 miles, the somewhat narrow trail reaches a wooden observation platform that overlooks Davis Bayou to the south.  While I could hear a lot of wildlife in the bayou, the dense tall grass allowed me to see only a couple of egrets.  Continuing around Nature’s Way takes you up and over a sandy ridge to reach a second Davis Bayou overlook, this one offering a similar view to the first one but toward the west.
            Just past the second overlook, you reach a short boardwalk and the Nature’s Way’s second entrance trail.  We will eventually turn right here to finish the Nature’s Way loop, but first walk out to the road where two points of interest await.  Directly across the road lies an alligator pond, which featured two turtles and a large alligator on my visit.  To the left lies the second roadside recycled plastic “boardwalk,” which yields a view directly down the length of Davis Bayou toward the Gulf of Mexico.  The national seashore’s campground and picnic area lie at the other end of the roadside boardwalk, so you can decide whether you want to turn around in the middle of the boardwalk or explore these areas.
Looking down Davis Bayou
            Back on the Nature’s Way, the balance of the short loop stays near the park road.  When you close the loop, continue straight to begin retracing your steps back to the Visitor Center and complete the hike.  Keep your eyes open on the walk back: you might spot birds and other wildlife that you missed on the walk out.


Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Hamilton Branch State Park: Paleo Trail (Blog Hike #667)

Trail: Paleo Trail
Hike Location: Hamilton Branch State Park
Geographic Location: southeast of McCormick, SC
Length: 1.5 miles
Difficulty: 1/10 (Easy)
Last Hiked: November 2017
Overview: A winding loop through quiet Piedmont forest.

Directions to the trailhead: From McCormick, take SR 28/US 221 east/south 12.5 miles to the signed park entrance on the right.  Turn right to enter the park.  Pay the small entrance fee, then park at the park’s signed gift shop beside the entrance station.

The hike: Known mostly as a boating and camping destination, Hamilton Branch State Park (also known as Hamilton Branch State Recreation Area) occupies 731 acres on a narrow peninsula that juts westward into Strom Thurmond Lake.  The park features a 173-site campground with many sites offering lake views.  Two boat ramps allow boaters to launch their crafts into the water, and 3 picnic shelters are available for rent.  A playground and gift shop round out the park’s amenities.
            For hikers and mountain bikers, the Hamilton Branch Connector Trail leads to the 5.5 mile one-way Stevens Creek Trail in nearby Sumter National Forest.  Only one trail stays within the park’s boundaries, the 1.5 mile Paleo Trail described here.  Used mainly by campers and local residents, the Paleo Trail offers a quiet loop through mixed Piedmont forest.
Start of Paleo Trail near gift shop
            Both the Hamilton Branch Connector Trail and the Paleo Trail depart from the gift shop area.  The Hamilton Branch Connector Trail starts at a signed trailhead to the north of the gift shop.  To find the start of the Paleo Trail, walk west from the gift shop and look for a pair of white metal diamonds with black arrows that marks where the Paleo Trail enters the woods.  The Paleo Trail is marked with an overwhelming number of these black arrow markers, one about every 20 to 30 feet.  The markers can come in handy, as the trail on the ground is often hard to discern from its surroundings.
            After less than a minute of walking, the trail forks to form its loop.  For no reason, I chose to turn left and use the trail going right as my return route, thus hiking the loop clockwise.  As I looked around at this point, the overwhelming number of black arrow markers really stood out: I could see no less than 13 of them from here.
Another trail marker
            The trail continues southwest with the boat launch access road visible to the south/left.  The park roads at Hamilton Branch are seldom traveled, and only an occasional passing car or distant train horn intrude on the quiet solitude.  Some fallen pine trees, possibly victims of the southern pine beetle, had recently been cut and moved off of the trail, thus making passage easier.  I was thankful for the work park personnel had put into clearing this trail.
            A gradual descent brings you into a low area that is also the upper reaches of a shallow ravine.  Some saw palmetto lives here, and maple, sweet gum, and loblolly pines are the most numerous trees in this mixed Piedmont forest.  I could hear a woodpecker in a tree to my right, and on the return route it flew only feet in front of me.  I have read that bald eagles sometimes nest in this park, but I did not see any of those grand birds on my visit.
Granite rocks near trail
            Near 0.6 miles, you curve right to begin a long, gradual climb out of the ravine.  The trail does a lot of meandering, but the large number of black arrows keeps you on course.  Another right curve comes as the campground access road can be seen through the trees to the north.  As you near the rim of the ravine, some chunks of granite appear on the ground around your feet.  Soon you close the loop, and the gift shop is only a couple hundred feet away.  If you want to get one of this park’s famous lake views, which this trail does not offer, after your hike drive down the boat ramp access road to a nice lakeside picnic and playground area near its end.


