Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Mammoth Cave National Park: Visitor Center Double Loop (Blog Hike #632)

Trails: River Styx Spring, Echo River Spring, Sinkhole, Heritage, Dixon Cave, and Green River Bluffs Trails
Hike Location: Mammoth Cave National Park
Geographic Location: west of Cave City, KY
Length: 4.6 miles
Difficulty: 5/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: May 2017
Overview: A double loop featuring Mammoth Cave’s surface attractions.

Directions to the trailhead: This hike starts at the Mammoth Cave National Park Visitor Center.  To get there from points north, take I-65 to SR 70 (exit 53).  Exit and turn right on SR 70.  Where SR 70 turns left, continue straight on SR 255 to enter Mammoth Cave National Park.  Drive a total of 5 miles from the interstate to Mammoth Cave Parkway and turn right on Mammoth Cave Pkwy.  Mammoth Cave Pkwy. deadends in 1.5 miles at the Visitor Center.  From the south, use I-65 exit 48, turn left, and drive first SR 255 and then SR 70 a total of 4.9 miles to Mammoth Cave Parkway.  Continue straight on Mammoth Cave Pkwy. to reach the Visitor Center in another 3.1 miles.

The hike: Boasting over 400 miles of surveyed passages, Mammoth Cave in central Kentucky is the longest known cave system in the world.  Although the cave was known to American Indians in prehistoric times, the first Europeans to discover the cave were the brothers John and Francis Houchin in 1797.  The cave was mined for saltpeter, a key ingredient in gunpowder, during the War of 1812, and by the mid 1800’s commercial tours of the cave had begun.
            In the early 1900’s, the cave’s popularity led to the Kentucky Cave Wars in which local landowners fiercely competed for the tourist dollars that cave tours brought to the area.  New cave entrances were blasted so that more landowners could offer cave tours.  In 1926, the United States Government authorized Mammoth Cave National Park to end the cave’s commercial exploitation and put the cave in public hands.  By 1941, over 45,000 acres had been acquired for the national park.  Most of the land was acquired by eminent domain, an act that still harbors bitter feelings among area residents today.  The cave and the land above it were named a World Heritage Site in 1981 and an International Biosphere Reserve in 1990.
            Relative to other caves, Mammoth Cave’s main features are its long passageways and massive rooms.  The cave has relatively few pretty cave formations, and the cave’s name comes from its sheer size.  Cave tours remain the area’s main attraction today, and they are sufficiently popular that the National Park Service recommends making advanced reservations.  I reserved a spot on the 3:15pm Domes and Dripstones Tour (note that the national park is located in the Central Time Zone), thus choosing to tour the park’s surface attractions by foot in the cool of the morning and go below ground where the temperature is a constant 54 degrees in the heat of the afternoon. 
Because most cave tours depart from the Visitor Center, the double loop described here is a logical route to hike while waiting for your cave tour.  This hike takes about 2.5 to 3 hours to complete in its entirety.  If you have less time than I did before your cave tour, you could hike only one of the two loops.  In such a case, the first loop is longer but offers more to see than the second.
Trailhead behind Visitor Center
            After exiting the back-left side of the Visitor Center, look for the signs for the Historic Entrance and trail system.  The hike starts by heading down a concrete path that passes under the pedestrian bridge connecting the Visitor Center and Mammoth Cave Hotel.  The hotel features a nice snack bar and ice cream parlor that I recommend patronizing after your hike.
            The initial trail segment seems to attract a large number of snakes, as I saw several snakes slithering beside and across the trail here.  As you walk down the concrete path, you pass several interpretive signs that describe how the cave was formed.  The signs explain that Mammoth Cave gets its extreme length because the porous limestone that contains the cave is topped by an imporous sandstone cap.  With water unable to escape through the sandstone, it continued to erode through the limestone, thus creating longer and longer passageways.
            At 0.25 miles, you reach Mammoth Cave’s massive Historic Entrance.  This entrance is used by the national park’s Historic Cave Tour, and concrete steps with metal railings lead down into the cave.  This cave tour features the Rotunda room, one of the largest rooms in Mammoth Cave.  The cool air wafting out of the cave is refreshing on a warm summer day.
Mammoth Cave's Historic Entrance
            The Historic Entrance also marks a major trail intersection.  The second loop of our double loop starts to the right on the Dixon Cave Trail, so you will be back here in a little over 1 hour.  To start the first loop, continue downhill on the River Styx Spring Trail, which soon turns from asphalt to gravel.
            The wide two-track gravel trail treads downhill on a moderate to steep grade as it enters the Green River floodplain, which lies roughly 220 vertical feet below the Visitor Center.  At 0.7 miles, you reach another major trail intersection.  We will eventually turn sharply left here to begin the dirt Echo River Spring Trail, but first turn softly left to walk the short boardwalk out to River Styx Spring.  River Styx is one of Mammoth Cave’s major outlets for water, and its level depends on water tables and the level of the nearby Green River.  The river was high and cloudy on my visit.
