Sunday, April 1, 2018

Chimney Rock State Park: Chimney Rock and Hickory Nut Falls (Blog Hike #678)

Trails: Outcroppings, Exclamation Point, Skyline, and Hickory Nut Falls Trails
Hike Location: Chimney Rock State Park
Geographic Location: east of Hendersonville, NC
Length: 4.6 miles
Difficulty: 10/10 (Difficult)
Last Hiked: March 2018
Overview: A view-filled hike with lots of stairs exploring a major tourist destination.

Directions to the trailhead: Near Hendersonville, take I-26 to US 64 (exit 49A).  Exit and go east on US 64.  Drive US 64 east 15 miles to the town of Chimney Rock and the signed state park entrance on the right.  Turn right to enter the park, pay the very large park entrance fee, and drive the steep winding road 3 miles to its end and the main parking lot at the base of Chimney Rock.  Park here.

The hike: Consisting of over 7000 acres on the edge of the Blue Ridge Escarpment, Chimney Rock State Park looks more like a theme park than the usual state park, but there is good reason for that.  The park dates to 1902 when the Morse family from Missouri purchased the site’s 1000 acre core that includes Chimney Rock and Hickory Nut Falls.  They developed the site as a tourist attraction and operated it as such for more than 100 years.  In 2007, the Morse family sold the site to the State of North Carolina, which has added another 6000 adjoining acres for future development. 
I have come here twice, once as a tourist in 2002 and again as a hiker in 2018.  Make no mistake: Chimney Rock still has its touristy side.  A 26-story elevator carries visitors almost to the top of Chimney Rock, and gift shops and refreshment stands eager to take your money lie at both the top and bottom of the elevator.  The $15 entrance fee, tied with Kent Falls State Park in Connecticut for the highest state park entrance fee I have ever paid, also screams tourist attraction.  Nevertheless, the State’s development of several trails through some undeveloped areas has put a refreshing natural veneer on the otherwise touristy setting.
The hike described here explores both this park’s touristy and natural sides, and it involves climbing and descending about 1000 stairs.  When I came here in 2018 to write this trail description, the elevator was out-of-service, so my experience was less touristy than yours might be.  If the elevator is back in service when you visit, you could take the elevator to Chimney Rock, thereby cutting your stair count roughly in half and thus cutting this hike’s difficulty roughly in half.  In that case, you would join this hike near the top of Chimney Rock at the 0.2 mile mark.  Without the aid of the elevator, it took me over 4 hours to do this hike (including some time to take in the views), so plan your visit accordingly.
Bottom of Outcroppings Trail
Assuming you forgo the elevator, your tour of Chimney Rock begins on the Outcroppings Trail, which starts at the rear of the large wooden deck behind the Cliff Dwellers Gift Shop.  Immediately you begin to climb the first of many sets of stairs, and the Outcroppings Trail gains 315 feet of elevation in only 0.2 miles.  The trail passes a couple of nice viewpoints named Vista Rock and Pulpit Rock, but Chimney Rock towers high behind both of these rock outcrops.
Just past the first set of stairs, the trail splits with the left option taking a higher route past more vistas and the right option taking a lower route through a grotto and a low clearance rock overhang called the Subway.  The two options come back together in a few hundred feet, so you could choose either option.  Maybe choose one option going up and the other coming back down.
More stairs bring you to the top of the Outcroppings Trail and the Sky Lounge outdoor dining area.  Turn left and climb the last two flights of stairs to reach an elevation of 2280 feet and Chimney Rock, this park’s signature viewpoint.  A large gneiss spire set off from the main cliff line, Chimney Rock offers broad views of Lake Lure and lower hills to the east as well as limited views up the Rocky Broad River valley to the west.  A large flagpole vibrates noisily in even a little wind, and the fact that this overlook is the centerpiece of the park ensures that you will not be alone here.
View east from Chimney Rock
About half of the people who have accompanied you to this point will stop at Chimney Rock.  To visit some viewpoints at higher elevations, continue climbing by hiking the signed Exclamation Point Trail, which starts opposite the final stairs that lead to Chimney Rock at the Outcropping Trail’s top end.  In general the stairs on the Exclamation Point Trail are older and rougher than the ones on the Outcroppings Trail, but they still get you up the steep rocky terrain.
Chimney Rock, as seen from the Opera Box
After climbing another 3 flights of stairs, you reach the Opera Box, which offers a postcard view with Chimney Rock in the foreground and the rolling Piedmont beyond.  The next flight of stairs brings you to Devil’s Head, which offers a north-facing view that features the town of Chimney Rock and the cliff-lined mountains to the north.  More climbing up more stairs lifts you to Exclamation Point, a wide and flat rock outcrop with elevation 2480 feet.  Exclamation Point is the end of the Exclamation Point Trail, and it offers excellent views both east over Lake Lure and west up the Rocky Broad River valley.  Some ice lingered atop Exclamation Point even though it was a warm and sunny 70 degrees on my mid-March visit.
View north from Devil's Head

