Triple Scoop with Sprinkles: Wildflowers at Cane Creek Canyon Nature Preserve

Longtime readers of this blog know about our wildflower identification motivational tool:  if we identify ten wildflowers while on a hike, we get ice cream!  It’s something that we started when our kids were young, but now they’re full grown adults and moved away to the Big City.  But we still love ice cream, so the tradition stands.

We’ve enjoyed our late winter/early spring hikes, but this year we haven’t really had one that featured a lot of wildflowers.  We were definitely feeling ice cream withdrawal, so it was time to throw down a hike at a reliably flower-festooned site.  After considering options, we decided it was time for another visit to one of our favorite sites in the entire Tennessee Valley, the Cane Creek Canyon Nature Preserve.  This magnificent 700-acre privately owned preserve near Tuscumbia, AL is, simply put, a treasure.  The owners, Jim and Faye Lacefield, opened the preserve in 1996, totally free of charge, and are frequently at the welcome kiosk to hand out maps and advice.

With the COVID-19 crisis cooping folks up indoors, all of the area outdoor resources are seeing record use as people seek some fresh air therapy as a cure for cabin fever.  We’ve been working from home, so we have cabin fever too, but we’re fortunate to still be gainfully employed and (knock on wood) healthy.  Cane Creek has also been under siege, but to give you some idea of the generosity of the Lacefields, while other outdoor recreational facilities have been closing, they actually massively expanded their opening hours to serve as an educational resource for our sudden influx of home-schooled (or distance learning) kids.  The Saturday before our visit, they had a single-day record of 325 visitors.

Knowing that the even better weather on Sunday would bring crowds, we got a relatively early start and arrived around 10:15, to find only a handful of cars.  Pleasantly surprised, we had a brief chat (at a safe distance) with Jim.  One of my goals for the trip was to see French’s shootingstar,  a rare wildflower that grows on the Preserve.  In fact, botanists say the world’s largest colony of French’s shootingstar is in Cane Creek Canyon.  Jim said we had timed it perfectly and gave us directions on where to look.

Our planned route took us past the picnic area to the large waterfall, under which Jim had suggested we might find our elusive rare shootingstar.  We knew it was going to be a great wildflower day when we spotted six flowers or flowering trees before walking the .25 miles from the parking lot to the waterfall.  The dogwoods were in bloom, and red buckeye was practically everywhere.  We also spotted yellow star grass, partridgeberry,  violet wood sorrel, and common blue violet.  We were over halfway to ice cream, and we were just getting started!

With all the recent rain, the waterfall was in fine form.  We scrambled down to have a look behind it, but didn’t see any French’s shootingstar.  However, sharp-eyed Ruth spotted a Jack in the pulpit.  We then opted to climb back onto the trails and took the trail along the creek, heading south toward the South Boundary Road.  It was a beautiful day, and the creek looked really inviting.  Jim had warned us that some of the creek crossings, particularly down on Cane Creek, had unusually high water.  We had one creek crossing here on Waterfall Creek, but it was only a few inches deep.

Once we reached the boundary road, we turned west and stuck with the road, making our way to Tree Fern Cave and a rock outcropping just past it where Jim said there was a small patch of French’s shootingstar.  Along the way, we added four more wildflowers/shrubs to our list for the day: wood violet, Alabama azalea, pinxter azalea, and Virginia spring beauty.  Hey, that’s ten!  And we were just getting started.

With Tree Fern Cave looming off-trail to our right, we made a beeline for the rock outcropping and sure enough, there was a small stand of French’s shootingstar in bloom.

After admiring this rare beauty, we continued on down the road, sloping downhill until we came to the East Cane Creek trail.  As we neared the creek, the wildflowers started coming thick and fast, with Sweet Betsy trillium and lobed tickseed heading the charge.

And when we reached the creek and turned north to follow the creek up to the Quarry bridge, well my friends, it was slow going even though the trail was wide and level.  It was a wildflower showcase.  There was hispid buttercup, sweet William phlox, wood vetch, Robin’s plantain, and Carolina spring beauty, just for starters.

And the hits kept coming, as we walked the 1.5 miles to the Quarry bridge.  Foamflower, twisted trillium, and wood anemone were plentiful.  When we reached the Boulder Garden wildflower area, even more were in bloom:  early saxifrage, fire pink, rue anemone, pennywort, and wood betony joined our growing list.

As we neared the Quarry bridge, there were more natural wonders to behold: mayapples everywhere, in glorious bloom; a yellow buckeye (another good spot by Ruth); funky fungi on a fallen tree; spring cress; and one of Ruth’s favorites, dwarf crested iris.

We reached the Quarry bridge and crossed without incident, to begin our secondary goal of exploring some sections of the preserve that were new to us.  First up was to try the West Bluff trails, a loop trail with some shorter inner loops.  Though it was signposted, it was immediately evident when viewing them from the intersection with the West Cane Creek trail that these trails are much less traveled.

The trail was advertised as steep on the trail map, and it lived up to that reputation.  It was also carpeted with flowers, so we had to watch our step so we could avoid crushing little beauties like this Southern wood violet.  After climbing a couple hundred yards, we reached a sign pointing to the left.  The footbed was pretty indistinct at this point.  We wandered to the south for a little while, pausing for lunch on a handy shaded boulder.  It was amazingly quiet, given the large number of people roaming the preserve.  After lunch we kept trying to find a footbed, but finally gave up after about .25 miles of thrashing around.  We just retraced our steps back to the West Cane Creek trail, but not before notching four more wildflower IDs: white baneberry, Jacob’s ladder, wild comfrey, and squaw root.

So West Bluff trails had not panned out, but there was still a destination in the general area we’ve not visited:  Hooper Falls.  We turned northwest on the West Cane Creek trail, and in about .15 miles reached the intersection with the trail to Hooper Falls.  This trail is obviously an old road bed, and it stretches .66 miles from the intersection to the falls.  It was a very pleasant walk, with Cucumber Hollow Creek running on one side of the trail and scenic rock outcroppings on the other.  Along the way, the trail actually leaves preserve property, but the remaining section of the trail is leased from a neighboring landowner.  Near the falls the trail splits, with a sign pointing left to the base of the falls.  Don’t bother going right at the split, as hikers are not permitted to walk to the top of the falls.

