Monday, September 17, 2018

Brunet Island State Park: Timber, Pine, and Jean Brunet Nature Trails (Blog Hike #717)


Trails: Timber, Pine, and Jean Brunet Nature Trails
Hike Location: Brunet Island State Park
Geographic Location: west side of Cornell, WI
Length: 1.9 miles
Difficulty: 1/10 (Easy)
Last Hiked: August 2018
Overview: A semiloop through nice forest on Brunet Island.

Directions to the trailhead: The entrance to Brunet Island State Park is on the north side of SR 64 on the west side of Cornell just before crossing the Chippewa River.  Enter the park, pay the park entrance fee, and drive the one-way park loop road to the beach parking area at its southern end.

The hike: Flowing for 183 miles on a northeast to southwest course, the Chippewa River is one of northwestern Wisconsin’s main waterways.  The river gets its name from the Chippewa or Ojibwe Indians, who controlled most of the river’s watershed until the Treaty of St. Peters in 1837.  The watershed contains much of northern Wisconsin’s vast white pine forests, and the river became a major transportation route for cut logs in the mid to late 1800’s.  The large lumber and paper industries fed by logs floated down the river made the City of Eau Claire the regional center it is today.
            Located above Eau Claire where the Fisher River joins the Chippewa River, Brunet Island State Park protects more than 1300 acres including its namesake 179-acre island at the two rivers’ confluence.  The park is named for Jean Brunet, a French nobleman who built the first sawmill and dam in Chippewa Falls, a city near Eau Claire, in 1836.  Later Brunet built a trading post just downstream from the park, and the site of the trading post is marked with an historical marker along SR 178 southwest of Cornell.  In fact, Cornell was originally named Brunet Falls after this trading post.
            The park came to be in 1936 when the Northern States Power Company donated the island to the State of Wisconsin.  The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built some structures here in 1938, and today the park offers a pair of campgrounds totaling 69 sites, a riverside swimming beach, a boat landing, a ballfield, a playground, and some picnic areas. 
For hikers, the park’s longest trail is the 3.1 mile Nordic Trail, which is located on the main land rather than the island and (as its name implies) is designed primarily for cross-country skiing in the winter.  Yet most local experts believe the park’s best hiking trails lie on the island.  This hike explores the short and flat island hiking trails, which offer a nice walk through mature forest along with good Chippewa River views.  After my previous two rushed hikes in Minnesota (rushed in order to finish the hike as fast as possible, thereby getting myself out of the bugs as fast as possible), I had a very relaxing, pleasant, and low bug hike on Brunet Island.
Start of Timber Trail near beach parking area
            From the beach parking area, head north across the paved park loop road to reach the signed start of the Timber Trail.  Trails on Brunet Island are not marked, but they are easy to follow with signed intersections.  The single-track dirt trail heads in the general direction of north through a nice forest that features maple and birch trees.  The understory is fairly open but contains some ferns.  I saw a pair of pileated woodpeckers in this section of the woods.
Hiking the Timber Trail
            Just past 0.3 miles, the signed Pine Trail exits right.  Turn right to leave the Timber Trail and begin the Pine Trail, the longest trail on the island.  The Pine Trail embarks on a meandering course through the north-central part of the island, which as the trail’s name suggests is dominated by pine trees.  Where the east arm of the park loop road comes into view, the trail curves left to remain in the forest.
            At 0.7 miles, you reach the north end of the Pine Trail where it intersects the north arm of the park loop road.  Cross the road to begin the Jean Brunet Nature Trail, a 0.6 mile loop through the northernmost part of Brunet Island.  Almost immediately you reach the trail intersection that forms the Nature Trail’s loop, and options go straight and right.  Continue straight to hike the loop clockwise.
Chippewa/Fisher River
            The trail descends slightly to reach the bank of the tan-colored Chippewa River.  The Chippewa and Fisher Rivers have numerous islands near their confluence, so the land mass you see across the river is an island and not the other bank.  For the next 0.3 miles the trail curves right to follow the bank of the Chippewa/Fisher River, which stays in sight to your left most of the time.
Inlet of Fisher River
            The trail surface turns to asphalt just before you need to turn right to leave the asphalt and continue the Nature Trail’s loop.  This turn is not marked, and if you reach the park loop road on the asphalt trail you have missed this turn.  In that case, backtrack about 50 yards to find the trail.  The last leg of the Nature Trail features a few interpretive signs as it heads west with the park loop road through the trees on your left.
            At 1.2 miles, you close the Nature Trail loop.  Turn left to get back to the park loop road, where two options present themselves to finish the hike.  One option is to simply retrace your steps 0.7 miles along the Pine and Timber Trails, but some of the retracing can be avoided if you do not mind a short road walk.  To execute the second option, turn right on the park loop road and walk against the one way traffic for a few hundred feet to the signed north end of the Timber Trail on the left.  Hiking the Timber Trail south its full length returns you to the beach parking area to complete the hike.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Lowry Nature Center at Carver Park Reserve: Tamarack Trail (Blog Hike #716)


Trail: Tamarack Trail
Hike Location: Lowry Nature Center (at Carver Park Reserve)
Geographic Location: northwest of Victoria, MN
Length: 1.5 miles
Difficulty: 1/10 (Easy)
Last Hiked: August 2018
Overview: A relatively flat circumnavigation of Crosby Lake.

