Monday, December 31, 2018

Closing Out My 20th Year on the Trail

I still have 2 more hikes to post from my Christmas Break Okefenokee hiking trip, but the turning of the calendar says it is time for my annual summary and reflection post.  As I mentioned this time last year, 2018 marked my 20th year on the trail and my 20th year of writing trail descriptions.  Overall, I had a fantastic time on the trail in 2018: I did 57 new hikes totaling 171.5 miles.  Neither of those numbers are records, but they are both good numbers.  The hikes came across 13 states plus Canada, and they included 2 new states: North Dakota and Montana.  I now have only 7 more states to go to reach all 50 states.

I have another full slate of hiking trips planned for 2019, and they include trips to Mississippi, northwest Louisiana, northern/western Illinois, and coastal Maine (for what may be my final hiking trip to New England: the hiking up there is good, but that part of the country does not agree with my southern/midwestern roots).  If there is a theme to my hiking trips for 2019, it would be under-the-radar hiking destinations.  There are no Glacier National Parks on the agenda for this year, or at least so it seems.  Of course, you never quite know how the year will go: this time last year I was not planning a trip to Wisconsin, yet I ended up spending 6 days and doing 8 hikes there.

Thank you to everyone for taking a few minutes a few times per year to read about my hikes.  Happy new year, and see you on the trail in 2019!

David, aka the Mathprofhiker

Friday, December 28, 2018

Stephen C. Foster State Park: Boardwalk Trail (Blog Hike #727)

Trail: Boardwalk Trail
Hike Location: Stephen C. Foster State Park
Geographic Location: southeast of Homerville, GA (30.82643, -82.36186)
Length: 1.1 miles
Difficulty: 0/10 (Easy)
Last Hiked: December 2018
Overview: A short boardwalk through cypress and black gum forest.

Directions to the trailhead: From Fargo, GA, take SR 177 north 17 miles to the road’s end at the state park office and trading post.  Park in the blacktop lot near the park office.

The hike: For my general comments on the Okefenokee Swamp, see the previous hike.  This hike features Okefenokee’s west portal, which lies in Stephen C. Foster State Park.  Stephen C. Foster State Park is named for the American songwriter who wrote such famous songs as “Oh Susanna,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” and “Camptown Races.”  Interestingly, Foster himself seems to have had no connection to this area other than the famous song he wrote about the Suwanee River, which originates in the Okefenokee Swamp and flows just west of this park.  That song, officially titled “Old Folks at Home,” is the official state song of Florida.
The park is most famous as a canoeing and astronomy destination.  In fact, Stephen C. Foster State Park has been recognized by the International Dark Sky Association as a “Dark Sky Park,” and it is the only park in Georgia to earn this designation.  Come here during a new moon in the summer for the best viewing of the Milky Way galaxy.  In terms of hiking, the park features a boardwalk and a natural-surface loop trail through piney woods, but on my visit the natural-surface trail was underwater due to recent heavy rain.  Thus, I hiked the park’s only passable trail, the short boardwalk trail.
Trailhead near park office
            The trailhead is marked by a brown sign saying “Trembling Earth Nature Trail” that is located on the concrete sidewalk north of the park office.  As an aside, if you picture a swamp outpost complete with mosquito netting around all of its doors and windows and a plethora of boats outside docked in shallow water, you will have the park office pictured perfectly.  The name Okefenokee is an American Indian word that is often translated “land of trembling earth,” a reference to the instability of the swamp’s peat floor.  In fact, a more accurate translation is probably “bubbling water.”
            Soon after the wooden boardwalk begins, the boardwalk forks.  We will eventually angle right to continue the loop, but for now turn left to hike the boardwalk’s main spur.  The boardwalk spur heads west through black gum and cypress forest that remains underwater for much of the year.  Some gaps in the trees allow you to look for wildlife.  Although the park brochure mentions 223 species of birds and other creatures found in the park, things were very still on the afternoon I walked this boardwalk.  I saw more alligators and deer near the park office than I did on the trail.
Hiking the boardwalk spur
            The boardwalk spur used to extend 2100 feet into the swamp, but the western-most third of the boardwalk was destroyed by a wildfire a few years ago.  Construction materials were in place to rebuild the boardwalk on my visit, but right now it ends unceremoniously in the middle of the wetland.  Turn around and retrace your steps to the boardwalk fork, then turn left to continue the loop.
View over more open water
            Back on the loop, the boardwalk curves to the right as it stays in a relatively wet area.  Interpretive signs help you identify common trees in the swamp, and some numbered markers suggest the existence of an interpretive guide even though none were available at the park office.  Shortly after passing a wooden pavilion with benches, you close the loop.  Walk the concrete trail around the boat basin to return to the park office and complete the hike.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge: Chesser Island Trails (Blog Hike #726)