Hooper Falls is a very nice three-drop waterfall tucked into a fold in Cucumber Hollow.  Most of the other falls in the preserve are single drop (the main waterfall has two drops), so it was a nice contrast.  It’s a lovely little grotto, but also a popular destination so we didn’t tarry long.

We had about reached our limit for the day, so we retraced our steps back along the Hooper Falls trail.  Even then, we were still spotting flowers and other interesting fungi we had missed on the way in:  stout blue-eyed grass and devil’s urn, to be specific.  We made our way back to the parking area, along the way picking up our last two wildflower IDs for the day: downy yellow violet and false Solomon’s seal, just beginning to bloom.

So, what was the final ice cream tally?  Counting flowering trees and shrubs, I think we saw and identified at least 39.  So that’s three scoops, with sprinkles on top!  Our GPS track had the hike at just over five miles.

When we returned to the parking area, we were very surprised at the number of cars now parked along the entrance road.  We found out the next day that over 450 people had visited the preserve on Sunday, shattering the previous record set just the day before.  It reminded me of the old Yogi Berra comment, “No one goes there nowadays, it’s too crowded.”  Unfortunately, some of those guests were jerks who left some litter and, more to the point, infringed upon the Lacefields’ generosity by arriving late in the day and staying past the 5 pm closing time (which is prominently posted in multiple places).  This is why we can’t have nice things, Alabama.

Despite this, the Lacefields are trying to find ways to keep the preserve open during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Perhaps this blog post will encourage you to visit the preserve — and that’s good, you should! — but please, please check the Friends of Cane Creek Canyon Nature Preserve Facebook page before you go, because the operating hours and procedures for visiting are somewhat in flux.  We’ve said before that this is a place that everyone should visit — but let’s not all do it at once, and pick up your trash, and show some respect for the owners, who are just trying to be a ray of sunshine in these dark times.

 

Watch Out! Quillan Creek

Many years ago now, when we first started using the map app Waze, we were sometimes able to download celebrity voices to use instead of the standard one. For one trip that was going to take us through some particularly deadly dull stretches of road, we decided to amuse ourselves by downloading the Arnold Schwarzenegger voice. He turned out to be pretty entertaining. In Waze, whenever there is a pothole or a car parked on the shoulder, the standard  voice will give you a warning like, “watch out – pothole ahead.” With Aaaahnold as the voice, though, this turned in to a somewhat terrifying “WATCH OUT!!! GET DOWN!!” shouted at top volume, usually at some point where you’d been lulled into complacency because absolutely nothing of interest was happening. It certainly kept us on our toes!

Now what does this story have to do with hiking in the Tennessee Valley? Bear with me a bit and you’ll find out.

Though Covid-19 is raging all around the country, Alabama is not yet under a mandatory shelter-in-place order. However, Chet and I have both been working from home for the last week or so either because we were requested to (Chet) or simply encouraged to (Ruth). It’s been going OK but being cooped up in the house 24-7 is starting to get to us a bit. I took the dog out for a walk when it wasn’t raining, carefully keeping my distance from all my other neighbors taking a break from their own four walls, but that’s not enough “outside” for me. We were both determined to find a way to take a hike this past weekend. We’d heard from friends that trails in Huntsville were crowded and one friend reported seeing 40 cars parked in the tiny parking lot at Rainbow Mountain in Madison on Thursday. It was obvious that if we wanted to keep “social distancing” we’d have to go farther afield. Naturally, our thoughts turned to the Sipsey Wilderness – nearly 25,000 acres of wilderness surrounded by another 150,000 acres of Bankhead Forest and Black Warrier WMA, all just a couple of hours away. We’d read a book recently about some of the more “off the beaten path” parts of the Sipsey, and Quillan Creek looked like a gorgeous place to explore. It’s not on any of the “official” trails, which made it sound more likely to be isolated. Plus with all the rain we’d been having, the promised cascades and waterfalls on the creek were bound to be in great form.

Quillan Creek is on the western part of the Sipsey, reachable by going past the picnic area and the Randolph Trailhead until Cranal Road (County Road 6) runs into Kinlock Road (County Road 3434). Both the picnic area and the Randolph Trailhead, as well as the unofficial parking area for Eagle Creek and Deer Skull Falls, had plenty of cars parked in their lots or along the road. Kinlock Road is narrow and barely paved for the first couple of miles, then turns to dirt. Even here, though, we saw several cars parked at Parker Falls and Kinlock Falls, and passed or drove behind several more vehicles. Lots of folks were out and about!  Finally, we turned on to the North West Road (County Road 3) and headed towards Thompson Creek. All we knew about the place we were looking for was that it was where the old Arnold Motorway crossed and should be a couple of miles down the road. We spotted a likely candidate, except that where we were expecting to see a roadway or trail to our right, we instead saw a tent and campsite set up. Minding our social distance, we drove on just a bit in case that wasn’t really it. Of course, it was, so we had to drive all the way to the Thompson Trailhead to turn around.

We parked on the part of the Arnold Motorway on the north side of the North West Road, and walked over to talk to the campers. Turns out there is a trail there – it was just hidden by their parked car. They were a father and daughter up from Auburn social distancing by camping in the Sipsey. We chatted a bit with them and gave them some ideas about some places in the area they might want to try to find, and as we were talking two more cars pulled up and parked behind our truck. Two people hopped out with a map of the Quillan Loop – they were planning the same thing we were! They went on ahead as we strapped on cameras and backpacks so they were far down the trail before we even started, but this hike was not starting out to be as isolated as we’d thought it would be.

 

Our plan was to hike a 4.9 mile loop that goes south to Quillan Creek, along that creek past Quillan Cascade and Big Cascade to the junction with Riddle Creek, then up to Riddle Falls, and back up to the North West Road. The first part of this unofficial loop is on the old roadbed of the Arnold Motorway. Try as I might, I have been unable to find any information about when this motorway was in service or where it went. What’s left makes a nice trail, though there were many trees down across the path. About a mile down the ever-fading roadbed, we ran into Quillan Creek. It’s a lovely spot, with a small tributary flowing in from the right. Just up the tributary was a small cascade, so we waded across the creek to take some pictures of it. I was very excited to spot a turtle in a hole up on the small rock bluff, but further investigation revealed that this was just a turtle shell, not a live turtle. We waded back across the creek and followed a pretty well-worn footbed along the creek. While not an official trail, enough folks come this way that the pathway is pretty distinct – at least at first.

