Unexpected Beauty: Pink Beds Loop

When Chet suggested that we hike the Pink Beds Loop, I was frankly a little uninspired by what I’d read about the place. It is a loop hike with no waterfalls (in the Land Of Waterfalls!), it is relatively flat and probably didn’t have great mountain views. What was the appeal? However, since we were actually avoiding waterfall hikes until Chet’s camera lens was repaired (see Going Native: Greenland Creek Falls for what happened to his camera) this did seem like a good time to do a hike like this. We set off one weekday morning for the trailhead, which is an easy 30 minute drive from our house, up into a part of the Pisgah National Forest we hadn’t really explored much yet. Parking was no problem – there is a large picnic area at the trailhead and the Forest Service has thoughtfully provided a large number of parking spaces to accommodate both hikers and picnickers. They also provided bathrooms, which unfortunately are currently closed. We checked out the pretty wooden relief style map of the trail at the trailhead and were soon on our way. 01trail_map Just a few hundred feet from the kiosk in the parking lot we came to the split in the trail – the base of the “lollypop” if you will. We opted to go right here – counter clockwise – since the trail info Chet had downloaded from AllTrails went that way. We walked only a short ways before we came to a footbridge that took us safely over a little creek without getting our feet wet.  Pink Beds Trail navigates through a high and relatively flat valley – sitting at about 3200 feet in elevation. It’s also a very wet area, with most of the trail running between and sometimes over Bearwallow Brook and the South Fork of Mills River. This particular combination of attributes – high up in the mountains, but flat, with lots of water, actually means that there are rare mountain bogs and some pretty interesting flowers, if you’re lucky. The trail past the first footbridge is broad and graveled, bordered on each side by tangles of rhododendron and mountain laurel. Originally, the name of this area came from the many pink wildflowers that bloomed here. Now, most of the flowers that bloom here are actually not pink, except for the mountain laurel (which is a very light pink and could be mistaken for white) and sometimes a Catawba rhododendron (which can be a very deep pink). The Forest Service calls the name “historical.” 08footbed We ambled along, passing massive mushrooms, tangles of swamp dewberry and logs blanketed in deep green moss sprinkled throughout the woods. 6_MossyLog Soon we came to a boardwalk that crossed over a much more open area, which allowed loads of different sun-loving flowers to flourish. We spotted Joe Pye weed, cutleaf coneflower, elderberry and lobelias galore. After the boardwalk it was back into woods again, this time in an area just full of huge painted trillium – not in bloom at this time of year, of course, but unmistakable because of their bright red berries. In northern Alabama and even just next door in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, painted trillium seemed to us to be something of a rarity. There, most of the trillium we spotted were “Sweet Betsy”s – the red toad shades. Here, painted trillium seem to be everywhere! I can’t wait to come back in the spring when they’re in bloom. 34painted_trillium_fruit We continued on through the deep green woods, over a bridge made from a massive log, and through some big boulders, spotting blooming rhododendron and a new one for us, featherbells. We stopped for lunch where the Barnett Branch Trail intersects with the Pink Beds Loop. A long wooden walkway across the wetlands next to and across the South Fork Mills River there was the perfect spot to sit. After lunch, we continued on, passing the point where the Barnett Branch Trail, which had joined the Pink Beds Loop for a bit, peels off and continues to the east, and then the Pink Beds Connector – a spur trail out to South Mills River Road. The character of the trail soon changed yet again, and we found ourselves in an area that was a bit more open. Ferns absolutely blanketed the ground, here and there decorated with bunches of Carolina phlox, healall, downy lobelia, or bright red crimson bee balm. I happened to glance down and just off the trail at one point and was excited to see a small stand of Indian pipe. This ghostly pale flower requires just the right conditions to grow, and so though it has a large, nearly worldwide, distribution, actually spotting it growing is a rare thing for me. Just past the Indian pipe, we saw a glowing orange flower in the trees – a Carolina Lily. These are not rare either but didn’t grow in Alabama so I’m still new enough to this area to get very excited when I see them here. 37_Ferns We continued on, going around what I thought of as the “top end” of our loop and then coming back along the other side of the loop, past where the Barnett Trail crosses on that side. We came to a crossing of Bearwallow Brook, and were so busy making silly comments about hoping the bears weren’t actually wallowing here and laughing at how hilarious we are, that when we came out of the trees on the other side I was taken totally by surprise by a stunning field of brilliant red crimson bee balm. We’d seen some bee balm earlier, but it was only a couple of flowers, and they weren’t very tall. This stand flourished on both sides of the trail and the flowers stood nearly head high. It was a gorgeous sight! 57_BeeBalm Past the bee balm the trail is drier and more open, so we passed beside meadows full of sunflowers, blackberry bushes, and clover before coming to one final glorious patch of Indian pipe near the end of the trail. All in all, we hiked about 5 miles. Our GPS stopped tracking for some reason for a while at the beginning of the hike, so the captured track shows a straight line from the beginning to about our lunch spot, cutting off quite a bit of mileage. I’ll still post it for the rest of the track. Having walked this trail now, I’m now a fan. It is absolutely gorgeous, and so full of rare or at least new-to-me flowers even in late summer that it ranks among one of my favorites. I didn’t expect to be blown away, but I most certainly was. I’ll leave you with a slideshow of some of the 36 (!) different flowers we saw along the trail.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Rainbows and Reptiles: Two Waterfalls at Gorges State Park