Directions to the trailhead: On the west side of Minneapolis, take I-494 to SR 7 (exit 16B).  Exit and go west on SR 7.  Drive SR 7 west 13.2 miles to Victoria Drive.  Take the third exit from the traffic circle to head south on Victoria Dr.  The signed entrance for Lowry Nature Center is 1.2 miles ahead on the left.  Park in the large paved parking lot near the Nature Center building.

The hike: Located on the western edge of the Twin Cities metro area, 3719 acre Carver Park Reserve is the second largest park in the Three Rivers Park District, which was introduced in detail in the previous hike.  The park is named for its location in eastern Carver County, which in turn is named after the explorer Jonathan Carver who explored this area in 1766 and 1767.  The park reserve features the 57-site Lake Auburn Campground, an archery range, and the Grimm Farm Historic Site, which is often called the birthplace of the Dairy Belt because the Grimm family developed the first winter-hardy alfalfa in North America here in the mid 1800’s.
            In terms of trails, Carver Park Reserve offers 9 miles of horse trails and 10 miles of paved bike trails, but the park reserve’s best hiking trails are found in its 250-acre Lowry Nature Center.  Lowry Nature Center is the oldest nature center in the Twin Cities, and it offers multiple loop trails open only to hikers.  Because much of the Nature Center’s land is periodically inundated, bugs will be terrible here during the summer.  Therefore, I chose to keep my hike short by hiking only the Tamarack Trail described here.  Over the course of the trail description I will suggest several other loops you could add to extend the hike if conditions are more pleasant when you visit.
Exiting the Nature Center
            After exiting the front door of Lowry Nature Center, turn right on the asphalt trail, which quickly ends at a small butterfly garden.  Turn right again on a two-track dirt/gravel trail, and notice the small pier on Crosby Lake downhill to the left.  The Tamarack Trail starts as a mulch trail exiting left just past this pier.
            The northern arm of the Tamarack Trail’s loop heads west through a dense forest that features some large oak trees.  Just past 0.3 miles, the Aspen Trail exits right to start its 1.1 mile loop that includes an overlook of Stone Lake.  The Tamarack Trail continues west and passes two picnic tables that offer nice views of Crosby Lake provided the bugs permit you to linger awhile.
Crosby Lake
            At 0.5 miles, the forest starts to transition to prairie as the trail curves left around the west end of Crosby Lake.  The trail surface also turns to mowed grass here.  Ignore a short-cut trail that exits left, but at 0.7 miles a boardwalk spur exiting right leads a short distance to a platform overlooking a periodically inundated wetland.  The wetland makes for good wildlife viewing if the bugs are tolerable.
            0.8 miles into the hike, an unofficial trail exits right where you need to turn left to stay on the Tamarack Trail.  Some plastic blue diamonds mark this section of trail for cross-country skiers in the winter.  Now the trail heads east through the nicest prairie on this hike, and goldenrod lines either side of the trail.
Hiking through the prairie
            At 1.2 miles, the Lake Trail exits right to begin its 0.8 mile loop around a couple of small lakes.  Crosby Lake’s dedication monument, identified on the park map as Crosby Rock, is located on the left just past this intersection.  More flat walking brings you back to the butterfly garden where the Tamarack Trail closes its loop.  The Nature Center building and the parking lot lie just ahead.  If you want to do more hiking, the Aspen and Lake Trails mentioned above offer more aquatic scenery.  Also, the Oak and Maple Trails located east of the Nature Center building offer loops of 0.6 and 1.4 miles respectively through terrain similar to what you saw on the Tamarack Trail.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Elm Creek Park Reserve: Eastman Nature Center Loops (Blog Hike #715)


Trails: Sumac, Meadowlark, Oxbow, Heron, Monarch, and Creek Trails
Hike Location: Eastman Nature Center (at Elm Creek Park)
Geographic Location: northwest of Osseo, MN
Length: 3.8 miles
Difficulty: 3/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: August 2018
Overview: A loop hike through creekside prairie and forest.

Directions to the trailhead: On the west side of Minneapolis, take I-94 or SR 610 to Maple Grove Parkway (I-94 exit 213).  Exit and go north on Maple Grove Pkwy.  Drive Maple Grove Pkwy. to its northern end at CR 81 and turn right on CR 81.  Drive CR 81 east 0.3 miles to Fernbrook Lane and turn left on Fernbrook Ln.  Drive Fernbrook Ln. north 1.1 miles to Elm Creek Road and turn right on Elm Creek Rd.  The signed Nature Center entrance is 0.6 miles ahead on the right.  Park in the Center’s only parking lot.

