I recently joined a group of friends walking an 8.5-mile loop that offered enough climbing to make me feel like I was in the mountains, even though I was just miles from downtown Columbia. The chosen route is a combination of several trails that create a loop around the perimeter the forest.
We met in the main parking area near the entrance to the preserve and took off on Firebreak Trail West, part of the core route that links to almost all of the other trails. The mostly level path took us through a forest of mixed pine and hardwoods north to the connection with the Stewardship Trail.
This is another easy-to-moderately-difficult trail with gentle slopes through some of the most beautiful sections of the forest. After crossing several small bridges over gullies and creeks we came to a short spur trail that leads to River Rest overlooking the Broad River. As the name implies, this is a great spot to rest and enjoy the view.
About three-quarters of a mile down the path, we connected with the Midlands Mountain Trail. Here's where we got our cardio workout. We climbed lots of slopes through the Broad River floodplain, veering off the main trail to check out Harbison Bluffs. It's definitely worth the short hike on the spur trail to see the impressive riverfront vista from the elevated bluffs.
It wasn't much farther up the main Midlands Mountain Trail that we came to the connection with Firebreak Trail East. We stayed on this path for another mile before reaching our starting point in the parking lot.
You can pick up a free trail guide at the kiosk in the main parking area. There is no admission fee to hike or bike in Harbison State Forest, but you'll need to pay $5 for parking. Parking passes can be found at the fee boxes located in each of the parking areas.
A word of warning: look out for bikers on the trails. We came across a number of them, but always had plenty of time to move off the path to let them pass. As a courtesy, they slowed down and thanked us for giving way.