Saturday, January 27, 2018

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

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

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

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


Friday, January 5, 2018

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, January 2, 2018

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

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

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

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