My new love: Cape Lookout

I’ve done a fair amount of traveling in my life, but one of the places I’ve never been is the Pacific Northwest. I’ve always wanted to go, though, so for this year’s vacation Chet and I decided on a trip to Oregon – specifically Portland with a side trip out to the coast. I had a great time, and really enjoyed pretty much every place we went, but I think the highlight for me was the Oregon Coast. There’s just something about driving along with the blue Pacific on one side of you and steep, spruce and fir covered mountains jutting up on the other side that can’t be beat. It’s majestic and beautiful and awe inspiring and so different from the scenery we have here.

Of course, we had to hike in this wonderland so we’d picked out a moderate hike in a stretch of coast just south of where we were staying. The historic Highway 101 threads its way south, passing through what seems like a new state park or state recreational area every few miles. The one we headed for was Cape Lookout State Park, which is 2000 or so acres of land including the entire Netarts Sand Spit to the north, the headland itself which juts two miles out into the Pacific and towers 400 feet above the surrounding beaches, and a gorgeous four mile stretch of sandy beach to the south heading towards Sand Lake. Cape Lookout is basically a chunk of basalt rock left over from the ancient lava flows that formed many of the islands and headlands along this coast.

There is a campground and recreation area on the north edge of the park towards Netarts Sand Spit, and the Oregon Coast Trail leads from there along a gradual 2.3 mile ascent to get to the top of the cape.  I really wanted to hike out to the very tip of the cape though, so we opted to drive up to the Cape Trail trailhead, which was at the top. The parking lot there was very roomy as the trail is pretty popular. We found a spot and parked near the port-a-potties. I only mention this to point out that while there are bathroom facilities here, they are primitive and at the time we were there anyway, were pronounced “gross” by one woman who’d just used one. I opted to take her word for it.


It had been very cold that morning. We hadn’t figured out the heating situation in the Airbnb we’d rented, so we woke up to a 40 degree cottage. Chet found the heat, so I did finally agree to get out from under the covers when it had warmed up to about 60, but once I’m cold, I tend to stay cold so I’d dressed in jeans and a light long sleeved sweater, plus a fleece jacket. Luckily,  I came to my senses before I headed out on the trail and changed into the wicking t-shirt I’d brought because I later learned that cold in the morning in Oregon does not mean cold all day!

The kiosk for the trail was at the far western edge of the parking lot, with a joint trail heading out from the southwest corner. About 100 yards along the trail, the Oregon Coast Trail splits off on the first of what appeared to be many many switchbacks that would lead you 1.8 miles down to the sandy beach below. We kept going straight so that we could reach the point.


As usual, we were hiking with a backpack, tons of water, food, and hiking poles. At first it seemed like the poles might have been overkill as the trail was fairly level, soft underfoot, and not rooty or rocky at all. In about 1/2 mile, there were gorgeous views down to the sandy beach and on south towards Sand Lake (actually a cove). Just past our first gasp-inducing viewpoint, I spotted a plaque on a boulder to the inland side of the trail. It commemorated those lost in the crash of a B-17 bomber in 1943. The story is that  the bomber was on coastal patrol on a very foggy day and the pilot mistook the fog-shrouded cape for a cloudbank. He flew right into the side of it. There was one survivor.

Besides the stunning beach views, this section also had several new-to-us flowers to puzzle over. We had little hope of identifying them on the spot, but took pictures and looked them up later. Candy Flower is in the same family as the “Spring Beauty”  we find in Alabama and is just as pretty. Pearly Everlasting actually does grow in Alabama, though I can’t say as I’ve ever noticed it. Just a little way past the plaque, the trail starts heading more steeply down and away from the southern views as it takes a couple of switchbacks down the north side towards Wells Cove.  This part of the trail was shadier than the first section, which was welcome because by this point I was pretty warm! We also spotted a few more unfamiliar plants, which we later identified as Salal (a blueberry like plant that the native Indians relied on to get them through the winter), rose twisted stalk  (a sort of Solomon’s seal),  thimble berry (sort of like a raspberry), and a type of hedge nettle. We also spotted some Alabama favorites – trillium and false Solomon’s seal.

At about the mile mark, the trail makes a hairpin turn to head back uphill. Right at the curve, there is a section of fence and beautiful views of Wells Cove, the Pacific Ocean, and north towards Three Arch Rocks and Cape Meares.


The trail headed up and around the rim of Wells Cove, with steep drop offs on one side down to where the waves were crashing into the rocks hundreds of feet below. After a bit, it also became very mucky. We passed a couple of groups making their way back and they told us the muck didn’t last for too much longer. One guy commented that his decision to wear clogs had not been a very good idea. I loaned one older gentleman my hiking pole to steady himself with as he crossed a particularly muddy few feet. There are a few sections of boardwalk that take you over some of the mud, but this was my least favorite section of the trail. It is not recommended for tennis shoes, flip flops, or clogs!

After the mud, the trail curved up and around  until our old friend the sandy beach came into view again. It was an easy walk from there with great views to the south and west. Here we were walking along the top of cliffs that dropped straight down to the water. I enjoyed watching the birds flying high over the water, but below me.  Soon we reached the very tip of the cape. There a smallish rocky outcropping provides a cleared area from which to look out onto the ocean. A bench provides a place for a couple of folks to sit and enjoy the view.  We sat on the rocks and enjoyed the view and our lunch. At other times of year, namely December to June, we hear that you get a great view of migrating whales from here. We’d missed all that and saw not one whale, but it was still a beautiful view out into the vast Pacific Ocean. As best as I could tell from later research, if you go west from here, the next land you’d hit would be Japan, or maybe one of the Kuril Islands, claimed by both Japan and Russia and somewhere around 2000 miles to the west.

