Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Hot Springs National Park: Peak, Hot Springs Mountain, and Honeysuckle Trails (Blog Hike #623)

Trails: Peak, Hot Springs Mountain, and Huckleberry Trails
Hike Location: Hot Springs National Park
Geographic Location: north side of Hot Springs, AR
Length: 2.7 miles
Difficulty: 7/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: March 2017
Overview: A lollipop loop featuring views from Hot Springs Mountain.

Directions to the trailhead: This hike starts in downtown Hot Springs at the Hot Springs National Park Visitor Center on Central Avenue 750 feet north of Reserve Street, but the National Park Service provides no parking.  Thus, you need to use the City of Hot Springs’ parking facilities, which include street parking and a free garage on Exchange Street 1 block west of the Visitor Center.

The hike: The 143° F water that pours from the base of Hot Springs Mountain has drawn visitors to the eastern Ouachita (pronounced WASH-ee-tah) Mountains for centuries.  Before European settlement, American Indians viewed the springs as neutral territory accessible by all tribes.  After the United States acquired the springs from France as part of the Louisiana Purchase, an expedition sent by President Jefferson reported on the area and ignited general public interest in the hot springs.  In 1832, an act of Congress established the Hot Springs Reservation that protected 4 square miles of land and all of the thermal springs contained therein.  Although the national park was not established until 1921, this act made what would become Hot Springs National Park the first federal reservation to protect a natural resource.
The designation did not prevent private bathhouses from opening in the area.  As you would expect for an early to mid 1800’s frontier city, the earliest bathhouses were nothing more than crude canvas and lumber structures.  By the late 1800’s, luxurious European-style bathhouses had replaced the earlier primitive buildings.  With the advent of modern medicine in the 1900’s, hot springs bathing declined, and the oldest remaining bathhouses today date to the early 1900’s.
            As old as the area’s bathing tradition is, the hot water that powered the area’s bathing history is even older.  For thousands of years rain water filters down through increasingly warmer rock that gets its heat from pressure rather than volcanic forces (i.e. geysers such as those at Yellowstone).  The water gathers minerals from the surrounding rocks as it descends.  Eventually the water meets cracks that lead up to the west slope of Hot Springs Mountain, where it surfaces via the hot springs.
            While the historic bathhouses and hot spring mineral water remain the park’s main attractions, Hot Springs National Park has more traditional park-like amenities as well.  The National Park Service operates the 44-site Gulpha Gorge Campground on the northeast side of Hot Springs Mountain.  Also, a well-constructed and maintained system of hiking trails traverses the mountains east and west of the historic bathhouses.  This hike explores the trail system on Hot Springs Mountain directly east of bathhouse row.
Bathhouse row, downtown Hot Springs