View west from Exclamation Point
Exclamation Point used to be end of the park’s trail system, but recently the State of North Carolina built the Skyline Trail, which starts at Exclamation Point and leads to the top of Hickory Nut Falls.  Provided you have time and energy, head out of this park’s touristy area and into its natural area as the Skyline Trail climbs even higher via three switchbacks.  The wide dirt/gravel Skyline Trail is marked with blue plastic diamonds, and you will be thrilled to know that it contains no stairs to climb or descend.
Near 1 mile into the hike, you reach Peregrine’s Point.  With an elevation of 2640 feet, Peregrine’s Point is the park’s highest overlook, and it offers some picnic tables with a nice north-facing view over the Rocky Broad River valley and well into the mountains beyond.  Past Peregrine’s Point, a gradual climb brings you to the hike’s highest elevation, just over 2700 feet.
View north from Peregrine's Point
Next comes a gradual to moderate descent with one switchback that takes you down to the banks of Falls Creek.  The creek contains only a moderate volume of water, but the water was clear and cold on my visit.  Cross the creek on stepping stones.  Some park workers were building a backcountry picnic area along the creek when I passed through here, so you may be able to stop and have a trail snack when you come here.
At 1.5 miles, you reach the end of the Skyline Trail at an overlook perched just above Falls Creek’s tumble over Hickory Nut Falls.  Surrounding trees and cliffs prohibit any views like those at previous overlooks, but looking down toward Falls Creek will reveal a nice ledge-type waterfall just above the main drop.  This upper waterfall would never be visible without this new trail, so appreciate getting to see something that park visitors for over 100 years never got to see.
Upper waterfall at end of Skyline Trail
The Skyline Trail ends at this overlook, so your only choice is to retrace your steps past Peregrine’s Point, Exclamation Point, and Chimney Rock all the way down to the bottom of the Outcroppings Trail where you began.  If you are getting tired or are running out of daylight, your car is only feet away to your right.  To see Hickory Nut Falls from another and better angle, head down the wooden stairs to reach the Hickory Nut Falls Trail.  Turn left on the Hickory Nut Falls Trail to head for the bottom of Hickory Nut Falls.
The Hickory Nut Falls Trail gains just over 200 feet of elevation on its 0.7 mile journey to the bottom of Hickory Nut Falls, but this wide gravel trail is a breeze compared to all of the stairs you climbed earlier.  The sidehill trail passes through some rock outcroppings with the mountain rising steeply to the left and falling to the right.  Some interpretive signs tell of this area’s rocks, flora, and fauna, and topping the numerous dirt waterbars built into the trail surface might be the toughest challenge you face on this trail.
Hickory Nut Falls
Ignore the Four Seasons Trail that exits downhill to the right and soon pass another backcountry picnic area.  After passing around a small ridge, a gradual climb brings you to the observation deck at the bottom of Hickory Nut Falls.  With a height of 404 feet, this cascade-type waterfall impresses with its sheer size.  Sheer rock cliffs make a stark and intimidating setting, so much so that scenes from movies including The Last of the Mohicans were shot in this area.  After admiring the waterfall, retrace your steps along the Hickory Nut Falls Trail to the parking lot to complete the hike.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Oak Mountain State Park: Green Trail to Peavine Falls et. al. (Blog Hike #677)

Trails: Green Trail et. al.
Hike Location: Oak Mountain State Park
Geographic Location: Pelham, AL
Length: 5.5 miles
Difficulty: 9/10 (Difficult)
Last Hiked: March 2018
Overview: A figure-eight route, sometimes steep and sometimes rocky, featuring Peavine Falls.

Directions to the trailhead: Just south of Birmingham, take I-65 to SR 119 (exit 246).  Exit, go west on SR 119 for 100 feet to State Park Road, and turn left on State Park Rd.  Drive State Park Rd. 1.9 miles to John Findley Drive (there is a 4-way stop here) and turn left on John Findley Dr.  Enter the park, pay the park entrance fee, and ask for a trail map at the gatehouse.  Drive John Findley Dr. a total of 2.6 miles to Terrace Drive and turn right on Terrace Dr.  Take Terrace Dr. 1.4 miles to the large park office parking lot on the right.  Park here and as close to the road as possible: the hike begins across the road.