The hike back to the car was uneventful, though it did provide us with lots of opportunities to admire the beautiful, rugged Oregon coast spread out before us. We put in a total of 4.6 miles, according to our GPS track. It might not have been the longest hike but it might have been the most scenic.


Just Gorge-ous: Dry Creek Falls, Mt. Hood National Forest

Did  you miss us?  For the first time in three years of blogging, we went a week without posting anything.  But we had a good excuse — we were hiking in a new (to us) part of the country, in the Pacific Northwest to be exact.  We’ve been trying to vacation in areas of the country in which we’ve spent little or no time, and the PNW (as the cool kids call it) came highly recommended.   So off we went to Portland, Oregon!

It probably won’t surprise you to read that we did some research on hiking opportunities in the area, and of course there were practically countless options, with national forests, state forests, state parks, and city parks all within easy reach.  Yet one of our first hikes was to a place that popped up in my Facebook feed, when a friend shared a link to a Buzzfeed article on “16 of the Most Photogenic Hikes on the West Coast.”  Just for grins I perused the article to see if any were near Portland, and it turns out that Dry Creek Falls was a good candidate for us — not too long, very scenic, not too difficult, and in the Columbia River Gorge.  And, a little more research turned up an irresistible reason to take this hike — the bulk of it is on the Pacific Crest Trail.

Most hikers in the eastern U.S. have at least a passing acquaintance with the Appalachian Trail, a 2,200 trail stretching from Georgia to Maine.  The AT is a National Scenic Trail, established as one of the first two trails of this type by Congress in 1968.  The Pacific Crest Trail is the other one, and the AT, the PCT, and the Continental Divide Trail are considered the triple crown of North American long distance hiking.  The PDT is over 2,600 miles long, spanning the states of California, Oregon, and Washington.  One end is at the U.S-Mexico border, and the other is at the U.S.-Canada border.  It’s legendary.

Our trip began with a drive out of Portland eastward on I-84 through the Columbia River Gorge.  Famed for its scenery, the gorge didn’t disappoint, with a surprisingly wide blue river flowing westward to the Pacific Ocean between towering ridges of stately conifers.  We stopped in the town of Cascade Locks to lay in a supply of trail snacks, then made our way to the trailhead, which has a large paved parking lot off the ramp to the Bridge of the Gods (yep, that’s what is called — it’s a highway bridge over the Columbia River, named for a landslide-formed natural bridge around 1450 AD).  There’s parking there for about 15 cars, and all slots were occupied so we retraced our steps and parked in another hiker’s lot under the bridge.   It was a short walk back to the trailhead, which has information kiosks, a nice large restroom building, and on this particular day it had a Trailhead Ambassador.  A lady was there to answer any questions and offer advice, and she asked us to brush our boots prior to going on the trail to avoid spreading seeds from any non-native plants.  She looked us over and said we looked like we knew what we were doing (we were in our usual overkill mode with daypacks, boots, multiple layers including raingear, and hiking poles – for a four-mile hike).  Well, thank you, madam.  We dress to impress.

The trail begins across the road from the eastern side of the trailhead, and unceremoniously begins with a quick climb to gain some altitude before crossing under I-84.  It’s common on these long-distance trails to cross over or under major roads, and sometimes the route even shares the road shoulder for a few miles, but my limited experience on the AT has been in wilderness areas, so it was amusing to be on a National Scenic Trail with semi trucks roaring by above my head.


After a road walk of about 100 yards, the trail continues on a gravel road to a winter trailhead, from which the PCT plunges into the woods.  We took the route south, which wound through an open forest with very gradual elevation gain for about .6 miles.  This stretch of forest was particularly open because the devastating Eagle Creek fire started in this very location almost a year to the day before our hike.  The fire burned nearly 50,000 acres, and a year later there are still roads and many trails closed as a result.  The trailhead ambassador told us that there are still smoldering embers down in the rootballs of some fallen trees!  Tourism in the Gorge has really suffered as a result, so she was particularly happy to see hikers on the open trails in the area.  The really large trees have particularly thick bark, so most of them have shrugged off the damage, and a year later the understory is in full recovery mode, with stands of fireweed springing up in lovely late summer bloom.


Just over one mile into the hike, the trail crosses a powerline cut, with well-marked signage on either side.  The next .9 mile or so gradually climbs and crests a low ridge, into a cool and quiet hollow with ferns and wildflowers abounding.  At the end of this stretch, we reached a trail junction, with a narrow dirt road leading to the southeast and the PCT continuing over a wooden bridge to the northeast.


We followed the sign to Dry Creek Falls, and in around .2 miles we arrived at a narrow canyon with high rock walls on three sides and a 74-foot waterfall spilling over a relatively low spot.  There are actually additional drops not visible from the bottom of the waterfall that make its cumulative height around 230 feet.  There’s no path upward from here, and the only way to see the upper drops would require a cross-country hike and rappelling, so the 74-feet that we could see were more than adequate.


This is a popular hike, or at least it was on Labor Day weekend, so there were many folks there posing for selfies.  There’s really not much of a plunge pool and Dry Creek itself is rather small as it flows away from the falls.  We took a little while to rest, have our trail lunch, and look over the impressive canyon walls and the machinery left over from when the Dry Creek was used as a water source for the city of Cascadia Locks.


We retraced our route back to the PCT and returned to the trailhead, covering 4.27 miles in this hike according to our GPS track.

