Friday, May 24, 2019

Big Ridge State Park: Lake/Dark Hollow/Ghost House Loop (Blog Hike #740)

Trails: Lake, Dark Hollow, Big Valley, and Ghost House Trails
Hike Location: Big Ridge State Park
Geographic Location: west of Maynardville, TN (36.24368, -83.93093)
Length: 5.9 miles
Difficulty: 8/10 (Moderate/Difficult)
Last Hiked: May 2019
Overview: A lollipop loop passing many old settlement sites.

Directions to the trailhead: North of Knoxville, take I-75 to SR 61 (exit 121).  Exit and go east on SR 61.  Drive SR 61 east 12 miles to the signed entrance for Big Ridge State Park on the left.  Turn left to enter the park, then turn left to reach the Visitor Center and park office.  Park in the parking lot at the start of the campground road just past the park office.

The hike: Established in the 1930’s by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) as one of five demonstration parks, Big Ridge State Park protects 3687 acres on the south shore of Norris Lake.  The park was built in cooperation with the National Park Service and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), and many of the park’s buildings still feature the CCC’s handiwork.  Prior to the TVA’s arrival, pioneer settlers scratched out a meager living on this land, and remnants of their presence dot the park’s landscape.  Several of these remnants are passed on this hike.
            Big Ridge State Park offers many nice amenities, including swimming, fishing, and boating on Big Ridge Lake, 20 cabins, a 50-site campground, and several picnic areas.  Of the three state parks north of Knoxville with TVA roots (Norris Dam and Cove Lake being the other two), Big Ridge is the best destination for hikers as it features over 15 miles of hiker-only trails.  Many routes through the park’s trail system are possible, and the route described here gives a good sample of the area’s landscape without pegging the difficulty meter.
Trailhead along campground road
            From the start of the campground road, walk toward the campground to find the signed trailhead for the Lake Trail on the right.  Trails at Big Ridge State Park are marked by color-coded plastic shields; the shields on the Lake Trail are green.  Though not particularly numerous, the markings are sufficient to keep you on the trail.  The single track dirt Lake Trail climbs moderately for a short distance with Big Ridge Lake visible through the trees downhill to the right.  Sweet gum, maple, and beech are the most common trees in this forest, but some loblolly pines planted by the CCC in the 1930’s also enter the mix.
            Two short spur trails exit the Lake Trail: the Meditation Point Trail to the right at 0.1 miles and the Loyston Overlook Trail to the left at 0.5 miles.  The Meditation Point Trail leads a short distance uphill to a bench in the middle of the forest, while the Loyston Overlook Trail leads a slightly longer distance uphill to an overlook of Norris Lake.  These spur trails are worth exploring either now or on your journey back to the trailhead after you complete the loop portion of this hike.
Meditation Point
            After passing a bench and shelter just past the Lake Trail’s highest elevation, the trail descends gradually to reach the west side of Big Ridge Dam at 0.6 miles.  A 50-foot concrete dam built by the CCC, Big Ridge Dam separates the park’s Big Ridge Lake on the right from the much larger Norris Lake on the left.  The dam allows water levels in the park’s lake to remain constant despite seasonal changes in Norris Lake’s water level.  When I came here in late spring, water levels in the two lakes were about the same.
Big Ridge Dam
            The Lake Trail crosses Big Ridge Dam to reach the trail intersection that forms the loop portion of this hike.  The Lake Trail continues to the right, and it will be our return route.  To hike the steepest sections downhill, this description turns left to begin the Dark Hollow Trail, thus hiking the loop clockwise.
            Marked with blue plastic shields, the Dark Hollow Trail is narrower and more primitive than the Lake Trail.  The initial segment of the Dark Hollow Trail clings to the side of Pinnacle Ridge with Norris Lake just downhill to the left.  Several downed trees will need to be negotiated.  Some poison ivy grows along this trail, but careful looking for leaves of three will allow you to avoid it.
Dark Hollow Trail along Lake Norris

