Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Conestee's Learning Loop 3

This time of year, when it has gotten too hot to ride the Conestee section of the Swamp Rabbit Trail, and too muggy & buggy to hike down around the Reedy, we head to the west area of Lake Conestee Nature Park (LCNP). With its field full of wildflowers, shaded forest paths, and creek & riparian areas, Learning Loop 3 is one of our favorite hikes at this nearby hiking destination!

To reach Learning Loop 3 we park at the W2 entrance at 601 Fork Shoals Rd. (For an overview of Lake Conestee Nature Park, its regions and its entrances, please see my post Your Guide to Lake Conestee Nature Park.) Follow the Stone House Spur until you reach the Henderson Farm Meadow, and you’ll see the first Learning Loop station and the trailhead to your left. For about half of the length of the learning loop you’ll be following White Tail Trail (blazed white on black).

Only a small part of Lake Conestee Nature Park’s 400+ acres is upland meadows and fields, and most of that is contained within the old Henderson Dairy Farm. The loop begins in an upland meadow ecosystem, and giant wolf oaks mark a circular seating area perfect for a picnic lunch, sharing stories with a group, or just taking a break in the shade before continuing on.

The third station focuses on the meadow ecosystem, concentrating on pollinators. A portion of the meadow is managed for native pollinators including bees, moths, butterflies and other insects, and a blend of wildflowers and native grasses have been planted as part of this management. We often venture out on one of the mowed paths to get an up-close look at all the beautiful blooms.

Clockwise from top left: bee balm, ?, oxeye daisies, purple coneflower, butterfly weed and gaillardia

From the meadow the trail continues on into a scrubby thicket where shrubs and trees have started reclaiming the open field. Shortly a trail cuts off to the right; it leads to the Shortleaf Shelter, another teaching space (see my post on the "Knee High Naturalists" class) that offers shade on a sunny day.

As the trail continues on we enter a mature upland forest. A cut-through to the Swamp Rabbit Trail (3 Squirrels link) offers an alternative route, but the Learning Loop continues on White Tail Trail. Eventually we emerge on the Swamp Rabbit Trail, and having crossed it we reach another crossroads. This is the intersection of Flat Tail Trail with White Tail Trail, and just a short detour away is one of our favorite places in Lake Conestee – “Bird Nest” Observation Deck. Take a short detour off the Learning Loop, and make a left on White Tail Trail; you’ll see the observation deck on your right in a few dozen feet.

From the Bird Nest visitors have a great view of the West Bay, the beaver-dammed portion of Marrow Bone Creek, the heron rookery in the distance, and all sorts of wildlife. On our most recent visit a family of geese was feeding along one of the channels, and a couple of hawks circled overhead.

Backtrack to the intersection of White Tail and Flat Tail trail, and hop on the boardwalk to continue Learning Loop 3. To cross Bone Marrow Creek the Loop utilizes Flat Tail trail, which if you continued straight on would bring you to the W1 entrance to LCNP next to the Belmont Fire Station. The boardwalk allows access to the wetlands and riparian corridor; fish and tadpoles can often be spotted in the shallows, and turtles sun themselves on half-submerged logs. Evidence of beaver activity is everywhere, in the dams they’ve built and their teeth marks on branches & tree stumps, and dragonflies & damselflies flitter about.

At the intersection of Flat Tail and the Swamp Rabbit Trail, the Learning Loop turns right (west) and makes its way around the Bone Marrow Creek drainage. The Rock Garden Amphitheater soon comes up on the left, a seating area built into the hillside that allows the kids a break to explore. A spur trail (Spring Lizard Link) cuts off a little further on, that can take you back to the parking area. However, to complete the Learning Loop we continue on along the Swamp Rabbit Trail. After passing the intersection of the SRT with the Stone House Spur, and then 3 Squirrels link (the one I mentioned earlier that will take you back to Henderson Farm and the Shortleaf Shelter), you’ll soon come to the last Learning Loop station.

Just beyond this tenth station is another side-trip I recommend taking, Piedmont Seeps. This picnic area features a boardwalk that is almost level with the water, enabling kids to get super-close to the water in the wetlands. We often see geese, ducks, turtles and birds on our visit, and the boys love walking on water.

From Piedmont Seeps you’ll want to head back along the Swamp Rabbit Trail the way you came, either jumping on the Stone House Spur or the Spring Lizard Link to take you back to the parking area. Both are about the same length, bringing the total mileage of the Learning Loop 3 hike from the parking lot to about 1.25 miles. Of this a little less than half is paved (the Stone House Spur and Swamp Rabbit Trail), while the rest (White Tail and Flat Tail Trail) is dirt. The parking area is also not paved. For our LCNP hikes we always bring plenty of water, insect repellent, hats and sunscreen. Binoculars come in handy at the Bird Nest, and a camera allows us to take pictures of flowers, insects and leaves in order to identify them later. Finally, please remember that the creeks and lakes in Lake Conestee Nature Park are not safe for wading or swimming.

For more on Lake Conestee Nature Park, please visit my article Your Guide to Lake Conestee Nature Park. See also The Swamp Rabbit: Lake Constee Nature Park.

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