Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Mount Mitchell State Park: Mount Craig and Mount Mitchell (Blog Hike #700)

Trails: Black Mountain Crest, Summit, and Balsam Nature Trails
Hike Location: Mount Mitchell State Park
Geographic Location: northeast of Asheville, NC (35.76643, -82.26487)
Length: 2.9 miles
Difficulty: 9/10 (Difficult)
Last Hiked: July 2018
Overview: A challenging hike to the two highest peaks in the Appalachian Mountains.
Hike Route Map: https://www.mappedometer.com/?maproute=734968
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: Mount Mitchell State Park is accessible by road only from the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Take the Blue Ridge Parkway to SR 128 (milepost #355), and drive SR 128 uphill 4 miles to its end at the summit parking area.  The summit parking area is huge, and it was less than ¼ full when I came here on a Tuesday afternoon in mid-July.

The hike: Established in 1916, Mount Mitchell State Park is the oldest state park in North Carolina.  The park was established to protect the higher elevations of its namesake mountain, which at 6684 feet is not only the highest point in North Carolina but also the highest point in the Appalachian Mountains and therefore the highest point east of the Mississippi River.  The area’s high elevation keeps it cool year-round, and snow has been recorded on Mount Mitchell every month of the year.  In fact, Mount Mitchell receives an average of 91 inches of snow per year, which is only 3 inches less than Buffalo, NY.
As recently as the 1850’s the mountain’s status as state high point was in doubt, as Senator Thomas Clingman erroneously claimed based on mathematical calculations that the region’s highest peak had elevation 6941 feet.  Clingman’s Dome some 100 miles to the west is named after him, but it is only 6643 feet high.  Mount Mitchell is named after Dr. Elisha Mitchell, a science professor at the University of North Carolina.  Dr. Mitchell fell to his death on this mountain in 1857 while trying to prove his correct claim that this mountain is the highest point in North Carolina.
The summit experience at Mount Mitchell resembles the ones at Clingman’s Dome or Brasstown Bald, the state high points for Tennessee and Georgia, respectively.  The summit area features a huge blacktop parking lot, a steep but paved trail to the summit, and an observation deck on the summit.  Mount Mitchell State Park also features a campground and a restaurant, which offers a laid back cafeteria-style dining experience.  Yet Mount Mitchell also has a wild side, some of which will be explored on this hike.
The route of this hike is somewhat complicated because it features two independent parts both of which begin and end at the summit parking area.  The first part is a 1.8 mile out-and-back that heads north to nearby Mount Craig, the second highest peak in the Appalachian Mountains.  The second part is a 1.1 mile semi-loop that features Mount Mitchell’s summit and the high-elevation Balsam Nature Trail.  To do the harder part first, this hike describes the two parts in the preceding order, but you can do them in either order you wish.  In particular, if bad weather is nearby, you should go directly to Mount Mitchell’s summit to make sure you reach the highest point before the weather hits.
Deep Gap Trailhead
Start the first part by heading north on the Deep Gap Trail, which is also called the Black Mountain Crest Trail.  The gravel trail leaves from the signed Deep Gap Trailhead and passes through a picnic area before descending steeply on some stone steps.  While stone steps like these are often considered strenuous, you will be thankful for them in a few minutes.
Gap between Mounts Mitchell and Craig
At 0.35 miles, you reach the bottom of the stone steps and the unnamed gap that lies between Mount Mitchell and Mount Craig.  The next few hundred feet are the only flat part of this hike, and they pass through some dead fir trees that were killed by the balsam woolly adelgid.  On the bright side, clear views to the west open up on the left, and some nice spruce trees stand ahead and behind.
Soon your ascent up the south face of Mount Craig begins.  Well-constructed stone steps are replaced by rugged natural rock ledges that will require you to use both your feet and your hands to scramble up and down.  The grade is not too steep: the trail gains 340 vertical feet in 0.4 miles, but the persistent rock scrambling makes for slow going.  Also, the high elevation means that you will likely get winded faster than usual.
Rocky trail to Mount Craig
At 0.8 miles, the final push to Mount Craig’s summit begins as you pass a sign warning of the fragile alpine environment.  Soon you exit the pine forest onto the bare rock of Mount Craig’s summit.  With an elevation just 21 feet lower than Mount Mitchell, Mount Craig offers a spectacular 180-degree view to the west, and Mount Mitchell looms to the south.  The effort required to get here means that you may have this viewpoint to yourself, at least for a little while.  A summit plaque just past the viewpoint tells you that Mount Craig is named for Locke Craig, the Governor of North Carolina from 1913 to 1917 who was instrumental in establishing Mount Mitchell State Park.
View southwest from Mount Craig