About a year ago on one of our reconnaissance trips to Brevard, we thought we’d visit a couple of the waterfalls in nearby Gorges State Park. We were there on Labor Day weekend, while the state was slowly coming out of lockdown. We had a leisurely start to the day, cruising on over to the park around 10 a.m. on a Sunday. What fools we were! It was a surprise to arrive, only to be turned away because the park was already full (i.e., all parking lots were full). We had to scramble to come up with an alternative plan to make a couple of short waterfall hikes over in the Pisgah National Forest. This turned out well, except for getting caught in a horrible traffic jam on Highway 276 on our way back. So, lessons learned: (1) North Carolina was actually serious about shutting down their parks during the COVID peak, a laughable notion to us Alabamians; and (2) in this town, going anywhere on Labor Day weekend would be out of the question.

So for nearly a year, we’ve been plotting our revenge. Well, that’s overstating it, since we were actually the ones at fault. But we have been motivated to take care of this unfinished business, and more to the point, this is a deservedly popular hike in a beautiful state park. The distance and difficulty would work well with our return to hiking, and after our previous hike in which we’d seen two waterfalls, a somewhat insistent rat snake, and a black bear in just a couple of miles, we were eager to get out there again.

We headed out early on a weekday morning in August, timing our arrival for around 9 a.m. to avoid the hordes. This turned out to be overkill, as the pandemic had eased by then and we weren’t hiking on a holiday weekend. Our plan was to hike the Rainbow Falls trail to the eponymous waterfall and continue on to Turtleback Falls. As shown on the map, Gorges State Park has two entrances, and access to this trail is from the Grassy Ridge park entrance off state highway 281 in the Sapphire community. After a quick visit to the restrooms at the visitor center, we joined about five other vehicles in the spacious paved parking lot near the kiosks in the southwest corner. After perusing the info on the kiosks (as we do on every hike), we set off down a graveled trail into the woods.

The trail is double-blazed at its start, with round orange blazes to indicate the Rainbow Falls trail and round blue blazes for the Raymond Fisher trail. At 0.3 miles, the Raymond Fisher trail splits off to the southeast, leading to a pond and a former backcountry campsite that has been permanently closed. The park is building a new developed campground, planned for opening in Fall 2021. We followed the orange blazes and excellent signage to head westward and downhill. The broad trail wound back to the north before bending west again and crossing the boundary into Pisgah National Forest at about 0.8 miles. This was a mild surprise, as we didn’t realize the waterfalls themselves are on National Forest land.

As soon as the trail enters the national forest, the graveled footbed becomes more of a natural surface but retains its width. Shortly past the state park/national forest border, the trail bends slightly to the right in a heavily eroded section and begins to descend into a hollow, with the Horsepasture River paralleling the trail to the south. At the bottom of the descent there’s an unbridged creek crossing, easily forded under normal circumstances. There’s a nice backcountry campsite off to the right of the trail, though it would rate pretty low for solitude.

The trail flanks the river, heading upstream, with occasional views and access to the water. This section of the trail sported more wildflowers than we had seen previously, with some of the rhododendrons in full bloom. At about 1.5 miles, the trail begins an uphill climb, with the roar of a powerful waterfall growing as you ascend. We emerged from the woods into an open area, with Rainbow Falls in all its 150-foot glory off to our left, framed by sunflowers and smooth phlox.

A wooden fence along one side of the trail protects hikers from a drop into the chasm. The trail continues toward the waterfall, splitting just past the end of the wooden fence. To the left, the trail descends to a viewing platform, passing very close to the waterfall itself. We followed a track down to the bottom of the waterfall, though it’s probably not part of the official trail, and required more care than the groomed trail we had been on to this point. However, from the platform or the bottom of the fall you are more likely to understand why the waterfall is so named.

After being cooled by the mists roaring off Rainbow Falls, we climbed back up to the main trail to the fenced area. We had one more waterfall to visit, which is reached by taking the trail that splits off to the right at the end of the fenced area. This orange-blazed trail continues upstream of Rainbow Falls. For obvious reasons, there are warning signs and fences to discourage anyone from taking a notion of going for a swim at the top of Rainbow Falls. Sadly, these warnings are necessary due to recent fatalities.

At approximately 1.65 miles from the trailhead, Turtleback Falls is visible on the left side of the trail. This is a waterfall of a less dramatic type, a cascade in which the Horsepasture River drops over a natural waterslide that’s about 20 feet tall from top to plunge pool. It’s a popular place for cooling off, though we didn’t see anyone sliding down the fall on our visit. The Forest Service flatly says you shouldn’t swim here, because if the water levels are up, the combination of swift current and slippery footing has caused many people to be swept toward (or over) Rainbow Falls.

We sat on a rock overlooking Turtleback Falls and had our lunch, before saddling back up for the return trip along the same route. A third waterfall, Drift Falls, is farther upstream but isn’t included on the state park’s map, and it’s very close to if not actually on private property, so we decided we’d end our hike at Turtleback. Our GPS conked out around here, but since this was the turnaround point for our hike we figure we covered a total of 3.3 miles out and back. We met quite a few more people on our return trip, and indeed the parking lot was nearly full upon our return.

