Saturday, June 29, 2019

Brukner Nature Center (Blog Hike #752)

Trails: Pinelands, Trillium Valley, Buckeye Valley, and Hickory Ridge Trails
Hike Location: Brukner Nature Center
Geographic Location: west of Troy, OH (40.01645, -84.31713)
Length: 2.3 miles
Difficulty: 3/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: June 2019
Overview: A double loop through numerous ravines and along numerous ridges.
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: North of Dayton, take I-75 to SR 55 (exit 73).  Exit and go west on SR 55.  Drive SR 55 west 2.4 miles to Horseshoe Bend Road and take a soft right on Horseshoe Bend Rd.  Drive Horseshoe Bend Rd. 2.1 miles to the signed Center entrance on the right.  Turn right to enter the Center, and drive the entrance road to the Center’s main parking lot in front of the Interpretive Building.  You need to pay a small entrance fee in the Interpretive Building before starting the hike.

The hike: Private not-for-profit Brukner Nature Center protects 165 acres of ridges and ravines along the east bank of the Stillwater River.  The Center is named for Clayton J. Brukner, who owned the WACO Aircraft Company of nearby Troy, OH.  WACO was one of the most successful pre-World War II civil aircraft manufacturers.  A lover of nature, Brukner purchased this land for its scenic value in 1933, and in 1967 he unveiled plans to build the Nature Center that now bears his name.  The Center opened in 1974.
            Brukner Nature Center features an excellent Interpretive Building that offers several bird and wildlife viewing areas.  6 miles of hiker-only trails wind through the grounds.  Unfortunately, when I came here just after the area had received large amounts of rainfall, several of the trails were impassable due to flooding.  Thus, the route described here traverses most of the trails that were passable on my visit, and it features a nice mixture of ravines, ridges, woods, and meadows.
Trailhead: Pinelands Trail
            From the front door of the Interpretive Building, walk across the parking lot to find the trailhead for the single-track dirt Pinelands Trail, which immediately heads into the woods on an eastward course.  Three separate trailheads are located on this side of the parking lot.  The Pinelands trailhead is the one on the left; it is marked by a wooden post with a green stripe.
            After only a few hundred feet on the Pinelands Trail, you reach a trail intersection marked as post #14.  Major trail intersections are numbered on the park map and marked on the ground with numbered wooden posts.  Turn left here to begin the Trillium Valley Trail.
Bridge over eroded watercourse
The Trillium Valley Trail crosses the park entrance road before crossing an eroded watercourse on a high steel bridge with wooden deck.  Next comes a short but fairly steep descent as the trail begins following the watercourse downstream.  The Interpretive Building is visible atop the hill to the left here.
            After crossing the stream 5 times via bridges, you reach post #12, where the Buckeye Valley Loop exits right.  The Buckeye Valley Loop is a 1.1 mile add-on lollipop loop that explores a very pleasant ravine, so turn right to begin the Buckeye Valley Loop.  The Buckeye Valley Loop climbs gradually along the small but steep-sided creek.  I saw many deer prints in the soft dirt along this creek, and further up the ravine I saw some of the deer that made these prints, including a doe and two fawns.
Hiking up Buckeye Valley
            Ignore the steep Wren Run Trail that exits left, and at 0.5 miles reach post #10, which marks the intersection that forms the loop portion of the Buckeye Valley Loop.  To make the climbing easier, this description continues straight and uses the trail going right as its return route, thus hiking the loop clockwise.  The gradual climb up the ravine continues, and the Center’s northwest boundary comes close on the left.
            At 0.9 miles, the trail curves right for the final short but steep climb out of the ravine.  Now on a drier ridgetop course, the land drops off steeply to the left as you head out a narrow finger ridge.  Hickory, oak, and maple trees dominate this ridge.  1.2 miles into the hike, you reach a ravine overlook where the trail switches back to the right.  A primitive but effective wooden staircase is descended just before the loop is closed.  Turn left to head back to the Trillium Valley Trail, then turn right to continue the Trillium Valley Trail.
Wooden staircase at end of Buckeye Valley Loop
            Soon you reach post #8 and the start of the Swamp Boardwalk, which exits right.  The Swamp Boardwalk offers a short 0.5 mile loop on wooden boardwalk through a wetland, but recent rains had the boardwalk underwater on my visit.  Thus, I continued straight to reach post #7 and a major trail intersection with options going left and right.  The option going right is the 0.8 mile Stillwater Loop that traverses bottomland forest along its namesake river, but it like the Swamp Boardwalk was underwater.  Therefore, my only option was to turn left and begin the Hickory Ridge Trail.
