Monday, March 16, 2009

The Natural Bridge Trail: Keowee-Toxaway State Park, SC

Click here for the first post in this series.

Keowee-Toxaway State Natural Area boasts several hiking trails. As do most of the South Carolina state parks I’ve visited. Most facilities have both “accessible” trails and “more challenging” trails. “Accessible” here meaning that even less mobile Hiker Wannabes, like me, can enjoy them without too much strain. Just remember to wear stout shoes, and to carry a walking stick! Preferably one that also can help to steady your camera for those low sunlight pictures.

There’s usually a map of the trail around somewhere. Like the one in the photo below. But it’s best for less experienced first-time hikers to ask for more detailed information before starting out. I’ve found South Carolina’s Park Rangers knowledgeable and willing informants. Without exception. Sometimes maybe a little too cautious in their advice. But better that than the other way around!

[Click each photo for larger view]

The Natural Bridge Trail you see outlined in blue in the photo above begins just beyond the parking lot behind the Park office building. Most of the trail slopes gradually, and is clearly marked. It would be hard to lose your way. Just follow the markers! The photo below is typical of the trail’s early section. Note that it parallels Highway 11 for a ways. Until it turns left to begin the loop.

Now, I’m no trail design expert. But there must be a trade-off between improving trail surfaces for ease of access, and maintaining the sense of a “natural” environment that we’re all hoping to find when we venture out. This “accessible” Natural Bridge Trail manages to accomplish both. It has a fairly smooth surface for most of the way. And yet hikers can enjoy that soothing sense of being in the woods.

The trail soon turns sharply left [west] and begins its descent to a stream below. Here the trail becomes a little more challenging. Though, as you can see in the photos below, the designers have included steps here and there to make the descent and climb easier.

Like the rest of the trail, the sections with steps are well maintained. Making travel much easier for those of us who go along carefully and slowly. And free of trash. I saw only one piece of trash on the trail. A six-inch section of red tree tape used to mark trees for removal. It was so unusual I was tempted to take a picture! And this is a well-traveled trail.
Below is a photo of the most difficult part of the Natural Bridge Trail I encountered. It was steeper, and the roots you can see required careful attention.

Truth be told, though, even this section presented no real difficulty. Either up or down. I only had to make good use of my walking stick, and be careful where I placed my feet. This, with a left knee that’s about to be operated on! So, most anyone able to walk along on a flat surface should be able to navigate this trail. It’s certainly worth the effort.

About halfway to the natural bridge for which the trail has been named, I began to hear water running along in a small stream. What a treat! The sound became louder as I walked along. Until I could see the small waterfall pictured above. I went off the trail for a short distance to grab that photo, and just had to stand there for a while, enjoying the sight and sound.
Now, confession time. I failed to follow my own advice. I didn’t consult one of the Rangers before hiking the trail for the first time. Nor did I take a map! So, after an hour or so of very slow, careful walking, I turned around and hiked back the way I’d come. I missed the natural bridge. And I missed the rest of the loop you can see on the map at the top of this post. I was a little tired, and didn’t want to over-tax the knee. So, back up I went.

One of the Rangers later told me I was within 100 yards of the natural bridge and the bottom of the loop when I decided to turn around. Live and learn! Though the results of that decision weren’t all bad. I got to see the trail from the opposite direction. As you can see in the photo above. Quite a different sight. I got to see a very large brown bird – probably an owl – fly noiselessly away from the trail at my approach. I saw a bed of trout lilies, pictured below, that I’d missed on the way down. And, I have an even better excuse for hiking this trail again as soon as I can return to this part of the country! So the decision to turn back was hardly a loss.

All too soon I was back at the beginning of the trail at the rear of the Park Office. What a way to start the day! Remember, none of these photos do justice to the environment here. It is much more beautiful. I’ll certainly be back as soon as I can arrange the trip. And hope you can arrange a visit too.

Click here for the next post in this series

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