Friday, June 29, 2018

Buckhorn State Park: Central Sands/Turkey Hollow/Partridge Loop (Blog Hike #692)

Trails: Central Sands, Turkey Hollow, and Partridge Trails
Hike Location: Buckhorn State Park
Geographic Location: southeast of Necedah, WI (43.92785, -90.01368)
Length: 3 miles
Difficulty: 3/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: June 2018
Overview: A fairly flat loop through a sandy-dirt oak savannah.

Directions to the trailhead: From Necedah, take SR 21 east 1 mile to CR G and turn right on CR G.  Drive CR G 8.6 miles through several 90-degree turns to the state park entrance on the left.  Turn left, pay the large entrance fee, then follow the park road 1.7 miles to its end at 36th Street.  Turn right on 36th St. and drive 0.5 miles to the south parking lot access road on the left.  Park in the south parking lot.

The hike: Occupying a large peninsula in the Wisconsin River’s Castle Rock Lake, Buckhorn State Park and its adjacent wildlife areas consist of more than 8000 acres of former timberland and farmland.  Unlike many other lakes in the area, Castle Rock Lake is man-made.  The lake was created in 1947 by the construction of Castle Rock Dam, a hydroelectric dam located a few miles south of the park.  Though it covers more than 16,000 acres, Castle Rock Lake is fairly shallow: its maximum depth is 30 feet.  The park was established in 1974 when Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources purchased the land with the goal of letting it revert to “unbroken wilderness.”
            Aquatic activities take center stage at Buckhorn State Park, as the park offers a swimming beach, fishing, 5 boat ramps, canoe/kayak rentals, and a canoe trail all on Castle Rock Lake.  The park also offers some picnic areas, a 58-site developed campground, and 50 cart-in campsites.  For hikers, 7 miles of trails wind through the park, but the park is most famous for its oak savannah, which is sometimes called its oak/pine barrens.  The route described here takes you through the savannah but also explores the shores of Castle Rock Lake, thus letting you sample everything the park has to offer.
Trailhead at south parking lot
            Start at the northeast corner of the parking area where the two-track dirt/gravel trail heads into the woods.  A brown sign for campsites 4-7 and 13-15 stands here, and a fleet of wheelbarrow-like carts awaiting use by cart-in campers sits near this trailhead.  Though no signs on the ground indicate such, the park map calls this trail the Central Sands Nature Trail.  An interpretive sign tells about Glacial Lake Wisconsin, which deposited the oak/pine barrens’ sandy soil here near the end of the most recent ice age.
Wooden bridge over marsh
            After crossing a wide wooden bridge over a wooded marsh, the Central Sands Nature Trail forks to form its loop.  For no particular reason, I chose to turn right here and hike the loop counterclockwise.  The trail heads south with the wetland on your right.  Bugs will be bad here during the warmer months due to the wetland, but they will relent when you get into the drier barrens later in this hike.
Castle Rock Lake
            At 0.35 miles, you get your first view of Castle Rock Lake just before you reach a trail intersection.  The Central Sands Nature Trail turns left here to form its short loop, but this hike continues straight to begin the Turkey Hollow Trail.  In short order you pass cart-in campsites 13, 14, and 15, all of which offer nice lakeside locations.
            0.6 miles into the hike, the spur trail to campsites 4-7 exits right.  Angle left to continue the Turkey Hollow Trail, and in a few hundred feet you transition from the lakeside forest to the oak/pine savannah.  The character of the hike now completely changes from a wooded, marshy, lakeside ramble to a sunny, sandy, savannah trek.  Oak trees dot the landscape, and some sun protection might be in order if you burn easily.  Also, hunting is allowed in this part of the park, so wear bright orange in season to avoid accidents.
Entering the oak savannah
            Near 1 mile, turn right at the signed trail leading to the Partridge Trail.  Note that continuing straight on the Turkey Hollow Trail here would shorten the hike by about 1 mile.  After a brief eastward stint, you intersect a central access road where you need to turn right.  Cut logs were piled up here on my visit, likely an effort to keep the oak savannah a savannah by removing unwanted vegetation.
            At 1.3 miles, continue straight where the spur trail leading to campsites 17-19 exits right.  Shortly thereafter, take a sharp left to begin the Partridge Trail; the route going straight is signed as one of many non-trail service roads.  The wide grass/dirt trail heads northeast through more grassy and brushy oak savannah.
Hiking the Partridge Trail
            At 1.8 miles, signs direct you to turn left where another service road continues straight.  After crossing the central access road again, you need to turn right at 2.3 miles to head back to the Central Sands Nature Trail.  Some pine trees join the forest mix here.  Upon reaching the Central Sands Nature Trail, turn right again to begin the final segment of our loop.
Back in the forest
            Bugs make their return as you leave the savannah and re-enter the forest.  Wetlands appear beside the trail, and the park road lies through the trees on your right.  Just shy of 3 miles, you close the loop.  Angle right to recross the bridge, return to the parking lot, and complete the hike.  If you want to spend more time in or learn more about the oak savannah, the short 1.5 mile Oak Barrens Nature Trail you pass on the main park road out provides a good opportunity to do so.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Roche-A-Cri State Park: Top of the Rock and Acorn Trails (Blog Hike #691)

Trails: Top of the Rock and Acorn Trails
Hike Location: Roche-A-Cri State Park
Geographic Location: north of Adams, WI (44.00346, -89.82130)
Length: 3 miles
Difficulty: 5/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: June 2018
Overview: A steep climb to Roche-A-Cri followed by a fairly flat hike around Roche-A-Cri.

