Ruth’s Top Five Nearby Wildflower Hikes

Days have been getting a bit warmer and there is hope in the air that spring will actually come again this year. With thoughts of spring, I naturally turn to thoughts of spring wildflowers and how much I love hiking this time of year. We thought it might be a good idea to talk about some of my favorite wildflower hikes. There are so many, but I limited it to hikes within a two hour radius of Huntsville. I love each of these places, so this isn’t an ordered list. Each is wonderful in its own way.

You can’t make a list like this in Huntsville and not include the Wildflower Trail on the Land Trust’s Monte Sano Preserve. This short trail – only .58 miles long – is a must-see in the springtime. It is probably most famous for its large stand of yellow trout lilies, but you can also find many of the expected early spring flowers along this trail: Spring beauty, rue anemone, toothwort, hepatica, wild blue phlox, trillium, may apples, bellworts, and wild geranium. Weirdly, though we’ve hiked it many times, we’ve only blogged about it once, and that was in December! (I’m thinking a wildflower hike for Woodlands and Waters on this trail is a must-do this month!) Still, I dug up some photos from our pre-blog hiking days to share.

I have a particular love for Virginia Bluebells. They are my favorite spring flowers. By far the most wonderful display of Virginia Bluebells I’ve ever seen is on the Sinks Trail in Monte Sano State Park. However, this trail has more than bluebells – like the Wildflower Trail it also has toothwort, rue anemone, wild blue phlox, spring beauty, and hepatica as well as bloodroot and yellow woodland violets. Here are a few examples from a hike we took in March 2017.

Both of these trails are in the Huntsville City limits, but the last three on my personal favorites list are a little farther away. First up is a place that I’d never even heard of until a couple of years ago: The Flint Creek Botanical Area of the Bankhead National Forest. It’s about an hour away, and doesn’t show up on Google maps. It’s not a developed part of the forest, and there is no trail name to point you to, but there’s a gravel forest service road and then a pretty well defined old road/footpath that you can follow without fear of getting lost. It sounds a bit sketchy, but if you plan ahead and keep your wits about you it is very doable, and has such a diversity of wildflowers that it draws botanists from all over. We checked it out in March of 2019, and found my favs (bluebells) plus all the usual spring wildflowers, but also a few that we’d not come across on Monte Sano.

For pure numbers, Cane Creek Canyon Preserve in Tuscumbia just can’t be beat. We visited last April and we counted at least 39 different types of wildflowers in bloom, all scattered through a preserve with waterfalls, gushing creeks, boulder gardens, and sometimes even river otters! Though this is one of the places that’s farther away, it is well worth the drive. I think it is hands down my favorite natural area in the Tennessee Valley, and that’s saying a lot. The preserve has miles of trails, but you can’t go wrong with any route that gets you to Cane Creek. From our three trips there during the spring in 2019 (twice) and 2020, here are just a few (out of probably a hundred) of my favorite photos.

My final favorite is not an Alabama trail, but it’s only about an hour and a half away. Short Springs Natural Area in Tullahoma, Tennessee includes several miles of trails, two waterfalls, tons of gorgeous wildflowers and even a named wildflower trail. We visited in March of 2016 and thoroughly enjoyed our visit.

So those five are my favorite nearby wildflower hikes, but if you’re willing to go farther afield, there are plenty of others out there. Having been raised just outside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I can’t fail to mention two of their stunning wildflower trails – Porters Creek and Chestnut Top. We’ve hiked both of those pre-blog and totally geeked out at all the flowers. I also can’t really help at least mentioning my favorite wildflower hike of all time. It is Taylor Hollow State Natural Area in Tennessee. This 163 acre Nature Conservancy site is northeast of Nashville and nearly 3 hours away from Huntsville, making it too far away to be considered “nearby.” It is also a unique and somewhat fragile environment, so the rules for going there are strict and have changed a bit since our visit. The web site says you must go on a group hike first, but I can’t find any hikes available now. Contact the Nature Conservancy office to get more details (Phone: 615-383-9909 Email: tn@tnc.org). This place took my breath away and even though our visit was three years ago, I haven’t found anything that matches it.

Taylor Hollow State Natural Area, TN

Whether you stay nearby or venture farther away, the time to see these glorious spring wildflowers is almost upon us. Get out there and enjoy!

Knocked for a Loop: Booker T. Washington State Park

Sunday was a lovely day, with clear cool skies and temperatures warming into the 60s. We were in a historic state park, new to us, on a loop trail with lovely lake views. The trail was beautifully maintained, with reasonable occasional ascents and descents. Folks we met on the trail were courteous and enjoying themselves. So why am I so angry as I’m writing this post?

I think it’s because I’m thinking back farther than just a few days. Our experience this past weekend at Booker T. Washington State Park in Chattanooga, Tennessee was excellent. Other than the visitor center being closed due to COVID-19, our experience was much like it is at any Tennessee state park — plenty of parking, well-maintained facilities, well-marked trails, attractive scenery, all available at no entrance fee. We were made to feel welcome…but more about that later.