 

The path we followed led right along the creek, but required several creek crossings as one bank or the other would turn into a rock bluff. At the first of these crossings – just downstream of a pretty little cascade – I made a fateful decision. Hoping to avoid a slight delay by not bothering to unboot and get in my water shoes, I ended up in water over my boots. Soaking wet feet are not a whole lot of fun on a hike! At the next crossing, I took the time to put on my water shoes and then just left them on for quite a while, giving my boots and poor soaked socks time to dry out a bit. I was still wringing water out of my socks an hour later though.

 

After another pretty cascade, it seemed like we’d be best off hiking uphill away from the creek. This meant that we were basically bushwhacking through the briars, but it gave us some pretty top-down views of the creek and a series of small cascades. Soon, though, another gorgeous cascade appeared ahead of us and we ditched the high road to clamber down closer to the creek. There were actually three cascades in a row, a medium one, then a small one, then a bigger one.  We spent some time enjoying them and their setting (including the lovely bridge that mother nature thoughtfully provided between two big rocks), then had a choice to make – uphill again, or take our chances along the river. We opted for uphill.

 

We were again in the land without a trail – even a faint one – pushing through underbrush and briars to make any progress forward. It’s exhausting. We spotted a pretty skinny waterfall across the ravine, but it proved to be difficult to get a good picture of. The slope eased a bit and we climbed down a small rock outcropping to find that there was a pretty reasonable trail almost level with the creek. Since this was all taking much longer than we’d budgeted for, time-wise, we decided we’d try to find the Big Cascade and then just retrace our steps back out. We vowed to take the trail by the river going back.

 

Soon we came to the biggest cascade yet, with a bonus beautiful waterfall on a side creek. We took a bunch of pictures and then reviewed the map. As best as I could tell, we were at the spot on the map marked “Quillan Cascade,” with “Big Cascade” still ahead of us. Looking downstream, the route along the creek looked impossible to me. Maybe I’m just a big old baby, but the only options were to walk in the creek (which was a rushing torrent at this spot so too dangerous), or pick our way along an 80 foot slab of rock that may or may not have actually had a footpath big enough to follow — 20 feet above the river. No way was I going to risk either one.

 

We were so close to the big cascade, though, that we decided to try for it by heading uphill again. We climbed up a small rock ledge and headed straight uphill to find … a faint roadbed! It didn’t last for long, but we were able to follow it to the highest point close to where we thought the Big Cascade should be. We could hear water somewhere down below, but couldn’t see it, and made the tough decision to give up. It was getting late, and we were in uncharted territory – not the place to risk getting lost after dark. We decided to try following our newly discovered road, since it headed in the right direction to get us back to the Arnold Motorway. It didn’t last very long in the other direction either though, and here again, we made a fateful decision – one I wouldn’t make the next time out. We decided not to backtrack and follow the path along the river as we’d sworn to do, but to instead bushwhack overland in a roughly north/northeast direction, staying on ridgetops until we came to Arnold Motorway.

34faint_roadbed

This is where I sort of wished we’d had the Aaahhhnold voice to guide us. There would have been a lot of “WATCH OUT”s happening, I can tell you that. Chet fell hard, twice, but thankfully didn’t really hurt himself or lose important things like truck keys in the leaf litter. I got tangled up in briars and vines, and got grouchier by the minute. We were navigating mostly by the AllTrails app on Chet’s phone, which was nearly out of battery power. My phone was OK, battery wise, but we only had the compass on that. I’m not sure the GPS carabinered to the pack would have helped all that much more, but we did have that as well. After what seemed like an eternity, we came out on the gloriously briar-free Arnold Motorway just a few minutes’ hike from where we’d parked the truck. I suppose in some ways, “Arnold” did guide us home after all!

35bushwhacking

All in all, this was a good half-hike – as in the first half was wonderful. We hiked a grand total of 3.9 miles in something like 5 hours. Some of that was enjoyable time spent admiring and photographing the creek, but some of that was the horribly slow pace we were on while pushing through all the briars and underbrush. It seems some folks try this loop from the other direction – down from the road to Riddle Falls first, then up Quillan Creek. I’ll have to try it sometime and see if that’s easier. Next time, though, I’m sticking to the creek!

 

 

Quick Look: Hurricane Creek Park

 

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Trail Name: Creek Trail, North Highland Trail, Ridge Trail, Heaven’s Staircase Trail, Hurricane Trail

Location: Vinemont, AL

Length: Loops of varying distance, up to 3.5 miles

Rating: Mostly easy, with some steep staircases

Points of interest:  Wildflowers, creek views, wet weather waterfalls, picnic areas, rock overhangs, “Twilight Tunnel”

Blog Post:  Labor of Love: Hurricane Creek Park

Also see website added since our last visit:  Hurricane Creek

 

Planted by Lightning: Mushroom ID Hike on Rainbow Mountain

“There’s a legend of the first peoples,” said Matt Shaw, “that morels were planted by lightning, because they always grew after a heavy rain and a few hours of sun.”  Matt is a naturalist with Ecologic Solutions, and he was leading a members-only hike for the Land Trust of North Alabama on their Rainbow Mountain Nature Preserve in Madison. We were on our second Land Trust guided hike for the spring season.  These free hikes are just about the hottest ticket in town.  Offered in the spring and fall, the hikes feature local historians, scientists, naturalists, and Land Trust staff and trustees on a variety of preserves, with topics covering a wide range of interests.  The hikes are first privately advertised to Land Trust members for a week before being made available to the general public for registration.  The truth is that the hikes pretty much fill up just with Land Trust members, and it’s unlikely that you’ll get a spot as a member of the general public.  So for that reason alone, it’s worth your while to throw a few dollars their way.

The theme of our hike was mushroom identification, and a group of around 30 of us met at the Rainbow Mountain pavilion.  Matt is enthusiastic about the fungi kingdom, noting that the Southeast is a particularly diverse place for fungi.  Mushrooms are actually only a small part of the fungi kingdom, which also includes yeasts and molds; in fact, mushrooms are actually the fruiting body of various species within a couple of orders of the fungi kingdom.  He reviewed the role of mushrooms in the mycorrhizal network, which is the network that connects various plants together for the transfer of water and nutrients.  It’s a symbiotic relationship, to an extent.  Trees supply sugar to the fungi, and fungi provide nutrients to the trees, via networks that can span miles underground.  However, trees generally aren’t keen on hosting mushrooms, so their presence on trunks or branches is often the sign of a dead or dying tree.