The waterfalls were the showiest features of the hike, but there were botanical and zoological pleasures as well. At various parts of the trail we identified Indian cucumber root and false solomon’s seal fruiting, downy rattlesnake plantain and St. Andrews’s cross in bloom, and naked flowered tick trefoil in its last stages of blooming, as well as identifying galax and Shuttleworth’s ginger by their foliage. And only about a quarter-mile from the parking lot, sharp-eyed Ruth spotted movement just off the trail to our right — it was a little foot-long ring-necked snake! So that made two hikes in a row with snake sightings. The little fellow wanted nothing to do with us and was quickly hiding under the leaf litter.

With the wildflowers, waterfalls, and reptile sighting, our first successful visit to Gorges State Park was a triumph, and now that we’ve cracked the code we’ll be out there soon on another non-holiday weekday, as early as we can make it. What wonders await?

Going Native: Greenland Creek Falls

We’ve been fairly well moved in here in our new home for a little while now, and we figured it was high time we went out and did a hike on a “natural surface” again. We’re a bit out of shape since we haven’t hiked as regularly as we used to, so we wanted a fairly easy (and short) nearby hike, but we wanted to step it up from our last outing on paved trails. We decided on a hike to Greenland Creek Falls in the Panthertown Valley area. The route we selected started at the Cold Mountain parking lot, went down Greenland Creek Trail to the falls, then came back via Mac’s Gap Trail for a total hike of about 2 miles.

We got to the trailhead without any issues and found a bigger parking lot than I was expecting. Having been turned away once at Gorges State Park because we arrived late enough that the park was full when we got there, we made sure to leave early enough to make the trailhead by around 9:00 am. At that hour, there were a few cars in the lot already, but also plenty of spaces available. Maybe we’re getting the hang of this area! We booted and backpacked up, and then I wandered over to check out the kiosk. There, we saw several signs about what to do if you saw a bear, mostly aimed at folks who planned to camp overnight. Hmm. We have never really had to worry much about bears before, but I’ve noticed quite a few reports of bears in people’s back yards all around us. Perhaps we should invest in some bear spray. We didn’t have any with us, so we planned to just be loud enough to encourage a bear to go the other way.

The kiosk is actually at the junction of two trails. To the right and uphill, a trail leads to Schoolhouse Falls. Our route took us the other way – around a large metal gate blocking off what used to be an old road. As it turned out, this was a disastrous obstacle for us because as Chet stepped around the gate and past the boulder further blocking the way, the camera slung around his neck swung into a metal piece sticking out of the gate. It sheared off the mechanism that keeps the lens on, but also apparently did something very bad to the camera body itself. It simply would not take pictures at all, even using a different lens. Chet fussed with it for a bit to see if he could get it to come back to life, but finally just gave up and put it back in the truck. We went ahead on our hike, though Chet was sure the waterfall pictures would not be very good, having only an iPhone camera (and an older model one at that) to work with. Still, we wanted to get out on a natural footbed again and enjoy some outdoor time.

The “hikers only” Greenland Creek Trail starts off briefly on the old road, then veers into the woods and up to a power-line cut, where I spotted a nice nearly-ripe blackberry bush in the open area around the tower. Past the power-line cut, the trail dives back into a mixed forest liberally carpeted with ferns and heads steadily, but not too steeply, downhill. We enjoyed the peace and quiet, and tested out a new app we’d downloaded – Merlin Bird ID. This one lets you record birdsong, then uses AI to suggest what it might be. It’s run by Cornell Lab, and can identify 7,500 species. It does a better job if it knows where you are, and I hadn’t figured out how to set our location ahead of time, so it put up some guesses, but also disclosed that without a known location it might not be so accurate. Still, its guesses seemed pretty reasonable to me – a hawk, a northern parula, a warbler, and a vireo.

About a third of a mile down the trail, Chet pointed out some pink flagging heading off to the right. He’d been looking for it because he’d read online that this was a side trail to a small waterfall called Mac’s Falls. We took the path to the right through rhododendron, galax, and more ferns and soon found ourselves at the falls. They are pretty, but very difficult to get a good picture of. We didn’t spend a lot of time there.

After another quarter of a mile downhill, Greenland Creek Trail joins up with Mac’s Gap Trail. The combined trail allows hikers and also bikers, but no horses. This stretch of trail was much more level, being creekside, and had a nice sometimes sandy footbed. Mac’s Gap peels off to the right in just a tenth of a mile, and we continued on Greenland Creek towards the main falls. Nearly every time we talk about hiking to non-hikers, the thing they are most afraid of is coming across a snake in the woods. Chet and I have hiked a lot, and though we’ve come across a few, it’s really pretty rare. They are usually pretty motivated to stay out of sight and out of our way. That’s why we were so surprised to come across a really large snake just casually chillin out off the trail near a campfire ring. This one was a rat snake of some sort, and not at all frightened of us, but also not at all interested in coming after us. Rat snakes are constrictors, not really biters, and like to eat things like mice and bird eggs. We admired him for a bit from a safe distance and then headed on down the trail.

Mr. Rat Snake

The next section of trail was in some ways the most challenging. Though it was still pretty level, it was very very muddy. Finding a path that would keep us from losing a boot to the mud was challenging. Maybe I’m exaggerating just a little, but the mud was pretty deep in some spots! We made it through, though, and after a couple of easy creek crossings (and a bit more mud) we came to the main event, Greenland Creek Falls. It’s a beautiful double level waterfall that drops about 50 feet and ends up in a pretty little plunge pool. The water is clear, but a bit tea colored. We had the spot all to ourselves and spent a bit of time while we ate lunch just admiring the view.

