Monday, December 31, 2018

Closing Out My 20th Year on the Trail

I still have 2 more hikes to post from my Christmas Break Okefenokee hiking trip, but the turning of the calendar says it is time for my annual summary and reflection post.  As I mentioned this time last year, 2018 marked my 20th year on the trail and my 20th year of writing trail descriptions.  Overall, I had a fantastic time on the trail in 2018: I did 57 new hikes totaling 171.5 miles.  Neither of those numbers are records, but they are both good numbers.  The hikes came across 13 states plus Canada, and they included 2 new states: North Dakota and Montana.  I now have only 7 more states to go to reach all 50 states.

I have another full slate of hiking trips planned for 2019, and they include trips to Mississippi, northwest Louisiana, northern/western Illinois, and coastal Maine (for what may be my final hiking trip to New England: the hiking up there is good, but that part of the country does not agree with my southern/midwestern roots).  If there is a theme to my hiking trips for 2019, it would be under-the-radar hiking destinations.  There are no Glacier National Parks on the agenda for this year, or at least so it seems.  Of course, you never quite know how the year will go: this time last year I was not planning a trip to Wisconsin, yet I ended up spending 6 days and doing 8 hikes there.

Thank you to everyone for taking a few minutes a few times per year to read about my hikes.  Happy new year, and see you on the trail in 2019!

David, aka the Mathprofhiker

Friday, December 28, 2018

Stephen C. Foster State Park: Boardwalk Trail (Blog Hike #727)

Trail: Boardwalk Trail
Hike Location: Stephen C. Foster State Park
Geographic Location: southeast of Homerville, GA (30.82643, -82.36186)
Length: 1.1 miles
Difficulty: 0/10 (Easy)
Last Hiked: December 2018
Overview: A short boardwalk through cypress and black gum forest.
Hike Route Map: https://www.mappedometer.com/?maproute=727015
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: From Fargo, GA, take SR 177 north 17 miles to the road’s end at the state park office and trading post.  Park in the blacktop lot near the park office.

The hike: For my general comments on the Okefenokee Swamp, see the previous hike.  This hike features Okefenokee’s west portal, which lies in Stephen C. Foster State Park.  Stephen C. Foster State Park is named for the American songwriter who wrote such famous songs as “Oh Susanna,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” and “Camptown Races.”  Interestingly, Foster himself seems to have had no connection to this area other than the famous song he wrote about the Suwanee River, which originates in the Okefenokee Swamp and flows just west of this park.  That song, officially titled “Old Folks at Home,” is the official state song of Florida.
The park is most famous as a canoeing and astronomy destination.  In fact, Stephen C. Foster State Park has been recognized by the International Dark Sky Association as a “Dark Sky Park,” and it is the only park in Georgia to earn this designation.  Come here during a new moon in the summer for the best viewing of the Milky Way galaxy.  In terms of hiking, the park features a boardwalk and a natural-surface loop trail through piney woods, but on my visit the natural-surface trail was underwater due to recent heavy rain.  Thus, I hiked the park’s only passable trail, the short boardwalk trail.
Trailhead near park office
            The trailhead is marked by a brown sign saying “Trembling Earth Nature Trail” that is located on the concrete sidewalk north of the park office.  As an aside, if you picture a swamp outpost complete with mosquito netting around all of its doors and windows and a plethora of boats outside docked in shallow water, you will have the park office pictured perfectly.  The name Okefenokee is an American Indian word that is often translated “land of trembling earth,” a reference to the instability of the swamp’s peat floor.  In fact, a more accurate translation is probably “bubbling water.”
            Soon after the wooden boardwalk begins, the boardwalk forks.  We will eventually angle right to continue the loop, but for now turn left to hike the boardwalk’s main spur.  The boardwalk spur heads west through black gum and cypress forest that remains underwater for much of the year.  Some gaps in the trees allow you to look for wildlife.  Although the park brochure mentions 223 species of birds and other creatures found in the park, things were very still on the afternoon I walked this boardwalk.  I saw more alligators and deer near the park office than I did on the trail.
Hiking the boardwalk spur
            The boardwalk spur used to extend 2100 feet into the swamp, but the western-most third of the boardwalk was destroyed by a wildfire a few years ago.  Construction materials were in place to rebuild the boardwalk on my visit, but right now it ends unceremoniously in the middle of the wetland.  Turn around and retrace your steps to the boardwalk fork, then turn left to continue the loop.
View over more open water
            Back on the loop, the boardwalk curves to the right as it stays in a relatively wet area.  Interpretive signs help you identify common trees in the swamp, and some numbered markers suggest the existence of an interpretive guide even though none were available at the park office.  Shortly after passing a wooden pavilion with benches, you close the loop.  Walk the concrete trail around the boat basin to return to the park office and complete the hike.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge: Chesser Island Trails (Blog Hike #726)