View west from Mount Craig

Mount Craig summit marker

Looking back at Mount Mitchell from Mount Craig
The Deep Gap Trail continues north past Mount Craig, but the terrain gets more difficult and the views do not get any better.  Thus, this hike turns around at Mount Craig and backtracks to Mount Mitchell’s summit parking area to complete the first part of the hike.  Walk south across the parking area to reach the signed start of the Summit Trail, which leads to Mount Mitchell’s summit.  An interesting museum sits at this trailhead, as do restrooms and a concession stand.
Start of Summit Trail
Perhaps after a visit to the museum or the concession stand, head up the Summit Trail, which is a paved trail that connects the parking lot with the observation deck on Mount Mitchell’s summit.  Because almost everyone who visits this park walks up to the summit, you will not be alone on this trail.  Some benches provide the opportunity to stop and catch your breath if needed.  Also, note the signed trailhead for the Balsam Nature Trail to the left where the paved trail curves right.
At 2.1 miles, you reach the curved concrete ramp that leads to the summit observation deck.  Being the highest point in the Appalachians, Mount Mitchell’s observation deck offers 360-degree views.  Mount Craig is visible immediately to the north, Grandfather Mountain appears in the distance to the northeast, and some lower ridges lie to the east.  The park road and restaurant lie down the main ridge to the south.  On a clear day Clingman’s Dome can be seen to the west.  Take some time up here to see what you can see.
View east from Mount Mitchell
View south from Mount Mitchell
A selfie at Mount Mitchell; Mount Craig over my left shoulder
The only way up to the observation deck is via the paved Summit Trail, so next you need to retrace your steps back down the Summit Trail.  To change the scenery, get off of the pavement, and reduce the crowds, when you reach the signed trailhead for the Balsam Nature Trail, turn right to begin the gravel Balsam Nature Trail.  The Balsam Nature Trail is a 0.6 mile loop that provides an alternate and slightly longer route back to the summit parking area, and it lets you spend some more time on Mount Mitchell’s natural side.
Start of Balsam Nature Trail
Marked by white plastic triangles, the Balsam Nature Trail descends gradually through dense, dark, spruce/fir forest.  Numerous interpretive signs tell about the unusual plants, fungi, and algae that live at this high elevation.  At 2.4 miles, you pass a rock shelter on the right.  The terrain on the Balsam Nature Trail is not flat, and some rocks and roots lie in the treadway.  Nevertheless, the going is much easier than on the Deep Gap Trail you handled earlier.
After a steeper descent at 2.6 miles, you reach a signed trail intersection.  The option going straight is the Mount Mitchell Trail, and it leads steeply downhill for 5.5 miles to reach a national forest campground at the mountain’s base.  The signed Balsam Nature Trail turns left and soon reaches its lowest elevation.  A dense understory of ferns carpets the ground in this area.
Tree growing over a boulder
The trail climbs gradually over lots of rocks and roots.  Soon you pass a tree that has put roots down all around a large boulder.  Where a signed spur trail heads straight to reach a spring, turn left to quickly arrive back at the summit parking area and complete the hike.  On your drive out, stop at the park restaurant to have a snack and enjoy more Mount Mitchell views to cap off your visit to the roof of the Appalachians.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Blue Ridge Parkway: Graveyard Fields Loop Trail (Blog Hike #699)

Trail: Graveyard Fields Loop Trail
Hike Location: Blue Ridge Parkway
Geographic Location: southeast of Waynesville, NC (35.32030, -82.84725)
Length: 1.4 miles
Difficulty: 4/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: June 2018
Overview: A high elevation semi-loop featuring waterfalls on Yellowstone Prong.
Hike Route Map: https://www.mappedometer.com/?maproute=734967
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: This hike starts at the Blue Ridge Parkway’s Graveyard Fields Overlook, which is located at Blue Ridge Parkway milepost 418.8.  This milepost is located 4.5 miles north of SR 215 or 6.9 miles south of US 276.