Herb robert

As for the botanical aspects of the hike, we saw our familiar maidenhair fern (though it was probably a Western species), the aforementioned fireweed, and one other wildflower that might be herb robert.  I can’t claim to be very confident in my identification of Western wildflowers, but the blooming time, location, and overall appearance fit the description.  We also saw another yellow wildflower and something that looked like our Christmas fern, but that particular species doesn’t grow in Oregon.

All in all, this was a great introduction to the trails of the Columbia River Gorge.  The waterfall was very pretty, and the hike was a manageable length, beautifully maintained and easy to follow.  And best of all, we logged 2 miles on the iconic Pacific Crest Trail — just 2,657 miles to go to complete our segment hike!

Noccalula Falls: What not to do

One of the ways that Chet and I think of this little blog of ours is as a public service. If you’re looking for a good hike in the area, we try to document enough details so that you know how to get there and what to expect. Usually, we’re also acting as unpaid public relations people for local parks, land trusts, and other wild spaces. However sometimes, the best public service we can provide is an example of what not to do.

So it was with our last, ahem, adventure. Someone recently asked if I’d ever been to Noccalula Falls in Gadsden and I had to admit that no, despite living in Alabama for more than 25 years now, we’ve never made it to this Alabama landmark. I looked it up on the internet and discovered that though it isn’t our normal sort of park – it’s a bit too civilized with its petting zoo, botanical gardens, pioneer village, mini golf course, and miniature train – it did boast on its website of over five miles of well marked and interconnecting trails. Surely we could put together an interesting hike and at the same time take in the famous falls.

I was a little disappointed that the website itself did not really have a map of any sort, either of the overall park or of the trails. There was a link to a third party trail site aimed at mountain bikers, but it appeared to be a GPS track of one person’s trip as opposed to an official trail map. Nonetheless, we decided we’d surely be able to get more information at the park, and took off on a beautiful (but a bit warm) Saturday to drive the two hours to the park.

When we arrived in Gadsden, we found signs pointing us very helpfully to the park. We pulled in to the first marked place we saw, which was the campground entrance, but as we turned in we saw another sign just a bit down the road indicating the main entrance was on a bit farther. Since the website had mentioned that there was a small fee required to hike on the trails, we decided that we needed to go on to the main park entrance instead. This turned out to be only a block down the street, clearly marked, and with plenty of parking. I walked up to the entrance and bought us two tickets, then asked for the trail map. The girl behind the window cheerfully handed me one and soon Chet and I were walking in through the turnstile.


The grounds are very manicured and pretty in that theme-park sort of way. Just down a ramp from the ticket office is a train stop. There was a train coming up just as we were walking down, but we saw a park map at a kiosk and decided instead to go see if we could orient ourselves first. The posted park map turned out to have no overlap with the trail map we’d been given. That should have been our first clue. I’d read on the website that all of the hiking trails we wanted to check out were accessed “behind the wedding chapel,”t hough, so I looked on the map and found the wedding chapel and figured if we could just get there, we’d be able to figure things out.


Along the way, we wandered through the pioneer village, which is  collection of authentic buildings moved to the park and reconstructed over the years. Unlike similar buildings at, say, Burritt on the Mountain here in Huntsville, or Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains, these buildings were very cleaned up. Missing structural pieces were replaced with modern wood and the chinking was fresh and complete, making them nearly airtight. A sign claimed that any replacements were made using traditional techniques, but the overall effect made me wonder how “authentic” these buildings were. But then, it also occurred to me that this might be more representative of how they really did look when they were new. After the pioneer village, we continued our walk down paved trails, over the covered bridge, past the botanical garden, and finally within sight of the falls themselves with the wedding chapel close beside it. Success!


Well, turns out, not so much. We came to a padlocked gate that closed off our access to the path that looked like it would have led over the top of the falls and to the wedding chapel. We looked around to see what our options were, and, not seeing any clear signage indicating what we should have done instead, we decided that our best bet was to retrace our steps back and then past the pioneer village to a spot that was identified on the posted maps as the entrance to the “Gorge Trail.” The Gorge Trail was not on the printed trail map I’d been handed, but my internet research had talked about it as a trail that actually ran behind the falls. That sounded cool, and we thought if we could get to the falls, we’d be able to figure out how to connect up with the other trails.

We found the well-marked entrance to the Gorge Trail easily enough. This trail starts off as a paved concrete path that heads pretty steeply down hill, levels out briefly, then drops steeply again. I might not have noticed how steep it was had Chet and I not both been struggling a bit with balky knees, hips, and backs, so maybe that’s just a crotchety old person complaint. Soon the footbed turned to our more accustomed dirt, with a few rocks and roots to go along with it. Still it was a pretty clear trail to follow, and like some of my most favorite trails in North Alabama it followed along a shelf of land at the base of a series of bluffs. Signs at the entrance had warned that this trail could be steep and rocky and was not appropriate for strollers. They weren’t wrong, but as trails go, it was pretty average in difficulty. We did notice several “wildcat” trails peeling off and there were a few places where the trail would appear to split and we weren’t sure which fork to take. After the sign at the entrance, there were no blazes or signs of any sort on the trail.


Somehow we managed to find the correct path and ended up in the clamshell area behind the falls. It is a beautiful spot. I wasn’t expecting much from the falls since it’s been so dry, but there was a decent amount of water flowing over the falls even so. I sat and enjoyed the view while Chet brought out the tripod for some shots.