The hike: The Twin Cities’ Three Rivers Park District owes its existence to the Minnesota State Legislature, which passed legislation to establish the Hennepin County Park Reserve District in 1955.  Over the next 20 years the district purchased almost 21,000 acres of land, mostly farmland in the rapidly developing suburbs of Minneapolis.  In 2005, the district’s name was changed to the Three Rivers Park District to reflect the fact that the district’s range had expanded well past Hennepin County to include three major river watersheds: the Mississippi, the Minnesota, and the Crow.  Today the district operates more than 27,000 acres of park reserves, regional parks, and regional trail corridors at 25 different sites in and around Minneapolis, and more than 11 million people visit these sites every year.
            Located in the northwest corner of the Twin Cities metro area just off of I-94, 4900 acre Elm Creek Park Reserve is the largest park in the Three Rivers Park District.  The park reserve offers some nice amenities including a championship disc golf course, a chlorinated and filtered swimming area with a sand beach, several picnic areas, and 20 miles of paved bike trails.  Also located within the park reserve is the Eastman Nature Center, which contains Elm Creek’s best hiking options.  Loop trails extend both east and west of the Nature Center building, which is only open 9am-5pm even though the trails are open dawn to dusk.  This hike explores loop trails on both sides of the building, and it passes through a combination of woodlands and prairies, thus sampling all the habitats Eastman Nature Center has to offer.
Trail leading to floating boardwalk
            Before you start either of the main loops, the pond near the Nature Center building is worth a visit.  To get there, start walking back out the entrance road.  Where a paved trail starts on the right, turn left on the dirt/gravel trail that is signed as leading to the boardwalk.  A few yards later you reach the plastic floating boardwalk that takes you over the middle of the shallow pond.  I saw several turtles sunning on logs on the evening that I hiked over this boardwalk.
Small pond near Nature Center building
            After crossing the boardwalk, the dirt/mulch trail climbs slightly to reach an intersection with the Sumac Trail.  Turn right to begin a trip around the loop trails that are located west of the Nature Center building.  At only 0.25 miles, the Sumac Trail is the shortest loop trail at Eastman Nature Center, but it passes through some of the park’s best forest.  Numerous nice oak trees will be encountered in this area.
            Where a spur trail exits right to reach the asphalt bike trail, angle left to stay on the dirt Sumac Trail.  At the next intersection, turn right to temporarily leave the Sumac Trail and head for the Meadowlark Trail, Eastman Nature Center’s westernmost loop.  Very quickly you reach the Meadowlark Trail, where this description turns left to hike this trail’s loop clockwise.
Prairie view on Meadowlark Trail
            The Meadowlark Trail features more prairie than the Sumac Trail, and some benches give nice views of the prairie area that the Meadowlark Trail encircles.  This trail also features more elevation change than the Nature Center’s other trails.  The trail descends gradually as it approaches Rush Creek, which remains out of sight through the dense forest to the left.  At 0.7 miles, the signed spur trail to the Rush Creek Group Camp exits left near the westernmost point of this hike.  Angle right to climb slightly and continue the Meadowlark Trail.
Another prairie view
            The north arm of the Meadowlark Trail traces higher ground with the prairie still on your right.  At 1.2 miles, you close the Meadowlark Trail’s loop.  Turn left to get back to the Sumac Trail, then turn right to continue the Sumac Trail.  The southern arm of the Sumac Trail features more nice forest dominated by oak trees.
            Just before you reach the rear of the Nature Center building, you reach an intersection with the Heron Trail and Oxbow Loop, which will be our route to the loops east of the Nature Center building.  Turn right to leave the Sumac Trail and begin the Heron Trail, then turn right again to begin the Oxbow Loop.  As its name suggests, the Oxbow Loop takes you along some small oxbow lakes formed by slow-flowing meandering Rush Creek.  The stagnant waters in both the creek and the oxbow lakes form a perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes, so expect lots of bugs when hiking along the creek in the summer.
Rush Creek
            At the Oxbow Loop’s eastern end, turn right to continue the Heron Trail.  At the next intersection, turn right again to join the Monarch Trail and begin a counterclockwise journey around the main loops located east of the Nature Center building.  This part of the hike is very forested, and Rush Creek with its many bugs stays nearby on the right.  Where the Monarch Trail turns left, stay right to head for the Creek Trail.
            Just past 2 miles into the hike, you come out at an asphalt bike trail.  Turn right on the bike path and use its bridge to cross Elm Creek near its confluence with Rush Creek.  Just after crossing Elm Creek, leave the pavement by taking a soft left on a signed trail that leads to the Creek Trail.  At the next intersection, turn sharply left to begin the Creek Trail.
Starting the Creek Trail
            The south arm of the Creek Trail treads a bluff that stands about 30 feet above Elm Creek.  Where the Creek Trail splits, the two options come back together in a few hundred feet, so you could go either way.  The left option stays in the woods and stays closer to the bluff edge, while the right option stays more in the prairie.
            After the two options come back together, you pass a picnic table with a trash can on the right before a spur trail exits right and heads for Goose Lake.  The Creek Trail curves left and descends gradually to cross Elm Creek on a nice wooden footbridge.  At the next trail intersection, turn right to climb away from Elm Creek for good.
Mathprofhiker's shadow in the prairie
            The rest of the hike features more prairie than forest as it follows first the Creek Trail and then the Monarch Trail on a westbound course.  At 3.35 miles, you cross a paved bike trail just before passing an interpretive sign that describes some common prairie plants.  Where another asphalt trail comes in sight, turn left to stay on the dirt/grass Monarch Trail.  The Monarch Trail roughly parallels the asphalt bike trail until the Nature Center building comes into view.  This building signals the end of the hike.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Buffalo River State Park: Wide Sky/River View Loop (Blog Hike #714)


Trails: Old Grade, Wide Sky, and River View Trails
Hike Location: Buffalo River State Park
Geographic Location: east of Moorhead, MN
Length: 2 miles
Difficulty: 2/10 (Easy)
Last Hiked: August 2018
Overview: A loop hike through prairie along the Buffalo River.

