Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Cherokee National Forest, Chilhowee Recreation Area: Benton Falls Trail (Blog Hike #722)

Trail: Benton Falls Trail
Hike Location: Cherokee National Forest, Chilhowee Recreation Area
Geographic Location: east of Cleveland, TN (35.15066, -84.60711)
Length: 3 miles
Difficulty: 3/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: October 2018
Overview: A mostly flat out-and-back with one steep area to scenic Benton Falls.
Hike Route Map:
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: From the intersection of US 64 and US 411 east of Cleveland, take US 64 east 7.5 miles to Oswald Road (FR 77) and the signed turn-off for Benton Falls Trailhead.  Turn left on Oswald Rd.  Drive narrow, winding, and steep but paved Oswald Rd. 7.3 miles to the signed entrance for Chilhowee Recreation Area on the right, passing several roadside overlooks on the way.  Turn right to enter the Recreation Area, and park in any of the day-use parking lots.

The hike: Rising 1200 feet above the eastern edge of Tennessee’s Great Valley, the Chilhowee Mountain east of Cleveland (not to be confused with the more famous Chilhowee Mountain near Great Smoky Mountains National Park) stretches for 12 miles between the Ocoee River and the Hiawassee River.  The name Chilhowee comes from an 18th century Cherokee Indian village that was located in this area.  The mountain’s location on the edge of the Great Valley means that the views from this ridge are fantastic, and the drive to this trailhead passes four roadside overlooks that offer excellent views.
            The former Cherokee village also lends its name to Cherokee National Forest’s Chilhowee Recreation Area, a somewhat remote but popular area accessible only by driving 7 miles of narrow, winding road.  The recreation area features small man-made McKamy Lake with its swimming beach and a 70-site developed campground.  The campground is only open April through October, but the day-use area is open year-round.  Also, Chilhowee Recreation Area offers 25 miles of hiking/biking trails, and the most popular destination in Chilhowee’s trail system, 65-foot Benton Falls, is also the destination of this hike.  Although I did this hike as an out-and-back, some reasonable loop options are suggested at the end of this trail description.
Trailhead for Benton Falls Trail
            Many trails start at the day-use parking lots, so the first and only real route-finding challenge is getting on the Benton Falls Trail (Cherokee National Forest Trail #131).  From the parking lot closest to the swimming area’s bath house, the signed gravel trail heads southwest with the bath house to your right.  After crossing the dam that forms McKamy Lake, turn left to begin the wide old dirt road that you will follow most of the way to Benton Falls.  The first of the Benton Falls Trail’s blue i-shaped paint blazes is located here.
McKamy Lake
            The wide dirt trail descends gradually as it traces around the north end of a small knob.  A few areas with high erosion increase the difficulty slightly, but overall the old road makes for easy going.  The road-like trail also makes the scenery less than ideal, so although Benton Falls is a scenic destination, the hike to get there is not particularly inspiring.
Hiking on the old road
Where signed narrower trails exit right or left, stay on the wider Benton Falls Trail.  Be thankful for the new metal trail signs that have been installed here; the old small wooden posts are in poor shape and hard to read, as you will see if you happen to notice one.  Oak and tulip poplar trees dominate the broadleaf forest, though a few pockets of pines grow beside the trail.
            At 1.2 miles, the trail curves right as cascading Franklin Spring Branch comes within earshot from deep in the ravine to the left.  After paralleling the branch for 0.2 miles, you reach the signed turnoff for Benton Falls.  Turn sharply left to leave the wide old road and begin the descent to the falls.
Descending toward Benton Falls
            The final 0.1 miles drop more than 80 vertical feet via two switchbacks and some wooden and stone steps.  The steps are of excellent construction and appear to be less than 10 years old.  Just past 1.5 miles, you reach the trail’s end at the base of Benton Falls.  With sufficient water the falls are attractive both visually and audibly, as Franklin Spring Branch cascades for 65 feet over numerous tightly-spaced rock ledges.  Some rocks at the base of the falls make for nice places to sit and enjoy the environment.
Benton Falls
            After you climb back up to the old road, several options present themselves to get back to the trailhead.  If you continue south (left) on the old road, you can turn right on the Slick Rock Trail (designed by mountain bikers for mountain bikers but also open to hikers) to form a loop of nearly 4 miles that ends back at McKamy Lake’s dam.  Alternatively, if you head back on the Benton Falls Trail, you can turn right on the signed Redleaf Trail, left on the Arbutus Trail, and then left on the Elderberry Trail to take a more eastern route back to the trailhead of about 3.5 miles.  I came here late in the afternoon, so I took the shortest route by retracing my steps on the Benton Falls Trail in order to make sure I finished my hike before sunset, which I did.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Uwharrie National Forest: Badin Lake Trail (Blog Hike #721)

Trail: Badin Lake Trail
Hike Location: Uwharrie National Forest, Kings Mountain Point Day Use Area
Geographic Location: northwest of Troy, NC (35.45452, -80.07932)
Length: 5.4 miles
Difficulty: 5/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: September 2018
Overview: A rolling loop hike offering good Badin Lake views.
Hike Route Map:
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: From the town of Troy, take SR 109 northwest 10.7 miles to Mullinix Road and the signed turn-off for Badin Lake Recreation Area.  Turn left on Mullinix Rd.  At the next intersection, turn right.  3.3 miles from SR 109, the asphalt ends at a T-intersection.  Turn right onto the good gravel road, then in 0.2 miles turn left to head for Kings Mountain Point.  You reach the Kings Mountain Point Day Use Area where this hike begins 1.2 miles later.