Thinking there must be a way to get from the falls to the trails on the trail map, we decided to continue on around behind the falls to a spot where we’d seen some people coming down from someplace higher up. We met up with a group who said they had come down from a very steep and difficult trail blazed in blue. The trail map did indicate that there was supposed to be a blue blazed trail that was labeled as steep on that side, so that sounded promising. They waved us up a trail and we parted ways. We probably should have asked them more questions. From the trail map, the blue-blazed trail they had mentioned was supposed to run through some hills along the top of the bluff. We obviously needed to somehow climb out of the gorge to get to that one. The trail we were on was blazed (occasionally) with yellow over the top of an older blue blaze. It looked liked it might possibly be the trail labeled the “Bluff Trail” on the map, which was colored pink on the trail map. The colors didn’t line up, but the Bluff Trail did look like it might follow along a shelf below the top of the gorge and that matched where we were, so we soldiered on. We hiked on a little ways passing scenery that might have been pretty had it not been  spray-painted and graffitied to death. We kept seeing those yellow on blue blazes, and we even passed some obviously manufactured posts with numbers carved deep into a slanted top so it sure seemed like an official trail.  We also started seeing vivid blue arrows painted on the ground, all of them pointing the opposite way we were traveling. We finally got to a spot where there was a yellow caution tape strung across the trail. The trail on the other side looked perfectly fine and not dangerous at all. After looking at it for a bit, I decided that it looked to me like the markings from a trail race. We’ve seen similar things at Ruffner Mountain the day after a race, so we decided to ignore the tape and continue along just a little farther to see if the trail merged into the Black Creek trail as the map indicated the Bluff Trail should. The Black Creek Trail is a 1.7 mile gravel path that acts as the backbone for all of the trails in the park. If we could find that, we’d be golden. The Bluff Trail was only supposed to be about .3 of a mile long and we’d already almost gone that far, so we decided to go just a tiny bit farther. Soon, the trail headed down to the creek. It was a lovely spot, but it was the spot where we gave up. We’d already been in the park for around two hours and hadn’t even found the start of the trails we wanted to check out. It was time to admit defeat and head on home.


We started hiking back the way we’d come and came across a couple who had just crossed over on the rocks from the Gorge Trail side. They said the crossing was easy and the trail was right there. Again, we should have asked more questions (I’m sensing a theme here). We crossed at the most likely looking spot, and then failed to find an actual trail on the other side. Perhaps we crossed too far downstream. Or too far upstream. Or something. We bushwhacked our way up the hill until we found what must surely be the Gorge Trail. It was a trail anyway, and looked right. We turned right and started heading towards what should have been the trailhead. Only it wasn’t. The trail looked familiar at first, but then it kept tracing its way farther down the slope to nearly the water’s edge. I didn’t remember that from the walk in. Still, just around a curve I could see something that looked like a bridge. Maybe that was an alternate way out. We hiked on, only to find that the bridge was still under construction and the only paths leading on from there either took us back across the river, or along a faint trail into the woods that didn’t look too promising.

We backtracked again, grumbling the whole time about what a disaster this trip had been. I was pretty bitter about the “customer service,” or lack thereof, from the park staff. It seemed obvious to me that we should never have come in through the main park entrance, but should have instead  parked at the campground where we first turned in.    I would have thought that, having asked for a trail map when I bought my tickets, they would have told me how to get to the trails, particularly if that involved driving in my car back to another parking lot. We did finally find our way out and at least enjoyed a ride on the mini train so we got a bit of an overview of the rest of the park. Honestly, we’d walked most of it when we were trying to get to the wedding chapel in the first place, but a train ride was still kind of fun.

Before we left, I stopped at the office again and asked about the trails. The girl who handed me the map was still there, and when I asked her specifically about how to get to the trails, she tried to hand me another trail map. I opened mine up and pointed out to her that there is nothing on that map that is on this side of the park and how was I supposed to figure out where to go. I don’t think she’d ever even looked at the map.  The only trail she claimed any knowledge of was the Black Creek Trail, and for that one, she told us that we should drive back to the campground parking lot, and that you don’t have to pay the fee to hike it. I assume the entrance fee isn’t required for any of the trails, except perhaps the Gorge Trail. It sure would have been nice to have known that from the beginning.

In the end, we stumbled around for about 3 hours, covering only  about two miles. We never did walk one step on any trail on their trail map. All I can say at this point is that, while Noccalula Falls Park did have a lot to offer, I can comment on none of it from the perspective of hiking. If you’re looking for train rides, petting zoos,  historic buildings, and mini golf,  it might be for you. But if you go to hike, make sure you don’t make all of the many mistakes we made and ask lots of questions!

Quick Look: Cave Mountain Trail

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Trail Name: Cave Mountain Trail

Location: Guntersville, Alabama

Length:  2.0 miles, shorter options on loop trail

Rating: Mostly easy, with a few short steep sections

Points of interest:  Cave, marker tree, view of Guntersville Dam

Blog Post:  Cave Mountain: Under and Over

Notes:  This short loop trail has hilltop views of Lake Guntersville and a walk-in cave.  The cave is safe enough (bring two light sources!) until it narrows down to crawling height — turn around there unless you are an experienced spelunker.

Quick Look: Richard Martin Trail

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Trail Name: Richard Martin Trail

Location: Athens-Elkmont-Veto Alabama

Length:  10

Rating: Easy Rails-to-Trails path.

Points of interest:  Historic site of the Battle of Sulphur Creek Trestle, Downtown Elkmont, Fromagerie Belle Chevre , Historic Veto Methodist Church

Blog Posts: Beating the Heat: Richard Martin Trail and Veto Overridden: Richard Martin Trail

Notes:  This is a nice trail for hiking, biking, or horseback riding.