The hike: Weighing in at a massive 9940 acres, Oak Mountain State Park is the largest state park in Alabama and the crown jewel of the Alabama State Parks system.  The park dates to 1927 when the Alabama legislature’s State Land Act granted the park 940 acres between Double Oak Mountain and Little Oak Ridge.  Yet a full 8000 of the park’s acres were added in a land transfer from the National Park Service in 1943.  The park’s size and history give the park’s vast natural areas a national park feel even though it is owned by the State of Alabama.
            As you would expect for a major park, Oak Mountain State Park offers nearly every amenity.  On point, the park features campgrounds with 85 developed and 60 primitive campsites, 10 cabins, numerous picnic areas, a championship golf course, two lakes, a swimming beach, a marina that offers pedal boat rental in season, a demonstration farm, and a BMX track.  Due to the park’s amenities and its location only 20 miles south of Birmingham, the park can become very crowded on warm weather weekends.  Thus, I recommend a weekday or winter visit to Oak Mountain State Park.
            Despite the amenities, much of the park can only be accessed by the park’s extensive 60 mile trail system, which includes trails for hikers, horses, and mountain bikers.  The trail system’s most popular destination is Peavine Falls, a very scenic 20-foot waterfall when it has enough water, which it frequently does not because of its location high on Oak Mountain.  The waterfall was in fine form when I came here two days after a nice spring rain.  While there are easier ways to see Peavine Falls than by doing the hike described here (see below), this classic route visits not only the falls but also a mountaintop overlook and the Alabama Wildlife Center, a rehabilitation center for injured wildlife.  Therefore, most experts consider this hike to be one of the best hikes in Alabama.
Start of Green Trail at its lower end
            The sign for the Treetop Nature Trail located directly across the road from the parking lot marks our return route.  To find the start of the Green Trail, the most direct route to Peavine Falls, walk about 100 feet west on Terrace Drive and look for a gravel road on the left.  The first plastic green rectangle is located just up this road on the right.
            A steady, persistent climb now begins, and the single-track dirt Green Trail gains just over 300 feet of elevation in its first 0.5 miles.  As you would expect given this park’s name, the broadleaf forest is dominated by oak trees, although I saw some pecan and sweet gum trees here as well.  Numbered and colored trail markers appear periodically throughout the park’s trail system with numbers 51 through 60 corresponding to the Green Trail.  Information boards say that the markers are posted at 0.5 mile intervals, but my calculations say they are a little closer together.
            At 0.5 miles, you top one of Oak Mountain’s foothills and reach an intersection with the Green-Yellow Ridge Trail, which runs conjointly with the Green Trail for a short distance.  Where the two trails split, signs direct you to turn left to continue toward the falls.  A short but steep descent brings you to a saddle where the Yellow Trail and a mountain bike trail cross our route.  Continue straight to stay on the Green Trail.
Hiking under pine trees
            Next comes a fairly flat section in an area with lots of pine trees.  A soft bed of pine needles covers the trail here.  The flat area quickly ends as the trail descends steeply via a single switchback to cross the Orange Trail in a ravine.  Oak Mountain’s steep narrow ridges keep these ravines very quiet despite their location in metro Birmingham.
            The assault on Oak Mountain’s main ridge now begins, as does the hardest climb of this hike.  The trail gains just under 300 feet of elevation in about 0.2 miles including some rocky and wet sections just under a spring.  As you get near the top of the ridge, views of downtown Birmingham peep over the lower foothill you topped earlier.
Climbing the main ridge
            1 mile into the hike, you cross the Red Trail at an intersection that features an information board and a few benches.  A little more climbing brings you to the top of the main ridge, where the trail curves right to begin heading west along the narrow ridge.  The dense wooded forest of the ravines is now replaced by grassy sunny areas along the ridge, and the hiking is surprisingly easy considering how hard the climb to this ridge was.  I saw several monarch butterflies flittering around along this ridge.
Hiking along the main ridge
            At 1.9 miles, you reach an intersection with the Green-White Connector that forms the southern loop of this hike.  Turn left on the Green-White Connector to continue toward Peavine Falls.  The steep and rocky Green-White Connector goes directly down the south face of Oak Mountain, and you should be glad you are descending this trail rather than climbing it.
            Mercifully, in less than 0.1 miles you reach the bottom of the Green-White Connector at its intersection with the White Trail along the north bank of Peavine Creek.  Turn right to head downstream along Peavine Creek.  Because Peavine Creek also forms Peavine Falls, you can gauge how scenic the waterfall will be based on the water volume in the creek.
Hiking along Peavine Creek
            Near 2 miles into the hike, you reach a major intersection where the White and Blue Trails converge.  We will eventually continue straight on the combined White and Blue Trails to continue the southern loop, but to get to Peavine Falls turn left on the Blue Trail and cross Peavine Creek on a rickety footbridge.  Follow signs for the base of Peavine Falls, which will take you uphill on the Blue Trail before descending a very steep and rocky spur trail marked by white diamonds.  Some use of your hands will be necessary to reach the base of the 20-foot spout type waterfall, which features a shallow plunge pool and a very rocky setting.  Find a spot to have a trail snack and enjoy the aquatic entertainment near the midpoint of this hike.
Peavine Falls
            Retrace your steps back to the major intersection, and then turn left to follow the combined Blue/White Trails away from Peavine Creek.  Where the Blue and White Trails split, you can go either way: both trails take you uphill to the Peavine Falls parking lot, which features a vault toilet and a picnic shelter but no potable water.  If all you want to do is see Peavine Falls, you could drive to this parking lot by continuing on Terrace Drive past our trailhead and turning left on gravel Peavine Falls Road, which dead-ends here.
            Angle right across the parking lot to find the upper end of the Green Trail and begin your journey back to the trailhead.  A short moderate climb brings you back to the main ridge crest, which you will follow for more than the next mile.  Just after topping the highest elevation of this hike, a spur trail marked “overlook” exits right.  As advertised, this short spur quickly leads to a partially obstructed south-facing viewpoint located atop a rock outcrop.
View from south-facing overlook
            Continuing east along the main ridge, you close the southern loop at 3.3 miles.  Retrace your steps down the north face of Oak Mountain to reach the intersection with the Yellow Trail at 4.5 miles.  If you are getting tired or running out of daylight, your car sits 0.5 miles ahead on the Green Trail.  To add a little variety and a possible side trip to the Alabama Wildlife Center, turn right on the Yellow Trail.
            The Yellow Trail descends gradually before passing up and over another low but steep ridge.  At 4.8 miles, you reach an intersection with the unblazed Treetop Trail.  Turn right on the Treetop Trail, which climbs gradually to reach the Alabama Wildlife Center in only a few hundred feet.  The Alabama Wildlife Center is Alabama’s oldest and largest wildlife rehabilitation facility, and portions of it are open for public viewing.  Some recovering woodland birds are on display for you to see, and a wildlife window makes for good bird watching.  Water, restrooms, and soda vending are also available here.
Boardwalk on Treetop Nature Trail
            Retrace your steps down the Treetop Trail, and continue straight on the Treetop Trail when you intersect the Yellow Trail.  Soon you learn why this trail is called the Treetop Trail: a high boardwalk passes numerous caged birds (hawks, vultures, and other raptors), birds rehabilitated at the Alabama Wildlife Center that would not survive in the wild.  The boardwalk ends near Terrace Drive across from the parking lot that contains your car, thus marking the end of the hike.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Tannehill Ironworks Historical State Park: Iron Works Loop (Blog Hike #676)

Trail: Iron Works Loop
Hike Location: Tannehill Ironworks Historical State Park
Geographic Location: southwest of Bessemer, AL
Length: 4 miles
Difficulty: 4/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: March 2018
Overview: A rolling lollipop loop on historic roads featuring a reconstructed Civil War-era iron furnace.
Park Information:

Directions to the trailhead: West of Birmingham, take I-20/59 to SR 216 (exit 100).  Exit and go east on SR 216.  In only 0.4 miles, take a soft right on to Tannehill Parkway.  Drive Tannehill Pkwy. 1.8 miles to its end at Eastern Valley Road.  Turn right, then immediately turn left to enter the park.  Pay the park entrance fee and follow signs to the Iron and Steel Museum of Alabama, which is also this park’s Visitor Center.  The hike starts at the museum.

