Thursday, November 8, 2018

Panther Creek State Park: Seven Sinkholes and Point Lookout Trails (Blog Hike #724)

Trails: Seven Sinkholes, Lost Road, and Point Lookout Trails
Hike Location: Panther Creek State Park
Geographic Location: west of Morristown, TN
Length: 3.5 miles
Difficulty: 6/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: October 2018
Overview: A double loop featuring views of Cherokee Lake from up-close and from high-above.

Directions to the trailhead: From points south and west, take I-81 north to SR 32 (exit 8).  Exit and go north on SR 32.  Drive SR 32 north 4.3 miles to SR 160 and enter westbound on SR 160.  From points north and east, reach this same intersection by taking I-81 south to SR 160 (exit 12) and driving west 3.7 miles.  Continue west on SR 160 another 5.8 miles to US 11E and turn right on US 11E.  Drive US 11E north 1 mile to SR 342 and turn left on SR 342.  Drive SR 342 2.4 miles to the park entrance on the right.  Turn right to enter the park, and drive the main park road past the campground to the signed Spoon Recreation Area.  Park near the back of this asphalt parking lot.

The hike: Located on the Holston River in east Tennessee’s Grainger and Jefferson Counties, the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Cherokee Dam stands 175 feet high and creates 28,780 acre Cherokee Lake.  The hydroelectric dam was built in quick fashion between August 1940 and December 1941.  The urgency in the construction was due to the imminency of World War II: the region needed power for its aluminum production facilities, a necessary raw material for the forthcoming war.  The extra power generating capacity came at a price: 875 families were displaced, 51 cemeteries were relocated, and 14 new bridges had to be built.
            One of the best ways to see and experience Cherokee Lake is by visiting 1435 acre Panther Creek State Park, which is located on its south shore.  The park offers many amenities, including a 50-site developed campground, a boat ramp on Cherokee Lake, a seasonal swimming pool, and more than 30 miles of trails for hikers, mountain bikers, and horseback riders.  Many good hiking routes are possible, but I like the route suggested here because it passes both impressive lake views and large sinkholes, thus giving you a taste of both the man-made and natural attractions the park has to offer.
Trailhead at Spoon Recreation Area
            The hike starts at the signed trailhead on the left (west) side of the parking lot near the restroom building.  Both the Seven Sinkholes Trail and the Lost Road Trail start here, but almost immediately they part ways to form the first of this hike’s two loops.  Angle left here to stay on the Seven Sinkholes Trail.
            True to its name, the 0.6 mile Seven Sinkholes Trail passes seven signed sinkholes, which are above-ground evidence of the caves that lie underground.  Some of the sinkholes are as large as a small ravine, and although the Seven Sinkholes Trail is fairly flat, this area’s rockiness will impede your progress.  Large numbers of white metal diamonds bearing black arrows keep you on the official trail.
Sinkhole #2 of 7
            At 0.3 miles, the trail curves sharply right to pass through a particularly rocky area as you round the end of the low ridge that contains the sinkholes.  The horse trail you will be on in a few minutes comes into view through the trees downhill to the left, but stick with the Seven Sinkholes Trail until it officially comes back together with the Lost Road Trail at a signed intersection.  Turn sharply left here to leave the Seven Sinkholes Trail and head for the second loop.  In only 300 feet, turn left again to descend into a saddle and reach the major intersection that forms the second loop.  Turn left to hike the second loop clockwise.
            The trail follows a wide old road as it descends from the saddle.  Horses also use this trail, but it does not show signs of heavy horse usage.  At 0.7 miles, you reach an information sign just before arriving at the main park road; no parking is available here.  Turn right to begin the signed hiker-only Point Lookout Trail.
Climbing toward Point Lookout
            The Point Lookout Trail climbs through a ravine on a grade that is gradual at first but later becomes moderate with steep areas.  Overall, the trail gains almost 400 feet of elevation in just over 0.5 miles.  After climbing a single switchback, a spur trail exits left to quickly reach the park road.  Angle right to continue the Point Lookout Trail.
            The understory becomes sparse as you approach the top of the hill, and a nice forest with lots of oak, hickory, and maple trees welcomes you to the top.  Cherokee Lake, now some 400 feet below you, comes into view through the trees on your left as you reach the highest elevation on this hike.  At 1.5 miles, you reach the Cherokee Lake overlook for which this trail is named.  The green tree-covered islands with light orange dirt banks contrast with the sparkling blue water, and the low ridges to the north stand in the background over the entire scene.  A bench here makes a nice place to sit and rest near this hike’s highest point.
Cherokee Lake, as seen from Point Lookout
            The trail leaves the overlook by switching back to the right and heading southeast out a finger ridge.  The descent along the finger ridge is gradual, but a couple of short steep rocky sections will need to be negotiated when the trail rolls off the end of the ridge.  I passed a pair of whitetail deer grazing on shrubs in the understory as I approached the bottom of the hill.
            After tracing around a shallow ravine on a fairly level grade, you reach a trail intersection at 2.4 miles.  The Point Lookout Trail’s main loop continues straight, and we will eventually head that way.  To add a lake-level Cherokee Lake view to the high-above lookout view you got earlier, turn sharply left to begin the 0.45 mile spur trail that leads to the lake-level viewpoint.
Hiking out the finger ridge
            The spur trail heads north along the spine of a narrow finger ridge.  Large numbers of red cedar trees grow on this ridge, and the lake can be seen through the trees downhill to the left and right.  A gradual to moderate descent brings you to lake level at the end of the ridge.  The lake is in view in three directions from here, making this point a very scenic spot.
Cherokee Lake, up-close
            Retrace your steps to the main loop, then angle left to continue the loop.  Some maple trees offered nice fall color as I descended to intersect the horse trail in the saddle I was in before, thus closing the loop.  Continue straight to get back to the Lost Road Trail, then turn right to head back to the parking area.  0.2 miles of fairly level walking on the Lost Road Trail return you to the parking lot to complete the hike.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Fall Creek Falls State Park: Overlook, Base of the Falls, and Woodland Trails (Blog Hike #723)

