Monday, January 14, 2019

Sesquicentennial State Park: Sandhills and Jackson Creek Trails (Blog Hike #730)

Trails: Sandhills and Jackson Creek Trails
Hike Location: Sesquicentennial State Park
Geographic Location: northeast of Columbia, SC (34.08688, -80.90616)
Length: 2.5 miles
Difficulty: 1/10 (Easy)
Last Hiked: January 2019
Overview: A flat semiloop around Sesquicentennial Lake.
Hike Route Map:
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: On the north side of Columbia, take I-20 or I-77 to US 1 (I-20 exit 74 or I-77 exit 17).  Exit and go north on US 1.  Drive US 1 north 2.2 miles from I-77 to the signed park entrance on the right.  Turn right to enter the park, pay the small entrance fee, and drive the main park road 1.3 miles to the traffic circle in front of the boat house.  Drive ¾ of the way around the traffic circle and park in the sandy dirt lot on the north side of the traffic circle.

The hike: Known locally as “Sesqui,” Sesquicentennial State Park protects 1419 acres on the northeast side of Columbia, South Carolina’s state capital.  In preparation for South Carolina’s 150th year of statehood in 1938, in 1937 the state’s Sesquicentennial Commission donated land to create the park, hence the park’s name.  Sesqui is one of 16 South Carolina state parks developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), and several buildings built by the CCC remain in use today.
            Sesqui offers excellent amenities that include an 84-site developed campground, a 30-acre lake with boat house, 3 picnic shelters, a retreat center, the only splash pad in South Carolina’s state park system, a dog park, and 12 miles of hiking trails.  Many of the hiking trails are also open to mountain bikes, but two of the park’s trails are hiker-only: the 2 mile Sandhills Hiking Trail that loops around the park’s lake and the 0.5 mile Jackson Creek Nature Trail near the lake’s dam.  This hike uses both of the park’s hiker-only trails in their entirety to form a 2.5 mile double loop.  Be warned that both of these trails are quite popular: I shared the trail with many casual hikers and people walking dogs on the sunny Saturday afternoon that I hiked here.
Trailhead for Sandhills Hiking Trail
            The trailhead for the Sandhills Hiking Trail is located at the northeast end of the parking lot; it is marked by a large signboard and kiosk.  The single-track trail heads slightly downhill over a few wood planks to quickly intersect the Sandhills Hiking Trail proper.  Turn left to begin a clockwise journey around the Sandhills Hiking Trail, which is marked by white plastic diamonds bearing black arrows.
            The trail heads northeast through typical sandhills forest that features some large loblolly pines.  Some slabs of asphalt under foot indicate that this trail may have been paved at one time, but now the pavement has degraded enough so that most of the trail has a sandy dirt surface.  After crossing Spring House Creek on a nice wooden footbridge, you intersect the blue-blazed Loop Road/Trail, which is shared by hikers and mountain bikers.  Turn right to stay on the Sandhills Hiking Trail as it runs conjointly with the Loop Road/Trail.
Hiking through wetlands
            The next segment crosses several streams that feed into Sesquicentennial Lake.  The wetlands these streams form make for scenic wildlife viewing opportunities.  At 0.7 miles, the Loop Road/Trail and the Sandhills Hiking Trail part ways.  Turn right to continue the narrower Sandhills Hiking Trail; watch for the white plastic diamonds here.
            The trail now adopts a winding course near the east shore of Sesquicentennial Lake, but the lake stays out of view at first.  Nice wooden boardwalks carry you over some wet areas.  At 1.5 miles, you get your first clear view of Sesquicentennial Lake.  A well-placed bench provides the opportunity to rest and observe the lake just past the midpoint of the hike.
First view of Sesquicentennial Lake
            1.65 miles into the hike, you reach the concrete dam that forms Sesquicentennial Lake.  A picnic area with restrooms sits uphill to the left here, and an underground sewer pipe continues straight.  Turn right to cross the spillway on a wooden bridge, then look downhill to the left for the large information kiosk that marks the start of the Jackson Creek Nature Trail.  At only 0.5 miles, the Jackson Creek Nature Trail makes a short and easy add-on to what is already a rather short and easy hike.  To hike all the hiker-only trails at Sesqui, turn left and begin the Jackson Creek Nature Trail.
Spillway of Sesquicentennial Lake
            The trail curves left and recrosses Jackson Creek via a long boardwalk before heading up the east side of the dam.  Water flowing over the concrete spillway makes scenic if man-made sights and sounds.  Near the top of the dam, where the sewer pipe leads directly back to the Sandhills Hiking Trail, a sign tells you to turn sharply right to stay on the Nature Trail.  The Jackson Creek Nature Trail is mostly unmarked, but several interpretive signs describe flora and fauna common to the sandhills.
            The nature trail becomes covered in pine needles as it winds some more and passes more interpretive signs before ending at the picnic area.  Angle left, walk downhill to get back to the Sandhills Hiking Trail, and then walk across the same bridge over the spillway you crossed about 15 minutes ago.  Angle right this time to stay on a concrete path that remains near the lake.
Mallard ducks in Sesquicentennial Lake
            Nice lake views remain to the right as you approach the park’s boat house.  Some mallard ducks and Canada geese were enjoying the water on the seasonal January afternoon that I came here.  After passing the boat house, the trail heads back into the woods for a short distance before closing the loop.  Turn left and walk out the short entrance trail to return to the parking lot and complete the hike.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Sweetwater Creek State Park: White Trail (Blog Hike #729)

