SOUTH CAROLINA: Lilies Among the Locks at Landsford Canal State Park

If you grew up in a place where gardening meant you ate,  you probably have a great grandmother with an extraordinary green thumb hanging off a limb somewhere in the family tree. Or possibly perched on a ladder next to it doing some judicious pruning and tent caterpillar burning while planning what she’s going to do with all those apples that didn’t fall to far from the tree.

Mine planted a lot of things, both pretty and productive, but the pride and joy, the one item my great grandfather’s snapper lawnmower had better never snap off, were the red spider lilies.  When I grew up and got into native plants I began to realize that the flowers my grandparents had cherished – azaleas, irises, and hydrangeas among others, were all foreign imports. Even those beloved red spider lilies sprouting on my tormented grandfather’s lawn are native to Japan were they decorate graves instead of sod.

But then I found out we have our own versions – the piedmont azalea, the wood hydrangea, native irises, and even an equivalent for those lovely, lacey red spider lilies. South Carolina has its own spider lily – the exceeding rare Shoals Spider Lily. The Shoals Spider Lily (hymenocallis coronaria) is an endangered flower that grows in a very dangerous place – right in the middle of flood prone rivers. Hydroelectric dams removed much of this historically abundant flower, (first noted in the 1700s by William Bartram – namesake of the Bartram Trail in Georgia), by covering the shoals on which it lives and regulating the rivers to prevent flooding. However, some populations still exist in SC, GA, AL, and NC, including right in the middle of the Catawba River at Landsford Canal State Park. So come and enjoy a rare site – a river in bloom!

Is it goat approved? Nope. Trails are very popular and the park rangers very vigilant.

How you get there: Google Landsford Canal State Park and go to the first entrance to park. Note there is a $5 per person charge to visit.

Time for hike: The distance for this hike is 3 miles total out and back.  

Best season to do this hike: Go when the lilies are in bloom, starting in late April into May (with the peak generally around Mother’s Day).


Trails to Take

The trail is exceedingly simple. Go in entrance 1, Park Drive. You will pass 2 ranger residences almost directly across from one another. Right after that on the left is an UNMARKED gravel drive that goes into the woods and looks pretty darn sketchy. This is actually the drive way to the gravel lot in front of the old Lock Keepers House, (which is now an unmanned and apparently shuttered museum). There is a plaque from the Daughters of the American Revolution nearby with more history about the canal system as well. You can drive up and park, admire the stonework, and drive back out and down to the actual parking loop for the trail head.

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Canal keepers house

 

The parking area is at a large picnic spot on the Catawba River. The trail head for the canal trail is on the edge of the river behind the rustic log cabin. The trail splits into a “nature trail” that runs along the river and a “canal trail” that more closely follows the original canal path and ruins. Personally, take the canal trail out and the nature trail back in. While most “nature trails” are not that interesting, the one here is – expect turtles, herons, and great river views for your return trip!

 

Anyway, follow the signs for the canal trail, which quickly begins to pass ruins that are open for climbing and exploring and not behind the velvet ropes of your standard outdoor museum. The diversion dam that once supplied the canal with water is still clearly visible, as is the guard lock, the bed of the original canal, and the tow path that accompanies it. The trail mostly follows the old tow path, which winds along the contour of the hill, taking you past the remains of a bridge that once crossed the canal, and a culvert for diverting a stream UNDER the canal surprisingly enough. The canal eventually comes up to a huge section of towering stone work – this was originally the location of a mill and large pool where barrages could stop to load and unload flour. Now the trail goes down the canal bed through these towering stone retaining walls, (there is very little evidence of the original mill left).

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Walls of the canal at the mill site
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Lifting Locks

 

The trail follows the canal bed, then climbs back up onto the tow path to take the outdoor history enthusiast to the final grand piece of this outdoor museum – the upper lifting locks and a stone bridge at the canal terminus. The locks themselves are cool, but even cooler is a sign indicating the Great Indian Warrior Trading Path. This ancient thoroughfare is part of a longer path that connected the Great Lakes to the southern US, eventually ending all the way down in Augusta, GA. With the arrival of settlers the route became known as the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road, and provided access to the historically important towns of Camden, Chester, Newberry, and Rock Hill. Today the path has all but vanished – except for this remarkably preserved stone bridge.