Lake Norris
The trail passes an unofficial campsite as it climbs up and over the end of Pinnacle Ridge before descending into West Dark Hollow.  Dark Hollow is a deep east-west ravine that lies between the park’s namesake Big Ridge to the north and the lower Pinnacle Ridge to the south.  A low saddle in the middle separates the hollow into east and west parts.
            At 1.4 miles, you cross a nice wooden footbridge over the main stream in Dark Hollow before turning right to begin heading up the hollow.  Soon you pass signed official backcountry campsite #1, which occupies a pleasant location just uphill from the creek.  For the next mile the trail follows an old dirt road as it climbs gradually up West Dark Hollow.  You pass several old homestead sites; they are identified by stone foundations, flat areas, and/or plants such as red cedars and daffodils.  Though the name Dark Hollow sounds ominous, the hiking is quite pleasant.
Hiking up Dark Hollow
            At 2.4 miles, you climb a gradual broad switchback to reach the saddle in the middle of Dark Hollow and an intersection with the Big Valley Trail, which goes left and right.  Turning left leads to the Indian Rock Loop, a very scenic but also very long and difficult add-on to this hike.  This description turns right to begin heading back toward the trailhead.
            Marked with orange plastic shields, the Big Valley Trail climbs rather steeply on an eroded track to reach the highest elevation on this hike, which stands about 350 feet above Big Ridge Lake.  A steep descent next brings you to the upper end of the Ghost House Trail at 3.2 miles.  You could go either way here, but to see more old settlement remnants this description turns right here and then turns left at the next intersection to descend gradually along the east arm of the Ghost House Trail’s loop, which is marked with yellow plastic shields.
The "ghost house"
            Soon you reach the “ghost house” for which this trail is named.  Once the home of Maston Hutcheson’s grandson, all that remains is a root cellar, cistern, and well casing.  Local legend states that this structure and the nearby Hutcheson family home are haunted, but I encountered no paranormal activity on my visit.
Norton cemetery
            Just past the ghost house lies the Norton cemetery, a pioneer cemetery that features headstones dating to the early 1900’s.  More gradual descending brings you to the lower end of the Ghost House Trail, where a left turn brings you to an intersection with the Lake Trail at 4.1 miles.  Turn right to begin the last segment of this hike.
            This part of the Lake Trail can be rather muddy, but it offers only minor undulations with persistent views of Big Ridge Lake to the left.  At 4.5 miles, a spur trail heads a short distance right to reach the Snodderly-Armp cemetery.  The headstones in this pioneer cemetery are older than the ones in the Norton cemetery you passed earlier, and this cemetery contains the burial sites of some of this area’s earliest residents.
Snodderly-Armp cemetery
            5.3 miles into the hike, you close the loop at the east end of Big Ridge Dam.  Cross the dam and retrace your steps to the trailhead to complete the hike, making sure to take the spur trails to Loyston Overlook and/or Meditation Point if you did not visit these places earlier.  Also, on your drive back out to I-75, you will pass the Museum of Appalachia, which features a recreated pioneer village that depicts life in this region during the early 1900’s.  After hiking past what remains of these old settlement sites, you can stop at the museum on your way home to see what the sites might have looked like at their peak.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Lake James State Park: Paddy's Creek and Holly Discovery Trails (Blog Hike #739)

Trails: Paddy’s Creek and Holly Discovery Trails
Hike Location: Lake James State Park
Geographic Location: northeast of Marion, NC (35.75140, -81.87834)
Length: 3.6 miles
Difficulty: 3/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: April 2019
Overview: A lollipop loop along the banks of Lake James and Paddy’s Creek.

Directions to the trailhead: From downtown Marion, take US 70 east 5 miles to SR 126.  Turn left on SR 126.  (Note: this intersection can be reached from I-40 between Asheville and Winston-Salem by taking exit 85, exit 90, or exit 94.)  Drive SR 126 north 5.4 miles to the signed park entrance on the right, passing the entrance to a different part of the park on the left en route.  Turn right to enter the park, and drive the main park road 2 miles to its end at the park office.  Park in the large parking lot in front of the park office.

