It’s not often a work of art leaves you speechless. It’s even less often you find that work of art in the middle of the woods at a state park which doesn’t even have maps showing it. (I had to add the yellow dot and text for it in the following map.)
Even so, that was the case when I went to William B. Umstead State Park (8801 Glenwood Avenue, Raleigh, NC 27617) on May 31st, 2020. It was my third visit, and I wanted to see a bit more of the park than I had before. So I decided to take the 7.2 mile Sycamore Trail, thinking I might have enough time to finish the whole thing. Fortunately I didn’t, which forced me to take an unplanned detour that led me to the precise location of a stunning fallen tree sculpture, somewhat misleadingly called Chainsaw Log. (It’s about like calling Leonardo’s Last Supper “Oil-Smudged Wall.”)
Arriving by US 70E at the Crabtree Creek Entrance, I turned right onto Umstead State Parkway and drove two miles through a forest, passing the first parking lot and pulling into the second, where I quickly parked. Since it was already 5 PM, I knew I would need to keep a quick pace to hike even a portion of the trail, due to my frequent photographic pit stops. So I hopped out of my car, put on my backpack, and got started.
Hiking east for a tenth of a mile, I passed through a picnic area and joined Pott’s Branch Trail, which promptly turned south and led me through a beech forest and over a small creek.
After another tenth of a mile, I reached a footbridge and crossed it.
Now on Sycamore Trail, I headed north and soon came to one of many American beech trees (Fagus grandifolia) carved with the names and dates of young lovebirds, and maybe a few old ones too.
Soon I came to a sharp bend in the trail, which suddenly turned east and crossed Sycamore Road. Following it, I began to notice more pine trees than before, some of them even toppling over the trail itself.
Continuing east and then south on Sycamore Trail, I hiked past a confluence of small streams and wound my way through the surrounding forest until oak trees began to predominate. After a half mile, I reached a sharp bend in the trail, and a stately white oak (Quercus alba) appeared in front of me, spreading out its branches like a vegetative candelabra.
Veering to the east and then south again, I covered another half mile, passing a clearing with a pair of white-tailed deer and a runner who appeared out of nowhere.
Soon I reached a crossover with a gravel path — one of several conspicuous multi-use trails that look like gravel roads — and continued south on Sycamore Trail. As I went, I happened to look on the ground to my left and noticed something. Stopping in my tracks, I leaned down and saw a striking heart-shaped leaf, about three inches wide, with dark and light green mottling.
Lying placidly in a scattering of dead pine needles, this specimen of little brown jug (Hexastylis arifolia) looked entirely innocuous, giving no indication of the nephrotoxin flowing through it.
Getting up, I resumed my hike and headed southwest on a downhill slope. Soon I noticed the sound of water and caught a glimpse of Sycamore Lake in the distance. Rather than reaching it, however, Sycamore Trail veered away from it and continued south.
After three-quarters of a mile, I finally reached the Sycamore Trail Loop, a 4.3 mile loop that I knew would be the longest portion of my hike. Looking at the time and noticing it was 6:30, I wondered whether I would have enough daylight left to keep taking photos and decided that, if necessary, I would cut my hike short by taking a multi-use trail back to my starting point.
Taking the right fork in the trail, I headed down a switchback and soon found myself passing through a patch of mud that threatened to suck the shoes right off my feet. As if to compensate for the inconvenience, the pine forest around me suddenly thinned, letting in a burst of sunlight that illuminated the canopy in a blaze of emerald green.
Reaching the base of the muddy switchback, Sycamore Trail straightened out, and I headed south again. Soon I heard water and noticed Sycamore Creek off to my right. Then I came to a clearcut, where the forest disappeared and a lush carpet of vegetation took its place. Stooping down, I noticed a cluster of purple flowers — each one trumpet-shaped and three-quarters of an inch long, with white mottling in the center — standing from a plant about two feet tall.
After admiring the beautiful specimen of wild sage (Salvia spp.), I got back up and returned to the trail.
With Sycamore Creek off to the side, I continued south for a half mile. Then the creek veered southeast, leading me toward the southernmost extent of Sycamore Trail. Along the way, I noticed a clearing to my right where the riverbank was easily accessible. Hopping down, I looked to the west and noticed a shaft of sunlight, falling through the branches of the forest and glimmering off the surface of Sycamore Creek.
Returning to the trail, I continued hiking southeast for a half mile. By now it was almost 7:00, and the light was noticeably dimming. Realizing this, I resigned myself to my previously-decided backup plan — to take the multi-use trail on the return leg of my hike and thereby save two miles.
Just before reaching the multi-use trail, however, I noticed something just beginning to peak through the branches of the forest ahead of me. Drawing close, I was able to make out a beautiful stone bridge, spanning Sycamore Creek.
Passing a man who was photographing his girlfriend with the bridge as a backdrop, I joined the multi-use trail — which in this case is called Graylyn Trail. Heading north up the gravel path, I slogged my way uphill for three-quarters of a mile and soon reached a clearcut. Looking east, I noticed the azure blue sky and emerald green foliage, creating a riot of color as they stretched into the distance.
After a quarter mile, I reached a crossover with Sycamore Trail, after which Graylyn Trail leveled off. Then, about a tenth of a mile from the crossover, I noticed a clearing off to my right with a table and two benches. But there was something else there too — a fallen oak tree, clearly set up as some kind of display. Not knowing what to expect, I approached and looked closely.
And when I did, I was awestruck. For what I had thought was merely a big log was in fact a gigantic tree sculpture, almost like a carved mural in wood.
In the far right was a fox sitting in his den, gazing out attentively.
Toward the middle were several owls, a squirrel, and a rabbit — all nestled around the branches of the tree that formed the backbone of the sculpture.
And in the far left were two herons, standing beak to beak in a kind of mirror image that provided the perfect bookend to the entire sculpture.
Staring in amazement, I was utterly perplexed as to why this work of art — which is all the more remarkable for being made out of something so seemingly ordinary — wasn’t even alluded to in the map of Umstead State Park that I had in my pocket. (I later found out that this artwork, which is also called Hidden Treasure, was made by Jerry Reid and Randy Boni of Smoky Mountain Art using chainsaws over the course of a week.)
After ten minutes, I finally decided I had burned enough daylight and got back on Graylyn Trail. Heading north, I covered a quarter mile and soon noticed a sprawling white oak to my left.
Behind this tree, there was another multi-use trail heading west, which I promptly took.
After a quarter mile on this trail, I reached a gravel parking lot, walked through it to the north side, and turned right onto Sycamore Road. This in turn took me north on a twisting gravel path through a pine forest, outlined with golden sunlight against the dimming blue sky.
After three-quarters of a mile on Sycamore Road, I came to the junction with Group Camp Road and continued straight into the forest, where I was able to pick up Sycamore Trail again. This I then followed for a short distance before crossing over to Pott’s Branch Trail, which quickly took me back to the parking lot where I started.
And as I sat in my car, munching a handful of almonds to recharge, I was grateful for the unexpected detour that led me to a stunning fallen tree sculpture that I never would’ve seen otherwise.