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Discovery Center Loop--Smith Mountain Lake State Park

Updated: Dec 31, 2020

Hike stats: 3.82 miles, 295' elevation gain, 1:59:36 moving time, 12/5/2020.

Link to data at the end of the post (click the AllTrails screen capture image).

If you look for this loop on the Smith Mountain Lake State Park trail map, you won't find this hike by that name. What you will find is a group of shorter hikes that can be strung together to make a very nice loop. I'm not the most original person on any trail, so I just call it the Discovery Center Loop since the park's Discovery Center is at the end of the peninsula. This hike starts at the Turtle Island trailhead parking and proceeds through the following trails listed on the map: Turtle Island Trail, Opossum Trot Trail, Tobacco Run (section north of the road), Lakeview Trail, Tobacco Run (section south of the road), Beaver Den Trail, and about 300' of Chestnut Ridge Trail (from the Beaver Den Trail junction back to the trailhead).

This hike put a checkmark in my book for five of the remaining seven Smith Mountain Lake trails I had left to complete (leaving only Osprey Point and Beechwood Trails) for my SMLSP clean sweep. As you can tell by comparing it to the current trail map (above), the Turtle Island trailhead map is out of date as it does not include Opossum Trot or Beaver Den trails. Both of these trails are connectors (one on either side of the road) between this trailhead and the Discovery Center area.

Turtle Island Trail. We parked at the Turtle Island trailhead and started counter-clockwise on the trail by going to the right paralleling the road back toward the park entrance. The first part of this trail is an interpretive trail with signs explaining forest succession (field to pines to hardwoods, etc). The signs are a bit faded and weather worn but still readable and provide good information for anyone who does not already know the information.

After the junction with Stripers Cove Trail, the trail leaves the road and follows the shoreline out toward Turtle Island. There are some nice views across the cove to the other side of the park as well as up the main channel. This area, like others in the park, experienced some erosion damage when the water was at full pond several weeks ago and some parts of the trail are partially washed out. I will not be surprised if the trail will have to be rerouted a bit in some places. Be careful!

Before long we came to the end of the peninsula and the short bridge out to Turtle Island. It was quite windy, but still a lovely place. After crossing the bridge, the trail loops around the island at the shoreline and has a spur trail that goes up to the island's summit and on to the shoreline at the point. The view is spectacular!

After leaving Turtle Island, the trail climbs back up the ridge a bit and follows the shoreline. Before long, you're treated to a great sight of the island you just left.

When I came upon this American Beech tree right next to the trail, I immediately thought of the saying I learned as a kid--Fools names and fools faces always seen in public places. Regardless whether it is to profess your enduring love or to just let people know you were there, it is stupid to carve a tree that doesn't belong to you and mar the beauty for others. Around here it invariably seems to be on American Beech trees and this is not only the largest one I've found in this park, but it is also the most carved up. Don't do this--this is the opposite of leave-no-trace and only demonstrates your own stupidity.

Just don't do it.

Opossum Trot Trail. This is a relatively new connector trail that follows the shoreline between Turtle Island Trail and Tobacco Run Trail. It drops down to the water's edge in two coves that offer great views across the lake to the Smith Mountain Lake Community Park and pier. This trail junctions with Tobacco Run Trail at a wooden overlook at the shore that offers steps up the steep bank.

Tobacco Run Trail (north section) winds by one of the historic tobacco barns around the park and then out to the park's floating docks near the amphitheater. The amphitheater area is open and quite nice with several options for seating to enjoy the view across the lake. As you can see from the whitecaps out on the water--it was very windy and we did not linger despite the wonderful view.

Lakeview Trail is a short loop trail that starts and ends at the Discovery Center. The point offers the best panoramic view of this portion of Smith Mountain Lake, the S-Curve. Access out to the peninsula is prohibited late March through early September due to the Osprey nesting platform. Bring binoculars during that time to observe the nesting raptors from a bridge on the trail positioned for that purpose.

We stopped for a rest and some tea once we moved around into the lee of the ridge and found some picnic tables at the water's edge facing south into the sun. A rest break is always welcome, as is the tea.

After finishing our tea and packing up, we continued on the other half of Tobacco Run Trail (south section) which gave a lovely views of the lake as well as a short spur through pine trees to another point.

Beaver Den Trail, like Opossum Trot Trail, connects Tobacco Run Trail to Chestnut Ridge Trail and the trailhead. It is not well marked coming from the Discovery Center side. We missed the junction where it started and followed the road (Interpretive Trail) until we saw the trail marker where the trail returns to the road. I backtracked the trail from there out to where it turned back to it's terminus before returning and continuing on to the junction with Chestnut Ridge Trail and the trailhead.

Each of these trails on their own merit are worth the effort to walk. If you're looking for a longer hike, string them together. There are various combinations that would work depending on how far you want to hike. The point is this: Don't discount shorter trails just because you want to go farther. Instead find a way to incorporate them into the distance you want. Each trail is worth walking and something to teach you if you give it the chance. Find out what is near you and go see what's out there!

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