Filling in the Blanks: Alum Cave Trail

Some weeks, life just does not cooperate with my need to hike. Whether it is weather, work, injury, or out of town travel I don’t always get a hike in every weekend, which does make it awkward to figure out what to fill this blog space with. Luckily for me, Chet and I have learned to “bank” a hike or two here and there for just such occasions. This week’s blog installment is going to be a look back at our trip to LeConte Lodge in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park earlier this summer. We blogged about our hike up, but left our faithful readers hanging by not blogging about the trip down. Don’t worry – we aren’t still stranded up there, nor did we have access to alien technology to teleport down or anything. We actually did walk down; we just banked that hike to tell you about later, and “later” is now.

After a surprisingly restful night, we woke up just in time to dress and make it down to the dining hall for breakfast. I’m pretty sure the breakfast menu at LeConte hasn’t changed in decades, but it always hits the spot. They serve pancakes, bacon, grits, biscuits, scrambled eggs, and Tang. Tang! I honestly don’t know anyplace else that serves Tang, do you? Our group posed for a group photo, figured out who was hiking what trail, coordinated rides back into Gatlinburg, and then split up to start packing and heading out. The morning was foggy and a bit damp, but it wasn’t actively raining.  Chet and I had decided to hike down via Alum Cave Trail so we took the stairs leading up the hill from the dining hall towards the trail, and met a deer boldly taking the stairs in the other direction. She (he?) stepped off into the high grass pretty quickly though and we continued on our way.

Alum Cave Trail is the steepest trail to Mount LeConte, but it is also the shortest which makes it one of the most popular and therefore heavily traveled trails to the summit. Starting from the top, though, we didn’t share the trail with anybody for the first mile or so. The actual start of the trail on Mount LeConte is a few hundred feet from the lodge, where it intersects with the Rainbow Falls Trail. We hiked from the lodge to this trail intersection quickly, then turned left onto Alum Cave Trail proper after stopping to note the surprisingly informational “Trail Closed” signs put up to explain the two year Rainbow Falls Trail rehabilitation project.  The trail was very foggy and the views off the mountain were pretty much non-existent here, but we enjoyed this pretty stretch, where Frasier firs were putting out bright green new growth all around us. Soon, though, we left the forest and came to the steep rock face below Cliff Tops. This area is rocky and in the fog and damp I was glad there were steel cables strung along the rocks to hang on to.

The trail then goes in and out of forest and across some old landslides. Many of the trees in this section are the dead Frasier firs – killed off by a combination of balsam woolly adelgid and acid rain. However, all was not fog and dead trees – we also saw blackberry vines in bloom, mountain saxifrage, and banks of deep purple catawba rhododendron lining the rocky, foggy path.

About a mile into the hike, we actually started seeing hints that the rain, fog, and clouds might lift. Here we found blooming mountain laurel, and a beautiful example of a pin cherry, with its distinctive shiny reddish-brown bark and orangish horizontal stripes.

The sun actually came out in force, and we started meeting folks heading up to the top. We’d been hiking with the views to our left, but after crossing the saddle that links Mount LeConte to Peregrine Peak, the views were on our right. I knew we were close to Little Duck Hawk Ridge. This sharp ridge was once the primary path to the peak of Mount LeConte. That pathway is no longer open to the public, in part because there is a protected nest of duck hawks (or peregrine falcons) on the ridge. It’s also very rugged and surely pretty dangerous. The Park Service would much prefer the tourists take the better maintained Alum Cave Trail.  There are actually two Duck Hawk ridges – Big Duck Hawk Ridge is farther up the hollow formed by Trout Branch – closer to Mount LeConte. We reached it first hiking downhill. Little Duck Hawk Ridge is better known. It’s where the falcons nest and it’s the site of the “Eye of the Needle,” a nature-made hole punched right through the top of the knife-edged ridge. Big and Little Duck Hawk Ridge flow down from Peregrine Peak almost directly below Alum Cave Bluffs. Alum Cave is not a cave at all, but a deeply overhanging bluff with a uniquely dry and dusty soil covering the base. Though rich in minerals, scientists say there is actually no “alum” here but it is still a fascinating spot. It’s an arid desert in the middle of one of the wettest places around. The Cherokee claim their great chief Yanugunski discovered the bluffs while tracking a bear. Later, Dr. John Mingus headed up a group of early settlers who formed the Epsom Salts Manufacturing Company, hoping to exploit the minerals found here. During the Civil War, the Confederates supposedly built a small stockade called Fort Harry in the area, believing that the minerals in the bluff were a vital resource.  No trace of that fort remains now, but what you will find is lots of people enjoying the scenery and very friendly chipmunks scurrying close by over the rocks. After walking along the base of the bluff, a long set of stairs leads down the rest of the way towards Inspiration Point.

Inspiration Point is the spot where the trail turns sharply back on itself to head north. To one side is a rocky outcrop that has beautiful views of Little Duck Hawk Ridge and Mount LeConte. When my dad and I hiked Alum Cave when I was young, Inspiration Point was our traditional lunch spot. I took a photo of myself here in his memory.  The sun was really out for good by this point and the trail changed character, too. It became broader and less steep, but was still flanked by rhododendron. We also saw galax and a stunning bee balm. About a mile down the trail from the bluff, we came to Arch Rock. This iconic landmark is a narrow passage through a sloping rock, formed by water seeping into fractured rock, freezing, fracturing the rock more, then thawing. Over time many cycles of this formed a jagged passageway.

I always think of Arch Rock as being almost the end of the Alum Cave Trail when heading down, but I’m always wrong. There’s another 1.4 miles to the trailhead from here, but the character of the trail is much different. It is a broad and more gently graded trail that runs along next to the beautiful Alum Cave Creek. Rosebay rhododendron blooms in abundance here. Views of this creek are what I think of when I describe the typical Smoky Mountain creeks that I love so much. The 1.4 miles flew by, and soon we were at the trailhead, where our ride to Gatlinburg awaited. We got a bit of everything on this hike: fog, rain, and solitude at the top, and sunshine and fellow hikers at the bottom. In between we saw some beautiful flowers and, eventually, took in some stunning views. It’s one of my favorite hikes in the Smokies.

 

 

Horton Hears a Cicada: Henry Horton State Park

The first weekend in August was relatively cool, by Alabama blast furnace standards, so it seemed like we might get in a hike.  Our schedule was fairly open, so I pitched a couple of ideas to Ruth for hikes in somewhat nearby state parks.  Neither park was particularly known for its trails, but in the end Ruth was intrigued at the prospect of a hike at Henry Horton State Park, near Chapel Hill, Tennessee.  The clinching argument was that some previous hikers had mentioned in online reviews of the park that they had seen turtles.  Ruth loves her turtles, so we hopped in the car and made the 90-minute drive north in search of terrapins (or tortoises — either will do nicely).

The drive, made mostly up Interstate 65, was uneventful.  The park is about 12 miles to the east of the interstate, but our Google-suggested route skirted Lewisburg, TN before putting us on alternate U.S. Highway 31, which leads into the park.  Henry Horton State Park was built in the 1960s on the farm of a former governor of Tennessee.  Henry Horton was governor from 1927-1933, having succeeded to the position when the previous governor died in office.  The park bearing his name is undergoing a bit of a renaissance, as its facilities had suffered from benign neglect for years, and the park was even closed for a while during the recession.  Its golf course and campground have been recently renovated, and the park also has a popular restaurant and a skeet shooting range, among the other usual park amenities.  The centerpiece of the park is the Duck River, which bisects the park as it flows westward to eventually empty into the Tennessee River.

The park has over 10 miles of hiking trails, most of which are rated as easy.  We opted to put together a 4-5 mile loop on the western side of the park.  Most of the trails at Henry Horton are loops of various distances.  We decided to hike the majority of the Hickory Ridge Loop trail, which is actually two linked loop trails, and then travel a portion of the River trail to return to our starting point.  The River trail is actually an elongated lollipop, with a loop on the western end, so we thought we’d get a taste of at least two different environments.  You’ll definitely want a trail map before hiking here.

We drove through the center of the park, then crossed the Duck and turned left onto River Road and drove to the campground and parked at the camp store.  The campground bathhouse is nearby, in case you need to take care of any business before setting out.  The trail starts to the right of the camp store, where it enters the woods briefly before crossing River Road.

The first little taste of the trail, before we crossed River Road, was promising.  There were a couple of tree identification plaques well-placed before some interesting specimens, such as the honey locust and persimmon trees.    The trail was flat and wide, and was somewhat confusingly marked with yellow paint blazes, orange paint blazes, and orange aluminum trail markers.  The trail map shows this little connector trail, which runs from the store to the parking lot to a point on the loop, in yellow, and the Hickory Ridge Loop trail is marked in orange on the map.  It’s easy to follow, and we were only in the woods for a few yards before we crossed the road into a parking area and another trailhead.  This second trailhead seems more official, because it has a kiosk with a trail map and other useful information.  It is an option to park there instead of in the campground, if there is no parking at the campground.

This eastern section of the Hickory Ridge Loop trail is called the inner loop on trail signage.  The trail is wide and flat, and at about .15 miles from the camp store tees into the inner loop.  Somewhat oddly, a brown directional sign points to the left, implying you must travel clockwise, but it’s a loop so you can go in either direction.  We wanted to get in a few miles and improve our chance of seeing turtles, so we opted to travel the loop counter-clockwise instead.  The trail at this point is blazed with orange paint and orange metal trail markers.

The Hickory Ridge Loop trail’s distinguishing feature is that it passes through a karst landscape.  The underlying land is primarily limestone and other water-soluble rocks which wear away to create sinkholes and caves.  The trail’s surface is packed dirt, with some roots and occasional rocks, and footing was good.  We were there during a short dry spell, and the trail was dry for most of its length (at least the parts we traveled).  Also, don’t let “Hickory Ridge” make you think that you’ll be making any significant climbs or descents.  Hickory Ridge must be a very gradual and subtle ridge indeed, as this trail is basically flat.

