Saturday, September 22, 2018

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


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

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

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

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

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


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

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

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

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

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


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

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

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

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

Monday, September 17, 2018

Brunet Island State Park: Timber, Pine, and Jean Brunet Nature Trails (Blog Hike #717)


Trails: Timber, Pine, and Jean Brunet Nature Trails
Hike Location: Brunet Island State Park
Geographic Location: west side of Cornell, WI
Length: 1.9 miles
Difficulty: 1/10 (Easy)
Last Hiked: August 2018
Overview: A semiloop through nice forest on Brunet Island.

Directions to the trailhead: The entrance to Brunet Island State Park is on the north side of SR 64 on the west side of Cornell just before crossing the Chippewa River.  Enter the park, pay the park entrance fee, and drive the one-way park loop road to the beach parking area at its southern end.

The hike: Flowing for 183 miles on a northeast to southwest course, the Chippewa River is one of northwestern Wisconsin’s main waterways.  The river gets its name from the Chippewa or Ojibwe Indians, who controlled most of the river’s watershed until the Treaty of St. Peters in 1837.  The watershed contains much of northern Wisconsin’s vast white pine forests, and the river became a major transportation route for cut logs in the mid to late 1800’s.  The large lumber and paper industries fed by logs floated down the river made the City of Eau Claire the regional center it is today.
            Located above Eau Claire where the Fisher River joins the Chippewa River, Brunet Island State Park protects more than 1300 acres including its namesake 179-acre island at the two rivers’ confluence.  The park is named for Jean Brunet, a French nobleman who built the first sawmill and dam in Chippewa Falls, a city near Eau Claire, in 1836.  Later Brunet built a trading post just downstream from the park, and the site of the trading post is marked with an historical marker along SR 178 southwest of Cornell.  In fact, Cornell was originally named Brunet Falls after this trading post.
            The park came to be in 1936 when the Northern States Power Company donated the island to the State of Wisconsin.  The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built some structures here in 1938, and today the park offers a pair of campgrounds totaling 69 sites, a riverside swimming beach, a boat landing, a ballfield, a playground, and some picnic areas. 
For hikers, the park’s longest trail is the 3.1 mile Nordic Trail, which is located on the main land rather than the island and (as its name implies) is designed primarily for cross-country skiing in the winter.  Yet most local experts believe the park’s best hiking trails lie on the island.  This hike explores the short and flat island hiking trails, which offer a nice walk through mature forest along with good Chippewa River views.  After my previous two rushed hikes in Minnesota (rushed in order to finish the hike as fast as possible, thereby getting myself out of the bugs as fast as possible), I had a very relaxing, pleasant, and low bug hike on Brunet Island.
Start of Timber Trail near beach parking area
            From the beach parking area, head north across the paved park loop road to reach the signed start of the Timber Trail.  Trails on Brunet Island are not marked, but they are easy to follow with signed intersections.  The single-track dirt trail heads in the general direction of north through a nice forest that features maple and birch trees.  The understory is fairly open but contains some ferns.  I saw a pair of pileated woodpeckers in this section of the woods.
Hiking the Timber Trail
            Just past 0.3 miles, the signed Pine Trail exits right.  Turn right to leave the Timber Trail and begin the Pine Trail, the longest trail on the island.  The Pine Trail embarks on a meandering course through the north-central part of the island, which as the trail’s name suggests is dominated by pine trees.  Where the east arm of the park loop road comes into view, the trail curves left to remain in the forest.
            At 0.7 miles, you reach the north end of the Pine Trail where it intersects the north arm of the park loop road.  Cross the road to begin the Jean Brunet Nature Trail, a 0.6 mile loop through the northernmost part of Brunet Island.  Almost immediately you reach the trail intersection that forms the Nature Trail’s loop, and options go straight and right.  Continue straight to hike the loop clockwise.
Chippewa/Fisher River
            The trail descends slightly to reach the bank of the tan-colored Chippewa River.  The Chippewa and Fisher Rivers have numerous islands near their confluence, so the land mass you see across the river is an island and not the other bank.  For the next 0.3 miles the trail curves right to follow the bank of the Chippewa/Fisher River, which stays in sight to your left most of the time.
Inlet of Fisher River
            The trail surface turns to asphalt just before you need to turn right to leave the asphalt and continue the Nature Trail’s loop.  This turn is not marked, and if you reach the park loop road on the asphalt trail you have missed this turn.  In that case, backtrack about 50 yards to find the trail.  The last leg of the Nature Trail features a few interpretive signs as it heads west with the park loop road through the trees on your left.
            At 1.2 miles, you close the Nature Trail loop.  Turn left to get back to the park loop road, where two options present themselves to finish the hike.  One option is to simply retrace your steps 0.7 miles along the Pine and Timber Trails, but some of the retracing can be avoided if you do not mind a short road walk.  To execute the second option, turn right on the park loop road and walk against the one way traffic for a few hundred feet to the signed north end of the Timber Trail on the left.  Hiking the Timber Trail south its full length returns you to the beach parking area to complete the hike.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Lowry Nature Center at Carver Park Reserve: Tamarack Trail (Blog Hike #716)