The trail terminates at the second parking lot, so turn around at the lifting locks and head back. This time on the nature trail! And don’t forget the lily overlook!

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Shoals Spider Lily at the overlook

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BE WARNED

  1. To reiterate what every single sign will already tell you – the Shoals Spider Lily will not grow outside of its very specific habitat. Trying to grown the bulbs elsewhere doesn’t work – so pilfering is pointless.
  2. It costs money ($5 per person) to visit the park…but the gate is self serve…
  3. There is a canoe trail for up close viewing of the lilies. The large trail kiosk between the parking lot and the log cabin gives further directions on how to use this trail – it winds among a number of river islands as I understand it.
  4. Realize that you will need a canoe to view the lilies up close – these flowers really do live in the middle of the river. For close up photos from afar you will need more than digital zoom on your cell phone if you are standing at the viewing platform.

In sum: 

The Shoals Spider Lily blooms once a year, in early spring. Each bloom opens at night and lasts only a single day. How fleeting an existence for something so beautiful.

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Shoals Spider Lily
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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…”

Journey Through Time in Jones Gap

The original wagon road through Jones Gap was built in the 1850’s by Solomon Jones to get livestock and farmers from the mountains down to the market in Greenville, SC. Don’t imagine a road like we have today – think mud so deep it runs up to the wagon axles, mixed in with the many types of manure made by frightened cows, incontinent sheep, and travel sick pigs. Not a pretty sight.

Luckily, today the only livestock you’re likely to meet on the trail is the goat you brought with you.  Jones Gap Trail follows much of the original wagon road route, and portions of the trail near Hwy 276 are still clearly remnants of the wagon road, with deep ruts and tall banks on either side of the foot path. While the dying back of the hemlocks in the gap has removed must of the original mystique and beauty of the river, Jones Gap remains a pretty and well watered oasis in the dry upstate of South Carolina.

Is it goat approved? Park rules say pets must be on a 6 foot leash. I had a goat on a six foot leash and had no problems.

How you get there: Google Caesar’s Head in South Carolina. It’s off Hwy 276, and the ride up from Hwy 11 is one of the twistiest two laned roads in SC… and a wonderful challenge in a small pickup or car that can and will take corners! Then look for the gate pictured below after you pass by the Caesar’s Head overlook and ranger station (which is in and of itself well worth a visit). This gate is the back way into Jones Gap.

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Back entrance gate

Time for hike: The distance for this hike is 10 miles. It is an out and back, going down hill on the way in and an easy uphill on the way out. 

Best season to do this hike: Winter. Come on a week day. Jones Gap is fanatically popular in the warmer seasons. If you want parking even in winter I would suggest you get to the trail before 11 am. If you come in the summer do NOT plan on parking at the main parking area for Jones Gap. Odds are it will be filled. The back way in, however, tends to be significantly less popular.


 Trails to Take

The trail starts behind the aforementioned gate. It follows the old farm to market road, down to a house. There’s a neat spring with a metal sand water strainer and a house a short distance down the road from the gate. After that, the trail rapidly descends from gravel road to forest trail, still following the old, (and in places still visible), remains of the road.

The trail crosses a fairly wide river/stream. After rain this may be flooded significantly, but that’s okay because there’s a log bridge over the water. The downside is if its been raining you need the log…but the log gets slick in the rain and may dunk you in the drink you were trying to avoid anyway. It’s done that to me. Twice.

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The log bridge

On the other side of the log the blue trail (Trail #1, Jones Gap Trail), splits in a confusing way. You want to go straight forward along the river. This is Trail #1 Jones Gap Trail. The other blue blaze that goes off to your right is Trail #2 Tom Miller Trail.

If you got the right trail you’ll continue forward through dog hobble on boggy ground, and cross another log bridge, this time over a short waterfall.

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Unnamed Waterfall

The trail continues forward and then down the “winds”, a section of tight switch backs that amazingly was actually part of the original wagon road. Guess wagons have a better turning radius than cars. At the bottom of the winds is the first of two waterfalls on the trail. This one is a popular spot to stop for lunch for hikers, but is so far as I know, unnamed.