Trails: Chesser Island Boardwalk, Deerstand, Chesser Homestead, and Ridleys Island Trails
Hike Location: Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge
Geographic Location: southwest of Folkston, GA (30.71202, -82.16204)
Length: 3.3 miles
Difficulty: 3/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: December 2018
Overview: A double out-and-back with short loop featuring a bog observation tower and the historic Chesser Homestead.
Hike Route Map: https://www.mappedometer.com/?maproute=727012
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: From Folkston, take SR 23 south 7 miles to the signed entrance for Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge on the right.  Turn right and drive the refuge entrance road to the Visitor Center, where you will need to pay a small entrance fee.  Then drive the Swamp Island Drive to the blacktop parking lot for Chesser Island Boardwalk (stop #12 on the scenic drive).  Park here.

The hike: At first glance the 438,000 acre Okefenokee Swamp of southeast Georgia looks a lot like the Everglades swamp of south Florida, but first glances can be deceiving.  For one, the Okefenokee Swamp is technically not a swamp but a peat bog, or a wetland formed by the accumulation of peat over a long period of time, about 6500 years in this case.  Second, while the Everglades is heavily influenced by its waters mixing with the salt waters of the adjacent Gulf of Mexico, Okefenokee is entirely fresh water.  Indeed, two significant rivers originate in the Okefenokee: the Suwanee River flowing southwest through Florida into the Gulf of Mexico and the St. Mary’s River flowing east through Georgia into the Atlantic Ocean.  Third, Everglades National Park was established in 1947, while Okefenokee did not come under federal protection until Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1974.
            Technicalities aside, a visit to Okefenokee takes you into the largest blackwater “swamp” in North America.  Okefenokee’s center is protected as a wilderness area, and you will need to either rent a canoe or sign up for one of the park’s concession boat tours to access it.  Many people come to Okefenokee in the summer, but if I had any other options I would not come here then due to heat and bugs.  I came down here on my Christmas 2018 hiking trip and had a great visit.
Okefenokee can be accessed through three main portals, one on the east, one on the west, and one on the north.  The swamp’s north portal lies in the private non-profit Okefenokee Swamp Park, but that option’s high admission fee and lack of hiking trails make it undesirable except for tourists.  The swamp’s west portal lies in Stephen C. Foster State Park, and it is featured in the next hike.  The swamp’s east portal, which lies in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge’s Suwanee Recreation Area, contains the area’s best selection of hiking trails.  The refuge offers several short nature trails and the swamp’s longest hiking trail, the 4 mile one-way Longleaf Pine Trail that zig-zags back and forth across the refuge entrance road.  Yet the refuge’s best hiking options lie on Chesser Island, and the route described here combines the swamp’s best boardwalk with its best historic site, thus giving you the best hiking Okefenokee Swamp has to offer.
Trailhead for Chesser Island Boardwalk
From the boardwalk parking lot, head down the concrete path signed as leading to the Chesser Island Boardwalk.  In only a couple hundred feet, the mowed-grass trail leading to the Chesser Homestead exits right.  We will go that way after walking the boardwalk, but for now angle left and soon reach the boardwalk’s start.
At over 3000 feet in length, the Chesser Island Boardwalk is the longest boardwalk at Okefenokee.  This “boardwalk” is actually made of recycled plastic, and several covered pavilions allow you to sit and rest if needed.  Unfortunately, wildlife viewing is not the best until you get to the observation tower at the boardwalk’s end: the swamp’s dense grasses, bushes, and Spanish moss-covered trees ensure you hear more wildlife than you see.  Some pileated woodpeckers were the most noteworthy birds I saw until I got to the observation tower.  Large amounts of yellow butterwort were in bloom beside the boardwalk.
Pavilion on boardwalk
            At 0.7 miles, you reach the observation tower at the boardwalk’s end.  Climbing 48 steps will bring you to the observation platform.  The platform gives 360 degree views over the trees, but the open waters of Seagrove Lake to the west may be the direction of most interest: I saw an egret and an alligator in the pond.  A couple of view finders help magnify far-away birds and wildlife, so take some time to see what you can see.
View north from observation tower