Something Better than in the Middle: Goldsmith-Schiffman Wildlife Sanctuary

Given that we like to spend time outdoors, and we at least dabble in social media, perhaps it was inevitable that we would find a way to participate in the #GoPlayHsv campaign that the City of Huntsville ran for National Parks and Recreation Month.  Throughout the month of July 2018, every day the city spotlit a different recreation activity, facility, or event.  It just so happened that the theme of the day for Saturday, July 28 was the Goldsmith-Schiffman Wildlife Sanctuary, in southeast Huntsville right on the edge of Owens Crossroads.  We’ve never been to the sanctuary, and it looked to have around 3 miles of trails, along with views of the Flint River and freshwater ponds, and maybe, if we were lucky, we might even see some turtles!  When I proposed the trip to Ruth, I knew I had her at “turtles,” since longtime readers of this blog know how she feels about them.

The Sanctuary is over 375 acres of river bottomland with fields, swamps, and sloughs  donated to the City of Huntsville in 2003 by the Goldsmith and Schiffman families.  In the roughly 15 years since then, improvements have been gradually added, though it is still very much a passive recreation site.  The rules are pretty simple:  no pets, no vehicles, no camping, no hunting, and no fishing; but yes hiking, yes biking, yes wildlife observation, and yes wildflower viewing.  There are no permanent facilities in the Sanctuary yet, though there are aspirations for an interpretive center.

Access to the Sanctuary is from one of two gravel parking lots, one off Taylor Road, and the other off U.S. Highway 431, about 1/4 mile south of the Hays Nature Preserve, on the west side of the road.  Since this was the featured theme for #GoPlayHsv for the day, we thought there might be a fair amount of interest, so we opted to head for the  Taylor Road entrance, since it seemed to have more parking.  Actually, both parking areas are fairly spacious, with room for maybe 20 vehicles in each.  Contrary to our expectations, however, we didn’t see another soul the whole time we were there, for about three hours on a Saturday morning.

The Taylor Road entrance has an ADA-compliant port-a-potty in the parking area (as a side note, there are no restroom facilities in the Highway 431 lot), and a gravel road leads the way into the Sanctuary.  A couple of picnic tables and a wildlife observation platform are in a shaded area to the left of the road, and a kiosk has a large map of the preserve and a small container with trail maps (well-stocked, so way to go, City of Huntsville!).  In about .1 mile, gates block vehicles from continuing down the gravel road, but hikers/bikers can easily continue past the gates.

The gravel road continued on to the southeast, but almost immediately after passing the gates we spotted an amazing pink lily in full bloom off the trail to the right.  There were a couple of specimens, which we later identified as resurrection lilies.  We’ve never seen these in the wild, and it’s always a treat to come across such a showy flower, especially in mid-summer when the aster family is dominating the floral landscape.  This hike was off to a promising start!  The gravel road is level and shaded, with a beaver-dammed run to the left of the road  creating pools in which small fish were darting around and snapping at insects.

At about .25 miles from the parking lot, the little run to the left swells into Jobala Pond, a tree-shaded body of still water about 250 feet across, with aquatic plants, submerged logs, and the occasional croaking bullfrog.  At about .3 miles, the sturdy James Long Memorial Bridge crosses the creek that feeds the pond, and a sign and a rustic bench mark this area as Jobala Haven observation point.  It’s a nice place to sit and listen to the frogs and bugs and birds.  It is, however, not in the place that is marked on the trail map, which has the observation point on the other side of the pond.

This is perhaps the time to mention that the trail map, posted on the kiosks and available online, is, shall we say, a bit fanciful.  Luckily, on the map the trails are superimposed on an aerial view of the Sanctuary, which make it easy to use landmarks as navigation aids.  It’s a good thing too, because as a general rule the navigational aids from this point up to the northern edge of the sanctuary are either (1) completely missing, or (2) are often misleading when they do exist.  With a couple of exceptions, everything north and east of Jobala Pond is poorly marked, when it is marked at all.  The ground truth is quite a bit different from the map, and this might be a problem if you’re out in the middle of the Sanctuary when it’s getting dark.

For example, the map suggests that a trail takes off to the left, just past the (actual) Jobala Haven observation point, roughly opposite of the Forest Glen observation point.  It might be the Tall Tupelo trail, or it might be the Primitive trail — either is possible, but this segment of the trail is not identified with a trail name on the map.  It turns out not to  matter much, as there is no signage to suggest a trail junction, and no obvious route.   This was confusing, but while we tried to figure out what was going on we had a quick look at the Forest Glen observation point, which also overlooks one end of a pond.  And out there in the middle of the pond were some slow-moving shapes, just sticking out of the water — turtles!  They were too far away to get a good look, but Ruth pronounced herself pleased at seeing several of her reptilian friends cruising around out in the sun.

After admiring the turtles, we walked east between two copses to look out into a large field.  The trail map suggested that the proposed paved greenway skirted the field to the right (southeast), but no trail exists there.  The Deer Run trail, according to the map, cuts across the field into a treeline on the east side of the field.  The “trail” consisted of a six-foot wide swath of mowed grass.  Though it did head in the correct direction, we thought it looked a little dodgy so we went back to the east side of Jobala Pond and tried to find a marked trail, or a footbed, or ribbons, or anything to suggest where we should go to join up with the Tall Tupelo or Primitive trails.  Finally, we just headed along the treeline on the edge of the field, in the approximate location of the trail marked on the map.  This grass was not recently mowed, and worse, when it had last been mowed the ground was soft, which meant that there were unpredictable ridges hiding under the long grass.  After hiking about .22 miles along the treeline, we came to a gap where we could go left to follow the Primitive trail (if indeed we could find it), or right to swing around the northwest edge of the large field on what the trail map called the Tall Tupelo trail.