Trails: Woodland, Overlook, and Base of the Falls Trails
Hike Location: Fall Creek Falls State Park
Geographic Location: southeast of Spencer, TN
Length: 3 miles
Difficulty: 8/10 (Moderate/Difficult)
Last Hiked: October 2018
Overview: A semiloop, sometimes rocky and sometimes steep, to Cane Creek Falls and Fall Creek Falls.

Directions to the trailhead: From Spencer, take SR 30 east 11.6 miles to SR 284 and turn right on SR 284.  Drive SR 284 south 3.1 miles to the state park’s Nature Center, where this hike begins.

The hike: The crown jewel of Tennessee’s state park system, Fall Creek Falls State Park is the largest and most visited state park in Tennessee.  Originally operated by the National Park Service, the park’s origins date to 1937 when the federal government began buying up badly eroded farm land around Fall Creek Falls.  In 1938, the depression-era Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps began stabilizing the soil and building park facilities.  The National Park Service transferred the park to the State of Tennessee in 1944.
            True to its crown jewel status, Fall Creek Falls State Park offers nearly every amenity imaginable.  Those activities include fishing, swimming, and boating on Fall Creek Lake, 222 campsites spread among 5 camping areas, 6 cabins, an inn, a golf course, and 56 miles of hiking trails.  Yet the park’s main attractions remain its 3 major waterfalls, all of which can be easily seen even without doing any real hiking.  I have actually come here three times (in May 1998, November 2001, and October 2018), but I only did significant hiking on my most recent visit.  Nevertheless, I had a great day here all three times.
The park offers two long hiking trails: the 12 mile Lower Loop that visits the area below Fall Creek Falls and the 13 mile Upper Loop that explores the upland area above the falls.  If these options sound too long for a comfortable day hike, the park offers many shorter trails as well.  The hike described here may be the park’s best short hike, as it takes you to two of the major waterfalls and passes several other scenic overlooks along the way.  Be warned that this hike and the entire park are very popular, so I recommend planning a weekday or off-season visit to Fall Creek Falls State Park to avoid congestion on the park’s trails and roads.
            The hike starts by crossing the suspension bridge behind the Nature Center, but before you cross the bridge look to the right for the Nature Center’s overlook of Cane Creek Falls.  At this ledge-type waterfall, water in Cane Creek falls 85 feet in a single drop.  This waterfall would be the featured waterfall in most parks, but at Fall Creek Falls it is only a warm-up act.
Temporary trailhead
            To complicate matters slightly, when I came here in October 2018 the Nature Center was closed for renovation, so I had to start at a temporary trailhead to the left, descend steeply to Cane Creek, and then climb steeply to reach the east end of the suspension bridge.  If the Nature Center construction is finished when you arrive, you will be able to walk out the back door of the Nature Center and immediately reach the suspension bridge’s east end.  The suspension bridge has a wooden deck suspended from steel cables, and it sways enough to give someone with a fear of heights such as myself a white-knuckled crossing.  The bridge’s location just upstream from Cane Creek Falls makes the bridge look higher than it is.
Suspension bridge
            After crossing the bridge, you pass another nice view of Cane Creek Falls before climbing some concrete steps to reach a trail intersection.  The option going left leads to Loop C of the park’s campground, so you want to angle right to head for Fall Creek Falls.  The trail climbs at a moderate rate via two switchbacks to reach another signed trail intersection at 0.25 miles.  This intersection forms the loop portion of this hike.  To get to the overlooks quickly, this description turns right here to begin the Overlook Trail and uses the Woodland Trail going left as our eventual return route.
            The trail descends gradually to reach the first of three spur trails that exit right to overlooks.  Each of the spur trails are rocky and steep, but they all lead to interesting views.  This spur leads to another nice view of Cane Creek Falls, but this angle also allows you to see another tall but low-volume waterfall and the Nature Center overlook you stood at a few minutes ago across the gulf.  Only a wire cable keeps you back from the sheer cliff edge here, so be careful where you step at this overlook.
Cane Creek Falls; Nature Center overlook across gorge
            Back on the main loop, the wide dirt trail climbs gradually and curves left to reach the second spur trail.  The second spur trail descends slightly to reach a rocky outcrop, but trees blocked any view on my visit.  Continuing around the loop brings you to the third and final spur trail, the one leading to Rocky Point Overlook.  This overlook is a nice north-facing viewpoint of narrow and rocky Cane Creek Gulf, which at this point is nearly 300 feet deep.  Take a few minutes and enjoy the rocky scenery this overlook has to offer.
Rocky Point Overlook
            Keep going around the main loop until, 1.2 miles into the hike, the Woodland Trail exits left to continue the loop.  We will go that way eventually, but to also visit Fall Creek Falls, continue straight for now.  The trail dips to cross two tributaries of Fall Creek, one of which has very high iron content, then reaches an overlook of the gulf into which Fall Creek flows.  The signed Lower Loop exits left near this point.
            At 1.5 miles, you reach the park’s signature overlook of Fall Creek Falls.  At a height of 256 feet, Fall Creek Falls has the tallest single drop of any waterfall east of the Rocky Mountains.  Although the park’s Fall Creek Lake is located less than 1 mile upstream, Fall Creek’s water volume varies greatly by season.  This waterfall was very impressive when I came here in May 1998, but it will be barely a trickle during a drought.  Time your visit accordingly.  A long bench makes a great place to sit, but the large parking lot a couple hundred feet behind you ensures that you will not be alone at this overlook.
Fall Creek Falls in May 1998