As we were finishing up, we heard another group coming up to the falls – the first people we’d seen on the trail all day! We packed up and left them to enjoy the solitude as we’d been able to, but soon met a few more folks heading to the falls. As far as solitude went, going early seems to be the way to go! We retraced our steps back through the mud, and checked for Mr. Rat Snake, hoping he’d have moved on. He wasn’t in that clearing, but we soon discovered he’d just moved back down the trail a bit and was now stretched right across it. We cut through the woods to get around him without disturbing him, then headed on back to the first Mac’s Gap Trail junction, admiring the massive trilliums and pretty mushrooms along the way.

The section of Mac’s Gap Trail past the combined portion looks to be an old roadbed, which made the climb back up a nice gradual one. Though this trail is marked as being moderate, and though Chet and I are pretty out of shape after not hiking much in the last few months, we found this trail to be pretty easy. As we walked along, we noticed more mushrooms, but also some stands of common heal-all and pokeweed.

Soon we were back at the top, on the road that leads to the parking lot. We turned left and headed uphill to get to the lot, noting that a lot more cars were parked along the road and in the lot than had been here when we arrived. We’d had a nice short hike, (2.3 miles by our GPS track) and other than the bad luck with the camera we felt pretty good about things. Out of shape as we were, we felt fine and like we could have gone a long ways farther. That was encouraging. However, this little outing wasn’t quite done with its surprises yet. As we drove down the road back towards Lake Toxaway, we came around a curve to find a black bear just ambling down the road! Being new to western North Carolina, we’re not yet jaded about spotting bears, so there was much fumbling for iPhones as we tried to capture this moment on film (so to speak). Mr. (or Ms.) Bear was not terribly interested in us, and simply headed off the side of the road and up a log, probably looking for a mid-day snack. We stayed safely in the truck and watched for a couple of minutes before heading on home for our own mid-day snack. I told my friends that I felt like I was a real North Carolinian now, having seen a bear, a snake, and taken a “real” hike!

This Cradle Rocks!

Well, hello there dear readers! It has been a minute since you’ve heard from us. When we last posted in mid-May, we were putting our house in north Alabama on the market and preparing for a move to western North Carolina (WNC, as the natives here call it). For a while afterwards, our lives were a whirlwind of packing and unpacking, but we’re now getting established in beautiful Brevard, as astute reader KT correctly guessed.

So we are often asked, why Brevard? We retired in December 2020, and since then we’ve wanted to move closer to our beloved Appalachian mountains, and also closer to our beloved family. We wanted a small town with ready access to a larger city, and after a couple of years of scouting and on the ground research, Brevard just felt like it could be home. We’re within a half hour’s drive of Gorges State Park, DuPont State Forest, and Pisgah National Forest, so this is a target-rich environment for hikers. The town has a population of around 8,000 and is known for its iconic white squirrels. It also features at least five local microbreweries/taprooms, two excellent bakeries, an outstanding public library, an extraordinary toy store, a lively arts scene, a renowned music center, and no doubt other charms we have yet to discover.

Once we had finished the move and recovered from nagging move-related injuries, we were itching to get outdoors and get on a trail. Since we hadn’t hiked in a while, we decided to pick something local and easy-peasy since we were in our WNC hiking infancy. The Cradle of Forestry in America was an obvious choice.

The Cradle of Forestry is the site of the nation’s first forestry school, founded in 1898 by Carl Schenck on the Biltmore Estate. Biltmore, in case you didn’t know, is the Vanderbilt family estate, built on 125,000 acres in Asheville, and the home is still the largest privately-owned house in the U.S. George Vanderbilt II started buying property in the 1880s, and built his house from 1889-1905. In 1895, Vanderbilt replaced his then-forester, Gifford Pinchot, and hired Schenck as his successor. Schenck had just completed his PhD in forestry in Germany. After working on the estate for three years, Schenck discovered that there was a critical need for forestry education, and with Vanderbilt’s permission he opened the Biltmore Forestry School. The site of the school is now a part of the Pisgah National Forest, and many original buildings have been preserved on a 6,500 acre tract.

As a hiking destination, the Cradle of Forestry is a great place for children and folks with mobility issues — three paved trails, varying in length from 1.0 to 1.3 miles. All three trails start behind the Forest Discovery Center, which contains exhibits, a theatre that shows an introductory video, restrooms, a cafe (closed at the time of our visit), and a gift shop. We hiked all three trails, and since this required some duplication we estimate that we covered around 3.7 miles. The three trails are essentially loops, two of which interlock, so you can assemble walks of various lengths.

Our approach on this hike was to first complete the Forest Festival trail, then slightly backtrack to complete the Forest Discovery trail. Both trails are reached by turning right after leaving the back door of the Forest Discovery Center. The Forest Festival trail begins at this point, and continues for 1.3 miles before closing a lollipop loop. Named for an event Schenck organized in 1908 to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the forestry school, this trail is jam-packed with points of interest throughout its length. Almost immediately, the trail passes a pollinator nest and a moon tree (in this case a sycamore). Moon trees, in case you’ve never heard the term, are trees sprouted from seeds carried on the Apollo 14 mission in 1971. 500 seeds were carried into space and orbited the moon before being returned to Earth, where most were germinated and eventually planted at various locations in the US and worldwide.