The hike: Located near the mouth of North Carolina’s famous Linville Gorge, Lake James State Park protects more than 6800 acres around its namesake lake.  The lake was formed in the early 1920’s when Duke Energy built hydroelectric dams on the Catawba River and two of its tributaries.  The lake is named after James B. Duke, who is the founder of Duke Energy.  The park was established only in 1987, and the area that contains this hike opened for public use only in 2010.
Although you can peer into the rugged gorge from an overlook you drive past on your way to this trailhead, the terrain contained in the park itself is mostly flat or rolling.  The park is organized into three sections: the Long Arm Peninsula Area, the Catawba River Area, and the Paddy’s Creek Area featured here.  The Long Arm Peninsula Area features only some boat-in campgrounds for amenities, but the other two areas feature developed campgrounds, picnic areas, and an excellent selection of hiking and/or mountain biking trails.  This hike takes you along the north bank of Paddy’s Creek and Lake James, thus offering a nice combination of lakeside and forest hiking on fairly flat and easy trails.
East trailhead of Paddy's Creek Trail
The hike starts at the park office building, which also contains a concession stand and changing facilities for the adjacent swimming area.  Follow the asphalt path to the right (west) that provides handicapped access to a picnic area, and look for the beginning of the Paddy’s Creek Trail on the right.  The wide dirt Paddy’s Creek Trail heads into the woods at a sign that simply says “trail.”
Marked by orange plastic triangles, the Paddy’s Creek Trail follows the north side of Lake James’ Paddy’s Creek inlet with the lake visible to the left.  The forest in this area is a nice mix of maple, sweet gum, and loblolly pines, but some nice shady hemlocks will be passed later on.  Some wide well-constructed wooden bridges carry you over two of Paddy’s Creek’s tributaries, and overall the hiking is easy and pleasant.
Old stone wall
At 0.3 and 0.7 miles respectively, the Mills Creek and Homestead Trails exit right at signed intersections.  Stay close to the lake by remaining on the Paddy’s Creek Trail.  Broad lake views appear at a couple of points, and some piles of rocks probably indicate farm field boundaries that predate the park and maybe even the lake.
Lake James
Soon the western end of Paddy’s Creek inlet comes into view, and the trail climbs gradually to an elevation about 40 feet above the lake.  A blazed but unsigned spur trail exits left to descend to a wetland at the inlet’s western end, but it exits at such a sharp angle that you will have a better chance of finding the spur trail on your return route.  Continuing west, the trail exits the woods and enters a narrow grassy area as you approach the main park road.  I passed a couple of deer in this area on my visit.
At 1.15 miles, you reach the west end of the Paddy’s Creek Trail at a parking lot on the main park road.  You could turn around here, but the short and easy 0.75 mile Holly Discovery Trail also starts at this parking lot, so you may as well extend your hike by adding on the Holly Discovery Trail.  The Holly Discovery Trail features some excellent hands-on exhibits designed to educate younger kids about the forest.  In fact, if I was hiking with kids younger than 10, I would skip the Paddy’s Creek Trail by parking at this parking lot and just hike the Holly Discovery Trail.
Start of Holly Discovery Trail
Marked with red plastic triangles, the Holly Discovery Trail starts by passing through a wooden portal before quickly splitting to form its loop.  For no reason, I turned right and used the left trail as my return route, thus hiking the loop counterclockwise.  True to its name, the forest along this trail features a lot of American holly.  Some wet areas need to be negotiated, but the gravel trail surface keeps your feet mostly dry.
1.8 miles into the hike, a signed spur trail exits right to Paddy’s Creek.  This short spur is worth taking, as it leads to a nice spot along the clear-water creek, which is a rapidly flowing mountain laurel-choked waterway at this point.  The contrast between this view and the Lake James view you passed only 1 mile earlier is striking.
Paddy's Creek
Back on the main loop, you pass a couple more interpretive stations before closing the loop.  Retrace your steps across the park road and back down the Paddy’s Creek Trail to return to the park office and complete the hike.  Be sure to take the short spur down to the wetland area on one of your trips along the Paddy’s Creek Trail, and stop at the Linville Gorge overlook on your way out if you did not do so on your way in.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Noxubee National Wildlife Refuge: Dr. Ray Watson Memorial Trail (Blog Hike #738)

Trail: Dr. Ray Watson Memorial Trail
Hike Location: Noxubee National Wildlife Refuge
Geographic Location: northeast of Louisville, MS (33.27081, -88.78351)
Length: 1 mile
Difficulty: 0/10 (Easy)
Last Hiked: March 2019
Overview: A short double loop through bottomland forest.

Directions to the trailhead: From the intersection of SR 15 and SR 25 in Louisville, take SR 25 north 8.1 miles to Bluff Lake Road and turn right on Bluff Lake Rd.  Drive Bluff Lake Rd. east 13.7 miles to the refuge Visitor Center on the left.  Park in the parking lot in front of the Visitor Center.

The hike: Spanning parts of Winston, Oktibbeha, and Noxubee Counties in east-central Mississippi, Noxubee National Wildlife Refuge consists of more than 48,000 acres of lakes, bottomland forest, and upland pine forest.  The refuge was established in 1940 out of land bought up by the depression-era Resettlement Administration.   Therefore, all of the refuge’s land was extensively farmed before the refuge existed.  The refuge’s unusual name comes from a Choctaw Indian word that translates “to stink.”
            Like most national wildlife refuges, Noxubee National Wildlife Refuge offers great wildlife viewing but only limited hiking opportunities.  On point, the refuge offers two boardwalks and five trails, but most of the trails are less than 1 mile long.  When I came here on a warm and muggy Thursday morning in mid-March, a strong line of thunderstorms closing in from the west forced me to keep my hike short and close to the Visitor Center.  Thus, I chose to hike the Dr. Ray Watson Memorial Trail, which is named for a former professor of botany at nearby Mississippi State University who spent a lot of time in the refuge’s forests.  Despite the trail’s short length, I recommend waterproof boots for this hike due to a large number of wet areas, and I would not hike this trail in the summer due to heat and bugs.
Information kiosk at trailhead
            From the front of the Visitor Center, walk south across the parking lot to reach the small information kiosk that marks the start of the Dr. Ray Watson Memorial Trail.  The trail is laid out in a figure-eight configuration with the trailhead at the very top of the north loop.  To get to the lake overlook quickly, this hike turns right to follow a red brick path through a planted native garden area.
            Soon the brick path curves left to cross the main refuge road and enter the Webster Memorial Oak Grove.  The oak grove is a pleasant grassy area with sparsely planted oak trees.  At 0.15 miles, you reach the observation platform overlooking Loakfoma Lake.  The lake consists mostly of open water, which should make for good waterfowl viewing.  Unfortunately, there seemed to be nothing moving when I was here, and the incoming storm did not allow me to be patient.  Maybe your waterfowl viewing luck will be better.
Lake Loakfoma overlook
            Past the overlook, the trail heads into the bottomland forest that will surround it for the rest of the hike.  Just past 0.2 miles, you reach a trail intersection at the south end of the north loop.  Turn right to head down the connector trail toward the south loop.  34 blue numbered markers correspond to an excellent trail guide available at the Visitor Center.  The trail guide identifies common trees and shrubs, so this trail makes a great introduction to Mississippi’s bottomland forest.
            Just past interpretive marker #9, the trail splits to form its south loop.  To follow the markers in increasing order, this description turns right and uses the left option as its return route, thus hiking the south loop counterclockwise.  Some wet areas will need to be negotiated as you continue through the bottomland forest, which features large numbers of loblolly pine, shortleaf pine, sweetgum, oak, and maple.
A drier section of trail
            At 0.55 miles, a closed trail continues straight and leads to an old farm site.  As directed by orange metal markers, turn left to continue the loop.  The trail alternates between dry and wet areas as it curves left to begin heading first north and then west.  Wooden boardwalks get you over the worst of the wet areas.
A wetter section of trail
0.85 miles into the hike, you close the south loop.  Turn right twice for the shortest route back to the Visitor Center, or take a short detour back to the lake overlook if you want another chance at waterfowl viewing.  On your way out, the short Cypress Cove Boardwalk located just west of the Visitor Center offers a nice walk through inundated bald cypress forest on the west end of Bluff Lake.  I had better luck with wildlife viewing on the Cypress Cove Boardwalk, and I saw several coots, mallards, and Canada geese among more common woodland birds while walking the boardwalk.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Natchez Trace Parkway, Jeff Busby Park: Little Mountain Trail (Blog Hike #737)