The hike: Founded only in 1871 during the post-Civil War Reconstruction era, the City of Birmingham’s industrial heritage has earned it the nickname “The Pittsburgh of the South.”  Named for the major industrial center in England, all three major ingredients required for making 1800’s-style iron are found near the city: iron ore, wood, and lime.  As a result, the city experienced rapid growth from 1881 through 1920, and Alabama continued to be the industrial heart of the south throughout the 20th century.
            The area’s industrial potential was noticed before Birmingham even existed, and one early successful attempt to exploit its resources was the Tannehill Ironworks.  The Tannehill iron furnace was built in 1830 by Pennsylvania furnaceman Daniel Tillman, who was attracted to the area by its rich brown iron ore that he called the best ore he had ever seen.  The furnace produced iron for more than 30 years until it was destroyed by Union forces in the very last days of the Civil War.
            Today the reconstructed iron furnace, several related historical buildings, and the Iron & Steel Museum of Alabama are preserved within 1500-acre Tannehill Ironworks Historical State Park, which was established in 1969.  The museum features many artifacts from Alabama’s 19th century iron industry and some other interesting exhibits including one about the CSS Alabama, a Civil War merchant raider.  The park features surprisingly many amenities for an historical park including a campground with 195 developed sites and 100 primitive sites.  7 cabins, a pioneer farm, a miniature train, the Tannehill Event Center, a country church and schoolhouse both dating to the early 1900’s, a gazebo, and a playground round out the amenities.
            In terms of trails, the park features trails for horses, mountain bikes, and hikers.  While all but the horse trails are open to hikers, the newer mountain bike trails were built by mountain bikers for mountain bikers, so the best hiking option is the older Iron Works Loop described here.  The Iron Works Loop follows two-track old dirt roads for its entire distance while passing the reconstructed furnace and a slave cemetery, the park’s main historical sites.
Exiting the museum
            The first objective is to reach the reconstructed furnace, which might be harder than you would expect given that it is the centerpiece of the park.  After walking out the front door of the museum, turn right (south) and descend a set of concrete steps with iron railings.  Next cross a side stream on a wooden footbridge beside a concrete vehicle ford.  Ignore the playground to the right (I made the mistake of heading that way when I hiked here) and take either of the two-track trails going left with the park cabins on your left and the hillside rising to your right.
            After reaching the bank of Mud Creek and curving to the right, you reach the reconstructed iron furnace at 0.25 miles.  At a height of roughly 30 feet, the stone and wood structure’s size is quite impressive.  A large sign identifies the structure as the Roupes Valley Ironworks, one of the historical names by which this furnace was called.  Some interpretive signs describe how the furnace worked, but the elevated walkway that accesses the upper levels is gated shut.
Reconstructed iron furnace
            After investigating the furnace, angle left to cross Mud Creek on an iron/wood footbridge.  Immediately after crossing the creek, you reach a major trail intersection that forms the loop portion of this hike.  The Iron Works Loop is marked with signs bearing brown arrows, and you want to follow the wide two-track trail that goes right to hike the loop counterclockwise.  A sign calls this track the Iron Road: iron used to be hauled along this road from the furnace to a railroad terminal 18 miles away in Montevallo.  Ignore a single-track mountain bike trail marked with red arrows that also starts here.
            The trail climbs gradually to top a creekside bluff before curving left to head away from the creek.  The forest at Tannehill consists of a wide variety of pine and broadleaf trees, the largest of which are beech and tulip poplar.  At 0.8 miles, you descend to cross a small side stream on stepping stones.
Crossing a small stream
            The next mile is a rolling eastbound course through more of the same scenery and forest.  Quiet and solitude abound here.  At 1.8 miles, a side trail marked only by a wooden post exits left to head for the slave cemetery.  A brief detour uphill on narrow eroded trail brings you to the cemetery.  The fenced-in cemetery contains mostly small uninscribed rocks as headstones, and it is a solemn reminder of slave life in the antebellum south.
Slave cemetery
            Back on the main trail, in less than 500 feet you reach an intersection where both options are marked with brown arrows.  The option going right deadends in a short distance, so you need to turn left to continue the Iron Works Loop.  The old iron road is now left in favor of an old stagecoach road, but the going remains on wide two-track trail.  A second trail to the slave cemetery soon exits left.
            Next comes the only significant elevation change on this hike, as the trail climbs up and over a narrow ridge.  The ridge is only about 200 feet above the surrounding terrain, so the climb is not too arduous.  Ignore unmarked trails that exit right and all mountain bike trails, which are marked with arrows of colors other than brown.
Topping the ridge
            At 2.8 miles, you reach another intersection with both options marked with brown arrows.  The option going straight leads to the horse trailhead, so you want to turn left to begin the final leg back to the restored furnace.  This section of trail is known as the Slave Quarter Trail, and it features some small signs that help you identify some of the trees in this forest.  A gently rolling course takes you past the park’s fishing pond and amphitheater before closing the loop at the east bank of Mud Creek.  Pass the restored furnace a second time as you retrace your steps to the museum and complete the hike.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Don Carter State Park: Overlook and Terrapin Cove Trails (Blog Hike #675)

Trails: Overlook and Terrapin Cove Trails
Hike Location: Don Carter State Park
Geographic Location: northeast of Gainesville, GA
Length: 2 miles
Difficulty: 3/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: February 2018
Overview: An out-and-back along the north shore of Lake Lanier.

