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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Scary Nice: Ghost House Trail, Big Ridge State Park

When planning our little mini-vacation up in East Tennessee, we were looking to stay in a state park that would offer hiking possibilities, with other short nearby hikes we could throw in before heading back on Sunday afternoon.  Ruth covered our first destination, Norris Lake State Park, in last week’s post.  In this second installment of our three-part series, I’ll tell you about a short hike we took on our way back home.

Tennessee is crazy about state parks.  We have 22 state parks in Alabama, not counting the three historical state parks such as Tannehill Ironworks and two other former state parks being operated by local governments.  Tennessee crams 56 into a smaller state (though to be fair, they have 1/3 more people).  Some of Tennessee’s parks are really small and specialized, but there are 37 that offer some sort of overnight accommodations.  They are often relatively close to each other, and that’s the case around Norris Lake State Park, with Cove Lake State Park and Big Ridge State Park both within 30 miles of our home base for the weekend.  In fact, they are sister parks, born around the same time by TVA as recreation demonstration areas when Norris Reservoir was created in the 1930s.  Neither Cove Lake nor Big Ridge was actually on our way home, but after looking over trail descriptions for both parks, one trail jumped out at me.  In fact, it jumped out and said “Boo!”

Big Ridge State Park is about 15 miles from Norris Lake State Park, but with rural roads that make the travel time about 25 minutes.  Big Ridge has over 15 miles of hiking trails in its nearly 3,700 acres.   The Ghost House trail forms a 1.2 mile loop over easy to moderate terrain, but with a name like that, you know there’s a story behind this trail.  In fact, there are a few ghost stories associated with this trail, and the park in general.  The trail features a cemetery and the location of a reputedly haunted house.  Given that it was a nice sunny summer morning, we figured we’d be safe from any supernatural shenanigans if we took a quick pass around the loop.

After stopping by the park office and picking up a trail map, we drove past the cabins along the southern edge of this arm of Norris Lake and headed toward the Norton Gristmill for a pre-hike visit.   This particular building is a reproduction of the 1825 mill, which was in operation until the early 1930s.  TVA purchased the property and took down the mill when building Norris Dam, but in 1968 the mill was reconstructed on its original site, using some of the original mill machinery and the millstones.  It’s not an operational mill, but it looks like it could grind up some cornmeal if the raceway were operational.  There’s a legend that a man hanged his daughter there on suspicion of her being a witch.  We didn’t see any ghosts there, but we did see a group of men posing on the steps of the mill after our hike.  They looked like a wedding party, and indeed there was a wedding planned for the CCC-built historic assembly hall in the park.  It was a warm day, and with their jackets doffed and matching white shirts and black pants it looked like they were there for a hootenanny.

The parking area for the Lake Trail and Ghost House trail is just past the mill, on the right.  The paved road is gated here, but the gravel parking area can hold eight or so vehicles.  The trails don’t actually start from the parking area.  Instead, we walked past the gate and continued along the paved road for a little over .1 miles to reach the trailhead for the Lake Trail.  This little stretch of road was right along a little cove, and we were entertained by a lively little goldfinch darting among the branches of a fallen tree.

A kiosk on the other side of the Lake Trail sign has a trail map and park info.  Almost immediately, a wooden bridge crosses a narrow creek, and the trail skirts the edge of the lake for .1 miles to the junction of the Lake and Ghost House trails.  Well, it was sort of a junction — as you can see on the sign, it looks like we were to turn right on a spur trail that was 0.0 miles long.  I’m not quite sure I see the point of that sign, but OK.  Maybe it was a warning that we were entering the Other Dimension.

Both the Lake Trail and the Ghost House trail are well marked with the plastic trail markers we’ve seen used in other Tennessee state parks.  Each trail marker is color-coded to match the trail map, and is customized with the park’s name — pretty sharp.  Maybe you get nice things like that when your legislature funds your parks.  I noticed some painted yellow blazes along the Ghost House trail too, which probably pre-date the newer marking system.

After traveling 0.0 miles (actually, about 50 yards) we came to the “real” Lake-Ghost House intersection and turned away from the lake and into the woods.  The trail was mostly level, maybe slanting slightly uphill, and was nicely shady.  It was a warm morning, though, and we needed to generate some breeze by moving along quickly.  The trail runs along a low ridgetop, with some portions flanked by running cedar ferns.

At .4 miles, we came upon one of the ghostly highlights of the hike — the Norton Cemetery.  The cemetery has marked graves from 1907-1929, and I’d guess there are about a dozen markers ranged around the small clearing in the woods.  The cemetery is the final resting place for Maston Hutcheson and his wife Martha, among others.  Harm Norton is one of three Nortons buried here, and there’s a sad little rock with just the name “Ibby” carved on it.  The grave of Maston Hutcheson is sunken, which no doubt has inspired some of the tales that his spirit wanders the park.

Let’s talk ghost stories for a moment.  The most-circulated stories about this area seem to be the tale of the death of Maston’s daughter Mary, who succumbed to tuberculosis.  Some versions of the story say that neighbors on the way to the house came across a phantom dog, and other versions say that they heard her cries coming from the bedroom after her death.  Supposedly, some park visitors have heard the ghost dog panting in the woods.   I should note that Mary is not buried in the Norton cemetery, since she likely died in the 1840s or 1850s, and the Norton cemetery is not that old.   Local legend has it that Maston wanders the woods.  Another oft-repeated tale about the cemetery is that in some photographs of the cemetery, silhouettes of the occupants can be seen by their graves.