Trail: Little Mountain Trail
Hike Location: Natchez Trace Parkway, Jeff Busby Park
Geographic Location: northwest of Ackerman, MS (33.41363,-89.26080)
Length: 2 miles
Difficulty: 4/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: March 2019
Overview: An out-and-back from the summit of Little Mountain.

Directions to the trailhead: Jeff Busby Park is located at milepost 193.1 on the Natchez Trace Parkway.  This milepost is located 1.9 miles south of the Parkway’s intersection with Mississippi SR 9.

The hike: Similar in construction and purpose to the more famous Blue Ridge Parkway of Virginia and North Carolina, the Natchez Trace Parkway extends for 444 miles from Natchez, MS in the south to Nashville, TN in the north.  The Natchez Trace Parkway (henceforth called “the Parkway”) was established in 1938 as one of many projects undertaken by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), and it roughly follows the route of the historic Old Natchez Trace, a major travel corridor for American Indians and European settlers in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s.  Several segments of the old trace are preserved as hiking trails within the boundaries of the Parkway, which is owned and maintained by the National Park Service.
            Just south of the Parkway’s midpoint lie Jeff Busby Park and Little Mountain.  The park is named for Thomas Jefferson Busby, a U.S. Representative from Mississippi who was instrumental in the national park’s establishment.  In addition to Little Mountain, the park features a cozy 18-site developed campground, some picnic areas, and a restroom building appreciated by many travelers along the Parkway.
View from summit of Little Mountain
Although Little Mountain is only 584 feet in elevation, it stands almost 200 feet above the surrounding area.  Therefore, Little Mountain provides one of the best views along Mississippi’s section of the Parkway.  For people willing to leave the summit views behind, a 0.8 mile one-way trail connects the summit area with the campground, and a short loop extending from the main trail takes you past a nice spring.  While these trails may not seem like a compelling hike, the well-constructed and well-graded trail combined with the summit view made this hike my favorite hike from my Spring Break hiking trip to east-central Mississippi.
Little Mountain Trail's upper trailhead
After enjoying the view from the summit, follow the concrete sidewalk to the left (north) to find the signed upper trailhead for the Little Mountain Trail.  Intersections along the Little Mountain Trail are marked by numbered posts bearing small trail maps; this trailhead is post #1.  The trail leaves the summit by descending a pair of steep switchbacks over some wooden waterbars.  This hike stays in broadleaf forest for most of its distance, and the relatively high relief and nice forest make Little Mountain an above average leaf peeping destination for this part of the country.
At 0.2 miles, you reach post #2 and the intersection that forms this trail’s short loop.  I continued straight to hike the loop’s longer and lower arm first.  After descending some wooden steps, you cross a boardwalk that gives a nice view of a small spring.  This spring was putting out a decent volume of water when I hiked here in mid-March.
Spring on Little Mountain
The trail curves left and climbs slightly to reach post #3 and another intersection.  If you only wanted to hike the 0.5 mile nature trail loop, you could turn left here and quickly return to the summit.  To extend your hike, turn right and continue heading for the park’s campground at Little Mountain’s base.  After a short gradual climb, you pass post #4 and a small picnic area.  Summit road access is also available here.
Small picnic area at post #4
The rest of the Little Mountain Trail is a winding, steady, gradual-to-moderate descent, parts of which use some excellent wooden step construction.  Some sections of this trail seem to follow an old road that may be a spur of the Old Natchez Trace.  At 0.8 miles, you cross a creek on a wooden footbridge that looked quite new on my visit.
Wooden steps on Little Mountain Trail
Soon the campground comes into view uphill and to the left, and 1 mile into the hike you reach the Little Mountain Trail’s lower end at post #5, which marks the campground trailhead.  A drinking fountain and restroom building lie just to the left if they are needed.  The trail ends at the campground, so your only option is to head back toward the summit of Little Mountain via the same trail you descended.  For a little variety, you could use the shorter upper arm of the loop, which takes a sidehill route above the spring you hiked below on your way down.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Lake Lowndes State Park: Opossum Nature Trail (Blog Hike #736)