Fall Creek Falls in October 2018
            If you are getting tired or running out of time, this overlook is a good place to turn around and head back to the Nature Center.  For people with the time and energy, the 0.4 mile one way Base of the Falls Trail leads to its namesake location, which is a very scenic spot with a great view of Fall Creek Falls and the surrounding rock walls.  This trail is steeper and rockier than any trail you have hiked so far, but it is manageable for people in decent physical condition if you take your time.
The rocky Base of the Falls Trail
            The Base of the Falls Trail departs the left (north) side of the overlook at a signed trailhead.  After heading down some wooden waterbars, the trail surface becomes rocky as the descent begins in earnest.  Numerous scenic rock outcrops stand beside the trail, and although some people were climbing them on my visit, such an endeavor is too risky for my taste.
Descending past a rock outcrop
            After descending three switchbacks and a single-flight wooden staircase, the sound of rushing Cane Creek comes within earshot on the left.  The trail passes under a large rock shelter where some boulders will have to be scrambled over just before you reach the trail’s end at the base of Fall Creek Falls.  The plunge pool is surprisingly small given the waterfall’s size, but the imposing vertical rock walls make this place special.
Base of Fall Creek Falls
            The trail ends at the base of the falls, so next comes the arduous task of climbing back up to the Fall Creek Falls overlook at 2.3 miles.  Upon reaching the overlook, continue retracing your steps to where the Woodland and Overlook Trails split to form the loop portion of this hike.  Turn right to begin the Woodland Trail and continue the loop you left earlier.
Hiking the Woodland Trail
            True to its name, the wide dirt Woodland Trail offers only a hike through nice oak forest with no waterfalls or overlooks to distract you.  Thus, what this trail lacks in scenery it makes up for in ease.  After climbing gradually to top the ridge and reach the highest elevation on this hike, the Turkey Pen Ridge Trail exits right to head for the park’s campground.  A short gradual descent closes the loop.  Continue straight and re-cross the suspension bridge to return to the Nature Center and complete the hike.  If you are up for more hiking while you are here, the 2.5 mile Paw Paw Trail offers a nice but somewhat uneventful loop north of the Nature Center, while the asphalt Lake and Piney Falls Trails connect the park’s inn with Piney Creek Falls, the third major waterfall at Fall Creek Falls State Park.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Cherokee National Forest, Chilhowee Recreation Area: Benton Falls Trail (Blog Hike #722)

Trail: Benton Falls Trail
Hike Location: Cherokee National Forest, Chilhowee Recreation Area
Geographic Location: east of Cleveland, TN
Length: 3 miles
Difficulty: 3/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: October 2018
Overview: A mostly flat out-and-back with one steep area to scenic Benton Falls.

Directions to the trailhead: From the intersection of US 64 and US 411 east of Cleveland, take US 64 east 7.5 miles to Oswald Road (FR 77) and the signed turn-off for Benton Falls Trailhead.  Turn left on Oswald Rd.  Drive narrow, winding, and steep but paved Oswald Rd. 7.3 miles to the signed entrance for Chilhowee Recreation Area on the right, passing several roadside overlooks on the way.  Turn right to enter the Recreation Area, and park in any of the day-use parking lots.