Directions to the trailhead: The entrance to Roche-A-Cri State Park is located on the west side of SR 13 3.2 miles north of Adams or 1.6 miles south of SR 13’s intersection with SR 21.  Enter the park, pay the entrance fee, and drive the one-way park loop road 0.6 miles to the parking area for the Top of the Rocks Trail on the right.

The hike: Central Wisconsin is dotted with tall, flat-topped, and cliff-sided rock islands that stand many feet above the surrounding flat land.  These rock islands formed at the end of the last ice age when water draining from glacial Lake Wisconsin eroded surrounding sediment away.  While the Wisconsin Dells in the Wisconsin River are the most famous and most visited of these rock islands, Roche-A-Cri is one of the largest of them.  Roche-A-Cri is a French word that translates to “crevice in the rock.”  This rock island earned this name from French explorers during the 17th and 18th centuries due to a large cleft in the rock’s structure that is visible from several vantage points.
            The land came under state ownership in 1938 when the Wisconsin State Highway Commission acquired it as a roadside rest area for SR 13.  The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) did considerable work here, and in 1948 the property was transferred to the state’s Conservation Commission.  The park has only a 41-site campground, a playground, some picnic areas, and a few trails for amenities, and thus it receives relatively few visitors.  The hike described here features the Acorn Trail, which offers a grand circle tour of the park’s interesting sites, but also takes you to the top of Roche-A-Cri for the park’s most famous viewpoint.  Note that although the park lists the Acorn Trail at 3.5 miles long, the distances I have given here are more accurate based on my observations.
Start of Top of the Rock Trail
            There are several places where you could start the Acorn Trail.  To do the steep climb to the top of Roche-A-Cri first, I chose to start at the signed Top of the Rock Trail’s trailhead on the west side of Roche-A-Cri.  The Top of the Rock Trail quickly reaches the base of the rock, where you start climbing the stairway that leads to the top.  The original stairway up Roche-A-Cri was made of wood and dated to 1992, but the metal stairway you climb today was built in 2012.
            303 steps and nearly 200 vertical feet later, you reach the flat top of Roche-A-Cri.  A left curve brings you to the main overlook, which offers vistas to the north and west.  Because Roche-A-Cri is the highest point for many miles in these directions, the views are spectacular.  An interpretive sign describes the layers of rock that make up Roche-A-Cri and how crumbly some of these rocks are.  Take some time to enjoy the views and learn of the area’s geologic history.
View north from Roche-A-Cri

View west from Roche-A-Cri
            The Top of the Rock Trail ends at this viewpoint, so next you must descend back down the steps to return to the parking area that contains your car.  If all you want to see is the view from Roche-A-Cri, you can end your visit now.  To also do a “real” hike, find the Acorn Trail by heading west across the park loop road to find a sign bearing a park trail map and the universal hiking symbol.  Walk west on an old road between some vault toilets on the right and a picnic area on the left to reach the signed intersection with the Acorn Trail, which goes right and left.  Turn left to begin a counterclockwise journey around the Acorn Trail, a hiking trail that doubles as a cross country ski trail in the winter.
Spur that leads to the Acorn Trail
            The grass/dirt trail heads south through an area with short oak and pine trees and a dense grassy understory.  Where the signed Eagle Ridge Trail exits left to head for an alternate trailhead, stay right to remain on the Acorn Trail.  Although the Acorn Trail is not blazed, most intersections are signed, and the wide route is easy to follow. 
At 0.5 miles, the trail curves left through a sunny area that features some taller pine trees and some prairie plants.  Soon you reenter the woods.  Ignore a trail exiting right that leads to the winter/prairie parking area. 
Hiking the Acorn Trail
Near 1 mile into the hike you reach a confusing unsigned trail intersection on the bank of Carter Creek, a slow-moving tannin-colored creek with some rocks placed along its bank to stabilize the creek’s channel.  The trail going straight is the Spring Peeper Trail; it leads to the park office.  The Acorn Trail turns left here to reach the park loop road’s parking lot for the petroglyphs.  This parking lot would be an alternate starting place for the Acorn Trail if the Top of the Rock Trail’s parking lot is full.
            Cross the park road and head up some wooden steps to reach the petroglyphs carved into the south face of Roche-A-Cri.  These rock pictures are 400-1100 years old, but some more recent graffiti also appears on this rock face.  Some interpretive signs tell of the petroglyphs and the people who left them here.
Petroglyphs on Roche-A-Cri
            Past the rock face, look for the sign that marks where the Acorn Trail heads north toward the park’s campground.  The next segment of trail passes between the campground on the right and Roche-A-Cri on the left, and it represents the Acorn Trail’s closest approach to Roche-A-Cri.  Ignore the campground spur that exits right and the Mound Trail that exits left.
Just shy of 1.4 miles, you cross the park loop road again.  Continuing north through more oak/pine forest, at 1.8 miles you reach Chickadee Rock, a tall bumpy rock outcrop that is a very small version of Roche-A-Cri.  The Chickadee Rock Nature Trail exits left here, so you need to stay right to continue following the Acorn Trail.
Chickadee Rock
Next the trail heads into the park’s northwest corner.  Vehicle traffic from nearby county roads will be heard in this area.  At 2.3 miles, you enter an interesting yellow birch planting that features many young yellow birch trees.  More winding brings you to the close of the Acorn Trail’s loop.  Turn left to head back through the picnic area to the Top of the Rock Trail parking lot to complete the hike.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Mirror Lake State Park: Northwest and Newport Trails (Blog Hike #690)

