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Five Oaks Trail, Smith Mountain Lake State Park (November 14, 2020)

This is a hike we took last week at Smith Mountain Lake State Park. With our goal being to eventually hike all of the trails in the park and it being a beautiful autumn day, we chose to tackle this less-used (and apparently undeveloped--more on that later) trail. The trail is listed on the current trail pamphlet available at the park Visitor's Center and on their website. The park trail information lists the mileage for this trail as 3 miles when it is actually about 3.5 miles (fair warning). It is rated as moderate due to length and a few steep sections. The Five Oaks Trail is a lollipop loop trail that begins at the park Visitor's Center (which has bathroom facilities....hint-hint).

The trail starts out as more of an interpretive trail with signs explaining about the American Chestnut and the efforts to bring that tree back from the brink. The path is wide and paved/aggregate near the parking area--it is basically an extension of the sidewalk--but eventually goes into a wide and open forest trail.

One of the first things I noticed was that the trail, while obvious, was not very well blazed. The park's trail information indicates blazes should be light blue, but we realized the trail is currently indicated by pink with black polka-dots surveyor tape. These marks are ample at the beginning but quickly become fewer and further between.

We stayed to the right at the junction where the trail joins back on the return loop. The junction is not well marked and I only noticed it by seeing the surveyor tape along both parts of the trail at that point. After passing a cemetery and what I assume is the foundation of a church, the trail opens into what looks to be a fire break or a right of way from the road going into the park (it dead ends into a stand of scrub pines--we found deer bones there from at least three deer).

There is no indication other than looking at the map that the trail takes this right of way to the left and then goes back into the woods on the other side further back. We saw a few deer here but missed the trail leaving the right of way and ended up following it back toward the road before spotting one of the surveyor tapes and bushwacking the 30-40 feet to get back on the trail from near the road. (The picture was taken from the scrub pines at the end looking back toward the road and indicates where I think the trail goes back into the woods.)

After walking through a tunnel of pine trees we emerged near the Five Oaks Plantation house ruins. They are fenced off and the park's master plan is to stabilize this historic place.

Following the surveyor tape indicators led us to an open field and no trail markers at all. We made a best guess based on the map for direction and eventually found where the trail continued into the woods on the other side. Luckily, the surveyor tape resumed but the trail was fairly apparent from that point. The trail made its way closer to the water several times before coming right to the shore (which was still high due to the excessive rain the previous week). This was just past the 2-mile mark in the hike so we chose that spot to stop for a tea break.

After about a half hour break to enjoy the tea and watch woodpeckers, herons, kingfishers, and airplanes taking off from the airport across the cove, we got back on the trail for the last leg of the trip. Don't be fooled by what looks like a loop out to the point where we had our tea--the two trails are not far apart but they are separated by a thick stank of scrub pine. As stated earlier, the lake level was at or above full pond so the water was abnormally high. We soon discovered that meant part of this trail was flooded out and we had to walk further inland and parallel the trail for a hundred yards or so.

The last part of the loop was the most strenuous due to having to reclaim elevation given up in the first part of the hike. It is also the part of the trail the most poorly indicated. There were a few places where we could see no surveyor tape to indicate the trail so had to continue parallel the water until we found another. Eventually we spotted a bridge over an unnamed stream and the trail from there was pretty plain. It was also pretty much uphill from there.

Our trail speed wasn't all that impressive, but then we weren't aiming for speed. We came out to do this trail because it was one we hadn't done before and we had been told it was not used much. As with the rest of the park trails, there were blowdowns evident in places but the trail was passable. I spoke with one of the rangers at the visitor center upon our return to let him know about a couple of blowdowns that looked recent as well as a floating dock and picnic table that seemed to have floated into one of the coves. He was surprised we had hiked the trail and said it was "still being worked on" but hadn't been finished because they are short staffed. I can only assume he meant upkeep since there was a sturdy bridge over a stream and a few benches out there as well. There's very little wrong with this trail that proper blazing and some basic cleanup would not fix.

All in all, a good hike. I intend to do this one again. Click the screen clip below for track data.

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