Wednesday, January 26, 2011

High Shoal Falls at South Mounain State Park 1/11/2011

On New Years Day after sleeping in and enjoying breakfast we decided to take our weekend company for a hike to see if there was any snow or ice at High Shoals Falls.  It was a fairly warm day and most of the snow and ice had melted at the house but even though we only live about a half hour drive from the park the trails had a lot more snow and ice remaining.  There were six of us enjoying the holiday - daughter JoAnne, son-in-law Peter, grandsons Matthew and Daniel, Mitch and I.  This was their dog Custers first trail hike so Peter took control of the leash.  The falls are in South Mountain State Park which is south of the Blue Ridge Parkway in smaller but still nice mountains.  There are good picnic and bathroom facilities as well at tent camping sites.  We were surprised to see the parking lot quite full on this Winter day.
There are two choices for the first segment of this hike.  The Hemlock Nature Trail is a .3 mile handicap accessible trail along Jacob's Fork that is quite pretty in any season.  We chose for today to take the Headquarters Trail instead on the way in since it passes by the entrance to the restrooms.  We returned by the more interesting Hemlock Nature Trail.  The first section of trail is gravel road and was easily walked even with the snow. 
Just past where the nature trail joins the main trail you cross a bridge where Shinny Creek comes in from the right to join Jacob's Fork.  It was near here that we were sitting last summer resting our feet in the creek when a crayfish grabbed my big toe.  Don't know who was more surprised - me or the crayfish.  But this trip there was to be no wading here - just the "boys" including Grandpa throwing snowball in the creek.
Shortly beyond this point is the Shinny Creek picnic area and several trail choices.  For today we went through the picnic area and took the left fork of the High Shoal Falls Trail.  This is the most direct route to the falls.  From this point you are no longer on  a road but a more natural mountain trail.  For most of the next half mile the trail hugs Jacob's Fork with its cascades and holes for wading.  There are some rocks and roots to negotiate but nothing too difficult in this section.  My favorite spot on the trail is crossing the river on a combination boardwalk and bridge.  There are pretty cascades here and a view of the falls just above.  We took some time to enjoy this spot before tackling the toughest part of the hike.  The next section is much steeper and climbs through rocky areas and steep wooden stairs.  It is a short section and you are soon at a short side trail to the falls overlook platform. 
At the falls we took a few pictures and discovered all kinds of shapes in the icicles and ice flows.  Matthew noticed a hole in the ice in the pool below the falls and the guys had target practice with snowballs.  Then a decision had to be made.  Do we backtrack the way we came or continue upward on the trail to the upper falls?  Joanne suggested that continuing up would be easier then going back down the icy rocks so we all headed up more wooden stairs.  The next section is still gaining elevation quickly but you are on stairs rather than rocks. 
The upper falls are much smaller but there are some interesting potholes in the stream here.  It looks like a fun place to play in the water but please resist the urge.  Remember you are just above the lower falls and one slip could be disaster.  There are many safer places to play in the water in this park.  Within site of these falls is a bridge across the water leading to several benches.  This is a nice place to picnic but there are no facilities and camping is not allowed here. 
From this little picnic area the trail becomes more like an old road again and although you continue to gain elevation for a time it is easier going.  The first trail intersecting on the left leads to the Upper Fall Campsites. They are only about 500 feet away and have facilities (the kind that do not flush) if you need to make a detour.  Continuing on you come to a choice of taking a trail left or right.  Pay attention to the signs and turn right unless you are looking for a longer hike.  There about 30 miles of trails in this park and you can get quite far from the parking lot.  From here you will be walking downhill  until you reach the first picnic area where we began the falls loop trail.  The last section is a backtrack along the Headquarters Trail to the parking lot.  Remember to take the right turn onto the Hemlock Nature Trail if you want a few more minutes of walking along the water.
There are many more possible hikes in the park.  We will return here in the other seasons and hike a few more of them.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Kings Mountain Gateway Trail

The Kings Mountain Gateway Trail is a place to come for exercise or to enjoy nature.  The trail head is located on Battleground Blvd. just south of historic downtown Kings Mountain.   Find the trail head on the left just past the field with goats and an emu.  There are picnic tables, restrooms and a water fountain at this location.  I was surprised to find the water fountain turned on at this cold time of year.

Behind the picnic area is a nice short nature trail recently opened.  This trail was a Gold Award project for a Girl Scout and is very well done.  The information signs placed about 20 feet apart tell of the local trees and animals.  The hinged boards over the signs were probably designed to protect them from the weather but I can imagine small children having more fun checking them out that way too.

The trail map appears a little confusing at first but basically there is a level loop of about .8 miles with two optional hill climbs adding about .75 miles each to the walk.  All of the trails are either asphalt or well smoothed out gravel and should present no obstacles.