Thermal water fountain
            The hike starts on the Peak Trail, so your first task is to find the Peak Trail.  After walking out the front door of the Visitor Center, walk down the ramp to the right to reach a fountain from which the area’s famous 143° water flows.  Then turn right, walk along a brick path, climb some concrete steps, and angle left to begin a paved trail called the Tufa Terrace Trail.  In less than 0.1 miles, the Tufa Terrace Trail crosses the Peak Trail that you are seeking.  Turn right to begin climbing on the Peak Trail, which is marked with white paint blazes.
            True to its name, the Peak Trail goes directly up the south side of Hot Springs Mountain.  The steepest part of the climb comes at the very beginning, but the climb is persistent throughout with only an occasional switchback to ease the grade.  In total, the Peak Trail gains just over 400 feet in its 0.6 miles.  The concrete path becomes a wide dirt path after you cross Hot Springs Mountain Drive, a steep switchbacking vehicle road that leads to the same destination as this trail.
Climbing on the Peak Trail
            At 0.25 miles, you reach an intersection with the Honeysuckle Trail that forms this hike’s loop around Hot Springs Mountain.  This hike will continue straight to keep climbing on the Peak Trail and use the Honeysuckle Trail that goes left as its return route, thus hiking the loop counterclockwise.  As you continue climbing, some minor erosion appears in the dirt/gravel trail, a result of this trail’s lack of waterbars or switchbacks.
            Just shy of 0.5 miles, you cross Hot Springs Mountain Drive just after it splits to form its loop around the mountain.  You will need to walk about 100 feet to the right on the road in order to find where the white blazes continue on the uphill side of the road.  The blue-blazed Hot Springs Mountain Trail also crosses the road here.  We will eventually come back here and hike the Hot Springs Mountain Trail, but for now continue climbing on the Peak Trail to keep heading for the summit.
Hot Springs Mountain Tower
            At 0.6 miles, the Peak Trail ends in back of Hot Springs Mountain TowerHot Springs Mountain has two summits, and the 1060-foot south summit on which this tower stands is 60 feet lower than the north summit, which stands almost 1 mile away.  For a fee you can ride elevators to the observation deck on top of the tower, which offers 360-degree views of the surrounding area including the town of Hot Springs.  Be a little careful if you choose to go to the observation deck: one group of people got stuck in an elevator just before I went up, but my trip up and down went without incident.
Downtown Hot Springs, as seen from observation deck
            After visiting the tower, backtrack down the Peak Trail to the blue-blazed Hot Springs Mountain Trail and turn left to begin a counterclockwise journey around the Hot Springs Mountain Trail, which forms a loose loop around the southern summit of its namesake mountain.  For the next 0.7 miles the trail undulates gently as it heads northeast just downhill from Hot Springs Mountain Drive.  A couple of roadside overlooks provide nice un-tower-aided views to the east.
Road side view to the east
            1.4 miles into the hike, the trail climbs slightly to reach a trail intersection and another crossing of Hot Springs Mountain Drive.  A stone trail shelter stands here.  The Gulpha Gorge Trail exits right and goes downhill for 0.6 steep miles to the Gulpha Gorge Campground, passing intersections with the Goat Rock and Dead Chief Trails on its way.  If you wanted to add another 1.9 miles to this hike, you could use the Gulpha Gorge, Goat Rock, and Upper Dogwood Trails to form an additional loop around the mountain’s north summit.  This description crosses the road to stay on the Hot Springs Mountain Trail.
Hiking the Hot Springs Mountain Trail
            Now on the west side of the mountain, the trail descends on a gradual to moderate grade into the head of the ravine that leads to the luxurious Arlington Hotel.  The Upper Dogwood Trail (the end of the hike extension suggested above) soon exits right.  At 1.8 miles, the trail crosses Fountain Street and reenters the forest on the other side.
            2 miles into the hike, you reach an intersection with the orange-blazed Honeysuckle Trail, where you will need to make a decision on how you want to get back to the Peak Trail.  You could continue another 0.2 miles on the Hot Springs Mountain Trail to return to its intersection with the Peak Trail, or you could take the Honeysuckle Trail to its lower elevation intersection with the Peak Trail.  For more variety, this description will angle right to begin the Honeysuckle Trail.
Stone trail shelter
            The Honeysuckle Trail descends rather steeply over some large loose gravel to reach another stone trail shelter where the Floral Trail exits right.  Continue straight to keep descending on the Honeysuckle Trail.  The trail reaches its lowest elevation where a set of concrete steps lead down and right to Fountain Street.  A moderate climb brings you to the Peak Trail to close the loop.  A right turn and 0.25 miles of retracing your steps back to downtown Hot Springs remains to complete the hike.  While you are in Hot Springs, be sure to tour some of the former bathhouses and visit some of the interesting shops that line Central Avenue.


Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Pinnacle Mountain State Park: West Summit and Base Trails (Blog Hike #622)

Trails: West Summit and Base Trails
Hike Location: Pinnacle Mountain State Park
Geographic Location: west of Little Rock, AR
Length: 4.1 miles
Difficulty: 10/10 (Difficult)
Last Hiked: March 2017
Overview: A steep rocky hike to the summit of Pinnacle Mountain followed by a moderate trip around its base.