None of our pictures showed anything ghostly, and the only thing panting in the woods was two hikers starting to feel the heat and humidity.  We ran into one dead thing right outside the cemetery as we resumed our hike:  a pine tree down across the trail, which we easily skirted.  Just .1 mile from the cemetery, we reached the intersection with the Big Valley trail.  Big Valley is one of the longer and more difficult trails in the park, and crosses Pinnacle Ridge, descends into Dark Valley, and rises to the top of the park’s namesake Big Ridge.  Sadly, we didn’t have time to visit this area of the park, but we did travel the .05 miles to the site of the “ghost house.”

A sign at the ghost house site explains that this is the site of Maston Hutcheson’s grandson’s house, which is apparently one of the houses in the area that was reputedly haunted.  There’s not much to see now — a hole that was once a root cellar,  a cistern, and a well casing are all that remain of the house.  Apparently the Hutcheson family home was nearby.

We resumed our loop, noticing that the western side the trail seemed to be less traveled.  The footbed was narrower, as we had left the former wagon road along the ridgetop.  A small creek ran next to the trail, and occasionally the trail crossed it on short wooden bridges.  One such bridge had the “ghosts” of two former bridges on either side — a footlog and the wreckage of a small wooden bridge.  This part of the trail was once farmed, though the woods have reclaimed the fields.  With the nearby creek, this is a good area for wildflowers earlier in the spring.  We didn’t see any wildflowers, but this is the one section of the trail that had raspberries on it.

The trail undulates a little on the western side of the loop, descending down one side of the ridge, leveling out along the creek, and then climbing once to gain some elevation before dropping back down along the creek.  We saw our only notable wildflower in bloom just before arriving back at the Ghost House-Lake trail intersection — a lone smooth phlox in a sunny patch beside the trail.

After returning to the Lake trail junction, we just retraced our steps back to the car.  The total distance was 1.5 miles according to our GPS track.

Despite its scary name and reputation, we found the Ghost House trail to be a pleasant, easy walk in the woods with a couple of interesting historic sites along the way.  Of course, we hiked it in broad daylight!  It might be a different story on a night hike, and the park offers guided hikes in October that probably crank up the scariness.  And if you’re there at any time, in the back country and off trail, you just might see a middle-aged man in gray work pants and a red flannel shirt.  Better look quickly, because he vanishes right before your eyes – or so the rangers say.

Keeping it Cool: Adventures at Norris Dam State Park

Every time Chet and I get the crazy notion to go out hiking – in the Deep South – in the heat of summer – without fail I spend at least part of the time while I’m walking thinking about how lucky we are to have air conditioning and wondering how on earth people survived a southern summer without it. This past weekend’s hike at Norris Dam State Park in East Tennessee was no exception to that rule, except that I was not just marveling at the idea of folks being able to sit around in the heat without air conditioning.  No, I was marveling at the idea of men going out, every day, possibly during the heat of the summer (I can’t be sure about that part) and actually building the trails I was hiking on.  I’ve done some trail building, and can speak from experience about what a labor-intensive, sweat-inducing job that is.  And these men weren’t just building trails, but I’ll get to that later.

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Chet and I had picked Norris Dam State Park for a spur-of-the-moment weekend trip away from home based on only a few criteria:  it needed to be someplace we hadn’t been before, be no more than 4 hours drive away, have some interesting sounding hiking or other outdoor adventures available, and have available and reasonably priced cabins for the weekend. We made the decision to get out of town less than a week ahead of time, so this last requirement was actually the hardest one to fill. When I looked on Tennessee State Parks’ “Browse Cabins by Park” page, there were only 3 parks with an available cabin that fit the rest of our criteria. Norris Dam State Park had the added benefit of being right down the road from Big Ridge State Park, so we figured if Norris trails turned out to be a bust, we had a whole other park to explore right next door. Norris Dam it was.

The drive up turned out to be more like 5 hours than 4 – Chattanooga was a mess (as it often is, I’m afraid) and we hadn’t thought about the fact that with July 4th falling mid-week this year, lots of folks were adding a few extra vacation days on before-hand and were already out snarling up the highways. Also, apparently many of them can’t drive, since there seemed to be wrecks and traffic slowdowns way more often than normal. Luckily for us, the park office stayed open until 6:30. We squeaked in at 6:15. Whew!

The park itself is nice, but I’ll save my review of the cabins and the park itself for next time. This post is just going to be about the trails we explored on Saturday. As I may have mentioned before, I’m not really a morning person, so though an early start on the trail would have been cooler, there was no way I was getting up early on my vacation. Adding in time to sit on the porch rocking chairs and drink my morning coffee, we didn’t end up hitting the trails until around 10:00. I’d picked out a fairly easy sounding set of looping trails that would allow us to cover what looked to me to be the most interesting parts of the eastern section of the park. We started our hike out at a spot labeled as the “Historic CCC Tea Room.” I have to say that the idea that the CCC guys built a “tea room” makes me a little skeptical, but we wanted to check out the building anyway. It turns out to be a beautiful space which is now a favorite venue for weddings and company dinners. I can certainly see why.