Trail: Tamarack Trail
Hike Location: Lowry Nature Center (at Carver Park Reserve)
Geographic Location: northwest of Victoria, MN
Length: 1.5 miles
Difficulty: 1/10 (Easy)
Last Hiked: August 2018
Overview: A relatively flat circumnavigation of Crosby Lake.

Directions to the trailhead: On the west side of Minneapolis, take I-494 to SR 7 (exit 16B).  Exit and go west on SR 7.  Drive SR 7 west 13.2 miles to Victoria Drive.  Take the third exit from the traffic circle to head south on Victoria Dr.  The signed entrance for Lowry Nature Center is 1.2 miles ahead on the left.  Park in the large paved parking lot near the Nature Center building.

The hike: Located on the western edge of the Twin Cities metro area, 3719 acre Carver Park Reserve is the second largest park in the Three Rivers Park District, which was introduced in detail in the previous hike.  The park is named for its location in eastern Carver County, which in turn is named after the explorer Jonathan Carver who explored this area in 1766 and 1767.  The park reserve features the 57-site Lake Auburn Campground, an archery range, and the Grimm Farm Historic Site, which is often called the birthplace of the Dairy Belt because the Grimm family developed the first winter-hardy alfalfa in North America here in the mid 1800’s.
            In terms of trails, Carver Park Reserve offers 9 miles of horse trails and 10 miles of paved bike trails, but the park reserve’s best hiking trails are found in its 250-acre Lowry Nature Center.  Lowry Nature Center is the oldest nature center in the Twin Cities, and it offers multiple loop trails open only to hikers.  Because much of the Nature Center’s land is periodically inundated, bugs will be terrible here during the summer.  Therefore, I chose to keep my hike short by hiking only the Tamarack Trail described here.  Over the course of the trail description I will suggest several other loops you could add to extend the hike if conditions are more pleasant when you visit.
Exiting the Nature Center
            After exiting the front door of Lowry Nature Center, turn right on the asphalt trail, which quickly ends at a small butterfly garden.  Turn right again on a two-track dirt/gravel trail, and notice the small pier on Crosby Lake downhill to the left.  The Tamarack Trail starts as a mulch trail exiting left just past this pier.
            The northern arm of the Tamarack Trail’s loop heads west through a dense forest that features some large oak trees.  Just past 0.3 miles, the Aspen Trail exits right to start its 1.1 mile loop that includes an overlook of Stone Lake.  The Tamarack Trail continues west and passes two picnic tables that offer nice views of Crosby Lake provided the bugs permit you to linger awhile.
Crosby Lake
            At 0.5 miles, the forest starts to transition to prairie as the trail curves left around the west end of Crosby Lake.  The trail surface also turns to mowed grass here.  Ignore a short-cut trail that exits left, but at 0.7 miles a boardwalk spur exiting right leads a short distance to a platform overlooking a periodically inundated wetland.  The wetland makes for good wildlife viewing if the bugs are tolerable.
            0.8 miles into the hike, an unofficial trail exits right where you need to turn left to stay on the Tamarack Trail.  Some plastic blue diamonds mark this section of trail for cross-country skiers in the winter.  Now the trail heads east through the nicest prairie on this hike, and goldenrod lines either side of the trail.
Hiking through the prairie
            At 1.2 miles, the Lake Trail exits right to begin its 0.8 mile loop around a couple of small lakes.  Crosby Lake’s dedication monument, identified on the park map as Crosby Rock, is located on the left just past this intersection.  More flat walking brings you back to the butterfly garden where the Tamarack Trail closes its loop.  The Nature Center building and the parking lot lie just ahead.  If you want to do more hiking, the Aspen and Lake Trails mentioned above offer more aquatic scenery.  Also, the Oak and Maple Trails located east of the Nature Center building offer loops of 0.6 and 1.4 miles respectively through terrain similar to what you saw on the Tamarack Trail.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Elm Creek Park Reserve: Eastman Nature Center Loops (Blog Hike #715)