Trails: Chesser Island Boardwalk, Deerstand, Chesser Homestead, and Ridleys Island Trails
Hike Location: Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge
Geographic Location: southwest of Folkston, GA (30.71202, -82.16204)
Length: 3.3 miles
Difficulty: 3/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: December 2018
Overview: A double out-and-back with short loop featuring a bog observation tower and the historic Chesser Homestead.

Directions to the trailhead: From Folkston, take SR 23 south 7 miles to the signed entrance for Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge on the right.  Turn right and drive the refuge entrance road to the Visitor Center, where you will need to pay a small entrance fee.  Then drive the Swamp Island Drive to the blacktop parking lot for Chesser Island Boardwalk (stop #12 on the scenic drive).  Park here.

The hike: At first glance the 438,000 acre Okefenokee Swamp of southeast Georgia looks a lot like the Everglades swamp of south Florida, but first glances can be deceiving.  For one, the Okefenokee Swamp is technically not a swamp but a peat bog, or a wetland formed by the accumulation of peat over a long period of time, about 6500 years in this case.  Second, while the Everglades is heavily influenced by its waters mixing with the salt waters of the adjacent Gulf of Mexico, Okefenokee is entirely fresh water.  Indeed, two significant rivers originate in the Okefenokee: the Suwanee River flowing southwest through Florida into the Gulf of Mexico and the St. Mary’s River flowing east through Georgia into the Atlantic Ocean.  Third, Everglades National Park was established in 1947, while Okefenokee did not come under federal protection until Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1974.
            Technicalities aside, a visit to Okefenokee takes you into the largest blackwater “swamp” in North America.  Okefenokee’s center is protected as a wilderness area, and you will need to either rent a canoe or sign up for one of the park’s concession boat tours to access it.  Many people come to Okefenokee in the summer, but if I had any other options I would not come here then due to heat and bugs.  I came down here on my Christmas 2018 hiking trip and had a great visit.
Okefenokee can be accessed through three main portals, one on the east, one on the west, and one on the north.  The swamp’s north portal lies in the private non-profit Okefenokee Swamp Park, but that option’s high admission fee and lack of hiking trails make it undesirable except for tourists.  The swamp’s west portal lies in Stephen C. Foster State Park, and it is featured in the next hike.  The swamp’s east portal, which lies in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge’s Suwanee Recreation Area, contains the area’s best selection of hiking trails.  The refuge offers several short nature trails and the swamp’s longest hiking trail, the 4 mile one-way Longleaf Pine Trail that zig-zags back and forth across the refuge entrance road.  Yet the refuge’s best hiking options lie on Chesser Island, and the route described here combines the swamp’s best boardwalk with its best historic site, thus giving you the best hiking Okefenokee Swamp has to offer.
Trailhead for Chesser Island Boardwalk
From the boardwalk parking lot, head down the concrete path signed as leading to the Chesser Island Boardwalk.  In only a couple hundred feet, the mowed-grass trail leading to the Chesser Homestead exits right.  We will go that way after walking the boardwalk, but for now angle left and soon reach the boardwalk’s start.
At over 3000 feet in length, the Chesser Island Boardwalk is the longest boardwalk at Okefenokee.  This “boardwalk” is actually made of recycled plastic, and several covered pavilions allow you to sit and rest if needed.  Unfortunately, wildlife viewing is not the best until you get to the observation tower at the boardwalk’s end: the swamp’s dense grasses, bushes, and Spanish moss-covered trees ensure you hear more wildlife than you see.  Some pileated woodpeckers were the most noteworthy birds I saw until I got to the observation tower.  Large amounts of yellow butterwort were in bloom beside the boardwalk.
Pavilion on boardwalk
            At 0.7 miles, you reach the observation tower at the boardwalk’s end.  Climbing 48 steps will bring you to the observation platform.  The platform gives 360 degree views over the trees, but the open waters of Seagrove Lake to the west may be the direction of most interest: I saw an egret and an alligator in the pond.  A couple of view finders help magnify far-away birds and wildlife, so take some time to see what you can see.
View north from observation tower

