Monday, March 20, 2017

Your guide to Lake Conestee Nature Park

Lake Conestee Nature Park opened in 2006, and over the past ten years has become a favorite destination for families across the Upstate with its 12 miles of trail that crisscross 400-acres of forest and wetlands. Because the park has multiple entrances and all those trails, it can be intimidating to head off the beaten (paved!) path… Hopefully this guide will give you the confidence to more fully explore all that Lake Conestee has to offer with your family!

First and foremost, it is easy to confuse Lake Conestee Nature Park (LCNP) with its neighbor, Conestee Park. Managed by Greenville County Recreation, it is Conestee Park that has the enormous playground, stadium, baseball fields, dog park and picnic shelter. We often incorporate a stop on the playground before or after a hike in the nature park, and the multiple parking lots in Conestee Park are your best bet on weekends when the other, smaller lots might be full. Tip: Conestee Park has three separate restroom facilities that will probably be your closest restroom while on the trail.

I find it easier to understand Lake Conestee Nature Park’s layout if I imagine it split into five zones: north, east, south, west and central. This transfers to the official Lake Conestee Nature Park trail map, which uses the abbreviations N, E, S and W to describe its park entrances.


From the county park there are four different entrances into Lake Conestee NP (accessible from Mauldin Rd.), known as the east entrances. E1 (East entrance 1) is near the dog park and is the north entrance to the popular Racoon Run trail, which runs on the east bank of the Reedy all the way to south of the baseball diamonds. E2 is the Reedy River bridge entrance, which connects with the heart of the park; the bridge is the only way across the Reedy River within LCNP. E3 is at the end of the parking lot that is south of the stadium, and E4 is next to the baseball diamonds; it leads to Forrester Farm, the East Bay and the other end of Raccoon Run. Other trails on this bank of the Reedy include Sapsucker Spur, Coyote Cut-Thru, Chickadee Link and Dragonfly Way. These trails (with the exception of the E2 trail that leads to the bridge) are not stroller-friendly, and mostly serve as access points to Raccoon Run (except Dragonfly Way, which is a nice loop around Forrester Farm near the end of Raccoon Run, adding ¼ mile to your route).

The granite outcrop on Raccoon Run


The south end of Lake Conestee Nature Park is off Conestee Rd. At the point where the road crosses the Reedy River there is a good view of the Historic Lake Conestee Dam which once powered Historic Conestee Mill. After crossing the bridge turn right on one-way Spanco Drive; this is where the parking lot for the first south entrance (S1) is; it’ll be to your right just after passing the mill. S1 is the southernmost point of the Swamp Rabbit Trail and features a picnic area, the trailhead, and gorgeous views of South Bay.

Another access point, S2, is at South Pine Circle and Conestee Rd. Rusty Link serves as a connector to the Swamp Rabbit Trail; these are the only trails on the south end of the park. As the Swamp Rabbit Trail curves around South Bay and up north past Crescent Slough to the heart of the Nature Park, you’ll find a couple of observation decks that are great places to rest while you look out over the water.


The Swamp Rabbit Trail cannot follow the Reedy River through the center of the park as it is mostly wetlands and open water. Instead, it loops around Bone Marrow Creek to the west end of the park, in two spots utilizing boardwalks to cross the creek and sections of marsh. There are four entrances on this side. W1 is next to the Belmont Fire Station, but it is very important that you only use the LCNP parking; if it is full, head to the W2 entrance which is the LCMP office at 601 Fork Shoals Rd. Here, in addition to the parking lot and picnic area you’ll find restrooms (if the office is open) and trail access to the Swamp Rabbit Trail and Henderson Farm via the Stone House Spur and Spring Lizard Link trails. Further to north, the W3 access point is at Chatham Dr. and Henderson Avenue, and then there’s a parking lot at W4 (Meadors & Henderson Ave.) – although the gate isn’t always open.

The west area of the park features several miles of trail. The Stone House Spur and Swamp Rabbit Trail are paved, perfect for cycling and strollers, while the other trails such as White Tail and Flat Tail Trail (which connects to the fire station) are dirt trails. Several picnic areas and viewing overlooks are scattered throughout, offering scenic views of Marrow Bone Creek and the Henderson Farm meadow. The Shortleaf Shelter and Henderson Farm often host educational programs such as Knee High Naturalists. Learning Loop 3 is a great way to sample all that the west portion of LCNP has to offer - please see my post on the topic, Conestee's Learning Loop 3.


The north area is actually a separate unit from the rest of the park, and is accessible from the parking area N1 at 415 Churchill Circle. The Swamp Rabbit Trail connects the north section to the west portion; follow the signs on Churchill and Chatham from N1 to W3. N2 is the other access point, marking the north boundary of the park at Brushy Creek. From here the Swamp Rabbit Trail proceeds north along Reedy River to Parkins Mill Rd. and I-85. Hopefully this missing section will eventually be completed to connect to where the SRT picks back up again at Cleveland St. and Pleasantburg Dr., but until then cyclists looking to connect the two must use Parkins Mill Rd. and Cleveland Street, two rather busy roads.

There are only two trails in the north section of the park; Tree Frog Trail hugs the Reedy River for most of its 0.8-miles, looping around to connect to the Swamp Rabbit Trail which cuts straight through Breazeale Farm.


Finally we are left with what I call the heart of the nature park, the area bordered by the Reedy River to the east and the Swamp Rabbit Trail to the south and west. This section is mostly wetlands, with boardwalks and trails extending on all sides around West Bay and North Slough. It includes Sparkleberry Island and the River Otter Way and Froggy Bottom Link loop, the rest of Flat Tail Trail (which originates at the Fire Station on the west end), the Sparkleberry Connector (paved trail running from the bridge to the Swamp Rabbit Trail) and various connectors such as Gray Fox, Turtle Run and Possum Run. The highlight of this central area are the observation points: the “Bird Nest” observation deck and Heron Spur (features #9 and #11 on the map) on opposite ends of West Bay  offer great views of the Great Blue Heron nests in the center of the bay, while the learning loops and teaching areas on Sparkleberry Island tell the history of the area and introduce visitors to the animals and plants that call Conestee their home.


Other than hiking and biking, there are many other fun things to do at Conestee Nature Park. LCNP is one of our favorite destinations for birdwatching ; the National Audubon Society has designated the park as an Important Bird Area of Global Significance, and over 190 bird species have been reported by the Greenville County Bird Club. (See post Birds and Birding at Lake Conestee Nature Park on Kidding Around Greenville) You can join the Greenville County Bird Club on a guided bird trip in the Park on the third Saturday of every month. The nature park also offers a multitude of educational opportunities; for a list of field trips and programs offered for preschoolers (such as Knee High Naturalist), homeschoolers, schools and other groups, please visit their website.

But there is one thing you don’t want to do at Lake Conestee Nature Park, and that’s go swimming.  The lake was created when the Reedy River was dammed at the Conestee Mill in 1892. The lake originally covered about 130 acres, but over the years industrial waste and discharge filled about 90% of it with sediment so toxic that the lake was classified a Superfund site. Safety studies of the brownfield site were completed, and it was determined that the best course of action would be to leave the toxic sediment in place. For more information, please visit the LCNP website

For those interested in finding out more about the history of the area, the Lake Conestee website is the perfect place to start. Everything you need to know before you visit can be found here, and an excellent map of the trails is here. My post on the Raccoon Run trail is here, and more on the Sparkleberry Island Trails is in this post, Lake Conestee Nature Park. Finally, you can take a tour of the Conestee portion of the Swamp Rabbit Trail here.

What is your favorite place to visit in Lake Conestee Nature Park? 

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