Trails: Sumac, Meadowlark, Oxbow, Heron, Monarch, and Creek Trails
Hike Location: Eastman Nature Center (at Elm Creek Park)
Geographic Location: northwest of Osseo, MN
Length: 3.8 miles
Difficulty: 3/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: August 2018
Overview: A loop hike through creekside prairie and forest.

Directions to the trailhead: On the west side of Minneapolis, take I-94 or SR 610 to Maple Grove Parkway (I-94 exit 213).  Exit and go north on Maple Grove Pkwy.  Drive Maple Grove Pkwy. to its northern end at CR 81 and turn right on CR 81.  Drive CR 81 east 0.3 miles to Fernbrook Lane and turn left on Fernbrook Ln.  Drive Fernbrook Ln. north 1.1 miles to Elm Creek Road and turn right on Elm Creek Rd.  The signed Nature Center entrance is 0.6 miles ahead on the right.  Park in the Center’s only parking lot.

The hike: The Twin Cities’ Three Rivers Park District owes its existence to the Minnesota State Legislature, which passed legislation to establish the Hennepin County Park Reserve District in 1955.  Over the next 20 years the district purchased almost 21,000 acres of land, mostly farmland in the rapidly developing suburbs of Minneapolis.  In 2005, the district’s name was changed to the Three Rivers Park District to reflect the fact that the district’s range had expanded well past Hennepin County to include three major river watersheds: the Mississippi, the Minnesota, and the Crow.  Today the district operates more than 27,000 acres of park reserves, regional parks, and regional trail corridors at 25 different sites in and around Minneapolis, and more than 11 million people visit these sites every year.
            Located in the northwest corner of the Twin Cities metro area just off of I-94, 4900 acre Elm Creek Park Reserve is the largest park in the Three Rivers Park District.  The park reserve offers some nice amenities including a championship disc golf course, a chlorinated and filtered swimming area with a sand beach, several picnic areas, and 20 miles of paved bike trails.  Also located within the park reserve is the Eastman Nature Center, which contains Elm Creek’s best hiking options.  Loop trails extend both east and west of the Nature Center building, which is only open 9am-5pm even though the trails are open dawn to dusk.  This hike explores loop trails on both sides of the building, and it passes through a combination of woodlands and prairies, thus sampling all the habitats Eastman Nature Center has to offer.
Trail leading to floating boardwalk
            Before you start either of the main loops, the pond near the Nature Center building is worth a visit.  To get there, start walking back out the entrance road.  Where a paved trail starts on the right, turn left on the dirt/gravel trail that is signed as leading to the boardwalk.  A few yards later you reach the plastic floating boardwalk that takes you over the middle of the shallow pond.  I saw several turtles sunning on logs on the evening that I hiked over this boardwalk.
Small pond near Nature Center building
            After crossing the boardwalk, the dirt/mulch trail climbs slightly to reach an intersection with the Sumac Trail.  Turn right to begin a trip around the loop trails that are located west of the Nature Center building.  At only 0.25 miles, the Sumac Trail is the shortest loop trail at Eastman Nature Center, but it passes through some of the park’s best forest.  Numerous nice oak trees will be encountered in this area.
            Where a spur trail exits right to reach the asphalt bike trail, angle left to stay on the dirt Sumac Trail.  At the next intersection, turn right to temporarily leave the Sumac Trail and head for the Meadowlark Trail, Eastman Nature Center’s westernmost loop.  Very quickly you reach the Meadowlark Trail, where this description turns left to hike this trail’s loop clockwise.