Booker T. Washington State Park is on Chickamauga Lake, one of the impoundments of the Tennessee River. Started in 1938 as a TVA reservation, the park is named for the black American leader. A prominent voice in the early civil rights struggle, Washington was born into slavery and worked his way after the Civil War into college, eventually founding the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) in Alabama at the age of 25. Through his work at Tuskegee, he became nationally known as a spokesman for education of freedmen and their descendants, aiding in the development of other schools. He came to represent a certain viewpoint that the best route forward for his race was to submit to white political rule in a segregated society, but to advance by receiving basic education and vocational training and being granted due process of law. This approach was known as the Atlanta compromise, as outlined in a speech by Washington in 1895. Given our modern sensibilities this may seem pretty weak, but it was the starting point for the evolution of more ambitious views of civil rights. Though he is known for his “go along to get along” views, Washington secretly financially supported court challenges related to segregation and voting registration. His influence waned after 1915 as other civil rights leaders such as W.E.B. Du Bois rose in prominence.

The state park has a hiking/biking trail system of around 8.5 miles on a peninsula sticking out into Chickamauga Lake on the north end of the park. The trail system consists of a nature trail loop, which intersects an outer loop trail of 3.9 miles. Two inner loop trails are inside the outer loop, so you can construct a number of hikes of varying distances. We opted to hike the Outer Loop trail, which is most quickly reached by a .3 mile segment of the Nature trail. We parked in the paved lot next to Pavilion 1A. The Nature trail begins at the north end of the parking lot next to a kiosk. There are restrooms and a playground uphill to the left, as well as some picnic shelters.

After passing the kiosk, the trail turns to the right and heads into the woods. Almost immediately there are great views of a long lobe of the lake stretching from the main body to the northeast, with easy access to the rocky shore. In 0.05 miles, the trail forks, with both forks seemingly heading in the same northeastern direction. The Nature trail is a loop, so you can choose to go clockwise or counterclockwise. The clockwise option passed closest to the lakeshore, so we opted to go that way. The trail is blazed with blue paint, and is never really labeled as the Nature Trail, but it matches the park’s trail map, in which the Nature Trail is marked in alternating green and blue dashes. Though we never saw any exhibits or labeled trees or plants, later on this loop there is a side trail to something that looks like an outdoor classroom.

The trail has a natural treadway, and this section of the Nature trail heads northeast for .3 miles along the lakeshore. There are several side trails down to the water, and down one of them we saw a great blue heron taking in the view. After we startled it into flying to the opposite shore, we popped down to the bank to get photos up and down the cove.

The trail appears to split at one point along this stretch, but we continued along the path that hugged the shore. It’s a little confusing, as this part of the loop trail is pinched together without actually intersecting, so sometimes the other side of the loop trail is literally next to the footbed along the lake. Just stick to the trail closest to the lake and you’ll be fine. At .3 miles, we reached the intersection of the Nature trail and the Outer Loop trail, which is also blazed in blue. The intersection is marked with a tree with double blazes. We opted to continue hiking clockwise on the Outer Loop, so we headed to the left.

This segment of the Outer Loop heads northeast briefly to the end of the cove, then turns southwest to follow the north shore. There are a couple of plank bridges in this area, as a small feeder creek flows into the cove. The single-track trail has very little elevation change in this section, since it’s only a few feet from the water, but there are a couple of large dips where a drainage has eroded the trail. They were easy to cross on foot, and would probably be fine on a bike but you’ll need to watch out for them.

One of the quirks of hiking along the shore of a cove is that you may see the starting point of your hike across the water. Our friend the heron was still hanging out on this side of the cove, but there was too much underbrush to get a good photo. At roughly .65 miles from where we started on the Outer Loop, we rounded the peninsula and started heading north, with the main body of Chickamauga Lake off to the left. There’s a small overlook here, where we paused briefly to take photos.

Though the trail surface didn’t change here, its elevation certainly did. The climb is gradual, with an elevation gain of 70 feet over the next half mile or so. Chickamauga Lake is visible through the trees, but even in the winter the views are somewhat obstructed. We passed through an area where there had been a large blowdown, but here and everywhere on this hike we saw excellent trail maintenance, never once having to step around or over obstacles. We reached the first intersection with the Inner Loop 1 trail 1.15 miles from where we started on the Outer Loop. This junction was very well marked, with a terrific wooden version of the trail map, complete with a “here” marker so you could place yourself on the map.

You’ll notice from the trail map that the Inner 1 and Inner 2 loops actually have two junctions with the Outer Loop trail. We reached the second junction for Inner Loop 1 about 150 feet down the trail. The next segment of the Outer Loop reached the highest elevation on this hike, about 800 feet, so the trail tended uphill when heading north. The gain in elevation didn’t help much with the lake views. I noticed English ivy climbing trees here, which reminds me to mention that we did see quite a few examples of non-native plants such as privet and nandina. At least the nandina gave the woods a pop of color.