Directions to the trailhead: From the intersection of SR 284 and US 129 in Gainesville, take SR 284 north 6.2 miles to Browning Bridge Road.  Turn right on Browning Bridge Rd.  Drive winding Browning Bridge Rd. 1.8 miles to the signed park entrance on the left.  Turn left to enter the park, pay the park entrance fee, and park in any of the small parking areas near the Visitor Center.

The hike: Established only in 2013, 1316-acre Don Carter State Park is Georgia’s newest state park and only state park on Lake Lanier.  The park is named for Don Carter, a 29-year member of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ board who helped established this park.  The park sits on the north shore of 38,000 acre Lake Lanier, an impoundment of the Chattahoochee River that forms one of the major water sources for metro Atlanta. 
            The park’s lakeside location makes it a major destination for paddlers, and 4 paddle trails totaling 8 miles explore Lake Lanier’s waters and islands.  For lodging, the park features a 44-site developed campground, a 12-site primitive campground, and 8 cabins.  Two boat ramps, two playgrounds, several picnic shelters, and a swimming beach round out the amenities.  Overall, the park offers a surprisingly cozy and rustic atmosphere given its lakeside location on the fringe of metro Atlanta.
            For hikers, Don Carter State Park’s 6 trails seem to offer plenty of options, but 4 of those trails are paved with asphalt and one of the dirt trails (the Huckleberry Trail) is only 0.7 miles long.  Thus, the park’s most popular and best hiking option is the one mile one-way Terrapin Cove Trail featured here.  Do not expect solitude on this hike because the Terrapin Cove Trail runs along the shore of Lake Lanier and connects the park’s three most popular areas: the swimming beach, the campground, and the boat ramp.
Visitor Center trailhead
            There are several places from which you could start the Terrapin Cove Trail, but I chose to start at the Visitor Center trailhead because it is the easiest to find.  Located beside the parking lot just uphill (south) of the Visitor Center, signs for the Overlook Trail and Terrapin Cove Trail access mark this trailhead, as does a wooden post bearing a blue reflector.  Head east from this trailhead on the asphalt Overlook Trail, which immediately enters the mixed Piedmont forest.  The sign at the trailhead says this trail is handicapped accessible, though some parts seem too steep for such access without a strong assistant.
Swinging bench at "overlook"
            At 0.1 miles, the asphalt ends at a trio of swinging benches.  Although this trail is named for this “overlook,” trees prevent any clear views, especially during the leafy season.  The trail now turns to dirt and descends a pair of switchbacks to reach the Overlook Trail’s end at an intersection with the Terrapin Cove Trail, which goes right and left.  The portion going left quickly ends at the park’s playground and swimming beach, so you should turn right to hike the majority of the Terrapin Cove Trail.
            Marked with red metal rectangles, the Terrapin Cove Trail descends slightly and soon crosses a small stream on a nice wooden footbridge with arm rails.  You are now close enough to Lake Lanier that some better lake views start to emerge.  I had to negotiate some trees blown down by a recent snowstorm here, but overall the trail is well-worn and easy to follow.  Next the trail arcs around the developed campground, and at 0.6 miles the campground access trail exits right.
Hiking along Lake Lanier
            Another descent brings you to the campground courtesy dock and another stream crossing.  Just past 0.8 miles, a spur trail exits right and leads uphill to a picnic area.  Stay left to remain near the lake.  600 feet later, you reach the Terrapin Cove Trail’s south end at the boat ramp.  Some benches here make nice breezy places to rest and watch the lake’s boat traffic before retracing your steps to the Visitor Center to complete the hike.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Caw Caw Interpretive Center: Habitat Loop (Blog Hike #674)

Trail: Habitat Loop
Hike Location: Caw Caw Interpretive Center
Geographic Location: west of Charleston, SC
Length: 3.6 miles
Difficulty: 3/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: February 2018
Overview: A loop hike around a former rice plantation, partly through shady forest and partly through sunny marsh.

Directions to the trailhead: From the west end of I-526 at US 17 on the west side of Charleston, take US 17 west/south 10 miles to the signed entrance for the Caw Caw Interpretive Center (also signed as Caw Caw County Park) on the right.  Turn right to enter the Center, pay the small entrance fee, and drive the gravel main road to the parking loop at its end.  Park here.