We departed the pavilion on the Rainbow Loop Trail, and within 30 yards came to our first example, several large clumps of violet toothed polypores clinging to the trunk of a felled tree next to the playground.  These particular specimens were bleached mostly white (as opposed to the more showy violet of some specimens), notable by the tiny holes on their undersides and their comb-like structure.  Mushroom ID tip #1: always look at the underside of a mushroom.  The presence of pores or gills, and the consistency (smooth? paperlike?) are identification keys.

We continued down the trail another 50 yards or so, pausing by a sandstone wall covered in wall lichen.  Lichens are taxonomically grouped with fungi, but lichens are actually a composite organism made up of an algae living inside the filaments of a fungus.  So they’re neither fish nor fowl, nor plant nor fungus.  Though we had had recent rain, the last few days before the hike had been dry.  We were hiking in the afternoon, which meant we weren’t under peak conditions for finding mushrooms, so for our purposes, lichens were close enough!  Here Matt shared mushroom ID tip #2: mushrooms often grow on north-facing slopes.

As a naturalist, Matt was very familiar with the plant life on our hike, identifying various trees and wildflowers.  Though this wasn’t billed as a wildflower hike, he pointed out a few along the way: cranesfly orchid, crossvine, and spotted wintergreen, for example.

We continued south along the Rainbow Loop trail, passing just below the rocky top of Rainbow Mountain, before turning east onto the Wild trail.  When the trail forked, we turned left, heading north toward the Spring trail.  On this stretch, we found one mushroom (false turkey tail, growing on a fallen tree), and squaw root, a parasitic plant also known as bear corn, which grows up from the roots of oak trees.  Turkey tail is another polypore mushroom very common in north Alabama, and false turkey tail looks similar, with bands of color on the cap, but is distinguished by its smooth underside.

This stretch of trail was one of many that featured resurrection fern, so named for its skill in surviving under very little moisture.  These ferns will dry up and appear lifeless, but then spring back to life after getting some water.

Our route now took us onto the Spring trail, one of my least favorite Land Trust trails due to its steepness, narrowness, and wetness, all of which were on their typical bad behavior.  There were no casualties, but it did have the effect of widely stringing out our group.  At least we had another mushroom sighting at the Wild/Spring junction — a cracked cap polypore clinging to a standing but dead ash tree about 15 feet over our heads.  Mushroom ID tip #3: look up!

The nice thing about the Spring trail was that it was wildflower central for the day, with numerous examples of cutleaf toothwort, hepatica, false garlic, common blue violet, and sweet Betsy trillium in bloom, along with shooting star just days away from blooming. and leatherleaf mahonia early in its fruiting phase.  When we reached the junction with the eastern side of the Rainbow Loop trail, a few of us lingered there to look for mushrooms and admire the wildflowers, while most of the group went with Matt up the trail to a location near the Ja Moo Ko trail where there are some fossils.

Most of the group opted to return to the pavilion by following the Rainbow Loop trail counter-clockwise.  Not being keen on climbing back up the Spring trail, we followed suit, enjoying the company of our fellow hikers, among which numbered a botanist, a retired forester, and a forestry student.  Though we enjoy our solitary hikes, it’s also fun to hike with kindred spirits!

So we didn’t come back with pockets full of delicious morels (and wouldn’t think about it anyway, since foraging on Land Trust properties is strictly verboten), but we gained a little appreciation for the fungi kingdom and its place in the ecosphere.  Research into the medicinal properties of fungi is still in its beginning phases, though there’s a long history of folk medicine remedies.  Modern science is finding that there’s something to the old-timer’s tinctures and salves.  Fungi have been the source of antibiotics (penicillin, anyone?), antiviral drugs, and medicines to treat diabetes, cancer, and malaria.  Fungi are our friends!  But respect them, because it takes expertise and practice to identify which ones are edible and/or medicinal.  A guided hike from the Land Trust is a good start, but we’ll be sticking to supermarket mushrooms in the meantime.  (Well, full disclosure — I hate mushrooms as a foodstuff, but Ruth likes them.)

Here we grow again: Bethel Spring Preserve

A little more than five years ago, in November of 2014, Chet and I took advantage of one of the Land Trust’s “Members Only” hikes out at a new property that they were calling “Cherry Tree.” It was a large property in the southern part of Madison County, off of Cherry Tree Road. The 360 acre property had been owned by the same family for 132 years, but had been donated to the Land Trust so that it could be preserved for the community. It was a beautiful spot, with farmland across the road, an old barn and farmhouse, a lovely little blue-green creek, all snugged up at the base of the southern end of Keel Mountain. The property included some of the farmland, as well as a good bit of the land up onto Keel Mountain, including one of Madison County’s largest waterfalls.  We quite enjoyed our hike that day, and could see great potential for the property.

This past weekend, the Land Trust had a grand public opening of this, their newest preserve, which is now called Bethel Spring Nature Preserve. Much hard work had to go into making the preserve ready for prime time. The barn and the house, sadly, had so much structural damage that they were deemed unsafe and had to be taken down. The house, in particular, had issues because it sat on top of one of the area’s many caves, and the ground below was literally sinking out from under it. Two miles of trails had to be laid in and signed, bridges had to be put in  place over the creek, and best of all, a grant from the Alpha Foundation provided the materials and District 3 Commissioner Craig Hill provided a team from Madison County to construct a large gravel parking lot and a half-mile crushed gravel accessible loop trail on the flat part of the property alongside the lovely little creek.  But all that has been done, and the preserve is now open for exploration from dawn to dusk every day.

As a part of the grand opening, the Land Trust put together three guided hikes for the day. One was a hike to the waterfall, one was a hike around the accessible loop trail, and one was a history-focused hike that also went to the waterfall. Having already done the “just hike to the waterfall option” a few years ago, and again while working with the land stewards to lay in some of the trails, Chet and I opted for the history hike, led by historian John Kvach.