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After checking out the Tea Room, we headed down to our first trail. Christmas Fern Trail is a shady half-mile loop trail described in the park trail descriptions as a great spot for plant diversity. We didn’t see some of the plants described by the park, but that could be because I was distracted by all the wild red raspberries lining the trail.  I’ve often seen blackberries on a trail, or blueberries. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a wild red raspberry and this trail had masses of them. (They were getting ripe too.  Delicious.) The trail itself is short, but well maintained and besides the raspberries has some nice lake views. We opted to take the “high” part of the loop.

 

Soon we came to the intersection with the even shorter Lakeside Trail. This .4 mile trail also has a lollipop loop at the eastern end, and we opted for the “high” section of that one as well. It’s a very small loop and we’d barely started on it before we came to the “stick” part of the trail. This trail is wide and really soft underfoot. It had good views of the lake and one spot had a small side trail that led down towards the water with a lake-facing sign at the end. I just had to go see what the sign said. I was expecting “State Park Property” or “Don’t Anchor Here” or something like that, but what I got was “Caution: Oxygen Pipes.” Sure enough, down the bank there were a cluster of pipes running into the water. What the heck was that all about? Unable to see any other explanations, we just made a note of it and headed on down the trail.

 

Lakeside Trail comes out in a parking lot across from the visitor’s center for Norris Dam. Part of the reason I picked this trail was so that we could check out the visitor’s center too. We checked out a memorial plaque and admired the thoughtfully provided concrete bench shaded by a lovely tree, then crossed the road toward the center. Along the way I noticed a novel thing – a solar-paneled phone charging station complete with a variety of charger connections! Surely a marketing thing to tie in with TVA’s energy-providing vision, it was still pretty cool. Speaking of cool, the building was mercifully air conditioned. I was especially grateful for that because outside of the protective shade of the trees on the trail, the sun was blazing and the humidity was miserable. The center is small and provides air conditioning, bathrooms, and an exhibit chock full of information, photos, artifacts, and videos related to the the vision of TVA and the building of this dam. Construction on Norris Dam started in 1933, just months after the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority, and was completed in 1936. This and other dams on the Tennessee and its tributaries brought transformative change to an area hard-hit by the Great Depression. We also learned what the oxygen pipes were for – fish! Part of TVA’s mission is service, which includes the management of public lands and waterways to support recreation, including fishing. They enrich oxygen levels below some dams in order to provide fisherfolk with healthy and probably hefty fish.

 

After enjoying the displays (and the air conditioning) for awhile, we headed back out to complete our hike. We retraced our path on the Lakeside Trail until we got to the lollipop part, but this time we took the lower loop to the intersection with Christmas Fern Trail. This lower loop section was the only slightly challenging part of this section of the hike. The trail heads down to the edge of the lake to a spot where there were a couple of steps leading into the lake. The park discourages all swimming in the lake, I assume because they don’t have a developed beach area, but we did see a couple swimming from there.  I’ll be honest – had the small spot not already been occupied, I might have been tempted to jump in to cool off. From there it was a fairly steep but short uphill climb to the trail intersection with Christmas Fern Trail, where we again took the lower loop.

 

Next up was Tall Timbers Trail – .4 mile trail that was part of the CCC trail system. This one connected the dam with the rustic cabins. It had lots of shade, nice lake views, and more raspberries. On this busy nearly-a-holiday weekend, it also had a pretty good soundtrack provided by all the boaters out enjoying themselves on the lake.

According to the park-provided map, this trail should have taken us straight up to one of the rustic cabins, where we would connect up with the Highpoint Trail. Either we missed a turn or there’s been a reroute because we ended up on the yellow blazed Lake View Trail instead. Lake View is a 4.5 mile trail that winds around a peninsula that juts out into Norris Lake. According to the trail description, it also has remnants of old homesteads. Interesting as that sounded, 4.5 miles was just not going to be in the cards for me on this hot and humid day,  so we turned uphill towards High Point instead to connect with our final planned trail of the day, Camp Sam Trail.

 

Named “Camp Sam” after a boy scout leader who popularized the area for primitive camping, this almost mile long trail leads towards CCC Camp 494, also known as Camp Kinchen. When I’d planned to hike this set of trails, it appealed to me to see both Norris Dam and the ruins of Camp Kinchen. I had the mistaken idea that the guys who built the Dam were CCC recruits who stayed at the camp. I don’t know where I got that idea, but I was wrong about that. The Dam was built by folks hired by TVA. CCC Camp 494 was set up in 1936, after the dam was probably complete, and the men there took on projects like planting trees, setting up fish hatcheries, and putting in miles of fences. They were not, however, involved in building the cabins in the park. The rustic cabins, the tea room, the trails, an amphitheater and playgrounds were built by CCC Company 4493 starting around the same time as the dam was being built.

