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 (33.15584, -89.04533)
Length: 1.5 miles
Difficulty: 3/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: March 2019
Overview: A short but occasionally steep circumnavigation of Lake Toppasha.
Hike Route Map:
Photo Highlight:

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 (33.27327, -89.14497)
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.
Hike Route Map:
Photo Highlight:

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 (33.30463, -87.67645)
Length: 4.4 miles
Difficulty: 4/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: March 2019
Overview: A winding loop atop the ridge east of Lake Lurleen.
Hike Route Map:
Photo Highlight:

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.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Baker Creek State Park: Wild Mint Nature Trail (Blog Hike #732)

Trail: Wild Mint Nature Trail
Hike Location: Baker Creek State Park
Geographic Location: west of McCormick, SC (33.88025, -82.36451)
Length: 0.8 miles
Difficulty: 2/10 (Easy)
Last Hiked: March 2019
Overview: A short, secluded campground nature trail through pine forest.
Hike Route Map:
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: From McCormick, take US 378 west 3.8 miles to Hugenot Parkway and a signed false entrance for Baker Creek State Park.  Turn right on Hugenot Parkway and drive north 1.2 miles to the signed real entrance for Baker Creek State Park on the left.  Turn left to enter the park, pay the nominal entrance fee, and drive the main park road 1.4 miles to the campground loop entrance on the right.  Turn right and drive the one-way paved campground loop to the main campground (Campground #2).  Turn right to enter the main campground on a gravel road.  The signed trailhead for the Wild Mint Nature Trail is between campsite numbers 55 and 56 on the left.  A small pull-off for the campground restroom building on the right provides trailhead parking.

The hike: Along with Hickory Knob, Hamilton Branch, and Elijah Clark, 1305 acre Baker Creek State Park is one of several Georgia and South Carolina state parks on the shore of Strom Thurmond Reservoir near McCormick, SC.  The park was created in 1967 when the State of South Carolina leased lakeside land from the US Army Corps of Engineers.  Unlike its larger and better-amenitied brethren, Baker Creek is only open March through September.  While lake access takes center stage, the park also offers a 50-site developed campground, 2 picnic shelters, and several trails open to hiking and mountain biking.
            Baker Creek State Park offers 11 miles of trails open to hikers, but the only hiker-only trail is the short Wild Mint Nature Trail described here.  I have to be honest and report that this trail was in pretty bad shape when I hiked here: a thick layer of pine needles covered the trail surface, and numerous fallen trees blocked my path.  While I was here, I also did a short hike on one of the park’s multi-use trails, which were in substantially better shape.  Thus, this park’s best hiking may be on trails designed primarily for mountain bikes.
Trailhead for Wild Mint Nature Trail
            The Wild Mint Nature Trail starts at a signed trailhead on the east side of the gravel campground road.  The trail curves left as it drops toward the lake with the campground close on the left.  As I mentioned above, the path is frequently indistinguishable from the surrounding forest, but there are enough white blazes and other trail markers to keep you on the right general course.  Numbered posts indicate the presence of an interpretive brochure, but I could not find such a guide.
            After crossing a creek on an old wooden footbridge, the trail splits to form its loop.  As indicated by a trail sign, I turned right and used the left fork as my return route, thus hiking the loop counterclockwise.  The lake stays in view downhill to the right as the trail maintains an eastern course through dense pine forest.
"Trail" along the lake
            At 0.3 miles, the trail curves left and begins climbing away from the lake.  This turn is well-marked with several white paint blazes and a white metal diamond marker bearing a black arrow.  Soon the trail crosses the paved campground access loop road for the first of two times.  Trail conditions improve slightly once you get inside the campground loop road.
Crossing the campground loop road
            The trail curves more left than right as it undulates on gradual contours.  The quiet pine forest makes the setting feel very remote for a short campground nature trail.  You re-cross the paved campground road just before closing the trail’s loop.  Turn right and hike the short distance back to the main campground to complete the hike.  While you are here, you could try hiking on some of the hiking/biking trails as I did.  Also, although the park map shows a 0.7 mile walking trail near the boat ramp, I was not able to find that trail on my visit.