After a cursory look to the left, where we didn’t spot any indication of a trail, we went right, figuring that according to the map the Tall Tupelo trail seemed to skirt the woods for a while before punching into them for a short distance.  After passing through the gap, Ruth spotted a wooden sign lurking on the edge of the woods, and on further inspection we discovered it said, “Trail,” with an arrow pointing into the woods.  It seemed a bit odd to be directed into the woods at that particular spot, but we followed the arrow and promptly found ourselves in a trackless grove, with no discernible footbed and no trail markings.

After thrashing around for a few minutes, we gave up and re-entered the field, walking along a mowed strip next to the woods.  We passed the alleged junction of the Tall Tupelo trail and a spur trail to the Tall Tupelo observation point, but there was no sign of the spur trail, so we kept moving northwest until we saw another trail sign, this time with a trail name on it.  And finally, peering into the woods, we saw a wide, but not recently maintained, track heading generally north.  Now we were on the trail for sure, and just in time as we knew this trail went through the woods for a short distance before teeing into the Deer Run trail, on the west bank of the Flint River.  The bad news:  it was only a passing fancy, as the wide trail quickly narrowed, then disappeared.  The good news:  there were some orange ribbons marking the intended path, so we went ribbon-to-ribbon for .2 miles until we finally reached the Deer Run trail.  Of course, there was no signage at the intersection, but it was clearly a trail running along the west bank of the Flint.

Now that we were out of the middle of the Sanctuary, the hiking conditions improved markedly.  The Deer Run trail is a wide dirt path at this point, and supposedly there is a Flint River observation point at the intersection of Tall Tupelo and Deer Run.  There was no sign to mark it, but you can easily make your way to the bank for river views.  We turned left (north) and walked a few yards when Ruth felt compelled to take a look at the river, and sure enough, there were two turtles sunning on a log!  I switched to my ridiculous low-budget 400mm fully manual old school telephoto lens and managed to get one usable photo before one turtle got suspicious and slipped into the water.  We’re no turtle experts, and the photo isn’t that sharp, but we think were looking at a yellow-bellied pond slider and a midland smooth softshell.  Certainly, they were different species, just from looking at the shape of the head.  The slider was a cool customer and hung out on the log until we moved on.

We continued north on the Deer Run trail for around .35 miles, crossing a bridge over a feeder creek into the Flint, then passing a wide opening on the west side of the trail that we think is the other end of the Primitive trail (you guessed it: no signage, no trail markings).  Just a few yards afterwards, the trail became a paved greenway and continued on for 100 yards or so to end at the AJ and June Brannum parking area, the northern access point for the Sanctuary.  There’s a kiosk with maps in this parking area too, and a sign marking this end of the trail as the Flint River Greenway.

Our return route was to retrace our steps along the Deer Run trail, continuing past the junction with Tall Tupelo, and winding south until the trail leaves the river and heads inland.  Just as we reached the area where we had seen the turtles, we spotted a large white bird winging down the river.  The Flint River often splits, and the bird settled in an area on the far side of a little island.  Luckily, we could still see it through the trees, and again the telephoto was pressed into service, eventually yielding a photo that makes us think this bird is an immature blue heron.  We had initially thought it was an egret, but the beak and legs are the wrong color.  As always, we’re happy to be corrected by any bird enthusiasts out there.

About .2 miles south of the Tall Tupelo-Deer Run intersection, the Deer Run trail turns away from the river and heads inland, emerging into a small field.  A low wooden sign laconically says “Trail” and points across the field, and we followed a set of tire tracks across it and through a gap between groves.  Just as we entered the northeast edge of the large field we had previously skirted in our quest to find the Tall Tupelo trail, we spotted another sign pointing into the woods on the east side of the field.  The trail map seemed to suggest that the Deer Run trail skirts the woods, then moves into them until intersecting with the Gravel Bar trail, so again we took the signage literally and followed the arrow into the woods.  Again, there was no footbed to guide us, and no ribbons either, so we figured our choice was either to walk in the field (which was not mowed here) or to bushwhack through the woods.  We tried the woods option, and quickly came across what looked like a game trail that ran above the bank of one of the river’s side channels.  This trail eventually worked its way back to the edge of the woods and the field, where we spotted a trail sign crookedly pointing back toward the river.  We took this to be the intersection with the Gravel Bar trail.

Indeed, it was the Gravel Bar trail, which is clearly an old road.  We started above the gullied roadbed for a few yards before the trail descended into the roadbed, which we then just followed to a shallow crossing of the river channel we had seen earlier on the game trail.  There’s a sizeable gravel deposit here, easily crossed at the time of our visit, though it would probably require wading during rainier times.  After crossing the side channel, the trail definitely looks like an old road, and .2 miles from the beginning of the trail, we reached a small rocky beach on a bend of the Flint River.  It was a lovely spot!  The river flowed by with a fairly sizeable current through an S-curve, with a few fallen trees to add to the degree of difficulty for anyone floating this section (which in fact we’ve done, a few years ago).  We lounged on the rocks for a while, which were just a bit too sun-warmed for good basking, and Ruth cooled her feet in the river.  While drying off, she made a new friend — a butterfly which actually took some persuasion to move along when we were ready to resume our hike.