The trail passes by the waterfall and continues through dry upland, until it descends back to the river. Cold Spring Branch Trail comes off to the right and the trail continues along the river. There is a side trail to Jones Gap Falls, a tiny falls that isn’t active in drought conditions. The trail to it is tight, and not recommended if you are hauling a full size goat.

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Jones Gap Waterfall

The trail leaves the wagon road behind at the point in which it crosses the green steel bridge over the river. The trail will become considerably more populated with hikers from this point and rockier. The trail eventually runs up to Rainbow Falls Trail (red blaze). The blue blaze continues along the river and dumps out in the camper’s parking lot right next door to the park office.

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Fish hatchery pond from the 1930s until the fish hatchery closed in the 70s

If you can get past the park office and continue down the paved walkway in front of it there’s an old fish hatchery pond that’s worth a visit.

Then turn around…and head back.

 

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Jones Gap Map – but I wouldn’t recommend camping and my parking spot is  up on 276 not at the main entrance that this one is marked as

BE WARNED

  1. The rangers at the Jones Gap ranger station at the bottom of the trail like to knock off work at 5pm. This means if you stroll down to the station at 4:45 PM even though your car is 5 miles up the mountain…you might have a fight on your hands to get back on the trail if they spot you.
  2. This a deep mountain valley. This means the sun doesn’t reach the valley till about 2 hours after it gets everywhere else and it leaves the valley 2-3 hours before it leaves everywhere else. This considerably shortens your available day length.
  3. Jones Gap, like much of the rest of the South, is experiencing the die off of hemlock trees, which may actually push the southern hemlock to extinction. For those who went on this trail 20 years ago (like me) the trail looks a lot brighter, hotter, and a lot less pretty today. It also has a distressing tendency to shed large, dead conifers on your head in a high wind. Be careful!
  4. The lower 2/3rds of the trail are high traffic – dogs, kids, hikers. However, in general the hikers I meet in Jones Gap are of the more serious sort, and will not be too much trouble with a goat in tow.
  5. The log bridges have a nasty habit of slicking up in the rain. And then dunking you in the river when you try to cross.
  6. The side trail to Jones Gap Falls is tight and highly peopled. Not a fun side trip with a large goat!
  7. The park office is at the bottom of the trail. Don’t walk all the way to the bottom if you need to avoid Ye Olde Forestry Service. Jones Gap is heavily trafficked and thus the park rangers tend to have short fuses here.
  8. If you do plan to camp, #1 I wouldn’t do it with a goat, and #2 the camping costs and must be reserved at the park office. It fills up fast during the warmer months, but you generally have your pick in winter.

In sum: Going to Jones Gap always makes me feel better, especially after driving over Lake Hartwell which is 30 foot below full pond. Jones Gap never seems to have a drought problem, unlike everything else around here!

 

Fant’s Grove Humidity Hike

You think you’re tough? You think you’ve acclimated to the sauna-esque climate of the Deep South? Test that belief by taking a little hike during midsummer at Fant’s Grove, South Carolina’s most well known experimental forest.

Originally marginal farm land, the forest known as Fant’s Grove is now the Experimental Forest for Clemson University. Along with several research farms nestled among the pines and oaks the forest itself also acts as an outdoor lab for forestry and ecology work. For those into history a number of ruins are present in the forest, some of which are visited on this trip. The only real snag is the overwhelming southern heat and humidity, which will get you even if the yellow jackets don’t.

Is it goat approved? Dunno. They do everything else, so as long as you don’t go play with the cows and sheep with a goat in tow, they probably won’t care. The horse back riders in the forest are generally the really serious trail riders, and their horses find a goat amusing rather than terrifying.

How you get there: Google “Fant’s Grove Trail Map” which has a grey box with GPS coordinates for the parking areas on it.

Time for hike: The distance for this hike is around 8.5 miles round trip, including the out and back to the point on the lake.

Best season to do this hike: Winter or cooler weather. You want to avoid the yellow jackets, and the sweltering summer humidity unless you’re a South Carolina native who is used to putting up with it. During the school year it is also a popular location for students/classes and this will increase the traffic while clogging the parking areas with forestry student pickups. You can identify these by the number of bucks and ducks unlimited stickers on the windows, as well as a preponderance of camo, which is considered a primary color akin to red, blue, and yellow in the south.