The hike: Rising 1200 feet above the eastern edge of Tennessee’s Great Valley, the Chilhowee Mountain east of Cleveland (not to be confused with the more famous Chilhowee Mountain near Great Smoky Mountains National Park) stretches for 12 miles between the Ocoee River and the Hiawassee River.  The name Chilhowee comes from an 18th century Cherokee Indian village that was located in this area.  The mountain’s location on the edge of the Great Valley means that the views from this ridge are fantastic, and the drive to this trailhead passes four roadside overlooks that offer excellent views.
            The former Cherokee village also lends its name to Cherokee National Forest’s Chilhowee Recreation Area, a somewhat remote but popular area accessible only by driving 7 miles of narrow, winding road.  The recreation area features small man-made McKamy Lake with its swimming beach and a 70-site developed campground.  The campground is only open April through October, but the day-use area is open year-round.  Also, Chilhowee Recreation Area offers 25 miles of hiking/biking trails, and the most popular destination in Chilhowee’s trail system, 65-foot Benton Falls, is also the destination of this hike.  Although I did this hike as an out-and-back, some reasonable loop options are suggested at the end of this trail description.
Trailhead for Benton Falls Trail
            Many trails start at the day-use parking lots, so the first and only real route-finding challenge is getting on the Benton Falls Trail (Cherokee National Forest Trail #131).  From the parking lot closest to the swimming area’s bath house, the signed gravel trail heads southwest with the bath house to your right.  After crossing the dam that forms McKamy Lake, turn left to begin the wide old dirt road that you will follow most of the way to Benton Falls.  The first of the Benton Falls Trail’s blue i-shaped paint blazes is located here.
McKamy Lake
            The wide dirt trail descends gradually as it traces around the north end of a small knob.  A few areas with high erosion increase the difficulty slightly, but overall the old road makes for easy going.  The road-like trail also makes the scenery less than ideal, so although Benton Falls is a scenic destination, the hike to get there is not particularly inspiring.
Hiking on the old road
Where signed narrower trails exit right or left, stay on the wider Benton Falls Trail.  Be thankful for the new metal trail signs that have been installed here; the old small wooden posts are in poor shape and hard to read, as you will see if you happen to notice one.  Oak and tulip poplar trees dominate the broadleaf forest, though a few pockets of pines grow beside the trail.
            At 1.2 miles, the trail curves right as cascading Franklin Spring Branch comes within earshot from deep in the ravine to the left.  After paralleling the branch for 0.2 miles, you reach the signed turnoff for Benton Falls.  Turn sharply left to leave the wide old road and begin the descent to the falls.
Descending toward Benton Falls
            The final 0.1 miles drop more than 80 vertical feet via two switchbacks and some wooden and stone steps.  The steps are of excellent construction and appear to be less than 10 years old.  Just past 1.5 miles, you reach the trail’s end at the base of Benton Falls.  With sufficient water the falls are attractive both visually and audibly, as Franklin Spring Branch cascades for 65 feet over numerous tightly-spaced rock ledges.  Some rocks at the base of the falls make for nice places to sit and enjoy the environment.
Benton Falls
            After you climb back up to the old road, several options present themselves to get back to the trailhead.  If you continue south (left) on the old road, you can turn right on the Slick Rock Trail (designed by mountain bikers for mountain bikers but also open to hikers) to form a loop of nearly 4 miles that ends back at McKamy Lake’s dam.  Alternatively, if you head back on the Benton Falls Trail, you can turn right on the signed Redleaf Trail, left on the Arbutus Trail, and then left on the Elderberry Trail to take a more eastern route back to the trailhead of about 3.5 miles.  I came here late in the afternoon, so I took the shortest route by retracing my steps on the Benton Falls Trail in order to make sure I finished my hike before sunset, which I did.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Uwharrie National Forest: Badin Lake Trail (Blog Hike #721)

Trail: Badin Lake Trail
Hike Location: Uwharrie National Forest, Kings Mountain Point Day Use Area
Geographic Location: northwest of Troy, NC
Length: 5.1 miles
Difficulty: 5/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: September 2018
Overview: A rolling loop hike offering good Badin Lake views.

Directions to the trailhead: From the town of Troy, take SR 109 northwest 10.7 miles to Mullinix Road and the signed turn-off for Badin Lake Recreation Area.  Turn left on Mullinix Rd.  At the next intersection, turn right.  3.3 miles from SR 109, the asphalt ends at a T-intersection.  Turn right onto the good gravel road, then in 0.2 miles turn left to head for Kings Mountain Point.  You reach the Kings Mountain Point Day Use Area where this hike begins 1.2 miles later.