About 20 of us gathered around the fireplace that is all that remains of the homestead while Dr. Kvach laid out a broad overview of the economics of the area in the 1800s. The broad, flat and fertile land in the bend of the Tennessee River was populated by both extremes of the population – the 1800’s version of the 1% were the large land owners, but with large land holdings also came slavery. The majority of the folks who were active in the economy, however, were the small homestead owners. These folks made ends meet any way they could, with hard work, thrift, and innovation. Those who lived up in the hills tended to be people who moved up there to remain as free and independent as they could. They raised hogs, harvested timber, or made whiskey to bring in money.

03fireplace

After that introduction, we headed off on the gravel Carpenter Trail, which runs around an old garage, through a patch of fruit trees and the remains of an old garden, and then along the little creek. We soon came to our first stop – the old spring.  Springs were not only the refrigerators of the day, they were also a social gathering place. It was a great place to come to cool off in the middle of a hot day. This particular day, we also saw the first patch of spring wildflowers – rue anemone, cut-leaf toothwort, and round lobed hepatica.

From the spring, the trail starts the climb up the slope of Keel Mountain, but soon turns to run along a bench on what looks to have been an old road. Dr. Kvach stopped here to talk about what the landscape would have looked like in the 1800s. The forest then was made up of larger trees with less understory growth. The forest as we see it now is a result of the clearing that these early settlers did. He also talked about how the best roads, usually the Federal Roads, were still only about four feet wide and very rutted. Still, being situated near a road of any sort was a boon for a settler.

Somewhere along here the trail changes both name and character. Where the trail switches back and heads uphill, it becomes Falling Sink trail. This part of the trail is quite rocky and steep and in wetter weather can also be slippery. Violets were sprinkled alongside the trail, lending a nice vibrant pop of color in the winter-brown landscape. We also spotted some smoke trees mixed in with the other hardwoods.

Finally, we were at the main event – the waterfall. With all the recent rain, it was really flowing nicely. There was even a third stream of water pouring off the hilltop a bit farther to the left of the main falls. We enjoyed the roaring water, but soon headed off along a new trail that clung to the edge of the large sink and led away from the falls.

After the first slightly tricky bit along the sink, Mill Trail slopes gently downhill to the foundation of an old mill. Here Dr. Kvach filled us in on the importance of the mill to communities all up and down the eastern seaboard. Mills were instrumental in the development of these communities. Some industrious sort would build a mill to grind his wheat or corn, then realize that instead of growing crops in the rocky soil and then grinding his wheat he could simply provide his mill as a service to the community in exchange for a portion of the grain ground. This he could then use for himself or sell. Folks would come to the mill and then have to hang around while their grain was ground, so somebody would usually have the bright idea to build a bar, or a store, or a restaurant. Idle hands waiting for the grain to be ground bred gambling and drinking, so soon the church moved in to counterbalance all that “sin,” and a community was born. We don’t know what kind of mill this was, but it probably was used for multiple things. It could have been set up to grind grain or even saw timber.

47mill_foundation

After the mill, the trail continues on downhill alongside a dry rocky ravine. I wonder if the water from the falls may have originally run down this gully. Now, water from the falls disappears into the ground below the falls and reappears at the spring at the base of the hill. This part of the trail, like Falling Sink Trail, is fairly steep and rocky so watch your footing!

After passing the spring house again at the base of the hill, Chet and I decided to go ahead and walk the final little piece of the Bethel Spring Loop. We crossed the creek on a new and sturdy bridge, and then walked with a large open field to our left and the beautiful little creek to our right. While this accessible gravel trail doesn’t have the wow factor of the waterfall, it does boast the prettiest landscape view I saw all day.

All told, we hiked every available trail on the property, and our GPS track showed it added up to 1.88 miles. The trails ranged from the very flat and accessible .3 mile Bethel Spring Loop, to the wooded Carpenter Trail, to the steep and rocky Falling Sink and Mill trails. There’s something for everyone here – come check it out!

Just Ducky: Duck River Mini-Loop

We always love finding a new place to hike, especially if it has several trails or options to hike various segments.  Last September, we made our first visit to the Duck River Trail in Cullman County, and since then we’ve been plotting a return trip to check out more of this 19-mile loop trail.  On our previous visit, we took two cars and hiked 4.3 miles, starting at the kiosk at what is effectively Mile 0 in a parking lot on the east side of the dam.  For this hike, the plan was to start in the same place, but walk the loop in the opposite direction (clockwise).  We just figured we’d do an out-and-back, walking from the east parking lot to one on the west side of the lake.  It would be around 4.5 miles all told.

Things started out well, as we parked on the south end of the parking lot at Mile 0.  With all the rain we had had recently, we could see maintenance workers on top of the dam, with water rushing from a spillway at the base.  On our previous trip, we didn’t notice exactly where the trail starts if you’re planning on hiking the loop clockwise, but if you park on the south end of the lot, signage on posts points the way up the entrance road, until the trail cuts along the edge of the woods to the right.

But once we reached the woods, it seemed like our luck had run out.  A sign announced that the trail was closed for construction between miles 17 and 18.  To quote the catchphrase from a 1941 radio show, “What a revolting development this is.”  After pondering for a moment, we decided to press on anyway.  We figured we’d get in a short hike anyway, and we knew that the trail actually splits between mileposts 19 and 18, so we’d turn our out-and-back into a mini-loop instead.  Also, the parking lot we were hoping to reach was between mileposts 17 and 18, so we might be able to get there anyway, depending on where the construction was.

The trail skirted a mixed forest, crossing a tiny stream on an even tinier bridge before coming to Milepost 19 about 500 feet from the road.  At about .2 miles, the trail splits, with the upper trail continuing straight ahead to the southwest and the lower trail heading downhill to the right, temporarily backtracking toward the northeast.  We decided to take the lower trail first, as it looked more interesting.  We knew from the map it would take us close to the base of the dam and would then follow the Duck River southward to a point where (presumably) a bridge would cross the river.

The lower trail started out a bit mucky, but after crossing a little rivulet it dried out and began a slow, switchbacking descent over an increasingly rocky footbed.  The rivulet we had crossed earlier was now tumbling down into the hollow next to the trail, and the dam was getting increasingly closer as we wound downhill.