River Styx Spring
            The next 0.8 miles use the Echo River Spring Trail as it heads for its namesake spring, another major outlet for cave water.  The trail passes up and over River Styx Spring before descending to reenter the Green River’s floodplain.  The floodplain is populated with young forest that features some red cedar trees and a dense green understory in season, which includes some poison ivy.  Just past 1 mile, you pass what appears to be an old spring house on the left, a remnant of the farms that once stood on this land.  The River Valley Trail exits left just past this structure; stay right to remain on the Echo River Spring Trail.
Old spring house?
            At 1.5 miles, you reach the Echo River and another trail intersection.  This hike turns left here to begin the Sinkhole Trail, but first take a short detour straight ahead to see Echo River Spring, which looks less rocky and imposing than River Styx Spring you saw earlier.  The trail continues past the spring to reach a parking lot near the Green River Ferry, a rare active ferry-crossing of a major river, but it does not loop back to the spring.
Echo River Spring
            Now on the narrower Sinkhole Trail, the trail uses several switchbacks to climb the slightly rocky hillside on a moderate grade.  The upland forest features tulip poplar, maple, and beech trees along with a few hickories.  I saw several wild turkeys traipsing through the forest on my visit.  1.75 miles into the hike, you need to turn left to remain on the Sinkhole Trail where another trail continues straight to head for the Mammoth Cave Campground.
White's Cave
            Very quickly you pass White’s Cave, a much smaller cave opening than the Historic Entrance you passed earlier.  The grade eases as you head around and then up a finger ridge.  At 2.1 miles, the River Valley Trail enters from the left just before you reach Mammoth Dome Sink.  An exceptionally large dry sinkhole, Mammoth Dome Sink was formed when an underground cave tunnel collapsed, so the sink is surface evidence of the cave system that lies beneath you.
            Next the Sinkhole Trail traces around the upper reaches of a ravine as the park’s cottage area comes into view uphill and to the right.  Just past 2.5 miles, you reach the ridgetop and an intersection with the ADA-accessible concrete Heritage Trail.  Turn left to begin a counterclockwise journey around the Heritage Trail’s loop, and quickly reach Sunset Point.  Perched more than 250 feet above the Green River, Sunset Point offers a nice south-facing vista over the Green River valley.
View south from Sunset Point
            Continuing around the Heritage Trail, more nearly flat walking brings you to the close of the Heritage Trail’s loop.  Before turning left to head back to the Visitor Center area and close this hike’s first loop, take the short spur trail to the right that leads to Old Guide’s Cemetery.  Though mainly a slave cemetery, the burial ground does contain the grave of legendary guide Stephen Bishop, who led cave tours here in the mid 1800’s.
Old Guide's Cemetery
            As you walk out the “stick” of the Heritage Trail’s lollipop loop, look for the signed start of the gravel Dixon Cave Trail that goes downhill to the left.  If your cave tour is less than 1 hour away, then the Visitor Center is less than 300 feet ahead.  Otherwise, turn left to head down the Dixon Cave Trail and begin the second of our two loops.
            At the bottom of some stone steps, you reach Mammoth Cave’s Historic Entrance for a second time.  Cross the paved River Styx Spring Trail you walked down earlier to remain on the dirt/gravel Dixon Cave Trail.  After passing around a finger ridge, you reach Dixon Cave at 3.4 miles.  Another large opening in the ground, Dixon Cave used to be connected to Mammoth Cave, but a tunnel collapse many years ago cut it off from the main cave system.  An observation platform allows you to gaze into the hole that is Dixon Cave to see if it gazes back.
Dixon Cave
            Continuing on the Dixon Cave Trail, ignore a side trail that exits right and heads for the park’s picnic area.  A little more descending brings you to the end of the Dixon Cave Trail at an intersection with the Green River Bluffs Trail, which goes straight and right.  Turn right to begin the Green River Bluffs Trail.
Hiking the Green River Bluffs Trail
            True to its name, the Green River Bluffs Trail heads northeast parallel to the Green River with the bluff rising to your right and falling to your left.  This trail is narrower than some of the park’s other trails, so you need to mind the steep unprotected dropoffs to your left.  At 3.8 miles, you reach this hike’s best Green River view.  Perched nearly 150 feet above the river, the overlook angles upstream at a point where few modern constructions intrude on the view.  Enjoy the broad view, the highlight of this second loop.
Green River bluff overlook
            Past the overlook, the trail curves right and climbs moderately to reach the top of the bluff.  Another right curve and some level walking bring you to the Green River Bluff Trail’s upper trailhead at the picnic area.  Turn left to walk the blacktop picnic area access road back to the Visitor Center parking lot and complete the surface portion of your tour of Mammoth Cave.


