Tuesday, January 11, 2011

First Hike of 2011 - Lake Trail to Ole Mill Trail - Big Ridge State Park

Old man winter has been working overtime this year in Southern Appalachia. I believe we've had more snow days this winter than the previous few winters combined and early in the season to boot. An inch here, two inches there, we've even had an ice day where everything was covered with a tenth of an inch of ice. Needless to say, it's been tough trying to get out for the first hike of the year. Temps have rarely gotten above freezing, and the one or two days that we had balmy 40 plus temps it was during the work week. Go figure.

It was another one of those weeks where the weathermen were just as clueless on the weather as always. Wednesday was supposed to be rainy. We ended up with 1.5 inches of white fluffy "rain". Friday it was supposed to snow 2 inches. We had a wintery mix instead and none of it stuck because the ground was too wet and warm. Saturday was supposed to be the day with no snow, a high of 32F, and sunny. It was for the most part, but wind chills were down in the teens. Sunday turned out to be the clear day we were looking for, but the high was only 30F.

We couldn't stand it any longer. All over the blogosphere, people - hikers - were out having fun on the trails. It was time we got a piece of the action. After much deliberation and consideration of the weather, Robin and I decided the Lake Trail at Big Ridge State Park would be the safest choice for our first hike of 2011. When the temps are below freezing, and you haven't a clue as to how much snow might still be on the ground, and threat of more winter weather coming in at some point, you want to make sure you are a) prepared, b) on a familiar trail, and c) not too far from the car or emergency assistance if the need arises.

The Lake Trail is one we've hiked several times, as it's not very far from home. Matter of fact, Big Ridge is only a 10 minute drive from the house if that. The trail is 1.5 miles end to end and the elevation gain is approximately +/- 100ft. The Lake Trail offers wonderful views of Big Ridge Lake, plenty of wildlife viewing opportunities, 3 4 foot bridges for crossing, and an old dam built by the CCC in the 1930's at the 1 mile mark - provided you start the trail from Norton Gristmill.

Snodderly Cemetery is also along the trail about a quarter mile in. Many of the earlier inhabitants of this area are buried here including members of the Snodderly, McCoy, and Hutchison families. If you've been on the Ghost Hike at Big Ridge then the name Hutchison should sound familiar to you as Maston Hutchison is one of the main subjects of the Ghost hike and said to haunt the park. The Lake Trail also offers access to the Ghost House Loop Trail - the trail you hike for the Ghost Hike, Dark Hollow West Trail, Loyston Overlook Trail, and Meditation Point Trail.

It was definitely cold out, but beautiful nonetheless as we hiked. Big Ridge Lake, we had noticed, was mostly frozen. It was a thin freeze so nothing we'd dare to walk out on. On the second foot bridge, we noticed a deer track in the snow, but we weren't lucky enough to see said deer. As we came to Snodderly Cemetery we heard a very creepy, eerie noise. At first we thought it was birds. However, the more we listened, we realized it was too loud to be birds. It was all around us, or so it seemed. The best description of it is the sound of steal cables snapping like in the movies when you hear an elevator cable snapping or something like that.

As I said before, we were at Snodderly Cemetery and this spot in the trail is right alongside the lake across from the boat house and swimming area. It dawned on us that it must be the lake that was making that sound. To prove this we walked to the bank and pitched rocks onto the frozen water. Sure enough, we reproduced the sound, although it wasn't as loud. We must have stood there a good five or ten minutes just pitching rocks and sticks and listening to the sounds it produced and watching the debris glide across the lake. It was the first time we had heard such a noise in nature and it was the first time Robin had seen Big Ridge Lake frozen this early in the winter. Come to think of it, it's the first time I had ever seen the lake frozen.

After our fun with the lake sounds, we continued on our way. Before long we reached the dam and the connection to Dark Hollow West. We stuck around the dam for a bit. On one side, frozen Big Ridge Lake. On the other, unfrozen Norris Lake. Again Robin played with the sounds of the frozen lake by throwing handfuls of rocks and pebbles. We took several pictures and I had been shooting video off and on, some of it of Robin tossing rocks onto the frozen lake. I just hope I was able to capture the sound.

Several minutes later, we noticed the wind had picked up a bit and our cheeks told us it was getting colder. So on up the trail we headed. The other side of the dam is only a half mile long, but contains the largest ascent if approaching from the dam. Before the climb the trail connects with the Loyston Overlook trail around .10 miles past the dam. At this point we decided to head up to the overlook, which climbs up about 150 ft and loops around the overlook. It's only a .25 mile detour and from the top, it offers a wonderful view out onto the Loyston Sea area of Norris Lake. Of course the view is through the trees, so I'd imagine in the thick of summer it's harder to see.

Once we were finished admiring the view, we headed back down and finished up the trail. Just before the finish is another side trail to Meditation Point which offers a gazebo to sit and look out onto part of Big Ridge Lake, at least during the winter. We decided to just finish the trail instead of taking this trail the .15 miles to the point as it was getting colder and time was becoming an issue. We also still had to walk back to the car, which was parked at the gristmill. We decided as we walked past the boat house and towards the park road that we would walk the Ole Mill trail back to the gristmill. It's an easy trail that meanders .3 miles from the cabins to the gristmill along side the lake. Around the lake and especially along the Ole Mill trail, there is plenty of evidence of beaver work. We even imagined at one point that one beaver must have been pretty disappointed after all his hard work was for not because the felled tree was caught by another tree and fell short of landing in the lake.

It was indeed a great hike and a much needed one at that. Just before exiting the trail we turned to look out across the lake for one last view and was graced with a view that certainly God provided - a brilliant sun setting across the snowy banks of the lake and a sun dog that was absolutely amazing. 2.8 miles later and we were standing back in the gristmill parking lot feeling pleased, satisfied, cold, hungry, and 97.2 miles away from our 100 mile goal.

Happy Trails,
Tim and Robin