Trails: Northwest and Newport Trails
Hike Location: Mirror Lake State Park
Geographic Location: south of Wisconsin Dells, WI (43.56196, -89.80681)
Length: 3.5 miles
Difficulty: 4/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: June 2018
Overview: A pair of loops along placid Mirror Lake.

Directions to the trailhead: Near Wisconsin Dells, take I-90/94 to US 12 (exit 92).  Exit and go east on US 12.  Drive US 12 east one exit to Fern Dell Road (exit 212).  Exit, go right at the first traffic circle and then straight at the second one.  Drive Fern Dell Rd. west 1.5 miles to the signed park entrance on the right.  Turn right to enter the park, and pay the park entrance fee at the park office, which doubles as the park entrance station.  Park in the blacktop lot behind the park office.

The hike: My first visit to the Wisconsin Dells came in August 2001.  Like most people’s first exposure to the dells, my first visit focused on the area’s touristy side and included water ski shows, mini-golf courses, oddity museums, and guided tours.  The town sometimes screams tourist trap, as even the Wisconsin River’s famous and scenic rock ledges are most easily explored on packed concession boats.
            Nevertheless, the Wisconsin Dells region has a more natural side that can be explored at any of the area’s several state parks.  My last stop on my first visit was nearby Devil’s Lake State Park, and this hike features another dells area park: Mirror Lake State Park.  2200 acre Mirror Lake State Park centers around its namesake lake, which gets its name from its incredibly calm waters.  Indeed, only a few light rain drops marred the calmness on my visit.
Located on Dell Creek, Mirror Lake is a natural lake with origins in the most recent ice age.  At the end of said ice age, the ice sheets stopped just a few miles east of here, but glacial outwash blocked the former southeast-bound course of Dell Creek.  Thus, the creek’s waters began taking the easiest path to the Wisconsin River: northeast through a pair of gorges.  These gorges created Mirror Lake and nearby Lake Delton, which is located just downstream on Dell Creek.
Opened in 1966, Mirror Lake State Park features a nice array of amenities, which include a swimming beach, a 151-site campground, fishing and kayaking on Mirror Lake (the entire lake is a no-wake zone), 3 picnic areas, and more than 19 miles of trails.  Hikers are allowed to use all of the park’s trails except in the winter when some of them are groomed as ski trails.  Though perhaps not the park’s most scenic hike, the route described here combines two loop trails, the Northwest Trail and the Newport Trail, that stay near the shore of Mirror Lake and provide a nice overview of this area’s terrain.  Be warned that the bugs are terrible here: I wore 40% deet bug spray and still took many mosquito bites.
Trailhead west of park office
From the park office, head west across the park entrance road to find the trailhead for the Northwest and Newport Trails.  This trailhead is marked only by a brown wooden post, an interpretive sign, and a brown carsonite post, but the wide two-track grass/dirt trail heading into the woods is obvious.  The forest here is a mixture of pines and hardwoods, most numerously oak trees. 
Quickly you reach a trail intersection where the Newport Trail marked by yellow carsonite posts and the Northwest Trail marked by purple carsonite posts part ways.  This hike eventually uses both of these trails, but for now turn left to follow the Northwest Trail.  Soon you cross one of Mirror Lake’s main feeder streams on a wooden bridge, and the view down the lake’s long, slender inlet is the Northwest Trail’s best Mirror Lake view.  A bench here makes a nice place to sit and watch the lake provided you can tolerate the bugs.
Inlet of Mirror Lake
At 0.2 miles, the Northwest Trail splits to form its loop.  This hike turns right to hike the loop counterclockwise.  The trails at Mirror Lake State Park are not blazed, but the colored carsonite posts appear at trail intersections such as this one.  To reiterate, the carsonite posts for the Northwest Trail are purple.
The trail surface alternates among dirt, grass, and mulch as the trail heads north on a rolling grade.  Although Mirror Lake lies only feet to the right, the dense forest prohibits any good lake views.  Ignore the Ringling Pass Trail as it exits left and gives you an opportunity to short-cut the Northwest Trail’s loop.  I passed a park maintenance staffer cutting the grassy trail surface with a riding lawn mower in this area.
Old logging landing
At 0.9 miles, you reach the trail’s northernmost point at what appears to be an old overlook or logging landing.  Next the trail briefly joins an old logging road, as evidenced by some strips of concrete that remain in the trailbed.  Ignore the Wildwood Pass Trail that exits left, another opportunity to short-cut the Northwest Trail’s loop.
The western arm of the Northwest Trail features more up and down than the eastern lakeside arm, and numerous steep ravines are passed through.  Although the park rates the Northwest Trail as difficult, these steep areas pose more difficulty for skiers than for hikers.  At a couple of points the trail splits with a steeper left option designed for hikers and a more gradual right option designed for skiers.  In both cases the two options come back together in only a few hundred feet, so you can choose whichever option best suits your energy and desire.
Hiking the Northwest Trail
Near 2 miles into the hike, you pass through a small prairie that offers this hike’s only deviation from the woodland setting.  Just after a signed trail exits right for the Fern Dell Trail, a 3 mile loop located south of Fern Dell Road, you close the Northwest Trail’s loop.  Continue straight to retrace your steps to the Newport Trail junction, then turn left to begin the Newport Trail’s loop.  If you are getting tired, the park office and your car are a few hundred feet to the right up the path you came in on.
Marked with yellow carsonite posts, the Newport Trail heads north on a fairly flat course with Mirror Lake out of view on the left.  At 2.6 miles, take a brief detour to the left into the developed part of the park.  A lakeside picnic area, playground, and swimming beach are located here, and the open grassy area gives this hike’s best view of Mirror Lake.  Drinking water is also available here.
Swimming beach at Mirror Lake
Back on the main trail, very quickly you come out near the parking lot that serves the beach area.  Turn right, and then almost immediately turn right again to reenter the woods.  The yellow carsonite posts that continue east along the park road mark the Kilbourn Trail, which leads to the campground.
Hiking the Northwest Trail
The eastern arm of the Newport Trail’s loop remains fairly flat as it traces near first the campground and then the park road on the left.  Soon the exit to the park office appears to the left; your car sits in the parking lot beside the office.  If you want to do a little more hiking, the 0.6 mile Echo Rock Trail is considered by many to be the park’s most scenic trail.  That short trail features some more lake views but with some rock outcrops, and it starts near the end of the main park road roughly 1 mile from the park office.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Blue Ridge Parkway, Peaks of Otter: Sharp Top Trail (Blog Hike #689)

