Chasing Pelicans at Fairfield Lake

Chasing Pelicans at Fairfield Lake

The last state park I chose to camp at was a bit of an impulse–I saw a bunch of pelicans on the Fairfield Lake State Park Instagram feed and two days later I was there, chasing enormous flocks of migrating birds around the cold and windy lake shore and learning some hard lessons about wildlife photography. 

I never quite got the pelican shots I wanted, although the cormorants were much more accommodating (the friendly park rangers told me they spread their wings out like that to get dry because their feathers aren’t waterproof). I was also surprised to see large groups vultures (a “kettle” of vultures refers to a group of them in flight, and a “committee” is a bunch of them in a tree–and I saw both!)

I also chose this trip to test out my new backpack with a hike into the park’s primitive camping area. I haven’t hiked into a site or done primitive camping in about a decade (and never by myself) so this was a fun–if exhausting–trip for me. I enjoyed sleeping in the dark and lonely woods, quiet except for an occasionally nearby pack of coyotes, although I most likely will only do it again when the campsite isn’t so far in the woods (see my notes on the long trail below.)

Fairfield Lake State Park is long, linear and spread out. If you stay in the regular camping areas you’d be close enough walk to one of the day use areas, but if you’re staying in the primitive sites like I was expect to drive around to visit the rest of the park. 

The first picnic area I visited (where the pelicans kept shifting around the lake to avoid me) was especially charming. It was empty while I was there, but I could easily imagine how accommodating the large picnic space and easy access to the lake must be for families in the summer and over holidays. It’s also beautiful in December, but even when the sun is out the wind coming off the water cuts right to the bone (and pulled my hat off my head and tossed it into the lake–pretty sure the pelicans enjoyed that.)

On the same peninsula is a boat ramp, fish-cleaning station and a nice-looking dining hall where I spent some time experimenting with taking back-lit photos of trees in the afternoon sun.

For the rest of my day out I explored the small Birdwatching trail (see below) and the other, smaller day use area and boat ramp–this one is about 4 miles in–where I snapped pictures of committees of vultures and the now-quiet power plant across the lake.

I turned in early, due to the short day and the long hike back to my tent, stopping by headquarters first to borrow a book from the little lending library just outside their doors (I love this and wish all parks had it!) and hiked the remaining trails the following morning.

The Trails at Fairfield Lake State Park

I know the Big Brown Creek trail the best because I hiked the darn thing four times. It’s length is just long enough to be infuriating (the map says 3 miles but the park rangers told me it was 3.5 to the primitive camping area–whatever it is, it felt longer.) I don’t mind the walking, but the time really got to me. I would take nearly an hour to get back to my car, losing a chunk of short and precious daylight that I would have liked to spend photographing things instead, and I felt compelled to return to camp sort of early to avoid tripping over the trail in the dark.

Half of Big Brown Creek trail is comfortably flat, and the other half is drainage ditch. It’s easy enough to follow (although on my first trip back I twice wondered up the wrong ditch for a bit) and would likely be very comfortable terrain during drier parts of the year. As for me, I slipped and slurped through the mud and gingerly forded small streams–I somehow managed not to fall or lose my boots and did enjoy seeing all the deep animal tracks (raccoons, deer, wild hogs and horses) pressed into the goo.

Big Brown Creek is a very utilitarian trail. True to the name there’s a big brown creek, a handful of brown streams and a small brown pond. I spotted two armadillos and a rusted-out old car (eventually identified as a 1945 Buick Roadmaster, also brown) but didn’t bother with any nature photography until I went to the very end of the trail, where you can see the lake and lots of evidence of wild hogs.

I had high hopes for the short Birdwatching trail on the other side of the park (it was birds that got me to this park, after all!) but I didn’t spot much in the woods–partially because I didn’t bother to sit quietly on one of the many benches along this trail, I assume, and probably also because of the time of year. Not really any good lake views, although there’s a bit of an uphill hike to a little lookout point where you can just make out some of the water and I caught a glimpse of, I think, a duck.

There was also a neat little spur off this trail that was covered, tunnel-like, with welded-wire fence. Due to the high water line I couldn’t get very far into it, but I’m betting it’s normally a good place to watch wildlife.

I was also looking forward to the small Scenic Loop trail as one of the park rangers told me bald eagles had been spotted in the area. It’s a short and easy half-mile walk with a couple of pretty views (and also probably looks better at other times of the year.) No eagles for me, unfortunately–more vultures though!

I’m saving the best for last: the Nature trail was a freaking storybook of a trail. Imagine how Disney would design a hike: lightly wooded with only the gentlest of elevations and lazy, charming curves that wind around a small peninsula, and open up here and there to the lake for very pretty and unobstructed views. Airy, a little windy, lined with soft grasses–I even saw a few wildflowers that had survived the winter–and everywhere titmice and other small and adorable birds flitting about in the branches above.

And it’s only about 2 miles long–the perfect, feelgood trail when you just want to take a weekend stroll and remember why you like being outside. 

There’s one last trail–the Dockery trail, wrapping around most of one side of the park–but it’s 5.25 miles long one way and my legs didn’t have another 10 miles in them. I’d love to come back when it’s a little drier and try that baby out on my bike.

Fairfield Lake State Park was a gorgeous, five-star experience–even in the off-season–with some pleasant hikes, nice recreational accommodations and friendly staff, but when I return I’ll stay in one of the regular campsites in order to make the most of my time there.