The red-blazed Forest Festival trail winds past the side of the building and quickly enters the woods. Signage along the trail describes the Forest Festival and various aspects of forestry practiced on the estate. Though youngsters may not find the signs all that compelling, shortly afterwards there’s a display of animal tracks reproduced in concrete, so you can identify the tracks you might find along the trail (but not actually on the trail, since it’s paved).

The trail splits as it enters an open area with demonstration seedling beds reflecting the research carried on at the forestry school. We took the fork to the right, re-entering the woods and passing a small pond. The trail occasionally transitions from asphalt to boardwalks in particularly damp stretches. The rhododendrons were in bloom here, shading the trail.

The next point of interest is a portable sawmill, complete with steam engine to power it. Schenck’s philosophy of forestry was not conservation-focused. Instead, it was a scientific approach for generating the maximum amount of forest products in a sustainable way, which allied with his employer’s goal. The sawmill is a reminder of this pragmatic approach.

As we reached the sawmill, we could hear a bell ringing in the distance. Soon afterwards, we reached the source of the sound, and the highlight of this particular trail: a shelter housing a Climax steam locomotive dating from 1914. Steps allow access to the cab, where you can pull a rope to ring the bell. While this particular locomotive didn’t work this property, it’s typical of the era. Restrooms are located on one side of the shelter. The trail passes through the shelter along a stretch of rails, with a derrick car with a log loader just down the tracks, then curves under the rails and passes a building foundation on the left.

The last segment of the Forest Festival trail passes two more items of interest: a couple of horse-drawn road graders and a trout nursery, which is still in limited operation. These artifacts are applicable to the forestry school, as roads were essential in extracting timber, and aquaculture and farming were also necessary activities.

After passing the trout nursery, we arrived back at the fork of the Forest Festival trail and briefly backtracked to reach the western trailhead of the Forest Discovery trail. This trail has a different focus from the Forest Festival trail. While the Forest Festival trail is full of artifacts and man-made points of interest, the 1.3 mile Forest Discovery trail is free of signage and interpretation. The trail is paved, but unlike the Forest Festival trail has some moderate elevation change and is described as moderate on the trail signs. We didn’t find it particularly physically challenging, but enjoyed gaining a little altitude and solitude. At one point the trail crosses a cascade, where I made the unwelcome forest discovery that horseflies like this cascade and will bite you if you tarry here.

The eastern end of the Forest Discovery trail intersects the Forest Festival trail near the locomotive, so we repeated our route back to the Forest Discovery Center. From here, we continued past the building (passing a small garden of native plants, including an amazing Stokes aster) to the Biltmore Campus trail. This 1.0 mile trail passes through the campus of the Biltmore Forestry School, quickly coming to the heart of the campus, the schoolhouse. The wood-shingled building contains benches and tables, wood flooring, and exposed planks on the walls and ceiling, with a fireplace and a chalkboard on one end. The students were literally encased in wood. A hitching post stands outside, where the students tied their horses. Lectures were typically held in the morning, with practical training conducted outdoors in the afternoon, rain or shine.

The Biltmore Campus trail then winds through the woods and passes through a tunnel under US Highway 276. After emerging and climbing for a few yards the trail splits, with an arrow directing walkers to the right. Two historic buildings stand here: the commissary and a ranger residence. The commissary is set up as it may have appeared during the school’s heyday, with dry goods behind a counter, mailboxes in a corner, and a checkers game set up by the window.

Ranger George Gillespie and his family lived in the ranger’s residence, a very substantial house. They boarded eight forestry school students in two rooms upstairs, accessible via an exterior staircase on the house’s front porch. The house is furnished appropriately for the era of the forest school.

After passing through a wooded stretch, the trail passes Schenck’s office, a converted barn. This tall and narrow building was the business operations center for Schenck, his secretary, and bookkeeper. Since this was the first forestry school in the US, it follows that there were no textbooks, so Schenck wrote and published his lectures, printing them himself in this building to supply to his students. Reprints of his lectures are still available. The trail continues around a bend, with restrooms off the trail to the right, and the Rock House Creek Lodge to the left. The Lodge was one of 14 on the Vanderbilt estate built to house rangers charged with protecting the property from locals, who harbored the peculiar notion that they could help themselves to Vanderbilt’s timber. Unlike other buildings on the trail, this one offers only a couple of vantage points for views into the interior.

Just past the lodge, the trail crosses a creek on a bridge then passes the blacksmith’s shop. If it looks like it could be put into use today, that’s because it can. Pre-COVID, the Cradle of Forestry held living history events that included demonstrations of blacksmithing and other crafting. The forge is patiently waiting for the blacksmith to pick up the hammer once again.

The last part of the loop passes a cabin that had been converted into student housing, affectionately (?) known to its inhabitants as the “Hell Hole.” Schenck didn’t put any effort into finding housing for his students — he’d simply tell the new arrivals “find yourself a place to stay.” This particular two-room cabin has a sitting room in the front and sleeping bunks in the back. The Biltmore Campus trail then passes one of the school’s gardens and the site of the school’s open-air laundry before closing the loop.