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The camp is at about the midpoint of the trail, and is reached either along an old roadbed from a parking area off US Highway 441, or down the hill  from High Point.  We came from High Point and though this section was steeper, the gravel in the footpath gave it away as an old roadbed even here. After passing a spur trail up to the rustic cabins and a couple of other closed trails put in for fire control, we spotted a set of stone steps leading down into a clearing. Though not the official route to get to the camp, we opted to take this short cut and get straight to exploring the camp itself. A gravel loop road circles the clearing, lined with about half a dozen plaques describing camp life and the buildings that had once been there. Some foundations remain and it was interesting to look at the pictures from the era on the plaques and compare it to the tangle of trees and vines in front of us. I learned an interesting fact from one of these plaques – CCC’ers gained an average of 12 pounds in their first few months – in part due to getting actual meals, and probably in part due to building up muscle from the labor.  We wandered around the camp and imagined what it might have been like to be there in the 1930s, when the camp had barracks, a blacksmith shop, kitchens, grease pits, an infirmary, a gas station, a recreation hall, a camp store, and much more. 200 unmarried men between the ages of 17 and 28 lived here, serving for between 6 months to two years. They earned $30 a month, $25 of which was sent home to their families. They were provided with housing, food, clothing, and medical care. In an era when jobs were scarce and scraping together 3 meals a day pretty tough to do, the CCC was a life-saving option for many young men. All that, plus they learned valuable skills that served them well after they left the Corps.

 

Since the final half mile out to the other end of the trail didn’t look like it had any other interesting sites, and frankly because it was so freaking hot, we decided just to head on back to camp. Originally, I was going to hike back up to High Point and follow that back to the cabins, but since we’d spotted the spur trail up to the cabins, we thought we’d give that a try. The trail climbed at an angle up the steep ridge topped by the cabins, with a couple of switchbacks to make the going a bit easier. We came out on a road leading away from the East Campground, and followed that back up to the cabin loop. Our hike had taken us a little more than 3 miles, which was plenty far enough on such a hot day. At our “rustic” cabin again, we reveled in the the fact that thanks to the TVA dam builders and the men of CCC Camp 4493, we could enjoy air conditioning and ice cold diet Dr. Pepper, all in the comfort of a snug and sturdy cabin.

 

Red Mountain Rising

Picture this:  a large group of enthusiastic people in a room ringed with whiteboards.  “Trails, of course,” someone says, and everyone nods.  “Not just for walking — good ones for bikes too,” adds someone else.  “Then we’ll need some kind of maintenance stations for the bikes,” chimes in another.   Yeah, that’s good.  “But the history of this property — surely that has to be part of it,” says another voice.   We’re going to need interpretive signage.  “Oh yeah, and we have to weave in history and nature education too, maybe in outdoor classrooms,” says another.  “And what about people with mobility issues, and those with sensory challenges,” pipes up another voice.  Heads nod.  “And what about something on the either extreme — ropes courses, zip lines, climbing towers — that could drive the active recreation crowd through the gates,” shouts an enthusiast.  People cheer!  Outdoor art!  And what about a dog park!  The whiteboards are getting clogged with ideas.

I don’t know if that’s how it really went down in the early planning years for Red Mountain Park in Birmingham, but this 1,500-acre urban park is a brimming mixture of topography, geology, philanthropy, biology, archaeology, adventure, and opportunity.  Red Mountain looms large literally, separating Jones Valley and Shades Valley on the west-central side of Birmingham, and figuratively too, with its seams of red hematite iron ore forming one of the pillars of the city’s iron industry.  With its ready access to iron ore, limestone, and coal, Birmingham was the foundry of the South, prior to the Civil War up until the Depression, when mining activity wound down rapidly.  There was a brief renaissance in the local iron and steel industry during World War Two, but the last producing iron mine in the area closed in 1971.

US Steel was the last owner of the mine complex on Red Mountain.  The last mine on present park property closed in 1962, and the property laid untouched for the next forty years.  In 2005 the Freshwater Land Trust started raising money with the intention of buying the property and preserving it as a park, and US Steel sold the land at a $9.5 million discount, and then threw in another million to help develop the property.  With funding from Jefferson County, the Federal Government, and grants, the property was purchased in 2007 and the first tours of the property began in 2008.  As parks go, it’s quite young.  It’s not technically a state park, though it is run by a state agency, the Red Mountain Greenway and Recreational Area Commission.  Naturally, this being Alabama, it means that the park receives no state funding.

Yet gloriously, it’s free.  The park is primarily funded by its members, who contribute voluntarily to the non-profit organization which runs the park’s day to day operations, and receive invites to special events and discounts on park adventures.  There are a few donation collection boxes here and there for the casual visitor, but with grants and fees generated from event rentals, corporate retreats, and adventure courses anyone can enjoy the 15 miles of developed trails and visit the overlooks and historic mine sites without paying an entrance fee.

With hiking, history, and zip lines, Red Mountain Park has been on our radar for quite a while, and we found a big enough gap in a rainy weekend to pop down to the Magic City for a visit.  We wouldn’t have time for an extended visit, so I suggested just a small sampler of what the park had to offer — a short loop hike past the Adventure Area, past a couple of mines, and a quick trip to a treehouse.  Here’s a pro tip for any fellow travelers coming from the north — Google Maps plotted a course that had us exit I-65 at Exit 258, where we wound through neighborhoods and an industrial park without seeing any signage whatsoever for Red Mountain Park until we saw the sign for the parking lot.  The directions to the park entrance at 2011 Frankfurt Drive were accurate, but if you go on down to Exit 255 and go west on Lakeshore Parkway, signage is plentiful.  Either route will get you there, though.