We retraced our route along the Gravel Bar trail, where we got confirmation that we were in the right place when Ruth spotted a green and white printed sign that said “Gravel Bar Trail.”  Of course, it was eight feet up in a tree (sigh).  After returning to the Gravel Bar-Deer Run intersection, which contrary to the trail map is on the edge of the field and not in the woods, we took the only viable option – a mowed strip across the field, which is the segment of the Deer Run trail that we had first looked at just past Jobala Pond.  From there, we just retraced our steps along the gravel road back to the Taylor Road parking area.  Our total mileage for the hike, according to our GPS track, was 4 miles (well, 3.998 if you want to get specific).

This Sanctuary is a terrific resource, and we were a little sad to be the only people there on a Saturday morning.  I’ve been pretty harsh on the discrepancies between the trail map and the ground truth, and the trail signage can be most charitably described as aspirational, but if you confine your hike to either end of the Sanctuary you’ll get an easy, level, shaded walk with water and wildlife views.  We saw quite a few wildflowers in bloom, including monkeyflower, trumpet creeper, creeping water primrose, blue mistflower, and the excellently-named purple-headed sneezeweed, not to mention those extraordinary resurrection lilies.

If you don’t take the trail map too literally, and make sure you’re there in broad daylight, you can have a fine ramble through several different habitats.  When the paved greenway is completed, the interpretive center is in place, and the natural surface trails are better developed and marked, this urban sanctuary will be a real showplace for the city.


Quick Look: Ziplining at Lake Guntersville State Park

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Trail Name: Screaming Eagle (zipline canopy tours)

Location: Guntersville, Alabama

Length:  Two options – (1) 10 zips and 4 adventure bridges; (2) 7 additional zips and more sky bridges

Rating: Easy, but there are age and weight limits

Points of interest:  canopy tour, forest and unsurpassed lake views, 2100 ft long zipline, increasingly alarming sky bridges

Blog Posts: Fly Like an Eagle: Zipline Adventures II

Notes:  Super fun zipline adventure in Lake Guntersville State Park is a great way to cool off.  With two options, you can spend around two hours on the first 10 zips and adventure bridges, or add another 90 minutes or so to do the longer and higher zips.  Reservations are highly recommended, and please pay close attention to the weight/age/medical limits and advice on what to bring and wear (restrictions on shoes are especially important).  See the link below for details.

Screaming Eagle website:  Screaming Eagle Aerial Adventure

Norris Dam State Park: More than We’d Bargained for

In my last post, I mentioned that Chet and I spent a weekend in a cabin at Norris Dam State Park.  I have to admit that this Tennessee state park was not one I knew much, if anything, about. Based on the fact that it was at a dam, it was pretty safe to assume someplace on a river. Some hazy memory made me place it in the eastern part of the state as opposed to the western or central part, though the “on a river clue” could have put me in almost any part of the state. Turns out, this park is on the Clinch River just north and a little west of Knoxville. We picked the park for our weekend getaway because it had an available cabin in our price range, was not too terribly far away, and had the promise of some hiking trails in the area. That’s about all we actually knew before we started heading up there. As it turns out, there’s a little bit of something for everybody there!

First things first, the state park itself. Originally a “demonstration recreational project” owned by TVA, the more historic eastern half of the park features 19 rustic cabins, a campground, a Tea Room, and hiking trails. There is also easy access to the Norris Dam Visitor’s Center. The cabins were built by CCC Company 4493 starting around 1933 – at about the same time as Norris Dam was being built. They are all small one room affairs but “rustic” is kind of a misleading name. While they are old and small, all have a bathroom, air conditioning, television, and a kitchenette. The cabin we stayed in, cabin 20, sleeps two and had plenty of room. Granted, the bathroom was pretty tiny, but once you figured out where you needed to stand to close the door, it worked just fine. The cabin also came with a lovely screened in front porch, complete with rocking chairs and a bench swing. It also had an indoor fireplace and an outdoor fire pit that I can imagine are delightful when it’s not a million degrees outside. The cabins are arranged around a loop road around a wooded ridge top. There was a playground within walking distance, and a Little Free Library by the kiosk near the top of the loop. Many of the hiking trails on the eastern side of the park are reachable either directly from this area, or from a short spur trail. We checked out the Tea Room, which is a beautiful  space used now mostly for events, and also drove to the campground to check it out. There’s much to like about the eastern side of the park, but I do have to say that campground is not included on that list. The campground on this side is pretty much just an open area in a power line cut. There are no trees, and while there are bathhouses and I think a playground area, it just didn’t look inviting at all. TVA sold the park to the State of Tennessee in 1953. The State turned it into a state park, also buying up and developing land on the west side. The final piece to the park was put in place in 1986 when they gained control of the marina close to the dam. The western part of the park is home to the park office, a public pool, 10 three bedroom cabins built in the 1970s,  a very nice 50 spot, shady campground, and more hiking trails. If you’re looking to camp, I’d definitely recommend the western side.