Friday, November 17, 2017

Concord Park: Calloway Ridge Trail (334 More Blog Hikes to Reach #1000)

Trail: Calloway Ridge Trail
Hike Location: Concord Park
Geographic Location: Farragut, TN
Length: 1.4 miles
Difficulty: 2/10 (Easy)
Last Hiked: November 2017
Overview: A short lollipop loop around a ridge overlooking Fort Loudoun Lake.

Directions to the trailhead: On the west side of Knoxville, take I-40/75 to I-140 (exit 376).  Enter eastbound on I-140.  Drive I-140 east to Westland Drive (exit 3).  Exit and turn right on Westland Dr.  Take Westland Dr. west 1.5 miles to SR 332 and turn right on SR 332.  In another 1.4 miles, where SR 332 turns right at a traffic circle, continue straight on Northshore Drive.  In another 0.6 miles, park in a gravel/asphalt pull-off on the right just before you reach a bridge over an inlet of Fort Loudoun Lake.

The hike: Owned and operated by Knox County, Concord Park comprises 900 acres along the north shore of the Tennessee River’s Fort Loudoun Lake.  The park is a major outdoor recreation destination on the west side of Knoxville, and its list of amenities rivals that of any county park anywhere.  More specifically, Concord Park offers a boat ramp and marina, a par-3 golf course, baseball, softball, and soccer fields, a dog park, and a skate park.
            In terms of trails, the park features a 1 mile linear paved walking trail and 13.7 miles of natural surface trails open to hikers and mountain bikers.  While many of the trails were built to suit mountain bikers and therefore are too winding to make for good hiking, the Calloway Ridge Trail described here forms a nice single loop with almost no winding whatsoever.  Also, this trail is separate from the main mountain bike trail system, so bikers are not as prevalent here.  I hiked this loop on a chilly Saturday morning in early November and had the trail all to myself.
Trailhead along Northshore Drive
            From the gravel pull-off, cross Northshore Drive using the marked crosswalk to reach the trailhead, which consists of a sign that bears a trail map.  The paved walking trail continues west from here to cross a bridge that leads to the westernmost part of the park, but you need to turn sharply left to begin the dirt and rock Calloway Ridge Trail.  The trail climbs gradually with what appears to be an old quarry downhill to your right.  This hike passes several areas that appear to be old industrial sites, but I was not able to find any sources to confirm the history my eyes suggested.
            Ignore a trail exiting right that is marked with a black diamond sign that says “very difficult.”  While the trails at Concord Park are not blazed, signs such as this one appear at trail intersections.  Black diamonds mark difficult trails, blue squares moderate trails, and beige circles the Calloway Ridge Trail and other easy trails.  At only 0.1 miles, you reach the fork that forms the loop portion of this hike; beige circles go both directions here.  To hike the more scenic southern arm of the loop first, I chose to turn right here and use the trail going left as the return route, thus hiking the loop counterclockwise.
Hiking above Loudoun Lake
The trail assumes an eastward course just below the crest of Calloway Ridge to your left.  Fort Loudoun Lake appears nearly 100 feet below you to the right, but no unobstructed views of the lake emerge due to the dense vegetation.  The largest trees in this forest are tulip poplars and oaks, and the understory features large amounts of honeysuckle.  Ignore the signed Claim Letter Trail that exits left just before a few tall rock outcrops and boulders appear to the left.  The treadway remains amazingly smooth and flat considering the rockiness and steepness of the surrounding terrain.
Rock outcrop
The trail descends gradually via a wide switchback as the relief of the surrounding land starts to ease.  At 0.7 miles, the trail makes a broad swing to the left as it rounds the eastern end of Calloway Ridge.  Soon you start to see why the southern arm of the loop is preferred to the northern one: not only does the northern arm have no lake views, but it parallels noisy Northshore Drive less than 20 yards to your right. 
Calloway Ridge Trail
Near 1 mile into the hike, you cross an old paved road that leads to a leveled area just uphill to the left.  The trail becomes wider and straighter as you pass what appears to be another old industrial area just before closing the loop.  Retrace your steps 0.1 miles downhill to complete the hike, or extend your hike by walking the 1 mile one-way paved walking path that heads west from this trailhead across an arm of Fort Loudoun Lake.