There are three large gravel parking lots at the entrance, with many people parking on the shoulder of Frankfurt Drive (quite unnecessarily).  The park entrance is unassuming — just through a metal gate in a wooden fence, where a shipping container sits underneath the trees.  The shipping container is the Welcome Station, and is staffed.  This is where you check in if you’ve signed up for any of the park’s adventure courses.  You can also get information, water, and park merchandise there.

The entrance has two very interesting features, just past the Welcome Station.  On the right, there’s an artifact donation box.  That’s the first time I’ve seen one in a park, and it’s a reminder that this park is a very large industrial archaeology site, with mining operations active here since 1863.  Of course, my archaeologist daughter would chide me if I didn’t remind you that context is key in archaeology, and removing an artifact from its original location is to be avoided whenever possible.  A donation box is better than having your artifact walk out of the park in someone’s pocket, though.  The other interesting feature is on the left — a bike repair station.  There are four of these scattered in the park to service riders, with tire pumps and tools available, and very nicely designed to integrate the park’s logo.  Clever idea!

The wide gravel path (technically the Eureka Mines trail) passes a pair of porta-potties, which I mention only to point out that there aren’t any permanent restrooms in the park yet.  Just a few feet beyond, a .11 mile trail takes off to the right to Remy’s Dog Park, a six-acre off-leash park with areas for large dogs, small dogs, and special needs dogs.  We may need to check that out on a future trip — I’m curious about what you’d find in a special needs dog park.

Most of the trails we traveled on this particular visit were broad, largely flat, and graveled to some degree.  Trails are numbered and color-coded, with manufactured wood signposts and printed graphics at some junctions, and plain wooden posts labeled with permanent marker at others (obviously a work in progress).  After crossing the L&N trail, we passed a picnic area off to the right with a whimsical pair of oversized industrial-flavored spectacles up on a mound.  A little farther up the trail we passed one of the three hammock areas in the park.  These are sets of posts with hooks in them, suitable for quickly hanging your hammock for a nice rest in the shade.  It was pretty warm and humid on the day of our visit, so there were no takers at the time.

In .55 miles we reached the intersection with the BMRR South trail, the main southwest to northeast trail on the southern edge of the park.  This is also the general location of the Adventure Area, where another shipping container is the staging area for the various fee-based activities.  There’s a rope and cable obstacles course, a zip line tour, a climbing tower, and a mega-zip line (a 1,000-foot zip, starting 80 feet above the ground).  Rates are pretty reasonable, but all such adventures must be booked 24 hours in advance.  You can book online from Red Mountain Park’s website, or via telephone.

We took the #13 Mine trail past the Adventure Area, which had the added bonus of taking us past part of the high ropes course and underneath one of the zip lines.  Ruth thought that one of the cable obstacles resembled flying turtles when seen from below.  She sure does love her turtles!  We paused for a bit to watch  some zip liners make their way across the trail.  We will definitely have to come back and try out the course ourselves.  The part we saw seemed a little less intimidating that the courses at Lake Guntersville State Park or at Historic Banning Mills, but we only saw a small portion of the course.

Only .14 miles from the Adventure Area, we arrived at Mine #13.  The mines themselves are sealed, in case you were thinking of doing some underground exploring.  Mine #13 was active 1873-1933, and is the oldest of the five mines in the park.  Little of the machinery remains — some rusted pipes here and there, and a sealed smaller entrance off to the side of the main entrance.  Historical interpretive signage would be nice here, but as an alternative you can download the free TravelStorys app for your own self-guided tour.  Another pro tip — download the app before you get to the park.  There is cell phone coverage in the park, but you’ll want to pull down this tour in advance so you can enjoy the scenery instead of staring at your phone.

After a quick lunch at the picnic table by the mine, we retraced our steps back to the Ike Maston trail and headed northeast to visit Mine #14.  The Ike Maston trail is another main southwest-northeast artery through the park, and unlike some of the other trails this is a narrower, natural surface trail with some elevation change.  We soon teed into the #14 Mine trail, which betrayed its origins as a rail spur with its wide corridor and gentle slope up to the mine.  This was one of better stretches for early summer wildflowers, such as black-eyed Susan and St. Andrew’s cross.  Mine #14 was active from 1895-1941.  Both mines had slopes cleared, extending uphill from their entrances, and you can glimpse remnants of the structure that supported the winches and cables that pulled the ore cars uphill for processing and loading onto trains.