            The trail climbs moderately to reach post #6, which marks the intersection that forms the Hickory Ridge Trail’s loop.  This hike turns right to start hiking the loop counterclockwise.  A little more climbing brings you to the edge of the Stillwater River valley, which drops to your right.  The elevation change puts the treetops from the valley at eyelevel, thus making this trail an excellent venue for bird watching.
Stillwater River valley overlook
            Ignore a short-cut trail that exits left.  Reach an overlook of the Stillwater River valley at 1.9 miles.  Trees block any view of the river, but a bench makes a good place to rest and observe birds and wildlife.  Next the trail briefly joins what appears to be an old road before reaching post #1, where you need to turn left to continue the Hickory Ridge Trail’s loop.
Cattail Pond
            Pass two more numbered trail intersections to reach a small prairie and post #5.  Turn right at post #5 to begin the Pond Trail, the final leg of this hike.  The short Pond Trail passes two ponds: Catface Pond and Cattail Pond.  Both ponds featured a lot of algae, but Cattail Pond also contained a large number of bullfrogs that were sounding off on my visit.  The Interpretive Building parking lot lies just past Cattail Pond.
Iddings House
            Before you leave, there is one other place near the Interpretive Building that is worth a visit.  Just left (south) of the Interpretive Building stands the Iddings Log House.  Built by Benjamin Iddings in 1804, the Iddings Log House is the oldest structure on its original site in Miami County.  The log house adds an historical gem to the natural treasures you have already seen at Brukner Nature Center.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Vogel State Park: Bear Hair Gap and Lake Trahlyta Trails (Blog Hike #751)

Trails: Bear Hair Gap and Lake Trahlyta Trails
Hike Location: Vogel State Park
Geographic Location: south of Blairsville, GA (34.76617, -83.92358)
Length: 5.9 miles
Difficulty: 8/10 (Moderate/Difficult)
Last Hiked: June 2019
Overview: Two loops, one long and hard to a high overlook, and one short and easy around Lake Trahlyta to Trahlyta Falls.
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: From Blairsville, drive south on US 19 for 10.2 miles to the signed park entrance on the right.  Turn right to enter the park, and pay the small park entrance fee.  Drive the main park road 0.4 miles to the Visitor Center.  Park in the Visitor Center parking lot or in the larger lot across the road beside Lake Trahlyta.

The hike: Established in 1931, Vogel State Park is the second oldest state park in Georgia and one of two original state parks in Georgia’s state park system (the other being Indian Springs State Park).  The depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built many of the park’s structures including the dam that forms the park’s lake, Lake Trahlyta.  The park’s location at the base of Blood Mountain, the highest point on Georgia’s section of the Appalachian Trail, keeps temperatures regionally cool even during the summer.  The park is named for August H. Vogel and Fred Vogel, Jr., who donated the 233 acres to form the park.
            Vogel State Park offers several excellent amenities, including a 103-site developed campground, 35 cabins, fishing and swimming in Lake Trahlyta, a mini-golf course, and 18 miles of trails.  The park has three main hiking trails: the 1 mile Trahlyta Lake Trail, the 4.3 mile Bear Hair Gap Trail, and the 12.9 mile Coosa Backcountry Trail.  With more than a mile of vertical rise, the long and rugged Coosa Backcountry Trail is best hiked as a multi-day backpack.  The other two trails could be hiked independently, but they combine to form a manageable 5.9 mile barbell-shaped route.  Such is the hike described here.
            To do the harder loop first, this hike starts with the Bear Hair Gap Trail.  From the lakeside parking lot, walk southwest past the Visitor Center along the asphalt road that leads through the cabin area to the park’s campground.  After 0.25 miles of road walking, you reach the signed trailhead for the Byron Reece, Bear Hair Gap, and Coosa Backcountry Trails on the right.  There is nowhere to park at the trailhead, so anyone who hikes any of these three trails has to start with a road walk.  This parking arrangement seems suboptimal, but it is what it is.
Vogel State Park trailhead
            The common entrance trail climbs a few stone steps before beginning a gradual ascent with cascading Burnett Branch downhill to the left.  Maple trees dominate the forest at this elevation, and even though some pine trees appear in the forest this hike would be a nice fall leaf peeping hike.  At 0.4 miles, the signed Byron Herbert Reece Trail exits right.  The Byron Herbert Reece Trail forms a short but moderately steep 0.8 mile loop, and it makes a nice add-on if you want some more forest hiking after completing the Bear Hair Gap Trail.  Continue straight to remain on the combined Bear Hair Gap and Coosa Backcountry Trail.