The hike: Of the many easy and moderate dayhikes on the southern portion of the Blue Ridge Parkway, perhaps the most famous, scenic, and popular one is Graveyard Fields.  Graveyard Fields is a relatively large and relatively flat high-elevation valley along the Yellowstone Prong of the Pigeon River.  The valley’s unusual name probably comes from its logging days: clear-cut logging throughout the valley left only rows of stumps that resembled headstones in a cemetery.  An alternate explanation says that the valley got its name from a windstorm that overturned many trees, and the overturned trees resembled headstones.
            Yellowstone Prong enters Graveyard Fields from the west by cascading down Upper Falls.  The river then flows lazily through the valley before dramatically exiting it to the east via multi-tiered Second Falls.  Both of these waterfalls are easily dayhike-able from the Blue Ridge Parkway trailhead, but I only went to Second Falls for reasons to be given later.  Hiking the loop through the valley and the short spur to Second Falls forms the 1.4 mile hike described here.
Stone steps at main trailhead
            Start at the main trailhead beside the restroom building.  A colorful sign that features a trail map stands here.  After descending a set of stone steps, the steep descent continues on an asphalt trail through a thick cluster of mountain laurel.  In total, the trail descends more than 100 feet in the first 0.1 miles.
            The trail surface changes from asphalt to wooden boardwalk as you approach Yellowstone Prong, which you cross on a wooden footbridge.  Just after crossing the river, you reach a signed trail intersection.  The Graveyard Fields Loop turns left to head up some wooden steps, and we will go that way eventually.  First continue straight to hike the spur to Second Falls.
Yellowstone Prong
            The trail curves right to begin heading downstream with the river on your right.  A river access point appears on the right, but be careful wading into the river here: this point is just upstream from Second Falls.  Stay right where a connector trail to the Mountains-to-Sea Trail exits left.  Soon you reach a set of steep wooden steps that head down to the base of Second Falls.  The cascading 55-foot waterfall drops in at least three tiers, and the plunge pool is a popular place for swimming on hot summer days.  Though you will not be alone here, Second Falls makes an attractive site for the eyes and ears.
Second Falls
            Retrace your steps back to the Graveyard Fields Loop, then angle right to begin the loop portion of this hike.  The boardwalk soon runs out, and the rest of the hike follows mostly eroded dirt trails.  There are also quite a few unofficial trails in this valley; some trail markers might help keep hikers on the official trail if they were installed here.
Hiking eroded trail
            Just past 0.6 miles, where the Graveyard Ridge Connector continues straight, you need to turn left to remain on the Graveyard Fields Loop.  A carsonite post marks this intersection.  The trail continues its westward course, and the vegetation opens up enough to allow the surrounding mountains to become visible.
Views of surrounding mountains
            At 0.8 miles, the spur trail to Upper Falls exits right.  The spur is 0.9 miles long one-way, and it is rockier than the Graveyard Fields Loop.  I intended to hike to Upper Falls, but some loud claps of thunder over my shoulders told me that I had better take the shortest route back to the trailhead (a wise move, as you will see).  Thus, I forewent Upper Falls and turned left to continue the Graveyard Fields Loop.
Climbing back toward the trailhead
            Soon you cross Yellowstone Prong on a wooden footbridge.  The yellow stones that give this river its name can be seen under the river’s clear water here.  The balance of the hike is a gradual climb back to the Blue Ridge Parkway trailhead.  Some vegetation crowds the trail here, but the route was easily discernable on my visit.  Climbing a set of stone steps returns you to the parking area; I made it back to my car just as heavy rain started to pelt my head and shirt.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Gorges State Park: Visitor Center to Bearwallow Falls (Blog Hike #698)

Trails: Visitor Center, Bearwallow Valley, and Bearwallow Falls Trails
Hike Location: Gorges State Park
Geographic Location: east of Cashiers, NC (35.09652, -82.95038)
Length: 1.9 miles
Difficulty: 6/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: June 2018
Overview: An out-and-back featuring Bearwallow Valley Overlook and Bearwallow Falls.
Hike Route Map: http://www.mappedometer.com/?maproute=697231
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: From Cashiers, take US 64 east 10 miles to SR 281 and turn right on SR 281.  Drive SR 281 south 0.9 miles to the park entrance on the left.  Turn left to enter the park.  Drive the main park road to the Visitor Center, and park in the large paved lot in front of the Visitor Center.