After returning to the Forest Discovery Center, we watched the orientation video and looked over the exhibits, which include a full-size firefighting helicopter simulator. You’ll need a stout stick to fight your way in, if our experience was typical, so we didn’t try it ourselves. If you want to try your luck, thanks to the forestry school there’s no shortage of stout sticks around.

Though it’s not really a hard-core hiking destination, the Cradle of Forestry offers some easy walks in a natural setting, with many opportunities for historical education. A modest admission charge applies. The Cradle is open mid-April through early November, and like many attractions and shops in the area, has a quirky schedule (it’s closed on Tuesdays).

So that was our first blog-worthy adventure since moving to Brevard, but we’ve been out since on a few more moderate hikes, working our way back up to longer mileage and elevation changes. Since we’re well and truly retired now, our blogging is going to be sporadic, instead of weekly, but we’ve more stories to tell and photos to share, so stay tuned!

And So It Begins

Last week, we broke a streak of posting new content, or at least a quick look, every Wednesday on Woodlands and Waters. We missed our deadline again this week. So what’s up with us?

Well, we have been busy over these last several weeks. We both retired in December 2020, and since then we’ve been slowly decluttering the house and working on long put-off projects. It has been our plan for quite some time to move to western North Carolina to be closer to family and the mountains, and it made sense to try to time the move for the spring house-selling season. The real estate market has been incredible in most parts of the country, and the same holds true in the Huntsville, Alabama area.

So our lives recently have been a blur of painting, carpentry, pressure washing, weeding, mulching, carpet installation (we paid someone else to do that!), and sorting through the accumulated detritus of living in this house for 25 years. We finally got the place ready for photos this past Monday, and it went on the market Thursday. So now we’re just waiting on the offers to come rolling in!

So what’s next? Assuming we get an acceptable offer, that will start the clock for our move to North Carolina. We’ve already rented a place there, so now we’re straddling two worlds — the past in Alabama and the future in North Carolina. Now our retirement plan shifts into a new mode: preparing for the move. That will entail the logistics of moving the contents of the house and storage unit into a smaller house and a different storage unit hundreds of miles away. Somehow, I don’t think we’re going to find ourselves with much idle time in the next few weeks.

Which brings me to the question of what is going to happen to Woodlands and Waters? In the short term, we are not going to be posting weekly, and in fact we may not post at all for a little while. Our tagline is “Outdoor adventures in the Tennessee Valley and beyond,” so we could theoretically keep on chugging along from our new headquarters. Or we could start a new blog … or take a break from blogging … we’re putting off making a decision until after the move.

But we have made one decision already. We’ve signed up for another year with WordPress, so all the content on Woodlands and Waters will still be around for a while. Maybe in post-move retirement we can get around to updating our long-neglected wildlflower pages. Anyway, if you’ve gotten in the habit of checking on us weekly, know that we’re temporarily sidetracked so you won’t be seeing much new content.

Like any move, it’s bittersweet to think about the things we probably won’t get to do in our current location. But on the other hand, we’re moving to a place that claims to have 250 waterfalls and over 1,000 miles of trails in the county. Now that’s a target-rich environment!

Four Waterfalls in the Back of Beyond

We’ve made several trips to the Cane Creek Canyon Nature Preserve, a privately owned and operated slice of heaven in Tuscumbia, Alabama. The preserve has over 17 miles of trails spread over its 713 acres, and while we’ve covered quite a few of them, we haven’t spent any significant time in the North Addition. This parcel was added in 2008 and adjoins the preserve on its north end, sort of in the shape of a T lying on its side.

We’ve been volunteering at Cane Creek from time to time over the past few weeks, and have really enjoyed it. The work is easy — signing in folks and giving them a brief orientation to the preserve, usually with the owners, Jim and Faye Lacefield, handy to answer the tough questions. One perk of volunteering is that we get the lowdown on ways to enjoy the preserve. For instance, Jim and Faye tipped us to the upcoming blooming time for the yellow lady’s slipper, found in a few locations on the preserve. Armed with their tip about where to find one, we made a mad dash after our volunteer shift to photograph this beauty just off the East Cane Creek trail.

This is one of the showiest of orchids found growing in the wild, at least around these parts.

When we mentioned that we hadn’t spent much time in the North Addition, Jim and Faye pointed out the north parking area, which leads directly into the northeastern portion of the tract. This was a revelation, though it’s in plain sight on the preserve map. The usual routes to the North Addition involve hiking down Cane Creek Canyon to the Devil’s Hollow trail, and then heading north on one of three or four connector trails. In any case, that’s a seven-mile round trip back to the main parking area, not counting any actual hiking you do in the North Addition. However, if you come to the main parking area in the southeast corner of the preserve, you can request a free parking permit at the checkin gazebo. The parking pass has directions to the north parking area. A permit is required because this parking area isn’t actually on the preserve, and is made available by the kind permission of one of the preserve’s neighbors. Displaying the parking permit on your dashboard tells the neighbor that you’ve checked in with the preserve.

Knowing that we could step out of the car and enter the North Addition in just a couple hundred feet was a game changer for us, and for other folks who make a long drive to the preserve. After studying the map, I plotted out a route that would take us to four waterfalls in the North Addition, with a stretch goal of visiting one other fall if time permitted and the water was flowing. Having secured our permit, we arrived in the north parking area, where there was only one other vehicle. Parking is somewhat limited on the north end of the preserve but is well-marked. A footpath leads south from the parking area, and quickly enters the preserve. At the time of our visit, lobed tickseed was in bloom along the footpath and throughout the preserve.