Trail: Opossum Nature Trail
Hike Location: Lake Lowndes State Park
Geographic Location: east of Columbus, MS (33.43479, -88.30136)
Length: 4.8 miles
Difficulty: 4/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: March 2019
Overview: A loose circumnavigation of Lake Lowndes.

Directions to the trailhead: East of Columbus, take US 82 to Lee Stokes Road, which is the easternmost exit on US 82 in Mississippi.  Exit and drive Lee Stokes Rd. south 0.2 miles to SR 182.  Turn right on SR 182.  Drive SR 182 west 2 miles to New Hope Road; there is a 4-way stop at this intersection.  Turn left on New Hope Rd.  Drive New Hope Rd. south 3.9 miles to Lake Lowndes Road and turn left on Lake Lowndes Rd.  Lake Lowndes Rd. dead-ends at its namesake park.  Pay the park entrance fee and drive the main park road to the large parking lot for the lodge/office on the left.

The hike: Located in extreme eastern Mississippi flush against the Alabama state line, Lake Lowndes State Park is one of the best-amenitied state parks in this part of Mississippi.  The park’s namesake 150-acre lake offers fishing, boating, and water skiing.  In terms of lodging, the park offers a 50-site developed campground, a tent camping area, 6 cabins, and 2 cottages.  Other amenities include a disc golf course, an indoor basketball court, a playground, athletic fields, tennis courts, and picnic areas.
            All of the aforementioned amenities are located on Lake Lowndes’ west side.  For active outdoor enthusiasts, the undeveloped east side of Lake Lowndes State Park features an extensive trail system.  The park offers several horse and mountain bike trails, but the main hiker-only trail is the 3.5 mile one-way Opossum Nature Trail.  While the Opossum Nature Trail could be done as a 7 mile out-and-back if you wanted to stay on dirt trails for the entire distance, hiking 1.3 miles of park roads that connect its two ends allows you to form a 4.8 mile loop, which is the hike described here.
            You could start this hike anywhere along the main park road, but I chose to start at the parking lot for the lodge/office because 1) it is large and easy to find, and 2) it splits the long road walk into two smaller pieces.  From this parking lot, head south on the main park road with the lake on your left.  You will pass the tennis courts, tent camping area, playground, disc golf course, picnic pavilion, and developed campground en route to the dam that creates Lake Lowndes.  Upon reaching the dam area, walk through the spillway and past the ranger residence on the right, then look to the left for the signed start of the Opossum Nature Trail.
Start of Opossum Nature Trail at dam
            With the asphalt behind you (for now), the Opossum Nature Trail heads across the warm sunny earthen dam.  Nice views extend down the length of the lake to the left.  At 1.1 miles, you reach the east side of the dam.  Next comes a slight climb on a two-track dirt road to reach an open grassy area that looks like an old construction, logging, or primitive camping area.  As directed by a sign, turn left and soon begin following a single-track dirt trail marked with occasional green tags nailed to trees.
One of the better bridges
            For most of the next 2.5 miles the trail stays close to the lake while making some short but moderately steep ups and downs.  I recommend waterproof boots for this hike because several of the low areas remain quite muddy most of the year.  The mature forest on this side of the lake is a nice mixture of pines and broadleaf trees highlighted by some large beech trees.  Plenty of sweet gum also live here, and some redbuds in bloom brightened my path on my mid-March hike.
Lake view from bench
At 2.3 miles, you pass a bench located right beside the lake.  The Opossum Nature Trail features several wooden constructions such as benches, steps, and bridges, but many of these constructions were in poor shape on my visit.  One of the bridges I tried to cross shifted under my weight and sent me tumbling into a creek.  I was underwater for a few seconds, and the impact left a large bruise just below my left knee.  I managed to get back on my feet and limp my way around the rest of the loop, but some of these bridges are unsafe and desperately need to be rebuilt.
Collapsed bridge
Soon after leaving the lake behind, you reach an unmarked trail intersection and another bench at 3.8 miles.  This intersection marks the north end of the hiker-only Opossum Nature Trail.  To continue the loop, turn left here to begin following an old road that is also open to horse and mountain bike travel.
The wide trail crosses the main creek that feeds Lake Lowndes on a culvert before climbing moderately on an eroded muddy track to reenter the park’s developed area.  Follow the side road out to the main park road near the gate house, then turn left and walk the main park road back to the lodge/office parking lot to complete the hike.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Legion State Park (Blog Hike #735)

Trail: Legion State Park Trail
Hike Location: Legion State Park
Geographic Location: north side of Louisville, MS
Length: 1.5 miles
Difficulty: 3/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: March 2019
Overview: A short but occasionally steep circumnavigation of Lake Toppasha.