After .45 miles, we reached the junction with the Hickory Ridge outer loop.  Since the Hickory Ridge Loop trail is in essence a figure-eight, you can structure hikes of various lengths, from as short as 1.5 miles to around 2.5 miles or slight longer.  We opted to take the outer loop, so we continued straight ahead instead of turning left to continue the inner loop.

The outer loop is also blazed orange, but the paint blazes occur in pairs, one above the other.  The inner loop has single orange blazes.  We noticed that the blazes here are also old school — they are literally gouged into the trees with a machete or axe, then are painted.

This section of the trail is one of the better ones for summer wildflowers.  We spotted Virginia dayflower, low wild petunia, white leafcup, and southern wild senna as the trail continued westward and began to turn to the southwest.  There’s a small spring on this part of the trail, which was damp and muddy at the time of our visit.  Ruth glimpsed a shy frog as it took cover nearby, and we saw the last remnants of a couple of tall bellflowers.

My favorite part of this trail occurs at about one mile into the loop portion, as the trail enters an open area which shows signs of having been cleared at some point in the past.  The abundance of sunlight spurred the growth of several wildflowers here — flowering spurge, narrowleaf vervain, more low wild petunias, white crownbeard, and a few lovely little rose pinks.

The trail is easy to follow through the open area — just follow the shallow ruts until the trail re-enters the woods.  This section of the trail is very close to the park’s western border, near a very active railroad line.  We could hear the muted roar of a nearby lawn mower, but once we were back in the trees the man-made noises took a back seat to the droning of the cicadas.

Wingstem

The trail turns back toward the east, crosses a footbridge over a small (on our hike, dry) creek, and again enters an open area right before the junction of a connector trail leading to the River trail and the continuation of the outer loop, now heading north.  This sunny, dry area has a few prickly pears growing trailside, with some seven-foot wingstems looming nearby.

We took the connector trail to the south, which for the next .2 miles is neither fish nor fowl, not being part of the Hickory Ridge Loop trail or the River trail.  As a result, it’s blazed in bright blue paint and marked with orange trail markers.  Just before crossing River Road, the trail briefly parallels a stone wall, a remnant of a property line or a reminder that this was once a working farm.

After the connector trail crosses River Road, it winds through an open cedar glade as part of an old roadbed, passing brown-eyed Susans, ox-eye daisies, and common fleabanes, representing the asters, and small red cedars and winged elms.  After .2 miles, the connector trail tees into the loop portion of the River trail, now blazed blue with green aluminum trail markers (it’s marked as green on the trail map).  Again, we opted to hike counter-clockwise around the loop, since it looked like the trail would be at the top of a small bluff when the Duck River would come into view.

The River trail loop made its way southwest through a scrubby forest, passing an old roadbed or trail blocked off by a couple of posts.  After crossing a couple more dry creekbeds on footbridges, we passed the intersection with the Wetlands trail about .2 miles into the River loop.  We skipped the Wetlands trail for this visit because the weather had been so dry lately, and continued on the River loop.

The trail began to gently rise as it entered a slightly more mature forest.  This segment of the trail passes three backcountry campsites.  We detoured into campsite 2, which was pretty swanky for a backcountry site.  It had two fire rings, benches, and a privy.  We didn’t visit the other two sites, but I expect they are pretty similar.

After passing the last campsites, the trail bends to the southeast and descends toward the Duck River.  Just as you begin to glimpse it through the trees, an observation deck rises 20 feet above a wetlands plain.  We climbed to the top and looked over the empty field while eating our lunch and speculating that this would be a good place to spot deer and turkeys.

We didn’t linger long.  There were no benches, and there were no deer or turkeys to be seen (or turtles, as Ruth pointed out).  We returned to the trail, which quickly intersected with the other end of the Wetlands trail, and continued on eastward on the bank of the Duck River.  Our plan was to leave the River trail loop at this point and to continue east on the River trail (the stick portion of the lollipop), but a misleading sign led to us taking a wrong turn.  The sign pointed to a “trail” but didn’t explicitly say that this was the continuation of the River trail loop.  We just saw “trail” and took it, even though we quickly noticed that the trail was turning away from the river.  We saw some hikers close to the riverbank and thought they were on an unofficial trail, so we just went on our merry way.  It was actually a pretty section of trail — shaded and speckled with more yellow senna, rose pink, and some Carolina buckthorn trees with pale red berries.  However, when we closed the loop, .85 miles later near River Road, Ruth figured out what we had done.  There was nothing for it — we could either go on back to Hickory Ridge and finish that loop, or backtrack to finish along the river, as planned.  We had put in a long day of projects the day before, and the prospect of hiking .85 miles (times two!) more than we had planned left us less than pleased.  I decided that we wouldn’t really have a good sense of the park without hiking along its centerpiece river, so we retraced our steps back to the river.   Since the loop and the trail along the river are considered the same trail, both are marked the same.  It might be worth considering making the loop portion of the River trail a separate trail, with different markings.

After returning to the river, we turned northeast and headed upstream.  The trail is on the riverbank, but is usually not that close to the water.  There are plenty of places to get a glimpse of the water, and we tried to find side trails to get closer to the water (and any turtles), but we didn’t have much luck.  However, we got a terrific consolation prize in the form of one of our showiest wildflowers, the Carolina spider lily.  We saw just the one specimen, but it was spectacular!

After walking about .85 miles along the river, we finally spotted a side trail and climbed down to the bank to get a good view of the Duck River.  It was wide and fast-flowing at this particular spot.  We could hear folks splashing upstream just around a bend, where there is a ramp suitable for launching canoes and kayaks.  The park often offers guided and overnight trips on the river, and there’s a concession where you can rent a tube for a lazy float.

From this point, we just continued down the trail until we took a pink-blazed side trail into the campground, where we then just took the road back to the camp store to complete our hike.  All told, we covered 5.0 miles according to our GPS track.  The hike had its highlights and lowlights.  With no waterfalls and no mountain views, Henry Horton State Park is not particularly a hiking destination.  But if you’re there on a golfing trip, or live in the area, it’s well worth spending some time on the trails.  I’m not sure I’d recommend a 90-minute drive from Huntsville when there are better hiking destinations a bit to the east at South Cumberland State Park, but Henry Horton has plenty of charms to recommend it.  We’re already eyeing a return visit for a float trip on the Duck.

But the pressing question, which you are no doubt asking, is, “What about the turtles?”  Despite looking high and low, in karst woodlands and along the river bank, we saw nary a one.  But we did a pretty good job of identifying wildflowers, so we stopped at the Dairy Queen in Lewisburg on the way home.  I had an M&M blizzard.  And Ruth…she had a turtle pecan cluster blizzard!  So she found a turtle, of sorts, after all.

Fly Like an Eagle: Zipline Adventures II

After the heat, humidity and general misery of the last few weeks, it was wonderful to have a weekend with milder temperatures, low humidity, and blue skies. It was a weekend where being outside was going to be a pleasure, not a sweaty sticky trial. As I looked over our list of outdoor adventure ideas , the one that sounded best to me for such weather was a return to Guntersville State Park to try out Level II of their Screaming Eagle Zipline. We’d done Level I way back in July of 2016 but always intended to come back once they got Level II up and running, and this was the perfect weekend to go swooping through the air above Lake Guntersville again. Decision made, I hopped on the website and booked us on to the 10 am Level II group for the following morning. We paid online in advance and got an email confirmation so we were good to go.

Just as a recap, Guntersville State Park has partnered with Historic Banning Mills, a zipline canopy tour specialist outfit out of Georgia, to provide zipline adventures in the state park. This includes the use of their patented closed belay system which keeps you safely clipped in at all times while on the course. I really like this feature because there is absolutely zero chance you will ever accidentally fall off the course. That’s very comforting when you are waaaayyy up high in the air on a teeny tiny platform, but more on that later. Chet and I have actually checked out Historic Banning Mills, too, so I can vouch for the fact that the equipment used is identical.

We arrived at the park just a little late, but the staff kindly checked us in anyway and ran us down to meet our group, who were just finishing up their training overview. We had a smaller group this time than we did last time, which had made the training go quicker. They quickly reviewed the safety rules with us, and we proved to them that we knew how to get on and off the belay system and we were good to go. There were three guys who looked to be in their twenties, me & Chet, and our guides Matt and Ashley. Just like their parent outfit, the levels at Guntersville State Park have to be run consecutively so even though we’d already run through Level I last time, we had to repeat Level I in order to reach the start of Level II. This was fine with me, though, because it meant more zipping! Level I has 10 zip lines and 4 suspension bridges. The longest line on the first level is 400 feet, and at the highest you are 80 feet off the ground.  Level II includes the first 8 ziplines and 3 suspension bridges from level I, then adds on another 7 ziplines and 4 suspension bridges. I’m not going to go into details about level I (check our our previous blog – if you’re interested) – we’ll just pick up at the start of Level II.  Level II starts out with a long zip across a fold in the land nearly above the campground area. Zipping down this longer line, with a clear view of the lake to my left was exhilarating! Most of the lines on Level II are long – several are over 2000 feet long. This first one wasn’t the longest but it was a great introduction to what was to come.

After landing from that first zipline, we came off the belay system and hiked a short way to our next tower. The trail took us through an overlook area with beautiful views down towards the campground and the lake beyond, but the guides promised stunning views ahead, so we didn’t linger long. Next we climbed a tower and headed across a suspension bridge.  These bridges consist of a set of parallel cables at foot level, with 2x4s spaced a foot or two apart strung between them. Above that there are two more parallel cables around shoulder height, then a single cable high overhead for your belay system connection. The first time we did Level I  last year was the first time I’d ever had to do something like that and I have to confess it sort of terrified me. Knowing you’re safely clipped in is one thing. Looking down through gaps in the bridge to see the ground is 80 feet below is a whole other thing. This time, Chet and I were seasoned zippers and this type of suspension bridge didn’t phase us at all.  After another set of two short zips, we came to the second suspension bridge on this level. This one was so steep that we just climbed it more like a ladder, which actually made it pretty easy. Finally, though, we came to my least favorite kind of suspension bridge, “seasoned” or not. It was one of the “tightrope” kinds. These have the same single cable overhead for the belay system, and the two shoulder level (ish) cables to grip onto for dear life, but the base is a single cable that you have to balance your feet on somehow to get yourself across, all the while going uphill because the other end is on a higher platform. These are the ones that can make my old broken ankle injury decide to make itself known. I don’t know why – something about the strain of balancing without having my whole foot flat on something I think – but I made it through this one with only a minor ankle twinge. Check out this video for a peek at what it’s like.