Directions to the trailhead: East of Moorhead, take I-94 to SR 336 (exit 6).  Exit and go north on SR 336.  Drive SR 336 north 2.1 miles to US 10 and turn right to enter eastbound on US 10.  Drive US 10 east 8.3 miles to the signed park entrance on the right.  Turn right to enter the park, pay the entrance fee, and drive to the main parking lot at the main park road’s end.  Park here.

The hike: Located 14 miles east of the Fargo/Moorhead metro area, Buffalo River State Park protects 4658 acres straddling its namesake river.  The park was established in 1937 when the Moorhead Rod and Gun Club saw the land’s value as a public recreation area.  At that time the park land consisted of reverting farmland, but in 1979 efforts to restore the area’s native prairie habitat began.
            Today the park features some nice amenities including a swimming pool, a riverside picnic area, and a 44-site developed campground.  For hikers, the restored prairie takes center stage, and more than 12 miles of trails take you through prairie and riparian habitats.  While not the longest possible route, this hike explores both the prairie and riverside areas, thus giving you a good sample of the hiking this park has to offer.
Start of Old Grade Trail
            From the main parking lot, walk back out the entrance road a couple hundred feet to find the start of the Old Grade Trail on the right.  The Old Grade Trail is unsigned, but it starts almost opposite the campground access road, which leaves to the left.  The dirt/grass Old Grade Trail follows the route of an old road as it heads first north and then east across the restored prairie.  The prairie portion of this hike will be hot and sunny during the summer, so wear a hat and stay hydrated.
            Wooden posts adorned with plastic blue diamonds indicate that the Old Grade Trail is part of this park’s Hiking Club Trail.  Every Minnesota state park has a hiking club trail, and paying the $15 required to join the hiking club will earn you patches and plaques as you try to hike in all 67 of Minnesota’s state parks.  If hiking in all of Minnesota’s state parks sounds like a daunting task, you can start by trying to hike in more of them than I have: 10 as of this writing.  Minnesota also has a Passport Club for people content with just visiting its state parks.
Hiking through the restored prairie
            At 0.4 miles, you cross an old asphalt road and continue east through the prairie on the other side.  The trail’s name magically changes from the Old Grade Trail to the Wide Sky Trail (sometimes also called the Big Sky Trail) at this point, but the trail conditions and scenery remain the same.  Soon you pass an interpretive sign that points out some glacial erratics, or boulders transported here from points north by glaciers during the last ice age.
            Ignore side trails that exit right until you reach a major trail intersection at 0.95 miles.  A wooden bench sits at this intersection, and the Minnesota State University-Mankato Regional Science Center building can be seen ahead and to the left.  Turn right here and head steeply downhill but only for a short distance.  Interpretive signs tell you that this hill is a former Buffalo River cut bank, or a steep bank formed where the river used to run against the side of this hill, thereby undercutting and eroding the hill.
Approaching the Buffalo River
            When you reach the bank of the present-day Buffalo River, turn right and begin following the river downstream on the River View Trail.  A shallow sandy-bottomed prairie river, the Buffalo River flows northwest on a winding course for 139 miles to its mouth at the Red River, which in turn flows north into Lake Winnipeg.  Thus, the water you see here has a long way to go to reach the sea.  Birds and wildlife enjoy the riparian area, and while there are still a lot of prairie grasses and flowers including goldenrod, stands of basswood, elm, and box elder pop up along the river bank.
Hiking along the Buffalo River
            The remainder of the hike stays close to the Buffalo River.  Where the Savanna Cutoff Trail exits right at 1.65 miles, stay left to continue on the River View Trail.  When you reach a water treatment area, turn left again and quickly come out at the park’s swimming area, which was very popular on the warm Sunday afternoon that I hiked here.  Turn right to walk around the swimming area and get back to the main parking lot where your car is parked.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Cross Ranch State Park: Matah and Cottonwood Trails (Blog Hike #713)

Trails: Matah and Cottonwood Trails
Hike Location: Cross Ranch State Park
Geographic Location: south of Washburn, ND
Length: 5.7 miles
Difficulty: 4/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: August 2018
Overview: A somewhat long but flat double loop featuring views of the Missouri River.

Directions to the trailhead: Just west of Bismarck, take I-94 to SR 25 (exit 147).  Exit and go north on SR 25.  Drive SR 25 north for 18.7 miles to 28th Avenue SW.  Turn right on 28th Ave. SW.  Drive 28th Ave. SW 5 miles to 16th Street SW and turn right on 16th St. SW.  Drive 16th St. SW 4.4 miles to its end and turn left.  The park entrance is 2 miles ahead on your right.  Turn right to enter the park, drive under the railroad underpass, and park in the gravel Visitor Center parking lot, making sure to pay the entrance fee before you begin the hike.