Our next destination was the mountaintop itself, which we reached in about .2 miles with a couple of moderate climbs, nothing that would qualify as particularly steep.  We teed into the Ishkooda trail, where we had the option of heading .75 miles east to Grace’s Gap, where the first iron ore discovery was made in the Birmingham area, or heading west toward Riley’s Roost, one of three treehouses in the park.  We opted not to add the 1.5 mile out-and-back to Grace’s Gap, and instead strolled along the wide ridgetop trail.  Though it’s not called out specifically on the trail map, the ruins of the Mine #14 bathhouse are off to the left about .17 miles after making the turn onto the Ishkooda trail, in the same area as Riley’s Roost.  The concrete foundation of the bathhouse is largely intact, albeit with a tree or two growing out of it, and the TravelStory for that site was particularly interesting, pointing out the pains taken at the mine to battle diseases that typically ravaged mining camps.  The superstructure of the building is gone, but you can climb some steps to reach the floor level of the bathhouse, where floor drains and the remains of some ceramic tiles are still in place.  The bathhouse was far more interesting than the treehouse, which was just a small unroofed platform around a tree trunk.

We resumed our walk westward on the Ishkooda trail, which was now flanked with various building ruins and foundations.  There weren’t any identifying signs by the ruins, but later we found a kiosk with a terrific labeled photo of the site in the late 1940s, from which we gathered we had passed the ruins of the compressor house and the #13 tipple.  We continued on to the TCI Connector trail, which marks the end of the Ishkooda trail and the beginning of the Skyhy Ridge Walk trail, and took a moment to study the historical photo on a kiosk and listen to the TravelStory about the maintenance shop (which now houses a picnic area inside its ruins).

To complete our loop, we headed south on the TCI Connector trail, which led us past the beginning of the zip line course and the Kaul adventure tower before teeing into the BMRR South trail.  We turned west to extend our hike a little bit on this wide, pleasant rail-to-trail, passing the entrance to the Butler Snow Sensory Trail, designed for low-vision/low-hearing/developmentally different children and adults.  We eventually turned left onto the L&N trail, passing an outdoor classroom, and retraced our steps back toward the Eureka Mines trail and the park entrance.  All told, we covered about 3.25 miles.

All in all, it was a very pleasant introduction to Red Mountain, which merits at least two more visits to take in the adventure courses and the trails and sights on the southwestern end of the park.   And who knows what this idea factory of a park will look like on our return?  From signs posted in the park, you can tell that they are already filling up the whiteboards again:  more trails!  Picnic pavilions!  New formal entrance!  Event facility!  Farmer’s market!

Quick Look: Cathedral Caverns State Park

 

 

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Trail Name: Various trails, Cathedral Caverns State Park

Location: Grant, Alabama

Length:  Interlocking 3.8 mile loop

Rating: Easy to moderate

Points of interest:  Rocky bluffs, caves and sinkholes, creek, and of course, Cathedral Caverns, a great place to cool off on a hot day

Blog Post: Cathedral Caverns State Park

Notes:  Figure-8 loop hike for all ages, with a couple of steep climbs

GPS Track: Cathedral Caverns State Park

Lazy River: Paint Rock River

Nearly three years ago now, Chet and I took our first trip down the Paint Rock River. We had seen the river from the shore while visiting the Nature Conservancy’s Whittaker Preserve, and thought it looked like a pretty river to kayak on.  We quickly discovered, though, that the Paint Rock was sort of the “also ran” of North Alabama floatable rivers. No outfitters serviced it, like the NACK does the Flint, or Ft. Hampton Outfitters does on the Elk, and it wasn’t heavily enough used that there were established put in and take out points.  In the end, we just googled until we thought we saw some likely put-in spots up the Paint Rock Valley and gave it a shot. It was a bit tricky to get on the river, but once we were there we enjoyed it very much.

Fast forward two years to 2017 and Paint Rock River Canoe and Kayak opened.  This new outfitter provides boat rentals, shuttle services, and parking right next to the Paint Rock River. We’ve been meaning to give them a try, so fast forward another year (we’re slow that way) and last Saturday was finally the day for it. As is normal in Alabama in June, it was hot and the lure of paddling down a shady, cool river just could not be denied. About 10 minutes farther east on US Highway 72 from NACK, Paint Rock Canoe is just about as easy to find, though you do have to turn off of 72 onto Keel Road and go about 200 feet to get to the parking lot. There is a large and distinctive sign though and Google maps took us right to it with no problems.

We parked alongside several other vehicles and as we were walking to the office, the pickup van was heading out to pick some folks up. They stopped to let us know the office was empty for a few minutes while they got somebody started on the river, but that somebody would be there soon.  We walked in and spotted the normal waiver forms on the desk and went ahead and filled them out while we waited. I think we’d barely finished by the time Rachel came back and quickly got us squared away. The normal float trip they provide starts from the back of the parking lot, which is right on the river, and takes you about 5 miles downriver to the bridge over 72. They also do a longer trip – an 8 hour one that starts north someplace in the Paint Rock Valley and ends at their office. We’d arrived around noon, so opted for the shorter trip. Rachel had us pull our truck right down to the river and offered to help us get underway. We declined her kind offer, but it’s a mark of what nice, helpful people these are – they really make you feel welcome and well taken care of. She told us that the river was flowing pretty well that day – the only spot we were likely to have issues with dragging was right at the beginning – and that we just needed to follow the main channel and bear to the right if we ever had any doubts. She also told us about how to find the Blue Spring, which they claim springs from water that comes out of Cathedral Caverns over in Grant.