Friday, October 27, 2017

Obed Wild and Scenic River: Cumberland Trail, Emory River Gorge Section (Blog Hike #665)

Trail: Cumberland Trail, Emory River Gorge Section
Hike Location: Obed Wild and Scenic River, Nemo Bridge Access
Geographic Location: southwest of Wartburg, TN
Length: 2 miles
Difficulty: 5/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: October 2017
Overview: An out-and-back to a nice Emory River Gorge overlook.

Directions to the trailhead: From downtown Wartburg, drive west on Main Street, which becomes Catoosa Road after it leaves town.  Drive a total of 5.8 miles to the signed Nemo Bridge Picnic Area on the right.  Turn right to enter the area, and park in the first parking lot on the right.

The hike: Draining most of Cumberland and Morgan Counties, Tennessee’s Obed River forms an east-west concave down arc from just south of Crossville to just north of Harriman.  (Aside: Google “concave down” if you are not a math geek and do not know what that phrase means.)  The Obed River ends at its confluence with the Emory River, and both watercourses are cliff-lined whitewater rivers for most of their distances.  Although the Obed carries more water than the Emory, the combined river takes the Emory name for the rest of its journey to the Clinch and ultimately Tennessee Rivers.
In 1976, 45 miles of the Obed River and its tributaries were designated a National Wild and Scenic River.  Administered by the National Park Service, the Obed Wild and Scenic River receives far less fanfare than eastern Tennessee’s more famous scenic rivers such as the Big South Fork or the Ocoee.  Less fanfare can have its advantages: there were only 2 other cars in the Nemo Bridge Picnic Area parking lot when I came here on a nice Sunday afternoon.
            Eventually the Cumberland Trail (CT) will pass through the river’s Nemo Access on its way from Cumberland Gap in the northeast to Chattanooga in the southeast.  Still under construction, at present the CT’s southbound Obed Wild and Scenic River Section leads 14.1 difficult miles along the Emory River’s west side to the Devil’s Breakfast Table Trailhead, while its northbound Emory River Gorge Section leads 1.3 miles along the Emory River’s east side to a dead end.  Because of the dead end, the Emory River Gorge Section sees little use, but hikers willing to venture that direction will find a nice Emory River overlook and a small waterfall before the trail deadends.  Such is the hike described here.
Old (and new) Nemo Bridge
            Either before or after your hike, you should take a few minutes and check out the old Nemo Bridge, which still stands at the south side of the Nemo Bridge Picnic Area.  Constructed in 1930 after a major flood destroyed a bridge built here in 1906, the 481 foot Camelback through truss bridge carried automobile traffic across the Emory River until the modern parallel span was built in 1999.  Today the old Nemo Bridge connects the Park Service’s campground and picnic area, and it serves as the CT’s route across the Emory River.
CT northbound trailhead
            The CT’s northbound route starts from the north side of the picnic area parking lot.  Only a brown wooden post bearing the universal hiker symbol and an arrow mark this trailhead, but the path is obvious and follows an old road.  After less than 0.1 miles, the CT turns right to begin climbing the hillside where an angler’s trail continues straight.  Another wooden post with another arrow marks this turn.
            The trail climbs the hillside via numerous excellent switchbacks as it gains about 200 feet of elevation.  When it comes to building switchbacks, the volunteers of the Cumberland Trail Conference are as good as the best and better than the rest.  At 0.25 miles, you cross a dirt road and continue climbing via a wooden staircase built in 2007 as an Eagle Scout project.
Hiking on an old road
            At the top of the steps, the trail curves left to begin following another old road on a fairly level grade.  0.7 miles into the hike, you pass below a large layered rock outcrop just before passing a nice stone bench.  Another pair of good switchbacks raises you to a ledge where tall people will have to duck to avoid an overhanging rock.
            You may hear an occasional train in the gorge below, and just shy of 1 mile you pass under a power line associated with that Norfolk Southern railroad track.  Only a couple hundred feet later, you reach the overlook that makes this hike worthwhile.  The overlook sits on a shelf created during construction of the Norfolk Southern railroad tunnel that passes through this mountain.  Located directly above a nice Emory River rapid, fantastic views can be had of the Emory and Obed Rivers’ confluence just upstream.  The cliff below you is vertical with no railings to prevent falls, so keep yourself, children, and animals well back from the edge.
Emory River overlook

Small waterfall at trail's end
            Many people turn around here, but continuing another 0.1 downhill miles on a lesser-used trail deposits you at the base of a small seasonal waterfall.  A sign here announces “End of Trail,” which is true until the CT is completed further north.  For now your only option is to turn around and retrace your steps 1 mile to the picnic area to complete the hike.  Take a few minutes to check out and read the interpretive signs on the old Nemo Bridge if you did not do so before.