The hike: Although you would hardly know it by driving through this area today, South Carolina’s lowcountry was the center of the New World’s rice production for more than 200 years.  Firmly established by 1720, South Carolina’s rice industry relied heavily on slave labor, and rice plantation work was some of the worst around.  On point, water-borne diseases, sunny hot fields, venomous snakes, and alligators killed up to one-third of the slave population every year.  Nevertheless, rice production in South Carolina remained very profitable: a slave could produce up to six times his market value in rice each year.  Thus, the state remained the United States’ largest producer of rice until the 1880’s.
            In the 1870’s and 1880’s, the end of slavery in America, a series of damaging hurricanes, a decline in soil productivity, and increased competition from Gulf states such as Louisiana led to the collapse of South Carolina’s rice industry.  Over a couple of decades rice production in South Carolina declined by 97%, which changed South Carolina’s low country from one of the most prosperous regions in the country to one of the poorest.  Today the former rice plantations are reverting to marsh and forest, and parts of two former rice plantations and a former tea plantation make up the Caw Caw Interpretive Center.
Caw Caw Interpretive Center is one of three properties owned and managed by Charleston County Parks that feature extensive trail systems, the other two being Wannamaker County Park and Palmetto Islands County Park.  Among these three parks, Caw Caw is my favorite.  The trail system at Caw Caw Interpretive Center features several short loops that pass through the parking area, but the best hike in Charleston County may be the 3.6 mile Habitat Loop described here.  The Habitat Loop spends about 2/3 of its distance in shady woods and the remaining 1/3 in sunny former rice fields, and it constitutes a grand tour of all that Caw Caw Interpretive Center has to offer.
End of concrete path near gift shop
Because the Habitat Loop does not pass through the parking area, your first objective is to get to the Habitat Loop.  From the parking area, walk northwest on a concrete path between the Center’s two main buildings, and pick up a trail map at the Center’s gift shop.  The gift shop building also contains some interesting exhibits that make for good browsing before or after your hike.  Pass Kiosk #2 on the right, but keep walking northwest past the butterfly garden and a bench to where the concrete path turns to gravel.  At the next intersection, turn left, following signs for the Swamp Sanctuary.
The trail turns to dirt as the freshwater marsh (former rice fields) comes into view through the trees on your right.  Just shy of 0.2 miles, you reach the major trail intersection that is your access point for the Habitat Loop.  The trail going sharply left leads directly back to the parking area, while the trail going sharply right will be our return route.  To begin a counterclockwise journey around the Habitat Loop, angle slightly right to begin a two-track dirt trail.  A blue trail marker is attached to a concrete post here, and it is the only such trail marker you will pass on this trail.
The trail makes a sweeping left curve through bottomland hardwood forest that features plenty of spruce pine, chestnut oak, and sweetgum trees.  I passed a park maintenance crew working to clear some recent ice storm damage in this area.  At 0.7 miles, you need to turn left where a trail marked “staff use only” continues straight.  The Habitat Loop passes several of these “staff only” trails, and of course it is best to leave them for use by the park’s maintenance staff.
Hiking a wide old road
In another 500 feet, you reach another trail intersection, where you need to turn right to stay on the Habitat Loop.  Although the trails at Caw Caw are well-maintained and easy to follow, the Habitat Loop’s route is poorly marked.  Thus, that trail map you picked up at the gift shop comes in handy at intersections such as this one.
1 mile into the hike, you cross the park entrance road and reenter the woods on the other side.  Although the scenery remains of the bottomland hardwood variety, the trail’s character changes from a wide two-track old road to a narrow root-laced dirt path.  The path had been cleared of leaf-litter on my visit and remained easy to follow.  Vehicle and railroad noise filter in from the right.
Narrow dirt path through bottomland hardwood forest
At 1.25 miles, you reach Kiosk #9, where you return to the wide old road.  More staff only trails are found in this area.  Soon you reach a bench that gives your first clear view of the tidal marsh and former rice fields, a preview of the scenery to come.  This bench makes a nice place to sit and have a trail snack near the midpoint of this hike.
First tidal marsh view
At 1.6 miles you reach Kiosk #8, where the Marshland Trail exits left and offers an opportunity to cut this hike’s distance roughly in half.  For the full tour, continue straight to enter the tidal marsh on a man-made dike.  Notice the first of several wooden water control structures built in the dike here; they are used to raise and lower water levels in the various ditches and marshes that comprise the former rice fields.
Water control structure
The next 1.2 miles pass through sunny marsh with open water on either side, so wear a wide-brimmed hat for sun protection.  When I came here on a seasonally warm afternoon in late February, I saw an alligator and an egret in this marsh, and the fish were literally jumping out of the water: they would fly 2 feet into the air before plopping back into their watery home.  Turn right at Kiosk #7 to stay on the Habitat Loop along the perimeter of the old rice field.  A controlled burn had recently been conducted here to free the tidal marsh of invasive species.
View of former rice fields/tidal marsh
After passing an interesting high bench with wheels, at 2.7 miles you need to turn right, cross the main ditch on a wooden bridge, and then turn right again.  Soon you leave the sunny marsh and reenter the forest before passing Laurel Hill, a former slave community, on the left.  At 14 feet above sea level, Laurel Hill occupies the highest land in the preserve, and a brief detour to the left will allow you to explore the community’s ruins.
Swamp forest boardwalk
            Staying on the Habitat Loop, at 3.1 miles you reach the western end of the Center’s swamp forest boardwalk, which the Habitat Loop uses to get across the swamp forest.  The periodically inundated swamp forest features some nice tupelo and cypress trees, and I saw several turtles sunning on logs.  At the east end of the boardwalk, turn right to quickly pass Kiosk #3 and close the Habitat Loop.  A left turn and 0.2 miles of retracing your steps return you to the parking lot to complete the hike.  The gift shop building features some interesting exhibits on this land’s plantation history, and you should pay it a visit on your way out if you did not do so earlier.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Dreher Island State Park: Little Gap Trail (Blog Hike #673)

Trail: Little Gap Trail
Hike Location: Dreher Island State Park
Geographic Location: southeast of Newberry, SC
Length: 2.1 miles
Difficulty: 4/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: January 2018
Overview: A lollipop loop with considerable up-and-down and good views of Lake Murray.

Directions to the trailhead: There is no direct route from the interstate to Dreher Island State Park, so follow these directions carefully.  North/west of Columbia, take I-26 to Columbia Avenue (exit 91).  Exit and go west on Columbia Ave.  Drive Columbia Ave. 2.1 miles to the town of Chapin, where you need to turn right on Chapin Road and then quickly turn left on St. Peters Church Road.  Drive St. Peters Church Rd. 3.6 miles to Dreher Island Road and turn left on Dreher Island Rd.  Drive Dreher Island Rd. 2.9 miles to State Park Road and turn left on State Park Rd.  State Park Rd. deadends at the park entrance in 2.6 miles.  Pay the park entrance fee, then drive the main park road past the boat ramp and Visitor Center and around the one way picnic shelter loop to Yellow Poplar Drive on the right.  Park in the parking lot that is Yellow Poplar Dr.

