The Pines Loop (1.25 Miles)
With the early snowfall and shortened fall season, this may be the last hike of the week this fall, but it’s one of our favorites. This week’s hike takes us out to “The Pines”. This is an area we have been through on several other hikes, but it really is a destination worth visiting all its own. The area we generally refer to as “The Pines” is a Norway Pine (also known as red pine) plantation that was planted in Hartley’s early days as a park. This cultural plant community isn’t considered a native plant community in Hartley, but the Norway Pine is a native tree. In fact, the Norway Pine is the state tree of Minnesota, and it is quite common throughout Hartley Park. Although this stand isn’t considered healthy by today’s forestry standards, it is an impressive looking forest. There really is something magical about “the pines” after a snowfall, so this week seemed like the perfect time for a visit. This is a relatively short loop hike, but I’d encourage anyone doing this hike to set aside some time for wandering through the pines off trail.
The Pines Loop begins at the Hartley Nature Center parking lot. Head towards the building on the paved brick path. Stay left at the HNC kiosk and continue on the gravel trail as it passes the butterfly garden, and over two small bridges. Continue past the HNC exclosure gate and across several more small bridges. Stay right at the next intersection. Here the N. Tischer Trail joins the Superior Hiking Trail, and both follow Tischer Creek upstream where it meets Hartley Pond. Although this section of trail is short, it’s a great place to spot wildlife, including songbirds, waterfowl, deer, and even the occasional otter. As you reach the pond the trail splits again. Stay left and cross the dam above Tischer Creek. Follow the trail as it traverses the east side of the pond. As of this writing, the pond is dressed in white, and the view across the pond is quite beautiful. A short way down the trail will bring you to the intersection with the Rock Knob Trail, Old Hartley Road, and the Tunnel Trail. Take a right onto the Tunnel Trail and continue past the canoe landing. Here the trail quickly becomes enveloped in trees. For a moment, the name Tunnel Trail seems fitting, as it feels like the forest has created a tunnel of trees. The “tunnel” opens quickly and here the trail widens. This area was hit hard by the blowdown of 2016, but efforts have been made to restore the landscape. A large pollinator meadow has been planted along the trail, and in the spring and summer the wildflowers are quite beautiful. There are also several stands of large paper birch trees that add to the beauty. About .25 miles down the Tunnel Trail you’ll reach the pines. As you enter the forest the scene quickly changes. Here you’re greeted by Norway (red) Pines that stretch to the sky. These pines were planted 50+ years ago by local scout groups. Foresters have since learned that planting a single species of tree isn’t the best practice for healthy forest management, especially when planted so close together. Efforts have been made to restore the area, but more work is needed. Still, the forest here is quite impressive, and it seems almost magical after a fresh snowfall. As you enter the pines, the trail splits. The route described here takes the trail to the right and follows the Pines Trail as it loops counterclockwise around the pines. Because it’s a loop, taking the trail left works just fine as well. Either way you go, make sure to spend some time exploring the pines off trail. The open understory makes it easy to wander off trail and being “in” the pine stand feels more magical than walking around. After a fresh snow it’s not uncommon to see animal tracks everywhere. On the day of my hike I saw squirrel, rabbit, fox, and deer tracks. In some places it almost seemed like a superhighway for animals. After taking some time to explore off trail make your way back to the start of the Pines Trail and take it counterclockwise (right when looking at the informational sign). Here the Pines trail cuts through the pine plantation intersecting the fisherman and Rhamnus trails a short way down trail. Stay left and continue to follow the Pines Trail as it circles the pine plantation. In a couple of spots, the Pines trail is braided, splitting in two only to come back together a short time later. The next true intersection of trail comes about halfway around the pine plantation. Here the wet meadow trail splits off to the right, while the Pines Trail continues hard left. Again, the trail is braided in a couple of spots, but generally follows the same path. At the next intersection, our route has two options. Staying left will bring you back to the start of the Pines Trail and the intersection with the Tunnel Trail. Take the Tunnel Trail back to the pond and make your way back to the HNC parking lot from there. This hike takes the Rock Knob trail to the right. You’ll come to another intersection almost immediately. Here the Rock Knob Trail splits. Going right will take you up the steep hillside to the top of Rock Knob. If you want to extend your hike, this is a great route. If you’re ready to head back to the nature center, then stay left here. This multi-use trail winds its way through a beautiful birch forest passing several sections of exposed bedrock. For the most part this trail parallels the Tunnel Trail, but it remains hidden from view for most of the trail. After another .25 miles the Rock Knob Trail ends at the pond, almost directly across from the canoe landing. Retrace your steps along the pond and across the dam to return to the HNC parking lot. Another option is to go right to the intersection with Old Hartley Road (wide gravel path) and take a left to return to the parking lot.