The hike: For my general comments on Gorges State Park, see the previous hike.  While many of the trails at Gorges State Park explore the Jocassee Gorge’s rugged backcountry, this short hike connects two of the park’s frontcountry sites: the Visitor Center and Bearwallow Falls.  As such, this hike is probably the park’s easiest hike.  Nevertheless, this hike does not skimp too much on scenery: it passes a scenic valley overlook and leads to an overlook of Bearwallow Falls, a 50-foot moderate-volume cascading waterfall.
Visitor Center trailhead
            Start at the Visitor Center trailhead, which is located on the southeast corner of the parking lot or just north of the Visitor Center.  An information kiosk with trail map, bench, and sign mark this trailhead.  The gravel trail enters the woods and in less than 200 feet reaches a signed trail intersection.  The option going right ends at the park’s amphitheater, so you need to turn sharply left to head for the overlooks and Bearwallow Falls.
            Marked with orange plastic triangles, the trail crosses the park road before passing through a relatively low area where short wooden boardwalks carry you over seasonally wet soil.  Next the trail climbs slightly to pass under some high-voltage power lines, a reminder of the Duke Energy operations nearby.  For no obvious reason the trail’s name changes from the Visitor Center Connector to the Bearwallow Valley Trail here, and the blazes change from orange plastic triangles to red plastic triangles.
Entering the power line corridor
            At 0.25 miles, you reach the wooden platform that is the Bearwallow Valley Overlook.  While the power lines considerably mar the south-facing view, there is quite a bit to see from here.  Chestnut Mountain looms in the foreground below you, and both Lake Keowee and Lake Jocassee can be seen well below you beyond the mountain.
Bearwallow Valley Overlook
            Past the overlook, the trail treads over a brief level section with a knob rising to your left before beginning the descent toward Bearwallow Falls.  A trail reroute takes you down a set of moderately steep switchbacks to reach a signed intersection with the Picnic Connector Trail, which is marked with white plastic triangles.  Turn right to keep heading for Bearwallow Falls.
            At 0.6 miles, you reach the Bearwallow Picnic Shelter, which features a nice stone and wood structure, an information kiosk, a restroom building, and a drinking fountain.  Walk northeast across the blacktop parking lot to find the signed Upper Bearwallow Falls Trailhead where the Bearwallow Falls Trail begins.  Note that you can reach this parking lot by driving the park’s loop road clockwise from the Visitor Center if you wanted to shorten this hike.
Upper Bearwallow Falls Trailhead
            Marked with blue plastic triangles, the Bearwallow Falls Trail comprises the last leg in our hike to Bearwallow Falls.  After crossing the park road, the steep descending switchbacks begin.  Benches placed at strategic points beside the trail make attractive places to sit and catch your breath on your way back up.
Bearwallow Falls
            Just shy of 1 mile, the Bearwallow Falls Trail ends at the overlook for Bearwallow Falls.  Bearwallow Falls is a 50-foot cascade waterfall in Bearwallow Creek, but only the lower portion of the cascade is visible from this overlook.  An interesting interpretive sign describes the area’s geology, and a partially obstructed view down the mountain opens up to the southeast.  The trail ends at this overlook, so after admiring the waterfall you have to retrace your steps to the Visitor Center to complete the hike.  While you are here, the Visitor Center is worth a few minutes of your time: it contains interesting exhibits about rainfall and its effects on the Jocassee Gorges.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Gorges State Park: Rainbow Falls Trail (Blog Hike #697)

Trail: Rainbow Falls Trail
Hike Location: Gorges State Park
Geographic Location: east of Cashiers, NC (35.08882, -82.95164)
Length: 3.5 miles
Difficulty: 8/10 (Moderate/Difficult)
Last Hiked: June 2018
Overview: An out-and-back, mostly moderate but steep in spots, featuring two waterfalls on the Horsepasture River.
Hike Route Map: https://www.mappedometer.com/?maproute=734966
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: From Cashiers, take US 64 east 10 miles to SR 281 and turn right on SR 281.  Drive SR 281 south 0.9 miles to the park entrance on the left.  Turn left to enter the park.  Where the main park road splits after passing the Visitor Center, turn right to head for the hiking trailhead.  Park at the blacktop parking lot for the Grassy Ridge Trailhead.  The lot is decent-sized, but it can fill on nice summer days.