            After passing a wooden overlook platform that overlooks nothing in particular and crossing Burnett Branch, a gradual climb brings you to a major trail intersection.  The unmarked trail going left leads to the campground, and the trails going straight and right form the loop portion of the Bear Hair Gap Trail.  To make the climbing a little easier, this description turns right here and uses the trail going straight as its return route, thus hiking the loop counterclockwise.
Trail intersection
            After only a couple hundred more feet, the Bear Hair Gap and Coosa Backcountry Trails part ways just after you exit Vogel State Park and enter Chattahoochee National Forest.  You need to angle softly left here to stay on the Bear Hair Gap Trail.  The trail markings here can be confusing.  The Bear Hair Gap Trail is marked with painted green diamonds and the Coosa Backcountry Trail is marked with painted green rectangles, but the corners on some of the diamonds are rubbing off, thus making them look like rectangles.  Fortunately, a brown carsonite post bearing the number 110, the national forest’s designation for the Bear Hair Gap Trail, also sits at this intersection.
Climbing toward Vogel Overlook
            For the next 1.5 miles the wide single-track dirt and rock trail climbs on a moderate to steep grade as it gains just over 700 vertical feet of elevation.  Three small creeks are crossed via bridge or rock hop, but the wet areas around them may make the crossings more comfortable if you are wearing waterproof boots.  At 1.8 miles, you reach the signed spur trail for the Vogel Overlook.  Turn left to reach the overlook.
            One final steep section brings you to the overlook.  The view from the east-facing overlook is somewhat encumbered by trees, but even during the leafy months Lake Trahlyta is visible almost 900 feet below.  On a clear day, Brasstown Bald, the highest point in Georgia, is visible to the east.  You have earned these views, so take some time, have a trail snack, and see what you can see.
View from Vogel Overlook
            Continuing around the Bear Hair Gap Trail’s loop, a pleasant section of sidehill trail ensues as the trail maintains a near constant elevation with the hillside dropping to your left and Slaughter Mountain rising to your right.  Large amounts of paw paw and sassafras grow in the understory up here.  At 2.6 miles, you rock hop rhododendron-choked Wolf Creek just before the Coosa Backcountry Trail re-enters from the right.  Stay left to remain on the combined Bear Hair Gap and Coosa Backcountry Trails.
            The next 0.3 miles is a steep rocky descent that loses over 250 feet of elevation.  The trail weaves around several cabin-sized boulders, and the terrain is scenic but rugged.  Just past 3 miles, you cross Wolf Creek again, this time just below a small waterfall.
Descending through boulders
            After some equally steep but less rocky descending, you cross from the national forest back into the state park.  Some picnic shelters and the state park campground can be seen downhill and through the trees to the right.  The last mile of the loop is a rolling course that traces the base of Slaughter Mountain, which rises to the left and falls to the right. 
            At 4.1 miles, you close the loop.  Retrace your steps down the entrance trail to the park road, then turn left on the park road to return to the lakeside parking lot that contains your car at 4.7 miles, thus completing the first loop and your tour of the park’s backcountry.  To also see the park’s developed area around Lake Trahlyta, consider adding on the Trahlyta Lake Trail, which forms a 1 mile loop around its namesake lake and offers a short spur to an attractive waterfall.
Trailhead: Trahlyta Lake Trail
            The Trahlyta Lake Trail starts at a signed trailhead at the southeast end of the lakeside parking area.  The trail crosses a wooden bridge over the main stream that feeds Lake Trahlyta to reach a picnic shelter, where the trail curves left to begin following the southeast bank of Lake Trahlyta.  The park road stays very close on the right, and a wooden boardwalk carries you over a wet area.
Blood Mountain behind Lake Trahlyta
            5.2 miles into the hike, you reach the lake’s dam and spillway area.  Looking to the left across the lake provides this park’s signature view of Blood Mountain behind Lake Trahlyta.  The overlook you stood at an hour or so ago also stands above the lake’s opposite shore.  Signs warn against descending the steep and slippery dam and spillway, so make sure you stay on the trail.
            Just after crossing the spillway, the signed spur trail to Trahlyta Falls exits right.  The spur trail descends on a gradual to moderate grade to reach an observation platform near the base of Trahlyta Falls.  Moderate volumes of water cascade for 35 feet over numerous rock layers, and the falls sound as pleasant as they look.