Prairie view on Meadowlark Trail
            The Meadowlark Trail features more prairie than the Sumac Trail, and some benches give nice views of the prairie area that the Meadowlark Trail encircles.  This trail also features more elevation change than the Nature Center’s other trails.  The trail descends gradually as it approaches Rush Creek, which remains out of sight through the dense forest to the left.  At 0.7 miles, the signed spur trail to the Rush Creek Group Camp exits left near the westernmost point of this hike.  Angle right to climb slightly and continue the Meadowlark Trail.
Another prairie view
            The north arm of the Meadowlark Trail traces higher ground with the prairie still on your right.  At 1.2 miles, you close the Meadowlark Trail’s loop.  Turn left to get back to the Sumac Trail, then turn right to continue the Sumac Trail.  The southern arm of the Sumac Trail features more nice forest dominated by oak trees.
            Just before you reach the rear of the Nature Center building, you reach an intersection with the Heron Trail and Oxbow Loop, which will be our route to the loops east of the Nature Center building.  Turn right to leave the Sumac Trail and begin the Heron Trail, then turn right again to begin the Oxbow Loop.  As its name suggests, the Oxbow Loop takes you along some small oxbow lakes formed by slow-flowing meandering Rush Creek.  The stagnant waters in both the creek and the oxbow lakes form a perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes, so expect lots of bugs when hiking along the creek in the summer.
Rush Creek
            At the Oxbow Loop’s eastern end, turn right to continue the Heron Trail.  At the next intersection, turn right again to join the Monarch Trail and begin a counterclockwise journey around the main loops located east of the Nature Center building.  This part of the hike is very forested, and Rush Creek with its many bugs stays nearby on the right.  Where the Monarch Trail turns left, stay right to head for the Creek Trail.
            Just past 2 miles into the hike, you come out at an asphalt bike trail.  Turn right on the bike path and use its bridge to cross Elm Creek near its confluence with Rush Creek.  Just after crossing Elm Creek, leave the pavement by taking a soft left on a signed trail that leads to the Creek Trail.  At the next intersection, turn sharply left to begin the Creek Trail.
Starting the Creek Trail
            The south arm of the Creek Trail treads a bluff that stands about 30 feet above Elm Creek.  Where the Creek Trail splits, the two options come back together in a few hundred feet, so you could go either way.  The left option stays in the woods and stays closer to the bluff edge, while the right option stays more in the prairie.
            After the two options come back together, you pass a picnic table with a trash can on the right before a spur trail exits right and heads for Goose Lake.  The Creek Trail curves left and descends gradually to cross Elm Creek on a nice wooden footbridge.  At the next trail intersection, turn right to climb away from Elm Creek for good.
Mathprofhiker's shadow in the prairie
            The rest of the hike features more prairie than forest as it follows first the Creek Trail and then the Monarch Trail on a westbound course.  At 3.35 miles, you cross a paved bike trail just before passing an interpretive sign that describes some common prairie plants.  Where another asphalt trail comes in sight, turn left to stay on the dirt/grass Monarch Trail.  The Monarch Trail roughly parallels the asphalt bike trail until the Nature Center building comes into view.  This building signals the end of the hike.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Buffalo River State Park: Wide Sky/River View Loop (Blog Hike #714)