Directions to the trailhead: On the west side of Little Rock, take I-430 to SR 10 (exit 9).  (Note: Little Rock has both an I-430 and an I-440; do not get them confused.)  Exit and go west on SR 10.  Drive SR 10 west 6.1 miles to SR 300 and turn right on SR 300.  Drive SR 300 north 1.7 miles to Pinnacle Mountain State Park’s signed West Summit Picnic Area on the right.  Turn right to enter the area, and park in the large paved parking lot.

The hike: As you journey west up the Arkansas River from its mouth at the Mississippi River, the first significant landmark you reach is a small 18-foot high rock outcrop that French explorers in the 1720’s called le petit rocherLe petit rocher marks the transition from the nearly flat Mississippi River plain to the low, fold-type Ouachita (pronounced WASH-ee-tah) Mountains, a now-separate chain that used to be part of the Appalachians.  As anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of French would guess, le petit rocher is the site of present-day Little Rock, the largest city and capital of Arkansas.
            Only 10 miles west of Little Rock stands a much bigger rock known as Pinnacle Mountain, the centerpiece of 2356-acre Pinnacle Mountain State Park.  Established in 1977, Pinnacle Mountain State Park was Arkansas’ first state park in a suburban area. The park is solely a day-use park, and it features only a boat launch, Visitor Center, and some picnic shelters in terms of facilities.
            Pinnacle Mountain State Park offers many trails for bikers and hikers, and it is the eastern terminus of the 233-mile Ouachita Trail, one of Arkansas’ premier backpacking trails.  By far the park’s most popular hiking destination is the 1011-foot summit of Pinnacle Mountain, which can be seen standing more than 700 feet above the West Summit Picnic Area, the trailhead for this hike.  The steep, bare, boulder-covered mountain looks intimidating, and getting to the summit is as hard as it looks.  This hike combines a trip to the summit with a loop around Pinnacle Mountain’s base, thus allowing you to explore all aspects of the mountain.
West Summit Picnic Area trailhead
            The hike starts with a trip up the West Summit Trail, which begins at a colorful covered bridge-looking portal near the center of the picnic area.  Some park brochures and a trail map are also available here.  The stone steps begin immediately, and after only 300 feet you reach a junction with the Base Trail, which goes left and right.  We will eventually go clockwise around the Base Trail, but for now continue straight on the West Summit Trail.
            Soon you pass marker #1 as you head up 5 switchbacks and pass an iron railing that protects you from a small vertical drop on your left.  The West Summit Trail features 10 trail markers that you pass in increasing order as you climb to the summit.  5 benches also lie between you and the summit, and the benches combine with the trail markers to give this trail a front country feel in spite of the persistent steepness and rockiness.  I also encountered quite a bit of traffic on this trail even though I made the ascent on a cloudy seasonally cold mid-March morning.
            Just past marker #5, you pass the second bench.  This bench offers a nice view to the southwest during the leafless months.  At marker #6, the difficulty increases as the trail enters the first boulder field.  The boulder field is fairly exposed to the sun, and I would not want to be climbing over these boulders if they were slippery due to rain or ice.  Yellow blazes have been painted on the boulders to keep you on the trail.
Entering the boulder field
            At marker #7, the trail splits only to merge again in a few hundred feet.  As a sign explains, the left option is longer but less rocky, while the right option goes directly up the boulders.  Just past marker #8, the two options re-merge for the final steep, rocky push to the summit.  The last 1000 feet is a true New England-style boulder scramble.  An unofficial slightly less rocky line can be found to the left, but that area has been closed to help prevent erosion.
            At 0.7 miles, you reach a high saddle in between Pinnacle Mountain’s two summits: the slightly higher east summit and slightly narrower west summit.  The two summits offer different views, so you will want to climb over the remaining boulders and visit both of them.  The view east features the Arkansas River and, on a clear day, downtown Little Rock, while the view west features Lake Maumelle.  These views are hard-earned, so take some time to have a trail snack and see what you can see.
View east toward Little Rock