Our next landmark, at .6 miles from the Inner Loop 1 intersection, was the two intersections with the Inner Loop 2 trail. This intersection is at the northernmost end of the peninsula, where there’s a thoughtfully placed bench that allows you to rest and view the lake to the left and a small cove to the right. We took a brief break here before continuing southeast toward the end of the cove.

After reaching the end of this small cove, the Outer Loop continues away from the water, then turns east. We had not noticed a change in background color on the trail map, so it was a mild surprise when the Outer Loop actually left state park property and continued onto TVA property. The proximity to TVA property isn’t surprising, as the park was originally developed by the TVA and was leased to the state until 1950. The trail climbs briefly in this area, and features three spur trails that connect to Solitude Drive. The spur trails aren’t on the trail map, but they are prominently marked on the trail itself, with the first and third spurs displaying those excellent wooden maps. After the first spur trail, the Outer Loop trail widens considerably as it follows an old road. After the second spur trail, Outer Loop returns to single-track, winding through a gradual descent as it re-enters the state park.

This last segment of the Outer Loop trail largely parallels Solitude Drive, crossing a couple more plank bridges before returning to the junction with the Nature loop trail. To be sticklers, we took the split to the left so that we would complete the Nature trail loop. In retrospect, I wouldn’t recommend this, as this part of the Nature trail closely parallels Champion Road, which is quite a bit busier than Solitude Drive. It’s also longer, as the eastern portion of the loop is .75 miles back to the trailhead by Pavilion 1A, as opposed to .35 miles if you backtrack along the part of the loop next to the lake. If you parked at the pool (there’s a second trailhead there) then it’s slightly shorter to take the split to the left. We went left just to complete the loop, but there weren’t any remarkable features there except a couple of banked turns for bikers. In fact, this segment was one of those annoying ones that winds unnecessarily over flat ground just to give bike riders a little more mileage.

Speaking of bike riders, I understand that these loops are very popular in the Chattanooga biking community. We only saw one biker during our hike (she lapped us three times, I think). The trail maintainers have done a great job of making the Outer Loop bike-friendly, and it’s likely that they’ve done the same for the inner loops.

We completed the Nature trail loop and rejoined the trail back to the kiosk, for a grand total of 3.88 miles according to our GPS track. We made pretty good time on this trail by our standards, finishing in about three hours. Fitter people who don’t stop to take photos will make even better time. On our way out, we stopped by the fishing pier, where Ruth had earlier noticed some historical markers. We paused to learn more about the CCC and Booker T. Washington.

So why I am so worked up about this park? I selected it for a hike during Black History Month for a reason — Booker T. Washington State Park is one of two state parks originally built in Tennessee as black-only parks. Generally speaking, state park development in the South only really took off in the Depression era, as the Federal Government pumped money into the states for grand public works projects. The TVA built recreational facilities, the CCC and WPA built state and national parks, and it was a boom time for public recreation — if you were white. The South was still in the grip of Jim Crow laws enacted during Reconstruction, reinforced by the dreadful Plessy vs. Ferguson Supreme Court ruling in 1896 that established the “separate but equal” principle. As noted by William O’Brien in a 2007 article, “… the ‘equal’ provisions of such laws were never as stringently applied as were the ‘separate’ provisions, and the exclusion of African Americans from opportunities and activities available to whites was the norm.”

O’Brien later wrote a book, Landscapes of Exclusion: State Parks and Jim Crow in the American South (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2015) that explores this topic in more depth. One illustration in that book shows a map of the southeast with dots representing state park locations, with black dots for each park that had facilities available to African Americans from 1937 to 1962. I didn’t count every dot, but I’d estimate the ratio was about 1:10 overall. Tennessee had 2 parks for black use, with another 15 reserved for whites. Alabama had one park with some facilities for black use (which weren’t built until 1952-53), with another 8 or 9 for whites only. In 1954, in nine southern states there were 12 parks in existence or in the planning stage for African Americans — as compared to 180 white-only state parks.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that those meager few parks and facilities for African Americans were built out of generosity of spirit. In most cases, those parks were built as “proof” of the feasibility of separate but equal facilities, in a cynical attempt to fool the courts into delaying the inevitable. It was no accident that when Alabama finally came around to adding black-accessible facilities to a state park, it selected a park in one corner of the state — the only Alabama state park to be named after a Civil War general. You won’t find any mention of this in Joe Wheeler State Park’s website or brochures. And when states built black-only parks or facilities, they were often in inferior locations with fewer amenities.

Southern states did eventually desegregate their parks — some by reluctant choice, some because of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. When forced to desegregate, some states quietly but unhappily complied (Tennessee is one example), and others angrily resisted, privatizing (Georgia) or closing (South Carolina) their parks. Tennessee was ahead of the curve, desegregating all state parks by 1962. Tennessee, to its credit, still operates its two formerly black-only parks (Booker T. Washington and T.O. Fuller State Park in Memphis) under their original names; North Carolina follows suit with Jones Lake State Park. All other formerly black-only parks are no longer in operation, at least as state parks. Some were sold, some were privatized, some were given to county and local governments, some were abandoned. Parks that had separate black and white amenities combined them, usually with no acknowledgment of their segregated pasts.