Sunday, May 28, 2017

Cumberland Gap National Historic Park: Tri-State Peak (Blog Hike #631)

Trails: Wilderness Road and Tri-State Trails
Hike Location: Cumberland Gap National Historic Park
Geographic Location: northeast of Harrogate, TN
Length: 3 miles
Difficulty: 7/10 (Moderate/Difficult)
Last Hiked: May 2017
Overview: An out-and-back to the summit of Tri-State Peak.

Directions to the trailhead: This hike starts at the Cumberland Gap National Historic Park’s Daniel Boone Parking Area.  Although this parking area technically lies in Virginia (by less than 500 feet), you have to drive through Tennessee to reach it.  From the intersection of US 25E and US 58 on the Tennessee side of the Cumberland Gap Tunnel, drive US 58 east 0.5 miles to the signed turn-off for the town of Cumberland Gap, TN.  Turn left and drive 0.2 miles to the signed Daniel Boone Parking Area on the right.

The hike: For my introduction to Cumberland Gap and its historical significance, see my first hike to Cumberland Gap from June 2004.  This hike starts by going to Cumberland Gap and then continues on to Tri-State Peak, which as its name suggests is a summit shared by three states: Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia.  Because I hiked up to Cumberland Gap from the Kentucky side the first time, I chose to hike up from the Tennessee/Virginia side this time.  If you want to hike to Tri-State Peak from the Kentucky side, follow my first hike up to the gap and then pick up this hike from there.
Trail leaving Daniel Boone Parking Area
            The hike starts on a gravel trail that leaves the rear of the visitor’s plaza, which also contains restrooms and some information boards.  The Daniel Boone Parking Area is sometimes also called the Daniel Boone Visitor Center, but it was unstaffed on my visit.  Very quickly the Boone Trail exits right to head east 1.6 miles to the park’s Wilderness Road Campground.  Bear left to begin the Wilderness Road Trail, which heads for Cumberland Gap.
            The wide gravel trail alternates between sun and shade as it parallels the former route of US 25E, which used to go through Cumberland Gap but now passes under Cumberland Mountain via the Cumberland Gap Tunnel.  After 0.4 miles of fairly level walking, the Gap Cave Trail exits right.  The Gap Cave Trail leads 0.2 uphill miles to its namesake cave, but it does not lead to Cumberland Gap.  Thus, perhaps after a side trip to Gap Cave, you should bear left to stay on the Wilderness Road Trail.
Hiking the Wilderness Road Trail
            A slight descent brings you to a small creek, which is crossed via a long footlog.  Some rocky cascades in the creek add nice sights and sounds to the ambiance.  Just shy of 0.7 miles, the Tennessee Road Trail exits left to head 0.3 downhill miles to the Iron Furnace Parking Area.  The Iron Furnace Parking Area offers another possible starting point for this hike; from that parking area it is a shorter distance but steeper climb to Cumberland Gap than the one described here.  Continue straight to keep heading for Cumberland Gap.
            The climb now begins in earnest, as the trail gains nearly 200 feet of elevation over the next 0.25 miles to reach Cumberland Gap.  When you hike up to Cumberland Gap from this direction, you are coming up to the gap and entering Kentucky the same way settlers did in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s.  Some interpretive signs describe the rough conditions these settlers experienced while traveling this trail/road.