View of Lake Maumelle
            Another trail, the East Summit Trail marked by white rectangles with red borders, also departs the summit area, but it is even steeper and rockier than the West Summit Trail you came up on.  Also, going down the East Summit Trail would cause you to miss half of the Base Trail.  Thus, this hike goes back down the West Summit Trail to its junction with the Base Trail.  If all you want to do is visit the summit, the trailhead is only 300 feet past the Base Trail junction.  To get the full tour, turn right on the Base Trail to begin a clockwise journey around Pinnacle Mountain’s base.
            The Base Trail does not provide any grand views, but it does offer other rewards such as a nice wildflower display in the spring.  Also, because most people only hike to the summit, you will likely leave the crowds behind when you start the Base Trail.  Just as the West Summit Trail featured 10 trail markers, the Base Trail features 29 trail markers that you will pass in increasing order as you hike clockwise.  The trail markers on the Base Trail are painted neon green, as are the blazes that mark this trail.
Hiking the Base Trail
            The Base Trail ascends and descends on gradual to moderate grades, and although the Base Trail has a few rocky sections, it seems like a breeze compared to the steep and rocky West Summit Trail you just descended.  The trail curves gradually right as noise from SR 300 comes in from the left.  The road noise brings up the only down side to hiking the Base Trail: it stays near the park’s boundary for most of its distance, so the park’s suburban location ensures that signs of civilization such as roads, buildings, power lines, and railroad tracks are nearly always in sight.
            1.6 miles into the hike (or 0.2 miles into the Base Trail), you cross a gravel service road as you begin a moderate descent.  At 2.2 miles, the long-distance Ouachita Trail mentioned in the introduction enters from the left.  For the next 0.5 miles the blue blazes of the Ouachita Trail and the neon green blazes of the Base Trail run conjointly as the trail heads east along the north slope of Pinnacle Mountain.  Some short metal bridges carry you over some small creeks.
Metal bridge over small creek
            At 2.7 miles, you reach a junction with the East Summit Trail less than 100 feet from the East Summit Trail parking lot.  The Ouachita Trail exits left here, and the East Summit Trail briefly joins the Base Trail before exiting right to begin its steep, rocky climb to the summit.  Follow the neon green blazes to stay on the Base Trail.
Little Maumelle River
            Now on the east side of the mountain, some high voltage power lines come very near the trail on the left, but the trail stays on the west side of the power line clearing.  The power lines are soon replaced by railroad tracks and then by the Little Maumelle River, which was calm and cloudy on my visit.  The trail passes through one final rocky area as the West Summit Picnic Area comes into view downhill ahead and to the left.
Just past 4 miles, you close the Base Trail’s loop.  Turn left and hike the remaining short segment of the West Summit Trail to return to the picnic area and complete the hike.  While you are at Pinnacle Mountain State Park, be sure to stop by the Visitor Center, which has some interesting exhibits and offers a postcard view from its back patio high above the Arkansas River.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Keowee-Toxaway State Park: Natural Bridge and Raven Rock Trails (Blog Hike #621)

Trails: Natural Bridge and Raven Rock Trails
Hike Location: Keowee-Toxaway State Park
Geographic Location: northwest of Pickens, SC
Length: 4 miles
Difficulty: 7/10 (Moderate/Difficult)
Last Hiked: March 2017
Overview: A double loop with lots of up-and-down past a natural bridge and to a fantastic view of Lake Keowee.