The hike: Established only in 1990, Dreher Island State Park (also known as Dreher Island State Recreation Area) protects 348 acres on three islands in Lake Murray.  The man-made lake, created by the Saluda Dam located 11 miles east of here as the crow flies (or as the fish swims), predates the park by more than 60 years.  Built to provide hydroelectric power for South Carolina, Lake Murray was the largest man-made lake in the world at the time it was built.
            The park has many amenities including a 97-site developed campground, 5 lakeside villas, 10 picnic shelters, and 3 boat ramps.  For hikers, the park offers 3 trails, but two of them are less than 0.5 miles long.  The exception is the 2.1 mile Little Gap Trail described here.  A lollipop loop with a long stick, the Little Gap Trail traverses rolling wooded terrain as it offers nice views of Lake Murray.
Information kiosk at trailhead
            The trail starts at an information kiosk at the southeast side of the parking lot.  Lots of white plastic diamonds with black arrows mark the way, and the trail had recently been cleared of leaf litter on my visit.  After a brief stint in the forest, the trail crosses the main park road via a marked crosswalk and enters a small pine planting.
            In less than 500 feet, the spur trail to the Red Maple Drive picnic shelters exits left.  Stay right to descend slightly and cross a small stream on a wooden footbridge.  At 0.3 miles, you dip through a shallow but very steep ravine before starting a long gradual climb.  Although the difference between maximum and minimum elevations is only 60 feet, the Little Gap Trail has very few flat sections.
White granite in trail
            0.5 miles into the hike, you reach the hike’s highest elevation as you round a small knob.  Many chunks of white granite buried in the trail here make the treadway quite rough.  A gradual to moderate descent comes next as the trail passes under a low voltage power line.  Some partially obstructed views of Lake Murray can be had during the leafless season, but the best lake view is still to come.
            At 0.8 miles, the trail forks to form its short loop.  As directed by several black arrows, I turned right and used the trail going straight as my return route, thus hiking the loop counterclockwise.  Some minor ups and downs bring you to the bench and lake view that is the highlight of this hike.  Although a few luxury lakeside homes can be seen from this southeast-facing viewpoint, the view is surprisingly natural given its location less than 25 miles from Columbia.  Also, I was surprised by the clarity of the lake’s waters.  The view can be enchanting, but be careful how close you get to the edge: the bank you are standing on has been undercut by the lake’s many years of lapping water.
Lake Murray viewpoint
            Past the viewpoint, the trail brushes the power line clearing as it passes over the southern-most knob.  At 1.2 miles, you close the loop.  Continue straight and retrace your steps to the parking lot to return to your car and complete the hike.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Tickfaw State Park: Pine/Hardwood and River Trails (Blog Hike #672)

Trails: Pine/Hardwood and River Trails
Hike Location: Tickfaw State Park
Geographic Location: southwest of Springfield, LA
Length: 2.4 miles
Difficulty: 3/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: December 2017
Overview: A pair of loops, one through drier hardwood forest and one through wet riverside forest.

Directions to the trailhead: From Springfield, take SR 1037 west 6.2 miles to Patterson Road on the left.  Take a soft left on Patterson Rd.  Patterson Rd. dead-ends at the park entrance in 1.1 miles.  Pay the small park entrance fee, then drive the main park road to the large parking loop at its end, where you should park.  A restroom building and several picnic areas stand here.

The hike: Straddling its namesake river, Tickfaw State Park protects 1200 acres of densely wooded and periodically inundated land.  The park was established only in 1999, making it one of the newer state parks in Louisiana.  The park’s location deep in rural southeast Louisiana makes its facilities under-used relative to their quality.  I was the park’s only day-use visitor on the Thursday morning in mid-December that I came here.
            For hikers, the park offers 5 different hiking trails, but 4 of them are short nature trails that offer only brief excursions into the woods near the park’s developed areas.  The exception is the River Trail, which forms a 2 mile loop along the east bank of the Tickfaw River.  Hiking the River Trail and tacking on the Pine/Hardwood Trail, a short nature trail that departs from the same parking area, forms the 2.4 mile double loop described here.
Start of Pine/Hardwood Trail
            To save the bigger and better loop for last, I chose to start with the short 0.5 mile Pine/Hardwood Trail, which departs the northeast corner of the parking loop at a crosswalk.  The trailhead is unsigned, but the trail is obvious.  Almost immediately the trail forks to form its loop.  I chose to turn right and use the trail going straight as my return route, thus hiking the loop counterclockwise.
            Very quickly you walk through a wooden pavilion that serves as a nice outdoor meeting area.  True to its name, the Pine/Hardwood Trail passes through dense forest featuring oak and loblolly pines with some saw palmetto in the understory.  The thick layer of gravel that forms the trail surface keeps this trail dry when other trails are muddy.
Hiking the Pine/Hardwood Trail
            At 0.5 miles, you close the loop and complete the Pine/Hardwood Trail.  To reach the River Trail and the longer of the two loops, use the two parking area crosswalks and walk around the restroom/vending building to find the boardwalk that leads south to the Tickfaw River.  At first the highly elevated boardwalk passes over more of the same pine/hardwood forest, but soon you enter a periodically inundated area that features some cypress trees. 
View from River Overlook
Follow arrows to the River Overlook, your first stop along the Tickfaw River.  The River Overlook features a bench that overlooks a southward bend in the river.  Unfortunately, the muddy river featured a lot of litter and man-made debris on my visit, but I still managed to see some turtles and some waterfowl including herons and egrets.  A suspension bridge leads across the river to the undeveloped western part of the park.  While there are no trails along the river’s west bank, walking across the bridge gives a nice view directly up the river.
Because the area along the river floods periodically, your visit to the Tickfaw River may be limited to this boardwalk.  If conditions allow, for a walk on this park’s wild side descend the wooden steps on the near side of the suspension bridge to begin the River Trail.  The gravel and boardwalk you have walked on so far are replaced by the River Trail’s more primitive dirt surface.  No bridges or boardwalks exist to carry you over wet areas, but there were only a couple of wet areas to slog through on my visit.
Tickfaw River
The trail curves right to roughly follow the east bank of the meandering Tickfaw River, which stays to your left for this entire segment.  The dense jungle-like alluvial forest gives this area an almost primeval feel.  At 1.7 miles, you cross the worst of the wet areas before intersecting the canoe/kayak access road, which is not open to vehicles.  Turn right to begin hiking the access road back to the parking area.
Wet area on River Trail
Long wooden bridges/boardwalks carry the two-track dirt road across more wet areas as you pass through more dense undergrowth.  After curving right to head south, the access road comes out at the rear of the parking loop, thus completing the hike.  If you have more time to spend here, try the other short trails or check out the Nature Center (open only part of the week) to complete your visit to Tickfaw State Park.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Big Thicket National Preserve: Woodlands Trail (Blog Hike #671)

