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Walton Creek Trail/Stripers Cove Trail Loop

Updated: Jan 4, 2021

Hike stats: 3.06 miles, 246' elevation gain, 1:37:57 moving time, 11/27/2020

Link to data at end of post.

This loop is part of the Smith Mountain Lake State Park trail system and is made up of all of Walton Creek Trail, the upper half of Stripers Cove Trail, and Turkey Foot Trail. None of these trails are listed as loops but together make a nice hiking experience. Walton Creek is an out and back trail from the Visitor Center along the north side of the ridge. Stripers Cove Trail is a long trail along the south side of the ridge opposite Walton Creek before wending southwest along the shoreline--the divide between the upper section and the lower section is the intersection with Buck Run Trail near the halfway mark (we hiked the lower section the previous weekend--see earlier post). Turkey Foot Trail is a short connections path linking the Buck Run trailhead to the Walton Creek trailhead at the Visitor Center.

We parked the car at the Visitor Center at the entrance to Smith Mountain Lake State Park and started on Walton Creek Trail. The trail winds through woods that are a mix of pine and hardwoods. One tree of particular interest right at the beginning of the hike is a large Empress Tree (Paulownia tomentosa) with its distinctive fruit/seed pods (it has impressive foliage, but that had fallen by the time we took this hike). Look for it on the right at the edge of the first open area before entering the woods. This trail's blazes are burgundy. As part of the managed deer hunt held in the park a few weeks earlier, the trail is also currently marked with pink/black striped surveyors tape. From a conversation with one of the rangers, this was part of their system of dividing park for the managed hunt.

While the park staff have been spread thin during these pandemic and financially lean times, as evidenced by the trail lack of trail upkeep in some areas, I really appreciate their efforts at preserving the history of the property as well as the educational information provided along the trails (tree identification, explanation of forest management and succession, etc.). While it is not a restored structure like you would find in places like Colonial Williamsburg, the ruins of the homesteads and barns from the 1800s are left evident for you to see. One such can be found early on the left of the trail--the hearth and chimney stands sentinel long the path. Some may not find it interesting, but I am fascinated by these types of structures and will always stop to examine them.

Another thing that I always find interesting while hiking are twisted trees--either trees of different kinds that have grown together or trees with galls/burls or are deformed due to vines (honeysuckle tends to have the most impact, but poison ivy and grapevines can also cause it to happen). Fun fact--my favorite walking stick has a one of these twists in it--one of the reasons I chose it. This happens with a lot of different species of tree, but I've rarely seen one as large and impressive as the American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) near the hearth and chimney ruins (in fact, you will have to walk past it to get to there--it is that close to the trail).

The trail continues winding along the ridge between the shore and the road that runs along the spine toward the parking and picnic area at the end of the peninsula. The woods are predominantly deciduous trees with some pines mixed in here and there. It was in this section that we met a couple of other hikers going the opposite direction. Shoutout to Matt, he of the "My name is Matt and I'm doing Matt Things!" t-shirt!

A portion of this area is slated for future development on the SMLSP master plan--picnic area with several large shelters, restrooms, playground and approximately 60 parking spaces. A recent managed timber harvest in this area may be part of these plans. As with all timber harvesting that I have seen, there is a fair amount of debris left around and the timber companies do not clean up after themselves. It's not tremendously bad, but it could definitely be better--especially on land held in the public trust such as this. It is debatable whether the future development improves or degrades the experience in this area. Will it bring more people out to enjoy the new facilities and increase park revenues for maintenance and environmental protection? Undoubtedly. Will it degrade the experience of getting away from our modern world for a bit to enjoy nature? Again, undoubtedly. Don't get me wrong, I want more people to disconnect from the matrix, learn more about nature, and enjoy the outdoors--but I want them to do so responsibly. On a positive note, trash and other evidence of ill-behaved people (with one exception--see upcoming post about it later) is not something I have seen very often at this park; let's hope that continues in the future.

After the area from the timber harvest, the trail gets back into undisturbed forest, eventually making its way to the water's edge and the park's canoe rental and launch area. On this hike there were four other hikers using the benches here for a rest and lunch break. Friendly greetings were exchanged while maintaining safe social distance and we bid them good day before continuing on toward the picnic area which marks the end of Walton Creek trail. Just a fair warning--the last few hundred feet before the picnic area is the steepest part of this trail with as much as 22% grade at one point. We chose this as a good place to stop for a cup of tea.

Since making the mental shift from day hiking to backpacking, one of the joys I have discovered is that I can carry the tools necessary to stop and enjoy a cup of tea during a rest stop. We stop for breathers along the way, but usually make a 20-30 minute break at or near the halfway point. Making the effort to just stop, heat some water for tea, sit and just be while enjoying the tea, and enjoying the endorphins of the walk has become one of my favorite trail rituals.

After tea, we packed up and headed back continued across the road to Stripers Cove Trail. We had not done that trail before or we would have continued on for tea. Just across the road beyond the playground is a sizable picnic area (including a shelter for large groups) right next to the water. We made note for the next time we take this loop.

The trail winds along the shore and back up to the road where it goes past and crosses the access road for the boat launch area before entering a large sedge grass field. An educational sign at the trail side explains that this is an example of natural succession after a timber harvest--grasses take over before pine trees reestablish the forest area only to eventually be supplanted by the slower-growing hardwoods which benefit from the acidic soil produced by the pines. It is very interesting reading and the walk across the field made for a good change of pace.

After some ups and downs over a couple of hills and along a ridge, we reentered the forest and started the climb up to the ridge toward the trailhead on Interpretive Trail near the junction with Overnight Road. While it is not an official designation, I split Stripers Cove Trail into the upper section and lower section with the dividing point being the intersection with Buck Run Trail (this is near the halfway point, so it makes sense to me). This intersection is about a third of the way up the ridge as far as elevation is concerned and you will still have some climbing to do on Buck Run Trail before reaching the last intersection of this loop.

The tenth of a mile between the last two intersections of this loop is almost as steep as that leading up to the picnic area earlier reaching up to 19% grade. It isn't too bad, but coming at the end of the hike, it was a mental challenge to make that last climb up to the intersection with Turkey Foot Trail. That connector path (0.17 miles) back to the Visitor Center and the trailhead is relatively flat (and slightly downhill--yay!).

For a walk in the woods, this is a great route to take. It may change in the future (for good or ill is left to be seen) but for now, it is still a nice hike. Get out there and enjoy it!

Click the image below to visit the trip data on AllTrails.

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