Trail: Sharp Top Trail
Hike Location: Blue Ridge Parkway, Peaks of Otter
Geographic Location: northwest of Bedford, VA (37.44338, -79.60959)
Length: 3 miles
Difficulty: 10/10 (Difficult)
Last Hiked: May 2018
Overview: A steep, occasionally rocky out-and-back to a world-famous view.

Directions to the trailhead: From Bedford, take SR 43 north 14 miles to the Camp Store for the Peaks of Otter Campground.  The campground is reached just before SR 43 intersects the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Pass the main campground entrance and turn left to reach the parking area for the Camp Store and this trailhead.

The hike: At 9am on a foggy and humid Tuesday morning, I left my lodging in Bedford, elevation 1004 feet.  I drove up through a cloud (literally) to reach the trailhead at Peaks of Otter Campground, elevation 2550 feet, at 9:20am under partly cloudy skies.  At 11am, I reached the summit of Sharp Top, elevation 3875 feet, with fully clear skies above me and the clouds clearing beneath me.  On my way back down, I heard rumbles of thunder, and less than an hour later I ended up driving through a thunderstorm.  Such is the fickle weather of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
            My weather-plagued hike up Sharp Top was actually 15 years in the making.  As a seminary student at nearby Liberty University in Spring 2003, I noted the huge, pointy, pyramid-shaped mountain to the west and heard about the fantastic hike and views that it offered.  I endeavored to hike it during final exam week, but a hiking injury sustained just days before the planned hike forced me off the trail for several months and forced me to leave Sharp Top unconquered.  I spent a couple more years in the region in 2009-2011 and did some more hiking at Peaks of Otter, but I never found the time and stamina to tackle Sharp Top.  Finally, on the last day of my May 2018 Virginia hiking trip, I gave my old nemesis one more shot, and I conquered it in spite of the weather.
            Personal achievements aside, Sharp Top has a long and storied history as a scenic destination.  As recently as the mid-1800’s many Virginians thought that Sharp Top was the highest mountain in Virginia, and a piece of Sharp Top’s rock was sent to Washington to be part of the then under construction Washington Monument.  Today we know that not only is Sharp Top not the highest mountain in Virginia, it is not even the highest mountain at Peaks of Otter: neighboring Flat Top Mountain is more than 50 feet higher.  Summer resorts sprang up here in the mid 1800’s, and in 1936 the area came under the management of the National Park Service with the construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway.
            For people physically unable or unwilling to make the difficult 1325 vertical foot climb, on selected days a bus shuttle takes visitors up the mountain to within 0.3 miles of the summit.  The bus shuttle also offers one-way trips if you want to ride up and hike back down.  The shuttle did not run on the day of my visit, and after waiting 15 years I wanted the satisfaction of hiking up the mountain anyway.  Thus, this description starts at the Camp Store and proceeds up the mountain, so you would reverse this description if you were hiking down.  Be warned that both the hike and the shuttle are quite popular, so try to plan a weekday visit to maximize your solitude.
Trailhead beside Camp Store
            The signed Sharp Top Trail starts at some stone steps to the left of the Camp Store.  Almost immediately a signed spur trail exits left to head for the campground, so you need to turn right to start heading up the mountain.  The first few hundred feet are fairly easy as the trail follows a wide gravel treadway.  The initial grade is gradual, and the hiking through a nice broadleaf forest with dense understory is pleasant.