The hike: Located on the west bank of the Missouri River about 20 miles upstream from Bismarck, Cross Ranch State Park and adjacent Cross Ranch Nature Preserve protect 5589 acres along the last free-flowing stretch of the Missouri River.  The land’s ranch days started in 1879 when A.D. Gaines, a land agent for the Northern Pacific Railroad, purchased 11,000 acres that included this site.  The ranch used the Maltese cross brand on its livestock, and when the ranch’s title transferred to Bob and Gladys Levis in 1956, the ranch was renamed Cross Ranch.  The Nature Conservancy purchased the ranch in 1980, and both the Nature Conservancy and Burlington Northern Railroad donated land to create the state park.
            Before Gaines ever came to this area, the Lewis and Clark Expedition camped across the river from this park in October 1804, and they made their winter camp that year just a few miles upstream from here.  A Lewis and Clark campsite marker is located in the park’s southern section near the Sanger boat launch.  In terms of amenities, the park has both a developed and primitive campground, log cabins and yurts, picnic shelters, and a boat ramp.  For the hiker, the park offers over 16 miles of trails with the best ones going along the Missouri River.  This hike takes you along the river but also explores an old growth cottonwood grove, thus providing a sample of all the hiking the park has to offer.
Heading south from the Visitor Center
            From the Visitor Center, head south on a concrete sidewalk that passes through a mowed-grass area to reach the park’s amphitheater.  Brown carsonite posts bearing the letters MT indicate that you are on the Matah Trail.  Past the amphitheater, the trail’s surface turns to dirt as the wide trail continues its southbound course.  Numbered posts suggest the presence of an interpretive guide, but none were available in the Visitor Center.
            At 0.3 miles, you reach this hike’s southernmost point at a signed trail intersection.  The trail going straight leads further south to the park’s Sanger section, but that trail was flooded by the Missouri River on my visit.  Thus, I turned left to continue the Matah Trail.  The Missouri River soon comes into view on the right, and for the next 0.9 miles the trail heads northeast parallel to the river.
Missouri River, looking downstream
            The section along the Missouri River is by far my favorite part of this hike.  The river was wide, swift, and muddy on my visit, and ripples in the water betray logs and other obstructions lurking under the water.  Signs warn you to stay away from the river’s eroding banks: undercut banks can collapse sending you tumbling into the water with disastrous consequences.  Benches placed near the river invite you to stop and enjoy the riparian scenery.
Bench along Missouri River
            While the river stays close on the right, the park’s primitive campground and yurt area stay close on the left.  In general you want to ignore spur trails that exit left, but some hand pump water wells in the campground are the only potable water source on this hike.  At 1.2 miles, the trail exits the park’s developed area as it angles left to leave the riverbank.  One of the river’s overflow channels now separates you from the river’s main course.  While these channels are dry most of the year, they store enough standing water to make bugs a real issue on the rest of this hike.
            1.5 miles into the hike, you reach another signed trail intersection where the Cottonwood Trail exits right.  We will continue the Matah Trail’s loop later, but to increase the distance and explore the old growth cottonwood grove, turn right to begin the Cottonwood Trail.  Immediately the Cottonwood Trail passes through a gate in a wire fence and splits to form its loop.  For no reason, I stayed straight and used the trail going left as my return route, thus hiking the Cottonwood Trail counterclockwise.
Hiking through the cottonwoods
            The grassy two-track Cottonwood Trail heads in the general direction of north as it enters the cottonwood grove.  The hike through the seemingly endless cottonwoods may seem boring to some people, but the trees are tall and stately, and the flat terrain makes for easy going.  At 2.8 miles, you exit the cottonwoods to begin hiking along the edge of a grassy field.  The Missouri River lies out of sight across the field to the right.
            Just past 3 miles into the hike, the east end of the Gaines Trail exits right.  Named for the previous landowners, the 2.1 mile Gaines Trail loop gives access to the 2.2 mile Levis Trail loop, and you could add one or both of them if you have the time and energy to extend the hike.  This description angles left to follow the brown carsonite posts bearing the letter C for the Cottonwood Trail.
Carsonite post along Cottonwood Trail
            At 3.2 miles, you reach the other (west) end of the Gaines Trail.  Turn left to begin the west arm of the Cottonwood Trail.  This part of the forest has a dense grassy understory, and soon the trail curves right to dip through another river overflow channel.  For the next 1.2 miles the Cottonwood Trail parallels this channel with the sunny, grassy channel on the left.
River overflow channel
            4.8 miles into the hike, the Cottonwood Trail curves left, crosses the channel, and returns to its southern end and its intersection with the Matah Trail.  Walk back through the gate in the wire fence and turn right to continue the Matah Trail.  Now back in the cottonwood grove, the trail curves left to keep heading in the general direction of south.  The farm fields beyond the park’s west boundary come into view through the trees to the right.
Back on the Matah Trail
            Just past 5.5 miles, you cross a gravel park road just before you cross a small gully on a wooden footbridge.  The last few hundred feet parallel this gully with the gully on the left.  Soon the Visitor Center comes into view ahead and to the right, thus marking the end of the hike.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Theodore Roosevelt National Park: Painted Canyon Nature Trail (Blog Hike #712)


Trail: Painted Canyon Nature Trail
Hike Location: Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Geographic Location: east of Medora, ND
Length: 0.9 miles
Difficulty: 3/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: August 2018
Overview: A short lollipop loop with some steep areas offering up-close views of badlands rock formations.

Directions to the trailhead: This hike starts at the west end of the I-94, exit 32 rest area in western North Dakota.  This rest area is accessible to both eastbound and westbound traffic.