Saturday, October 21, 2017

Big South Fork NRRA: Twin Arches Loop (Blog Hike #664)

Trail: Twin Arches Loop Trail
Hike Location: Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area
Geographic Location: northeast of Jamestown, TN
Length: 4.9 miles
Difficulty: 8/10 (Moderate/Difficult)
Last Hiked: October 2017
Overview: A lollipop loop passing Twin Arches and several large rock shelters en route to Jake’s Place and Charit Creek Lodge.

Directions to the trailhead: From the intersection of SR 154 and SR 297 northeast of Jamestown, take SR 154 north 1.9 miles to Divide Road, a good gravel road that goes off to the right.  Signs for Big South Fork and Charit Creek Lodge stand here.  Turn right on Divide Rd.  Drive Divide Rd. 2.6 miles to signed Twin Arches Road and turn right on Twin Arches Rd.  Twin Arches Rd. deadends at the parking lot for the Twin Arches Trailhead.  Vault toilets and a small picnic area are also located here.

The hike: For my general comments on the Twin Arches area, see my hike on the Twin Arches Trail, a short hike that is more or less a subset of this hike.  If all you want to do is see the arches, then you should hike the aforementioned Twin Arches Trail.  To significantly increase the difficulty and the scenery, the Twin Arches Loop described here is a compelling option.  The loop takes you past Twin Arches but then drops more than 400 vertical feet passing numerous large rock shelters en route to Jake’s Place and Charit Creek Lodge.  Due to the elevation change and a few rocky areas, plan on taking 3.5 to 4 hours to complete this loop, especially if you include a rest stop at the lodge.
Twin Arches Trailhead
            The first 0.6 miles to the base of North Arch follow the aforementioned route of the Twin Arches Trail.  Hike in the common entrance trail, bear left at the signed trail fork, descend some steep wooden steps to the cliff base, and hike along the cliff base to the base of North Arch; see my previous hike for details.  With a clearance of 51 feet and a span of 93 feet, North Arch is actually the smaller of the Twin Arches, but its large size and near-perfect arch shape make it a very scenic landform.
North Arch