            At 0.2 miles, you cross the paved shuttle road for the only time.  Hiking on the shuttle road is prohibited, so hikers need to stick to the trail.  After crossing the road, the grade increases as the trail traces around the top end of a steep and rocky ravine.  A cascading waterfall can be heard to your right, but the steep and dense boulder field makes footing tricky and hides most of the water.
Start of the stone stairs
            Just shy of 0.7 miles, you reach the first of many stone stairs.  Like most stone stairs you see on trails these days, these stairs were built by the depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), and they are still in pretty good shape considering their age.  Higher up you will see some stone steps held together by mortar.
            A switchback and a steep set of stone stairs lifts you up a prominent finger ridge that juts out to the northwest.  Here the hike’s first view appears over your left shoulder, a view that features forested ridges and valley farmlands to the northwest.  This view was shrouded by clouds on my way up but opened up nicely on my way down.
View from northwest finger ridge
            The grade eases as the trail traces along Sharp Top’s west face, and you get some temporary relief from the stone stairs and rockiness.  Wildlife enjoy this area, and I saw a box turtle and two deer on my hike among other smaller critters.  At 1.1 miles, you reach a high saddle and a signed trail intersection.  The option going right leads 0.1 miles to Buzzard’s Roost, a nice viewpoint on the west side of Sharp Top when there are no clouds.  Wreckage from a 1943 plane crash also exists in this area.  After checking out Buzzard’s Roost, choose the left option to begin the final push to Sharp Top’s summit.
            The final 0.4 miles are the steepest part of the hike, and many stone stairs will need to be negotiated.  Some old asphalt even appears on this section of trail.  After passing a couple of rocky outcrops that you might mistake for summits, the trail to the bus shuttle’s summit stop exits downhill to the left.  Finally, you break out of the trees onto the rocky summit area and reach the stone CCC-built summit house.  Although it has no furnishings, the summit house is surprisingly large and features a chimney.
Stone summit house

View northwest from summit

Abbot Lake, as seen from Sharp Top

Flat Top, as seen from Sharp Top
            Just past the summit house sits the final set of stone stairs.  Numerous viewing platforms have been built on the bare rocky summit, which offers 360-degree views.  Lynchburg can be seen to the east, while Abbott Lake and Peaks of Otter Lodge can be seen below you to the northeast.  Flat Top stands to the right of Abbott Lake.  Clouds blocked views of Bedford to the south and Roanoke to the west on my visit.  The views are superlative and the breeze is refreshing, but you likely will not be alone up here especially if the shuttle is running when you visit.  After taking in the view and having a trail snack, retrace your steps back down the Sharp Top Trail to the Camp Store to complete your visit to the Peaks of Otter’s pointy top.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Westmoreland State Park: Big Meadow and Turkey Neck Trails (Blog Hike #688)

Trails: Big Meadow and Turkey Neck Trails
Hike Location: Westmoreland State Park
Geographic Location: northwest of Montross, VA (38.17026, -76.86262)
Length: 3.6 miles
Difficulty: 5/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: May 2018
Overview: A lollipop loop with highland, wetland, and Potomac River views.

Directions to the trailhead: The entrance to Westmoreland State Park is located on the north side of SR 3 5.3 miles west of Montross.  Enter the park, pay the entrance fee, and follow signs for the park office.  Park in the gravel lot on the left just past the park office.