And here’s where it gets personal. It’s easy for historical events or movements to get pushed into the background if they happened before you were alive, especially if there’s no personal connection. Though Ruth and I were just infants at the time, during our lifespan black people weren’t welcome at the vast majority of state parks. They were shunted into fewer and inferior parks. Fortunately, that’s not the case anymore, but it speaks volumes about why African-American attendance in our parks is well below what you would expect, demographically. Ruth and I have often wondered about this, and now we know that black people in our generation in the South were either excluded from state parks, or their parents were. It’s not that I’m surprised that there was (and is) racism — I’m just furious at the stupidity of it, and at the cynicism of the politicians who grudgingly complied with public pressure, lawsuits, and legislation. They never thought they were wrong, and those are the people who destroy the world.

And this is when it really hit me. Back in December 2019, Ruth and I hiked an area of Joe Wheeler State Park known as the Multi-Use Trail (Ghosts of Picnics Past: Joe Wheeler Multi-Use Trail). This trail, on the south side of Wilson Lake, passes the ruined chimneys of a picnic pavilion, a collapsed gazebo, an abandoned bath house, and damaged and overgrown concrete picnic tables. We were confused about why the park would have abandoned a developed area. In that post, I wrote, “On the other side of the trail, remains of concrete picnic tables stood silent, with occasional grills and ruined water fountains dotting what was clearly an old picnic ground. At one time, it would have been a lovely picnic spot, with views of the river and the dam below. Long abandoned, it was haunted by the ghosts of picnics past.”

Now, unless I’m very much mistaken, I believe we were in the black-only portion of Joe Wheeler State Park, abandoned after the desegregation of the Alabama state park system. It’s known that at Joe Wheeler the black-only section of the park was on the other side of the river from the white-only section. Given that the lodge, the golf course, and the campground are on the north side of the Tennessee River, the south side is the logical location. Topo maps from 1957 show the buildings, dirt roads, and the picnic area; topo maps from 1936 do not show any buildings or dirt roads in that area.

We were standing among the relics of a shameful past — the only state park system facilities in Alabama made available to African-Americans prior to desegregation — and didn’t even know it.

Surprises all around: Franklin State Forest

Another week, another hike to pick. I do actually enjoy hiking in the winter. I like the chill in the air, and the fact that I can stay warm just by keeping moving. I like that the trails are even more empty than they normally are, leaving me to peaceful, quiet solitude. A winter hike is often the best time to get stunning views since there will be no leaves on the trees to have to peek through. I do miss all the wildflowers that we get on spring and summer hikes, but I’m not by any means a reluctant winter hiker. This time, I picked a hike in Franklin State Forest – one that ran along a mountainside and might just give us gorgeous valley views. We’ve hiked in Franklin State Forest a couple of times, with varying degrees of success. This is a beautiful area, made up of 8,836 acres of land on the Cumberland Plateau above South Pittsburg, Tennessee. But unlike the Tennessee State Parks, this State Forest is pretty minimally serviced. By that I mean that there is no visitor’s center, and though there are signs occasionally, trails are not as well marked as they would be in a State Park. Our first trip here we spent most of our time not at all sure where we were on the confusing nest of trails. Our second trip went better – we went to one of the more popular sites on the western side of the park – but for this trip, we’d be on the eastern side again, and I was a little worried we’d spend our day lost. As we drove up, the weather that I had thought would be at least partly sunny turned out to be mostly grey with a good chance of a sprinkle or two. Now I worried that the views for which I had specifically picked this hike would be hidden in a grey gloom. I’m normally a pretty optimistic person, but my optimism level was pretty low for this one.

There was no sign off of State Highway 156 for our planned parking area. This wasn’t a surprise, but it did mean that there was some guess work involved in picking which little access road we should turn onto. I picked the one that looked to me like it matched based on a comparison of Google Maps and the paper map we’d printed out. We turned onto a rutted and muddy road that almost immediately teed into another muddy road. We weren’t sure which way we needed to turn, but to the right there looked like maybe there was a field, so we turned and bumped over the ruts and up the small hill to find that we’d stumbled right to the Lookout Tower that is marked on some maps. We’d hoped that we’d find the tower anyway so this was a stroke of good luck. The tower is a tall metal structure, with stairs that end in midair – I’m sure to discourage unofficial folks from climbing the thing. In front of the tower the large open field provided plenty of parking, though we were the only vehicle there. From the tower, I thought we needed to head north to find an actual hiking trail so we set off that way. I was again a little worried that I had gotten it totally wrong about where we were, but as it turned out we hadn’t walked far at all before we spotted a trail sign off in the trees to the right. An even smaller rutted road headed down into a ravine, but since the trail sign was on what looked like an actual trail, we headed for it. It turned out to be the sign for the West Rim trail. We were on the right track! We continued along the nice broad trail for a very short way before our first surprise of the day. Below us in the hollow, we saw a small building and wondered why it was there. It looked for all the world like a privy and maybe that’s what it was. We didn’t check to make sure. Soon, though, we noticed that there was a clearing and a picnic table as well. Our route took us on the hill above this until we ran in to the remains of an old road. We could tell that the road was probably a continuation of the one that had peeled off down into the hollow back at the initial trail sign. Was this a picnic area? A campground? We had to find out. It was Cave Spring, which was marked on some maps and even on Google Maps, but which turned out to be much more substantial that I would have thought. When I’d seen it on the map, I figured it was just a small spring that we’d maybe never even see. Turns out it’s large enough to warrant a picnic area and an old carved-stone sign. It was a pretty cool place and totally unexpected!