North base of North Arch
            The trail intersection underneath North Arch forms the loop portion of this hike.  This description hikes the loop counterclockwise by starting on the trail that goes under the arch and using the trail that goes left past the south base of North Arch as the return route.  Regarding South Arch, the other of the Twin Arches, while it is most directly accessed at the end of the loop, walking a few hundred feet down the trail to the left will take you there now if you want to get a sneak preview.
Starting around the loop counterclockwise, the trail heads in the general direction of west as it winds along the base of the sandstone cliff that rises vertically to the right.  The undulations are fairly minor, but lots of boulders fallen from the cliff make the going somewhat rocky in places.  Several large rock shelters are passed along the way, and the general pattern of going toward the cliff to reach a rock shelter before going away from the cliff to get around a finger ridge is repeated several times.  I have read that some of these rock shelters feature low-volume waterfalls after a good rain, but they were dry on my visit.
Large rock shelter with rocky base
             After traversing the rockiest part of the hike, the trail curves left to leave the cliff line for good.  At 1.7 miles, you begin the descent to Station Camp Creek, this prong of which is also known as Charit Creek, Middle Creek, and Andy Creek at various points along its journey.  The trail loses just under 400 feet of elevation over the next 0.5 miles, but the well-built path is well-graded with good switchbacks.  Some attractive, large beech trees live on this hillside.
You have reached the bottom of the big descent when you cross a wet area on narrow wooden boardwalk.  The oak, poplar, and beech trees that dominated the hillside are joined by black walnut and hemlocks in the moister creekside environment.  At 2.2 miles, you reach the signed remnants of Jake’s Place.  A homestead in the late 1800’s, only a pile of stones remains today.
Remnants of Jake's Place
             Past Jake’s Place, you pass through a small grassy field that features some backcountry campsites before reaching a trail intersection with options going straight and left.  The option going straight leads upstream 1.5 miles to Slave Falls and the Middle Creek Trailhead beyond.  The Twin Arches Loop turns left here to head downstream toward Charit Creek Lodge.
The next 1.2 miles form the streamside portion of this hike as the creek stays in view to the right most of the time.  Narrow wooden bridges and boardwalks carry you over some wet areas, and some ripples in the creek add to the visual and audible scenery.  At 3.1 miles, the hiking trail joins a well-traveled dirt road that is also a horse trail to continue its downstream course.  Although I saw several horses amble through here, this trail does not show the usual signs of heavy horse use.  Remember that park regulations require hikers to yield to horses on the trail.
Tackett graves
            600 feet later, you reach the signed short spur trail that exits left to the Tackett cabin and graves.  Dating to 1863, only some primitive grave stones remain.  At 3.4 miles, you reach another signed trail intersection.  The Twin Arches Trail turns left here, but first continue straight to tour rustic Charit Creek Lodge.  Now a collection of cabins and buildings, the original cabin was built by Jonathan Blevins in 1817, which makes Charit Creek the oldest operating lodge in the National Park system.  The facility operated as a hunting camp and youth hostel before being converted to a full-service park lodge in the 1990’s.  I was pleased to find some soft drinks and snacks for sale here, and I enjoyed a snack while resting in the lodge’s front porch rocking chairs.
Charit Creek Lodge
            Back on the Twin Arches Loop, the route again becomes hiker-only as it heads up a deep side ravine.  At 3.6 miles, the trail curves left to begin the climb back to the trailhead in earnest.  At first the trail heads straight up the hill over some wooden logs built into the ground, but soon the grade moderates as the ascent continues via switchbacks.  As you near the ridgetop, some partially obstructed views east and southeast emerge.
4.1 miles into the hike, you reach an intersection with the Twin Arches Trail near the base of South Arch.  We will eventually climb the steep wooden steps to your right, but first walk a short distance to the left to view South Arch.  With a clearance of 70 feet and a span of 135 feet, South Arch is the larger of the Twin Arches, but it too has a near-perfect arch shape.  Try standing at the south base of the arch and face northward for the best picture.
South Arch
            The final 0.8 miles rejoin the Twin Arches Trail as described in my earlier hike.  Climb the steep wooden steps, turn right to hike across the top of North Arch, then climb and descend more steep wooden steps.  Hiking out the entrance trail returns you to the Twin Arches Trailhead to complete the hike.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Nantahala National Forest, Cliffside Lake Recreation Area: Clifftop Vista Trail (Blog Hike #663)

Trail: Clifftop Vista Trail
Hike Location: Nantahala National Forest, Cliffside Lake Recreation Area
Geographic Location: northwest of Highlands, NC
Length: 1.6 miles
Difficulty: 7/10 (Moderate/Difficult)
Last Hiked: October 2017
Overview: A short but steep loop to a vista high above Cliffside Lake.

Directions to the trailhead: From Highlands, take US 64 west 4.6 miles to the signed entrance for the Cliffside Lake Recreation Area on the right.  Turn right and drive the narrow and winding but paved road 1 mile to the recreation area’s entrance.  Pay the entrance fee, then bear left at the next intersection to head for the picnic parking lot, which is reached after another 1000 feet of driving.  Park in the paved parking area loop on the left.  Restrooms with flush toilets and picnic shelters are available here.

