10 June 2013

Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve

Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve trail map: This is a little gem in the middle of the town of Cary, off Kildaire Farm Rd. It’s a reasonably quiet part of town, mostly residential, and the trails and nature center are far enough off the road that Hemlock Bluffs genuinely feels cut off, quiet, and peaceful. It feels like nature, not a scrappy little city park.

I hiked every inch of trail, about 2.6 miles in all. The wide trail path is well maintained and laid with mulch; no roots or rocks sticking out. The main Chestnut Oak Trail is generally level with some mild climbs and descents but nothing untoward. An upland seep along the Chestnut Oak trailThe trail down to the Swift Creek loop is stairs, but the loop itself is flat and also well maintained. This is an excellent park for a trail run, especially for those new to trail-running. The Chestnut Oak trail covers a fairly typical coastal plain environment, with a forest of primarily chestnut oak, red maple, and beech; look for maple-leaf viburnum, a somewhat rare shrub so predominant in this park it might be the single most common understory plant. This park will be brilliant in early autumn thanks to a big population of maples; a good number of serviceberry and other small trees and shrubs should provide a decent springtime floral display though not spectacular.

This crabapple is suffering from an unusual fungus.  If you want to see some weird-ass nature shit, do a google images search for Cedar-Apple Rust.Follow the main trail to the right and you’ll come to the Swift Creek ravine. The trail descends the ravine on well-made gravel-topped stairs, and two spurs from the stairs allow you to look at the truly unique aspect of this park, the Eastern Hemlocks on the south wall of the ravine. This relict population of hemlock is separated from the rest of the species’ distribution by some 150 miles. The trees survive here (some of the trees are old enough to predate European settlement in the Neuse basin) thanks to an unusual microclimate on the steep banks of Swift Creek. The actual hemlocks; this overlook is a nice place to stop and just enjoy being outside for a while.Because of the disjunct nature of this population they have no woolly adelgid infestation; it’s possible, sadly, that this might be the last healthy population of hemlocks in the eastern U.S. in another 20 years. The hemlocks share the streambank with a large population of galax and several other plants more commonly found in the piedmont and mountains.

The Swift Creek Loop is on lowland in the creek basin, below the ravines. This is a short, level loop through wet bottomlands. Bug spray is mandatory before attempting this trail. Throughout the park the squirrels are so fat and unmolested they don’t even run away from you when you walk directly toward them. And when they do scamper, it’s with the studied leisure of animals secure in their safety. Let them have their peace; please keep your dog on a short leash. Mapleleaf Viburnum, or Viburnum acerifolium, is an uncommon understory shrub throughout the southeast.  Here at Hemlock Bluffs, it might be the single most common such plant in the park. Hemlock Bluffs preserves an interesting microbiome unique in the Triangle area. The park is very quiet and peaceful, and even on a nice Saturday afternoon was not particularly busy. It’s a real find this close to the center of town.
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The route with elevations. Note the actual elevation changes are pretty mild, despite the way the chart looks. If you wanted to do say a 5k trail run, you'd probably just want to circle the Chestnut Oak loop 3 times; the stairs down to the Swift Creek Loop (on the right in the map) could be a problem.

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