Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Village Creek State Park: Austell, Military Road, and Lake Dunn Trails (Blog Hike #625)

Trails: Austell, Military Road, and Lake Dunn Trails
Hike Location: Village Creek State Park
Geographic Location: southeast of Wynne, AR (35.16188, -90.71840)
Length: 4.3 miles
Difficulty: 4/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: March 2017
Overview: A loop hike featuring an old military road used on the Trail of Tears.
Hike Route Map: http://www.mappedometer.com/?maproute=595024
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: In eastern Arkansas, take I-40 to SR 284 (exit 242).  Exit and go north on SR 284.  Drive SR 284 north 11.1 miles to the signed state park entrance on the right.  Turn right to enter the park, then follow signs to the Visitor Center.  Park in the concrete lot in front of the Visitor Center.

The hike: Located atop Crowley Ridge, one of the few hills between Memphis and Little Rock, 6911-acre Village Creek State Park is Arkansas’ second largest state park.  The park exists because the Arkansas General Assembly wanted eastern Arkansas to have a major destination for outdoor recreation.  The Assembly commissioned a study of site options in 1967, land acquisition began in 1972, and the park officially opened on June 27, 1976.
            Village Creek State Park definitely serves the intended purpose, for it offers nearly every form of recreation and amenity.  The park includes a 96-site campground, 10 cabins, two fishing lakes, a 27-hole golf course, numerous picnic sites, and a visitor’s complex that features a theater, store, gift shop, and bicycle rentals, in addition to trails for hikers, bikers, and horses.  Four of the park’s trails are hiker-only: the short Big Ben Nature Trail and the Arboretum Trail (less than 0.5 miles each) in addition to the more substantial Austell and Military Road Trails.  This hike combines the two longer hiker-only trails with some of the mountain bike trails to form a 4.3 mile loop through the western part of the trail system.
Trailhead in front of Visitor Center
            The first segment of this hike uses the Austell Trail, which heads south from a signed trailhead in front of the Visitor Center.  Both the Arboretum and Austell Trails start here, and the treadway starts by crossing a concrete bridge and heading into the arboretum.  Small signs identify common trees, which include sweet gum, oak, hickory, sugar maple, and tuliptree.  The nice mix of broadleaf trees makes Village Creek State Park one of this region’s few good fall leaf-peeping destinations.
            In less than 300 feet, the Arboretum and Austell Trails part ways at a signed trail intersection.  Angle right to continue the Austell Trail and begin a gradual climb.  The trails at Village Creek are marked using paint blazes with colors that correspond to allowed trail users.  All hiker-only trails are blazed blue, while all multi-use trails are blazed white.  I hope this system helps park rangers enforce the park’s trail-use regulations: having all trails at a given intersection blazed blue provides little help in determining which way to go.
Hiking along the ridge
            The trail levels off atop the flat but narrow ridge.  Crowley Ridge features the loess topography that is rather common on the fringes of the Mississippi and Missouri River floodplains.  Loess hills consist of clay deposited by wind and water rather than the usual rock, so they are steep and easily eroded but feature no rock outcrops.  The largest and most famous loess formations are found up in western Missouri and Iowa, but they also occur here and further down river in extreme southwestern Mississippi.
            After nearly 0.2 miles of walking along the ridge, the trail dips into a steep ravine and climbs out the other side via an elaborate set of steps.  As I hiked up this hill on a seasonally cold March morning, I thought back to the humidity my mom and I felt on my first trip down this trail in July 1997 (before I started keeping even the earliest version of this blog).  After climbing out of the ravine, you cross a park road and reenter the woods on the other side.
Climbing out of the ravine
            At 0.75 miles, you reach a trail intersection with options (both blazed blue!) going right and left.  The trail going right leads to a picnic area, so you want to turn left and begin a gradual descent.  Lake Austell comes into view here downhill and to the right.
            Just shy of 1 mile, you cross a boat ramp that leads very steeply down into Lake Austell.  Prospective boaters will need a powerful truck to pull a boat out of the water up this ramp.  A few hundred feet later, you reach the north end of the dam that forms Lake Austell, which also marks the end of the Austell Trail and the trailhead for the Military Road Trail.  Turn right to begin the upper portion of the Military Road Trail as it crosses the dam.
Lake Austell
            The Military Road Trail gets its name from an old dirt road built to the 1820’s that connected Memphis to Little Rock.  In some sense, the military road was an early version of I-40, and the longest and best-preserved section of the road is used by this trail.  Although you are not on the road yet, some interpretive signs at the south end of the dam tell you that this road was used during the Trail of Tears to remove Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, and Cherokee from Tennessee to Oklahoma.
            The trail climbs steeply away from the dam and continues its southbound course.  At 1.6 miles, the trail curves left as it intersects and begins following the old military road.  Parts of the road lie in a trench dug several feet into the loess soil, so the going can be a little muddy.  You are traveling east on the old road, so imagine what it would be like to meet displaced Choctaw or Cherokee being forcibly marched in the opposite direction.
Hiking the old military road
            2.1 miles into the hike, the lower arm of the Military Road Trail exits the trench to the left via a set of wooden steps.  At this point you have a decision to make.  If you insist on using only the hiker-only trails, then you can turn left here, hike the lower arm back to the dam area, and then retrace your steps along the Austell Trail to finish the hike.  To add more variety and form a true loop, this hike continues straight on the old road to head for the multi-use trails.
            The trench deepens as you begin a moderate descent toward the park’s namesake creek.  At 2.4 miles, you reach the lowest elevation of this hike at a swinging bridge over Village Creek.  While I could not find any specific information on this bridge, its construction is similar to bridges built by the Young Adult Conservation Corps in the 1970’s.  Also, notice the streambank stabilization structures that have been built near the wooden posts that support this bridge.
Swinging bridge over Village Creek
            Just past 2.5 miles, you reach a trail intersection (labeled marker #14 in the multi-use trail system) that marks the end of the Military Road Trail.  Turn left to begin heading north on the white-blazed multi-use trail, which is open to both hikers and mountain bikes.  While this part of the park does not have the stark loess scenery of the Austell Trail or the history of the Military Road Trail, this trail’s wide firmly-packed dirt surface and gentle grade make the going very easy.
            At 3.1 miles, you reach trail marker #13.  This description turns left here to take the shortest route back to the trailhead.  If you wanted to extend your hike and see the park’s other lake, Lake Dunn, you could continue straight here and end up at the Lake Dunn Campground in 0.8 miles.  Still on the wide dirt trail you have become accustomed to, the trail curves right as it approaches Village Creek’s east bank.  Notice the rugged, steeply eroded creek banks in this area.
Village Creek
            3.9 miles into the hike, a final left turn and crossing of Village Creek, this time on a sturdy wooden bridge, brings you to the bicycle trail entrance at the edge of a mowed-grass play field.  Though no signs indicate such, you need to angle left to reach the campground access road.  Then angle left again to cross a road bridge and reach the main park road directly across from the Visitor Center.  Your return to the Visitor Center parking lot signals the end of the hike. 
Before leaving the park, consider hiking the short Arboretum or Big Ben Nature Trails, both of which start near the Visitor Center.  Also, while you are in the area, take a short drive to nearby Parkin Archeological State Park.  While Parkin does not have an extensive trail system, it is a great place to learn about an earlier, happier, and more prosperous era in American Indian history.

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