Arriving at Cumberland Gap
            Cumberland Gap today marks a major trail intersection.  The trail going straight leads downhill to the Thomas Walker Parking Lot on the park’s Kentucky side, and the Harlan Road Trail exiting right leads to Pinnacle Road and beyond.  To get to Tri-State Peak, turn left to begin the signed Tri-State Trail.
Monument to Daniel Boone's Trail
            Now on the north side of the main ridge (and therefore in Kentucky), very quickly you pass a pyramid stone monument erected by the Daughters of the American Revolution in honor of Daniel Boone’s Trail.  At 1.2 miles, you pass a crater dating to the Civil War.  Retreating Union soldiers created an explosion to destroy munitions and prevent them from falling into Confederate hands, an explosion that formed this crater.
Crater from Civil War
            Where a signed spur trail to the remains of Civil War-era Fort Foote exits right, stay left to keep heading to Tri-State Peak.  The grade on the Tri-State Trail started gradual, but it now intensifies as you pass under and back under some high voltage power lines.  In total, the trail gains an additional 330 feet of elevation from Cumberland Gap to Tri-State Peak.  When I hiked this trail in mid-May, the mountain laurel was just starting to bloom.  A switchback brings you back to the south side of the main ridge, thus putting you back in Virginia.
            At 1.5 miles, the gazebo that sits atop Tri-State Peak comes into view.  To be honest, the view from here is a little underwhelming: the only vista opens northwest toward Middlesboro, KY, and the power lines pass directly in front of you in that direction.  Nevertheless, Tri-State Peak allows you to do the usual touristy things of standing in three states at once and jumping from state to state with a single hop without the usual tourist crowds.  Also, some benches make nice places to sit and enjoy a trail snack.
Gazebo at Tri-State Peak

View into Kentucky from Tri-State Peak
            The Tri-State Trail ends at the gazebo, but the treadway does not.  Tri-State Peak is the northern terminus of the Cumberland Trail (CT), the 300-mile cross-Tennessee trail that heads southwest to Chattanooga.  Although I did not see any of the white CT blazes up here, the obvious trail heads down the spine of Cumberland Mountain from the gazebo, and the first few miles are maintained by students from nearby Lincoln Memorial University.  There is no easy way to form a loop, so at some point you will need to retrace your steps down to the Daniel Boone Parking Lot to complete the hike.


Saturday, May 13, 2017

Chattahoochee National Forest: Dukes Creek Falls (Blog Hike #630)

Trail: Dukes Creek Trail
Hike Location: Chattahoochee National Forest, Dukes Creek Falls Recreation Area
Geographic Location: west of Helen, GA
Length: 2.2 miles
Difficulty: 4/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: May 2017
Overview: An out-and-back down to the base of scenic Dukes Creek Falls.

Directions to the trailhead: From Helen, take SR 17 north 1.3 miles to SR 75A and turn left on SR 75A.  Drive SR 75A southwest 2.3 miles to SR 348 and turn right on SR 348.  Drive winding SR 348 west 1.7 miles to the national forest’s signed Dukes Creek Falls Recreation Area on the left.  Turn left to enter the recreation area.  Drive up the short entrance road, pay the small day-use fee, and park in the paved trailhead parking area.  The hike starts at the vault toilet building near the rear of the parking area.

