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.