Seagrove Lake, as seen from observation tower
            The boardwalk ends at the observation tower, so next you need to retrace your steps back to the beginning of the boardwalk.  Just before reaching the parking lot, turn left to begin the trail to the Chesser Homestead.  This trail is called the Deerstand Trail though no signs indicate such.  This area is only a foot or so higher in elevation than the boardwalk area, but that foot makes a big difference in this part of the world.  Tall loblolly pines now occupy the canopy, and the understory has a lot of saw palmetto and holly.
Hiking the Deerstand Trail
            At 1.7 miles, you cross a sandy dirt access road just before reaching a trail intersection.  Turning right would lead to the Chesser Homestead parking lot on Swamp Island Drive, so you want to turn left to quickly arrive at the homestead.  Built in 1927 by Tom and Iva Chesser, the homestead comes complete with a house (built from yellow pine and cypress in 21 days), grindstone, corn crib, chicken coop, and a few other buildings, but the first thing to grab your attention may be the white sand yard.  This type of yard was common in this area because it was once the ocean floor, but it also had a purpose: the open area would act as a firebreak in the case of a wildfire (lightning-spawned wildfires are common in Okefenokee), and all of the area’s venomous snakes are easily spotted on the white backdrop.  The Visitor Center offers a nice brochure describing the Chesser Homestead, so pick one up on your way in when you pay the entrance fee.
House at Chesser Homestead
            A 0.5 mile nature trail loop called the Chesser Homestead Trail starts at the southeast corner of the white sand yard.  A wooden sign that says “Homestead Loop” marks this point.  The trail leaves the homestead area and reenters the palmetto-filled forest.  Where the trail splits at an unsigned intersection, you need to turn left; the trail going right leads back out to Swamp Island Drive.
            The somewhat narrow trail heads north to reach a signed intersection with the Ridleys Boardwalk Trail, which exits right.  Turn right to hike the short boardwalk spur.  The real wood (as opposed to recycled plastic) boardwalk heads off the east end of Chesser Island into the wetter area before abruptly ending at a sign that describes some common birds.  Retrace your steps to the Homestead Loop, then continue straight to finish the loop.
End of Ridleys Island Trail
            At 2.6 miles, you return to the Chesser Homestead near the corn crib.  Walk around the house and retrace your steps to the boardwalk parking area to complete the hike.  While you are here, try some of the shorter trails such as the Canal Diggers Trail (a “tribute” to the timber companies that dug the Suwanee Canal located near the present-day Visitor Center) or the Upland Discovery Trail, or sign up for a swamp boat tour at the concession building adjacent to the Visitor Center.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

George L. Smith State Park: Primitive Campsites Loop (Blog Hike #725)

Trail: Primitive Campsites Loop
Hike Location: George L. Smith State Park
Geographic Location: east of Swainsboro, GA (32.55556, -82.12143)
Length: 2.7 miles
Difficulty: 2/10 (Easy)
Last Hiked: December 2018
Overview: A fairly flat loop through piney woods and along a cypress-filled lake.