Trails to Take

I went with the red and grey trails, which make a loop from the parking lot just before the church, (Fant’s Grove Road Trailhead), down to Big Oaks Parking Lot and back. The route is something like B6 -> B7 -> B9 -> B10 -> B11 -> B12 -> B24 ->B25 -> B27. The “B” numbers are posted on standard metal park service trail markers, but be prepared to find numbers that aren’t on the map. However, the numbers go in order, so if you find a B26, odds are if you walk past it you will eventually find B27. In general though, expect to be lost, (see BEWARE section). Every one who hasn’t ridden there for thirty years gets lost, that’s part of the fun. They even have an orienteering challenge that is hosted in the forest each year cause everyone gets turned around.

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Trail marker with number

The trail heads out from the parking lot, which is a pull in area for horse trailers and a smaller pull in up top for cars/trucks. If you are parking down in the pull through, park hard on the side of the road so that horse trailers can pass without taking out your rear view mirrors.

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Old pump house that once fed water to the research areas from natural springs

When you leave the parking area you want to head to your left. There will be up to 3 trails presented to you that all look to be blazed red. Take the left most. You will know you have the right one if you pass an old pump house. This takes you past the church, then across the road. Be careful crossing the road because cars go about 60 mph down through here. When you cross the road, almost immediately, you will see a historical sign for the old school house. The ruins are scattered among the bamboo grove. Further down hill about twenty feet off trail to your left is a sign indicating the original spring that provided water for the school.

The trail winds out through the woods, eventually dumping you out on Rocky Ford Road. You can go left to continue on the red loop, or go right to go down the road. About 1.5 miles from the trail intersection Rocky Ford Road will leave you on a point of land jutting out into the lake. If you walk down to the lakeshore, you will be looking right across at one of Google’s little jokes – the Redneck Yacht Club Cove.

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The neck of the point is also a great place to stop and water goats or play in the water. There are several cut offs of the main part of Rock Ford Road, but the one you want to get down to the neck/cove is the 3rd cut off, which goes very sharply to your left and slightly down hill, while the main road becomes overgrown with lespediza.

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Cherry walks on the bottom of Lake Hartwell, which for most of its history has been at least 15 feet below full pond since Atlanta keeps draining the south dry of water like a giant straw pointing to the west. Though since the drought cycle is 11 years of good weather and 11 years of desertification, it does refill occasionally.

The Rocky Ford Road is an out and back, after which you continue on the red trail, which eventually joins up with the blue trail just before dumping you in the Big Oaks Trailhead parking lot. During the school year when classes are being held this parking lot is usually packed with forestry majors out for classes – which is why I recommend parking up at the Fant’s Grove Trailhead or elsewhere.

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Big Oaks Parking – too small for horse trailers, but popular with students and bikers

To continue, cross the road and walk along the edge of the experimental agricultural plots. Walk along the backside of the plots, and then the trail goes into the woods. At this point it is blazed yellow – the purpose and position of the yellow trail is anyone’s guess, like most of Fant’s Grove. You’ll see those yellow blazes pop up occasionally. The red trail will cross right across the yellow trail and you want to go left once you find it.

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Experimental plots planted in sunflowers

At the next intersection, go right, (yellow blaze is to your left and a small red arrow does point right to help you figure it out). Then follow the trail back to where you left the truck and you’re done.