The hike: The first of numerous additions to North Carolina’s state park system in the early 2000’s, Gorges State Park has the distinction of being the only North Carolina state park west of Asheville.  Before it became a park, the land was owned by Duke Energy, who realized that the area’s steep gorges and high rainfall made it ideal for hydroelectric power generation.  Although hydroelectric dams were constructed downstream that form Lake Jocassee and Lake Keowee in nearby South Carolina, the North Carolina part of Duke Energy’s land holding was not dammed.  In 1999, Duke Energy sold 7500 acres of its land to the State of North Carolina to establish the park.
            Today hikers and lovers of the outdoors are thankful for Duke Energy’s decision, for the Jocassee Gorges that give this park its name are some of the most rugged and wildest lands in the region.  Gorges State Park is still under development, and at present it offers only a fantastic Visitor Center, an amphitheater, and some picnic areas for amenities although a developed campground is planned.  Indeed, most of the land remains backcountry accessible only by rugged backpacking trails.  The famous Foothills Trail passes through the park’s southernmost portion, while the 7.2 mile one-way Auger Hole Trail, also open to mountain bikes and horses, slices through the park’s center.
            For people seeking dayhikes, the Grassy Ridge area in the park’s northwest corner offers the best opportunities.  Nice waterfalls anchor either end of the area: Bearwallow Falls lies on the east side while Rainbow Falls lies on the west side.  Bearwallow Falls is featured on the next hike.  Rainbow Falls and nearby Turtleback Falls are featured on this hike, which is probably the best dayhike at Gorges State Park.  As such, this hike is quite popular, and Turtleback Falls is a popular swimming and diving spot for area youth on warm summer days.
Grassy Ridge Trailhead
            The Rainbow Falls Trail leaves the south end of the parking lot at a well-developed trailhead.  Numerous information kiosks and picnic tables stand here.  The orange plastic circles of the Rainbow Falls Trail and the blue plastic circles of the Raymond Fisher Trail run conjointly as the wide gravel trail descends on a moderate to steep grade.  In total, the trail loses about 200 feet of elevation in the first 0.3 miles.
            At 0.3 miles, the Rainbow Falls and Raymond Fisher Trails part ways at a signed trail intersection.  Turn right to stay on the Rainbow Falls Trail.  The descent through oak and pine forest continues but on a more gradual grade, and more rhododendron appears in the understory as you get closer to the Horsepasture River.
Descending on the Rainbow Falls Trail
            0.8 miles into the hike, you cross the signed boundary from Gorges State Park to Pisgah National Forest.  Although both waterfalls on this hike are technically located on national forest land, the only trail access is from the state park trailhead via this trail.  The trail surface now changes from gravel to dirt, and significant erosion appears in the trailbed.  The orange plastic circles that marked the state park trail also disappear at this point, but the trail remains wide and easy to follow.  Soon the pleasant sound of water rushing down the Horsepasture River comes within earshot from the left.
            At 1.1 miles, you reach the lowest elevation on this hike where you cross a small stream on stepping stones.  An established campsite with a nice fire ring and logs for benches sits on the right just beyond this stream crossing.  The hike now becomes a riverside ramble with the rhododendron-choked river just to the left for the rest of the way to the falls.
Horsepasture River
            After a very brief level section, the trail begins going steeply up and down using many wooden steps with more up than down going in this direction.  Although the difference between maximum and minimum elevations on this hike is only about 450 feet, the almost complete absence of level areas makes the going more difficult than you might expect.  This characteristic and high humidity are typical of hiking in the Jocassee Gorges.
            At 1.5 miles, you briefly exit the forest and reach the viewpoint for spectacular Rainbow Falls.  The rocky falls are nearly 150 feet high, and the Horsepasture River supplies plenty of water to fall.  The rocks at the base of the falls send a large amount of spray toward the viewpoint, and the cool spray feels good on a hot summer day.  Rainbow Falls is by far the most scenic waterfall at Gorges State Park, so take some time here to enjoy the view and spray.
Rainbow Falls
            Some people turn around at Rainbow Falls, but there is another smaller waterfall only 0.2 miles upstream.  Where the trail seems to fork at the north end of the viewpoint, choose the higher right option to emerge at river level above Rainbow Falls.  Do not wade into the river here: exactly 2 days after my hike a man chose to wade here, got swept away by the current, and fell to his death over Rainbow Falls.  The same thing happened to another person about 2 weeks later.
Turtleback Falls
            Climbing more wooden steps brings you to a rocky outcrop that offers a nice view of Turtleback Falls.  At only 20 feet high, Turtleback Falls is as much a waterslide as it is a waterfall, and area youth like to use it as such.  I passed several groups of youths lugging coolers down this trail to this waterfall when I came here on a warm and muggy Friday afternoon.  Although a third waterfall (sometimes called Drift Falls) exists near SR 281 less than 0.5 miles upstream, the official trail ends at Turtleback Falls.  At some point you will have to turn around and retrace your steps back to the Grassy Ridge trailhead to complete the hike.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Perrot State Park: Brady's Bluff (Blog Hike #696)

Trails: Perrot Ridge and Brady’s Bluff Trails
Hike Location: Perrot State Park
Geographic Location: west of Trempealeau, WI (44.01596, -91.47598)
Length: 2 miles
Difficulty: 7/10 (Moderate/Difficult)
Last Hiked: June 2018
Overview: A climb, steep in spots, to a bluff high above the Mississippi River.
Hike Route Map: http://www.mappedometer.com/?maproute=695417
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: North of La Crosse, take US 53 to SR 35.  Exit and go north/west on SR 35.  Drive SR 35 west 8 miles to the town of Trempealeau.  Where SR 35 turns right in the middle of town, turn left on Main Street.  Drive Main St. toward the river 3 blocks and turn right on First Street.  First Street turns into Sullivan Road and Park Road before ending at the entrance to Perrot State Park in 1.9 miles.  Pay the park entrance fee, and park in the first parking lot on the left after passing the gatehouse.