Trahlyta Falls
            Back on the Trahlyta Lake Trail, the trail drops off the dam and passes very close to a water treatment plant and SR 180 on the right.  The last segment of the trail follows a sewer line as it passes through a stand of holly.  The trail comes out at the end of the park’s cabin road.  A short road walk with the park’s swimming area on the left completes the loop of Lake Trahlyta and returns you to the lakeside parking area for a second and final time.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Brown County State Park: Trail #8 (Blog Hike #750)

Trail: Trail #8 (HHC Trail)
Hike Location: Brown County State Park
Geographic Location: Nashville, IN (39.17172, -86.25495)
Length: 4.3 miles
Difficulty: 6/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: May 2019
Overview: A lollipop loop through mature deciduous forest with several overlooks.
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: From the intersection of SR 46 and SR 135 in Nashville, take SR 46 west/south 2.2 miles to the signed West Entrance for Brown County State Park.  Turn left to enter the park, pay the entrance fee, and drive the West Entrance Road 1.1 miles to the West Lookout Tower.  Park in the parking lot beside the West Lookout Tower.

The hike: For most of the year Brown County State Park is a nice park with nice mature forest and nice amenities, but for a few weeks in the fall the park transforms into one of the most fantastic hiking destinations in the Midwest.  The steep hills south of Indianapolis provide the relief needed for good leaf peeping, and the park has numerous overlooks that provide broad views of the park’s dense broadleaf forest.  The park gets very crowded in the fall, but the brilliant yellow, orange, and red hues make the crowds worth enduring.  Although I did this hike on a seasonally cool morning in May, I endeavor to return in October to take in the leaf color for myself.
At 15,815 acres, Brown County State Park is the largest state park in Indiana.  The park was established in 1929, and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built many of the park’s buildings in the 1930’s.  The park offers nearly every amenity including multiple developed campgrounds totaling 401 campsites, multiple primitive campgrounds, an 84-room lodge, numerous cabins, and two small lakes for fishing.
In terms of trails, with 70 miles of bridle trails, 27 miles of mountain biking trails, and 20 miles of hiking trails, the park has something to offer everyone.  12 of the park’s trails are designated as hiker-only, but several of them are fairly short.  This hike describes the park’s longest hiking trail, Trail #8, which is also called the HHC Trail because it was rebuilt by the Hoosier Hikers Council between 2002 and 2007.  Trail #8 is an excellent way to sample the park’s leaf peeping opportunities, but it also offers a pleasant forest hike throughout the year.
Trail #8 trailhead
Before heading down the trail, take a few minutes to check out the West Lookout Tower.  Built by the CCC in 1936, the stone and wood tower gives a nice north-facing view through a gap in the trees.  This tower is a popular spot during leaf peeping season, and it gives your first taste of what this park has to offer.
West Lookout Tower

View from West Lookout Tower
Trail #8 heads east from the tower and enters the woods at a wooden post bearing the number 8.  For the first 1.5 miles the trail undulates gradually while staying very close to the park road on the left.  The initial segment is rather narrow with some poison ivy growing beside it, but the poison ivy is avoidable if you watch for it.
Hiking near the park road
An unmarked trail exits right just before the trail splits to form its loop at 0.4 miles.  Another post bearing the number 8 marks this intersection.  To make the climbing easier, this description continues straight and uses the trail going right as its return route, thus hiking the loop clockwise.  Staying near the park road, near 1 mile into the hike you approach the wooden Tulip Tree picnic shelter.  This area can be fairly wet and muddy, so take care where you step.
Just past the shelter, you need to stay left where a trail that short-cuts the loop exits right.  Some more minor undulations and some gradual climbing bring you to Hesitation Point, which is located to the left across the park road.  As its name implies, Hesitation Point is one of the park’s best and widest vistas, and low hills ripple off to the north as far as the eye can see.  Some benches beckon you to sit, rest, and take in the view, but the vista’s location right on the park road means you will not be alone here.
Hesitation Point
Trail #8 leaves Hesitation Point to the south (the same side of the park road from which it entered) and begins its descent toward Ogle Lake.  A mountain bike trail goes to the left here in the same general direction, so make sure you stay on the hiking trail.  The trail descends a long wooden staircase built by the HHC as part of their mid 2000’s upgrade.  The first 0.25 miles of this descent loses 200 vertical feet of elevation, but once the bottom of the ravine is reached the grade becomes rather gradual.
Hiking down the ravine
The next 0.7 miles crosses back and forth over a small creek as the trail heads southwest down the ravine.  All of the creek crossings have bridges, and despite some wet areas the hiking in the ravine is fairly easy.  Whereas oak trees dominated the ridgetop, maple and beech trees dominate the ravine.