Directions to the trailhead: North of Louisville, take SR 25 to Columbus Avenue; this intersection is located 5.3 miles north of the intersection of SR 25 and SR 15.  Go south on Columbus Ave.  Drive Columbus Ave. 3.6 miles to the park entrance on the right.  Turn right to enter the park, pay the entrance fee, and drive the main park road to the circle in front of the park’s lodge, which is known as Legion Lodge.  Go 3/4 of the way around the circle, turn right on a concrete driveway, then turn left on the gravel driveway for the picnic shelter.  Park in front of the picnic shelter.

The hike: Established in 1934 as one of Mississippi’s nine original state parks, historic Legion State Park occupies 420 rolling acres in the red clay hills of central Mississippi.  The entire park is on the National Register of Historic Places, mainly due to the 1930’s era Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) structures that still stand on the park’s premises.  On point, the Legion Lodge you drove past on your way in to the trailhead is a hand-hewn structure that has remained unaltered since the CCC built it in 1937.  Legion Lodge is the oldest permanent facility in the Mississippi state park system.
            True to its rustic character, the park is light on amenities; it offers only a small lake, a 15-site developed campground, and 5 cabins.  For hikers, Legion State Park offers only one short trail, but it is a good one that circumnavigates the park’s Lake Toppasha.  Such is the trail described here.
Legion State Park trailhead
            From the parking area, walk toward the lake to find the information kiosk that marks the trailhead, then angle right to cross two wooden bridges and head for Lake Toppasha’s dam.  Walking this direction gives a counterclockwise journey around the lake.  When you reach the dam, turn left to walk across the warm and sunny earthen dam.
Approaching the dam
            Upon reaching the west side of the dam, turn left to stay on the trail as it enters the forest.  The trail is unmarked, but it is wide and easy to follow for its entire distance.  Pine trees dominate the forest at Legion State Park, although numerous sweetgums also make appearances.  A nice swinging bench located just past the dam invites you to sit, swing, and observe the lake.
Swinging bench
            The trail makes minor but occasionally steep undulations as it heads southwest with the lake on the left.  Just past 0.3 miles, the trail curves right to head around a steep ravine before curving left to dip down through it and climb steeply up the other side.  At 0.6 miles, you reach the lake’s headwaters before heading up another tight, steep ravine.  On my visit a trail maintenance area near here contained some gravel that was being used to improve the trail surface, which was in quite good shape.
Approaching the lake's headwaters
            After descending into a wider ravine, at 0.9 miles you cross the main stream that feeds Lake Toppasha on a wooden bridge wide enough to accommodate a car.  Immediately after crossing the bridge, you reach an unsigned trail intersection with trails going straight and left.  The option going straight is a spur trail that dead-ends at cabins #1 and #2, so you need to turn left to stay on the loop around the lake.  Large amounts of mayapple and Christmas ferns grow in the understory in this area, and some signs identify common plants in the streamside forest.
            1.1 miles into the hike, you climb a wooden staircase that lifts you to the ridgetop on which cabins #3, #4, and #5 sit.  Cross the cabin access road and quickly descend back to lake level, where the trail appears to fork again.  The left fork leads to a picnic table right beside Lake Toppasha but dead-ends there, so after a possible short detour you want to take the right fork to continue the loop.
Lake Toppasha
            While ascending the next ridge, you pass an old brick/stone chimney with origins I could not determine.  At 1.4 miles, you reach an amphitheater that would have a commanding lake view were it not for some trees.  The trail descends this ridge using a single switchback, after which a brief walk along the lakeshore returns you to the trailhead and completes the hike.  On your drive out, make sure you take a few minutes and admire the impressive lodge building if you did not do so on your drive in.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Tombigbee National Forest, Choctaw Lake: Chata/Headwaters/Lakeside Loop (Blog Hike #734)


Trails: Chata, Headwaters, and Lakeside Trails
Hike Location: Tombigbee National Forest, Choctaw Lake Recreation Area
Geographic Location: southeast of Ackerman, MS
Length: 4.5 miles
Difficulty: 6/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: March 2019
Overview: A loop hike, first primitive with lots of up-and-down, then developed along the shores of Choctaw Lake.