The hike: Standing in a 50 mile north-south line across central North Carolina, the Uwharrie Mountains are thought to be some of the oldest mountains on earth.  Geologists think that the mountains formed by accretion along the ancient Gondwanan tectonic plate, and they think that the Uwharries once reached more than 20,000 feet in elevation.  Yet many millennia of erosion have reduced them to their present rather unimpressive size.  On point, the Uwharrie’s high point, High Rock Mountain, stands at a mere 1188 feet above sea level.
            The Uwharrie Mountains’ namesake national forest was created by a declaration from President Kennedy in 1961, thus making Uwharrie National Forest the newest of North Carolina’s four national forests.  Consisting of only 51,218 acres, Uwharrie National Forest is also the smallest of North Carolina’s four national forests.  When the national forest was created, the land had been completely cleared for farming and timber harvesting, but today the forests have returned.  Thus, the national forest is a nice destination for outdoor enthusiasts.
            Uwharrie National Forest’s most famous trail is the 20 mile one-way Uwharrie National Recreation Trail, which is an excellent route for backpackers but too long for good dayhiking.  Thus, the forest’s best dayhiking loop is the Badin Lake Trail described here.  Built by the Youth Conservation Corps in 1979 and 1980, the Badin Lake Trail spends more than half of its distance along the shore of its namesake lake, so aquatic vistas abound as you hike around this mildly popular flat to rolling loop.
Exiting day use area, heading south
            The Badin Lake Trail, Uwharrie National Forest Trail #94, forms a true loop, so it leaves both the north and south ends of the parking area near where the road enters the parking area.  This description goes around the loop counterclockwise by heading southbound with the lake on your right.  Two brown carsonite posts and a wooden post mark where the trail enters the woods.
            The trail stays right beside the lake as it passes around the first of several inlets.  The forest here features large numbers of beech and oak trees with a few old pine trees, and large amounts of holly in the understory scraped against my legs as I hiked.  The terrain along the lake shore is very flat, but the many roots and quartz rocks in the trail may make your progress slower than you would expect.  The trail is marked with a copious number of white rectangular paint blazes, so it is hard to lose the trail.
Follow the white blazes
            At 0.6 miles, the trail curves left to briefly head away from the lake and bypass the Badin Lake Campground.  In addition to two official campgrounds, you will pass numerous established primitive campsites with fire rings along the lake shore.  After crossing the gravel Badin Lake Campground access road, the trail heads back to the lake shore.  Badin Lake views abound on this section of trail, and the forested opposite lake shore gives the area a secluded feel.  On the muggy Sunday afternoon I hiked this trail I saw several aquatic fowl on the lake including a heron and two egrets.  A large black snake also slithered across the trail in front of me toward the water.
Badin Lake vista
            As I passed around the next two inlets, I had to negotiate several fallen trees that blocked the trail.  Also, I found some horse manure on this section of trail even though this trail is designated by the national forest as hiker-only.  Overall, the trail maintenance is quite good for a national forest trail.  A woodpecker announced its presence in this area by pecking on a tree to my left.
Wooden waterbars exiting Cove Boat Ramp area
            Next the trail heads up a long narrow inlet, and at 1.8 miles you reach the blacktop parking area for the national forest’s Cove Boat Ramp.  Curve left to start heading uphill through the parking area, and look for the wooden waterbars and white paint blaze that mark where the trail reenters the woods.  After a brief steep climb that gains about 50 feet of elevation, you intersect a blacktop trail that circles the national forest’s Arrowhead Campground.  Angle right on the blacktop trail to begin hiking counterclockwise on the campground nature trail.
            Stay with the paved trail as it crosses the campground access road and curves left.  At 2.1 miles, you need to turn right to leave the pavement and continue the Badin Lake Trail.  There are trail markers in this area, but you need to look for them or risk missing this turn.  Now back on a single track dirt trail, the trail continues climbing on a moderate grade to reach the highest point on this hike: a small unnamed knob that stands about 140 feet above the lake.
Crossing a horse trail
            Continuing a northward ridgetop course, in quick succession you cross a horse trail twice.  Horses straying from this trail are the likely source of the horse manure I saw earlier in the hike.  After skirting another knob, the trail descends slightly to cross the gravel entrance road you drove in on at 2.9 miles.
Hiking along Badin Lake
            Still heading north, the trail descends somewhat steeply to enter a ravine that will eventually take you back to Badin Lake.  Pass a private recreation area signed “no trespassing” across the creek to the right and then pass under a power line.  Soon you reach the lake shore at a long narrow inlet that features some private residences on the opposite bank.  Some interesting rock outcrops are passed in this area, as are additional primitive campsites.
Badin Lake view from atop rock outcrop
            At 4.4 miles, you round the tip of the peninsula and begin heading south with Badin Lake proper on your right.  Just when you think you might have a flat easy lakeshore jaunt back to the trailhead, the trail curves left and heads directly up the slope around what appears to be a landslide area.  A gradual descent brings you to the top of a rock outcrop that gives your last nice Badin Lake view, this one from 50 feet above the lake.  More gradual descending takes you around a final lake inlet and returns you to the Kings Mountain Point Day Use Area to complete the hike.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Shallow Ford Natural Area: Shallow Ford Loop Trail (Blog Hike #720)

Trails: Basin Creek, Hidden Hill, Shallow Ford, and Homestead Trails
Hike Location: Shallow Ford Natural Area
Geographic Location: northwest of Burlington, NC
Length: 3.3 miles
Difficulty: 4/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: September 2018
Overview: A rolling lollipop loop partly along the Haw River.

Directions to the trailhead: Between Greensboro and Durham, take I-40/85 to the Elon exit and University Drive (exit 140).  Exit and go north on University Drive.  Take University Dr. 3.8 miles to Shallowford Church Road and turn left on Shallowford Church Rd.  Drive Shallowford Church Rd. north 1.6 miles to SR 87 and turn left on SR 87.  Drive SR 87 north 1.6 miles to Gerringer Mill Road and turn right on Gerringer Mill Rd.  Each of these turns has a traffic light.  The signed Natural Area entrance is 0.7 miles ahead on the left.  Park in the gravel natural area parking lot, taking care not to block the boat trailer parking area on the left as you enter.