At 2.5 miles, you reach another trail intersection.  We will eventually turn right to cross the creek on another bridge and continue Trail #8’s loop, but first angle left to hike the short spur trail to Ogle Lake.  After a few hundred feet, you reach a playground beside the parking lot for Ogle Lake.  Walk through the parking lot and climb the dam to get a nice view of Ogle Lake.  Ogle Lake is a scenic body of water any time of year, but the deciduous trees lining the lake shore make it especially attractive in the fall.
Ogle Lake
Back at the trail intersection, cross the creek to begin the final segment of Trail #8.  The trail climbs out of the ravine on a winding gradual to moderate grade.  At 3.4 miles, you reach the top of a finger ridge where the short-cut trail enters from the right.  Angle left to descend steeply into another ravine.
The trail crosses another small creek via another small wooden footbridge before climbing on a moderate to steep grade.  At 3.9 miles, you reach the top of the hill and close the loop.  Turn left and retrace your steps 0.4 miles to the West Lookout Tower to complete the hike.  While you are here, check out the park’s Nature Center and its other two lookout towers, or try some of the park’s other short moderate trails.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Kickapoo State Recreation Area: Out and Back Trail (Blog Hike #749)

Trail: Out and Back Trail
Hike Location: Kickapoo State Recreation Area
Geographic Location: west of Danville, IL (40.13872, -87.73552)
Length: 6.4 miles
Difficulty: 4/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: May 2019
Overview: A lollipop loop through fields and forest on the east side of the Vermilion River.
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: In extreme eastern Illinois, take I-74 to US 150 (exit 210).  Exit and go east on US 150.  Take US 150 east 0.75 miles to the first traffic light, which is CR 1.  Turn left on CR 1.  Take CR 1 north 1.8 miles to Kickapoo Road and turn left on Kickapoo Rd.  Drive Kickapoo Rd. west 2.5 miles to the state park office, which is located on the left.  Park in the lot in front of the office.

The hike: The land of Kickapoo State Recreation Area has seen a lot of changes.   Between 500 and 1500 A.D. a Kickapoo Indian village was located where the Middle and Salt Forks of the Vermilion River meet, hence the park’s name.  A couple hundred years later, Indian Wars occurred south of Danville.  In 1819, European settlers discovered salt springs near the park.  Because salt was a valuable commodity on the frontier, this discovery led to an influx of European settlers.
            The salt springs supported the local economy until 1848, when salt production ceased.  Shortly thereafter, the land became one of the first areas to be strip mined for coal.  Early strip mining techniques devastated the natural landscape, and the scars of these mines are still visible today.  The coal extraction left a wasteland of bare hills and polluted ponds, and in 1939 the State of Illinois purchased 1290 acres of scarred land from the United Electric Coal Company.  Subsequent purchases of adjacent farmland created the current total of 2842 acres.
            The park today stands as a major recreation center, a sharp contrast to its state 70 years ago.  The once polluted waters now sustain life and provide plenty of fishing opportunities.  Two of these ponds even offer scuba diving, a rarity in a landlocked state like Illinois.  The park’s other amenities include picnic areas, a stable and many miles of trails for horseback riding, and a 6.5 mile mountain bike trail system.
            The park also offers 16 miles of trails open to hiking.  Many of the trails are 1 mile long or less, but a few options are longer.  The Riverview Trail starts at the picnic area between the river and Clear Lake and offers an easy 2 mile stroll along the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River, which bisects the park on a north to south course.  Two trails start at the park office: the Clear Lake and Out and Back Trails.  Both trails make for nice hiking, but this hike features the 6.4 mile Out and Back Trail, the park’s longest trail.
Trailhead near park office
            From the park office, walk north past the maintenance building and cross the main park road to arrive at a wooden sign announcing the beginnings of the Clear Lake and Out and Back Trails.  Both trails are rated rugged due to their length, but the difficulty of the terrain makes these trails no more strenuous than average.  Both trails start by heading right from the sign in a narrow strip of woods between the park road on the right and a steep hill to the left.  The Out and Back Trail is marked with white blazes and white signs bearing the hiker symbol.  Distance markers for the Out and Back Trail are posted every 0.25 miles, and the first of these wooden signs is reached while you are still adjacent to the park road.
4.75 mile marker on Out and Back Trail
            The trail curves left to follow and then cross the paved access road for Emerald Pond.  The Clear Lake and Out and Back Trails part ways here.  The Clear Lake Trail continues to parallel the access road before heading downhill toward Inland Sea and Clear Lake, and adding it to this hike forms an 8.6 mile double loop.  This description stays right to remain on the Out and Back Trail.
