Urban Goat on The Go: Columbia’s Canal Walk

Columbia, South Carolina is not the location most people would pick if you said to name a place rich in history. Which kind of makes it a secret! Only in the last fifteen years or so have the numerous ruins and historical structures been brought to wider appreciation.  One such gem that the people of Columbia have recently rediscovered is the 1891 canal that once brought cotton bales around the rapids on the Broad and Congaree Rivers. It is a great place to spend an afternoon bomb proofing a baby goat and rediscovering some history for yourself.

If you are interested in more less well known Columbia history check out Underground Columbia, the mill ruins at Riverbanks Zoo, and the network of underground tunnels beneath downtown Columbia that are currently used for storm drainage. Note these are not goat friendly…

Is it goat approved? Yes, at least for kids. The park ranger seemed amused

How you get there: Google Columbia Riverfront Park. That is the parking location. Yes, it is a ritzy looking spot for being right next to the water and sewage treatment plant.

Time for hike: The distance for this hike is 5.2 miles out and back to canal locks for the historical Columbia Canal.

Best season to do this hike: Any time but dead heat summer. Its easy, it’s flat, and it is going to be coated in people regardless of when you go, so you might as well please yourself in terms of the weather.


Trails to Take

There is really only 1 trail – it goes along the original tow path for the canal. To reach it there is a paved trail from the parking lot which starts near the red school house building, (this is an original school house built in the area).

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Training on the canal walk

 

The paved section descends down between the water treatment plant and the original retaining wall for what was once Columbia’s oldest, largest, and certainly creepiest jail. The Central Correctional Institute (or as my parents referred to it, the Columbia Penitentiary) was a massive granite block structure that was in use for 150 years until finally being decommissioned in 1994 after decades of complaints about how outdated the facility was. For a while you could take tours of the place, and my parents were fond of retelling stories about the walkways without rails, some of which were many stories off the ground…and how unpopular inmates were pushed to their deaths from these. The obviously very ominous and atmospheric jail, with its wonderful rusting razor wire fences, intact guard towers, looming stone walls, and even an inmate baseball diamond, was demolished several years ago to make way for some hideous cookie cutter condos. But the retaining wall is still impressive, if less creepy.

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Inside the jail before it was demolished. Note the very long drop from the upper floors…

The trail crosses over the canal itself a metal I beam bridge, to join the canal walk. Directly across from the bridge are the original Columbia Water Plant pump houses, which supplied water from the river to the city of Columbia until the modern water treatment plant was built. The modern water treatment plant lies on the opposite side of the canal and draws its water from the canal instead of the river.

To the left of the pump house buildings is the dam that powered the historical water plant and also contains the waste weir for the canal. Waste weirs are used to drain canals for repairs and to adjust water level. Unfortunately, this system was insufficient to keep the canal intact during the devastating 2015 floods, and damage to the canal, including a wall breach, is still being repaired. Interestingly, the canal we walk on today is the 1891 canal, but the first canal in this spot (built in 1820) was also destroyed by a flood. Given the nature of the Broad River to stay “broad” by flooding several times a year I suppose canal damage is inevitable.

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2015 flooding punched a hole through the canal wall and drained it

In the distance you may be able to spot the Columbia Cotton Mill, which is today the State Museum, and Gervais Street Bridge, hands down the prettiest route into Columbia. There are further canal and industrial ruins between here and these landmarks, but for whatever reason they had this section of the walk locked off today.

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Diversion dam that feeds water into the canal

Following the paved canal walk away from the water treatment plant and down the original tow path you pass under a rail line and highway bridge and by several overlooks. The canal today looks very different from when I first walked it 20 years ago. Back then it was, in the words of my hiking elder and grandmother “kind of dumpy” and significantly less busy. Today the thorny undergrowth is gone and you can see the river and the canal for almost the entire route. There is a small paved trail that comes off that you can take to get closer to the river, which is popular with fishermen and highly recommended because it sees less traffic and lets you get up close and personal with the water and the rocks of Broad River. In the spring, watch for the protected shoals spider lily, which blooms out among the rocks.