The hike: Often overlooked in favor of its more famous cousin Raven Cliff Falls some 3 miles to the west, the much higher Dukes Creek Falls lies at the confluence of Dukes Creek and Davis Creek down-watershed from Raven Cliff Falls.  Dukes Creek gains historical notoriety from some gold discovered in its waters in 1828.  This discovery led to the Georgia gold rush, a precursor to the more famous California gold rush some 20 years later.  Interestingly, Dukes Creek Falls is a misnomer, because the highest fall is actually located on Davis Creek, not on Dukes Creek.
            Dukes Creek Falls can only be accessed by foot, and two trailheads serve as possible starting points for hikers seeking to reach the falls.  The lower trailhead is located to the south in the cottage area of Smithgall Woods State Park, while the upper trailhead is located in the small Dukes Creek Recreation Area, which is owned and maintained by Chattahoochee National Forest.  This hike gets to the waterfall from the upper national forest trailhead because it is easier to find and offers better parking than the lower state park trailhead.
ADA-accessible trail leaving vault toilet area
            From the vault toilets beside the parking lot at Dukes Creek Recreation Area, start on the ADA-accessible asphalt trail that heads gradually downhill and curves gradually to the right to parallel the parking lot.  A few picnic tables are passed before you leave the developed part of the recreation area.  At 0.1 miles, the ADA-accessible part of the trail ends at an observation platform.  The platform offers a partially obstructed view to the west, and Dukes Creek Falls can be heard but not seen in the ravine below you.
View from ADA-accessible platform
            Past the platform, the asphalt trail surface turns to gravel as you begin the 350 vertical foot descent in earnest.  The trail parallels SR 348, which sits above you to your right, as it descends some steep wooden steps to reach another platform with some benches.  This platform offers no view.
After descending another short set of steep wooden steps, you reach an unmarked T-intersection at 0.3 miles with options going right and left.  The trail going right is an old entrance trail that used to connect to the Raven Cliffs Trailhead but now deadends at the bank of Dukes Creek.  Thus, you want to turn left to continue descending on what appears to be an old road.
Descending on wide gravel trail
            The wide gravel trail heads south as it gradually descends.  Dukes Creek tumbles over some scenic cascades downhill to your right.  The creek starts rather close to the trail, but it descends away from the trail as you continue south.  Some nice hemlock trees live in the forest here.
            At 0.75 miles, you reach another unmarked trail intersection with the wide gravel trail continuing straight and a steeper dirt trail exiting at a sharp angle to the right.  The trail going straight leads to the lower state park trailhead, so you need to turn right to keep heading for the waterfall.  The grade intensifies and the trail surface becomes a little rougher for this last segment to the falls.
            1.1 miles into the hike, you reach this hike’s lowest elevation at the base of Dukes Creek Falls.  Two observation decks sit here: a lower deck near the very bottom of the cascade and an upper deck that provides a frontal view of the main fall.  When I came here in early May 2017, the upper deck was closed because it had sustained damage from a fallen tree, and repair was not expected for at least a year.  Thus, the pictures I present below do not do this 150 foot waterfall justice because I could not get to the best view.
Right side of falls (in Dukes Creek)

Main falls (through trees in Davis Creek)
The water volume is moderate, and this waterfall impresses mainly with its sheer height.  Some benches at the observation deck allow you to sit, observe the waterfall, and enjoy the cool creekside environment on a warm day.  The trail ends at the observation deck, so the only option is to retrace your steps 1.1 miles and 350 vertical feet uphill to the parking area to complete the hike.


Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Chattahoochee National Forest: Raven Cliff Falls (Blog Hike #629)

Trail: Raven Cliffs Trail
Hike Location: Chattahoochee National Forest, Raven Cliffs Trailhead
Geographic Location: west of Helen, GA
Length: 5 miles
Difficulty: 6/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: May 2017
Overview: A scenic out-and-back to unique Raven Cliff Falls.

Directions to the trailhead: From Helen, take SR 17 north 1.3 miles to SR 75A and turn left on SR 75A.  Drive SR 75A southwest 2.3 miles to SR 348 and turn right on SR 348.  Drive winding SR 348 west 2.7 miles to the national forest’s signed Raven Cliffs Trailhead on the left.  Turn left, drive down the short entrance road, and park in the gravel trailhead parking area.  The parking area is large enough to hold about 25 cars, but it can fill quickly on weekends and holidays.