            At 0.4 miles, the Out and Back Trail crosses the access road and intersects the dirt/gravel entrance road for the group camp.  The camp road is gated, so vehicles are unlikely to be encountered.  Note that a small parking lot just outside the gate could serve as an alternate starting point for the Out and Back Trail.  Turn left on the camp road, which in another 0.1 miles arrives at the primitive group camp.  Where a sign that says “restrooms” points right, stay left.  At 0.75 miles, you exit the rear of the group camp on a two-track dirt trail.
Hiking through old farm field
            0.9 miles into the hike, the trail enters an abandoned farm field and makes the first of many intersections with the horse and mountain bike trails.  All of these intersections are well-marked with several signs.  If you have not seen a trail marker for a few minutes, you probably made a wrong turn.
            The trail climbs gently through the hot and sunny field, which teems with life of the insect and bird varieties.  Pass a wastewater area on the left; the smell was not horrific on my visit.  At 1.2 miles, the trail passes through a fence and curves left, continuing in a narrow strip of trees that once separated two farm fields.
Hiking along a wooded ravine
            The trail now heads west toward the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River and very slowly loses elevation.  This section of trail passes through some nice forest that features lots of oak and maple trees with a few sycamore trees, and it is my favorite part of this hike.  Soon the first steep ravine comes into view on the left.  At 1.8 miles, come to a bench overlooking this ravine.  This bench is the only bench on this hike, and therefore it makes a good place to rest.
            Just past 2 miles, the trail intersects a gravel road, where you need to turn left.  This point marks the beginning of a major trail reroute.  When I first hiked here in 2004, the Out and Back Trail exited this road to the left and crossed the river on an old concrete and steel bridge, but the bridge was demolished in 2006.  A short optional loop still exits left here, but the main Out and Back Trail heads northwest on the gravel road.
Start of main loop
            At 2.2 miles, you reach the start of the main loop.  For reasons to be seen later, I recommend hiking the loop clockwise.  The reroute is not signed as well as the route you have hiked so far, but to hike the loop clockwise you need to angle left to leave the gravel road and begin a mowed-grass trail.  If you reach some picnic tables beside a pond called Stump Pond, you are hiking the loop counterclockwise and need to backtrack a few hundred feet.
Stump Pond
            The mowed-grass trail descends moderately to enter the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River’s floodplain.  The grass was a few inches high on my visit, but the trail was easily discernible and passable.  Where a spur trail exits left to reach the river, stay right to remain on the main loop.  The trail makes a winding right-curving arc through a prairie.  The river on the left is not visible when trees have leaves, but some steep bluffs towering just beyond the river can be seen all year.
Wetland at end of gravel road
            At 3.4 miles, the trail comes out beside a wetland in an area that had recently been planted with tall, thick prairie grass on my visit.  To continue, you need to turn right and wade through the grass to reach a gravel road.  This turn is why you want to hike this loop clockwise: it would be very hard to find if you were hiking down the road.
            The rest of the loop follows the old gravel road as it heads gradually up and out of the old strip mine.  Near 4 miles, you pass some picnic tables beside Stump Pond to your left just before closing the loop.  Retrace your steps 2.2 miles to return to the park office and complete the hike.  While you are here, consider adding on the Clear Lake Trail or the Riverview Trail if you have the time and energy to do so.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge: North Pool and Beer-can Trails (Blog Hike #748)

Trails: North Pool and Beer-can Trails
Hike Location: Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge
Geographic Location: northeast of Havana, IL (40.38507, -89.96120)
Length: 3.6 miles
Difficulty: 3/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: May 2019
Overview: A pair of out-and-backs along the east shore of the North Pool.
Hike Route Map:
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: From the intersection of SR 97 and US 136 in Havana, take Promenade Street north.  Promenade St. becomes E. Manito Road after it leaves the town of Havana.  Drive a total of 7 miles from SR 97 to reach CR 1950 E.  Turn left on CR 1950 E.  Drive CR 1950 E 3.3 miles to the small signed North Roundtree parking lot on the left.  Park here.

The hike: Located about 25 miles downstream from Peoria, Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge is one of three sites that form the Illinois River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge Complex.  Before it became a refuge, this land was drained and diked for agricultural purposes.  Yet the Illinois River proved too powerful to be tamed in this way, and after only two years the land became a shallow backwater that received large amounts of silt from the river.  The refuge dates to 1936, when the Fish and Wildlife Service purchased the land.
            Most national wildlife refuges are good only for short birdwatching hikes, but a new system of nature trails constructed in the summer of 2018 by the Youth Conservation Corps (YCC) provides options for longer hikes at Chautuaqua.  These trails allow hikers to explore the low bluffs that line the east side of the Illinois River’s wetlands, and they make for good bird viewing during the spring and fall migrations.  The YCC built 4 new trails, two of which are used to form the double out-and-back described here.