The hike: It was the fall of 1685 when Nicholas Perrot, one of the first French explorers in the upper Mississippi River valley, came to the confluence of the Trempealeau and Mississippi Rivers in present-day southwest Wisconsin.  Perrot and his men needed a place to camp for the winter, and the site’s abundance of wood, large prairies for game hunting, and high bluffs for protection from the wind made it ideal.  Perrot did a lot of trade and forged many treaties with native peoples at this site (some of whom had been living here for 5000 years), and between 1732 and 1737 a French fort stood here.
            Later white settlers occupied the land, and in 1918 John Latsch donated the land to establish the state park with the request that the park be named after Perrot.  From 1935 to 1937, the Civilian Conservation Corps’ (CCC) Camp Perrot stood here.  The CCC built a shelter and trails on the park’s Brady’s Bluff in addition to facilities at nearby Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge, a lock and dam on the Mississippi River at Trempealeau, and some projects at Merrick State Park just upriver.
            Today Perrot State Park protects 1270 acres of bluffs overlooking the confluence of the Trempealeau and Mississippi Rivers.  The park offers a 95-site campground, access to the Great River Trail (a bike trail), 6 picnic areas, and 12.5 miles of hiking trails.  In fact, Perrot State Park offers some of the best hiking in Wisconsin, a state only somewhat known for its hiking.  The park’s best trails head to the bluffs for their fantastic river views, and this hike takes the back route to Brady’s Bluff, the park’s highest point.           
East Brady's Trailhead
            Start by walking across the park road to find the signed trailhead for the Brady’s Bluff and Perrot Ridge Trails.  The park map calls this trailhead the East Brady’s Trailhead though no signs on the ground indicate such.  A metal historical marker erected by the Wisconsin Historical Society in 2003 stands here and gives a brief synopsis of the bluff’s history.  The single-track dirt trail heads into the woods, which features a lot of oak trees.
            In less than 500 feet, the trail forks to form our loop.  To make the climbing easier, this description turns right to head up a few stone steps and uses the trail going straight and slightly downhill as its return route, thus hiking the loop counterclockwise.  Signs identify this trail as the Perrot Ridge Trail, but it also forms the back route to Brady’s Bluff.
Climbing on the Perrot Ridge Trail
            The trail climbs gradually at first with the park road and park office visible and audible downhill to the right.  Soon the grade intensifies as the trail curves left to tackle the slope head-on.  A pileated woodpecker flew into the trees beside me and started hammering for insects on a dead tree’s trunk.  As you approach the top of the first steep area, a small prairie opening offers a view of Brady’s Bluff above you and to the left.
Looking up at Brady's Bluff
            At 0.3 miles, you reach a trail intersection on the side of Perrot Ridge.  Major trail intersections at Perrot State Park are identified by black numbered posts bearing park trail maps, and this intersection is post #5.  The option going right leads to the top of Perrot Ridge, which offers another nice Mississippi River view, but this hike turns sharply left to head for Brady’s Bluff.
            The trail surface turns to mowed grass as the trail embarks on a fairly level course on the side of Perrot Ridge.  This trail doubles as a cross-country ski trail in the winter, and partially obstructed views up and down Perrot Ridge emerge.  At 0.7 miles, you reach post #10 and another trail intersection.  The trail going right heads down the back side of Perrot Ridge, so you need to turn left to continue our loop.
Hiking atop Brady's Bluff
            After a few hundred more feet of fairly level hiking, you begin the steep climb up the back side of Brady’s Bluff.  No switchbacks or steps ease the grade, and the trail gets fairly narrow near the top of the bluff.  Some poison ivy grows beside the trail, so watch where you step.
Shelter at Brady's Bluff
            At 1.2 miles, you emerge from the forest into Brady’s Bluff’s spectacular and breezy prairie.  Turn left to reach the excellent stone/wood CCC-built blufftop shelter.  Looking out from the shelter, the Mississippi River paints a long, wide streak from right to left, and Trempealeau Mountain takes center stage below you to the north.  (Aside: the name Trempealeau comes from a French phrase that translates “bathed in water,” a fitting name because the mountain is surrounded by the confluence of the Trempealeau and Mississippi Rivers.)  Many islands, some large and some small, dot the river, and the hills of Minnesota line the opposite bank.  Take some time to enjoy this well-earned view and have a trail snack at the CCC shelter.
Trempealeau Mountain and view north

View downstream from overlook
            When you are ready to descend, continue east past the shelter.  The descent down the sheer front side of Brady’s Bluff starts very steep, but soon some stone steps and switchbacks ease the grade.  In total, the trail descends 470 vertical feet over 0.8 miles.  This trail was built by the CCC, as evidenced by the trail’s extensive stone stair and switchback constructions that were absent on the trails you hiked earlier.
Sidehill trail in prairie
            The trail winds downward through prairie, then forest, and then another small prairie before reentering the forest for good.  The sidehill trail allows you to see just how sheer this bluff is.  The park road soon comes within earshot downhill to the right, and you cross a creek with a small waterfall just before closing the loop.  A short walk past the historical marker returns you to the parking lot to complete the hike.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Wood Lake Nature Center (Blog Hike #695)

Trails: Perimeter and Prairie Trails
Hike Location: Wood Lake Nature Center
Geographic Location: Richfield, MN (44.88132, -93.29001)
Length: 2.3 miles
Difficulty: 1/10 (Easy)
Last Hiked: June 2018
Overview: A flat loop featuring a floating wetland boardwalk.
Hike Route Map: https://www.mappedometer.com/?maproute=734965
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: On the south side of Minneapolis, take I-35W to 66th Street (exit 10).  Exit and go east on 66th St.  Drive 66th St. east 3 blocks to Lake Shore Drive and turn right on Lake Shore Dr.  Parking for Wood Lake Nature Center is less than 1 block ahead on the right.