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Armed with this information and the phone number to call when we wanted to be picked up we soon were out floating down the river. Sure enough, the first little bit was shallow enough that our kayaks dragged on the bottom a bit, but we were soon past that and into the leafy green coolness. I think the last time we floated down the Paint Rock, I thought it was a lot like the Flint,  just a bit less crowded.  In this stretch, though, it seems calmer and shadier than its more well-known cousin.  This day, anyway, the current was strong enough to move us without our having to put in much effort at all; it was a bit like floating on those lazy river rides popular at water parks, but with better scenery and fewer crying children.

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It was, however, a bit noisier in some ways than the Flint. That river flows away from the highway and mostly between fields. Once you get away from 72, it’s really pretty quiet. The Paint Rock in this stretch winds roughly parallel to 72. You can’t see the highway from the water, but road noise rarely disappears entirely. It’s not overwhelming – it’s just there, humming in the background. You can’t pick the course of a river, though, and it wasn’t so distracting that it prevented me in any way from enjoying myself.

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Continuing with our river comparisons, one thing Chet pointed out is that this river was the polar opposite of our last float down the Elk River. That trip was notable for strong headwinds that required much muscling of boats through the water, plus an absolute total lack of suitable beach spots. There was not a single place we found where we could pull over and get out of the kayaks. The Paint Rock, in addition to requiring almost no effort from my poor wimpy arms, had frequent and lovely beach spots. You had your pick of gravelly beaches, sandy/muddy beaches or grassy clearings. We took advantage of one of the sandy/muddy ones and had a nice lunch. I thought about diving in to the deeper spot, but opted to just wade out until the water was around mid-thigh. That cooled me off enough without making me smell quite as much like a river.

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Another difference we noticed, this time with the Flint, is that though we were absolutely serenaded with birdsong the whole way, we didn’t actually spot much wildlife or even wildflowers. I spotted one turtle and a few common songbirds, but no great blue heron led us down the river, as usually happens on the Flint. We had seen one farther upriver last time, though, so maybe it’s just that this section is too close to civilization for them.

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We had been keeping our eyes peeled for the Blue Spring since it was described as a can’t miss feature on the river. Rachel back in the office told us the water changed to a beautiful blue and the temperature dropped something like 20 degrees where the spring water flowed into the river. We came upon a large beach filled with kayaks and just downstream from a rope swing. There were probably 15 people hanging out there, testing their skills on the swing, splashing around in the water, and sitting on the beach. For a minute we wondered if this was the Blue Spring, but it didn’t quite match up to the description we’d been given so we paddled on. A couple of turns in the river later, and we heard a commotion. Remember when I said that this was “like a lazy river, but with fewer screaming children”? Notice I didn’t imply that there were none. A couple and their probably early elementary aged son were at the Blue Spring, and the lad had been traumatized by having his second snake of the trip drop in the water in front of his boat on their way up the flow from the spring. One snake was probably bad enough, but a second one just sent him right over the edge, poor kid. I do have to note that we saw zero snakes ourselves, so I think they just had really snaky luck. We actually ended up riding back in the van with them from the pick up spot and he seemed to have recovered, though I’m guessing it’ll be a while before Mom and Dad talk him into a a fun float down a river again!

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After the three off them headed on down the river, Chet and I were able to pull our boats up on the small beach area next to where the spring water flows over what looks like a beaver dam and into the river proper. It is a beautiful spot. The water behind the dam is crystal clear and does look blue compared to the murky green of the Paint Rock. It’s pretty dang cold, too, though I can’t vouch for exactly 20 degrees colder. We opted not to portage our kayaks up over the beaver dam to explore the spring itself, having been told it didn’t actually go that far back before it dead ended. In hindsight, I sort of wish we had, but maybe next time. Just about the time we were leaving the spring, the large crowd from the rope swing showed up and it got to a bit difficult to negotiate around all the kayaks vying for space on the beach. This is a good place to point out that generally, Paint Rock Canoe and Kayak allows three or four people per trip, but obviously you can also make arrangements for larger groups.

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Soon after we left the spring, we came to the railroad bridge and then almost immediately after that we spotted the beach on the left bank that is the takeout spot. Just beyond the beach, Highway 72 crosses over the river. As instructed, I’d called the office when I got to the railroad bridge, and they had a van already on the way. They arrived before we even got our kayaks beached and then took it from there – loading our kayaks on the trailer while we settled into the van for a chat with the Blue Spring family. The ride back is a short one and soon we were watching as our kayaks were unloaded and washed down (nice touch!). They also provided everybody with delicious ice pops and then helped us load our boats onto our truck.

 

 

Our trip took us almost exactly 3 hours from put-in to driving off with kayaks loaded, and covered  a tad bit more than 4 river miles.  Paint Rock Canoe and Kayak folks made all the logistics easy and were super friendly and helpful. The river itself was beautiful, peaceful, and most important in an Alabama summer, COOL. After that initial shallow spot, the river seemed to stay around 3 or more feet deep the whole way, with no rapids to speak of. If you’re looking for whitewater thrills, this is perhaps not the river for you. But if you’re looking for a calm peaceful float down a river lined with great picnic beach spots, this stretch of the Paint Rock just might be for you!