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BE WARNED

  1. Be prepared to be lost. No complete map of Fant’s Grove’s many trails, roads, and bush hogged cuts exists. Bring a compass or a friend with a good sense of direction.Ask anyone who looks like a cowboy out of a 1970s western sitcom for directions. They’ve probably been riding the place for years and will know what’s what.
  2. Don’t park at the Big Oaks Parking area during a week day when Clemson is in session. Students may block you in when out for labs.
  3. Leave space when parking for horse trailers to pass if you are at the Fant’s Grove Road Trailhead parking area. Alternatively, park in the uphill smaller lot with the ropes that is more meant for hikers.
  4. Be careful crossing the road…I used to drive like  a maniac through the forest, and I’m not too surprised everyone else still does.
  5. Dove season means open season on shotgun shells in the experimental agricultural plots. Prepare not to be dead if you go during this period. Ditto for deer season.
  6. If you happen to pass the Swine Center and see a sprinkler running DO NOT go play in it! This is the overflow for the lagoon, (for those of a non agriculture persuasion a lagoon is a pond where they sediment out manure, similar to a human sewer system sedimentation system). Which means you aren’t dancing in the rain, you’re dancing in *&!^@.
  7. Watch for yellow jackets. And horses running away from them. This forest is bad for the little yellow menaces.
  8. Agricultural and experimental plots are present in the forest. Goat grazing may delay thesis and dissertation completion! Be kind to suffering graduate students!

In sum: The best moments of your life happen in college, (well, undergrad anyway).  The least best moments happen at 1 pm in 100% humidity when you’re running from yellow jackets in the Clemson Experimental Forest.

Hike a WW2 Firing Range at Croft State Park

The old folks still call it Camp Croft instead of Croft State Park, but it’s been more than half a century since it last hosted troops. Originally a vast complex of firing ranges, practice areas, service buildings, and barracks used as a Infantry Training Replacement Center, where new recruits were trained for the battle fields of  WWII,  it is now the largest green space within an easy drive of Spartanburg, (and perhaps a modern example of beating swords into plowshares).

Jeep pool at Croft (courtesy of schistory.net/campcroft)
Firing practice (courtesy of http://www.schistory.net/campcroft)

Location: Croft State Park (also known as “Camp Croft” by the old timers & locals), near Spartanburg, SC

Is it goat approved? Yep. This park does horses, hikers, and mountain bikers. I have an email proving they are cool with goats (so long as they are on leash no longer than 6 feet and you don’t bring like 50 of them at once). I will be back to this park this coming winter to do more than just a little training hike with a 2 month old goat!

How you get there: Google it! This place popular and easy to get to, lying right outside Spartanburg, SC. Or just follow all the horse trailers on Saturday!

Time for hike: The distance is approximately 3 miles.This is a loop hike. 

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The parking area, which is really nice and big

Best season to do this hike: Avoid mid-summer because this place does have yellow jackets and mosquitoes. For those unfamiliar with yellow jackets, these are the holy terror of the south. They live in hives in the ground which are pretty much invisible except for 1 or 2 guard yellow jackets. Of course, their location rapidly becomes apparent when you step on the invisible nest and the entire swarm exits to reek vengeance upon you. A secondary danger of high numbers of these critters is they will drive horses that get into them into a frenzy. A frenzied horse will run you and your goat right over!

Trails to Take

You want to start off in the big parking lot that you reach before the horse show ring. Yes, there are horse tie outs, but everybody parks here horses or not.

The fun way to get to the trail head (if there isn’t a horse show) is to go down to the horse ring, then walk left-ish and you’ll see a cut through the woods. This leads to a field for primitive camping.

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Lake Craig boat house & fishermen

At the top of the hill is the horse barns. The trail you want is just beyond the trailer parking. So walk around the trailers and look for a gravel road going to your left. Take that and you will soon reach the Foster Cemetery, and shortly thereafter you’ll be at the dam of Lake Criag.

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Concrete bag overflow for the lake

Walk towards the overflow for the lake at the far side of the dam (which is made out of these interesting bags of concrete – a testament to the ingenuity and speed required to build a military base in the middle of a world war). You will see a horse trail go down into the woods. This is Foster Loop. You will descend to a boggy area with a small sign that says “Rocky Bottom”, then climb up the hill to the boy scout shelter.

Just beyond the shelter is the turn to go down Beech Trail. This leads you off through the woods and over a small creek. When you reintersect with Foster’s Loop go right, and you will shortly cross a metal bridge and see a sign. The sign commemorates an interesting little Revolutionary War skirmish at a house site nearby (but the house site is not visitable due to issues with unexploded ordinance – see “Beware” section).

The trail then climbs back up through some nice peaceful woods and dumps you out at the end of the road you entered the park on, right next to the horse stables. You can walk the road or go back to the stables to return to the truck .