We started out by taking the right turn just after leaving the parking lot.  As we rounded the first curve we saw a small group of people looking out over the quarry.  They were looking at several bears who appeared to be climbing back  to the woods after enjoying a cold drink from the quarry waters.  We did not expect to see bears here!
Just past this spot we made the left turn and climbed Cardio Hill.  The trail up the hill is well graded gravel with a few "speed bumps" to encourage rain water to run off the trail instead of washing it out.  You will be gaining elevation constantly but the trail is never too steep as you spiral around the hill to the top.  I hoped for better views from the top but you must look between the several varieties of evergreen.  There is a bench at the top for catching your breathe.

Back on the main trail we continued along the side of the quarry following the fence line.  Around the corner is another bench and a choice to turn left and return to parking or continue straight ahead and  up the hill to the Plateau Loop.  The plateau area is more like a meadow area then the heavier woods of the rest of the trail.  I saw several varieties of small birds in this area and was just thinking how it felt like being deeper in the wilderness until a siren began to sound in the nearby town.  As you near the end of the loop and begin to descend the hill you will see evidence on the left that the area beyond the trail is an active quarry.

As we were walking the last gravel section I heard a splash in the drainage area beside the trail and a bird flew up and away.  We are not experts at bird identifying but it was larger then a mockingbird but smaller then a hawk - possibly a falcon or some variety.  A good end to a walk that we thought was only for exercise and turned out to be a lot more interesting.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Kings Pinnacle Hike 1/22/2011

The temperature is in the thirties but we have a day off and the ice and  snow have melted so it's time to hit the trail.  My husband, Mitch suggested Kings Pinnacle so we headed to Crowders Mountain State Park.  There are two monadnocks in this park Crowders Mountain and Kings Pinnacle.  We have hiked both but today we chose the pinnacle.  This trail is well marked and easy to follow but is through a nice woods with no traffic noise or pavement. 

The trailhead is to the left of the visitor center in the main portion of the park.  Take advantage of the facilities here as there are no restrooms, water fountains, or trashcans on the trail.  The hike is about 3.5 miles round trip and you will want to spend some time enjoying the views at the top so be sure to allow several hours and bring water and snacks to fully enjoy this area.

The first part of the trail is easy walking with very few obstacles and little elevation change.  After ten minutes or so you will climb the first hill and follow a ridge for a short distance.  This ridge area has good size rocks beside the trail that children enjoy exploring.There are a  few rocks in the trail that you have to step over.  This section may be a minor challenge for the adults but is a fun area for the youngest hikers.  You will descend a short distance below this hill before the final ascent.  As you begin downhill there is a good view of your destination this time of year.  Once the leaves are back on the trees it will be harder to see.  At the low point you will see a bench and several signs.  The Turnback Trail intersects at this point.  To reach the pinnacle we will continue straight ahead but remember this spot because on the return we will take the Turnback trail.

We had a surprise at this point.  This is where the trail use to quickly become steep but they have replaced the old eroded trail here with a new section.  The new trail is slightly longer but the elevation gain is more gentle.  After a pleasant walk on the new section  we found ourselves once again on the old eroded trail with about a quarter mile left to go.  This last section is the hardest due to more rapid elevation gain and exposed rocks and roots but don't give up - you are almost there.

With .17 miles to go you find a sign for the Ridge Trail.  This is a new trail that follows the ridge line of this very old and eroded mountain chain south to the new Boulders Access area and then further south into Kings Mountain State Park and Kings Mountain National Military park in South Carolina.  We would  like to one day hike this trail but since it is longer then we usually hike in a day it would require us to bring a second vehicle to park at the Boulders Access instead of hiking back.

You will finally reach a sign that say Trail Ends Here.  This spot will not give you the views you made this climb for.  There is a sign warning that this area is dangerous - pay attention and keep a close eye on the children in your group in this area.  Several times a year we see stories in the local news of hiker in this park who have fallen while playing on the rocks.  Behind the sign there is an orange circle on the rocks.  If you carefully climb the rocks at this point you will find a level area about 25 feet away with good views.  The rocks at this point almost form a natural fence allowing you a good view without danger of falling.  From here you can follow the orange circles painted on the rocks to the right for more views in all directions.  On a clear day like today you can see the Charlotte skyline to the east and the Blue Ridges to the west.  We have wondered about the concrete pad found if you walk a couple hundred feet along the ridge.  We learned from another hiker today that there use to be a beacon light for the Charlotte airport here.

When you have finished relaxing at the top retrace your steps to the point where the Turnback Trail starts.  You have a choice to return the way you came or take this trail.  We prefer the Turnback Trail for several reasons.  It is about the same distance as the Pinnacle Trail but does not include any rocky section.  It is much less busy.  We only saw one other hiker on this trail but we saw probably fifty hikers and a dozen dogs on the Pinnacle trail.  You also get to see different scenery including two sections along a small creek.  You will pass close to the picnic area and the Fern Nature Trail will join you for a time before forking off to the right.  This trail ends at the same parking lot where we started except that you are on the opposite side of the parking lot from the building.

We did not see any large wildlife today but we have seen wild turkeys and deer on this trail.  If you want to make a day of it there are a picnic area, exhibits in the visitor center, a small lake with a trail around it, and canoes for rent in the warmer months.  Of course if you have the energy left there is another mountain to climb.  We will save it for another day.