The hike: In the days before strips of asphalt and concrete/steel bridges criss-crossed the land, major waterways such as the Haw River formed major barriers to land travel.  During normal water flow, major rivers could only be crossed at points where the water was sufficiently shallow to allow safe crossing.  Such points were known as fords or shallow fords, and one shallow ford on the Haw River is located at the present-day Shallow Ford Natural Area.
            Owned and maintained by Alamance County, Shallow Ford Natural Area consists of 190 acres on the Haw River’s east bank just upstream from the Town of Elon.  True to its natural area name, the site is light on amenities, with hiking, paddling on the Haw River, and picnicking in a small picnic area being the only recreation options.  For hikers, the area offers three main loop trails totaling nearly 5 miles.  Combining parts of these loops forms a route commonly known as the Shallow Ford Loop Trail, which is the route described here.
Kiosks at trailhead
            Start at the pair of information kiosks that marks the trailhead for all of the area’s trails.  Gravel at first, the Basin Creek Trail serves as the entrance trail as it crosses a small stream on a wooden footbridge.  Trails are well-blazed with color-coded plastic diamonds bearing black arrows, and intersections are marked with low wooden posts bearing trail names.  As you climb a gradual slope via a single switchback, the orange-blazed Basin Creek Trail splits to form its loop.  You may not notice the trail split because it is not well-signed.  Keep following signs that read “all trails.”
            The trail rolls over some gentle hills to reach a wooden prairie overlook platform at 0.2 miles.  This platform looks east over the prairie, the grass of which had recently been cut on my visit.  This spot would be a great place to see deer early in the morning or late in the evening.
Peering into the prairie
            The trail briefly enters the prairie and passes a second wooden platform before curving left to reenter the woods on the same side.  After a brief descent, you reach the bank of a small stream and a trail intersection at 0.3 miles.  If you only wanted a short hike of 0.75 miles, you could continue straight on the Basin Creek Trail.  The Shallow Ford Loop turns right on the Hidden Hill Trail to cross the stream on a wooden bridge that was newly constructed when I crossed it.
Starting the Hidden Hill Trail
            Marked with yellow plastic diamonds bearing black arrows, the Hidden Hill Trail quickly splits to form its loop.  Angle right to begin hiking the loop counterclockwise.  The trail climbs on a gradual to moderate grade to pass through a power line easement at 0.5 miles.  Although this hike has a decent bit of up-and-down, the difference between maximum and minimum elevations is only a little more than 100 vertical feet.
Passing under the power lines
            The trail tops a low ridge that is the highest elevation of this hike before making a big loop around and then through the ravine on the other side.  The Hidden Hill Trail’s route winds so much that it feels like a mountain bike trail even though the trails at Shallow Ford Natural Area are only open to hikers.  This area features nice forest with some mature beech trees.
Beech tree on Hidden Hill Trail
            After descending more steeply than you might expect for eastern North Carolina, you reach the bank of Plum Creek at 1.3 miles.  Rather than crossing the creek, the trail climbs slightly to pass back under the power lines at 1.5 miles.  Just after passing under the power lines, you reach another trail intersection marked by a wooden post.  The yellow-blazed Hidden Hill Trail continues straight, but you need to turn right on a green-blazed trail to continue the Shallow Ford Loop Trail.
Bridge over Basin Creek
            The trail crosses Basin Creek just below its confluence with Plum Creek on a nice wooden footbridge with handrails before passing over a wet area on a short boardwalk.  At the north end of the boardwalk, the trail climbs gradually and curves left as it enters younger forest that contains some dying red cedar trees.  The Mountains-to-Sea Trail will eventually enter from the right in this area on its 1175 mile course across the entire state of North Carolina, but this section of the cross-state trail is not complete yet.
            Just shy of 2 miles, the green-blazed trail ends at a signed junction with the blue-blazed Homestead Trail, which goes right and left.  The Shallow Ford Loop Trail turns right here, but first take a brief detour to the left to see the old homestead for which this trail is named.  Dating to the early 1800’s, this homestead was the home of Michael and Hannah Tickle, but all that remains today are a rock chimney, a well, and a root-cellar.
Haw River
            Back on the main loop, the trail heads west and descends slightly to reach the east bank of the Haw River.  A heron went flying over the river just as I reached this point.  The trail curves left to begin heading downstream beside the deep slow-flowing river.  Spur trails exit left to the primitive campground and right to the riverside camping paddle access.  The river frequently overflows in this area, so bugs will be terrible here during the warm months due to the wetness.
            At 2.4 miles, the trail curves left to gradually climb away from the river.  An emergency access road that passes through this area may look like a trail, so watch for the blue plastic diamonds with black arrows to stay on the official trail.  A gradual descent brings you to the bank of Basin Creek near the site of the original grist mill that was built in this area in the early 1800’s.
Hiking along Basin Creek
            The Homestead Trail crosses Basin Creek on another nice wooden footbridge with handrails before ending at a junction with the Basin Creek Trail.  Turn right to begin the final segment of this hike.  The Basin Creek Trail heads south with its namesake creek on the right.  At 3.1 miles, the trail curves left to climb steeply away from the creek but only for a short distance.  After crossing the emergency access road, you close the loop.  A short walk out the common entrance trail returns you to the parking lot to complete the hike.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Anita Purves Nature Center and Busey Woods (Blog Hike #719)

Trails: (unnamed)
Hike Location: Anita Purves Nature Center and Busey Woods
Geographic Location: east side of Urbana, IL
Length: 1.2 miles
Difficulty: 1/10 (Easy)
Last Hiked: August 2018
Overview: A double loop through mature wet woodlands.