The hike: After I hiked at Grand Bay in Mississippi and Fanny Bay in Florida, both of which start at rest areas on I-10, I thought I had done every hike that starts at an interstate rest area.  Then as I was driving I-94 across North Dakota to/from Montana, I stopped at the rest area at mile marker 32 to stretch my legs and found this hike.  Much to my surprise, this rest area also contains an official Visitor Center for Theodore Roosevelt National Park, which sits immediately north of the interstate.  Thus, this hike is not only a rest area hike but also a national park hike.
            Established in 1978, Theodore Roosevelt National Park is the only national park to be named after an individual.  The 26th President’s dedication to conservation is honored at this park because he spent several years hunting bison here in the late 1800’s.  The park consists of two sections, a northern section and a southern section, and both sections offer scenic, rugged badlands scenery.  The park’s southern section is the one bordering I-94.
This short hike takes you deep into a badlands canyon, thus letting you see the badlands’ colored rocks and interesting rock formations up close and personal.  Despite the short length, do not underestimate the difficulty of this hike.  The trail includes some short steep sections, and almost the entire hike is exposed to the sun, making for hot hiking in the summer.  Also, do not attempt this hike after a heavy rain: water turns the badlands’ dirt into thick, goopy mud.
Painted Canyon Nature Trail trailhead
Start at the signed trailhead for the Painted Canyon Nature Trail on the west side of the rest area.  Do not confuse this trail with the similarly named but much longer Painted Canyon Trail that starts on the east side of the rest area.  The narrow trail immediately leaves the canyon rim and begins descending on a moderate to steep grade that features some wooden waterbars.  Views of the colorful rock bands that give this canyon its name open up to the left.
Descending on Painted Canyon Nature Trail
At 0.15 miles, the trail splits to form its loop.  I chose to continue straight and use the trail going right as my return route, thus hiking the loop clockwise.  The trail is marked only by some brown carsonite posts bearing the words “Painted Canyon,” but the route is easy to follow for the most part.  Small clusters of ponderosa pine trees border the trail, and large amounts of goldenrod line the sunny areas.
After more descending, you reach the lowest elevation of the hike at 0.4 miles.  This point sits roughly 250 vertical feet below the canyon rim, and looking around reveals both the colorful cliffs above you and the grassy canyon bottom below you.  A bench placed here invites you to sit and see what you can see provided it is not too hot.
Colorful butte in Painted Canyon

Rock bands in Painted Canyon
The trail curves right and starts ascending around a tall banded rock formation that stands to the right.  A colorful red/orange butte stands ahead in the distance.  Moderate ascending brings you to the close of the loop.  A soft left turn and more climbing return you to the rest area to complete the hike.  Before you leave, check out the exhibits about Badlands flora and fauna in the national park Visitor Center located at this rest area.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Lewis and Clark National Forest: Memorial Falls (Blog Hike #711)

Trail: Memorial Falls Trail
Hike Location: Lewis and Clark National Forest
Geographic Location: north of White Sulphur Springs, MT
Length: 0.9 miles
Difficulty: 3/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: August 2018
Overview: A short but rocky and occasionally steep out-and-back to two small waterfalls.

Directions to the trailhead: The signed parking area for Memorial Falls is located on the east side of US 89 2 miles south of the town of Neihart.

The hike: Straddling the north-south continental divide in northern Montana, Lewis and Clark National Forest protects more than 1.8 million acres mostly of forested mountains.  The national forest is named for the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition, which explored this area between 1804 and 1806 as part of their exploration of the land acquired with the Louisiana Purchase.  The national forest was established in 1897, only one year after the United States signed the Treaty of 1896 with the Blackfeet Nation, which established the adjacent Blackfeet Reservation.
            The national forest has lands in eight different mountain ranges, one of which is the Little Belt Mountains.  Located southeast of Great Falls, the Little Belt Mountains consist of gently sloped peaks covered by pine forest.  One of the area’s most scenic and popular frontcountry sites is Memorial Falls, the destination of the hike described here.  Although this hike is short and not that difficult, the elevation is high and the terrain rocky, so it is not as easy as the distance alone might suggest.
Memorial Falls Trailhead
            An information sign and vault toilet sit at the rear of the parking lot, where this hike begins.  Immediately the asphalt trail crosses Belt Creek on a sturdy bridge with iron railings, after which the trail surface turns to dirt and rock.  For the rest of the hike the trail stays near the bank of Memorial Creek, which is a small tributary of Belt Creek.  Memorial Creek’s ravine is very rocky: talus-covered slopes rise to vertical rock cliffs on either side.
            Sheets of black plastic buried under the trail stabilize the trail surface as you climb up the ravine.  Ponderosa pines and Douglas firs dominate the forest, and the understory is very open.  Just past 0.3 miles, you reach the base of the main waterfall.  The main waterfall is a ledge-type waterfall that drops about 25 feet.  The small creek does not provide a lot of water to fall, but the rocky area makes for a very rugged setting.
Main waterfall
            Some people turn around here, but another waterfall lies a few hundred feet upstream.  To get there, keep following the main trail as it curves left to cross Memorial Creek and begins climbing a trio of switchbacks.  The switchbacks are the rockiest part of this trail, but careful stepping will get you up to the ravine’s rim.
Rocky switchback

View from ravine rim

Upper Falls
            The trail continues upstream along the ravine’s rim to reach a view of Upper Falls at 0.45 miles.  Upper Falls is more of a cascade-type waterfall than its lower cousin, but it is still an interesting site.  The official trail ends at the Upper Falls viewpoint.  Although an unofficial trail crosses the creek above Upper Falls and goes back down to the main waterfall along the creek’s other (east) bank, I do not recommend going that way: that trail is too steep and exposed for good safety.  Thus, I chose to retrace my steps down the switchbacks and past the main waterfall to return to the parking lot and complete the hike.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Glacier National Park: Avalanche Lake (Blog Hike #710)

Trails: Trail of Cedars and Avalanche Lake Trail
Hike Location: Glacier National Park
Geographic Location: east of West Glacier, MT
Length: 4.8 miles
Difficulty: 6/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: August 2018
Overview: A creekside hike to scenic Avalanche Lake.