After enjoying the spring for a bit, we got back on the old road heading north. Soon the road disappeared and we found ourselves on a normal forest trail. The only blowdown of the entire hike was on this stretch, but it was easy to get around. We also had our second surprise of the day, as it started a light misting rain which we had not prepared for. Luckily it didn’t last long and no harm was done. Chet practiced his mushroom id skills, and I admired some pretty rock outcroppings.

In a bit more than half a mile, the trail went up a rise and teed into another dirt road. I can’t find a name for this road – it’s unlabeled on every map I looked at – but we knew we needed to turn right and follow it until we got to the end. This was an easy road walk. It wasn’t even very muddy as the soil on the road often had a bit of sand mixed in and even sometimes had some gravel. We were surprised by how many side roads led off this. We wondered if it was just ATV trails (this forest is heavily used by both horse riders and ATVers) or if these were old logging roads of some sort. After a bit more than a half a mile, we arrived at an overlook. There was the remains of a large campfire there and very nice views down into a valley. Various spots on the valley floor are labeled as Sweden Cove, Main Cove, Rose Cove, and Straight Cove. I’m not exactly sure what we were looking at, but it was a nice view.

From the overlook, the trick was to find the trail that led south. This turned out to be easier than I’d feared, as we quickly spotted a “Trail->” sign, as well as white blazes heading off into the woods. We also spotted an “H” tacked onto a tree trunk so it was visible if you were on the trail heading north. On our first trip to Franklin State Forest, we’d come across these alphabet signs, too. Apparently letters are used to mark certain intersections. There is a map out there someplace that shows these letters, but no official map from the Franklin State Forest has them, and no mention is made of them anywhere on that site. Maybe this was an old scheme, now abandoned, but the letters are still there and I’m sure are super confusing to folks! I’m not entirely convinced that we had yet been on the actual West Rim trail – some people call the first stretch we did the “Cave Spring Trail” though it’s not marked that in any place that I can find. At this point, though, we were definitely on a rim trail. This much narrower trail led along the edge of the park, which also happens to be the edge of the ridge. All along there are views down into the valley, though at this point the trail is a little away from the edge so views are obscured. We were surprised to find a tumbled down rock chimney beside the trail, but saw no signs of anything that looked like the rest of a cabin. Chet checked on old topo maps later to see if we could find any indications of buildings up here, but found nothing. We also spotted an oddly shaped tree that is a candidate to be a “marker tree” or “Indian tree.” The idea is that Native Americans created these trees by bending saplings so that the tree, when grown, would point to something important. I know the existence of such trees is controversial – one knowledgeable forester friend of ours points out that any such trees actually made by Indians would have to be more than 150 years old by now, and that due to logging almost no trees that old are in these forests – but it’s still fun to me to think about that as a possibility.

As we walked along, we could tell from the map that we’d be crossing the stream that originated in Cave Spring at some point, and we started hearing cascading water off to our left. When we got to the stream it was just a small thing, and seeing as the land dropped off into the valley nearby, I decided to do a little exploratory off-trail investigation to see if the sounds I was hearing came from a waterfall. Sure enough, it did! The little creek dropped over a small bluff in its journey down to the valley, creating a nice little waterfall with a sizeable rock shelter beside it. I scrambled down enough to get a few pictures, then retraced my steps to the trail.

From there, it was more of the same for the next little bit. We passed over another little creek, some more old chimneys, a huge tree with a large “fairy hole” in the bottom, and finally came out at another marked point – this one “I.” Here, another road led back towards the west. We thought about taking this way back to the truck, but were feeling pretty good and decided to extend the hike a bit and go on down to the next road that cut over instead.

The trail continues south with little change, actually. I liked the rock bluffs that we walked nearly on top of, and Chet admired an interesting four-trunked tree. The trail turned away from the views for a bit to navigate a fold in the land, and we found a very nice footbridge across a tiny creek. Soon, though, were were at our final viewpoint of the day, at marked point “J.”