At about .5 miles, the trail reaches the bottom of the dam and turns sharply left to follow the river downstream.  We crossed a gravel service road to get a better look at the bottom of the dam, where water gushed from a pipe to maintain the lake level.  Concrete baffles diverted the water to reduce erosion.  We had noticed earlier that lake access was temporarily closed.  Seeing as how someone had pulled the plug, I imagine currents would be pretty strong around the top of the dam.

The view of the dam was pretty cool, but this lower loop had more surprises in store.  The trail now meandered between the river and a series of rock outcroppings, with interesting views on either side.  Ruth popped down to the shore and quickly found some opened mollusks, which makes me wonder if this might be river otter habitat.  The dark green water rushed along, flowing over and among rocks, slowing in deeper channels.

Shortly after crossing another small feeder stream with a handful of daffodils blooming nearby, a large boulder on the edge of the river caught Ruth’s attention.  Regular readers of this blog know that Ruth is a sucker for a good basking rock, so she had to check it out.  Though it was a little cold for basking on the day of our hike, she pronounced this to be a fine basking rock, nicely sloped with support for her upper back and a good spot to elevate your legs.

Right after the basking rock, the trail has a nice little groomed stretch that has almost a flagstone effect.  I should mention that the Duck River trail is intended for hiking and biking.  We’re not bikers, but it’s clear that even this lower loop is intended for biking.  However, it’s pretty technical in stretches, so it might be a bit much for a beginner.  (Not a problem for lesser-skilled bikers — just take the upper loop trail instead, which is mostly flat and easy.)  After passing more outcroppings, we came to a particularly shaded area, which still had some ice left from the recent rain and cold temps.

One other highlight in this stretch was a little seeping waterfall on the left side of the the trail.  It’s probably a seasonal fall, but was an unexpected bonus.

The lower trail continued around a bend in the river, now flowing westward, with churning waters on one side and outcrops on the other.  Though we were a little early to catch many wildflowers, we noticed many specimens of Shuttleworth’s ginger along the ground and in some rock crevices.

At about 1.05 miles into the hike, we reached Milepost 18 and a very solid pedestrian bridge over the river.  We had speculated that the construction project might have been to replace a swept-away bridge due to the high water, but as you can see this bridge is high above the water, and extremely well-built.  This was, however, the end of our goal of making it to the western parking lot, as the north end of the bridge was barricaded.   Luckily, this is also the western junction of the upper and lower trails, so it was the perfect place to turn back and take the upper trail to return to the east parking lot.

The upper trail, as you would expect, wastes no time in beginning a gradual climb to eventually emerge on top of the rock outcroppings we had been enjoying on the lower trail.  At one point the trail switches back sharply at a sloping triangular boulder, which Ruth assessed for basking possibilities but rejected because it was literally on the trail, and is perhaps just a bit too sloped.  I must admit the judging criteria are subtle, but she knows what she likes!  After climbing to the top of the outcroppings, the trail levels out, with U.S. Highway 278 hidden but audible uphill.  The river was now visible below, as we continued about .5 miles back to the northeast to the eastern upper-lower loop junction.

Our GPS track has the entire loop distance, from the south end of the parking lot, as 2.26 miles.  Though we had grander plans for this hike, it turned out to be just ducky — a very scenic short loop within the longer 19-mile loop trail.  This is a great hike for kids, with several points of interest.  If you’d like a taste of the Duck River Trail, this would be an excellent place to start.   An appetizer, you might say!

 

Rockin’ Down Electric Avenue: Raccoon Mountain

For years, I’ve driven from Huntsville up to east Tennessee to visit family or hike in the Great Smoky Mountains, and my route has taken me through Chattanooga on I-24. I’ve often seen signs for “Raccoon Mountain,” and wondered what it was all about. This past weekend, I decided it was high time I found out.

After a bit of online research, I discovered that part of what’s at “Raccoon  Mountain” is a TVA property consisting of a mile-wide reservoir on top of the mountain, a hydroelectric plant, and – the part that caught my interest – 28 miles of trails.  The trails were built and are maintained by SORBA Chattanooga (Southern Off-Road Bicycle Association), but are suitable for both bikers and hikers.  There is also a commercial operation nearby called “Raccoon  Mountain Caverns and Campground,” which sells tickets to a 45 minute guided walking tour of a nationally recognized cave, but that’s a separate venture from the TVA recreational area.

I picked out a 6 mile out-and-back route, using pieces of  3 of the 16 or so trails on the property and we headed for the Eastern Overlook parking lot. The drive took us just about 2 hours and was uneventful. That’s a great accomplishment, since that particular stretch of I-24 between Kimball and Chattanooga is a magnet for traffic-snarling wrecks. Close to the property entrance, the signage is quite good and directed us exactly where we needed to go.

The first thing to comment on is THE VIEW. It’s a  great one – looking out from the top of Raccoon Mountain you can see the Tennessee River winding towards Chattanooga in the distance. The parking lot was paved and had room for about a dozen cars. Most of the spaces were already filled when we got there.  It’s a very popular spot. There is a kiosk with a map here, but unlike other trailheads in the area, it does not have a bathroom.

01east_overlook

We studied the map and determined where to start on our planned route and were soon on our way. The first part of this hike was on a trail named Electric Avenue. I couldn’t help but play “Electric Avenue” by Eddie Grant over and over in my head:

“We gonna rock down to Electric Avenue
And then we’ll take it higher “

Funny how things like bubble up from nowhere. I wonder what vitally important linear algebra concept I dumped to make room to store THAT little bit of music? But I digress.

From the online map, I had thought we might be walking on trails with a view of the reservoir. I didn’t really look at the topography closely enough, though. This trail, and in fact all of the trails we were on, runs along the mountain, but downhill from the impressive dam and reservoir and therefore with no view of the water at all. However, you do get frequent views out into Chattanooga, or in other spots, views into the stunning Tennessee River Gorge. We were hiking in winter, so there wasn’t a lot of color in the woods, though we did spot some plantain-leaf pussytoes blooming beside the trail.