Directions to the trailhead: Keowee-Toxaway State Park is located on the north side of SR 11 in northwestern South Carolina 8.7 miles west of SR 11’s intersection with US 178 (or 0.2 miles west of its intersection with SR 133).  Enter the park, and park in any of the three small parking lots near the park office.

The hike: Somewhat of a hidden gem among upstate South Carolina’s many top-tier hiking destinations, Keowee-Toxaway State Park (also known as Keowee-Toxaway State Natural Area) owes its existence to a land donation from Duke Energy in 1970.  The park protects 1000 acres on the east shore of Lake Keowee, which is a long narrow lake that was constructed partly to supply water for Duke Energy’s three nuclear power plants located on its shores.  A short hike at Duke Energy’s World of Energy Visitor Center, located at one of these nuclear stations, is described elsewhere in this blog.
            One of the reasons Keowee-Toxaway State Park flies under the radar is its lack of amenities.  On point, the park features only a 24-site campground, a few cabins, canoe/kayak access to Lake Keowee, and three hiking trails.  The short Lake Trail (not described in this blog) connects the campground and cabin areas.  The park’s other two trails, the Natural Bridge Trail and Raven Rock Trail, are both moderate-to-difficult lollipop loops.  The Raven Rock Trail is only accessible from the Natural Bridge Trail, so it makes sense to combine them and form the 4 mile figure-eight route described here.
Trailhead behind park office
            The hike starts at an information board behind (east of) the park office where the Natural Bridge Trail enters the woods.  The information board features a nice trail map, which may be helpful because the park office is only open 11am-noon and 4-5pm.  The trail descends slightly, and in less than 500 feet you reach an unsigned but obvious fork.  This fork forms the loop portion of the Natural Bridge Trail.  For the shortest and easiest route to the natural bridge, I chose to turn right and eventually use the left option as my return route.
            The trail follows the ridge crest northeast with some traffic noise from SR 11 filtering in from the right.  The park’s trail system was partially rebuilt in the early 2010’s, and at 0.2 miles the old and new Natural Bridge Trails converge.  Look for a wooden fence to the right that blocks the old route.  Trails at Keowee-Toxaway are marked with metal diamond markers, so it is hard to get lost.
            At 0.4 miles, you begin a moderate descent over dirt waterbars that will deposit you at the west end of the natural bridge.  The trail uses the rock bridge to cross Poe Creek, but the trail never goes to the base of the bridge.  Moreover, the dense understory of mountain laurel that lives along Poe Creek makes it hard to get a good view of the bridge.
Crossing the natural bridge