Seagrove Lake, as seen from observation tower
            The boardwalk ends at the observation tower, so next you need to retrace your steps back to the beginning of the boardwalk.  Just before reaching the parking lot, turn left to begin the trail to the Chesser Homestead.  This trail is called the Deerstand Trail though no signs indicate such.  This area is only a foot or so higher in elevation than the boardwalk area, but that foot makes a big difference in this part of the world.  Tall loblolly pines now occupy the canopy, and the understory has a lot of saw palmetto and holly.
Hiking the Deerstand Trail
            At 1.7 miles, you cross a sandy dirt access road just before reaching a trail intersection.  Turning right would lead to the Chesser Homestead parking lot on Swamp Island Drive, so you want to turn left to quickly arrive at the homestead.  Built in 1927 by Tom and Iva Chesser, the homestead comes complete with a house (built from yellow pine and cypress in 21 days), grindstone, corn crib, chicken coop, and a few other buildings, but the first thing to grab your attention may be the white sand yard.  This type of yard was common in this area because it was once the ocean floor, but it also had a purpose: the open area would act as a firebreak in the case of a wildfire (lightning-spawned wildfires are common in Okefenokee), and all of the area’s venomous snakes are easily spotted on the white backdrop.  The Visitor Center offers a nice brochure describing the Chesser Homestead, so pick one up on your way in when you pay the entrance fee.
House at Chesser Homestead
            A 0.5 mile nature trail loop called the Chesser Homestead Trail starts at the southeast corner of the white sand yard.  A wooden sign that says “Homestead Loop” marks this point.  The trail leaves the homestead area and reenters the palmetto-filled forest.  Where the trail splits at an unsigned intersection, you need to turn left; the trail going right leads back out to Swamp Island Drive.
            The somewhat narrow trail heads north to reach a signed intersection with the Ridleys Boardwalk Trail, which exits right.  Turn right to hike the short boardwalk spur.  The real wood (as opposed to recycled plastic) boardwalk heads off the east end of Chesser Island into the wetter area before abruptly ending at a sign that describes some common birds.  Retrace your steps to the Homestead Loop, then continue straight to finish the loop.
End of Ridleys Island Trail
            At 2.6 miles, you return to the Chesser Homestead near the corn crib.  Walk around the house and retrace your steps to the boardwalk parking area to complete the hike.  While you are here, try some of the shorter trails such as the Canal Diggers Trail (a “tribute” to the timber companies that dug the Suwanee Canal located near the present-day Visitor Center) or the Upland Discovery Trail, or sign up for a swamp boat tour at the concession building adjacent to the Visitor Center.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

George L. Smith State Park: Primitive Campsites Loop (Blog Hike #725)