Directions to the trailhead: This hike starts at Glacier National Park’s Avalanche Creek Trailhead, which is located on the park’s Going-to-the-Sun Road 15.7 miles east of the park’s west entrance.  Ideally you can park at the trailhead’s roadside parking area, but because the lot fills quickly during the peak season you may need to park at the Apgar Visitor Center and ride the free park shuttle up to Avalanche Creek.

The hike: For my general comments on Glacier National Park, see the previous hike.  This hike, my final hike in Glacier National Park, takes you to popular and scenic Avalanche Lake, a medium-sized lake surrounded by towering bare-rock mountains.  This hike is popular with families because it is long and hard enough to give you a sense of accomplishment but not so hard that it becomes overly taxing.  I did this hike in the cool of the morning before the large crowds arrive, and I had a fantastic hike.
Start of Trail of Cedars
            Your journey to Avalanche Lake starts on the Trail of Cedars, which begins on the south shoulder of the Going-to-the-Sun Road as an unsigned boardwalk.  A 0.7 mile nearly flat loop, the Trail of Cedars is somewhat popular because it is the easiest trail in Glacier National Park.  As its name suggests, the Trail of Cedars passes through a dense creekside pine forest dominated by western red cedars, black cottonwood, and western hemlock. 
Where the boardwalk splits, stay left to remain on the northeast bank of Avalanche Creek.  The mountainside comes closer on the left as the trail stays in a narrow band of flat area between the mountain and the creek.  At 0.3 miles, the trail curves right to cross Avalanche Creek on a nice footbridge.  Looking to the left allows you to peer directly upstream through a tight sheer-walled rock gorge.  Avalanche Creek creates some powerful waterfalls in this gorge.
Small but rocky gorge on Avalanche Creek
Shortly after crossing the creek, you reach the signed Avalanche Lake Trailhead at an information board.  Turn left here and climb slightly to quickly reach the official Avalanche Lake Trail.  Turning right would take you downhill to the Avalanche Campground, so you want to turn left to head for Avalanche Lake.
The Avalanche Lake Trail starts as a rocky, rooty path that treads the rim of the sheer-walled gorge you peered into only moments ago.  Soon the creek mellows out, as does the trail.  For the rest of the journey to Avalanche Lake the grade is moderate and the footing good.  Some gentle well-engineered switchbacks help on both the steepness and footing fronts.
Hiking the Avalanche Lake Trail
At 1.3 miles, you reach a brief descent where a large number of trees have been knocked down.  The name “avalanche” seems to be on everything in this ravine, and for good reason: many avalanches thunder their way down this ravine.  These knocked down trees testify to the force tumbling snow exerts.  On the bright side, the gap in the trees gives a nice view up the side ravine that leads east to Hidden Lake, the destination of the previous hike.  No trails head up to Hidden Lake from this area, however.
Looking up side ravine toward Hidden Lake
The grade intensifies slightly past this side ravine.  Overall, this hike climbs about 600 vertical feet before reaching its highest point at 2 miles into the hike.  A slight descent then brings you to the shore of Avalanche Lake near its outlet.  As you would expect in Montana, the lake’s water is clear and shiny.  The lake is surrounded by dense pine forest, but the pines give way to bare rock higher up the surrounding mountains.  Small packs of snow remained on the higher elevations when I hiked here on the second day of August, and tall cascading waterfalls delivered water from the snowpacks to the lake.  Take some time to enjoy this classic Rocky Mountain scene.
Avalanche Lake

Avalanche Lake
The trail heading around the west side of Avalanche Lake provides access to some primitive campsites.  The only way to Avalanche Lake is the way you got here, so eventually you will need to turn around and head back down beside Avalanche Creek.  If you do this hike early in the morning like I did, the sun will be blocked by mountains while you are hiking up but high enough to illuminate the water in Avalanche Creek while you are hiking down.  When you get back to the Trail of Cedars, turn left to continue the Trail of Cedars.
The Trail of Cedars’ asphalt southwest arm stays very close to the Avalanche Lake Campground.  Picnic areas, parking lots, and restroom buildings can be seen to the left.  Just before the asphalt trail reaches the main campground parking area, turn right to return to the boardwalk just before it crosses Avalanche Creek.  This creek’s clear water and rocky bottom amazed me one last time here.  Quickly you close the Trail of Cedars’ loop, where a left turn returns you to the roadside parking area to complete the hike.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Glacier National Park: Hidden Lake Trail to Overlook (Blog Hike #709)


Trail: Hidden Lake Trail
Hike Location: Glacier National Park
Geographic Location: west of St. Mary, MT
Length: 2.8 miles
Difficulty: 6/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: August 2018
Overview: A high-elevation out-and-back to an overlook of scenic Hidden Lake.