Next up was I think my favorite zip line of the whole course, though it was the one I messed up on the most. Up to this point, I’d been doing pretty well at following the directions the guides gave us about when to brake and that sort of thing. The group decided I was “the best” at all the landings. Until this one, anyway, where I totally blew it. This zip is the longest on Level II at 2100 feet, but it has an uphill section at the end – probably on purpose to bleed off some of the speed you pick up and make stopping possible. The guides told us to do the “Miley Cyrus Wrecking Ball” move and lay back as far as we could while tucking our legs up as close to our chest as we could. Apparently, I’m not very good at this maneuver (I’m sure Miley is relieved). I was not nearly as tucked as I should have been, and then I got turned sideways and had trouble pivoting myself back around without untucking even more. In the end, I slowed and stopped way short of the end of the zip line. Not to worry, the guides are prepared for this and have a pulley and line that they sling out to you so that they can drag you on in. This works well, usually. I saw it working well later on with some of the other zippers. Unfortunately, my brain did not actually catch on that the zipline had started going uphill, so when I stopped I guess I was thinking I would stay where I was. I didn’t grab on to the cable, and next thing I knew I was absolutely flying back up the zipline in the wrong direction! It was very disorienting. I eventually grabbed on to the cable to stop myself, but then had to haul myself hand over hand back uphill in the right direction in order to get close to the pulley. It was exhausting. You know, Chet and I love watching a TV show called American Ninja Warrior, where these absolutely incredible physical specimens – male and female – accomplish seemingly impossible feats of strength and balance. While I know I’d fall and fail in an instant on most of the obstacles those guys face, if I’d seen a contestant having to rest – twice! – while pulling themselves up a simple cable, I’m sure I would have scoffed at them and said something like “even I could do better than that.” Yeah right. Not so much, apparently. At any rate, I made it back to the pulley and the very kind Ashley pulled me on in the rest of the way. Check out this video to see Chet’s experience on this one.

This one was a ground landing, so I threaded myself off the belay system and made my way to a pavilion where we sat and had some water and took a bit of a rest. Soon, though, we were ready to go ahead up the next tower, which was a 250 foot giant. It is a beautifully made spiral staircase around what look to be two telephone poles stacked on top of each other. Since we were on the top of a ridge at this point, the views from the top were truly stunning. We had 360 degree views, most of which were lake. Gorgeous. The next zip line was another long one – probably in the 2000 foot range someplace – and I think was the one where we actually went the fastest. The guides told us that we could hit 55 mph and though I have no way of knowing if they were right, it did feel fast!

This was another one that required the “wrecking ball” configuration with a ground landing at the end, but this one I did better on. I didn’t make it the whole way, but I was closer, and didn’t stupidly go backwards, so that’s progress. Chet, however, fell a little short on his attempt, and I have his permission to include this video so that you can see the mechanics of rescuing somebody when this happens.

Next up was a short hike to our next tower, where we had another set of suspension bridges – a regular one and another tightrope one (yuck), then we zipped back across the valley towards the tall tower again. We had to hike a short ways from the landing zone to the tower, and again we took advantage of there being cold water available to stay hydrated. After a pretty brief rest, it was back up the tower again, this time taking off on a slightly different cable, but from the same platform. Once again – fabulous views! This was my final long zip and I think I finally managed to put it all together for a pretty reasonable landing. I don’t think they had to drag me in at all!

We had another short hike to a shorter tower, one short but fun zip, and a final zip named “Lil Sweet” where we had to brake the whole (short) way down to land on a big rock. After that, we hiked a short ways back to the equipment shack and our adventure was over.  Before we went, I was wondering if Phase II would be worth the return trip. After experiencing it, I can tell you that my answer is “YES!”.  The additional ziplines are much longer and faster than the first phase, so it’s a different experience, and the views can’t be beat.

32tower_zip2

 

Cooler than Cool: Stephens Gap Cave

We’re in the toughest part of the year for our modest little outdoors blog — the blazing hot center of the Alabama summer.  Every week when we plan where we’re going for our next adventure, we take a peek at the weather forecast.  We’ve got a list of hikes and floats we’d like to do, but when we see predicted heat indices over 100 degrees, it’s hard to get motivated to do anything other than lounge around in the air conditioning.   Sometimes that sounds pretty nice, but would make for one heck of a dull blog post.  So instead, we start thinking of ways to be cool outdoors.  And two of the best ways to cool off during the summer are either to get close to a waterfall or to get into a cave.  For our adventure this week, we decided to do both, and paid a visit to Stephens Gap Cave.

Stephens Gap Cave is protected by the Southeastern Cave Conservancy Inc., a nonprofit organization that acquires and protects caves in six states.  SCCi currently has 30 preserves and manages 170 caves.  Faced with decreasing access to recreational caves due to development, habitat threats, and liability fears of landowners, a grassroots group of southeastern caving enthusiasts banded together in 1991 to purchase caves and at least some of the overlying property.  According to their website, SCCi’s mission is “to conserve caves to preserve areas of scenic beauty, provide recreational access and opportunities, protect cultural and biological resources, and support scientific research.”

It’s no secret that North Alabama is a hotbed of spelunking opportunity, and it’s no coincidence that Huntsville is the headquarters of the National Speleological SocietyBut I was still surprised to find that 11 of the 30 SCCi preserves are in north Alabama!  Cave exploration is a very popular hobby in the area.  Ruth and I would not describe ourselves as cave explorers.  She isn’t fond of tightly enclosed spaces.  Back in the day, I enjoyed crawling around in East Tennessee caves, but now I occupy more space than I used to.  Still, we enjoy touring developed caves, such as the ones in Cathedral Caverns State Park and Rickwood Caverns State Park.  After perusing SCCI’s list of preserves, Stephens Gap stood out for one particular reason — it has a walk-in entrance.  We don’t have the gear or the knowledge to rappel into a pit, but we have legs, hiking poles, boots, and a healthy aversion to falling off ledges or into holes.

I’m not going to tell you exactly where Stephens Gap Cave is located, other to say it is in the vicinity of Woodville, Alabama.   There’s a reason for this — because the cave is protected by a conservancy, there are reasonable restrictions placed on visitation.  SCCi preserves require a free permit, which is easily requestable online via the SCCi website.  For some preserves, you can even request the permit for a same-day visit.  Most permit requests are reviewed and granted within 48 hours.  I requested our permit on a Saturday evening for a Sunday visit, and had it approved in about 30 minutes.  I wouldn’t venture to say the SCCi will always be that prompt, but these are some accommodating folks.  They want you to visit their caves, and even better, they want you to come back from their caves with a greater appreciation of these natural wonders.  The permitting process was easy and convenient, and the information that came with the permit about where to park and how to access the cave was extremely helpful.

We arrived at the spacious gravel parking area with the mid-morning sun already beating down on us.  The trailhead was prominently marked, and a narrow single-track trail promptly entered the woods.  The trail was well-maintained, and for about .4 miles it was largely level, passing through a power line cut and proceeding up into a hollow where it crossed and paralleled a dry creekbed.

The trail was easy to follow, with yellow trail markers and occasional yellow ribbons leading the way.  There were also quite a few wildflowers in bloom or identifiable by their leaves, such as brown-eyed Susan, sweet-scented Joe Pye weed, yellow leafcup, white-flowered leafcup, naked flowered tick trefoil, hepatica, St. Johnswort, fleabane, and wild hydrangea, to name a few.

There were a couple of annoyances on the lower part of the walk, however.  We were barely into the woods before the first of approximately one million gnats started buzzing around us.  Two coats of insect repellent didn’t faze them.  But the bigger annoyance was a light rain that appeared out of a clear blue sky.  Regular readers of the blog know I’m no fan of walking in the rain, but the real problem with the rain was the possibility it would make the trail and the cave entrance slippery.  To get the visit permit, you have to read and acknowledge a number of warnings about visiting the cave.  You can’t blame the SCCi for being careful — there are a lot of jackasses out there, and caves seem to attract them.  Still, a phrase about how the “so-called walk-in entrance” could get slick and dangerous when wet stuck in my mind.  All the disclaimers and waivers pretty much carry a subtext of “enjoy your visit, but you are quite likely to die here.”  We had started the hike on a hard-packed earth surface, but as the rain continued a little voice in the back of my head said quietly in an air of resignation, “Ah, so this is how it ends.”

Fortunately, the rain stopped a few minutes later.  The trail continued another .4 miles or so, following the creek and slowly rising up the hollow past walls of rock, until it took an abrupt turn to the right and climbed steeply.  The trail narrows and splits in this section, with the path to the walk-in entrance peeling off to the left, and a path to a pit entrance higher on the mountain continuing straight ahead.

Just a few dozen yards after the trail split, the walk-in entrance to Stephens Gap Cave looms off to the left, with a waterfall dropping through a 143-foot pit entrance to the right.  The combination of the hot air and the water-cooled air created a dramatic mist around both entrances.  The effect is breathtaking.

The walk-in entrance isn’t exactly a paved ramp, and hasn’t been engineered to make it easy to climb down into the cave, but we were able to carefully pick our way through the rocks, using our hiking poles for stability.  Once we got within about 20 feet of the entrance, a welcome wave of cool air greeted us.  Even before we went into the cave, Ruth turned to me and said, “This is worth it,” and I agreed.  While she went on ahead into the walk-in entrance, I made the discovery that I had left some of my photo equipment at work where it was needed for a project, and long and bitter were my curses.  But I broke out the emergency tabletop tripod and made the best of it.

The walk-in entrance descends into the cave at not too steep an angle, though the surface is rocky and increasingly damp as you go farther into the cave.  We didn’t find it too be slick, and the cave is relatively well-lit given its two large entrances.  The sun streamed in through the ceiling entrance, creating shafts of light that constantly shifted as clouds passed overhead.