Trails: Old Grade, Wide Sky, and River View Trails
Hike Location: Buffalo River State Park
Geographic Location: east of Moorhead, MN
Length: 2 miles
Difficulty: 2/10 (Easy)
Last Hiked: August 2018
Overview: A loop hike through prairie along the Buffalo River.

Directions to the trailhead: East of Moorhead, take I-94 to SR 336 (exit 6).  Exit and go north on SR 336.  Drive SR 336 north 2.1 miles to US 10 and turn right to enter eastbound on US 10.  Drive US 10 east 8.3 miles to the signed park entrance on the right.  Turn right to enter the park, pay the entrance fee, and drive to the main parking lot at the main park road’s end.  Park here.

The hike: Located 14 miles east of the Fargo/Moorhead metro area, Buffalo River State Park protects 4658 acres straddling its namesake river.  The park was established in 1937 when the Moorhead Rod and Gun Club saw the land’s value as a public recreation area.  At that time the park land consisted of reverting farmland, but in 1979 efforts to restore the area’s native prairie habitat began.
            Today the park features some nice amenities including a swimming pool, a riverside picnic area, and a 44-site developed campground.  For hikers, the restored prairie takes center stage, and more than 12 miles of trails take you through prairie and riparian habitats.  While not the longest possible route, this hike explores both the prairie and riverside areas, thus giving you a good sample of the hiking this park has to offer.
Start of Old Grade Trail
            From the main parking lot, walk back out the entrance road a couple hundred feet to find the start of the Old Grade Trail on the right.  The Old Grade Trail is unsigned, but it starts almost opposite the campground access road, which leaves to the left.  The dirt/grass Old Grade Trail follows the route of an old road as it heads first north and then east across the restored prairie.  The prairie portion of this hike will be hot and sunny during the summer, so wear a hat and stay hydrated.
            Wooden posts adorned with plastic blue diamonds indicate that the Old Grade Trail is part of this park’s Hiking Club Trail.  Every Minnesota state park has a hiking club trail, and paying the $15 required to join the hiking club will earn you patches and plaques as you try to hike in all 67 of Minnesota’s state parks.  If hiking in all of Minnesota’s state parks sounds like a daunting task, you can start by trying to hike in more of them than I have: 10 as of this writing.  Minnesota also has a Passport Club for people content with just visiting its state parks.
Hiking through the restored prairie
            At 0.4 miles, you cross an old asphalt road and continue east through the prairie on the other side.  The trail’s name magically changes from the Old Grade Trail to the Wide Sky Trail (sometimes also called the Big Sky Trail) at this point, but the trail conditions and scenery remain the same.  Soon you pass an interpretive sign that points out some glacial erratics, or boulders transported here from points north by glaciers during the last ice age.
            Ignore side trails that exit right until you reach a major trail intersection at 0.95 miles.  A wooden bench sits at this intersection, and the Minnesota State University-Mankato Regional Science Center building can be seen ahead and to the left.  Turn right here and head steeply downhill but only for a short distance.  Interpretive signs tell you that this hill is a former Buffalo River cut bank, or a steep bank formed where the river used to run against the side of this hill, thereby undercutting and eroding the hill.
Approaching the Buffalo River
            When you reach the bank of the present-day Buffalo River, turn right and begin following the river downstream on the River View Trail.  A shallow sandy-bottomed prairie river, the Buffalo River flows northwest on a winding course for 139 miles to its mouth at the Red River, which in turn flows north into Lake Winnipeg.  Thus, the water you see here has a long way to go to reach the sea.  Birds and wildlife enjoy the riparian area, and while there are still a lot of prairie grasses and flowers including goldenrod, stands of basswood, elm, and box elder pop up along the river bank.
Hiking along the Buffalo River
            The remainder of the hike stays close to the Buffalo River.  Where the Savanna Cutoff Trail exits right at 1.65 miles, stay left to continue on the River View Trail.  When you reach a water treatment area, turn left again and quickly come out at the park’s swimming area, which was very popular on the warm Sunday afternoon that I hiked here.  Turn right to walk around the swimming area and get back to the main parking lot where your car is parked.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Cross Ranch State Park: Matah and Cottonwood Trails (Blog Hike #713)

Trails: Matah and Cottonwood Trails
Hike Location: Cross Ranch State Park
Geographic Location: south of Washburn, ND
Length: 5.7 miles
Difficulty: 4/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: August 2018
Overview: A somewhat long but flat double loop featuring views of the Missouri River.

Directions to the trailhead: Just west of Bismarck, take I-94 to SR 25 (exit 147).  Exit and go north on SR 25.  Drive SR 25 north for 18.7 miles to 28th Avenue SW.  Turn right on 28th Ave. SW.  Drive 28th Ave. SW 5 miles to 16th Street SW and turn right on 16th St. SW.  Drive 16th St. SW 4.4 miles to its end and turn left.  The park entrance is 2 miles ahead on your right.  Turn right to enter the park, drive under the railroad underpass, and park in the gravel Visitor Center parking lot, making sure to pay the entrance fee before you begin the hike.