 

 

Lake Glenville’s High Falls: Or, How I Tried to Kill My Family (Again)

For many years, we’ve met up with my side of the family for a little mini-vacation, usually over a holiday weekend.  As the kids have grown and the adults’ tolerance for sleeping on the ground has dissipated, we’ve been transitioning from camping to staying in vacation rentals (mountain cabins, beach house, that sort of thing).  The cast of characters fluctuates over the years, depending on prior obligations and the availability of friends/girlfriends/boyfriends.  This year’s edition occurred over the Memorial Day weekend, during which a bunch of us drove to Lake Glenville in western North Carolina to stay in a lake house.

Knowing that we’d be on a lake, Ruth and I loaded up the kayaks on the truck for the roughly 5.5 hour drive.  The house was great — well supplied, plenty of sleeping spaces, and a killer view of the northern end of Lake Glenville. Over the years, certain family traditions have built up for these vacations — card and board games, usually some shopping and touring of local towns, maybe some adventure (jet skis, whitewater rafting, that sort of thing), a beer sampling night for the adults, and crazy Chet and Ruth pick out a nearby hike. My family loves me and tolerates our outdoors addiction, and any able-bodied members of the clan turn out for the stroll (as I call it), or the forced march (as my family calls it).

With a subtropical storm wallowing around down in the Gulf of Mexico, we had to time our outdoor plans.  It just happened that the best time for a hike was Saturday morning.  I had done some research on the excellent Ashevilletrails.com site, and knew we were in a target-rich environment for short hikes to waterfalls.  It turns out one of our best options was about 5 minutes away by paddle, and 20 minutes by car on the winding mountain roads.  Lake Glenville is a man-made lake created by damming the west fork of the Tuckaseegee River, and is also fed by/feeds into many creeks.  The west fork of the Tuckaseegee flows over a spillway in the north end of the lake and winds its way generally northeast to join the main Tuckaseegee River.  Along the way, it plummets 150 feet in a two-drop waterfall that can be pretty spectacular when there’s a lot of water.

We drove around to the large gravel parking lot and set off down the .7 mile High Falls trail from the kiosk to the bottom of the gorge.  At first the trail was just a wide gravel road, bending down below the road and behind the dam, passing a few stands of Deptford pink along the way.  At .15 miles, the gravel road ended, and the trail entered the shady woods.  This trail drops 500 feet in .7 miles, and quickly got down to serious business with a wide wooden stairway.  The descent became more gradual for a little while, with our first sightings of large stands of purple-flowering raspberry in the sunnier patches of the trail.

This is a relatively new trail, built in 2013 mostly from materials onsite, and it’s quite an engineered trail, with several flights of stone staircases, increasing in steepness as they near the bottom of the gorge.  At .4 miles a nice boardwalk spans a soggy portion of the trail, with the roar of the river off to the right.  The trail was fairly busy, with small groups coming up from the bottom and others passing us on the way down.  We were traveling carefully, as our group consisted of me (slow in the best of circumstances), Ruth (broken leg survivor), my sister (a bit cautious), my brother-in-law (bad knees), my niece (carrying a baby), my grand-nephew (the aforementioned baby), and my nephew (carrying the requisite 60-pound baby bag).  The narrow stone staircases do not have rails, and at one point my sister stepped to the side of a staircase thinking the footing would be better.  That would be a hard no, and resulted in a jarring fall that skinned up her arm and made her question her choice of white shorts for the hike.  But we pressed on.

The longest, steepest descent began at .5 miles, and at .6 miles we reached a vantage point for the top of the waterfall, which was absolutely roaring.  The rocks were slicker here, given the general dampness from the falls, so at this point the sensible members of the family decided to enjoy the view, then return to the top.  Needless to say, Ruth and I went on down the last .1 mile to the bottom of the waterfall, where we crept out on some rocks near the base to admire the furious water and to be blasted by a steady stream of spray, which felt pretty good on this warm, humid morning.

After a good soak, we were ready to make our way back up the trail, and slowly climbed out of the gorge without further incident.  It was a tough climb, rather to our surprise, but we made it back to the parking lot without incident.  My family had long since returned to the house.  We later found out that my niece, nephew, and baby Emmitt made the return journey just fine, while us oldsters were still complaining of achy joints two days later.  Naturally, that means we need to do more hiking!

One note about High Falls:  the amount of water in the falls varies widely.  On certain days Duke Energy releases water from the lake to create a terrific whitewater run on the west fork below the falls.  I don’t think this was one of those planned release days — there had just been so much rain lately that there was a lot of water.  Compare my photos above to the one in this photo from Ashevilletrails.com, and you’ll see what I mean.  And one other thing — this relatively short, steep trail that was so taxing on us, is actually meant for kayakers to carry their watercraft down to the base of the falls to put in for the whitewater run.  That’s pretty impressive — but I bet there aren’t many of them carrying a kayak AND a baby.

 

Quick Look: Madison County Nature Trail

 

 

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Trail Name: Madison County Nature Trail

Location: Green Mountain, Huntsville

Length:  1.5 mile loop

Rating: Easy

Points of interest:  Covered bridge, a reconstructed log cabin, an outdoor classroom, a chapel, picnic area, picnic pavilion, and Sky Lake

Blog Post: Easy Peasy Hikes: Madison County Nature Trail

Notes:  An easy loop hike for all ages, with little elevation change

GPS Track: none