The walk-in entrance leads down to a ledge that bends away to the right, but also slopes down to the left where a small waterfall erupts from the wall.  Jutting out from the ledge, a pedestal is seemingly spotlit, rising 30 feet from the bottom of the pit.  With the sound of rushing water echoing all around, it’s a magnificent setting worthy of a swords and sorcery film.  Which in fact, it was, as there was a trio of college students shooting a school project on the pedestal while we were there.  I don’t know how the film will turn out, but I give them an A+ for location scouting.

We stayed in the cave about an hour, soaking up the literal and figurative coolness before we reluctantly left Middle Earth and clambered our way back to the surface of the sun and retraced our steps back to the parking area.  We were a soggy mess by the time we got there, but let me tell you, for an hour we were the coolest kids in Alabama.

We’d recommend Stephens Gap Cave for most hikers, with the caveat that you must obtain a permit and avoid visiting after (or during) periods of heavy rain.  We didn’t bring any light sources, but didn’t really need them in the area around the walk-in entrance.  However, if you plan on exploring the cave, you’ll need light sources, helmets, and proper equipment.  The area around the walk-in entrance has dangerous dropoffs of 30 feet or more, and of course the nearby pit entrance is a 143-foot drop.  There have been three fatalities in this cave in the past 17 years, so please be careful!  But if you’ve got good footwear and know your limitations, this is one of the best payoffs you’ll ever get for a hike under one mile.

Water, Water, Everywhere: DeSoto State Park and High Falls Park

This time last year, Alabama was in a drought that by November was being called “the worst drought in memory” by some. Through the end of the summer and into the fall and winter, there just wasn’t much rain falling. Farmers struggled,  reservoirs shrank, wildlife habitats were impacted – all causing ripple effects across the economy and lifestyle of the state. Not to minimize the more serious impacts, but the drought also caused a severe case of “puny” at some of my favorite natural spots – the area waterfalls. The drought seems to be behind us now, as the uncontrollable grass growth in our backyard can attest, so the waterfalls are back! Last weekend Chet and I went west to the Sipsey and took in a couple of waterfalls there. This weekend I wanted more, so we headed east to enjoy two new (to us) waterfalls.

Our buddy Ted was free as well, so the three of us cooked up a plan to leave the house around 8 am and drive to High Falls Park in DeKalb County, take in the falls there for a short while, then drive to DeSoto State Park in time for the Sunday buffet lunch. We’d walk off all those calories with a hike to a couple of falls in DeSoto and then return home by late afternoon. This was a fantastic plan except for one small detail. I neglected to check opening hours for High Falls Park and it turned out we arrived at the entrance to the park only to find a locked gate. It was 9:30 and the park didn’t open until 10. We decided to simply drive on to DeSoto and try to catch High Falls on the way home instead. Only 45 minutes away, we arrived at DeSoto State Park too early for lunch so we started right away on our hike.

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I’d picked out a short but scenic-sounding hike from Johnny Molloy’s book 50 Hikes in Alabama that he called the “West Fork Loop.” Only 1.9 miles long, this loop hike starts and ends at the historic CCC Pavilion in the picnic area. The first challenge is actually to find the beginning of the trail. Molloy’s book describes walking down the paved walkway with the pavilion on your left, but after that it gets a bit vague. A look at our GPS track will show you the way we went, but I’m certain it’s not quite right. What I’d recommend is to walk down the sidewalk until it takes a sharp left towards the pavilion and then keep going straight off the sidewalk and into the grass. You’ll see a sign in the woods on your right for an outdoor classroom. This isn’t it. Keep on going down hill along that treeline though and you’ll find another unmarked trail heading off into the woods. Head down this trail until you see timbers set like stairs going farther downhill at a trail intersection. You don’t want to take those stairs, but instead turn right onto the yellow-blazed DeSoto Scout Trail (DST) and walk a short way until you get to a bridge going over the top of Indian Falls. There seem to be several wildcat trails that will eventually get you to the DST so really, the trick is to find a yellow-blazed trail and then head roughly south until you get to the bridge. Or just follow the sound of the falls. You can hear it clearly from the picnic area.

We admired the bridge and the top of the falls, but quickly moved on to the other side of the bridge to the point where you can climb down and explore the base of Indian Falls. There are a couple of stairs at the top, but then you’ll have to drop down about 3 feet to reach a short path that leads past a rock overhang and beyond to the falls. Indian Falls is formed when Laurel Creek drops into a ravine. After a 25 foot drop, the water continues to cascade over boulders below the falls as Laurel Creek heads downhill to join the West Fork of the Little River. It’s a beautiful site and the three of us clambered all over exploring and enjoying and getting just the right pictures. We were only 10 minutes into our hike and already I felt like the whole trip had been worth it!

After we left the falls, our plan was to continue on along the DST. Shortly after the falls, there is a three way intersection with an unblazed trail teeing in from the right, and then what I first thought were two yellow-blazed trails forking right and left. The unmarked trail just led to a cabin. After closer inspection, we decided that of the two “yellow blazed” trails, only the left fork was really yellow. The right fork was blazed in a sort of yellowy-green that I called lemon-lime. Using Molloy’s descriptions we had been expecting a “green blazed Cabin Trail” at around that point so we decided it all matched up well enough and we should take the left fork. As it turns out, the trail map online labels the Cabin Trail blaze color as Lime Green, so I wasn’t so far off!

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Yellow blaze to the left, faint lime green to the right

The DST continues down next to Laurel Creek via some beautifully engineered stone steps until it is level with another smaller unnamed fall, where it turns sharply right and down to end up level with the West Fork of the Little River. From here the trail sticks closely to the river, which flows by sometimes quickly, rattling over small cascades, and sometimes slowly when it broadens and deepens. In one of the slower spots there was a tiny beach, where I took off my boots and waded for a minute next to a bush that turned out to be something called buttonbush, which I don’t think I’ve ever noticed before.

Actually, we saw a lot of wildflowers next to the river — some of them we’ve not ever seen before. If the wildflowers are this good in mid-summer, just imagine how incredible this trail must be in the spring! We saw starry campion, Maryland meadow beauty, healall, Shuttleworth’s ginger, naked flowered tick trefoil, stiff haired sunflower, as well as rhododendron and maybe even a trillium just past blooming.

At around .5 mile from the pavilion, there is a small wooden bridge across Lodge Branch, like Laurel Creek one of the many tributaries feeding the West Fork. We had to push through a small tree that was blocking one end of the bridge, but as soon as we were past the tree, the trail was clear again. However, as much as I loved the wildflowers, the river rapids and the little wading spots, I do have to say that overall this was not an easy trail. It involved a lot of scrambling over rocks and roots, a couple of flooded spots where we got our feet wet, lots of confusing unmarked side trails, and one difficult-to-spot but vital blaze.

At about the .8 mile mark we came to a spot on the trail where there was a large flat rock ahead and just to the left, right on the river bank. I went right over to it, thinking about whether I wanted to wade again, but decided to push on instead. I had to duck under a rhododendron branch that blocked the trail, but then continued on over a trail that was barely visible. It was all rocks and roots, but it did look sort of like a trail. It wasn’t until after I’d picked my way down this track for at least 5 minutes that Ted and Chet called me back telling me I’d missed the trail. We could only tell because we could see a yellow blaze further up the slope. We climbed up the bank to what was obviously the trail and then I backtracked to see where we went wrong. Turns out it was at that rock. My excuse was that I was intent on the idea of wading again. (I don’t know excuse Chet and Ted are going to come up with!) I suppose if I’d been paying more attention there was at least a slim possibility that I might have noticed a yellow blaze nearly obscured by shrubs, above my head and 30 feet or so up the trail to my right. You had to be looking in just the right spot, because the sharp trail turn itself wasn’t marked at all. No wonder we all missed it!

Mistake corrected, we forged on for another roughly tenth of a mile until we came to a sign for the “Gilliam Trailhead” pointing to a trail that went straight up the hill at at least a 45 degree angle. To me it looked for all the world like another wildcat trail, because an “official” trail wouldn’t have been built like that.  Molloy’s book didn’t mention a sign, though, and the maps we had looked at actually showed two different trails at around this mileage that headed straight up hill. I was getting hungry and was motivated not to miss the buffet so I encouraged the “try this one” option. We headed straight up to the ridge, then headed to our right to loop back towards our starting point.

The trail here was a lot easier going, and though it had fewer flowers and wasn’t right on the river it was scenic in its own way. It was blazed in the lemon-lime color so we were sure we were on the same trail we’d seen back at the original split near Indian Falls. If we hadn’t already thought it might be called the “Cabin Trail,” we certainly could have guessed at that name because every so often off on our left we’d pass a cabin. The cabins at DeSoto sure do look nice! They look to be well maintained, and as far as I could tell they are set far enough apart that you might really feel like you’re far out in the woods away from civilization. I’d like to come back sometime and find out if I’m right. Since the Cabin Trail follows a rim of the gorge it drops off steeply on the non-cabin side, with occasional views of the river visible through the trees.

Though it was easier going up here, we did have another spot where we lost the trail.  We followed the path as it led to a cabin, then tried to find the trail on the other side of the clearing. I found another bluff with a small waterfall, but I did not find the trail. Chet found it by backtracking to the last blaze, then keeping an eye out until he spotted a blaze off to the right. Again this one was maybe 50 feet from the trail junction. What is it with the people who mark trails that they think marking a junction is a bad idea!?!? Once back on the marked trail, we continued on another quarter of a mile until we reached Lodge Falls.  So named because they drop over the rim of the gorge close to the DeSoto State Park Lodge, this is a 20 foot waterfall with another set of cascades below as Lodge Branch tumbles over boulders on its way down to the West Fork, passing under that little wooden bridge we’d crossed earlier in the hike. We spent some time here trying to capture the falls on camera, then headed on up the trail past a couple of rock houses and then up to a sign for the Lodge and Restaurant.