After one last look down into the valley, we turned away from the bluffs and headed west back through the forest on a dirt road that was occasionally rutted and muddy. It was no big problem to navigate, though, and soon we could hear a car whoosh by now and then on State Highway 156, which was directly ahead. Just before we reached it though, our planned route back to the truck took off to the right. It’s a dirt road that roughly parallels the highway. On Google Maps, this road has no name, but on the one of the maps we pulled off the Franklin State Forest web site, it may be part of the road labeled “Pittsburgh Mountain Side Road.” In any case, it starts out as a steep and bright red mud road before it levels off a bit. My initial guess was that we’d have about half a mile on this road before we got back to the lookout tower. We kept thinking surely we’d see the tower sticking up above the trees, but it remained stubbornly hidden as we walked and walked and walked. By this point, we were both tired and ready to be off the trail. There were no waterfalls or springs or caves or pretty views on this stretch, so there wasn’t much to distract us. We came to the spot on the map where I had thought we’d parked, but quickly realized that I’d been off by one little access road. We had one more to go before we reached the truck. We were only about two tenths of a mile from our endpoint and still no tower, which we grumpily started calling the “stealth tower” for its apparent ability to remain completely cloaked from view.

We were nearly all the way back to the truck before we spotted the tower peeking up above the trees to our left. In all we’d hiked 3.989 miles according to our GPS track. It was a surprising hike. We hadn’t expected rain, but we’d gotten some. I had expected we’d get lost at least a few times, but we never did. We had no idea there would be cool stuff like Cave Spring, old chimneys, or that unnamed waterfall. Good surprises (mostly) made this a great day out!

Cache Me Outside: Revisiting Wade Mountain West

One of the challenges of maintaining a hyper-local blog in its sixth year is that we’ve covered a lot of hiking locations in the Tennessee Valley. Though we keep a list of ideas, we’ve found that we have to travel a bit more to provide fresh content. However, there is another option: to revisit some trails to experience them at a different time of year, or even better, to find a new angle for describing them.

That’s the idea behind this post. I’ve been wanting to do a post about geocaching for a while, and winter is the best time to take up this hobby. If you’ve never heard the term, it’s an activity in which you use a GPS-enabled device to search for previously-hidden “caches” of trinkets, using the GPS coordinates to get you in the general area and your eyes and common sense to find the actual cache. It’s basically high-tech treasure hunting, and a great family activity you can take up at little to no cost. Ruth and I have been seeking caches for years now, though we’re nowhere near as hard-core as many other folks, who have found thousands of caches. It’s an on-and-off hobby for us, as we’ve accumulated close to 200 finds so far. Seeking caches has led us to some interesting places in this area, often in scenic locations.

If you’re new to geocaching, it’s easy to get started. First, you’ll need a free account at www.geocaching.com. Once you have an account, you can search the site to reveal approximate locations of caches all over the world. For instance, as of this writing there are 1,329 caches within a 10-mile radius of Huntsville, AL. You can type in an address, or search using a map. Geocaching.com offers two levels of membership — basic and premium. Basic membership, which is free, allows access to around half of the caches on the website, which is plenty if you’re just getting started and want to try out the hobby. Full access is around $30/year, and it includes access to more caches and other features.

Next, you’ll need a GPS-enabled device in which to download the cache coordinates and info. There are two options: buy a GPS receiver, or download the free Geocaching.com app and use your cell phone. We’re firmly in the GPS receiver camp, having owned various models. For us, it’s a basic tool for wilderness navigation, and has saved us on more than one occasion, particularly when we’re off-trail. Geocaching is just one use for this tool, so buying a GPS receiver just for geocaching might be overkill if you’re just starting out. The pros: GPS receivers provide many features useful for outdoor adventures, are much more battery friendly (GPS apps ravenously eat battery power on a cell phone), are more rugged, and triangulate their position by using GPS satellites (cell phones use GPS satellites and cell phone tower signals, which they can lose in the outback). The cons: they are relatively expensive, at around $200 for a basic unit, ranging up to $800 or more with all the bells and whistles.

However, if you just want to give geocaching a try and you already have a cell phone, with the basic account at geocaching.com and the free Geocaching app you can be off and running at no cost. There is a significant catch, which I’ll elaborate on later.

So let’s get started on a geocaching run, shall we? From searching the geocaching.com website, I determined that we could plot a hike on the western side of the Land Trust of North Alabama’s Wade Mountain Preserve that would take us past 10 caches in around 6 miles or so. We set off on a cold clear morning to see how many we could find.

Before leaving the friendly speed of the home internet, I downloaded the details from the caches into my GPS receiver. The geocaching world has its own lingo, and one example of this is the term “GPSr” as a shorthand for GPS receiver. I also had some written notes to list the caches in trail-order, since a GPSr tends to organize caches by how close they are to your current location, as calculated using straight lines. To save wear and tear on your body, plus to minimize your impact to the off-trail parts of the preserve, it’s smart to use existing trails as much as possible. Before leaving, I also downloaded the geocaching app, thinking we could compare cell phone vs. GPSr accuracy on some caches.

