Thursday, August 30, 2007

Winged Deer Park

Yesterday morning I investigated another find from the Johnson City Parks website, namely Winged Deer Park. I found this park at the same time I found Buffalo Mountain park, which I visited just a few days ago (blog here), and once I had seen Buffalo Mountain, I feared I'd be disappointed by Winged Deer.

I was not wrong.

However, that does not mean that Winged Deer is not a more-than-adequate city park. It was just a bit of a comedown from Buffalo Mountain. I arrived a bit before 7am, not having been able to find a list of opening hours on the parks and recreation department's web site. Alas, the park did not officially open until 8am, but the gates were open, and there was no one around to stop me, so I went in and parked anyway. I should specify; I parked in the lot off of Carroll Creek Road, which is convenient to both the disc golf course (18 holes) and the hiking/walking trails. There is another entrance on Bristol Highway, which offers better access to the parks historical and athletic facilities. I did a drive-by of these on my way out, and they seemed nice, but they weren't my primary objective, hence my alternative parking strategy.

The first disappointment, which wasn't really any surprise, was that I saw considerably more litter on the ground, especially along the trails closer to the parking area. I expected this, but it still bums me out to see it. Secondly, I was a bit bummed that there was no trail map posted anywhere to be seen. The good news is that I had printed my own copy out before leaving home, and, as it turned out, I REALLY needed it. If you'd like to print out your own map, a PDF file can be found here.

The third disappointment was somewhat related to my need of the map. You see, the paved paths seem to get a decent amount of travel, and the sections of trail closest to the parking areas seem to see a reasonable amount of use as well. But once you get on up the trail, or in the cases of some trails, try to find them at all, you are in for some bushwhacking. And spiderwhacking, too. I found that the disuse of the trails had resulted in an intolerable number of spider's webs overgrowing the paths. After walking into/through a couple dozen of these, I finally got tired of collecting arachnids and found myself a long stick. This I used to bounce along the path ahead of me, from ground to about head height, and it did help. Even with this preventative measure, though, I still had more unwanted encounters of the 8-legged kind than I care to recount. Even on the paved paths, the webs encroached to the extent that I walked through a few. Sheesh!

As for the bushwhacking: I walked almost all of the trails/paths in this park. I started with the outermost loop comprised of both trail and path, and after completing that in far less time than I had anticipated (note that there are no segment lengths on the map; there are also relatively few mile markers along the trails), I purposely walked down huff and puff hill so that I could walk back up, and then did a few more fancy loops and double-backs until I had covered everything except a few short segments of paved path. What follows is the lowdown.

Beginning from the Parking lot near Tee 1, I headed up the paved path to the first right, which put me on Poplar Ridge Loop (note the misspelling -- Popular -- on the map). This was a nice trail, aside from the rubbish strewn about the first few hundred yards, and the downed limbs which made one short segment nigh impassable. There were also a few thorny bushes that enjoyed grabbing at my legs as I passed. If I had realized just how much bushwhacking I was going to be doing, I definitely would have worn long pants! Poplar Ridge is the outer loop, and has a nice amount of elevation change, and the trail varies from hardpack to roughly inch-deep leaf litter. Canopy is reliably shady, and the understory varies from almost nonexistent in the places where you seem to walking in a ditch, to quite brambly and grabby in other areas.

Once I hit the paved path, I made the aforementioned detour down and back up Huff and Puff Hill, then followed Cedar Trail back to the parking area, encountering only a few spiders along the way. Next I followed the unnammed inner loop trail that results from taking the first fork off of Poplar Ridge Loop, and then taking a left at the next intersection. Nothing too remarkable along that route, nor the section or Wise Oak Lane I followed to reach Bluebell Loop. Bluebell Loop seemed to be a bit overgrown, but not horribly so, although the few signs along it were all but unreadable. The first section was blazed in blue, but the return section of Bluebell was, oddly, blazed in the same white that Poplar Ridge uses. This made it a bit confusing for me, even though I'd already traveled Poplar Ridge. I just stayed left wherever it was an option, though, and managed to find my way back to Wise Oak Lane.

Next I continued along Wise Oak Lane and went for the next side trail after Bluebell Loop. This is where the fun really started! At first, I blew right past it. You see, none of the trails in this park are what you'd call "well marked," and this particular side trail was not marked at all. It diverged from the paved path at what appeared to be a slightly wide place, so if you're looking for it, hopefully that will help. I didn't realize I'd blown past it until I saw the signs telling me I had hit Hemlock Loop on the paved path. So I turned back and looked really hard, and eventually found this faint path through the underbrush. Very faint. Here begins the serious bushwhacking. So much so that I actually lost the trail at one point! I did eventually find my way back, though, and picked my way through to Poplar Ridge. Then I found the similarly overgrown short trail back to the paved path. Whew! No more of that for me. To try to round out something resembling a workout hike, I made a few more loopy loops around the paved trails, shook off a few more spiders (and spent a lot of time picking the hitchiking seeds I'd collected during my bushwhacking off my clothing), and made my way back to the car. At this point it was after 8:30, and the park was showing some signs of life. Several cars and trucks were there, and I even saw a couple humans heading off on the paved paths.

Alas, I saw nothing during my perambulations that struck me as worthy of preserving photographically. I plan on heading out for another hike tomorrow morning, though, so hopefully that will yield some Kodak moments.

Summary advice for this park: walk slowly, carry a loooong stick, pack your own trail map, and wear long pants!