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BE WARNED!

  1. Keep an eye out for yellow jackets. And for horses running away from them.
  2. There are horse shows at Croft periodically and they use a lot of the parking so you might enjoy going on a non-show weekend more.
  3. There is an entrance fee to the park.
  4. Stay on the trails! They still find unexploded ordinance periodically in the park. Don’t use your goat as a primitive bomb disposal unit. Though they did clear out most of it back in the 90s so it shouldn’t be too big of a deal if you have to chase a loose goat through the woods a la Rambo style.
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Camp Croft Ordinance Sign

In sum: Only on an old firing range is hearing something explode and then running away from the explosion probably not a great idea. Or you may contribute to local noise pollution and ballistic littering.

Experience Southern Snow at Sand Hills State Forest

South Carolina is not known for its snow, but, with a little imagination a desperate hiker can have a white Christmas with some solid white stuff that never melts and only requires regular shoveling to find one’s car during a hurricane.

During the last global warming spell much of coastal South Carolina, (starting just east of Columbia, the state capital), was under the ocean on a vast continental shelf. As a result, today this entire area is basically a long stretch of brilliant white sand with pine trees on top. Being of a practical turn of mind, to build rural roads in this part of South Carolina people just scrape the pine trees off, dig about a foot or two down to the more compacted sand underneath, and then drive on it.

The end result is a forest of well maintained pine plantations with WHITE sand roads and big patches of WHITE sand out among the pine needles, which, when the cold wind picks up, reminds you a lot of the forest covered in light snow you get up north when the weather is very cold and clear. Welcome to a white Christmas done Southern Style.

Location: Sand Hills State Forest in South Carolina, adjacent to Sand Hills Wildlife Refuge/Cheraw State Park/H. Cooper Black Jr. Memorial Field Trial and Recreation Area/ Sand Hills Camp

Is it goat approved? Yes. I have written proof that a park ranger actually agreed to me bringing, (and even camping with – though that part didn’t work out on this trip as I had planned), a goat. Technically the goat should be leashed, but in winter the park was sparsely visited, and when not walking on well traveled roads I didn’t run into anyone.

How you get there: Take highway 1. If you’re coming from the south you’ll find it easiest to get off Hwy 20 in Camden, then take Hwy 521 north to Hwy 1. Coming from the north? Get on highway 1 and drive south till you pass through Cheraw,  (pronounced “Share-ah” according to my long suffering grandmother who was embarrassed that I got it wrong), and just past Cheraw is Patrick, which sits in the middle of the forest. South of the main office is Ruby-Hartsville Road, (intersecting with Hwy 1 at a flashing light). You want to go right if headed south or left if headed north on it. Pass Wire Road and keep a look out for a dirt, (well, in this part of the state, sand), road to your right that has a bunch of grey signs. This is where you turn to go to the day parking, which is about a mile down the road on your right. It’s a big field just past the horse camp.

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All roads in the park are sand! This makes driving fun and hiking good exercise

Time for hike:  4.6 miles, but can be easily extended by walking other trails/roads in the park. This is a loop hike. 

Best season to do this hike: Winter is wonderful! The campground is empty and the park almost entirely devoid of people, (except for a few diehard horses and hikers). Based on the debris at the campsite and speaking to other visitors the park may be exceptionally popular with horse back riders when the weather is warmer. Consider if a winter visit is right for you!

Trails to Take

Starting at the roadside day parking, head east, (away from the horse camp), down the sand road you drove in on. This will intersect with another road near a picnic shelter and a large rock. Just before the intersection is what looks like a really rough stair going up a hill. This takes you up one of the two large hills that make up the “Sugarloaf Mountain”, though the larger one is probably considered the true Sugarloaf Mountain and this particular hill is like its ugly underachieving step child.

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The trail up Sugarloaf Mountain
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The huge rock near staircase

The rough stair goes up into some young pine trees and meanders along the top of this topographical anomaly, until the hill comes to an end and you have to turn around a go back. Once on the ground, head for the even bigger rock and the second, (and much larger hill), nearby. This hill has an immaculately maintained stair up its side, located just past the really huge rock. Climbing the true Sugar Loaf Mountain takes you to a walled viewing area with a pretty good panoramic view of the area. Definitely worth a visit, especially if you live in the Low Country where this is the only real elevation outside of a lighthouse!