When we arrived at the parking lot for the Wade Mountain greenway, Ruth fired up the GPSr and told it to find our first cache. I knew from the geocaching.com map that our first two caches were on the greenway itself, and within five minutes the GPSr was telling us we were within 14 feet of the cache. GPS receivers, whether GPSr or cell phone, can vary greatly in their ability to figure out your exact position. Overcast skies and dense foliage are the usual culprits in reducing positional accuracy, but our clear weather and lack of foliage (winter is the best time for geocaching!) allowed us to get pretty close to the actual location of the cache. Caches are usually give catchy names by their creators, and are also given unique codes by the geocaching.com site. This particular one is known as “Uncle Toad,” with the unique code of GC6THMC. We knew from the cache description that this cache had a small container. There are various types and sizes of caches. Most are containers of some sort, ranging in size from something the size of a pencil eraser to ammo box size or larger.

I must digress here briefly to note that the fun part of geocaching is the thrill of the find, so in this post I’m going to be intentionally vague about the actual locations of the caches. If I told you where to find them, I would be removing the challenge for you.

For Uncle Toad, it took us a little while to figure out where the cache was hidden, even though we could restrict our search to a 14-foot radius. Caches are usually cleverly hidden, to prevent non-cachers (“muggles”) from finding them accidentally and disturbing them. All I’ll say is that we spent about 15 minutes in/near a structure before having the inspiration to look in the correct place. Once spotted, the cache was relatively easy to retrieve. Caches often have little treasures (toys or items of little value) that are yours for the taking, though the proper etiquette is to leave something in its place. More important, caches also have paper logs, usually stashed in a plastic bag, in which you sign and date your find. We quickly added our details to the log and replaced the cache, after making sure there weren’t any muggles watching!

We resumed our trek down the greenway until the GPSr told us the next cache (“PPPPPPP Toad”) was about 500 feet off the trail to our left. This was another small cache, set back in the woods but still on preserve property. Many of the caches on our route were placed by the same person, who gave them toad-based names. Geocachers go by handles, and bustertoad is the kind soul who placed and maintains a number of caches in the area. Thanks, bustertoad, from Beetlebomb and Mama the Llama! This cache took us quite a way off the trail into trackless but open woods. The coordinates were accurate, and once we established a search area it didn’t take long to find this cache. Note that even when caches are out of the eyesight of prying muggles, care is still taken to hide them in a challenging place, sometimes by dangling them in a cavity.

At the end of the Wade Mountain greenway, we continued northeast on the dirt Wade Mountain Greenway trail, but very quickly took the first trail to the left, the Cotton Valley trail. Our next quarry was near the north end of this trail, and we followed our GPSr’s directional arrow off trail and across a dry creek bed to find our next cache. As we left the trail and headed toward the creek, I noted a picturesque tree on the far bank and thought, “that’s a likely place.” Indeed, after a little bit of thrashing around due to our inexperience in using this particular GPSr for geocaching, we returned to the tree and quickly made our find. This is a good example of a cache being camouflaged to prevent its discovery by the casual eye. I had stared right at this one for a few seconds before realizing what it was.

So, we were three for three, which is pretty good for us. Our next cache was off the Wade Mountain Greenway trail, so we continued on around the Cotton Valley trail to its junction with the Wade Mountain Greenway trail. This is a good example of using the trails instead of bee-lining across the terrain. It would have been more direct to cut across the loop, and at times the GPSr showed us heading in the opposite direction to the next cache, but I knew from my notes we could take the trail to get pretty close and minimize the bushwhacking. Though there was limited underbrush to deal with (winter is the best time for geocaching!), it seems that the most direct route to any outdoor cache is through a thick clump of greenbriers.

This particular cache, “Hares Ear’s First Cache,” was the first on this trip to have a regular-sized container, which is typically an ammo box or something of similar size. You’d think that such a large item would be easy to spot, but this hide was also typical of many in our area — tucked somewhere away inside a rock outcropping. When your GPSr can get you close, these are usually easy to find. In this particular case, Ruth and I parted ways back on the Cotton Valley trail. She was to use the GPSr to find the cache, and I planned on using the Geocaching app on my phone. Let’s circle back to my earlier comment about the Geocaching.com premium plan. It turns out that if you are using the basic plan then the app will only give you the coordinates to caches that have a difficulty and/or terrain rating of 2.0 (out of 5) or less. Out of our 10 planned caches, that eliminated 9 of them for use with the app, so Hares Ear’s First Cache would be our only comparison. As you can see, the user interface is pretty simple — the cache is the green icon, the blue dot is you, and you just rotate yourself to line up the two. Ultimately Ruth and I both ended up about eight feet from the cache, and Ruth was first to spot it in its rocky cranny. So based on this limited test, the app and the GPSr were equally accurate. Also note that my phone battery dropped to 17% from about 85% before I turned on this app. It’s a relatively old phone, so your mileage may vary, but bear this in mind if you’re planning on doing a lot of off-trail seeking. In comparison, our GPSr will run for around 10 hours on two AA batteries.

Our next cache was my favorite for the day, enigmatically named “You’ve Got Mail.” This was a normal-sized cache near the junction of the Wade Mountain Greenway trail, Bostick trail, and Fossil Bench trail. Like many others, it was tucked in among the rock formations, and given its size, fairly easy to spot once the GPSr got us close. Geocachers are often very creative in their choice of containers, and well, this one speaks for itself.