Trail: White Trail
Hike Location: Sweetwater Creek State Park
Geographic Location: east of Douglasville, GA (33.75335, -84.62945)
Length: 4.9 miles
Difficulty: 6/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: December 2018
Overview: A loop hike, mostly moderate but with a few short rocky sections, featuring the New Manchester Mill ruins and cascading Sweetwater Creek.
Hike Route Map:
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: On the west side of Atlanta, take I-20 to Lee Road (exit 41).  Exit and drive Lee Rd. south 1 mile to Cedar Terrace Road; there is a sign for Sweetwater Creek State Park here.  Turn left on Cedar Terrace Rd.  Drive Cedar Terrace Rd. east 0.8 miles to Mt. Vernon Road and turn right on Mt. Vernon Rd.  The signed park entrance that leads to the Visitor Center is 0.3 miles ahead on the left.  Turn left to enter the park, pay the park entrance fee, and drive the main park road to the parking loop in front of the Visitor Center.

The hike: More a river than a creek, interesting Sweetwater Creek flows for 45.6 miles through western Georgia.  The creek rises in southwestern Paulding County, flows east into Cobb County, then turns south through Douglas County before emptying into the Chattahoochee River west of Atlanta.  Hiking along Sweetwater Creek is very enjoyable and very similar to hiking through the Chattahoochee River palisades, which are only a few miles east of here.
Less than 4 miles north of its mouth Sweetwater Creek bisects its namesake state park, a 2549 acre major recreation destination on the west side of metro Atlanta.  The park features a 215 acre man-made lake for boating and fishing, 10 yurts, and 7 picnic shelters.  The park’s location and amenities make it the most visited state park in Georgia, so try to plan a weekday or off-season visit here to avoid the crowds.  I hiked here the day after Christmas with plenty of company on the trail, but I still had a good hike.
For hikers, the park offers 7 trails totaling 15 miles that explore all areas of the park, but the park’s best hiking is along Sweetwater Creek.  The park’s most popular trail is the Red Trail, a 1 mile one-way out-and-back that leads down the creek’s west bank to the New Manchester Mill ruins and beside some whitewater rapids.  This hike describes the White Trail, which forms a 4.9 mile loop.  The White Trail takes you to all of the sites the Red Trail does, but it avoids some rocky areas, the retracing of steps, and the major crowds the Red Trail makes you endure.
Start of White Trail
The first and only real route-finding challenge is finding the start of the White Trail.  From the information kiosk beside the Visitor Center that marks the start of the Red Trail, walk behind the Visitor Center and look for the white carsonite post at the edge of the woods that marks the beginning of the White Trail.  Henceforth large numbers of white paint blazes and white plastic diamonds keep you on the right route.  The White Trail heads into the forest, which is dominated by the usual midlands mix of loblolly pine, beech, maple, and oak.
Almost immediately the White Trail splits to form its loop at a signed intersection.  To get to the scenic creek quickly, this description angles left and uses the trail going right as its return route, thus hiking the loop clockwise.  The trail descends into the first of several side ravines that feed into Sweetwater Creek.  These ravines are about 100 feet deep, but for the most part the trail grades are gradual to moderate.  Wooden bridges get you across the side creeks, and benches provide opportunities to rest if needed.
Climbing out of a side ravine
            1 mile into the hike, the Green Trail exits right.  The Green Trail is one of two connector trails that could be used to reduce this hike’s distance, but this description angles left to stay on the White Trail.  Soon Sweetwater Creek comes into view for the first time as you approach the mouth of the side ravine.
At 1.1 miles, you reach an intersection with the Red Trail and the ruins of the New Manchester Mill.  Originally called the Sweetwater Manufacturing Company, the New Manchester Mill opened in 1849 and stood 5 stories tall.  The mill produced textile products until July 9, 1864, when the mill was burned by Union troops in the Civil War.  Today only a partial brick shell remains, and a black chain link fence keeps visitors away from the ruins except on guided hikes.  Take a few minutes to read the interpretive signs and view the ruins from the many viewing platforms that have been built along the trail.
New Manchester Mill ruins