Directions to the trailhead: This hike starts at Glacier National Park’s Logan Pass Visitor Center, which is located at the highest point on the park’s Going-to-the-Sun Road 17.6 miles west of the park’s east entrance at St. Mary.  Ideally you can park in the Visitor Center’s parking lot, but because the lot fills quickly during the peak season you may need to park at either the Apgar Visitor Center or the St. Mary Visitor Center and ride the free park shuttle up to Logan Pass.

The hike: Located flush against the Canada border, Glacier National Park protects over 1 million acres of some of Montana’s highest land.  The park is named for the numerous small glaciers that populate its mountainsides.  While much press has been given to the fact that the glaciers are shrinking, the icefields still exist for now, and one of them (Jackson Glacier) can still be seen from a shuttle stop a few miles east of this trailhead on the famous Going-to-the-Sun Road.
Jackson Glacier
The park largely owes its existence to George Grinnell, the co-founder of the Audubon Society who in 1908 gave this place the nickname “Crown of the Continent.”  This nickname is fitting for at least two reasons.  First, two of North America’s major watershed divides run through the park.  The well-known north-south continental divide separating the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean basins runs through the park, but the lesser-known Laurentian Divide, which separates the Atlantic Ocean and Hudson Bay basins, also starts here before heading east to northern Minnesota and then northeast through Quebec’s Laurentian Mountains.  The two divides meet at Triple Divide Peak in the southern part of the park, so water landing on Triple Divide Peak could drain to any one of three places: east into the Missouri River and the Atlantic Ocean, west into the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean, or northeast into the Saskatchewan River and the Hudson Bay.
Second, the area’s geography makes the park a convergence zone for North America’s ecosystems.  North and South Rocky Mountain species migrate into the park from their respective directions, prairie species come in from the east, and maritime species come in from the west.  To see this biological diversity up close, you will have to hike one of the park’s many trails.  Fortunately, hiking is the main attraction at Glacier National Park, as nearly every natural feature of interest requires at least a short hike to reach.
The hike described here starts at Logan Pass, the highest point on the park’s famous and scenic Going-to-the-Sun Road, and roughly follows the north-south continental divide to an overlook of Hidden Lake.  Thus, while this hike may not go to the tip of the continent’s crown, it does take you along the rim of it.  Because the hike stays between 6600 and 7200 feet of elevation for most of its distance, the trail usually does not become snow-free until July, and you will get winded faster than usual.  Therefore, do not underestimate the difficulty of this hike.
Hidden Lake Trailhead
A small maze of asphalt trails exists behind the Logan Pass Visitor Center, but you want to take the one marked by the brown “Hidden Lake Trailhead” sign.  The bare rock of Clements Mountain looms straight ahead, and Mount Oberlin towers off to the right.  The trail surface starts as asphalt, but soon it starts alternating between boardwalk and dirt.
Unlike wetland areas where the boardwalk keeps your feet dry, the boardwalk up here protects the fragile alpine environment from getting damaged by human feet.  Tree line on the park’s eastern slopes is about 6000 feet above sea level, so although you see some pine trees near the trailhead you quickly enter the barren alpine tundra.  Brown carsonite posts warn you to stay on the well-defined trail.
Dirt portion of Hidden Lake Trail
Looking down Reynolds Creek ravine
The trail climbs on a moderate grade, gaining 350 vertical feet over its first 0.6 miles.  Clements Mountain gets closer as you climb, and nice views open up to the east down the Reynolds Creek ravine.  The north-south continental divide follows the ridge to your right.  When I hiked here on the first day of August, I encountered the first field of melting snow near 0.7 miles.  The snow did not block the trail, and its runoff created attractive streams and waterfalls for my viewing and hearing pleasure.
Melting snowpack
At 0.8 miles, the grade intensifies again as you head up a finger ridge projecting from the south side of Clements Mountain.  Wildlife frequent this area.  In addition to small animals such as squirrels and marmots, I saw several mountain goats only a few feet from the trail.  Also, I spotted a grizzly bear on the slopes of Reynolds Mountain above me and to my left.
1.1 miles into the hike, you top the last steep section as you reach Hidden Lake Pass.  A short descent and gradual climb bring you to the continental divide and the wooden platform that is Hidden Lake Overlook.  The lake sits roughly 780 feet below the overlook, and the entire lake is in view.  The water is the usual brilliant blue that you would expect in Montana.  Tree line on the western slopes is about 6900 feet above sea level, so you will see some pine trees not far below you.  Rocky and pyramid-shaped Bearhat Mountain rises abruptly from the lake’s far shore.  Take some time to enjoy this impressive viewpoint.
Lower end of Hidden Lake

Hidden Lake and Bearhat Mountain
The trail continues past the overlook and descends all the way to Hidden Lake’s shore.  While the hike to the shore can easily be done as a dayhike, choosing that option adds 2.4 miles to the hike’s round-trip distance, and you will have to clamber back up to this overlook to get back to the trailhead.  Feeling the ill effects of a stomach bug, I turned around at the overlook.  After you top Hidden Lake Pass on the return trip, you can see the trail ahead of you, probably with an almost continuous line of people, all the way down to the Logan Pass Visitor Center.  The short asphalt interpretive trail behind the Visitor Center tells you a lot about the alpine tundra you just walked through and makes a nice way to end your visit to the rim of the continent’s crown.