At this point, we decided to turn left and head for the restaurant, finishing the hike after a lunch break. The buffet at DeSoto Park Lodge is tasty, generous, and very reasonable. For a little less than $12.00 a person we got drinks plus all we could eat fried chicken, ribs, cream corn, broccoli and cheese, baked potatoes, fried okra, salad, and if we’d been fast enough, peach cobbler. It was all good southern comfort food, prepared well,  and I know I ate way too much! After lunch, the last .3 of a mile back to the pavilion was pretty uneventful. We passed no more waterfalls or rock houses, just a couple more cabins.

We all piled back in Ted’s truck and headed back towards our original stop, High Falls Park. This 20 acre park in rural DeKalb County is not part of the Alabama State Park system, but as best as I can tell is a county park. There is no entrance fee, and the park is open at 10 am. Closing depends on season, but in the summer that’s at 6:00 pm. There is a pavilion with picnic tables and vending machines, and an air conditioned office. The office is where you can sign in, chat with the very friendly older gentleman manning the desk, buy some snacks, or use the restrooms. There are a couple of short trails, but we were there for the falls, so we took the shortest route – down the paved road to the top of the falls. Let me tell you, I was not expecting what I found. Formed when Town Creek roars down into a sheer-sided gorge, High Falls is 300 feet across and 35 feet high.

The top of the falls is a solid rock shelf going back at least as far as it is wide until it gets to a point where there is a nice looking pedestrian bridge. The bridge is built on the pillars of an old covered bridge that was built by the community in the 1920s. The water between the bridge and the falls is very shallow – maybe only knee deep in the deepest spots – so there were all sorts of folks young and old out wading, or sitting, or floating/lying in the middle of the river. At the base of the falls just out from from where the largest volume of water pours over the rim is a natural bridge. Young folks were jumping off the falls in the middle of the river or from this natural bridge. It is a spectacular setting!

Chet waded all the way out to the edge of the falls to take pictures of the falls and the jumpers. Ted and I waded not quite so far out but enjoyed the cool water on our feet after a day of hiking. I climbed up on one end of the natural bridge, but wasn’t confident I was limber enough to attempt climbing out any further. Ted texted our children to tell them what we were doing and that he had dibs on Chet’s truck and my cookbooks if we didn’t make it back.

We didn’t stay more than hour at the falls this trip, but I’ll be back! I did read that the volume of water we saw is not necessarily normal. In the winter, for example, the broader part of the falls can be dry, with only the section near the natural bridge having any water. Still, now that the drought is over and we’re in a fairly rainy summer, this is absolutely a must-visit spot!

Three Within Thirty: Short Hikes to Cool Places in the Bankhead National Forest

We’ve had a lot of rain around here recently, so when it was my turn to pick our hike I thought it would be a good idea to see groundwater at its most photogenic — in the form of a waterfall or two.  And when you think of waterfalls in North Alabama, one place springs to mind immediately — the Bankhead National Forest and its Sipsey Wilderness.  It’s been too long since we’ve been to the Bankhead, which regularly tricks us into ten-mile hikes and tries to kill us on every visit.

But I had a plan for this trip — instead of throwing down a single long hike, I planned three short hikes to places just a little off the beaten path.  All three are well-known to the locals, but we’ve never visited them.  The theme of our trip: three within thirty, or three hikes to cool places no more than thirty minutes from where you parked.

We took our usual route to the Bankhead, following the interstate down to AL-36 in Hartselle, and then followed AL-36 west through Danville until it teed into AL-33.  We took AL-33 into the National Forest and turned right onto Cranal Road, the route to three different trailheads in the Sipsey Wilderness.  However, our destination was Mize Mill Falls, which isn’t reached from one of the official Forest Service trails.  We passed the Sipsey Recreation Area, crossed the bridge over the Sipsey River, and parked on the south side of Cranal Road at the first dirt road, about a half-mile past the bridge.  There’s room for three or four vehicles here on the road shoulder.

The trail starts on the north side of Cranal Road, across from the dirt road.  Since this isn’t an official trail, there is no signage marking the trailhead — only a couple of orange ribbons hanging from trees flanking a narrow passage into the forest.  I had read that this trail was a little dodgy, so it was a pleasant surprise to find it had a well-established footbed, descending about 20 feet and bending to the right.  The trail was narrow and a bit rooty and rocky during the descent, but quickly leveled off and widened as it passed through a shady hemlock grove.  We could hear the sound of rushing water from where we parked the car, and when the trail leveled out Turkey Foot creek was off to the left, with the water now sounding like a gentle roar.

We wandered over to the sound of the water and looked down into a small canyon onto the top of Mize Mill Falls.  Turkey Foot Creek passes through a tight spot here and drops around 20 feet to the canyon floor.  We could tell it was a little beauty, and were eager to get to the bottom for a better look.  We returned to the trail, dodged over/under a few small fallen trees, and reached an apparent end of the trail.  However, the trail takes a sharp left here and heads downhill for another short, rocky stretch before leveling out after descending another 20 feet or so.

The trail again seemed to stop above a cleft between two boulders, but the only way to proceed here is down.  It’s only a drop of about eight feet, with good handholds and footholds, and to make things easier there’s a rope you can grab.  After getting to the bottom, at a lower level on the canyon wall, a small bluff stretches off to the right, with a trail along the bottom.

We could see the creek was just about 15 feet below us, and we had one more descent to make, with the lower reaches of the canyon wall to one side and a drop-off on the other.  The route here is narrow and requires some care to navigate.  We brought hiking poles with us, and we were glad of it.  As I was picking my route to start the final descent, I planted a pole, picked out where to step, and lifted a foot in preparation.  And then….

In all of our hikes, only once have we seen a venomous snake, and that was only after someone pointed it out to us, well off the trail.  This would be our first close encounter, as my next step would have landed squarely on this copperhead.  Fortunately for both of us, I spotted it in time and was able to hop backwards while shouting, “Snake! Snake! Snake!”  There wasn’t really any way around it, so we watched it for a few minutes and snapped some photos and video.  The snake figured out we weren’t prey, and it wasn’t prey either, so it calmly and slowly slithered off to the side to hide under a tree trunk, and I slipped on past and made the last climb down into the bottom of the canyon.  Ruth followed suit, and we crossed the creek on stepping stones, then turned left and walked into the natural bowl filled by the gorgeous Mize Mill Falls.

This is a very photogenic fall, tumbling in two cascades over three drops.  Its setting is stunning, with a large overhang to the left, and a bluff to the right.  There’s a sizeable though shallow plunge pool, which was beautifully dappled by the morning sun.

This little canyon is terrific!  If I had done better research beforehand, I would have known that Turkey Foot Falls is just a little downstream of Mize Mill Falls, and we could have gotten two waterfall visits with very little effort.  In fact, some maps list Mize Mill Falls as “Upper Turkey Foot Falls,” so apparently they are quite close, and there is some disagreement on what this waterfall is called.  It won’t take much convincing to come back for another look at the other waterfall, though.  We ate our lunch here, admired a butterfly that was also enjoying the canyon, and took bunches of photos and some video, then retraced our route to the car.  The copperhead did not put in an appearance on our way out, to our relief.  The total distance on the hike, according to the GPS track, was only about .35 miles round trip.  It took us about 26 minutes to get from the trailhead to the base of the waterfall, though at least 3 minutes were spent freaking out about the snake.  For the record, I’m not afraid of snakes.  I am, however, afraid of stepping on them, especially if they take offense.

Our next destination was on the western edge of the Bankhead.  We headed west on Cranal Road until it teed into County Road 2, also known as Kinlock Road, and turned north.  The road is paved for a little over two miles before turning into a gravel road after a sharp bend.  Shortly after that, “No camping” signs start appearing along the right side of the road, and if you’re there in the summer, you’ll start seeing vehicles parked on the road shoulder.  We found a spot to pull in and continued north, toward a bridge over Hubbard Creek.  However, before getting to the bridge, a set of steps leads off to the right and down the embankment to a trail that parallels Hubbard Creek.  You can hear the sound of rushing water pretty much as soon as you park, because you are at probably the most popular swimming hole in the Bankhead — Kinlock Falls.

We turned right on the trail and headed downstream.   Almost immediately we could see the top of the falls, where the creek is shallow enough for a crossing.  Like most falls, it doesn’t look all that impressive at the top.  We continued downstream and passed a rope swing on our way to the top of the bluff overlooking the falls, then settled in on a nice flat rock outcrop and took in the scene.

And what a scene it was.  Kinlock Falls is a cascade-type waterfall, dropping around 40 feet from top to bottom along a natural water slide.  The drop isn’t too steep, especially on the creek-left side, and while we watched a couple of people rode inner tubes down the waterfall into the very deep plunge pool.  There’s a rope along one side of the waterfall that the tube riders used to climb back up for another trip.

I’ve seen pictures of Kinlock Falls before and didn’t think that much of it. However, it’s much better in person, as you see the scale of it and hear the roar of the water.  Hubbard Creek is quite wide at the bottom of the fall, and deep enough to allow people to use the rope swing or even to jump in from the top of the bluff where we were sitting.  We spoke to one daredevil, who said it was a lot of fun but also pointed out that there are boulders on the bottom of the plunge pool, so you’ll need to pick your landing spot carefully, especially if you’re using the rope swing.  You can see the boulders easily from the top of the bluff.  About 100 yards down from the falls, the creek becomes shallow again, but the area between the shallows and the falls is a glorious swimming hole.

The natural setting is lovely, but this is a much-trafficked (by Bankhead standards) area, so there is a problem with litter along the trail and on top of the bluff.  There are no bathrooms or changing facilities, and no garbage cans either.  Also, getting from the trail down to the top of the bluff necessitates a short scramble downhill, but there are plenty of tree roots to use for leverage and/or footing.  The trail continues on down to the creek level, but will require some more scrambling to get to the water.  We were there on a summer Sunday morning, so there were only about a dozen people swimming and sliding, but by the time we left after lunchtime there were quite a few more cars and trucks and motorcycles parked along the road.  We didn’t bother to take poles on the hike, or to even bring the GPS.  The walk down to our  observation point took about five minutes.