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Buffalo Mountain Park

This is, without a doubt, the prettiest, most wild, and cleanest city park I've ever visited. I thought the greenways out in Austin (TX) were nice, but this trumps them all.
I was investigating city parks near where I live, and stumbled across this hiking trail map on the Johnson City, TN, Parks and Recreation web site. It seemed too good to be true, but I had to see for myself anyway. Turns out, the place is very real, and offers some great hiking! Admittedly, I only explored the western side of the park, but I definitely plan on going back, not only to check out the rest of the trails, but also to see how the park changes through the seasons. I'm excited to find such a beautiful natural space so close to me.
I started out at the main trailhead. This was around 9am on a Sunday morning. There were two other cars nearby, and I thought I heard another approaching just as I started up the trail. So the place was pleasantly deserted -- lots of points for that! I had also chosen an excellent weather situation for hiking; the morning temperatures were in the sixties, and it was overcast with a heavy sky that threatened rain. I don't mind walking in the rain at all, so this was perfect for me, and kept things cool which was also ideal. The humidity was quite high for this area (in the 90% range, according to the Weather Channel before I left), which was also helpful to me, as, being a Florida native, I'm used to breathing moist air. It did produce an almost instantanous damp sheen on my skin, but because of the cool air temperature, this was not as icky-sticky as the cloying humidity of Florida. There was also a nice breeze, at least up to the southwest corner of the trail system, which also aided in creating a pleasant atmosphere.

I headed south along the Cascade Trail, which rises pretty steadily and so provided me with a nice warmup. I didn't come across much of note for a while, just a few strangely misshapen trees and a couple that had grown around obstacles. Eventually, however, I encountered this downed tree that was fostering quite a colony of shelf lichens. I've never seen shelf lichens quite like these (down in FL they're usually much larger, and don't have mossy-looking stuff intermingling with them), so I had to snap a photo of it.

As I approached the Cascades, I noted that the trail was suffering from erosion in several places, even to the point of making it a bit difficult to traverse where it had almost matched the hillside in steepness.

These are the Cascades. I didn't know what to expect, but I guess I was thinking it would be a bit more waterfall-esque. This was a nifty feature nonetheless, and had some great exposure of the bedrock layers where the water has done its slow, careful work over the eons. What you see above is actually a part of the trail, as well, so I guess these never see especially heavy waterflow. We had a considerable rain last night, so I would think that this would be on the heavy side. Which actually leads me to wonder...if we hadn't had that rain, would there have been any water present at all? Just one more question to be answered by my repeated visits. :)

The view above is of the Cascades as they tumble down the hill away from the trail. There were also a great many bees in this area, as it seemed many of the plants, which were obviously quite lush near the water source, seemed to be flowering. So, hikers who are allergic to bee stings, be aware! I myself didn't have any serious run-ins with the little pollinators, though, and moved on up the trail toward Stairstep Ridge. As I did so, I continued to encounter portions of the trail which were a little difficult to traverse due to erosion. I do hope that the trail sees enough use and maintenance that the erosion does not win the battle. I certainly plan on doing my part!

The elevation continued to climb up and over Stairstep Ridge, now in increasingly steep sections. After rounding the westernmost hairpin in the trail, I began hearing strange noises in the distance...humans! The noisiest critters in the forest. At first I feared the bane of my existence -- the omnipresent boyscout troop which has plagued me on so many of my other expeditions (more on that another time). This, happily, turned out to be a small group of trail-running girls headed in the opposite direction, who thanked me for vacating the trail for them as they passed, and kept on scooting along. I would have liked to warn them about the washouts on the trail ahead of them, but they were moving so fast I would have had to shout after them. At any rate, I imagine they probably use the trails often enough to know them far better than I.
Shortly after encountering the trail runners, the soft sound of wind through leaves gradually changed to the slightly more staccato song of light rain falling on the canopy. Although it rained for at least 10 or 15 minutes, very few of the drops managed to make it through the canopy and down to me, so I had no reason to stop and put my backpack's raincoat on (yes, my light backpack has it's own, built-in raincoat!). I just wandered and enjoyed the sound, as well as the occasional droplets that made their way to my skin.

Happy with the cardio effects of my upward hike, I eventually crested the ridge, and began a gentle descent to the bench at the west end of the Fork Ridge Trail. Given that I am a bit overweight, any cardio is a good thing. What I had forgotten was that, for every step I go up, I must also take a step down. Therein lies the rub, especially on descents which are a little steep. My knees, and the muscles surrounding them, are not in the best shape, so they complain early and often as I "put on the brakes" going downhill. Trying to jog downhill isn't really any easier on my joints, although I suppose it does get the ordeal over with a bit quicker. But given the fact that I really needed the outdoor time to keep my spirits up (the last two weeks have been spent mostly indoors, unpacking, organizing, cleaning, and organizing some more after an inter-state move), I didn't especially want to hurry home. So I went downhill slowly, comforting myself with the knowledge that I was building muscles I'd be using much more often in the coming months and years.

I nearly trod on this little feller as I made my descent. Well, little compared to me. I have to admit, he was nearly as big as my fist, which is a pretty big amphibian where I'm from. He moved enough to get my attention (and not get stepped on!), but then calmly posed for me as I dug out my camera and took photos of him from several angles.
The rest of the descent I made without incident, and even took the tiny (.04 mile) detour to Huckleberry Knob and gazed out over the hazy gray city. I took some photos there, too, but they're not really worth publishing, as, well, they're mostly just gray.