Though we picked a spot where we could hike, we’ve already covered the hiking aspect of our trip in previous blog posts. So other than hiking, what else is there to do? Well, here’s a sampling of what we did or thought about doing:

  • Being beer-lovers and beer-brewers, we always are on the lookout for local breweries to try out. Clinch River Brewing is the only craft brewery in Anderson County, and it just so happened to be about 8 minutes down the road from our cabin. This place has been open only since 2017 but boasts 16 taps – 15 featuring their own brews and 1 they use to rotate in Gypsy Circus cider or mead. They have an interesting space – it used to be the home of the TVA Aquatics Laboratory – with indoor and outdoor seating areas. They also have an onsite chef who prepares a selection of small bites, sandwiches, and a dessert or two. We greatly appreciated the fact that they brew all different styles of beer. We sampled a stout, a porter, a Belgian dark strong, an IPA, a hefeweizen, and a lager.
  • You can’t really visit Norris Dam State Park without visiting Norris Dam itself, if only to pull into the overlooks and gawk. The first project ever started by TVA, Norris Dam was begun in 1933, just months after TVA was born.  At its peak, 2,750 people worked on the dam, working in four shifts so that there was around the clock construction. It cost $32 million and took three years to complete.  The resulting lake, Norris Lake, flooded 33, 840 acres of land, required the relocation of  2,899 families and the moving of more than 5,000 graves. Despite the relocations and the flooding, though, the dam also brought a whole new standard of living to what had been a very rural and even impoverished area of the country. We checked out the visitor’s center during our hike, then also drove to the overviews above the dam to the west, and below the dam on the Clinch River.
  • Another local attraction is outside the park, but close by. The Museum of Appalachia is a living history museum begun in 1969 by John Rice Irwin. A native of the area, Mr. Irwin traveled the back roads collecting interesting artifacts of everyday life in Appalachia. His intent was to preserve the history of the area, but also to provide a place that would foster a sense of community. The museum is 65 acres filled with relocated cabins, barns, various farm outbuildings, a church, and a schoolhouse. Some of the more famous buildings include the cabin used during the filming of the “Dan’l Boone” TV series (despite being used for TV, the cabin was originally built in the 1800s in Anderson County) and the cabin where Mark Twain’s family lived before they moved to Missouri.  There are also two large spaces – the Hall of Fame and the Display Barn – filled to the brim with exhibits. What I loved most about these exhibits was how they treated everything with equal respect. There were displays about the famous Sgt. Alvin York, hero of World War I, next to displays about the guy who raised his family in a hollow sycamore tree. Panels about Secretary of State Cordell Hull were given only a little more space than those for “Tater Hole Joe” – a guy who, well,  lived in a hole. I was also delighted to see a display about Cas Walker – someone I remember seeing in commercials on TV when I was young. Lamar Alexander –  former governor of Tennessee, current US Senator, and onetime presidential candidate from my hometown of Maryville, Tennessee also got a nice display. His momma Flo would have been proud. Chet especially enjoyed the musical instruments exhibit in the Hall of Fame. There, we found everything from a banjo made from the jawbone of a favorite mule, to instruments played by the famous Carter family. It’s a fascinating place, and deserved much more than the couple of hours we allotted to it.
  • We’re always on the looking for a good local place to eat, and the nearby town of Rocky Top (yes, that’s really the name) answered the call with Coal Creek Smokehouse. This family owned barbeque place served up the normal selection of BBQ items – sandwiches, pork plates, brisket, pork belly – but it also has a vegetarian option, turkey or ham BLTs, roast beef, stuffed potatoes, or their specialty “burnt ends.” The town of Coal Creek is an interesting place. Settled shortly after the area opened up for settlements in 1798, it started life as Coal Creek. In 1890, it was the site of a notorious armed labor uprising called the Coal Creek War, where local coal miners rioted because Tennessee was cutting deals with the mining company for cheap convict labor. In 1936, when Norris Dam was completed, creating Lake Norris, the town changed its name to Lake City. Most recently, in 2014 the town successfully petitioned to change its name to “Rocky Top” in a bid to gain some kind of commercial advantage off the UT fight song.


  • Another park-related attraction is the Lenoir Museum Cultural Complex. I’ll be honest, we had a bit of museum overload with the Museum of Appalachia, so we skipped the actual Lenoir Museum, but we did visit the other two historic buildings in the complex. The Caleb Crosby Threshing Barn was built in the 1830s on the Holston River. When the land it was on was flooded by Cherokee Lake in the 1940s (another TVA dam project – this one the Cherokee Dam), the barn was disassembled and then donated to the National Park Service. The Park Service declined to move it to the closest National Park – Great Smoky Mountains National Park – because no barn like it had ever existed inside the park boundaries. The barn sat in storage until 1978, when somebody had the bright idea to donate to Norris Lake State Park. It was reassembled on Clear Creek just downstream from Norris Dam. Right next to the barn is the Rice Gristmill. Built in 1798 along Lost Creek in Union County, this mill was used by several generations of the Rice family until Norris Dam flooded the land it was on. It was moved to Clear Creek in 1935.
  • We didn’t take advantage of the pool at Norris Lake State Park, but we did take a look at it as we were checking out. It is a nice large pool with what looked like a baby pool off to one side. For those who just want to keep an eye on the kiddos, there are plenty of tables and chaise lounges scattered around on multiple levels.  It’s open to the public for $5 a person, and if you are a park guest (i.e. camping there or staying in one of the cabins) you can get in for $3 a person. It’s open Wednesday through Sunday from 10-6. Weirdly, the sign said that it closes for the season on August 2nd.
  • Finally, besides all the amenities, the park has all sorts of  planned activities to keep everybody busy. When we were there, the park was having a “40 on the 4th” special event. I don’t know if this is a yearly event or something special just for 2018, but when we checked in we got a 16 page booklet listing all the activities available between June 25th and July 1st. They had everything from ranger-guided hikes, to live snake demonstrations, to craft activities, to a lake cruise, to fireworks. It was very impressive.

We honestly hadn’t asked for much from the place we picked to spend the weekend. All we wanted was a reasonably priced cabin and some hiking trails. We got that, but we got so much more than we expected.