The hike: Opened in 1936, 1321 acre Westmoreland State Park is one of Virginia’s six original state parks.  The other five are Douthat, Fairy Stone, First Landing, Hungry Mother, and Staunton River.  As the links indicate, my visit to Westmoreland on a nice Monday morning in mid-May completed my series of hikes at Virginia’s original state parks.  All of these parks offer excellent hiking, and I have enjoyed all of my visits to them including my visit to Westmoreland.
            Westmoreland State Park sits in a nice mostly wooded location on the south bank of the Potomac River just above where it empties into the Chesapeake Bay.  (Aside: some sources call this area the Northern Neck.)  The park’s many amenities include a 133-site campground, 26 cabins, a swimming pool, and a boat ramp and beach on the Potomac River.
For hikers, the park contains 8 trails totaling 7.8 miles that offer some of the best hiking in eastern Virginia.  While you can do some road walks to form longer loops, the longest and best route using only the trails is the lollipop loop described here.  This route takes you through the streamside lowlands and the forested highlands while passing the Potomac River beach and an interesting observation platform.
Trailhead for Big Meadow Trail
            Start on the Big Meadow Trail, which begins across the road from the parking lot at a signed trailhead.  A sign for the Fossil Beach on the Potomac River also stands here, and this trail sees a decent amount of traffic because it offers the shortest route between the Visitor Center and the beach.  Despite the trail’s name, the wide dirt/gravel Big Meadow Trail travels mostly through upland broadleaf forest, which features some nice tulip poplar, maple, and oak trees.  Interpretive signs identify some of the common trees in the forest.
Dropping off the high land
            As you approach the edge of the high land, the trail seems to fork.  Both paths lead to the Potomac River beach, but the official red rectangular metal markers follow the path on the left.  Soon you drop off of the high land and descend to the streamside/riverside elevation.  While the high land and the riverside land are quite flat, the nearly 200 vertical foot difference between the two areas creates steep sections such as this one.
            At 0.6 miles, you reach a major trail intersection.  The Turkey Neck Trail angles right to head across a boardwalk, and we will head that way momentarily.  First angle left to quickly reach where the Big Meadow Trail ends at the Potomac River beach.  Shark tooth fossils routinely wash up on the beach, hence the Fossil Beach sign at the trailhead.  The river looks more like a bay here, and water lapping on the sunny, sandy, breezy beach makes a pleasant sound.  Cliffs appear both downstream and upstream.  Take some time to enjoy this pleasant location.
Fossil Beach, looking upstream
            Back at the trail intersection, head down the boardwalk that is the Turkey Neck Trail and soon arrive at an elevated wooden observation platform.  The Potomac River is barely visible from here, so the main thing to see from this platform is the narrow but long wetland created by Meadow Run just before it empties into the river.  Unfortunately, the large amount of vegetation in the wetland hinders any wildlife observation.
Meadow Run wetland
            Past the platform, at 0.75 miles you reach the end of the boardwalk and the intersection that forms the loop portion of the Turkey Neck Trail.  This description turns left and uses the trail going right as a return route, thus hiking the loop clockwise.  The trail heads south along the west bank of the Meadow Run wetland with short but steep ups and downs.  Some wooden footbridges get you across small streams that feed into Meadow Run.
            At the top of a low steep ridge, the yellow-blazed Beaver Dam Trail exits right and offers an opportunity to short-cut the loop.  Continue straight to stay on the Turkey Neck Trail, which is marked with blue rectangular metal markers.  The trail curves right and climbs back toward the high land in fits and starts.
Hiking through the high land
2 miles into the hike, you reach the top of the hill, and the terrain becomes very flat again.  At 2.2 miles, the Beaver Dam Trail re-enters from the right.  A few hundred feet later, you reach another intersection where the Turkey Neck Trail is signed as going both straight and right.  The path going straight is a spur trail that leads to the park’s campground in 0.25 miles, so you want to turn right to continue the Turkey Neck Trail’s main loop.
Stairs at end of finger ridge
The trail heads northeast out a finger ridge as it passes some mountain laurel that was in full bloom on my hike.  At 2.7 miles, you reach the end of the finger where some wooden stairs ease your steep descent back toward Meadow Run.  At the base of the stairs, a final ridge is skirted just before you close the loop.  Turn left to walk back across the boardwalk, then turn left again to retrace your steps 0.6 miles along the Big Meadow Trail to return to your car and complete the hike.
While you are in the area, consider checking out some of the Northern Neck’s many historical attractions.  Stratford Hall, the birthplace of Robert E. Lee and boyhood home of two signers of the Declaration of Independence, and Washington’s Birthplace National Monument both lie within 10 minutes of the park; they merit a stop for history-minded visitors.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Piscataway Park: Riverview, Bluebird, and Paw Paw Trails (Blog Hike #687)

Trails: Riverview, Bluebird, and Paw Paw Trails
Hike Location: Piscataway Park
Geographic Location: south of Fort Washington, MD (38.69455, -77.06531)
Length: 2.1 miles
Difficulty: 4/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: May 2018
Overview: A loop hike around a recreated 1770’s-era colonial farm.

Directions to the trailhead: On the south side of Washington D.C., take I-495 to Maryland SR 210 (exit 3).  Exit and go south on SR 210.  Drive SR 210 south 8 miles to Farmington Road and turn right on Farmington Rd.  Drive Farmington Rd. southwest 1.8 miles to Bryan Point Road and turn right on Bryan Point Rd.  Bryan Point Rd. deadends at Piscataway Park in 2.7 miles.  Follow signs to the Visitor Center, and park in the gravel lot in front of the Visitor Center.