Trail: Woodlands Trail
Hike Location: Big Thicket National Preserve
Geographic Location: west of Woodville, TX
Length: 5.1 miles
Difficulty: 4/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: December 2017
Overview: A lollipop loop along the west bank of Big Sandy Creek.
Preserve Information:

Directions to the trailhead: From Woodville, take US 190 west 21 miles to Farm-to-Market Road 1276.  Turn left on FM 1276.  The small trailhead parking area is 3.4 miles ahead on the left.  The parking area is signed, but the sign may be hard to see from the road.

The hike: With nearby towns named Woodville, Wildwood, Village Mills, and Lumberton, it is easy to guess how Big Thicket National Preserve came to be.  In the early 1800’s, mature forest occupied 3.5 million acres of southeast Texas, and giant yellow pines measuring 5 to 6 feet in diameter grew here.  In the mid and late 1800’s, most of the big thicket succumbed to the ax as boom and bust towns sprung up and died out around lumber mills.  By 1900, the area’s timber production was in decline.  Nevertheless, timber remains a significant industry in the area today, and I passed many trucks hauling logs on my way to and from this trailhead.
            On January 10, 1901, oil was discovered under Spindletop Hill in nearby Beaumont.  The boom and bust cycle that played out for lumber in the previous century played out again for oil in the early 1900’s.  Through all of the industrial action, less than 5 percent of the mature forest survived.  In 1974, President Ford signed legislation that protected the remnant forest by creating Big Thicket National Preserve, the first national preserve in the United States.
            The preserve today features many creeks that make for excellent canoeing, and hunting and primitive camping are also available.  Big Thicket National Preserve is also perhaps the top hiking destination in east Texas.  On point, the preserve offers 40 miles of hiking trails ranging from a 0.3 mile nature trail to the 18 mile Turkey Creek Trail, which is excellent for backpacking.  Numerous good dayhikes are possible, but I only had time to do one of them: the lightly-used medium-length 5.1 mile Woodlands Trail described here.
Trailhead: Woodlands Trail
            The Woodlands Trail leaves the rear of the parking area at an information kiosk and a sign that simply says “trail.”  The initial segment of this trail passes through a pine planting that dates to 1963, and this area saw some of the most recent logging done on the present-day preserve land.  Almost immediately another trail sign directs you to angle right where a wild trail continues straight.
Approaching Collins Pond
            After passing under two power lines, you reach the bank of Collins Pond.  This small, shallow, man-made body of water was very quiet on my late morning visit in mid-December.  Just past Collins Pond, you reach post A.  Major intersections on the Woodlands Trail are marked by posts bearing the letters A through F, and this hike passes posts A-B-F-E-D-C-B, and A in that order to follow the outermost loop.  Perhaps surprisingly, the trail just makes a sharp left turn at post A, and no other trails intersect at this post.
            Next the wide dirt trail descends gradually to enter Big Sandy Creek’s floodplain.  Some wooden bridges carry you over tributaries of Big Sandy Creek, and I had no trouble with wet areas on this part of the hike.  The dense alluvial forest features lots of sweet gum, oak, tupelo, and hornbeam trees.  My approach scared many squirrels into the brush, and although I could hear numerous woodland birds the dense forest prevented me from seeing many.
Reaching Post B
            At 1.2 miles, you top a small rise and reach post B, which marks the intersection that forms the loop portion of this hike.  Because I was worried about wetness along the creek, I wanted to hike the creekside portion of the loop first.  To execute this plan, I turned right here and used the route going straight as my return route, thus hiking the loop counterclockwise.  Several posted intersections including this one have benches that make nice places to sit and rest in the quiet woods.
            The trail quickly drops back to floodplain level, where it will stay for just over the next mile.  Some nice views of Big Sandy Creek emerge on the right; the creek was deep and muddy on my visit.  I passed a National Park Service team that was studying the floodplain’s plants in this area.  Otherwise, I passed only one other pair of hikers on this lightly-used hiker-only trail.
Hiking along Big Sandy Creek
            The creekside trail passes posts F and E, both of which offer opportunities to turn left and short-cut the loop.  After passing post E, trail conditions deteriorate as encumbering grass and fallen trees increase.  The Woodlands Trail is unmarked except for some old, faint white paint blazes, but I had no trouble staying on the trail.  At 2.3 miles, the trail curves sharply left as the wire fence marking the preserve’s northern boundary comes into view on the right.
            2.5 miles into the hike, you cross the wettest section of trail before beginning a moderate climb out of the floodplain.  The climb is not steep by any standard, but this area has more relief than you might expect for southeast Texas.  Some wooden waterbars are doing a good job of preventing trail erosion.
Hiking along the ridge
            Upon reaching the northwest corner of the preserve, the trail curves left to begin heading southeast along the preserve’s west boundary.  This part of the loop features some minor ups and downs along the ridge.  Beech, southern magnolia, and loblolly pines dominate the ridgetop.  Continue straight past posts D and C before returning to post B to close the loop.  Continue straight again and retrace your steps 1.2 miles to the trailhead to complete the hike.