The hike: Located in the heart of suburbia on the south side of Minneapolis, tiny Wood Lake Nature Center offers a green 150 acre oasis in a desert of concrete and steel.  The Nature Center dates to 1971, when a recreational lake surrounded by homes was converted to the wetland you see today.  In terms of facilities, the Center offers only a small picnic area and an Interpretive Building, which features many interesting exhibits about the wetland and the fauna that call it home.
            For hikers, the Center offers 5 trails totaling 3 miles that explore the Center’s wetland, prairie, and forest habitats.  The highlight of the trail system is a floating boardwalk that passes over the heart of the wetland.  The hike described here forms a figure-eight route with the boardwalk at the pinch of the route, thus allowing you to hike across the boardwalk twice without retracing your steps elsewhere.
Starting the Perimeter Trail counterclockwise
            From the front of the Interpretive Center, take the paved path to the west (right, as you stand facing the Interpretive Center’s front door) to begin heading counterclockwise on the Perimeter Trail.  Open water in the Center’s wetland sits to the left, but the Perimeter Trail stays in the shady woodlands for most of its loop.  After passing the picnic area on the right, the short Woodland Loop exits right.  The Woodland Loop and Perimeter Trail come back together in 0.1 miles, so you can choose either option you wish.  Some large basswood trees live here, and puffy litter from some cottonwood trees covered parts of the trail on my visit.
            The trail continues through a narrow strip of woods on a southwest course.  At 0.4 miles, you reach a trail intersection where you need to turn left to head for the floating boardwalk.  Soon you reach the edge of the open water, and a nice view of the Interpretive Center and some tall condominiums emerges over the wetland.  As this view indicates, the sights and sounds of suburbia are everywhere on this hike; they include these buildings, surrounding houses, adjacent I-35W, and a nearby airport.  Thus, while Wood Lake Nature Center offers a flat and pleasant hike, it is not the place to come for quiet and solitude.
Interpretive Center and condominiums across wetland
            Near 0.5 miles, you reach the floating boardwalk.  The boardwalk passes over open water, and its floating construction means that you have to step carefully to keep your balance.  The water is only a couple of feet deep, but I had no trouble crossing the boardwalk despite my lack of balance and physical coordination.  I spotted a beaver swimming in the water while walking across the boardwalk.
Floating boardwalk
            At the east end of the boardwalk, trails go left and right.  Going left takes you directly back to the Interpretive Center, and this hike will go that way a little later.  For now, turn right to explore the southern end of the wetland.  The wide dirt trail stays in the edge of the forest with the wetland on your right and some private residences on your left.
View from south end of wetland
            At 1.1 miles, you reach the south end of the wetland.  A bench here gives a nice northward view over the length of the wetland.  Just past the bench, the path forks with the Perimeter Trail going left and the Prairie Trail going right.  The two trails come back together on the west side of the wetland, so you can choose either option here.  Because most of this hike has stayed in the woods so far, I chose to take the right option and hike through the prairie.
Hiking over the causeway
            The Prairie Trail passes through its namesake prairie before heading over a narrow causeway in the wetland.  I saw a lot of birds on this part of the hike, including redwinged blackbirds, a family of Canada geese, a family of mallard ducks, and some egrets.  At 1.7 miles, you rejoin the Perimeter Trail.  Angle right to head back to the floating the boardwalk, and cross the floating boardwalk for a second time.
Hiking through the woods
            Upon reaching the east end of the boardwalk for a second time, choose the option going left.  The wide dirt trail stays in the woods as it heads up the northeast side of the open water.  Soon the parking area comes into view ahead.  The trail surface turns back to asphalt as the trail curves left to return you to the Interpretive Center, thus completing the hike.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Tamarack Nature Center: Dragonfly and Deer Pass Trails (Blog Hike #694)

Trails: Dragonfly and Deer Pass Trails
Hike Location: Tamarack Nature Center
Geographic Location: White Bear Township, MN (45.10154, -93.03802)
Length: 2.8 miles
Difficulty: 3/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: June 2018
Overview: A flat to rolling loop featuring prairie, wetland, and forest habitats.
Hike Route Map: http://www.mappedometer.com/?maproute=695413
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: North of Saint Paul, take I-35E to Highway 96 (exit 117).  Exit and go east on Highway 96.  Drive Highway 96 east 0.8 miles to Otter Lake Road and turn left on Otter Lake Rd.  Drive Otter Lake Rd. north 1.5 miles to the signed Tamarack Nature Center entrance on the left.  Turn left to enter the Center, and park in the large paved lot in front of the Nature Center building.