New Manchester Mill ruins, south face
Both the Red Trail and the White Trail head south (downstream) from the mill ruins.  The two trails come back together less than 1 mile downstream, so you could choose either route.  The Red Trail stays closer to the creek, and it is shorter but rockier.  This hike will stay on the White Trail, which takes a more winding route and explores more of the side ravines.
After tracing around the next side ravine, the trail reaches a local high point before beginning the main descent back to Sweetwater Creek.  The descent is gradual to moderate at first, but the last few hundred feet are rather steep and rocky.  At 1.9 miles, you reach the south end of the Red Trail.  Turn right to continue heading downstream on the White Trail.
Big rapid in Sweetwater Creek
The trail descends a steep set of wooden steps with a big rapid in Sweetwater Creek visible downhill to the left.  The creek becomes more placid as you continue downstream, but some rock outcrops may require you to use your hands to clamber up and over.  The sandy soil under foot here reminds you that this creek is prone to flooding, and the tall hills on either side of the creek make this area feel like the north Georgia mountains or the plateau region of eastern Tennessee.
Placid section of Sweetwater Creek
At 2.4 miles, the trail curves right to leave Sweetwater Creek and head up Jack’s Branch.  At the midpoint of this hike, you cross the Brown Trail.  Turning right on the Brown Trail gives a second and final chance to short-cut this hike.  This description continues straight to stay on the White Trail.
The gradual climb up Jack’s Branch leads to a steep climb up the man-made dam that forms Jack’s Lake.  Built in 1972 to be a recreation spot before the park was formed, Jack’s Lake provides a wetland habitat for a wide variety of wildlife including frogs, fish, and snakes.  A bench located atop the dam allows you to sit, rest, and observe the lake via a partially obstructed view.
Hiking above Jack's Lake
The trail now joins a wide two-track path that appears to be an old road as it heads west above the north side of Jack’s Lake.  Due to a dam reconstruction, lake levels are lower than they used to be, and a thick area of brush sits between the trail and the water.  Near 3 miles into the hike, the trail curves right and begins the moderate climb out of Jack’s Branch ravine.
At 3.4 miles, you reach an area known as Jack’s Hill that marks the highest elevation of the hike.  The Brown and Green Trails enter from the right in that order as the trail assumes a ridgetop course through an old farm field that is still early in the process of reverting to forest.  Some interpretive signs describe the flora and fauna of this area, and a very informative trail brochure that describes some of what you will see on this hike is available at the Visitor Center.
Hiking over Jack's Hill
            3.8 miles into the hike, the trail joins the gravel driveway for the assistant ranger’s residence, which it will follow for the next 2000 feet.  Watch for the white plastic diamonds and paint blazes to find where the trail exits the driveway to the right, still following a wide two-track treadway.  At 4.3 miles, you reach the park’s main picnic area.  The trail crosses the picnic area loop road twice and spends most of its distance through the picnic area inside the loop.  This section of trail is surprisingly quiet and natural-looking considering it passes through a picnic area.
            After crossing the picnic area loop road the second time, a gradual descent brings you to the close of the White Trail’s loop.  Turn left to quickly return to the Visitor Center and complete the hike.  The Visitor Center offers some interesting exhibits on the area’s Civil War history and on life at the New Manchester Mill, so it is worth a visit either before or after your hike.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Fort Clinch State Park: Fort, Shared Use, and Willow Pond Trails (Blog Hike #728)