Poe Creek flowing from under natural bridge
            At 0.6 miles, you reach a signed trail intersection with options going straight and right.  If you want a short hike, you can continue straight on the Natural Bridge Trail and skip the Raven Rock Trail, thus shortening the hike to only 1.3 miles.  To see some of the park’s most scenic areas, turn right to begin the Raven Rock Trail.
            The Raven Rock Trail climbs briefly over some wooden steps built into the ground before beginning a gradual-to-moderate descent into one of Poe Creek’s side ravines.  During the descent, you pass some scenic rock outcrops that rise vertically to the right of the trail.  At the base of the ravine, the trail makes a sweeping left curve to begin an equally gradual-to-moderate ascent up the other side of the ravine.
Rock outcrop beside trail
            1 mile into the hike, the Raven Rock Trail splits to form its loop.  To make the climbing a little easier, I chose to turn up and right and use the trail going down and left as my return route, thus hiking the loop counterclockwise.  The gradual ascent continues, and at 1.25 miles you reach this hike’s highest point, which is nearly 1200 feet in elevation.
Descending toward Lake Keowee
            Next comes perhaps my favorite part of the hike, as the zig-zag trail descends on a persistently moderate grade into the remote northern corner of the park.  Overall, you lose about 300 feet of elevation over 0.5 miles.  When Lake Keowee comes into view, the trail curves left to begin heading west along the lake’s south shore.  At a couple of points the trail comes within 10 feet of the lake, and the elevation changes on this section are gradual.  The golf course you see across the lake is the private Cliffs at Keowee Vineyards, and it along with some mansion-type homes remind you that civilization is only a lake away.
            At 2.2 miles, the signed spur trail to the park’s primitive campground exits right as the trail climbs moderately away from Lake Keowee.  The grade intensifies somewhat before you reach the open rock ledge known as Raven Rock.  This rocky perch offers a fine view to the southwest down the length of Lake Keowee, the waters of which have a characteristic mountain-fed blue color.  Stop, have a trail snack, and enjoy the view.
Lake Keowee, as seen from Raven Rock
            Past Raven Rock, the moderate climb continues as the serpentine trail slithers in and out of several tight ravines.  A hiker friend told me that timber rattlesnakes are abundant at Keowee-Toxaway.  While I did not see any rattlesnakes on my hike, they are more common in the fall than in the spring, and the rocky areas along this trail are prime rattlesnake territory.
            At 2.8 miles, you close the Raven Rock Trail’s loop at the top of a finger ridge.  Continue straight to retrace your steps 0.4 miles to the Natural Bridge Trail, then turn right to continue the Natural Bridge Trail’s loop.  The Natural Bridge Trail descends some wooden steps to reach a bench beside Poe Creek just below some small waterfalls.  Stop here to rest a few minutes in the tranquil creekside setting before crossing Poe Creek on some strategically placed boulders.
Boulder-hopping Poe Creek
            The trail heads downstream beside rhododendron-choked Poe Creek for a few hundred feet before curving left to begin the climb back toward the trailhead.  This section of trail goes straight up the hillside for part of the climb, thus making this climb the steepest one of the hike.  Just as the trail starts to level out, you close the Natural Bridge Trail’s loop.  Retracing your steps for 500 feet returns you to the trailhead to complete the hike.


Thursday, March 9, 2017

Givhans Ferry State Park (Blog Hike #620)

Trails: River Bluff and Old Loop Trails
Hike Location: Givhans Ferry State Park
Geographic Location: southwest of Ridgeville, SC
Length: 6.9 miles
Difficulty: 3/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: February 2017
Overview: A mostly flat double loop past the Edisto River and through deep pine woods.

Directions to the trailhead: Take I-95 to SR 61 (exit 68).  Exit and go east on SR 61.  Drive SR 61 east 16.9 miles to CR 18-30, which is reached just after crossing the Edisto River.  A road sign for Givhans Ferry State Park stands here.  Turn left on CR 18-30, and drive 0.1 miles to the park entrance on the left.  Turn left to enter the park, pay the nominal entrance fee, and park in the large gravel/dirt parking area marked “General Parking.”  This parking area is located on the left just after passing a mowed-grass field on your right.