Directions to the trailhead: Take US 80 to George L. Smith State Park Road, which is located 12.2 miles east of Swainsboro or 24.4 miles west of Statesboro.  Turn south on George L. Smith State Park Rd.  Drive George L. Smith State Park Rd. 1.7 miles to the signed turn-off for the boat ramp on the left.  Turn left and drive the boat ramp access road to the parking area near the boat ramp at its end.  A restroom building is located on the left here.  Park near the restroom building.

The hike: Somewhat rustic and remote George L. Smith State Park occupies 1634 acres of south Georgia’s cypress-filled wetlands and sandy-soiled pine-covered uplands.  The park centers around the historic Parrish Mill, a combination grist mill, saw mill, covered bridge, and dam that dates to 1880.  The park is named for George L. Smith, Jr., an Emmanuel County native who served as the Speaker of the Georgia House of Representatives for 11 years over 2 intervals between 1959 and 1973.
            Today the mill at the park’s center is a museum that can be explored via a self-guided tour.  Also, the dam forms 412-acre Parrish Lake, which makes the park a top-tier canoeing destination.  The park offers limited amenities, which include a cozy 18-site developed campground, 8 cottages, 4 primitive campsites, some picnic shelters, and 2 main hiking trails: a 3 mile loop on the east side of the lake and a 2.7 mile loop on the lake’s west side.
I came here planning to hike the 3 mile loop, but that trail was closed due to construction work on the dam, which also caused water levels in Parrish Lake to be much lower than usual.  Thus, I was forced to choose the 2.7 mile loop.  The 2.7 mile loop is mainly an access trail for the park’s primitive campsites, but it also offers nice views of cypress-filled Parrish Lake and a fairly easy walk through the pine-covered uplands.
Trailhead near boat ramp
            The hike starts at a brown metal sign located to the left (west) of the restroom building; the sign reads “Primitive Campsites.”  The wide single-track trail heads north into woods dominated by loblolly pines.  The trail is marked by light blue rings painted around trees, and the large number of these trail markers ensures you will have no trouble following the trail.  Some interpretive signs describe the flora and fauna of the surrounding piney woods.  Mountain bikes are also allowed to use this trail, but I did not see another single person on the Monday afternoon that I hiked here.
Hiking along the lake
            At 0.2 miles, the first of several unmarked side trails exits left to the Pioneer Campground.  Interestingly, this park makes a distinction between pioneer camping and primitive camping with the latter offering fewer amenities than the former.  Cypress tree-filled Parrish Lake comes very close on the right here, and the drawn-down water levels gave me the rare opportunity to hike on a canoe trail had I chosen to leave the official hiking trail.
Drawn-down Parrish Lake
            Wooden distance markers appear at half-mile intervals, and just past the 0.5 mile marker you pass the first of the four primitive campsites.  Metal signs attached to wooden posts mark the spur trails to the primitive campsites.  Near the 1 mile marker, the trail curves left and gains about 30 vertical feet as it leaves the lake area.  The trail surface gets sandier now, and the white sandy soil under foot contrasts brilliantly with the surrounding grass and trees.
Hiking along the ridge top
            At 1.7 miles, where another unmarked trail continues straight, you need to turn left to begin heading southbound along a low ridgetop.  Watch for the light blue rings painted around trees here.  A slightly muddy area allowed me to spot some deer tracks, evidence of what had been here before me.
The main park road comes into view through a pine planting on the right just before the trail ends at the boat ramp access road.  Turn left and walk 0.3 miles along the road to return to your car and complete the hike.  While you are here, be sure to check out the historic mill.  Also, a scenic 0.5 mile nature trail along the lake connects the mill area with the park’s developed campground.

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 (36.21517, -83.40575)
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 (35.66227, -85.34969)
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 (35.15066, -84.60711)
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 (35.45452, -80.07932)
Length: 5.4 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 4.6 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.