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The canal lock

The walk is easy, flat, and unless you are into swimming you can’t get lost. The tow path terminates at the restored canal locks. 20 years ago this area was fenced off, but now you can walk across the locks to an upper parking lot and there’s an actual plaza to overlook the diversion dam that feeds water into the canal. This spot is popular with fishermen and with bird watchers for the abundance of feathery mayhem that collects at the diversion dam.

Then turn around and head back.

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BE WARNED

  1. Traffic is heavy and parking is tight at Riverfront Park. Bring you something small and people friendly for this one, (and be prepared to pick up after it).
  2. Apparently they have problems with alligators in the canal now. Avoid feeding the goat to the wildlife.
  3. While this is such an urban walk the backpack and hiking gear will be unnecessary and totally out of place, bring a water bottle if you are going in summer – the asphalt bakes you to death.
  4. The area is patrolled by bored park rangers. If you need to avoid the rangers go to the new parking area at the canal locks instead of going to the one in Riverfront Park. However, the ranger I ran into did not seem bothered by the baby goat.

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In sum: 

Water manager during the 2015 flood: “Nobody panic okay, but I think we just poked a giant hole through the canal supplying all of our water…”

The View To Nowhere at Rabun Bald

There is one glaring downside to hiking Rabun Bald in the winter. In the summer, you get a gorgeous 360 degree view of the north Georgia mountains. In the winter if you are unlucky you get a cloud bank and wind so strong it makes all the goat’s hair stick out in the wrong direction like a bad blow dry job.

Still makes a fun short hike for the days when you don’t feel like committing to the real thing and/or want to bomb proof the four hoofed minion against dogs, people, backpackers, and general mayhem.

Is it goat approved? Dunno. I would however not suggest taking a goat during warm weather on the route I took because it looks like it is very busy in more comfortable climates. Coming up from Three Forks instead of from this parking area would probably be quieter, but the last bit of the trail coming from that direction is a serious climb.

How you get there: Google. The parking area is around 34.979000, -83.303067 . It’s not really parking so much as sticking yourself in one of the few spots that won’t block all the driveways or the forest service road. The last major turn before you get there is marked with a standard Georgia forest service sign in brown and gold that says Rabun Bald TRHD and Bartrum Trail.

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Parking – it is not plentiful!

Time for hike: The distance for this hike is around 3.2 miles round trip out and back to the lookout tower.

Best season to do this hike: WINTER. Otherwise you won’t be able to park, you won’t be able to move on the trail, and in general it will be a hassle. The only downside is you may not be able to see the view.


Trails to Take

From the parking area you want to walk up the gravel road. A sign and green blaze will show where the trail up to Rabun Bald separates from the forest service road. The forest service road will continue below you until it disappears around a bend.

Bartram Trail, (yellow blaze), will come in on your left, and now your big, wide trail will be yellow blaze instead of green. The trail winds up the mountain side, first through open woods, then through mountain laurel which provides superb protection from driving winter winds. However, it also provides the perfect microclimate for ice, which is abundant as you enter the mountain laurel.

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Mountain laurel keeps the wind down

There is a campsite half way to the look out, and the trail continues onwards through a pair of boulders.

The trail levels out shortly before the summit, though it was never a real climb to begin with anyway, and you will come up to a fork with two carved stone trail markers and a wooden sign in front of a campsite. Bartram continues to your right down to War Woman Gap. The look out tower  and summit is to your left.

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Not much of an overlook with fog…

The view is supposed to be spectacular, but even in winter the fog bank can be pretty cool. After you’re done enjoying the ridiculous view and pondering who exactly (and how exactly) got those massive carved stone trail markers up here, time to head back down hill to the car.

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“It is too damn cold. Can we go back now?”
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Rabun Bald Map

BE WARNED

  1. Get there early, the parking is very limited!
  2. If it is sleeting, snowing, or in general seriously icy weather it will be annoying going up this trail as it accumulates ice easily. Also, the viewing tower at the top might not be climbable.

In sum: When I look out from an overlook into thick mountain fog I always wonder, just for a second, if the rest of the world has vanished and all that remains of the vast history of the human race is me, fading away on a slowly disappearing mountain top.

On the Appalachian Trail in Blue Ridge WMA

 

Really, the title says it all. I’ve been trying to get a goat on the Appalachian Trail for forever!