The hike: Perched on the east bank of the Potomac River just south of Washington, little-known Piscataway Park exists partly due to its location across the Potomac from Mount Vernon, George Washington’s famous residence.  In the 1950’s, local residents became concerned that encroaching development was threatening Mount Vernon’s famous view of the Potomac River.  To ensure the view remained as natural and historic as possible, in 1961 the federal government established Piscataway Park to preserve the 6 miles of riverfront property between Piscataway Creek and Marshall Hall in its natural state.
            Operated by the National Park Service in partnership with the Accokeek Foundation, Piscataway Park is also the home of the National Colonial Farm, which was established in 1957 to recreate a typical 1770’s tobacco plantation.  Located adjacent to the Visitor Center, farm tours are offered several times per day.  Perhaps surprisingly, very few people come to Piscataway Park or the colonial farm, so this site is a great hiking destination for warm-weather weekends when other D.C. area parks are packed out.  During my visit on a nice Sunday afternoon in mid-May, I did not pass another person on this hike once I got out of the Visitor Center area.
            Piscataway Park offers nearly 5 miles of trails open only to hikers with loops on both the west and east sides of the Visitor Center.  When I came here the day after a heavy rain, the trails east of the Visitor Center were impassible due to mud and high water.  Thus, this hike forms a loop using the trails west of the Visitor Center, which includes a trip through the colonial farm.
Mount Vernon across the Potomac
            The hike starts on the blue-blazed Riverview Trail.  Despite this trail’s name, the best Potomac River view on this hike is actually from the fishing pier behind the Visitor Center.  Thus, before heading out on the trail, take a minute to walk out the fishing pier and look across the Potomac at Mount Vernon atop the hill on the opposite bank.
Start of Riverview Trail
            After taking in the river view, walk back toward the Visitor Center and turn right to find the signed trailhead for the Riverview Trail.  The grassy Riverview Trail heads west through a narrow strip of natural area between the colonial farm on your left and the forested riverside buffer on your right.  Many interpretive signs tell about the area’s flora and fauna, and one interesting sign tells about what the natural buffer along the river does and how it works.
            At 0.35 miles, you reach the western edge of the colonial farm.  Follow the blue paint blazes as they turn left and then right to leave the developed farm area.  A large black rat snake slithered across my path here, and I had to negotiate many wet spots in this area.
Leaving the developed farm area
Just past 0.6 miles, the orange-blazed Persimmon Trail exits left twice in quick succession.  The Persimmon Trail forms a short 0.4 mile loop around a small pond, and it could be tacked on if you wanted to extend the hike.  This description angles right to stay on the Riverview Trail.
0.8 miles into the hike, you reach the west end of the Riverview Trail and its intersection with the Bluebird Trail, which goes left and softly right.  Angle softly right to continue heading east.  The blazes for the Bluebird Trail are only a slightly lighter shade of blue than the blazes for the Riverview Trail, so you may not notice that you have changed trails unless you are paying attention.
Picnic table on Bluebird Trail
The Bluebird Trail is somewhat poorly defined, but if you keep heading east parallel to the river you will soon reach a picnic table in a grassy area near the park’s east boundary.  Unfortunately, like most of the trail system the picnic table offers no river view.  Upon reaching the picnic table, backtrack a short distance to where the east arm of the Bluebird Trail heads south away from the river beside a pasture that is reverting to forest.
Reverting pasture on Bluebird Trail

Start of Paw Paw Trail
At 1.1 miles, you reach the southwest corner of the Bluebird Trail’s loop.  To see all of the park’s habitats, angle right to begin the white-blazed Paw Paw Trail, which is marked with a white sign.  The Paw Paw Trail leaves the Potomac River floodplain and climbs steeply but only for a short distance into the broadleaf forest that dominates the bluffs.  Numerous paw paw bushes, identified by their large leaves, line the trail, as does poison ivy and stinging nettle.
The trail comes very close to private property as it approaches the blufftop before angling left to begin descending.  At 1.5 miles, you exit the forest and enter the park’s native tree arboretum, a grassy area that, as its name implies, features numerous trees that are native to the region.  Angle right to reach a gravel road, then head north on the gravel road.  When you reach the park office, turn left onto another gravel road to return to the colonial farm.  The hike concludes with a walk through the farm, which includes a tobacco barn, a smoke house, some cultivated vegetable gardens, a pig pen, and a sheep pasture.  The gravel road through the farm deposits you at the Visitor Center where you started.
Tobacco barn at National Colonial Farm

Marsh boardwalk
Before you leave Piscataway Park, there is one more short hike you should do.  Though not accessible by trail from the Visitor Center, the park features a nice marsh boardwalk that offers good wildlife viewing and runs along the bank of the Potomac River.  To reach the boardwalk, drive back out the entrance road and turn left on a gravel road immediately before reaching the park entrance sign.  Quickly you reach the small parking lot that serves the boardwalk.  The wooden boardwalk leads 0.5 miles over a riverside marsh to a grassy camping area that also serves as a canoe launch.  Enjoy the aquatic view and fresh breeze to end your visit to Piscataway Park.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Smallwood State Park: General's Walk Trail (Blog Hike #686)

Trail: General’s Walk Trail
Hike Location: Smallwood State Park
Geographic Location: southwest of Waldorf, MD (38.55846, -77.18813)
Length: 2 miles
Difficulty: 3/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: May 2018
Overview: A lollipop loop passing General Smallwood’s historic Retreat House.