Trailhead at North Roundtree parking area
            From the small North Roundtree parking area, the common entrance trail heads northwest into the woods.  Very quickly the trail splits with the longer North Pool Trail going left and the shorter Beer-can Trail going right.  This hike will eventually go both directions, and for no reason I turned left to hike the North Pool Trail first.
            The narrow North Pool Trail heads southwest through a narrow strip of trees with the open wetland known as North Pool to the right and moderately traveled CR 1950 E audible but usually not visible to the left.  Some wooden arrows nailed to trees mark this trail, but the trail markers are rather infrequent.  While the trail was discernible on my visit, some areas were rather overgrown.  More foot traffic is needed to pound this trail in, and the route will need to be marked better and/or re-cleared in the near future.
Hiking the North Pool Trail
            At 0.3 miles, a spur trail exiting left leads to a small parking lot on CR 1950 E that serves the Roundtree Trail, another of the new trails constructed by the YCC.  Continue straight to remain on the North Pool Trail.  Soon the trail briefly uses the shoulder of CR 1950 E to cross a small stream on the road bridge, and this section may require wading through some waist-high grass.  Look for the wooden arrow that marks where the trail reenters the woods.
North Pool
            The rest of the North Pool Trail undulates slightly as it stays in the narrow strip of forest.  The forest features a lot of oak trees, hickory trees, and honeysuckle.  Some nice views of the North Pool can be had to the right; water levels were very high due to recent rains on my visit.  The trail starts following a buried electric cable as it approaches the Eagle Bluffs boat launch, which is reached at 1.3 miles.  Eagle Bluffs boat launch features a parking area, a picnic area, a restroom building, and of course a boat launch.
North Pool at Eagle Bluff boat launch
            The North Pool Trail ends at Eagle Bluffs boat launch, and no other trails lead to this point.  Thus, you need to head back up the North Pool Trail to its north end.  Alternatively, if you really want to form a loop or trail conditions are very bad, you could walk back on the shoulder of the road.  When you get back to the North Pool Trail’s north end, head north on the Beer-can Trail.
            Supposedly the Beer-can Trail is named for a ring of beer cans that marks a secret birding hotspot, and despite the trail’s odd name it was in much better shape than the North Pool Trail on my visit.  The Beer-can Trail offers more of the same scenery, and I never found the metal construction for which this trail is named.  I did see a decent number of songbirds on this trail.
End of Beer-can Trail
Just past 3 miles, you reach the north end of the Beer-can Trail.  Another trail called the Beach Trail also comes to this point, but it stays very close to North Pool and was underwater on my visit.  Thus, I retraced my steps along the Beer-can Trail to return to the trailhead and complete the hike.  While you are here, the Chautauqua Nature Trail located near the refuge headquarters offers an ADA-accessible 0.5 mile loop, and it is the oldest and most popular trail at the refuge.  The Chautauqua Nature Trail makes a nice short add-on to this hike.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Lincoln's New Salem State Historic Site (Blog Hike #747)

Trails: Mentor Graham’s Footsteps, Cardinal Ridge, Shady Hollow, and Damselfly Trails
Hike Location: Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site
Geographic Location: south of Petersburg, IL (39.97791, -89.84701)
Length: 4.1 miles
Difficulty: 5/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: May 2019
Overview: A loop hike along the Sangamon River featuring recreated New Salem village.
Hike Route Map:
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: From the intersection of SR 4 and SR 97 on the northwest side of Springfield, take SR 97 northwest 16.6 miles to the main entrance for Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site.  Turn left to enter the site’s main area, and park in the large blacktop parking lot in front of the Visitor Center.

The hike: The year was 1831 when a 22 year old Abraham Lincoln arrived in New Salem, IL via flatboat on the Sangamon River.  At that time, the village had only existed for 2 years.  Unlike most villages in Illinois, New Salem was not a small farming village but a collection of 20-25 families many of whom had young craftsmen or businessmen trying to make a new life on the frontier.  Thus, Lincoln fit right in.
            During the 6 years he lived here, Lincoln made a living as a boatman, soldier, postmaster, surveyor, general store owner, and railsplitter, with various levels of success in these various occupations.  Yet his best-known achievement in New Salem was getting elected to the Illinois General Assembly in 1834.  Lincoln moved away from New Salem to Springfield, also in his election district, in 1837.  The village was abandoned in 1840 only 11 years after it was settled, so it is almost as if New Salem existed just to give Lincoln his start.