The hike: Established only in 1986, Chattahoochee National Forest’s Raven Cliffs Wilderness protects 9115 acres west of the forest’s gateway city of Helen.  The wilderness is centered around its 80-foot high namesake cliff, which in turn features Raven Cliff Falls, a most unusual waterfall.  Rather than going over Raven Cliff like any ordinary waterfall would do, Raven Cliff Falls goes through the cliff, and the waterfall can only be seen through a crack in the vertical rock cliff.  Because Raven Cliff Falls is so unique, the 5 mile round-trip hike with 700 feet of elevation gain described here may be the most popular dayhike in the north Georgia mountains.  Thus, I highly recommend a weekday or winter visit to avoid the crowds.
Raven Cliffs Trailhead
            From the parking area, a sign points to the brown carsonite post that marks the beginning of the Raven Cliffs Trail.  Because this trail passes through a federally designated wilderness, this carsonite post will be the last trail marker you will see.  Nevertheless, the high foot traffic volume ensures that the trail is well-worn and easy to follow.
            After passing up and over a small bluff, you cross Dodds Creek for the only time on a nice wooden footbridge.  Contrary to what you would expect for a wilderness, the Raven Cliffs Trail features a few man-made bridges such as this one.  Also, this trail accesses many established campsites along Dodds Creek.  The campsites feature fire rings and nice flat dirt areas that are perfect for tents.
Creekside campsite
            The trail next climbs slightly to join an old logging road that will take you most of the way to the falls.  The logging road’s wide treadway and gradual grades make the going rather easy except for a couple of old washout areas.  Though this ravine was logged in the early 1900’s, the forest today features a nice mix of oaks, tulip poplars, and even some tall pines.  The dense understory features rhododendron in the creekside areas and ferns in the drier areas.
Dodds Creek
            As you continue the gradual climb, the first of Dodds Creek’s many small waterfalls appears downhill to the left.  These waterfalls, a couple of which are around 20-30 feet high, do their part to turn a rather ordinary creekside hike into one that is truly spectacular.  Some of these waterfalls would be destination waterfalls in some other creeks, but in Dodds Creek they are only warm-up acts for the figurative and literal show-stopper that is to come.
Hiking below a rock cliff
            Near 1 mile into the hike, the trail stays close to a rock cliff on the right that appears to have been cut away to make room for the logging road.  As I hiked up this trail on a sunny afternoon in early May, I could not help but think of my friend Freddie Coile.  Now a full-time evangelist and Christian camp director, Freddie led his first person to Christ while hiking up this trail.
            At 1.5 miles, you pass Dodds Creek’s tallest waterfall other than the main one at this trail’s end.  Trees make it hard to get a clear view unless you choose to hike a steep, rocky, unofficial side trail to the waterfall’s base.  Further up the trail, two small tributaries of Dodds Creek are crossed via footlogs (a bridge construction more common to the Great Smoky Mountains than the north Georgia mountains), and a slightly larger one is crossed on a more conventional footbridge just before you go up and over a final steep bluff.
Footlog on Raven Cliffs Trail
            Just shy of 2.5 miles, the trail forks with the left option going down to the creek and the right option going steeply uphill.  If you choose the left option, you will see Raven Cliff towering ahead and above you, but the small cascading waterfall at the end of this fork will leave you disappointed.  If you choose the right option, you will climb to the base of Raven Cliff and see the creek exiting the bottom of the cliff, but again you will see no major waterfall.  To get to the money view, upon reaching the bottom of the cliff, you need to climb the steep and rocky but well-worn treadway to the right. 
Keep watching the creek area to the left to see the crack in the cliff that contains Raven Cliff Falls.  The crack is only a couple of feet wide, so imagine how long it must have taken this waterfall to form.  Also, if you look behind the main waterfall, you can see another waterfall further up Dodds Creek.  This upper waterfall is only accessible by rock climbing, which is illegal in the Raven Cliffs Wilderness due to the crumbly nature of the rock.
Raven Cliff

Raven Cliff Falls
            The trail ends at the falls, so after resting and having a trail snack while admiring the falls you will have to turn around and hike the same trail back to the parking area.  What was a gradual climb coming out is now mostly an easy descent going back.  I completed this hike in about 3 hours, including some time at the falls.  While you are in the area, consider tacking on a trip to Dukes Creek Falls, another major waterfall that is accessed via a trailhead located on SR 348 1 mile east of the Raven Cliffs Trailhead.  The hike to Dukes Creek Falls is only 2.2 miles round-trip, so choosing this option allows you to double your waterfall count for the day without doubling your effort.