A little over 300 feet down the footpath, which becomes the Behel Lane trail when it enters the preserve, signs mark the intersection with the North Boundary trail to the right. We continued to the left and in about 50 feet reached another intersection, with the Flatwoods Long Loop trail continuing eastward, with Behel Lane trail continuing to the southwest toward Laurel Falls. There’s one of the preserve’s excellent backwoods privies near this intersection, and it’s the only one in the North Addition, so plan accordingly! The trail passes the privy and crosses a couple of footbridges, passing several large groups of squaw root as it descends to a final unbridged creek crossing just before the creek drops over Laurel Falls. This creek crossing is easy but can be deceptively slick.

Immediately after this crossing, the trail turns right and continues down a flight of steps to give a view of the top tier of Laurel Falls. A lot of things are happening at this section of the trail. Earlier in the year, on a brief reconnaissance of this trail, we noticed trout lilies in bloom on a boulder to the left of the trail. On our latest hike, we noticed a few specimens of French’s shooting star, a wildflower found in only two places in Alabama. A more common wildflower, Solomon’s seal, was also in bloom, and a few Quaker ladies were in bloom. Oh yeah, there was also a waterfall!

Laurel Falls is a two-drop waterfall, with a top drop of about ten feet and a second plunge of about 25 feet. We had reached the first of our four planned waterfalls, only .2 miles from the parking area, and it was in fine form.

The Behel Lane trail continued southwest and downhill, teeing into North Devil’s Hollow trail. More wildflowers dotted the edges of the trail — a clump of Virginia spring beauty, and some cranefly orchids (not in bloom yet). We took the North Devil’s Hollow trail to the west and quickly came to a creek crossing of Behel Branch, flowing southward into Devil’s Hollow Creek. This was a key landmark, as we left the trail briefly to head upstream. Almost immediately we saw what we were looking for, uphill to our left — the second waterfall of the day, Northwest Falls. There were a couple of delicate flows, each around 25 feet tall. For the record, I should add that though we went off trail to follow the right side of the stream up the bluff, had we continued on a few feet there is an official spur trail not on the map that runs up the left bank of the stream.

While I was snapping photos, Ruth headed to the right side of the falls and was able to scramble up the bluff, pointing out a jack in the pulpit and taking the time to admire an Alabama azalea in bloom. I followed her up the bluff, where we emerged as planned on the Northwest Falls Rim trail. Well, it wasn’t quite that straightforward — this particular trail isn’t heavily traveled, and is marked only with subtle ribbons or faded red washers nailed to some trees. From time to time a track would briefly emerge, but most of the time we went from ribbon to ribbon, heading westward along the bluff. We knew from the map that there was a spur trail out to an overlook known as Hobbs Point, but we weren’t determined to check it out since enough trees had leafed out to block out most views to the south. However, we missed the main trail’s turn to the northwest and continued on down the ridge until it ended at an overlook — Hobbs Point, I presume. From here we backtracked until we found a ribbon, and sharp-eyed Ruth spotted the turn we had missed (about .25 miles from Northwest Falls), which lead downhill to a metal gate.

The gate is on the Behel Gap trail, which is an old roadbed and considerably easier to navigate. We headed southwest, heading away from the trail to the northwest that leads to The Fin. The Fin is a narrow rock formation, and taking the Behel Gap trail in that direction leads uphill to the top. Our route led downhill instead, reaching a junction with the Upper Delony Hollow trail. This lovely little trail heads north-south. We turned right to head north; a left turn would have taken us to the south and the westernmost reaches of the preserve, portions of which we’ve previously hiked. As we walked along the mostly level trail, The Fin and its bluffline were visible off to the right. The trail had a smattering of wildflowers in bloom, such as fire pink and sweet William (phlox), as well as the occasional twisted trillium.

We passed Map Point 14 and soon afterwards came to another junction. To the left was a junction with the Lower Delony Hollow trail, which we would be taking later. We headed to the right and continued north on the Upper Delony Hollow trail, making an unbridged crossing of Sinking Creek along the way. At about .15 miles north of Map Point 14, the trail splits, with the left branch heading to North Delony Falls and the right branch heading to Behel Falls. We were going to visit both, so we went right and made another easy crossing of Sinking Creek. A few yellow and blue ribbons marked the footpath, but the route was as easy as just following the feeder branch upstream. In about .1 mile, we reached Behel Falls, a lovely shady little cascade with the best plunge pool we’d see on this trip. We paused here for lunch, and enjoyed playing peek-a-boo with a northern cricket frog who thought it was concealed on a Christmas fern.

We retraced our route back to the Behel/North Delony Falls junction, which has a faux marker tree (how had we not noticed that before?). I call it a faux marker tree because, though it has one of the typical forms, it’s clearly not old enough to be the genuine article. Our fellow blogger Steve Jones, a retired forester, has pointed out that since the last significant population of Native Americans left this area in the 1830s on the Trail of Tears, any “real” marker tree would have to be 190 years old. Nonetheless, this tree is a good landmark. And it’s a good thing, as the route to North Delony Falls is also not necessarily obvious at first from the junction. One tree has ribbons to mark the direction, but alas, it has fallen. The solution is to just follow this feeder branch upstream about .1 mile to the waterfall. This slender little fall drops about 20 feet into a small plunge pool. A couple of wildflowers were particularly fine here — foamflower and Jack in the pulpit.