            In the 1930’s, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built a recreation of New Salem on its original foundations, and their recreation is open to visitors today as Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site.  The village is the site’s main attraction, but it also features a campground, a large picnic area, a restaurant, picnic shelters and a boat ramp on the Sangamon River, and 6 miles of hiking trails.  Although the recreated village is quite popular, the trails see little use, and the route described here forms a loop through the park’s trail system while still touring the recreated village.  Bugs were a significant factor on my visit, so make sure to wear good bug spray during the warmer months.
Trailhead: Mentor Graham's Footsteps Trail
            To save the recreated village for last, this hike starts with the Mentor Graham’s Footsteps Trail, which begins at a signed trailhead at the opposite end of the parking lot from the Visitor Center.  On my visit, the Mentor Graham’s Footsteps Trail was closed due to a bridge being out.  Therefore, I had to start my hike by walking back down the entrance road to the other (eastern) end of the Mentor Graham’s Footsteps Trail, which is located at the site’s main entrance on SR 97.  The trail down to this point has a little more up and down than the road, but it stays in the forest and is much more scenic.
Start of Cardinal Ridge Trail
            At the site’s main entrance, carefully cross busy SR 97 and look across a mowed grass field to the right for the start of the Cardinal Ridge Trail.  The Cardinal Ridge Trail enters the woods at a brown wooden post and climbs on a steep and eroded track.  The difference between maximum and minimum elevations on this hike is only about 120 feet, but several short steep areas such as this one increase the difficulty.
            0.6 miles into the hike, you reach the top of the hill and a trail intersection with the Cardinal Ridge Trail’s main loop.  Angle right to begin hiking the loop counterclockwise.  The Cardinal Ridge Trail is one of the site’s best-maintained trails, and the wide single-track trail passes through shrubby broadleaf forest for its entire distance.
Hiking the Cardinal Ridge Trail
            At 1.1 miles, you reach the Cardinal Ridge Trail’s southernmost point where an unmarked side trail exits right to access another parking lot.  A few hundred feet later, you reach another unsigned trail intersection.  The Cardinal Ridge Trail continues straight to close its loop, but this hike turns right to head for the Sangamon River on the Shady Hollow Trail.
            Quickly you cross the park road and come to the official trailhead for the Shady Hollow Trail.  The Shady Hollow Trail fools you by making a brief dip through a side ravine before beginning its winding descent toward the Sangamon River in earnest.  This trail is another single-track dirt trail, but it passes through younger forest that features some osage orange trees a dense understory of honeysuckle.
Hiking the Shady Hollow Trail
            At 2.2 miles, you reach the bottom end of the Shady Hollow Trail at a collection of picnic shelters along the Sangamon River.  These shelters make nice places to sit and rest near the midpoint of this hike provided they are not reserved.  Drinking water may be available here in season.  To continue the loop, turn left on the Damselfly Trail, which heads northwest out of the picnic shelter area with the river on your right.
Sangamon River
            The initial segment of the Damselfly Trail follows an old asphalt road that stays very close to the river.  At some points the river’s erosion has undermined the asphalt, so you have to watch where you are stepping rather than just mindlessly follow the asphalt.  After curving left to leave the river, the Shickshack Trail exits left to head for the site’s restaurant.  Stay straight to remain on the Damselfly Trail.
            2.8 miles into the hike, you come out on the east shoulder of SR 97.  The Damselfly Trail turns right to cross a creek on the road’s bridge before heading back into the forest on the same side of the road.  The last (northernmost) part of the Damselfly Trail follows a narrow strip of high ground between a wetland on the left and the river on the right.  I have to be honest and report that this portion of the Damselfly Trail was in very poor shape on my visit.  The path was barely discernable, several fallen trees had to be climbed over or around, and vast areas of stinging nettle lined the route.  This area shows the site’s lack of funding and staffing, a problem on the state level in Illinois.
Recreated grist mill
            At 3.4 miles, you cross a muddy area to reach the Damselfly Trail’s north end at the site’s recreated saw and grist mill along SR 97.  The muddy area you walked through is actually an old Sangamon River channel, and a mill operated on this site from 1828 until 1853.  To get to the rest of the recreated village, climb some wooden steps and cross SR 97 using a covered bridge, then walk uphill a short distance on asphalt path.
First Berry-Lincoln Store
Joshua Miller Blacksmith Shop
The recreated village contains 22 log buildings, and it includes both residences and commercial buildings such as a school/church, a tavern, and several stores.  Two of the stores were run by Lincoln while he lived here; they both went bankrupt.  Costumed interpreters, mostly volunteers, bring the village to life.  I spent several minutes talking to a nice older lady doing needlework in one of the residences.  Walking through the village brings you back to the Visitor Center, thus completing your tour of Lincoln’s New Salem.