Directions to the trailhead: On the east side of Urbana, take I-74 to US 45 (exit 184).  Exit and go south on US 45.  Drive US 45 south 0.4 miles to Country Club Lane (the second traffic light south of the I-74 interchange) and turn right on Country Club Ln.  Drive Country Club Ln. west 0.4 miles to Broadway Avenue and turn left on Broadway Ave.  The signed entrance for Crystal Park and the Anita Purves Nature Center is 0.1 miles ahead on the right.  Park in the large paved parking lot between the Nature Center and the swimming area.

The hike: Owned and maintained by the City of Urbana, Anita Purves Nature Center and adjoining Busey Woods comprise a 59-acre island of green on the very developed east side of Urbana.  The park was created in the 1960’s when the University of Illinois purchased the woodlands to save them from commercial development.  The Urbana Park District purchased the land in 1991.
            Busey Woods offers only some trails for amenities, but Anita Purves Nature Center offers educational programs, a playground, and the Audubon Nature Shop.  Also, the Crystal Lake Park Family Aquatic Center, a city-owned and operated pool, is located to the south across the parking lot.  Yet the main attraction at this park is the trail system, which features a 0.3 mile boardwalk loop through a swamp forest.  The hike described here makes the most of the boardwalk while also exploring the dirt trails by taking a figure-eight route through the small suburban woodland.
Gateway Trail
            The trail system’s entrance/gateway trail starts at the west side of the Nature Center as a concrete path, but soon the wooden boardwalk begins.  The boardwalk crosses a man-made ditch via a wooden suspension bridge before splitting to form its loop.  Turn right to begin hiking the loop counterclockwise.
            The boardwalk stays close to Country Club Lane on the right with first Urbana Country Club and then Woodlawn Cemetery in view across the road.  Several cars zoomed by on this road when I hiked this trail.  The boardwalk curves left twice as it passes several wide spots featuring interpretive signs that describe the periodically wet swamp forest.  The forest contains some large oak trees, quite a few maple trees, and a few shagbark hickories.
Interpretive station on boardwalk
            Ignore the first dirt trail that exits right, but when you reach a power line clearing, turn right to leave the boardwalk and begin hiking west near the power line.  Power line easements do not make for the most scenic hiking, but this one is fairly grown-in with a lot of shrubby greenery.  After climbing slightly, turn right to leave the power line easement at 0.6 miles.  The trails are poorly marked and rather confusing here.  If you reach CR 1700N on the power line easement, you have missed this turn.  In that case, your best option may be to turn right and walk along the road several hundred feet to a vehicle gate on the right.
Hiking under the power line
            Soon you reach said vehicle gate on CR 1700N, where the trail curves right to begin paralleling the county road.  As you approach the northwest corner of the property, the trail curves right and descends via a well-constructed set of steps with wooden handrails.  Now on an eastward course, the somewhat narrow trail passes the swamp forest’s wettest area on the right.  Despite the wet nature of this land, I did not have any problems with mud when I hiked here on a humid morning in early August.
Wet area in swamp forest
            Just past 0.9 miles, you return to the boardwalk.  Turn right to continue heading counterclockwise around the boardwalk.  When you reach the power line again, turn left this time to stay on the boardwalk.  Soon you close the boardwalk’s loop, and continuing straight will return you to the Nature Center and complete the hike.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Wildcat Mountain State Park: Old Settlers Trail and Overlooks (Blog Hike #718)

Trails: Old Settler’s and Observation Point Trails
Hike Location: Wildcat Mountain State Park
Geographic Location: south of Tomah, WI
Length: 2.5 miles
Difficulty: 6/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: August 2018
Overview: A loop hike past rock outcrops and several mountaintop overlooks.

Directions to the trailhead: Near Tomah, take I-90 to SR 131 (exit 41).  Exit and go south on SR 131.  Drive SR 131 south 20.2 miles to SR 33 in the town of Ontario.  Turn left on SR 33.  Drive SR 33 east 2.6 miles to the park entrance on the left.  Turn sharply left to enter the park, then pay the park entrance fee at the park office.  Park in the parking lot behind (north of) the park office.

