Saturday, January 14, 2017

Conecuh National Forest: Conecuh Trail, Blue Spring and Open Pond Loops (Blog Hike #614)

Trails: Conecuh Trail, Blue Spring and Open Pond Loops
Hike Location: Conecuh National Forest, Open Pond Recreation Area
Geographic Location: south of Andalusia, AL
Length: 7.5 miles
Difficulty: 4/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: January 2017
Overview: A long rolling double loop past several ponds and Blue Spring.

Directions to the trailhead: From Andalusia, take US 29 south 10.6 miles to SR 137.  Take a soft left on SR 137.  Drive SR 137 south 5.4 miles to Open Pond Road; there is a sign for Open Pond Recreation Area at this intersection.  Turn left on Open Pond Rd.  Drive Open Pond Rd. 0.6 miles to the signed recreation area entrance on the right.  Turn right to enter the recreation area, and drive the entrance road past the watch tower to the fee station, where a $3 day use fee was required on my visit.  Pay the fee, then turn left to reach the picnic area parking lot.  Park here; the trail starts on the left side of the lot across from a beautiful CCC-built wooden picnic shelter.

The hike: Located in extreme southern Alabama flush against the Florida state line, Conecuh National Forest comprises 84,000 acres of coastal plain pine woodlands.  The forest was established in 1936 to buy up land that had been cut over by loggers and burned over by forest fires.  The land has recovered from being overlogged nicely, and today it features some of the region’s best examples of longleaf pine forest and shallow pond habitats.
            Conecuh National Forest offers several recreation areas, the most developed of which is the Open Pond Recreation Area with its pondside 74-site campground.  For hikers, the forest’s only offering is the eponymously named Conecuh Trail, but it extends for more than 20 miles and is organized into 3 loops: the 13.2 mile North Loop, the 6.1 mile Blue Spring Loop, and the 1.8 mile Open Pond Loop.  The North Loop is too long for a comfortable dayhike (especially on the short days of winter when hiking in south Alabama is most appealing), but the latter two loops combine nicely to form the 7.5 mile figure-eight route described here.
Trailhead at picnic area
            The trailhead is marked by only a brown carsonite post and a sign bearing the universal hiker symbol.  The trail heads downhill and almost immediately forks.  This fork forms the Open Pond Loop.  To get to the more scenic Blue Spring Loop faster, this description will turn right and use the left trail as an eventual return route, thus hiking the Open Pond Loop clockwise.
            After passing through a cul de sac near the picnic area, you intersect a dirt road near where it crosses a man-made ditch.  Although no signs indicate such, the dirt road is also the connector trail to the Blue Spring Loop, which this hike goes around before continuing the Open Pond Loop.  To find the start of the Blue Spring Loop, turn left, walk toward the wooden fishing pier in scenic Buck Pond, and look for the large white plastic diamond and brown carsonite post to the right.  For the most part the Conecuh Trail is marked with copious plastic white diamonds, but this is the one spot where the route is not obvious.
Start of Blue Spring Loop

Buck Pond
            The trail traces the south bank of Buck Pond before curving left and heading toward its slightly smaller cousin Ditch Pond.  I spotted what appeared to be a beaver lodge in Buck Pond.  All of the ponds in this area are fed from natural water sources, so their size and depth depend on recent rainfall.  My visit came just two days after some heavy thunderstorms, so all ponds were full of water.  The ponds can nearly dry up during a drought.
Ditch Pond
            Upon reaching the south bank of Ditch Pond, the trail curves right and climbs slightly to reach the signed trail split that forms the Blue Spring Loop.  For no particular reason, this description will continue straight and use the trail going left as a return route, thus hiking the Blue Spring Loop counterclockwise.  The trail climbs a little more to enter the longleaf pine forest through which most of the Blue Spring Loop passes.  Some of the understory is very dense, and my approach sent a large number of woodland songbirds deeper into the shrubs.
            After passing the highest elevation on this hike, the trail drops to cross a seasonal creek before rising again into more longleaf pine forest.  The terrain is not rugged by almost any standard, but it is hillier than you might expect for south Alabama.  At 1.9 miles, you cross gravel FR 348A and begin a more serious descent, losing more than 130 feet over the next 0.2 miles.  As you get closer to Five Runs Creek, some wet areas will appear in the trail if it has rained recently.
            2.5 miles into the hike, you cross gravel FR 337 and begin the easternmost portion of the Blue Spring Loop, the portion that features Blue Spring.  This area has the lowest elevation of the hike and passes beside scenic Five Runs Creek and its tributary Pond Creek.  When I hiked this trail after recent heavy rains, both creeks had flooded this section of trail with several feet of water.  Thus, although I got within a few hundred feet of Blue Spring, I never actually made it to Blue Spring, the highlight of this loop.  The closest river gauge is on the Blackwater River in Baker, FL.  If that gauge registers over 11 feet, then Blue Spring is probably underwater.  In that case, you can cut off the easternmost portion of the Blue Spring Loop by hiking north on FR 337 and turning left on the north arm of the Blue Spring Loop, which is well-signed and easy to find if you are looking for it.
Blue Spring under water
            Now heading west on the loop’s north arm, the trail climbs the steepest hill of the hike to exit the low area along Five Runs Creek.  After recrossing FR 348A, the trail descends moderately, curves right, and crosses gravel FR 348.  A brushier and wetter area now appears below you to the right.
            At 4.3 miles, the trail curves left and crosses a short leaf-covered boardwalk that spanned flowing water on my visit.  A brushy wildlife clearing is passed on the right as some higher ground is obtained.  Just shy of 5 miles, you reach a trail intersection on the north bank of tiny but scenic Alligator Pond.  The option going right leads to the Blue Pond Recreation Area and the Conecuh Trail’s North Loop, so you need to turn sharply left to continue the Blue Spring Loop.  Any alligators in Alligator Pond were dormant and out of sight on my winter visit, but I did see numerous turtles sunning on logs.
Alligator Pond
            After tracing the east and south sides of Alligator Pond, the trail climbs slightly to recross FR 348 just before closing the Blue Spring Loop.  Turn right and retrace your steps past Ditch and Buck Ponds to get back to the Open Pond Loop, then turn left to continue the Open Pond Loop.  After passing up and over a low ridge, you cross a creaky wooden bridge over a wet area adjacent to Open Pond.  Immediately after crossing the bridge, look for the white plastic diamonds where the Open Pond Loop turns right; the option going straight leads a very short distance to Open Pond Recreation Area’s campground.
Open Pond
            For the next 0.5 miles the trail traces the south bank of Open Pond with the campground immediately to your left.  Two fishing piers stretch out over the pond’s open waters, which are much more expansive than any of the ponds you passed earlier.  Just shy of 6.5 miles, the trail crosses the paved campground entrance road at the campground registration station.  Look for a brown and yellow sign that says “HIKER TRAIL” to find where the trail reenters the woods on the other side of the road.
Hillside above Open Pond
            You climb slightly and curve right to begin treading a pine-covered hillside with the campground entrance road and Open Pond downhill to the right.  Next comes a gradual descent as you pass under the power line that serves the campground and near a couple of small roadside picnic areas.  After curving left, a short climb brings you to the paved recreation area road you drove in on, which the trail crosses.  Shortly after reentering the woods on the other side, you close the Open Pond Loop.  A right turn brings you back to the picnic area parking lot to complete the hike.

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