Is it goat approved? Sort of. As in, no one actually stopped us and it is a WMA where things tend to be a bit more relaxed. However, since it is a Wildlife Management Area…cover the critter that looks like a deer with orange unless you want to have some exciting new bullet holes through your expensive goat. Also, be prepared for AT (Appalachian Trail) thru hikers who are not happy about dogs or goats. Fortunately, when you are far enough into the woods…no one can hear you scream.

How you get there: Google it! You want the Three Forks Trailhead for the Appalachian Trail in Blue Ridge WMA near Long Creek Falls. If you don’t like driving down forest service roads come up from the south on the road instead of from the north. Coming from the north is the usual route Google will try to take you on, so beware. If you do come from the north, the turn for the forest service road occurs after Doublehead Gap dwindles to gravel and just after you pass the Fellowship Primitive Baptist Church and its small graveyard.

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On road parking

Time for hike: About 4 miles round trip after you drop by the graveyard. Nothing to get serious about, but a good bomb proofing shake down cruise for a newbie or oldie who hasn’t been out in a while.

Best season to do this hike: Winter only. Weekdays preferable. The walk up to the waterfall PLUS the Appalachian Trail? You’re going to be swamped unless there is a forest fire or the apocalypse.


Trails to Take

This one is easy-peasy. If for any reason you get turned around, just follow the throngs of people running between Long Creek Waterfall and the Three Forks Trail Head.

You will need to park on the side of the road. You will know you are at the parking area if you: A. See a lot of cars, no matter the time of year or day; and or B. See a wooden foot bridge crossing a creek to one side of the road way. Most likely you will notice A before reaching B.

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Long Creek Falls

The trail to the falls is on the opposite side of the road from the wooden foot bridge. It is very clear, and a very easy wide open hike. There are some small falls just off the trail before you reach the  main one, but if you’re  bustling through the crowd with a goat you probably want to stick with just heading to the main falls.

Long Creek Falls is down a very short side trail at the junction between the Appalachian Trail and the Ben MacKaye Trail. It is marked with a sign, as is the trail junction. The waterfall itself comes into view within half a minute of walking.

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AT and forest road junction near the cemetery

After visiting the waterfall you can go back to the AT and continue along it. After a while the AT will come up on a wildlife opening, (read: big open unkempt field). It will then cross a gravel road where a homemade wooden sign will direct you to “cemetery and shed” down the road to your left. This takes you to the Hickory Flat Cemetery, a small cemetery with a campsite, a picnic shelter, a unique type of merry-go-round, and some bathrooms which are pretty much always locked. On the way to the cemetery there is a small gravel headstone in memory not of a person, but of a school. However, remains of the school, and of the church that planted the cemetery have eroded away with time.

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The cemetery
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The unusual merry-go-round. It looks like a seesaw but it actually goes around in a circle.

After lunch at the picnic shelter its an easy goat-who-is-recovering-from-knee-surgery walk back to the car, entirely downhill.

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BE WARNED

  1. This is a super popular trail with everyone who goes on foot – AT thru hiker trail snobs. AT thru hiker’s who haven’t washed in three days and have beards suitable for hiding a whole box of crackers in. Small children. Random city dwellers. Princesses even maybe. Great for bomb proofing…but not for relaxing!
  2. Mountain laurel is abundant on the trail…which is poisonous to goats.
  3. This hike is really short. But you can walk out to Hawk Mountain Shelter or something to make it less boring. Or climb up Ben MacKaye Trail.
  4. This is a hunting WMA. But on this trail you probably don’t have to worry about it.
  5. Honestly, the only thing you have to worry about that is unique on this trail is AT thru hikers. To understand AT thru hikers imagine yourself at a party. You find yourself standing, beer in hand, in an unfamiliar group of people, who while they drink the same beer you do discuss how great their knowledge of the beer is and how much better they are at drinking it. Sound annoying? Avoid the AT thru hikers.
  6. If you plan to camp, know ahead of time that camping is restricted along the Forest Service Road and there are only about 6 or so campsites that are very likely to be filled. You would be better off planning to camp up Ben MacKaye or farther out on the AT away from Long Creek Falls or any of the AT shelters.

In sum: The greatest moment of life is watching a goat commit an epic fail  and eat mud. It’s even better than a cat epic fail video because the goat is more embarrassed.