The hike: Occupying a 24,000 square mile oval shaped region in southwest Wisconsin, southeast Minnesota, northwest Illinois, and northeast Iowa, the Driftless Area represents an island of hills surrounded by an ocean of flat plains.  The hills exist because, unlike the surrounding plains, the Driftless Area was never flattened by glaciers during the last Ice Age.  The absence of glaciers means an absence of dirt/rock glacial deposits or drift, hence the area’s name.  Hiking in the Driftless Area more closely resembles hiking in other non-glaciated areas such as southern Ohio or eastern Kentucky than it does hiking in Wisconsin, and the steep hills and interesting rock outcrops make for excellent scenery.
            Located less than 20 miles into the Driftless Area, 3643-acre Wildcat Mountain State Park owes its existence to Amos Saunders and Vernon County, who donated 20 and 60 acre tracts of land respectively to establish the park in 1948.  The park and mountain got their name in the 1800’s when local farmers killed a livestock-killing bobcat (also called a wildcat) near what is now the park’s main overlook.  The lumber industry also operated here during the 1800’s, and for 25-30 years logs were floated down the Kickapoo River, which flows through the present-day park’s western section.
            Today rafts float down the river instead of logs, and Wildcat Mountain State Park is a major state park that offers many forms of recreation.  The park has several campgrounds: a 25-site developed campground, 20 cart-in campsites, 3 group campgrounds, a horse campground, and a canoe campground.  Most of the park’s trails are open to horses, but the park does offer some hiker-only trails, the longest of which is a 2.2 mile loop called the Old Settler’s Trail.  Combining one arm of the Old Settler’s Trail with some nature trails that pass the park’s main overlooks allows you to sample both the park’s frontcountry and backcountry scenery.  Such is the hike described here.
Access trail for cart-in campground
            This hike’s first objective is to reach the park’s amphitheater and the nearby trailhead for the Old Settler’s Trail.  From the east side of the park office, start on the wide gravel cart-in campground trail as it heads downhill through a prairie.  Where the trail splits to access the various campsites, you can go either way: both options lead northeast to the amphitheater with the left trail taking a more level route than the right one.  The cart-in campsites are rather popular: all of them had been reserved on the warm Friday morning in early August that I hiked here.
            At 0.3 miles, you come out at the park road with a parking lot and restroom building to your left.  Turn right and walk along the park road past some park maintenance buildings.  When you reach another parking lot, look to the left for a large wooden sign that reads “Amphitheater; Old Settlers Hiking Trail; Taylor Hollow Over Look.”  Turn left and enter the forest on a single-track dirt/gravel trail.
View behind amphitheater
            Soon you reach the park amphitheater, which features a nice north-facing overlook behind its stage.  Continue east past the amphitheater, then angle left to follow signs for Taylor Hollow Overlook.  Ignore the south arm of the Old Settler’s Trail as it exits left.  At 0.7 miles, you reach Taylor Hollow Overlook.  This overlook features a nice bench and a split-log railing, but the north-facing view was very obstructed by greenery on my visit.
Taylor Hollow Overlook
            The trail exits the overlook to the right and descends on a steep grade via two switchbacks.  A tall sandstone outcrop on the left reminded me of similar outcrops I had passed on hikes in southern Kentucky years before.  At 0.9 miles, the trail curves left where an unofficial trail exits right.  A wooden post with metal arrows seemed to do a good job of marking this turn in my view, but another pair of hikers had managed to miss it just before I got there.
Rock outcrop below Taylor Hollow Overlook
            The trail continues descending on a more gradual grade before entering a pine planting.  An interpretive sign tells you that these pines were planted in 1951, and they allow in a lot of sunlight to create a dense brushy understory.  Some young maple trees also live down here.  At 1.1 miles, you cross a wooden footbridge over a small stream.  This stream marks the lowest elevation of this hike, and it sits roughly 300 vertical feet below the trailhead.
Crossing the stream
            The Old Settler’s Trail rolls over a low finger ridge before curving left to begin the climb back up to the trailhead in earnest.  Soon you exit the pine planting and re-enter the oak forest that dominates Wildcat Mountain’s summit area.  The large number of broadleaf trees on Wildcat Mountain and on neighboring ridges make this hike excellent for fall leaf-peeping in early October.  1.7 miles into the hike, noise from SR 33 can be heard from the right as the south arm of the Old Settler’s Trail exits left.  Continue straight to leave the Old Settler’s Trail loop and head for the upper picnic area.
            The trail climbs on a steep grade over some wooden waterbars to reach the parking lot for the upper picnic area at 1.85 miles.  Angle right to walk through the picnic area and reach the first truly exceptional view.  The Kickapoo River valley, dotted by several farms, lies in the foreground, and wooded ridges form a nice backdrop to the west.  This viewpoint makes a nice place to sit and rest now that the hardest hiking is complete.
Upper Picnic Area overlook view
            After admiring the view, hike along the right side of the picnic area, following some brown carsonite posts to Observation Point.  Facing southwest, Observation Point is Wildcat Mountain’s most famous viewpoint, although it is hard to pick one viewpoint as the park’s best.  Exit the southeast side of Observation Point by taking a dirt trail marked as leading to the Prairie Overlook and the Family Camp.
View from Observation  Point

Hiking the Prairie Trail
            The level dirt trail soon passes the Prairie Overlook, another mountaintop viewpoint that was somewhat obscured by vegetation on my visit.  Next you hike through the small restored prairie to reach the entrance to the family campground.  Angle left to walk the park road back to the park office, where your car awaits.  If you want to do some more hiking at Wildcat Mountain State Park, the 1.3 mile hiker-only Hemlock Trail starts at the Lower Picnic Area along the Kickapoo River.  Though shorter than the Old Settler’s Trail, the Hemlock Trail climbs to some nice overlooks located atop a small hill called Mount Pisgah, so it is kind of a shorter version of this hike with a riverside start to boot.