It was time to move on to our third destination for the day, which was only about half a mile north on Kinlock Road.  The name “Kinlock” comes from the former home site of David Hubbard, an early settler.  Hubbard was a prominent politician, serving in the Alabama, U.S., and Confederate States legislatures.  He built a plantation house and a mill in southwest Lawrence County, where the small community of Kinlock grew around the plantation.  This general area of the Bankhead National Forest is known as the Kinlock Spring Historic District,  owing not only to the historical significance of the plantation and mill, but also to the many archaeological sites in the area.  The best known of these sites is the Kinlock Shelter, an enormous rock house used by the Yuchi tribe, and later by the Cherokee.

There’s a small parking area on the left that can hold two or three vehicles, and just past that parking lot is a gated Forest Service road that offers parking for another two or three vehicles.  We took a look at the historic marker for Kinlock, a plaque next to a trail that leaves from the parking area, but before we headed into the woods we walked back up the road to where I had noticed a column partially hidden in the woods.  About 50 yards south of the parking area on the east side of the road, the base of two columns, which I presume are from David Hubbard’s house, are still standing.  The house was built in the 1830s, though eventually Hubbard moved in the 1860s or 1870s, and eventually the house was abandoned.  However, it was in good enough shape that it was used as the headquarters for Civilian Conservation Corps Company 1403 when their camp was established in 1933.  The house burned in 1935, but the camp lasted until 1938, and was then converted to a summer camp for the 4-H Club.  We walked around the site of the camp, where there are still foundation stones visible and four piers for a structure that had some sort of plumbing in it — perhaps a wellhouse?

We returned to the parking area and took the trail that started at the historical marker.  It entered the woods and only a few yards later passed by Kinlock Spring, an important water source for the area.  The spring was still running, with one of the biggest spiders I’ve ever seen standing guard on one of its walls.  Though this is not one of the developed trails, the footbed was mostly level and well-established, and even broad as the trail went west, then north.  At one point the broad and flat trail crossed a bed of sandstone, passing through a grove of young pines.  The showiest wildflower of the day, Curtiss’ milkwort, was in bloom along this stretch.

The trail continued to the north, where at about .2 miles from the trailhead it teed into a gravel Forest Service road.  We turned left and about 300 feet later, the trail re-entered the woods on our right.  There aren’t any blazes and there’s no signage, but the trail is pretty obvious.  It continues mostly level for another 500 feet, at one point splitting left and right.  Stay to the left — we followed the right fork for about 100 yards and it didn’t look like it was going anywhere.

The trail then steeply descends into a hollow.  Footing is a little challenging in a couple of places, though we saw young children handling the descent with relative ease as we were climbing back out later.  The trail passes through a boggy area, and then, through the trees, the massive Kinlock Shelter announces its presence.

Friends, this is a BIG shelter.  It’s around 300 feet wide, up to 70 feet tall, and up to 100 feet deep.  Its overhang is taller and wider than Russell Cave National Monument or Cathedral Caverns, in case you’ve ever been to those sites.  At one end, a cave continues back into the hillside, which we didn’t explore.  It’s old — excavations have found evidence of human activity for thousands of years.  It’s still used as a ceremonial site, and for people who know what they’re looking for, there are ancient petroglyphs still visible carved into the stone.  Sadly, we do not fit into that group, but the sheer size and the orange and green tones of the sandstone make this a beautiful and impressive site.

After taking some time to soak in the atmosphere, we reluctantly saddled up and retraced our route out of the hollow back to the trail, and then back to the gravel road.  We turned left onto the road and decided to just hike it to its intersection with Kinlock Road, just a few feet up the road from the parking area.  The total distance for the hike, according to our GPS track, was about .875 miles, though some of the mileage includes our meandering in the old CCC camp.  It took us about 20 minutes to get from the parking area to the shelter.

The Bankhead National Forest and Sipsey Wilderness have so much to offer, and we enjoyed our short hikes to these three (slightly) hidden treasures.  Though they aren’t reached by official maintained trails, the routes to Mize Mill Falls and Kinlock Shelter were easy to find and mostly easy to follow, though there are no trail markings and they don’t appear on official maps.  Kinlock Falls is the easiest to find — when Kinlock Road becomes a gravel road, just look for parked vehicles on the right side of the road and head for the sound of water.

So for once the Bankhead didn’t trick us into any ten-mile hikes, though as usual it did try to kill us. Well, not really — as Ruth pointed out, it just reminded us that it could kill us if it wanted to.  It’s tough love from Mother Nature, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Serendipity – and Llamas: Trillium Gap Trail

At the beginning of this year as we looked over our hikes from last year, we realized a horrible truth. We had not once managed to get up to our beloved Smoky Mountains for a hike of any sort! We were determined to correct that oversight this year, but to be honest, had made absolutely no concrete plans. We have a list of hikes we’d like to do, and sure enough “Smokies hike” is on there, but that’s about as far as we’d gotten. Then something wonderful happened. A co-worker of mine sent me an email asking if Chet and I had plans for June 29-July 2. It turns out that they were part of a lucky group that had recurring reservations at LeConte Lodge for the Friday before July 4th. I should explain – it used to be that the lodge would let folks set up recurring reservations for the same date every year. In 1998 the rules changed and they no longer accept new recurring reservations. If you already had one set up, though, you were allowed to keep it for 20 years, which makes next year the last year for this group. In any case, my co-worker and his wife were not going to be able to make the hike this year due to injury and offered their two spots to us. We thought about it for about a nanosecond before we jumped at the chance.

We drove up after work Thursday night so that we could meet the group for breakfast early Friday morning. Breakfast was where we coordinated who’d be in what cabin and got an idea about what trails folks were going to take. We had a lot of folks hiking up Alum Cave Trail, a family going up Rainbow Falls Trail, a group running up Boulevard Trail, and another couple taking Brushy Mountain Trail until it joined up with Trillium Gap Trail. Chet and I had thought about Brushy Mountain, but in the end chose to start at the Grotto Falls parking lot and hike up Trillium Gap Trail. This meant we had somebody in the group on every open trail (Bullhead Trail is closed for the season due to fire damage from the 17,000 acre fire that burned into Gatlinburg in November 2016).  It turned out three other folks in our group wanted to hike up from Grotto Falls as well, so after a quick group picture, the five of us hopped in a car and headed to the trailhead.

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Trillium Gap Trail is the one the llamas use to get supplies up to the lodge on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. To be honest, since we were hiking on a Friday that’s a lot of the reason I picked it. I love llamas! Sure enough we parked just a few spots down from the llama trailer. They’d beaten us to the trail, probably by a long time, so we saw no sign of them in the parking lot. It’s a nice trailhead. There’s plenty of parking and even a building that looked like it might be a restroom. The trail headed out of the far end of the parking lot and with that we were on the trail and heading up.

 

The first part of the trail was pretty rooty, but not difficult footing. I was impressed once again by the sense of age that I get on these trails. The trees seem bigger and more ancient, the trails like footpaths that have been used since prehistory. I don’t know – maybe it’s all in my head, but it just feels different in the Smokies in a way that I can’t quite explain. My favorite thing about hiking in the Smokies at this time of year, though,  is all the rhododendrons and mountain laurel. Nine species of rhododendron (or rhododendron family) shrubs bloom in the park, and from May into July the mountains are just covered in blooms. On the lower part of the trail, we saw lots of rosebay rhododendron, as well as black cohosh and wild hydrangea.

 

The trail winds through eastern hemlock groves and crosses several little streams before the feature that makes Trillium Gap Trail one of the most popular trails in the park comes into view. Grotto Falls, at 1.3 miles from the trailhead, is formed when Roaring Fork drops 30 feet over the falls. The trail actually goes behind the falls, which is always fun. It would have been more fun if it hadn’t started raining, though. It always rains on us when we hike in the Smokies so we were prepared with raincoats and pack covers, but we were hoping to get at least a few miles of rain-free hiking in. It was not to be. The rain started at the falls, and kept up pretty much the whole way up. It made for a very misty hike with no views down into the valleys. Chet was able to get a few good shots of the falls in before we raincoated-up and started slogging our way up the trail.

 

The trail after the falls is steeper and rockier. It was raining pretty hard at first so sometimes it felt a little like we were walking up a creek. That was just how the salamanders like it, I guess, because we saw several clinging onto rocks and scampering along the trail. There was one small creek crossing, and then at the 2.9 mile mark we arrived at Trillium Gap. This is a gap or pass between Mount LeConte and Brushy Mountain and in fact there is a short spur trail that leads to Brushy Mountain where there normally are great views up to LeConte and even as far as Sevierville. This day was so misty and rainy that we debated whether we wanted to check it out or not. As we sat on a wet log eating trail mix and discussing our options, a couple come down the spur trail. When we asked if there was any view, they said they could see LeConte peeking through the clouds a bit. Just after they said that, though, the skies opened up again so we decided to skip it and just keep heading up to the lodge. My “raincoat” was more of a windbreaker apparently, since it seemed to keep very little of me dry, and my boots either aren’t waterproof or have lost their waterproofing because my feet were damp too. I was ready to get off the trail and into something dry!

 

From the gap, Brushy Mountain trail leads straight ahead for 5.5 miles to the trailhead at Porters Creek. Trillium Gap Trail makes a sharp right turn at the gap and heads uphill steeply towards the peak of Mount LeConte, 3.6 miles away. Trillium is not the steepest trail to LeConte – Alum Cave is steeper – but I will say that particularly after the gap it climbs pretty relentlessly uphill with only a few level sections. This section was rocky again, and we saw tall meadow rue, small purple fringed orchid, mountain laurel, wood sorrel, catawba rhododendron, and umbrella leaf.

 

My least favorite things were the erosion control steps (or whatever they’re called). There were many of these, and I found them hard to climb up. My knees and thighs were sore the next day and I’m blaming these evil things! We started passing people headed down from the lodge, which got my hopes up that we were getting close. Towards the top the trail does have a couple of almost level sections, the last of which cuts through a stand of balsam firs. Finally, finally, we came to a sign about “No Horses Beyond this Point,” then a bridge, then staff cabins or outbuildings, and then on the left – the llamas!