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View from the top of Sugarloaf Mountain
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Nature trail kiosk

Once done with the Sugar Loaf Mountain area, continue on the sand road that runs along the edge of the two large hills, (not on the road that runs between them). You will pass more picnic shelters and eventually reach Mountain Pond. This area has a nature trail of about 1.1 miles located behind the kiosk on the far side of the pond dam, which is a good spot to burn off energy if you have kids, but may not be exciting for adult hikers as it is essentially a bushog cut out through the woods.

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Horses watering at Mountain Pond

The pond also has some cool picnic shelters, (including one with a barbecue pit), that can be reserved, and a duck blind on the far side of the pond. The horse camp also backs up to the opposite side of the pond.

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Red-cockaded woodpecker trees

Beyond the pond the road wanders up a hill through an area managed for woodpecker nesting. The forest is home to the red-cockaded woodpecker, an endangered species, and trees with woodpecker cavities are marked with white bands around the trunk. While I did not spot these small black and white birds during my visit, I did hear what sounded like a woodpecker in the distance.

Fox Squirrel

Another critter to look for in this area and other parts of the forest is the Fox Squirrel, the much larger relative of the more common grey squirrel that has a distinctive black spot on its head. By larger I mean the first one I saw I mistook for a young raccoon. They are that big! Not surprisingly they require much larger habitat space and more old growth forest than grey squirrels in order to live, therefore Sand Hills is one of the few places I have been and actually had more than one on a hike.

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Horse campsite with nice corral

When the wildlife viewing is over, the road passes through a small gate and dead ends into another sand road. This road has open pine plantation along the edge that is easier to walk through than going down the road. Go left and walk for a ways down the edge of this new sand road until it dead ends into the paved road you originally drove in on. Go left, and a few hundred foot later the sand road that goes to the parking area will come off.

Go down this road, past the horse camp, and back to the parking lot. The horse camp is worth a visit if unoccupied. There is also a restroom, (pit toilet), and a trail map kiosk down in the camping area. However, don’t park down there if you aren’t camping – the rangers can get really funny about people doing that!

Sugarloaf Mountain Horse Riding Areas

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Lots of deer tracks!

Be Warned!

  1. Pine straw is gathered commercially in this forest. If you see piles of straw, rakes, or other equipment leave them be. It is not unusual for part timers and small timers to hand bale the straw, so remember if you screw up their workings it’s not the “man” you’re screwing over, it’s probably some single mother with three kids.
  2. Park rangers regularly patrol the forest during the weekends because bike and horse users require a permit to visit, (hikers/goat walkers do not at this time). Don’t be surprised if the park ranger has a side arm or weapon in the truck – this is not actually that weird when you consider how many miles of pine plantations he has to cover.
  3. Lots of deer sign in this forest, so be very careful during hunting season!
  4. Trail maps are available at any of the well maintained kiosks in the forest, (there’s one at almost every place you could possibly park). However, having walked the forest, treat these maps as a very rough guide for the actual trails, and some maps do not show all trails on them.
  5. The roads in the park are sand based. This means in heavy rain, (or with very heavy vehicles), the road may be difficult to drive on, mucky, or make you slide around alot. Which is not all that different from driving on real snow actually, but if in doubt bring the 4 wheel drive. I got in and out on moderately wet road with a two wheel drive pickup truck with new tires on the rear wheels, but the horse trailer behind me had to go into 4 wheel drive.
  6. Most restrooms are pit toilets, but are well maintained and usually have toilet paper.
  7. Don’t park at the camping area if you aren’t camping. The rangers are really strict about that. Camping requires a permit and costs $10 per night. Call the office to get a permit and they’re really great about getting it mailed out to you and arranging everything.
  8. Don’t bring firewood into the park, buy it at the ranger station or in Patrick. This is a working pine forest and pine beetles are bad for that sort of thing.

In Sum: Highway 1 is a very old road. If you enjoy history, add a little extra time to your trip to visit Camden, Cheraw, and the many other interesting historical markers on and around the route.