The hike: Acquired by donation from the City of Charleston in 1934, the 988 acres on which Givhans Ferry State Park sits has a long history as park land.  The park and general area get their name from Phillip Givhan, who operated a ferry across the Edisto River on this site in the late 1700’s.  Givhan’s ferry was located on the main land route from Charleston to Augusta and Savannah, which was called the Charleston to Augusta/Savannah Pass.  That road still exists today, but we call it SR 61.
            The depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) left their mark on this site via the campground’s Community Building.  The park offers a small 25-site campground, 4 cabins, 2 picnic shelters, and 2 hiking trails: the 1.5 mile River Bluff Trail and the 5.4 mile Old Loop Trail.  The two trails form separate loops, so you could hike only one if you wish.  This hike uses both loops to form a 6.9 mile grand tour of all the hiking Givhans Ferry State Park has to offer.
Start of River Bluff Trail
            This trail description starts with the shorter River Bluff Trail.  Before you leave the parking area, notice the signed sinkholes just east of the parking area, the above ground evidence of a cave system that lies underground.  After observing the sinkholes, cross the park road and walk diagonally across the mowed-grass play field to a pair of split rail fences at the edge of the woods.  Although no signs indicate such, this point marks the start of the River Bluff Trail, which heads into the woods.
            The wide leaf-covered dirt trail heads northeast on a nearly level course.  For this initial segment CR 18-30 lies less than 100 feet to the right, so you will hear an occasional car zooming by.  At 0.4 miles, you cross a wooden footbridge over a small stream.  File this bridge in your memory bank for later in this hike.
Wooden footbridge
            After crossing the bridge, the trail curves left to increase its distance from the road and head into an area that features several narrow but steep ravines.  0.7 miles into the hike, you get your first view of the Edisto River, this time from a bluff nearly 20 feet above the river.  The steep bluff stands in sharp contrast to the flat terrain on which this hike started.
Bluff along Edisto River
            The trail curves left again as it clings to the bluff.  The river stays downhill to the right, but trees prevent any unobstructed river views.  At 0.9 miles, the trail dips and rises steeply as it passes through a steep but shallow ravine.  Enjoy this hill, for it is the only noticeable elevation change on this hike.
            Just shy of 1 mile, the River Bluff Trail ends at an intersection with the paved park road near the primitive campground.  For the shortest route back to the parking area, angle softly right and walk along the park road as it passes the campground entrance, park office, and playground in that order.  Return to the general parking area at 1.4 miles.  Stop at your car to rest and resupply before beginning the longer second loop.
Start of Old Loop Trail
            To reach the second loop, walk out the main park road past the gatehouse. The Old Loop Trail starts at a vehicle gate directly across CR 18-30 from the park entrance.  The Old Loop Trail follows a wide old service road for its entire distance, so the going over the nearly flat terrain is very easy.  If you want some easy miles and could care less about scenery, then this trail is the one for you.
The forest nearest the county road features loblolly pines, but some nice stands of longleaf pines live further in.  Black marks on pine trees provide evidence of controlled burns, which are necessary to maintain the longleaf pine habitat.  For the most part the old service road stays very close to the park’s boundary, and occasionally some farm fields are visible across the park boundary to the right.
Some shallow ditches on either side of the road fill with water after a rain, so mosquitoes can be a real nuisance on this trail.  I got my first ever February mosquito bite on this hike.  1 mile into the Old Loop Trail, you pass a nice wooden bench, the only bench on this trail.
Hiking on the old service road
3.2 miles into the hike, the old road curves left near the park’s eastern boundary.  Now on a northwest course, a few wet areas appear on the trail, and yellow forsythias were in full bloom on my visit.  After the old road on which you are walking curves left again, another old road appears to the right.
Forsythia bush in bloom
At 6 miles, the Old Loop Trail ends at another vehicle gate beside CR 18-30.  There is no trail that leads back to the parking area from this point, so you either have to retrace your very many steps along the semicircle-shaped Old Loop Trail or complete a loop via a 0.7 mile road walk along CR 18-30.  As a third alternative, shortly after beginning the road walk look to the right for the wooden footbridge you crossed earlier on the River Bluff Trail.  During the leafless season the bridge is visible about 50 feet into the woods, so you can hike off-trail a short distance to get back on the River Bluff Trail.  A left turn will get you going the opposite direction than the one you hiked a few hours ago and take you back to the general parking area.


Thursday, March 2, 2017

North Charleston Wannamaker County Park (Blog Hike #619)

Trails: Red, Blue, Beige, Purple, Yellow, and Pink Trails
Hike Location: North Charleston Wannamaker County Park
Geographic Location: Goose Creek, SC
Length: 2.5 miles
Difficulty: 2/10 (Easy)
Last Hiked: February 2017
Overview: A nearly flat loop hike through a forested suburban park.