 

They were penned behind the dining hall, munching on leftover pancakes from breakfast, while being saddled up for the trip back down the mountain. We admired them for a few minutes before we went on to find our cabin to drop our packs, change out of wet socks and boots, and then head straight to the dining hall for the all you can drink hot chocolate that comes along with your room. Next order of business was a trip up to the office to officially check in and buy our “only available if you hike to the top” 2017 LeConte T-shirt. This year’s design is a nice one! Warmed a bit by hot chocolate and now with a dry shirt to put on, my next activity was a good nap.

 

We were staying in one of the three bedroom lodges. These buildings have a large porch with rocking chairs, a common room with a small table and a couple of chairs, and three small bedrooms. There is no electricity or running water in the cabins or lodges, though kerosene lanterns and propane heaters are provided. There are flush toilets in a separate building, and you get a bucket at check in to go collect hot water from a spigot if you want to take a sponge bath.  I believe each bedroom has a double bunk bed in it, similar to the beds in the individual cabins. We claimed the top bunk, not knowing anything about our roommates. We knew the couple we were staying with had planned on leaving Huntsville in the early morning and driving straight to the trailhead. These are the folks who planned on hiking up Brushy Mountain, which is a 9.1 mile hike. We’d been told they are super hikers, but still we figured after a long drive and a long hike the last thing they’d want is to have to climb up to the top bunk. As it turned out, they ran into a two hour traffic snarl in Chattanooga caused by a wreck so they changed plans and hiked up Trillium Gap Trail instead since it was “only” 6.7 miles. They arrived in time for dinner though, which is the important thing. If you’re not checked in by 6:00, you’re out of luck!

I’m pretty sure that the dinner served at the Mount LeConte Lodge hasn’t changed in decades, but it is delicious. We had potato soup, some sort of roast and gravy, mashed potatoes, green beans, stewed apples, a peach half, and chocolate chip cookies. Water, hot chocolate and coffee come with the meal, though you can also order wine with dinner for a flat rate of $11, which gets you as many refills as you’d like of red, white, or rose wines.  They also can accommodate vegetarian and gluten free guests, though those meals must be requested a week in advance. Dinner is served family style so when Chet and I have been up here before we were seated at a table with people we’d never met. This time, because we were such a large group, we ended up sitting with folks in our group, though since we were “fill ins” we really didn’t know them either. This year, we got a bit of entertainment at dinner. A young woman got up and played us something classical on a violin. I didn’t hear the introduction so I don’t know what that was all about, but it was very well done and everybody seemed to enjoy it.

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After dinner, we went back to the cabin for a bit, then heard there were deer wandering among the cabins so we went to find them. Deer have gotten much bolder in the years since I’ve been here. It’s apparently not uncommon to see them wandering among the cabins, totally unfazed by all the humans. After that, most of us headed up to the office, which is the hangout area. There is a large propane heater surrounded by rocking chairs, several tables, and stacks of games and puzzles to keep us entertained. Some folks worked on a puzzle, one group played monopoly, another group was trying to teach a couple of people Euchre, and the rest of us just hung out and chatted. We met a guy who has a YouTube channel about hiking. He and a buddy were on a several day hiking trip, carting some pretty impressive video equipment along with them. We met another couple of guys who had hiked 19 miles that day to get to Mount LeConte from Clingman’s Dome. Needless to say these were some fit young guys – at least one of whom was a Marine. I felt a bit like a wimp for only hiking 6.7 and doing it pretty slowly at that! There was much discussion about whether it made any sense at all to hike up to Cliff Tops for the sunset. The mountain top was shrouded in clouds so we opted to skip it. A little while after official sunset, though,  the clouds  parted and we got a bit of sunset after all! We all streamed out onto the deck to look at the sky, and then someone noticed that the nightly Dollywood fireworks were starting up. It was a bit strange to be looking down on fireworks!

 

Soon enough folks were starting to wind down and we headed off to bed. It had been a rain soaked hike on a day with few views and no spectacular sunset but still, the magic of LeConte meant that I went to bed a happy woman. I was back in “my” mountains and even better, I got to see llamas! It was a great day.

 

The Launch Pad: Thanks for Thirty Inspiring Years, Land Trust of North Alabama

In 1940 Huntsville, Alabama was known as the watercress capital of the world.  Early the next year, this sleepy town of 13,000 was energized when 35,000 acres southwest of downtown were designated as the site of three chemical munitions plants.  Watercress took a back seat to technology during World War II, and the city grew to support its new main industry.  After the war ended, demand for munitions predictably declined, and it looked like maybe watercress was going to make a comeback.  But in 1950 the Army relocated some German rocket scientists here to work on missiles, and Huntsville was reinvented.  About ten years later, NASA came into the picture, and the city could now style itself as the Rocket City.  With the end of the Apollo program in the 1970s, it looked like Huntsville would never be the same, but new space programs like the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station, the growth of Army and other defense programs on Redstone Arsenal, and the rise of biotechnology companies once again relaunched Huntsville onto different, but familiar, new trajectories.

The city grew to cover 210 square miles, with a population of over 180,000 people in 2010.  That’s just the city proper.  Madison County had a population of 66,317 in 1940, and now is estimated to have a population around 357,000.  All these people had to live somewhere, so cotton fields were plowed under and replanted with houses, and more houses crept up the sides of the mountains.  Leaders in the city of Huntsville became concerned about the loss of green spaces, and formed an ad hoc committee to review the situation, and it recommended the establishment of a land trust.  So on June 24, 1987, the Huntsville Land Trust was incorporated, and now known as the Land Trust of North Alabama, it’s celebrating its 30-year anniversary.

landtrustlogoRegular readers of this blog know that we are big fans of the Land Trust.  We’re members and trail care volunteers, and more to the point, we hike its 62+ miles of trails regularly.  Given their history and development, Huntsville and north Alabama are often described as a launch pad for high technology and science.  It strikes me that the Land Trust is also a launch pad of a different sort — a starting point for adventure, for growing a love of the outdoors, and for forming an appreciation for the environment and a desire to preserve and protect it.

Can anyone put a number on how many children had their first hike in the woods on a Land Trust property?  How many people have filled their lungs with fresh air out on a trail in those 30 years?  Who has been inspired by a wildflower, or a gnarled tree, or a babbling creek?  Who took to the trails on foot, bike, or horse to train for bigger adventures?   Well, we did — last weekend.  We recently had an opportunity for a little adventure come up unexpectedly, which Ruth will be blogging about next week, and to prepare ourselves we went to where it all started for the Land Trust:  to the Monte Sano Preserve on the west side of Monte Sano Mountain.

We’ll be hiking with a group next weekend, so we joined some members of the group on a practice hike to meet each other and to stretch our legs.  We planned a modest little loop, made up of the Toll Gate, High, and Bluff Line trails, that would amount to a smidge over 4 miles.  We met up at the Land Trust’s Bankhead Trailhead, and after introductions ten humans, two dogs, and a cockatoo started the loop by leaving the parking lot and heading up the northern section of the Toll Gate trail.

Gray-headed coneflower

The best thing I can say about the northern section of the Toll Gate trail is that it is a necessary evil.  The southern portions, which wind from the Bankhead parking lot down to Toll Gate Road, are tolerable, though the trail parallels Bankhead Parkway for most of its length.  The northern section starts out close to the road, but soon turns to the northeast into more quiet territory.  Which is nice, because you’ll be able to hear your tendons snap when you stumble on the loose rocks that make up the entire length of the former roadbed as it winds up the mountain.  It is, hands down, my least favorite Land Trust trail, and I’ll probably keep whining about it until the Land Trust reroutes the trail completely and lets Satan, I mean Nature, reclaim the old route.  If you are using this trail to form part of a loop, I recommend hiking it uphill since you are a little less likely to fall up a mountain.  There are a couple of nice things I’ll say about this part of the hike, though: (1) it’s relatively short, about .5 mile, and (2) we saw a few wildflowers along the way, most notably St. John’s wort and gray-headed coneflower.

Wild potato vine

After slip-sliding up the Toll Gate trail, we turned right onto the High trail and things immediately began looking up.  The High trail is a largely level path that runs about 200 feet below the western rim of Monte Sano Mountain for a distance of 1.47 miles.  There’s a small quarry that forms a little pond near the Toll Gate-High junction.  Once you’re past the quarry, the footbed changes from old roadbed gravel to dirt, and the woods close in around the trail.  Butterfly weed and wild potato vine were blooming near the quarry.  At about .2 miles from the junction, the trail widened and was more disturbed, due to the damage done by an EF-2 tornado that hit the slopes of the mountain in early December 2016.  Volunteers did outstanding work to clear the trails on the preserve and in the state park, and their efforts are much appreciated.

The next landmark on the trail is a power line cut, with an iconic view to the west where you can see the Saturn V rocket at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center off in the distance.  All the trails in this vicinity of the preserve cross this power line cut, but the view from the High trail is arguably the best one.  As is often the case, wildflowers grow well in the open area under the power lines.  We saw hairy ruellia, blackberries, water hemlock, and narrowleaf vervain here.

After crossing the open area, the High trail re-enters the woods, heading roughly south as it crosses some small creeks and passes a side trail to the basin where the guests of the Monte Sano Hotel soaked in the “healing waters” of the Mountain of Health.  At about .8 miles from the Toll Gate-High junction, the trail crosses a more substantial creek (easily rock-hopped) that runs down the mountain and joins with the spring-fed Fagan Creek.  The trail is at its best in this section — quiet, shady, level, well-drained, with occasional splashes of color from trumpet creeper blossoms.  After crossing the creek, the trail bends to the southwest before curving south again to tee into the Bluff Line trail.

We turned right onto Bluff Line to loop back to the Bankhead trailhead.  If you want to extend your hike, you could choose to turn left instead and walk about .6 miles to the South Monte Sano Trailhead on Monte Sano Boulevard, or turn left and then take the Waterline trail past Dry Falls down to the Three Caves Trailhead.