After 1.7 miles, we came to the end of Electric Avenue. Our choice at this point was to bear left to go on Laurel Point Trail, or take a gravel path on the right to try out Electric Avenue 2. Laurel Point looked more interesting on the map, so I’d planned to go that way. The character of the trail changed from a mostly dirt footbed to a much rockier one. It wasn’t difficult to hike, but I’ll bet it was more interesting for the mountain bikers! In fact, one couple passed us probably six times as they practiced that stretch of the trail. That is one thing I should mention – if you’re looking for solitude, this is not the place to go. While it wasn’t “Times Square on New Year’s Eve” crowded, there were a lot more people biking, running, and hiking on these trails than we’re used to seeing. Everybody shared the trails nicely, and in fact the girl in the ‘practicing the trail’ couple was pretty apologetic about passing us so many times. Technically, the rules state that bikers yield to pedestrians, but that just seems silly to me, so we did most of the stepping off the trail to let the bikers pass.

Laurel Point Trail is a total of three miles. I had planned on just going about a mile and half on it and then turning around, aiming to put in about six miles total on the day. However, at about the one mile mark, the trail bears left and a short connector leads up to a parking lot. I was wondering if we’d get views of the reservoir from there, so I went up to explore. No views were available, but I did notice a sign for the Tennessee River Gorge Trail, which mentioned that Laurel Falls overlook was only .7 miles away. Sold! We ditched my original plan and headed off towards the promised falls.

The trail on this side led through piney woods and a soft dirt footbed near the base of the massive rock-fill dam. Though we’d been hiking downhill from other sections of this dam, this trail put us up even closer. It’s pretty impressive. At 230 feet high and 5800 feet long, it’s the biggest rock-fill dam ever built by TVA. After descending a short ways, the trail comes to a bit of a confusing intersection. To the right a nice broad clear trail headed towards the dam itself, only a short way away. To the left, the nice broad trail headed towards what sounded like water falling, but had a pink ribbon stretched across it, but on the ground. Most folks we saw walking or biking seemed to go that way, though, so we followed suit. We soon came to yet another trail intersection, with a trail slanting off downhill to the right, while the trail we were on went straight on and uphill. We decided the water sounded like it was coming from the right, so we headed that way, back towards the dam, but at a slightly lower elevation. Soon we came to the dam, and a spillway below, but we were sure we’d missed the falls. We decided to continue on across a rocky walkway and along the other side, thinking we might find a good view from that side. This put us on a new trail, Megawatt. Just a bit away from the dam, we spotted a wildcat trail that headed towards a small overlook, and sure enough – there was the falls! It’s a beauty – sort of a thin horsetail of a fall – but it was just barely visible through the trees below.  We tried hiking a bit farther on Megawatt thinking it might curve around to a good view up the gorge, but bailed on that when the trail started moving away from where we thought we needed to go. Instead, we retraced our steps, yielding to some bikers across the rocky walkway, and back to a wildcat trail Chet had spotted on the way out, but not mentioned at the time. Sure enough – the best view of Laurel Falls that we found was from this spot just downhill from the trail intersection where we’d peeled off towards the dam.

From the falls, we simply retraced our steps back up to Laurel Point Trail, though we then changed our minds (again) and picked up Electric Avenue 2 to hit a different trail on the way back. Electric Avenue 2 is pretty boring, to be honest. It’s level, is on the road at the end, and is totally away from views out into the valley. TVA did spice it up a bit with some interpretive signs, though, which added some historical interest to the walk. The end of Electric Avenue 2 simply led us back to our original track on Electric Avenue (1 I guess), but this time out we had a bit more blue sky and that made the view from the power line cuts seem even nicer.

All told, we guess that we hiked about 6.5 miles. Sadly, our GPS did not have as much battery as we’d thought, and died partway through the hike, so we have no GPS track to check that number with. We capped off the day with a trip to the visitor center, which unfortunately closed about 30 minutes before we got there. We were still able to read a bunch of interesting signs that explained what Raccoon Mountain is all about, and let me tell you this place is like something out of a James Bond movie! In the 1970s, TVA dug out the reservoir on the top of the mountain, then drilled a shaft 1000 feet down to the root of the mountain, where they dug a chamber out of solid limestone to hold a set of giant reversible turbine engines. In times when demand is high, TVA pulls water out of the mountain-top reservoir through a 35-foot diameter intake structure and down to power the turbines below, which generates extra electricity. When demand is low, they reverse the turbines and pump water from Nickajack Lake back up the mountain to refill the reservoir.

Now that I know what’s there, I’m definitely game to go back and do the electric boogie down some more of these trails.

 

Dodging the Bullet: Murphy Hill WMA

When we’re looking for ideas for new places to hike, we’ll sometimes have a look at the website for the Alabama Birding Trails.  This great resource lists 280 sites where you can admire our feathered friends, all across the state.  Though we wouldn’t call ourselves birders, we have found that places that are good for birds often include areas with hiking trails.  One such place that caught my eye is the Murphy Hill Wildlife Management Area (WMA), on Lake Guntersville a few miles north of the Town Creek area of Lake Guntersville State Park.  This WMA is actually owned and managed by TVA, and has a bit of history to it.

That history is partially preserved in a cabin on the grounds of the Guntersville Museum, according to a very interesting article reprinted from the July 1, 2015 edition of the Guntersville Advertiser-Gleam.  According to family history, the area was originally settled in 1838 or 1839 by Irish immigrants Mathew and James Culbert.  They built a cabin sometime between 1839 and 1845, which is the very one that now sits behind the Guntersville Museum.  The cabin was raided by Union and Confederate forces during the Civil War, and was shelled in 1864 by Union gunboats.  A shell landed against a wall of the cabin, but it was a dud and didn’t detonate.  They had dodged a bullet, but Mathew Culbert’s father in law, who now lived in the cabin, decided to show his boys how to disarm a live shell.  History doesn’t record why this man thought he knew what he was doing, but the results were fatal to him and one son, and two other sons were injured.  Years later, the cabin site was inherited by Mary Elizabeth Molly, who married Robert Murphy.  The area became known as Murphy Hill.  Large portions of the original Culbert plantation were flooded in the 1930s when Lake Guntersville was created.  Portions of the estate were on high ground, and dodged the bullet of the rising lake waters.