Directions to the trailhead: West of Charleston, take I-26 to US 78 (exit 205).  Exit and go east on US 78.  Drive busy US 78 east 1.1 miles to the signed park entrance on the left.  Turn left to enter the park, pay the nominal entrance fee at the gatehouse (where you should ask for a trail map), and then turn left at the next intersection to head for the picnic shelters.  Park near Cypress Hall, which is reached on the right just after the road turns to gravel.

The hike: Charleston County, one of the four original counties in South Carolina, operates three parks with developed trail systems: Palmetto Islands, Caw Caw Interpretive Center, and North Charleston Wannamaker.  Located just east of Charleston Southern University, North Charleston Wannamaker County Park is the most urban of the three.  The park protects 1015 acres of woodlands and wetlands, but it also features a water park, a dog park, a playground, and several picnic shelters.
            For hikers, the park features more than 4.5 miles of trails, but some of these trails are paved with asphalt and pass through the park’s developed area.  Although it is hard to form an extended loop using only the park’s natural areas, over half of the park’s trails are unpaved nature trails.  This hike features the natural areas but also uses part of the paved trail system to form a grand loop around the park.
Trailhead near Cypress Hall
            The hike starts at the trailhead just northeast of Cypress Hall.  A sign with a colorful trail map marks this point, and signs like this one are posted throughout the trail system, thus making it very hard to get lost.  The initial segment of this hike follows the Red Trail, a 0.65 mile dirt nature trail that connects this trailhead with the gatehouse area.  Therefore, red plastic diamonds mark the way for now.
            Two other trails exit right, so you need to bear left to stay on the Red Trail.  The trail undulates slightly as it passes near the park’s north boundary.  At 0.2 miles, you pass an interesting cluster of trees and a pair of benches, one of which is a swinging bench.  A sign marks this point as a stop on the park’s cell phone tour.  Dialing the number on the sign tells you about this land’s agricultural history.
Trees and benches along trail
            The trail curves left to head south along the park’s west boundary.  The forest here at Wannamaker County Park consists of some oak and sweet gum trees with a few loblolly pines and magnolias.  When I came here in late February, the yellow flowering forsythia bushes were in full bloom.
            At 0.7 miles, you reach the south end of the Red Trail at its intersection with the asphalt Blue Trail.  Turn left to begin following the Blue Trail as it crosses the park entrance road just inside the gatehouse.  For the next 0.5 miles the hike follows this paved trail through the developed part of the park.  The park’s water park and dog park sit to the right of the trail.
            1.2 miles into the hike, where the paved trail curves left to pass near the park’s playground, turn right to leave the pavement for awhile.  You can either walk through the gravel overflow parking area or take the narrow dirt Beige Trail: the two options come together and continue northeast in a few hundred feet.  After passing the mown-grass play hill on the left, look for an unusual tree growing out of a fallen log just right of the trail.
Tree growing out of log
            At 1.45 miles, the Beige Trail ends at an intersection with the asphalt Purple Trail.  Turn right to begin the Purple Trail and stay in the park’s natural areas.  The asphalt Purple Trail winds east while descending slightly.  Where the dirt Yellow Trail crosses the Purple Trail, turn softly right on the Yellow Trail to leave the pavement for good.  The plastic diamonds that mark the Yellow Trail look more lime-green than yellow to me.
Hiking the Yellow Trail
            Now in the park’s northeastern corner, the trail passes a seasonal wetland area on the right that features some bald cypress trees.  A large number of woodland songbirds flittered around this area on my visit, and some road noise from nearby US 52 filters in from the other side of the wetland.  At 1.9 miles, the trail curves left to pick up a wider treadway in an area that had recently seen the chain saw.

Bald cypresses in wetland
            At the next trail intersection, turn right to leave the Yellow Trail and begin the Pink Trail.  After crossing a wooden footbridge, ignore the Orange Trail, which exits left.  More westward hiking brings you to the Dark Purple Trail, where a left turn gives the shortest route back to the trailhead.  0.2 miles of slightly uphill hiking returns you to the Cypress Hall parking lot to complete the hike.