Directions to the trailhead: From the intersection of SR 12 and SR 15 in Ackerman, take SR 15 south 3.3 miles to the signed entrance for Choctaw Lake on the left.  Turn left and drive the winding entrance road downhill 1.2 miles to the recreation area entrance.  Turn left to enter the recreation area, pay the day use fee, and drive 0.2 miles to the Chata Trail parking area on the left.  There is room for 3 or 4 cars here.  If this parking lot is full, you can either park at the nearby picnic area or at the Noxubee Hills Trailhead parking area, which this hike will pass near its end.

The hike: As the entrance road slowly descends the narrow ridge that leads down to Choctaw Lake, top-down views into the beautiful open forest hint at the experience that awaits.  Indeed, Choctaw Lake Recreation Area is widely regarded as one of the best national forest recreation areas in Mississippi.  The area offers a cozy 18-site developed campground, 35 picnic sites, a disc golf course with a real water hazard, and fishing, swimming, and boating on its namesake lake.
            Choctaw Lake is also the trailhead for numerous hiking and mountain biking trails.  The area’s most popular and most developed trail is the gravel 2.5 mile Lakeside Trail, which circumnavigates Choctaw Lake.  The Noxubee Hills Trail System offers more than 30 miles of trails and starts at its namesake trailhead on the northeast side of Choctaw Lake’s dam.  The hike described here uses part of the Lakeside Trail but also ventures onto some of Choctaw Lake’s more isolated and primitive trails, thus offering a sample of all the area has to offer.
Chata Trail trailhead
            This hike starts on the Chata Trail, a wide dirt path that departs from a large signboard located at the small Chata Trail parking area.  Marked by white plastic diamonds, the Chata Trail appears to follow an old road as it passes through a stone portal.  Most of Tombigbee National Forest was farmland before the forest was established in 1959, and this portal appears to predate the national forest.
            Past the stone portal, the trail climbs steeply but only for a short distance as it heads straight up the hill.  Although the difference between maximum and minimum elevation on this hike is only about 200 vertical feet, the hills are quite steep, and the trails at Choctaw Lake tend to go straight up or straight down the hills.  Thus, the going can be harder than you might expect for central Mississippi.
Hiking the wide Chata Trail
            After crossing up and over a pair of low ridges, you drop to intersect the gravel Cabin Lake Trail at 0.5 miles.  Visible off to the right, Cabin Lake is a small impoundment located just upstream from the much larger Choctaw Lake.  Turn left to continue the combined Chata and Cabin Lake Trails.
Start of Headwaters Trail
            In only another 200 feet, you reach the signed west end of the Headwaters Trail, which is marked with orange plastic diamonds.  Angle left to leave the gravel and begin the Headwaters Trail.  The Headwaters Trail is Choctaw Lake’s most primitive trail, and you will need to use the orange plastic diamonds to direct your steps because the path on the ground is often indistinguishable.  I hiked here in mid-March before spring had sprung in earnest, but I suspect this trail becomes quite overgrown in the summer.  The steep grades up and down the ridges persist, and overall the going is fairly difficult.
            The trail stays along the south wall of a ravine as it climbs toward its highest point.  Pine trees dominate the ridges while large numbers of sweetgum and hickory trees live in ravines.  During the leafless months the entrance road you drove in on can be seen uphill and to the left.
Crossing a steep-banked creek
            After curving right and dropping to cross a steep-banked creek on a wooden footbridge, the trail climbs to intersect closed dirt FR 969A.  The trail turns right to join the ridgetop forest road for a few hundred feet before turning left to leave it and descend into the next ravine.  Watch for the orange plastic diamonds to stay on the trail in this area.
            The trail drops into and climbs out of three more steep ravines as it embarks on a northward course.  Another closed forest road is crossed on the ridge between the second and third ravines.  After climbing out of the third ravine, the trail curves right and descends into a lowland area with a wetland on the left.
Hiking through a lowland area
            At 2.7 miles, you reach the end of the Headwaters Trail at its intersection with the gravel Lakeside Trail.  Turn left to begin heading clockwise around the Lakeside Trail.  Now you quickly realize that your time in the primitive backwoods is over.  A scarcely visible dirt trail with few constructions or amenities is replaced by wooden boardwalks crossing the main creeks that feed Choctaw Lake, a front-country gravel path, distance markers every 0.25 miles, and numerous benches overlooking the lake.  Surely one of these benches is worth a sit, rest, and trail snack while you watch the ducks and other waterfowl that enjoy the lake.
Choctaw Lake
            The trail crosses two boardwalks and begins heading south along the east bank of Choctaw Lake.  My approach on a cool afternoon sent several turtles that were sunning on logs plopping into the lake.  Choctaw Lake’s disc golf course, which goes all the way around the lake, passes near the trail.  This disc golf course looks like a wild one: one hole requires a forced carry over one of the lake’s wider inlets!
            At 3.6 miles, you reach the northeast end of Choctaw Lake’s dam and the Noxubee Hills Trailhead’s large parking lot.  The Lakeside Trail turns right and begins a long, sunny walk across a wooden boardwalk built along the dam.  After crossing the lake’s spillway on an iron bridge with wooden deck, the trail curves right and reenters the woods.
Choctaw Lake's spillway
            The balance of the hike heads northwest with Choctaw Lake immediately to your right.  At 4.3 miles, you reach a large cluster of picnic tables and a small swimming area.  Angle left and climb the steps to reach the entrance road.  The Chata Trail parking area that contains your car is a couple hundred feet down the entrance road on the left.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Lake Lurleen State Park: Ridge Loop Trail (Blog Hike #733)


Trail: Ridge Loop Trail
Hike Location: Lake Lurleen State Park
Geographic Location: northwest of Tuscaloosa, AL
Length: 4.4 miles
Difficulty: 4/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: March 2019
Overview: A winding loop atop the ridge east of Lake Lurleen.