We retraced our route down the Upper Delony Hollow trail, turning west onto the Lower Delony Hollow trail in search of our optional waterfall, Dry Falls. Here we ran out of luck, as we reached the apparent junction of the North Bluffs Loop trail and the spur to the waterfall, but the route to the waterfall was indistinct. We knew that if we missed the turn we’d flounder on the North Bluffs Loop trail, which is marked as difficult on the preserve’s trail map. The watercourses coming off the bluff were meager, and given that the falls was named “Dry Falls,” we didn’t have much expectation of seeing much, so we backtracked to the Upper Delony Hollow trail and retraced our route past The Fin, continuing east on the Behel Gap trail to its junction with the North Devil’s Hollow trail. This western piece of the North Devil’s Hollow trail was a highlight of the hike, as it gradually headed downhill through a particularly nice smattering of wildflowers: wild comfrey, yellow star grass, birdfoot violet, common yellow wood sorrel, and hairy phlox, to name a few.

We took the North Devil’s Hollow trail to its junction with the Behel Lane trail, passing Northwest Falls and Laurel Falls again on our way back to the north parking area. Our GPS track had our entire route at 3.55 miles. We saw four waterfalls and the typical profusion of wildflowers. Also, at some point in the North Addition, we went off-trail to admire an enormous bank of French’s shooting star in an underhang. Jim had tipped us off to its off trail location, telling us that a researcher who specializes in this particular flower says it’s the biggest contiguous patch he has ever seen. We marveled at the riot of blooms and watched a bumblebee make its pollinating rounds, causing each stem to bow under its weight. This plant is native to only six states, and is listed as threatened or endangered in three of them (but not Alabama). For this reason, I’m being vague about its exact location. If you’d like to know, ask Jim or Faye. Or better yet, sign up as a volunteer at the preserve and find out about its other secrets!

If you’ve never been to Cane Creek Canyon Nature Preserve, we’d recommend making the classic loop on your first visit. It’s a 3.25 mile loop that features the preserve’s tallest waterfall, the best scenic overlook, and easy walking along the East Cane Creek trail past the Boulder Garden wildflower area, down to the Linden Meadows picnic area. On a second visit, you should make your way to the Devil’s Hollow trail and its waterfalls. That’s a seven-mile round trip from the main parking area, or roughly 1.5 miles round trip from the north parking area. A third alternative is to park your vehicle in the north parking area and make your way to the main parking area, taking side trips as you like. Assuming you’ve first checked in at the main parking area and gotten your parking pass, it’s possible that Faye or Jim can shuttle you back to the north parking area if there’s enough volunteer support at the kiosk when you arrive at the end of your hike. By judicious use of the two parking areas, you can cover big chunks of the preserve without having to throw down a bunch of miles.

Important note: Cane Creek Canyon Nature Preserve is open 7 am – 5 pm on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. However, the preserve is closed April 30-May 13, 2021, so your next chance to visit is May 14, 2021. Future closures like this one can be prevented by building a cadre of local volunteers. If you’ve been to this preserve once, you’ll like it. If you go twice, you’ll love it. If you love it, give back by volunteering. If you’re interested, leave a note in the comments and we’ll put you in touch with the right people, and we’re happy to answer any questions.

Bluebells and Buckeyes

Chet and I have been members of the Land Trust of North Alabama for many years now. We like the outdoors (obviously) and like to support organizations that preserve land and make it available for everybody to enjoy. We support them with both money and sweat – we donate every year and also do trail maintenance from time to time in order to make new trails or keep existing ones in good condition. We do this because we enjoy it and because it makes us feel good to be doing something for our community and that would be enough for us. However, like many other charitable organizations, with membership comes a few “thank you gifts.” When you donate to something like public radio, you might get a mug or a tote bag. When you donate to the Land Trust, you get experiences. You get priority registration for the popular guided hikes in the spring and the fall; you get exclusive access to their wonderful Tuesdays on The Trail program for kids; you get access to the very helpful Land Trust Map App, and you get invitations to members-only events, including my favorite thing – invitations to come visit properties not yet open to the public. It was just this kind of opportunity that came our way this week when we received an invitation to go out to the conservation property called Matthews Preserve with a small group of wildflower enthusiasts on a Monday morning. We jumped at the chance.

Since this property is not open to the public, I’m not going to talk about how to get there or what the parking is like or anything like that. In fact, this post is going to have have very few words. I’m going to let Chet’s beautiful photos take center stage. What I will say is that we met two Land Trust staffers and three other members on a beautiful morning, then were led on a short, perhaps one and a half mile winding walk through glades of wildflowers and next to a picturesque creek. It was peaceful and calming and absolutely gorgeous and I’m so glad I was able to experience it.

Though I’ve titled this post “Bluebells and Buckeyes,” you can see that there is much more to this place than that alliterative phrase suggests.

Whether you are a millennial choosing experiences over things, or an old retiree like me tired of collecting “stuff” that needs to be dusted, washed or otherwise maintained, or somebody someplace in between, these Land Trust perks are just the thing!