In my memory, the Bluff Line trail parallels the High trail, just a little lower on the mountain.  Indeed, at first it’s not much of a change from the High trail — nice and shady and level.  However, my memory had conveniently skipped the part that you have to lose some altitude to get lower on the mountain, and in the case of the Bluff Line trail, that altitude is lost fairly abruptly, as the trail drops 300 feet over the next .35 miles.  The trail doesn’t use many switchbacks, so as a result it’s badly eroded in many places.  You’ll need to watch your footing as the trail descends.  There was one very nice consolation prize, however, as we came across a couple of small leatherleaf mahonia shrubs in an open area about halfway down the descent.  It’s eye-catching in that the leaves look like American holly, but on these particular specimens some of the leaves were bright red or pale yellow.  It’s not native to this area — in fact, it’s considered an invasive, but it’s an exotic beauty.  Apparently it has very fragrant flowers and showy fruit too.  It’s a little tramp!

The Bluff Line trail tees into and briefly overlaps the Wagon trail as it levels out and curves to the northeast.  At this point, we began paralleling the High trail, as the footbed smoothed out, with occasional exposed rocks on either side of the trail.  We saw yellow leafcup, false Solomon’s seal, and even a couple of old trilliums along this portion of the trail as it worked its way gradually back to the more substantial creek we had crossed earlier in the hike.

As we worked our way back north, the Old Railroad Bed trail became visible to the left, below us.  About a half mile after crossing the creek, the Bluff Line trail re-entered the area of tornado damage, more visible at one of the smaller creek crossings.  This might give you an idea of what those trail maintenance volunteers were facing!  Almost immediately afterwards, we were crossing the power line cut again, a bit lower on the mountain, and a few different wildflowers were growing here, just about 300 feet lower in altitude.  We identified Loomis’ mountain mint, tall ironweed, horse nettle, and heal all in bloom here.

I should point out that a couple of the plants that we found in the power line cut are dangerous.  Water hemlock and horse nettle are extremely poisonous.  All parts of both plants will make you sick if ingested, particularly the root of the water hemlock and the fruit of the horse nettle.  The water hemlock is a member of the carrot and parsnip family, so it’s not far-fetched that someone might take the notion to dig one up.  The horse nettle berries resemble yellow cherry tomatoes.  Like the tomato, the horse nettle is in the nightshade family, but if you snap up enough of these fruits, you’ll be launching yourself right into the afterlife.  Keep a close eye on the kids, folks.

After we crossed the power line cut, we were in the last .25 mile of the hike, which looped back to the Bankhead parking lot.  Before we reached the parking lot, just past the intersection with the Old Railroad Bed trail, we noticed a new bluebird house off the trail.  This reminded me that the Land Trust is more than just a collection of properties.  It also has an active environmental education mission and works with partner organizations to produce several programs throughout the year.  It’s best known for its Tuesdays on the Trail summer education series for children, but there are other events for all ages, such as guided hikes for members and non-members and workshops on building birdhouses and bat shelters.

Our loop hike came in at 4.1 miles, and was a great little warmup for our upcoming longer hike.  With the various Land Trust preserves scattered throughout the county, there’s bound to be just the right hike for you — all at no cost (though donations and membership are welcome!).  And the best part is that more land is being saved for our benefit and efforts are underway to open a new preserve by the end of the year.

Thirty years after its founding, the Land Trust of North Alabama is thriving.  If you haven’t visited a Land Trust launch pad, that’s the best way you can celebrate this anniversary.  We offer our heartfelt thanks to the visionary people who started the Land Trust, and to those who have kept it going and growing over the years.

 

Opposites Attract: Tannehill Ironworks Historical State Park

Our latest adventure was a study in opposites. I was looking for someplace that had a few easy trails (my hip flexor was acting up again) but also maybe some other interesting sights to see. Usually this means a trail with an historic cabin on it or maybe a beautiful waterfall. What I picked, though, was Tannehill Ironworks Historical State Park. About 2 hours southwest of Huntsville, not far off I-20 between Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, this park is more than 1500 acres of land spread across three counties. It has hiking trails, biking trails, and horse trails winding through trees and alongside creeks. But if you think this is your basic nature preserve, you’d be wrong.

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After driving down the mile-long entry road and paying a $5 a person entry fee at the gate, we parked and reviewed a map to plot out what we wanted to do first. This part of the park is all about recreation.  This is where you’ll find the 195 improved RV campsites, bathhouses, a camp store, and a large and shady picnic area.  It was all very 2017-familiar. Just on the other side of the picnic area, though, was something labeled Craft Cabins. We headed that way and immediately shifted from 2017 to the 1800s.

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The Craft Cabins are log homes from the 1800s that have been moved to the park and set up along a re-creation of an 1840s plank road. The plank roads were an improvement over rutted dirt roads and were built to spur development. On summer weekends, each of the cabins along the road hosts a different local artisan. This weekend there was an engraver, a potter, a quilter, and my favorite, the seamstress and her husband the antique sewing machine repairman. This couple dressed in period dress and were eager to tell us all about fashions in the late 1800s as well as the technology represented by the hand-cranked Singer sewing machines. I leafed through the fashion magazines of the day and learned about slatted bonnets, shawls, veils, parasols, glasses, petticoats, and crinolines.

 

Next up, we moved from cozy cabins to the industrial revolution. Birmingham was founded in 1871 and became the primary industrial center of the South due in no small part to its many iron and steel furnaces.  This quiet and still rural spot 30 miles to the southwest, though, is really where all that industry got its start and this park, managed by the Alabama Historic Ironworks Commission, was created in 1969 as part of an effort to preserve that history. In 1830, Daniel Hillman built a bloomery forge on the banks of the creek here. A bloomery forge was an early type of forge in use since the beginning of the iron age.  It was usually small and could be run by one or two people. Not many examples of this type of forge survive, but the foundations of this one were uncovered by a recent archaeological dig.  Though Mr. Hillman died only two years after he built his forge, the site was rich in ore and was in a prime location so a larger and more modern set of three blast furnaces was built on almost the exact same spot starting in 1859. These furnaces were used to supply pig iron to the Confederacy during the Civil War. On March 31, 1865, the furnaces were destroyed by the Union Army, but the advances made here are what gave the post-Civil-War Birmingham steel industry its start.

 

After checking out the outsides of furnace, the blower house, the water gate, and one more antique cabin, it was time for the actual hike part of our trip so we shifted again, this time from machines and industry to creeks and trees. We crossed the creek just past the furnaces intending to take a trail called the Slave Quarters Trail. First though, a word about the trails in this park, or rather the trail maps. There seem to be two different trail maps available online. The one we used is the one we got to from the “Activities” page on the website. It looks like a hand-drawn map with about 7 trails listed. We later found out that there is another trail map available from the “Forms and Links” page which is totally different. The trail names used on the first map aren’t always used on the second one. The first one has at least some mileages, while the second one has none. Really, what’s needed is a combination of the two, plus the mileage information from REI’s Hiking Project page for Tannehill.  There are many more trails here than I’d realized, which of course means we’ll have to make a return trip!

But back to the trail.  Slave Quarters Trail leads along an old roadbed, which a sign informed us had connected to the Montevallo Stage Coach Road. Being a roadbed, it was very level and easy to walk along. We saw no slave quarters or any other buildings along the route. My favorite thing about this trail though was that they have put in tree ID plaques along the way. Chet and I tried out our Tree ID Ninja skills by not looking at the plaque before we’d at least tried to identify the tree. We did … ok. I missed a few that I’m mad about, but got many others.

 

After a .7 mile amble through the woods, the trail intersects with the Old Buckville Stage Road Trail.  Turning right would have led us a mile down the road to an old slave cemetery, but in the interest of time we turned left, and almost immediately passed under a large metal arch that proclaimed we were on the “Shirley Real Trail.”  The only information I could find on this is that the trail is named for “two leaders in the conservation movement in Alabama” and is supposed to eventually have butterfly and wildflower gardens. Just past this sign another road leads off to the right to another large metal archway that is the entrance to the Boy Scout camp Camp Jack Wright.  We continued on looking for the grist mill or the pioneer farm but instead we made another shift.

 

This time, we moved from quiet idyllic nature to a bustling shopping area. We had wandered into the part of the park where they were holding their monthly Trade Days. From March through November on the third weekend of the month 350+ vendors set up stalls at Tannehill for your shopping pleasure. While we weren’t really there to shop, we did walk among the stalls a bit, and we were delighted to find a food vendor selling roasted corn – a huge favorite of Chet’s.

 

After enjoying the corn, we got our bearings again and found our way to the Grist Mill.  We checked out the dam, the millrace and the outside of the mill (it wasn’t open) before heading up a paved path towards what we hoped was the pioneer farm. This area is described as a collection of 19th and 20th century farm buildings and I had in mind something like the Mountain Farm at Oconaluftee Visitor’s Center or Cades Cove in the Smoky Mountains. What I found was not quite like that though. There was a working blacksmith shop complete with working blacksmith which was cool, but otherwise it was just a bunch of old farm buildings used for storage, none of which were opened. It was pretty disappointing.

 

We wavered a bit about whether to go back towards Trade Day to find the advertised creamery (ice cream on a summer day is just the best, isn’t it?), but decided instead to look for the train. They have a miniature railway that provides rides from the trade day area to the main camping area for $1. We could have walked the mile back to car, but I couldn’t resist the fun of a kiddie train so we found the “station” and waited for our ride. Soon we were onboard and enjoying a nice cool breeze as we rode down the track. As a bonus, when we got off in the main campground the train conductor told everybody to visit the creamery, which it turns out was NOT back in the Trade Day area, but was just across the street where the Tannehill Sweet Shoppe used to be. If that wasn’t a sign that we should get ice cream, I don’t know what it was. I had mint chocolate chip, while Chet enjoyed a salted caramel. MMMMmmm.

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The final stop of the day was the Country Store, which doubles as the campsite registration and camp store. We were hoping to find corn meal from the grist mill, but they didn’t have any that day. Most days the grist mill is actually open and staffed with a man who grinds meal, but since it was closed today they didn’t have any meal to sell. I hate that we missed both the open and working mill and the chance to buy the corn meal!

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In the end, we’d walked a respectable 3.5 miles, according to our Garmin track, but I feel like we barely scratched the surface of what this park has to offer. Tannehill Ironworks State Park has a little bit of everything – present and past, industry and recreation, ironworks and trees. Certainly in this case, opposites do attract.