Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Winter’s Brief Return at East Fork State Park

In January, when I planned a winter hike for Isaac’s Mountain Lion patrol, we were still in the midst of an abnormally warm Cincinnati winter. I was pleasantly surprised, therefore, when we woke up on an early March Saturday morning to a coverlet of snow, with a steady fall of thick flakes. While the drive to East Fork State Park was dicey at times, the Williamsburg-to-Batavia Hike-Bike Trail provided a satisfying and simple three-mile hike despite the weather.

I had chosen East Fork for multiple reasons. First, it’s a little outside our normal geographic range for Trail Life activities, but not so distant as to feel “far away”. Second, the park contains some of the best medium- and long-distance hiking in our region, including a 32-mile backpacking loop with four backcountry campsites, all within the park boundaries. Third, the trail we hiked is a portion of the North Country National Scenic Trail (also the Buckeye Trail and American Discovery Trail), which meant that Isaac and I could count our mileage toward the NCT’s Hike100 challenge.

After testing my winter driving skills in the snowy, vacant parking area, we met up with our hiking companions for the morning: two other boys (and their dads) from Isaac’s patrol. Bundled up against the chill and blowing snow, we set out southward along the main campground road. [Note that there is no dedicated walking path or shoulder along the road; be sure to walk single-file and facing traffic for safety. The perimeter backpacking trail parallels the road in this area and provides a traffic-free option, but the trail is not suitable for strollers or wheelchairs and is frequently flooded.] In a little more than three-quarters of a mile, a paved multi-use trail exits to the left. A wooden kiosk and benches are located at the junction as the trail begins a gradual descent to the lakeside.

The snow-covered trail showed occasional clear patches warmed by the climbing sun, but the melt water and continuing snowfall created slick conditions, especially on the downhill grade; proper footwear ensured that no one took a tumble. Tall forests and hillsides guard both sides of the trail, and about halfway to the lake, a stream joins alongside to the left. On a quiet winter’s morning, we had the woods to ourselves, and I could see this being a great place for birding; in the summer, however, the nearby campground likely provides a steady stream of walkers and bikers enjoying the park.

At the foot of the trail, a cluster of benches overlooks the upper reaches of Harsha Lake, the flooded valley of the East Fork of the Little Miami River. Informal paths lead steeply down to the water’s edge, although recent rains had swollen the lake much higher than normal. The main portion of the trail turns to the east here, continuing past old fields and young forests to a bridge over the picturesque Kain Run, and then heads further eastward to the Village of Williamsburg. To the west, a severely overgrown roadbed hints at a path along the lakeshore, but I’ve not explored more than 50 yards beyond the start of the vegetation.

The lake overlook marked the turn-around point of our morning hike, and Isaac at least was happy to head back to the warmth of the car and the promise of hot chocolate on the drive home. Climbing the hill back to the park road was not difficult, but noticeable, as the slope is continuous; we were all glad when the trail flattened out at the top. The going was much easier on our return: the morning sun had melted nearly all the snow from the trail and the clouds were beginning to thin out. Layers of coats, gloves, and hats began to be shed as our efforts warmed us to the point of sweating.

The return to the parking lot was uneventful, although vehicle traffic (which clearly was not expecting hikers) had picked up considerably along the campground road. Nearby restrooms were open for use, although we never saw any staff at the camp office/store. Our three-mile hike took us about one hour and twenty minutes to complete, accounting for a leisurely, yet determined pace through the snow. With more time, a day hike of nearly any desired length could be enjoyed along the six miles of designated paved trail running through the north side of the state park. Connecting trails can carry the prepared hiker much farther, of course, but conditions become less ideal for a family stroll as you go beyond the park itself. 

The next time you’re looking for an easy mid-distance hike on hard-surface trails, head past the main stem of the Little Miami and check out East Fork State Park’s campground area and the Williamsburg-to-Batavia Trail.

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