Directions to the trailhead: From the intersection of US 43 and US 82 on the north side of Tuscaloosa, take US 82 west 5.1 miles to Upper Columbus Road (CR 21).  Turn right on Upper Columbus Rd.  Drive Upper Columbus Rd. 2.3 miles to Lake Lurleen Road and a sign for the state park.  Turn right on Lake Lurleen Rd.  Drive Lake Lurleen Rd. north 2.2 winding miles to the park entrance on the left.  Take a soft left to enter the park, pay the park entrance fee, and drive the main park road to the signed perpendicular trailhead parking on the left.  Park here.

The hike: Located only 12 miles northwest of Tuscaloosa, 1625-acre Lake Lurleen State Park is one of the best state parks in western Alabama.  The park opened in 1956 under the name Tuscaloosa County Public Lake, and several concessionaires operated the park before the state began managing it in 1970.  In 1972, the park was renamed for Lurleen Wallace, a Tuscaloosa County native who was Alabama’s first female governor.  Lurleen was the wife and successor of the infamous Alabama Governor George Wallace, and she died in office in 1968.
            The park is a major recreation destination, as its 250-acre lake offers fishing, boating, and swimming.  The park also offers a 91-site developed campground, a nature center, picnic areas, and 23 miles of trails open to hikers and mountain bikers.  The park’s most famous trail is the Tashka Trail, which makes a somewhat hilly 12.3 mile loop around the lake.
If the Tashka Trail sounds too long and difficult for you, several more manageable hiking options exist.  The 2 mile one-way Lakeside Trail connects the park office with the dam area and offers good wildlife viewing along Lake Lurleen.  This hike describes the park’s newest trail, the 4 mile Ridge Loop Trail that forms a nice loop on the ridge directly east of the lake.  Although it passes no major points of interest such as overlooks or waterfalls, the Ridge Loop Trail passes through nice mixed forest on well-constructed and well-graded trail.
Trailhead Parking
Unless you are also camping at Lake Lurleen, this hike starts with a short road walk to get to the North Trailhead.  From the trailhead parking area, walk north on the main park road, passing Campground C on the left.  When directed by a sign, turn right to hike the short spur road to the North Trailhead, which is reached at 0.25 miles.
North Trailhead
The wide single-track dirt entrance trail leaves the North Trailhead and heads up a wide ravine on a gradual grade.  In only a few hundred feet from the North Trailhead, you reach the signed lower end of the Ridge Loop Trail.  Angle softly right to begin the Ridge Loop Trail.  The Ridge Loop Trail is unmarked except at intersections such as this one and orange distance markers that appear every half mile, but the path on the ground is clear, wide, and easy to follow.
Hiking through a rhododendron-choked ravine
The trail dips to cross a rhododendron-choked creek on a wooden footbridge before ascending the other side of the ravine.  A pair of switchbacks gets you up the steepest part, and afterward the grade is gradual.  Overall, the difference between the highest and lowest elevations on this hike is less than 200 vertical feet.  The forest is the usual Piedmont mixture of pine and broadleaf trees, and it includes some oaks and sweet gums.  Redbud and forsythia trees in bloom brightened my path on the mid-March afternoon when I hiked here.
Near 1.5 miles, you reach the ridgetop, and you can see the other arm of the Ridge Loop Trail just to your left.  A gradual descent ensues with Lake Lurleen and Campground A downhill to your right.  Despite the trail’s ridgetop location, no clear views of the lake or anything else of note emerge.
Hiking along the ridge
After reaching the southernmost point of the loop, the trail curves left, climbs moderately for a short distance, and briefly joins what appears to be an old road.  Now on the east side of the ridge directly east of the lake, the trail winds on a general northward course.  At one point you come very close to the signed park boundary on the right. 
As you make the final descent into the ravine that contains the North Trailhead, some interpretive signs point out common flora in this forest.  Just past 3.9 miles, you reach the upper end of the Ridge Loop Trail.  Turn left and hike the entrance trail 0.15 miles back out to the North Trailhead, then retrace your steps 0.25 miles along the park roads to return to the trailhead parking area and complete the hike.  While you are here, you can also try the aforementioned Lakeside Trail, which offers better lake views and wildlife viewing than the Ridge Loop Trail.