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 (36.15315, -79.48799)
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.

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