The hike: Owned and maintained by Ramsey County, Tamarack Nature Center consists of 320 acres on the northern fringe of the Twin Cities metro area.  True to its name, nature takes center stage at Tamarack, as it offers only a play area, a small developed garden, and a Nature Center building for amenities.  The Nature Center building was closed when I came here after a math conference on a Tuesday evening, but I have read that it offers some nice exhibits and programs, especially for younger children.
            Tamarack Nature Center’s land includes a mix of prairie, wetlands, and woodlands, and all of these areas can be explored on the Center’s 6 trails that total 5.5 miles.  The Center’s trail system includes the 0.8 mile Bluestem Trail Paved Loop, and Ramsey County’s paved Birch Lake Regional Trail passes beside the Nature Center.  The hike described here forms a fairly flat 2.8 mile loop through all of the Center’s habitats by combining the Dragonfly Trail, which features the Center’s prairie and wetlands, with the Deer Pass Trail featuring the Center’s woodlands.  Note that pets are not allowed at Tamarack Nature Center.
Dirt road leading to Dragonfly Trail
            From the front of the Nature Center’s building, head north first on the paved trail, then continue north on a two-track dirt road where the paved trail curves sharply left.  Soon you reach post #2, where the short Bluebird Trail exits right.  Continue straight to begin the mowed-grass Dragonfly Trail.  Trail intersections at Tamarack Nature Center are marked with tall brown numbered posts bearing symbols for the various trails that meet at that intersection.  The Dragonfly Trail’s symbol is a white dragonfly with a dark blue background.
            At 0.1 miles, you reach post #4, where the Dragonfly Trail turns left.  For the next 0.6 miles the trail heads roughly west along the Center’s north boundary.  This section of trail passes between a pine forest on the right and a prairie and wetland on the left.  Traffic noise from County Road H2 E just to the right becomes audible.  At 0.4 miles, you pass a bench in an attractive location under a large, old pine tree.
Bench under pine tree
            0.7 miles into the hike, you reach the Center’s west boundary, and the trail curves left.  Noisy I-35E appears across the Center’s boundary to the right here.  A large number of cottonwood trees live in this area, and I saw a lot of birds including some redwinged blackbirds.
1 mile into the hike, you reach post #7 and a major trail intersection.  If you wanted to stay in the prairie, you could continue straight on the Dragonfly Trail here.  To also see the Center’s woodlands, this hike turns right to begin the Deer Pass Trail.  The symbol for the Deer Pass Trail is a white deer with a brown background.
Starting the Deer Pass Trail
            The Deer Pass Trail features more up-and-down than the Dragonfly Trail, and it appears to tread atop a sequence of kames, or mounds of dirt and gravel deposited at the end of the last ice age.  At 1.2 miles, you cross a small stream that feeds small Fish Lake.  A nice view of the lake emerges across the prairie to the left.
View across prairie to Fish Lake
            The trail climbs steeply to top the next kame as you pass around the south side of Fish Lake.  At 1.6 miles, a spur trail to Hammond Road and the Birch Lake Regional Trail exits right.  The dirt Deer Pass Trail curves left here.  Soon the trail crosses the outflow of Fish Lake and reenters the prairie.  If you look over your left shoulder just after reentering the prairie, you will see the white water tower that stands beside the White Bear Township administrative building.
            At 1.8 miles, you reach post #8, where the Deer Pass Trail turns right.  Just under 1000 feet later, the Deer Pass Trail ends at post #10.  Turn right to rejoin the Dragonfly Trail and continue your counterclockwise journey.  The Center’s wetlands now take center stage, and I saw a large number of Canada geese here.
Hiking past the wetland
            Soon a seasonal trail exits left, but it was closed due to wetness on my visit.  Thus, I was forced to follow the Dragonfly Trail all the way to its intersection with the asphalt Birch Lake Regional Trail, which runs adjacent to Otter Lake Road.  Turn left on the paved trail and walk it north 0.25 miles to another sign for the Tamarack Nature Center.  Turn left here to reenter the Center and continue the Dragonfly Trail.
            In quick fashion you walk around a vehicle gate and pass posts #13 and #12.  Side trails leading to the developed garden exit right, and other trails heading to the boardwalk on the Acorn Trail (not described in this blog) exit left.  Just shy of 2.7 mile, you intersect the Bluestem Trail Paved Loop.  A right turn and short walk will return you to the Nature Center building and complete the hike.