The hike: Tucked in the Skitty Creek side ravine of the Cullasaja River Gorge, cozy Cliffside Lake Recreation Area is part of 531,270 acre Nantahala National Forest, North Carolina’s largest national forest.  Compared to Pisgah National Forest, its more famous neighbor to the east, Nantahala National Forest has fewer amenities and development, and it features rougher and wilder terrain.  Indeed, the word nantahala is the Cherokee Indian word for “land of the noonday sun,” a name this land earns because some gorges are so steep and deep that sunlight only hits the bottom when the sun is directly overhead.  Having few amenities and development can have its advantages: mine was the only car in this parking area on a nice Thursday afternoon in mid-October.
            True to Nantahala National Forest’s character, day-use Cliffside Lake Recreation Area offers only its small namesake lake and two picnic shelters for amenities, though adjacent Vanhook Glade Campground offers 21 campsites.  Open only April through October, the Recreation Area is also the trailhead for six hiking trails, three of which form interesting dayhikes.  The Cliffside Loop Trail offers a short and nearly flat 0.8 mile loop around scenic Cliffside Lake, while the Ranger Falls Trail leads 1.2 miles to its namesake waterfall.  Ranger Falls is a nice cascading-type waterfall when it has enough water, which it often does not because it lies so high in the watershed.  The third option is the Cliffside Vista Trail featured here; it is a 1.6 mile loop that takes you to an overlook high above Cliffside Lake.
Clifftop Vista Trail trailhead
            Two trails start from the back of the parking area.  The signed Ranger Falls Trail starts on the right, so you want to take the Clifftop Vista Trail on the left, which is marked only with a brown carsonite post.  Officially labeled Trail 2A, the narrow trail heads just east of north as it passes through an area with dense rhododendron.  After topping a steep bluff, the trail traces around a tiny ravine as it descends and curves left to begin heading west.
Crossing Skitty Creek
            At 0.4 miles, you cross some wet areas via short wooden boardwalk before crossing Skitty Creek’s main channel on a wooden footbridge.  Ignore two faint trails that exit left; they both lead back to the entrance road and form easy loops of less than 1 mile.  A few blue plastic rectangles now start to mark the way.
            Next you begin a short but brutally steep climb straight up the gradient that gains 350 feet of elevation in only 0.2 miles.  Oaks are the most common trees in this forest, but no large trees grow here.  When I hiked this trail shortly after the remnants of two hurricanes blew through in quick succession, several recently downed trees lied over the path.  Overall, the trail maintenance is not bad considering how little traffic these trails receive.
Climbing the ridge
            Just shy of 0.7 miles, the trail reaches the ridge crest and curves left.  After entering a mountain laurel tunnel, a trio of switchbacks raises you to this hike’s highest elevation.  At 3910 feet, this ridge stands more than 500 feet higher than Cliffside Lake at its base, but the dense forest of young trees prevents any unobstructed views.
            The trail stays near the height-of-land on a southbound course.  After a slight descent, 1.1 miles into the hike you reach a Civilian Conservation Corps-built gazebo with a fantastic east-facing view.  While Cliffside Lake directly below you is concealed by trees, 4000+ foot Flat Mountain takes center stage in the middleground.  Some benches at the gazebo invite you to sit, have a trail snack, and enjoy the fruits of your climbing labor.
View from gazebo
            Two trails continue south from the gazebo.  The unmarked trail on the right descends the south side of the ridge via a single switchback, but choosing that option lengthens your road walk at the end.  Thus, I chose the left option, which continues to follow the blue plastic rectangles.
            Officially known at the Clifftop Nature Trail or Trail 2F, this route descends the east side of the ridge via several switchbacks.  Unlike the climb up, the descent is well-graded with decent to good switchbacks.  I heard several woodpeckers as I descended.  At 1.5 miles, the Clifftop Nature Trail ends where it intersects the entrance road at the road’s bridge over Skitty Creek.  Turn left and walk along the road the final 500 feet to the parking lot to complete the hike.


Saturday, September 23, 2017

Pisgah National Forest: Pink Beds Loop Trail (Blog Hike #662)

Trail: Pink Beds Loop Trail
Hike Location: Pisgah National Forest, Pink Beds Picnic Area
Geographic Location: north of Brevard, NC
Length: 5 miles
Difficulty: 4/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: September 2017
Overview: A fairly flat lollipop loop, half along the South Fork of the Mills River and half through rolling foothills.

Directions to the trailhead: From Brevard, take US 276 north 14.8 miles to the signed Pink Beds Picnic Area on the right.  Park in the large and only parking lot.