Trails: Fort, Shared Use, and Willow Pond Trails
Hike Location: Fort Clinch State Park
Geographic Location: Amelia Island, FL (30.70349, -81.45316)
Length: 6.5 miles
Difficulty: 4/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: December 2018
Overview: A long rolling loop featuring Civil War-era Fort Clinch.
Hike Route Map:
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: In northeast Florida, take I-95 to SR 200 (exit 373).  Exit and go east on SR 200.  Drive SR 200 east 16 miles to the town of Fernandina Beach and turn right on Atlantic Avenue; there is a traffic light and a sign for the state park here.  Drive Atlantic Ave. east 2 miles to the signed state park entrance on the left.  Turn left to enter the park, pay the entrance fee at the gatehouse, and drive to the large paved parking lot for the fort at the main park road’s end.

The hike: Occupying a strategic location that guards the entrance to the Cumberland Sound and the St. Mary’s River, the north end of Amelia Island has been the site of military fortifications for centuries.  Spain erected the first fort here in 1736, and various powers built various fortifications here over the next 100 years.  Construction of the present-day brick masonry structure began in 1847 as part of the United States’ Third System of coastal defenses.  The fort is named for General Duncan Lamont Clinch, an American military leader during the First and Second Seminole Wars.
The only live action Fort Clinch saw came in 1861, when Confederate troops captured the fort only to abandon it a year later.  The fort then became the center of Union operations in the area for the remainder of the war, including a command center for the Union maneuver that ended at Olustee some 50 miles to the southwest.  After the Civil War, the fort was placed in caretaker status in 1869, and during the 1930’s the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) worked to restore the fort.  In 1935, the State of Florida purchased 256 acres that included the restored fort, and Fort Clinch State Park opened to the public in 1938 as one of Florida’s first state parks.
Today 1427-acre Fort Clinch State Park not only preserves the restored fort but also offers beach access on the Atlantic Ocean, 2 developed campgrounds with a total of 63 campsites, and more than 6 miles of hiking trails.  I came here with the intention of doing a short hike near the fort in the morning before heading to another hiking destination for the afternoon, but the hiking here was so good I chose to spend the entire day here.  Thus, this hike makes use of the park’s entire trail system, and it features some short but steep ups and down over sand dunes.
Fort entrance
Start your hike with a self-guided walking tour of the fort, which requires a separate small entrance fee payable at the Visitor Center.  You have to walk through the museum to get to the fort.  The museum contains some interesting artifacts from soldiers that served here and information about the fort’s construction.
On the other side of the museum, walk up the sandy dirt path, over the wooden bridge, and through the brick tunnel to reach the fort’s parade ground.  I chose to tour the fort clockwise, so I turned left and walked past the prison and around the barracks.  The prison has all the charm you would expect from a prison, and it contains some interesting shackles, balls, and chains.
Enlisted men's barracks
Pentagon-shaped Fort Clinch has 5 bastions, and you should explore at least one of them.  The bastions house some interesting cannons, and intricate winding stairways take you to the top of the bastions for nice views of the fort’s walls.  The fort walls are not accessible from the bastions, but some other steps and ramps lead to the top of the walls.  You can circumnavigate the fort atop the walls, and more cannons and nice ocean views can be found on the walls.
Stairway in a bastion