The hike: Standing in a 50 mile north-south line across central North Carolina, the Uwharrie Mountains are thought to be some of the oldest mountains on earth.  Geologists think that the mountains formed by accretion along the ancient Gondwanan tectonic plate, and they think that the Uwharries once reached more than 20,000 feet in elevation.  Yet many millennia of erosion have reduced them to their present rather unimpressive size.  On point, the Uwharrie’s high point, High Rock Mountain, stands at a mere 1188 feet above sea level.
            The Uwharrie Mountains’ namesake national forest was created by a declaration from President Kennedy in 1961, thus making Uwharrie National Forest the newest of North Carolina’s four national forests.  Consisting of only 51,218 acres, Uwharrie National Forest is also the smallest of North Carolina’s four national forests.  When the national forest was created, the land had been completely cleared for farming and timber harvesting, but today the forests have returned.  Thus, the national forest is a nice destination for outdoor enthusiasts.
            Uwharrie National Forest’s most famous trail is the 20 mile one-way Uwharrie National Recreation Trail, which is an excellent route for backpackers but too long for good dayhiking.  Thus, the forest’s best dayhiking loop is the Badin Lake Trail described here.  Built by the Youth Conservation Corps in 1979 and 1980, the Badin Lake Trail spends more than half of its distance along the shore of its namesake lake, so aquatic vistas abound as you hike around this mildly popular flat to rolling loop.
Exiting day use area, heading south
            The Badin Lake Trail, Uwharrie National Forest Trail #94, forms a true loop, so it leaves both the north and south ends of the parking area near where the road enters the parking area.  This description goes around the loop counterclockwise by heading southbound with the lake on your right.  Two brown carsonite posts and a wooden post mark where the trail enters the woods.
            The trail stays right beside the lake as it passes around the first of several inlets.  The forest here features large numbers of beech and oak trees with a few old pine trees, and large amounts of holly in the understory scraped against my legs as I hiked.  The terrain along the lake shore is very flat, but the many roots and quartz rocks in the trail may make your progress slower than you would expect.  The trail is marked with a copious number of white rectangular paint blazes, so it is hard to lose the trail.
Follow the white blazes
            At 0.6 miles, the trail curves left to briefly head away from the lake and bypass the Badin Lake Campground.  In addition to two official campgrounds, you will pass numerous established primitive campsites with fire rings along the lake shore.  After crossing the gravel Badin Lake Campground access road, the trail heads back to the lake shore.  Badin Lake views abound on this section of trail, and the forested opposite lake shore gives the area a secluded feel.  On the muggy Sunday afternoon I hiked this trail I saw several aquatic fowl on the lake including a heron and two egrets.  A large black snake also slithered across the trail in front of me toward the water.
Badin Lake vista
            As I passed around the next two inlets, I had to negotiate several fallen trees that blocked the trail.  Also, I found some horse manure on this section of trail even though this trail is designated by the national forest as hiker-only.  Overall, the trail maintenance is quite good for a national forest trail.  A woodpecker announced its presence in this area by pecking on a tree to my left.
Wooden waterbars exiting Cove Boat Ramp area
            Next the trail heads up a long narrow inlet, and at 1.8 miles you reach the blacktop parking area for the national forest’s Cove Boat Ramp.  Curve left to start heading uphill through the parking area, and look for the wooden waterbars and white paint blaze that mark where the trail reenters the woods.  After a brief steep climb that gains about 50 feet of elevation, you intersect a blacktop trail that circles the national forest’s Arrowhead Campground.  Angle right on the blacktop trail to begin hiking counterclockwise on the campground nature trail.
            Stay with the paved trail as it crosses the campground access road and curves left.  At 2.1 miles, you need to turn right to leave the pavement and continue the Badin Lake Trail.  There are trail markers in this area, but you need to look for them or risk missing this turn.  Now back on a single track dirt trail, the trail continues climbing on a moderate grade to reach the highest point on this hike: a small unnamed knob that stands about 140 feet above the lake.
Crossing a horse trail
            Continuing a northward ridgetop course, in quick succession you cross a horse trail twice.  Horses straying from this trail are the likely source of the horse manure I saw earlier in the hike.  After skirting another knob, the trail descends slightly to cross the gravel entrance road you drove in on at 2.9 miles.
Hiking along Badin Lake
            Still heading north, the trail descends somewhat steeply to enter a ravine that will eventually take you back to Badin Lake.  Pass a private recreation area signed “no trespassing” across the creek to the right and then pass under a power line.  Soon you reach the lake shore at a long narrow inlet that features some private residences on the opposite bank.  Some interesting rock outcrops are passed in this area, as are additional primitive campsites.
Badin Lake view from atop rock outcrop
            At 4.6 miles, you round the tip of the peninsula and begin heading south with Badin Lake proper on your right.  Just when you think you might have a flat easy lakeshore jaunt back to the trailhead, the trail curves left and heads directly up the slope around what appears to be a landslide area.  A gradual descent brings you to the top of a rock outcrop that gives your last nice Badin Lake view, this one from 50 feet above the lake.  More gradual descending takes you around a final lake inlet and returns you to the Kings Mountain Point Day Use Area to complete the hike.