Directions to the trailhead: On the south side of Washington, D.C., take I-495 to Maryland SR 210 (exit 3).  Exit and go south on SR 210.  Drive SR 210 south 18 miles to SR 225 and turn left on SR 225.  Drive SR 225 east 1.6 miles to SR 224 and turn right on SR 224.  Drive SR 224 south 3.8 miles to the signed park entrance on the right.  Turn right to enter the park, pay the entrance fee, and follow signs for the boat ramp, where this hike begins.  Park in any of the lots near the boat ramp.

The hike: Established in 1958, cozy Smallwood State Park protects 628 acres on the south bank of Mattawoman Creek just before it empties into the Potomac River.  The park is named for General William Smallwood, a Patriot Revolutionary War major general from Maryland who later served as Maryland’s 4th Governor.  General Smallwood’s Retreat House and grave lie within the park’s boundaries, and they will be seen on this hike.
            The park makes the most of its waterside location, as it features the Sweden Point Marina, numerous fishing piers, and some boat launch ramps.  The park also offers a small campground with 15 campsites and 5 mini cabins, 3 picnic pavilions, a playground, and two short hiking trails.  The park’s longest and best hiking trail is the General’s Walk Trail described here.  The General’s Walk Trail takes you through some nice woods as it connects the boat ramp, the campground, the park office, and the historic Retreat House area, and it makes a nice shady hike on a warm summer day.  (Aside: the trail map available for download on the park’s website is far better and more detailed than the trail map you will get at the park entrance station, so be sure to download or print a trail map before you come.)
Bridge at boat ramp
            There are several places from which you could start the General’s Walk Trail, but I chose to start at the boat ramp.  Look for a wooden bridge that is located at the boat ramp area’s south side and heads over an inlet of Mattawoman Creek.  Mattawoman Creek looks more like a river at this point, and although the bridge looks old, it got me safely over the water.
Mattawoman Creek, as seen from bridge
Trail sign at campground
            Upon reaching the south side of the bridge, climb slightly on a paved path to reach the asphalt campground road, then look up and slightly right for a green wooden sign that says “General’s Walk Foot Trail.”  The single track dirt trail heads into the woods here and descends slightly to reach the bank of an unnamed creek/wetland that features a lot of trees and shrubs.  Several bird boxes have been built over the water, and I saw a family of Canada geese enjoying a humid day on the shady water.
            On my mid-May hike, I passed a stand of mountain laurel in full bloom, though it looked out of place beside the wetland.  Just past 0.5 miles, you reach a trail fork.  The left option is a spur trail that leads to a picnic shelter, so you want to stay right to continue along the wetland.  The General’s Walk Trail is marked by some white rectangular paint blazes, but there may not be a blaze at the exact point where you need one.
Climbing away from the creek
            After passing a bench along the creek, the trail angles left and begins a short but steep climb, gaining 100 feet of elevation in just over 0.1 miles.  Some wooden steps aid the ascent.  At 0.9 miles, you reach the top of the hill and enter the park’s historic area, a mowed-grass area dominated by the brick Retreat House.  The Retreat House is a restored 18th century tidewater plantation that is only open the first and third Sunday afternoons from May through September.  Even if the house is not open on your visit (it was not on mine), you can admire the structure from the outside and peep in to the adjacent herb garden.
General Smallwood's Retreat House
            Pass around the right side of the Retreat House and start following a brick path as it heads southeast away from the house.  Some other small structures are located on this site, but the brick path leads to the other large structure: the black wooden tobacco barn.  Walk around the barn and cross the nearby park road to reach a parking lot for the park’s playground and picnic pavilion #3.  Another green wooden sign similar to the one you saw at the campground marks where the trail reenters the woods.
Tobacco Barn
            Next you start my favorite part of this hike, which features some nice beech trees and some sweet gums.  After a gradual descent, the trail curves sharply left to rise slightly.  At 1.4 miles, you reach the park maintenance area and park office.  Angle right, cross the park road, and then angle left into the grassy area beside the park office to find where the trail reenters the woods again.
            Some wet areas will need to be negotiated as you pass some old wooden structures that time and the forest have reclaimed.  After dipping through a small but steep ravine, the trail comes out at the campground road.  Turn right and walk along the road to close the loop, then turn right again and walk back across the wooden bridge to return to the boat ramp and complete the hike.