But TVA had two more bullets in the chamber.  Murphy Hill was selected as the site of a coal gasification plant, and millions of dollars were appropriated in the early 1980s to build a demonstration plant.  Fortunately for nature lovers, interest in the process of converting coal into gasoline or diesel was derailed by falling petroleum prices, and the Murphy Hill plant was shelved.  TVA is nothing if not dogged, and Murphy Hill was proposed as a possible site for a nuclear plant.  In a 2008 study of five potential sites, Murphy Hill finished dead last.  The ultimate “winner” was the Bellefonte Nuclear Plant in Hollywood, Alabama, which was already under construction at the time.  As locals know, that plant was also shelved soon afterwards, after $4 billion was spent in its development.

So Murphy Hill dodged three bullets, after its unfortunate failure with the Civil War naval shell.  Now it’s a large undeveloped tract on the southern shore of Lake Guntersville with mown passages and gravel roads forming a network of unmarked trails.  The Birding Trails website has the best directions to reach the WMA, and we followed them past the Mountain Lakes RV Resort on Murphy Hill Road, turning left at the Alabama Birding Trail sign into a large gravel parking lot.  There was one pickup truck there, and another towing a horse trailer.  While we were gearing up, a gentleman on a horse came riding up, and shortly afterwards the three of us took the gravel road that runs to the north of the parking lot, behind a prominent yellow gate.  We turned left (west) onto the gravel road, which quickly curved to the north and passed a kiosk (no trail map, alas) and three interpretive signs.  The signs described the various habitats and birds to be found on the property.  The gentleman on the horse wished us a good hike and took his leave.

Because there is not a trail map or marked trails on this tract, describing our route is going to be a little inexact.  I had found a 4.4 mile loop on the AllTrails website, and thought it would be a good starting point.  We had ambitions of throwing down a longer hike.  We headed north on the gravel road for about .2 miles before we started glimpsing a pond off to our right.  Shortly after that, the road then followed a wonderful winding berm constructed between Lake Guntersville on the left and ponds on the right.  The gravel road gave way to a grass track, briefly crossing a concrete spillway as it wound along the shoreline.

It was a beautiful day, unseasonably warm with a brisk breeze.  At times the lake was visible through the trees to the left, and the sun dappled the ponds to the right.  At one point, we passed some machinery off the trail to the left, presumably used to regulate the amount of water in the ponds.

After about .9 miles, the trail passed through an open gate and turned northeast into the woods.  About .25 miles after that, after the gravel worked its way back to the surface of the trail, we reached an intersection with a well-maintained gravel road.  Just before that intersection, we noticed an unusual bow-legged figure lurking off the right side of the trail.  We were amused to find our “figure” was a set of camouflage waders hanging from a tree branch.

We turned left at the intersection and followed the gravel road through some shady pines before reaching another intersection at .15 miles.  The road to the left leads past a gate to a concreted fishing area on a little inlet of the lake, with a boat ramp at one end.  There were a couple of men fishing there, who said they had caught a couple of small ‘uns, but they were packing up and moving on.  There was a blue heron there and a couple of ducks, but they also packed up and moved on when we arrived.

We retraced our route back to the gravel road and continued north another 350 feet or so to another intersection on the left, with another open metal gate.  We went through the gate and down a wide dirt road that curved toward the lakeshore.  About .3 miles later, we reached a jetty that extends about 450 feet out into the lake.  A mockingbird flitted ahead of us through some scrub trees as we walked along the jetty to the end, where a smashed up signal used to warn boaters of the navigational hazard.  The wind was really whipping now, so we didn’t tarry long.

After retracing our steps back to the gravel road, we continued northeast for another .25 miles, where the trail forked.  We knew from the AllTrails route that heading to the right would work us back to a road that we could take back to the parking area, for a loop of 4.4 miles.  We also knew, from looking at Google Earth, that heading to the left would take us to another jetty and even better, another even longer berm between the lake and ponds.  It would extend our hike quite a bit, but we were feeling good and decided to go for it.  After passing through a boggy stretch, the trail became a gravel road again, which eventually ran next to the berm.  We climbed onto the berm and briefly headed north before turning off the route to pass through a gate and follow the berm to the east.

This second sinuous berm is much like the first, with the lake on one side and ponds on the other.  It too has a concrete spillway.  However, we had better luck spotting birds here, spooking another blue heron and a small flotilla of some duck-sized waterfowl.  We didn’t get a good enough look to decide if they were ducks, or coots, or grebes, or something else entirely — like I said, we’re not birders.  Most of the trees on the pond-side of the berm have been topped, no doubt to create nesting or perching sites.  I noticed some woodpecker nests.  We also saw our only notable blooming wildflower of the hike:  birds-eye speedwell.  Even the wildflowers are bird-themed here!

This second berm runs almost 1.4 miles to the gate on its eastern end, passing one pretty green pond with aquatic vegetation, and later passing a tupelo grove.  So many habitats!  We also passed our horseman again at this point, now accompanied by two ladies also on horseback.

After leaving the berm, the road becomes gravelly again as it enters the woods.  About .2 miles after leaving the berm, the road meets up with another gravel parking lot, with yellow gates on the north and south sides.   What’s happening here is that this is the extreme eastern edge of the WMA.  Murphy Hill Road approaches this parking area from the northeast, then is gated in this parking lot where the WMA begins.  Beyond the gate on the southern end of the parking lot, Murphy Hill Road continues as a well-maintained gravel road (closed to traffic), winding southwest back toward our original parking area.  We took the gravel road 2 miles back to our starting location.  This stretch of the hike was our least-favorite.  We were footsore at this point, and a long walk on gravel wasn’t really that soothing.  We were joined by a hunter for a short while along the road.  He told us he had been there since 6 am, and had a one or two-point buck in his sights before some dogs running loose had spooked the deer before he could get a shot.  Looks like the deer dodged a bullet.  Happens a lot around here, it seems.

Our GPS track said we had covered 6.98 miles.  This was our longest hike for a while, but overall the hike was easy — largely flat, or with slight elevation changes, on wide roads and trails.  With a little more study of Google Earth, it’s probably possible to bypass some of the road walking, which would be easier underfoot and a little more scenic.

The Murphy Hill WMA is an out of the way place with various habitats well-suited to many bird species.  The routes are level and well-maintained, though an online trail/road map would be a nice thing to have.  Camping is allowed, subject to some restrictions, and the trails are open to bicycles, horses, and hikers (no motorized traffic is allowed).  If you visit, remember that it is a WMA, so show some courtesy to the hunters, wear blaze, and stick to the trails.  Nobody wants to be dodging any … well, you get the idea.