The hike: Located on the west bank of the Missouri River about 20 miles upstream from Bismarck, Cross Ranch State Park and adjacent Cross Ranch Nature Preserve protect 5589 acres along the last free-flowing stretch of the Missouri River.  The land’s ranch days started in 1879 when A.D. Gaines, a land agent for the Northern Pacific Railroad, purchased 11,000 acres that included this site.  The ranch used the Maltese cross brand on its livestock, and when the ranch’s title transferred to Bob and Gladys Levis in 1956, the ranch was renamed Cross Ranch.  The Nature Conservancy purchased the ranch in 1980, and both the Nature Conservancy and Burlington Northern Railroad donated land to create the state park.
            Before Gaines ever came to this area, the Lewis and Clark Expedition camped across the river from this park in October 1804, and they made their winter camp that year just a few miles upstream from here.  A Lewis and Clark campsite marker is located in the park’s southern section near the Sanger boat launch.  In terms of amenities, the park has both a developed and primitive campground, log cabins and yurts, picnic shelters, and a boat ramp.  For the hiker, the park offers over 16 miles of trails with the best ones going along the Missouri River.  This hike takes you along the river but also explores an old growth cottonwood grove, thus providing a sample of all the hiking the park has to offer.
Heading south from the Visitor Center
            From the Visitor Center, head south on a concrete sidewalk that passes through a mowed-grass area to reach the park’s amphitheater.  Brown carsonite posts bearing the letters MT indicate that you are on the Matah Trail.  Past the amphitheater, the trail’s surface turns to dirt as the wide trail continues its southbound course.  Numbered posts suggest the presence of an interpretive guide, but none were available in the Visitor Center.
            At 0.3 miles, you reach this hike’s southernmost point at a signed trail intersection.  The trail going straight leads further south to the park’s Sanger section, but that trail was flooded by the Missouri River on my visit.  Thus, I turned left to continue the Matah Trail.  The Missouri River soon comes into view on the right, and for the next 0.9 miles the trail heads northeast parallel to the river.
Missouri River, looking downstream
            The section along the Missouri River is by far my favorite part of this hike.  The river was wide, swift, and muddy on my visit, and ripples in the water betray logs and other obstructions lurking under the water.  Signs warn you to stay away from the river’s eroding banks: undercut banks can collapse sending you tumbling into the water with disastrous consequences.  Benches placed near the river invite you to stop and enjoy the riparian scenery.
Bench along Missouri River
            While the river stays close on the right, the park’s primitive campground and yurt area stay close on the left.  In general you want to ignore spur trails that exit left, but some hand pump water wells in the campground are the only potable water source on this hike.  At 1.2 miles, the trail exits the park’s developed area as it angles left to leave the riverbank.  One of the river’s overflow channels now separates you from the river’s main course.  While these channels are dry most of the year, they store enough standing water to make bugs a real issue on the rest of this hike.
            1.5 miles into the hike, you reach another signed trail intersection where the Cottonwood Trail exits right.  We will continue the Matah Trail’s loop later, but to increase the distance and explore the old growth cottonwood grove, turn right to begin the Cottonwood Trail.  Immediately the Cottonwood Trail passes through a gate in a wire fence and splits to form its loop.  For no reason, I stayed straight and used the trail going left as my return route, thus hiking the Cottonwood Trail counterclockwise.
Hiking through the cottonwoods
            The grassy two-track Cottonwood Trail heads in the general direction of north as it enters the cottonwood grove.  The hike through the seemingly endless cottonwoods may seem boring to some people, but the trees are tall and stately, and the flat terrain makes for easy going.  At 2.8 miles, you exit the cottonwoods to begin hiking along the edge of a grassy field.  The Missouri River lies out of sight across the field to the right.
            Just past 3 miles into the hike, the east end of the Gaines Trail exits right.  Named for the previous landowners, the 2.1 mile Gaines Trail loop gives access to the 2.2 mile Levis Trail loop, and you could add one or both of them if you have the time and energy to extend the hike.  This description angles left to follow the brown carsonite posts bearing the letter C for the Cottonwood Trail.
Carsonite post along Cottonwood Trail
            At 3.2 miles, you reach the other (west) end of the Gaines Trail.  Turn left to begin the west arm of the Cottonwood Trail.  This part of the forest has a dense grassy understory, and soon the trail curves right to dip through another river overflow channel.  For the next 1.2 miles the Cottonwood Trail parallels this channel with the sunny, grassy channel on the left.
River overflow channel
            4.8 miles into the hike, the Cottonwood Trail curves left, crosses the channel, and returns to its southern end and its intersection with the Matah Trail.  Walk back through the gate in the wire fence and turn right to continue the Matah Trail.  Now back in the cottonwood grove, the trail curves left to keep heading in the general direction of south.  The farm fields beyond the park’s west boundary come into view through the trees to the right.
Back on the Matah Trail
            Just past 5.5 miles, you cross a gravel park road just before you cross a small gully on a wooden footbridge.  The last few hundred feet parallel this gully with the gully on the left.  Soon the Visitor Center comes into view ahead and to the right, thus marking the end of the hike.