The hike: Located only 4 miles off of the Blue Ridge Parkway southwest of Asheville, the Cradle of Forestry in America celebrates the site of the first forestry school in the United States.  Originally part of the vast Biltmore Estate, the school operated from 1898 until 1909.  In 1916, Pisgah National Forest was established, and the school site and 87,000 acres of the Vanderbilt’s estate formed the nucleus of the new national forest.  The site was declared a heritage site by Congress in 1968, and today reconstructed buildings allow you to tour the school as it once was.
            While only a short system of paved trails runs through the heritage site, a more natural hiking experience can be had at the adjacent Pink Beds Picnic Area.  The origin of the pink beds’ name is not clear, but some people think it refers to the large amount of pink rhododendron that used to grow in this valley.  The 5 mile Pink Beds Loop Trail that starts at the picnic area is somewhat popular because it offers one of the area’s few fairly flat hikes of significant distance.  Nevertheless, do not be dissuaded if the picnic area parking lot is rather full as it was on my visit: most visitors never leave the picnic area, and I passed only a few other hikers on the trail.
Trailhead: Pink Beds Picnic Area
            Start at the northeast corner of the parking area where a gated two-track dirt road heads into the woods.  A wooden sign with a rough drawing of the trail’s route stands here.  After crossing a stream on a wooden footbridge, the trail splits to form its loop.  The two halves of the loop have very different flavors.  The east arm of the loop stays near the South Fork of the Mills River and has a riverside/wetland feel, while the west arm of the loop is more rolling with a foothills feel.  To get to the river more quickly, I chose to turn right and use the left trail as my return route, thus hiking the loop counterclockwise.
            The trail descends very gradually to reach the first of several boardwalks.  Built in 2013, these wide, expensive-looking boardwalks carry you over some wetlands along the river.  At some points the old boardwalk still sits beside the new, so you can clearly see the improvement.  Although a few wet areas still need to be negotiated, this part of the hike used to be much muddier and wetter than it is now.
New (left) and old (right) boardwalks
            The trail along the river alternates between sunny, grassy wetland and shady woodlands with a dense understory of rhododendron and ferns.  Orange rectangular paint blazes mark the way, but the path is wide and easy to follow for the most part.  The trail goes back and forth across the river, which at this elevation is more of a creek than a river.
Odd bridge across river
            Just past 1 mile, you cross the river on a very unusual bridge.  A huge log has fallen across the river here, and a man-made bridge carries you halfway across the river to the log, which in turn takes you the rest of the way.  I was a little concerned about footing on the log, but I had no problems crossing.  0.1 miles later, where the trail appears to dead-end at the river bank, you need to turn right and cross a narrow footbridge.  Watch for the orange blazes to stay on the trail.
Riverside hiking
            At 1.5 miles, the Pink Beds Loop Trail crosses and briefly joins the blue-blazed Barnett Branch Trail.  The Barnett Branch Trail cuts through the middle of our loop, so turning left and walking across the boardwalk would lead to the western half of our loop.  Such a route would provide a shorter loop of only 3.3 miles.  Heading east on the Barnett Branch Trail would climb 700 vertical feet to intersect the Black Mountain Trail.  Follow the orange blazes to remain on the Pink Beds Loop Trail.
            Next you climb gradually on a section of trail that was rerouted in the early 2010’s to avoid a riverside area flooded by beaver dams.  While no real overlooks are obtained, the trail gets just high enough that partially obstructed views of the Blue Ridge Parkway’s ridge crest to the west can be had through the trees.  Just past 2 miles, the trail drops steeply to return to the river and cross it for the final time.  A couple of established campsites are located in this area.
South Fork of the Mills River
            Near 2.5 miles, you reach a trail intersection.  A spur trail to a river gauging station and an alternate trailhead continues straight along the river, but our loop turns left to leave the riverside area for good.  Carsonite posts and orange blazes mark your options at this intersection.
            In another 0.4 miles, the trail curves sharply left at a turn marked by double orange blazes.  This point is where the hike changes character, as a gradual climb into the surrounding foothills now begins.  The difference between maximum and minimum elevations is only a little more than 100 feet, so the grade remains mostly gradual.  Lots of pine and oak trees live in this valley edge, and some short stretches on bare rock will need to be negotiated.
Hiking through rolling foothills
            After reaching the highest point on the hike, the trail drops to cross a pair of small streams.  The second of these stream crossings looks like a wet ford, but if you look to the right you will see a narrow but functional wooden footbridge.  At 3.6 miles, the Barnett Branch Trail crosses our trail.  Continue straight to remain on the Pink Beds Loop.
            More up and down takes you beside a sequence of wildlife openings, or meadow areas that are mowed occasionally to prevent the surrounding woodlands from encroaching.  While I saw no wildlife of note here on my mid-afternoon hike, these wildlife openings would be prime deer-viewing areas in the morning and evening.  An old Bureau of Roads marker also sits beside the trail here.
Wildlife opening
Immediately after passing the last wildlife opening, you close the loop.  Angle right to return to the picnic area parking lot and complete the hike.  Be sure to stop by the adjacent Cradle of Forestry in America to see the recreated forestry school before you conclude your visit to the Pink Beds.