Hiking along the fort wall
After completing your tour of the fort, exit through the Visitor Center and walk across the parking lot to find the signed start of the Shared Use Trail.  The Shared Use Trail is a single-track 5.4 mile loop that parallels either side of the main park road almost all of the way out to the gatehouse.  True to its name, the Shared Use Trail is open to both hikers and mountain bikers.  Although hikers can travel the loop either direction, park regulations require mountain bikers to ride the loop clockwise.  Thus, starting on the loop’s west arm to the right of the park road allows you to hike facing mountain bikers, thus reducing the chance of collisions.  If mountain bikers approach, just step to the side and let them pass.
Start of Shared Use Trail
The west arm of the Shared Use Trail heads south through dense forest that features American and yaupon holly, saw palmettos, and several large gnarled live oaks.  For the most part the trail surface is sandy dirt, but on some steeper areas some concrete pavers have been laid down to improve traction.  The Shared Use Trail never strays more than 50 yards from the park road, so occasional road noise will be present throughout.
0.7 miles into the hike (or 0.2 miles from the start of the Shared Use Trail), you cross the paved Amelia River Campground access road and reenter the forest on the other side.  At 1.2 miles, you reach a small parking area and signed trailhead for the Willow Pond Nature Trail, which exits right.  The Willow Pond Nature Trail consists of two loops, the short Willow Loop and the slightly longer Magnolia Loop.  The Magnolia Loop is only 0.5 miles long, so you may as well turn right and add on the nature trail.
Start of Willow Pond Nature Trail
Where the nature trail splits, turn right to follow the Magnolia Loop, as directed by a sign.  The northern arm of the Magnolia Loop runs atop a line of ancient sand dunes that marked the Atlantic Ocean’s west boundary many years ago.  Where the Willow Loop, signed as the high water route, exits left, continue straight to stay on the Magnolia Loop provided water levels in Willow Pond make it passable.
Soon the trail curves left and descends slightly to reach Willow Pond.  Although Willow Pond is man-made, the freshwater pond has a very natural appearance.  Signs warn of alligators, but the only interesting wildlife I saw was an egret.  Lots of saw palmetto live along the pond.
Willow Pond
After a brief walk right beside the pond, the trail climbs slightly to return you to the nature trail parking area and trailhead.  Turn right to continue your journey around the Shared Use Trail.  Note that if you are getting tired or running out of daylight, the east arm of the Shared Use Trail can be accessed across the park road from the nature trail parking area.  This option would reduce the hike to only 2.4 miles.
Continuing the full loop, the trail meanders south and crosses the sandy group campground access road at 2.2 miles.  Distance markers appear at one mile increments on the Shared Use Trail, but the existence of 6 mile markers on a 5.4 mile loop indicates that the placement of the markers is not particularly precise.  I saw many deer in the southern part of the park.  Some views across grassy Egans Creek Marsh also start to open up to the right as you continue further south.  Unlike freshwater Willow Pond you passed earlier, Egans Creek contains brackish water.
Egans Creek
At 3.6 miles, you reach the southern end of the loop.  Cross the park road and pick up the eastern arm of the Shared Use Trail on the other side.  The trail zig-zags while climbing another old sand dune, and some of the steepest grades of the hike are found in this area.
Bare sand dune
Just past 4 miles, you need to walk two short segments on the park road where some bare sand dunes come right up to the road on the right.  Signs warn hikers not to climb the fragile dunes.  Back on single-track trail in the woods, the trail climbs high above a flowing stream that appears downhill to the right.  More gnarled live oak trees live on this low ridge.
Gnarled live oaks
South Beacon lighthouse ruins
            At 5.2 miles, you cross the paved beach access road at a marked crosswalk.  0.4 miles later, you reach what remains of the Amelia Island Lighthouse’s South Beacon.  The lighthouse dates to the 1800’s, but today only a foundation and part of a brick structure remain.  An interpretive sign describes Amelia Island’s lighthouse history.  Another 0.9 miles of fairly level hiking on single-track trail returns you to the fort parking lot to complete the hike.