Trail: Primitive Campsites Loop
Hike Location: George L. Smith State Park
Geographic Location: east of Swainsboro, GA (32.55556, -82.12143)
Length: 2.7 miles
Difficulty: 2/10 (Easy)
Last Hiked: December 2018
Overview: A fairly flat loop through piney woods and along a cypress-filled lake.
Hike Route Map: https://www.mappedometer.com/?maproute=727010
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: Take US 80 to George L. Smith State Park Road, which is located 12.2 miles east of Swainsboro or 24.4 miles west of Statesboro.  Turn south on George L. Smith State Park Rd.  Drive George L. Smith State Park Rd. 1.7 miles to the signed turn-off for the boat ramp on the left.  Turn left and drive the boat ramp access road to the parking area near the boat ramp at its end.  A restroom building is located on the left here.  Park near the restroom building.

The hike: Somewhat rustic and remote George L. Smith State Park occupies 1634 acres of south Georgia’s cypress-filled wetlands and sandy-soiled pine-covered uplands.  The park centers around the historic Parrish Mill, a combination grist mill, saw mill, covered bridge, and dam that dates to 1880.  The park is named for George L. Smith, Jr., an Emmanuel County native who served as the Speaker of the Georgia House of Representatives for 11 years over 2 intervals between 1959 and 1973.
            Today the mill at the park’s center is a museum that can be explored via a self-guided tour.  Also, the dam forms 412-acre Parrish Lake, which makes the park a top-tier canoeing destination.  The park offers limited amenities, which include a cozy 18-site developed campground, 8 cottages, 4 primitive campsites, some picnic shelters, and 2 main hiking trails: a 3 mile loop on the east side of the lake and a 2.7 mile loop on the lake’s west side.
I came here planning to hike the 3 mile loop, but that trail was closed due to construction work on the dam, which also caused water levels in Parrish Lake to be much lower than usual.  Thus, I was forced to choose the 2.7 mile loop.  The 2.7 mile loop is mainly an access trail for the park’s primitive campsites, but it also offers nice views of cypress-filled Parrish Lake and a fairly easy walk through the pine-covered uplands.
Trailhead near boat ramp
            The hike starts at a brown metal sign located to the left (west) of the restroom building; the sign reads “Primitive Campsites.”  The wide single-track trail heads north into woods dominated by loblolly pines.  The trail is marked by light blue rings painted around trees, and the large number of these trail markers ensures you will have no trouble following the trail.  Some interpretive signs describe the flora and fauna of the surrounding piney woods.  Mountain bikes are also allowed to use this trail, but I did not see another single person on the Monday afternoon that I hiked here.
Hiking along the lake
            At 0.2 miles, the first of several unmarked side trails exits left to the Pioneer Campground.  Interestingly, this park makes a distinction between pioneer camping and primitive camping with the latter offering fewer amenities than the former.  Cypress tree-filled Parrish Lake comes very close on the right here, and the drawn-down water levels gave me the rare opportunity to hike on a canoe trail had I chosen to leave the official hiking trail.
Drawn-down Parrish Lake
            Wooden distance markers appear at half-mile intervals, and just past the 0.5 mile marker you pass the first of the four primitive campsites.  Metal signs attached to wooden posts mark the spur trails to the primitive campsites.  Near the 1 mile marker, the trail curves left and gains about 30 vertical feet as it leaves the lake area.  The trail surface gets sandier now, and the white sandy soil under foot contrasts brilliantly with the surrounding grass and trees.
Hiking along the ridge top
            At 1.7 miles, where another unmarked trail continues straight, you need to turn left to begin heading southbound along a low ridgetop.  Watch for the light blue rings painted around trees here.  A slightly muddy area allowed me to spot some deer tracks, evidence of what had been here before me.
The main park road comes into view through a pine planting on the right just before the trail ends at the boat ramp access road.  Turn left and walk 0.3 miles along the road to return to your car and complete the hike.  While you are here, be sure to check out the historic mill.  Also, a scenic 0.5 mile nature trail along the lake connects the mill area with the park’s developed campground.