Note that this sweet cache had lots of loot in it, and Ruth was tempted by the pair of gloves as hers were kind of thin, but we left the goodies for others and even dropped in a foreign coin. Sometimes geocachers will put in a special prize when they first hide the cache, to be claimed by the FTF (First to Find). Some caches also contain trackable objects, which are usually marked with their own unique number. If you take a trackable object, the expectation is that you will place it in another cache. You can follow the adventures of the object via the Geocaching.com website. Though we didn’t find any trackable objects on this trip, we have found them in the past and even took one overseas to place in a cache in Ireland!

So we were now five for five in our quest, and I knew that there were five more caches along the 1.28 mile Fossil Bench trail. I won’t go into the details for most of these, but the first one on this trail, “Topsy Toad,” displayed one of the occasional disappointments in geocaching — a muggled cache! That means that a cache was discovered by someone, probably accidentally, who didn’t know what they had found, and they subsequently moved or damaged the cache. We found poor old Topsy Toad about 30 feet from its coordinates, laying on the mountain with its container open and contents strewn about.

The ammo box, though open, was intact, so I gathered up the scattered contents and signed the damp but still legible log, while Ruth continued uphill to the posted coordinates, looking for a likely place to restore the cache. She found a good spot, though we have no way of knowing whether this was the cache’s original hiding place or not. This is perhaps a good time to mention that after you’ve completed your geocaching session, to get full “credit” for the find you should also record that you found the cache on Geocaching.com. This lets other cachers know that someone has found the cache recently, gives you a chance to thank the person who placed it (TFTC, thanks for the cache), and even flag the cache as needing maintenance. After getting back home, I flagged the cache and described what we found and did. Apparently Ruth did a good job of replacing the cache, because I note that two other people found it a couple of days later and didn’t report any problems.

Our next cache, “Patience is a virtue,” was relatively easy to find, and was located near a power line cut. While finding the caches is fun, it’s a bonus when the journey takes you past remarkable views. Shortly after that, we had only three more toad-themed caches to find. The first one, “Tipsy Toad,” once again had us scuttling around, in, alongside, and under rock formations off the trail. Usually the GPSr will get one pretty close to the cache, but in this case it was ultimately about 50 feet from the posted coordinates. Lots of things can happen to cause this — perhaps when the cache was placed there was foliage or weather that kept the cacher from getting precise coordinates, or perhaps someone moved the cache — but Ruth was dogged in her efforts and after about a 30-minute search she made the find, just as I was getting ready to propose giving up.

Our next cache, “Flint Toad,” was also a bit difficult to spot. We became separated in our search, though in sight of each other, and after about 15 minutes of searching I shouted down to Ruth to see if she was having any luck. At that very moment as she turned to reply, she spotted a camouflaged tube barely sticking out of a crack in a boulder right next to her.

Typical view when heading off-trail to find a cache. Lots of places to look!

Our last cache for the day, “Trail Toad,” was mercifully only a short distance off the trail, and we spotted it after about five minutes of searching. It was a triumph — we were ten for ten! At this point we had the option of heading uphill and then heading westward on the Bostick trail to make a loop and reconnect with the Wade Mountain Greenway trail. All the off-trail stuff had left me pretty knackered, so I proposed just retracing our steps instead, which would also involve less elevation change. We backtracked to the parking lot, during which we were passed by a trail runner for the third time. We joined up with another hiker toward the end and had a nice socially distanced chat as we walked along for the last mile or so. All in all, the GPSr recorded a track of 6.2 miles for the day, which is longer than our recent average hike, so no wonder I was tired! I’m not posting the GPS track for this hike since it will reveal the locations of the caches.

We hadn’t been geocaching in a while, so it was fun to revisit this hobby and also to revisit the western side of the Wade Mountain Preserve. When you’ve logged your finds on Geocaching.com, they are displayed as smileys on the map view. That’s only right, as we were feeling pretty smiley too!

Long Hunting Adventures: Long Hunter Day Loop

Whenever I’m driving on the interstates in Tennessee, I’m always struck by how many different state parks I pass. It seems like there’s one at every exit some places! I wondered if Tennessee was unique so I hit the internet to look at the number of state parks for the states commonly considered to be in the “Southeast”: Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia. What I found is that while Tennessee’s 56 parks puts them second behind Florida (175), my impression is probably skewed by the fact that I live in Alabama, the state with the fewest state parks in the Southeast with only 21. Even if you broaden the scope of what is considered “Southeast” to include places like Arkansas, Louisiana, Kentucky, West Virginia, Maryland and Delaware, Alabama still only beats out tiny Delaware – a state that is 26 times smaller. To be fair the number of parks a state has does not necessarily say anything about the quality of those parks, but it does explain why it seems like I see so many more of those brown park signs in Tennessee!

Last fall we went up into Tennessee to check out Sellars Farm State Archaological Area and Cedars of Lebanon State Park. We discovered that the Sellars Farm is actually under the management of yet another Tennessee State Park – Long Hunter. I’d never heard of that one, so I put it on my “go to someday” list. When I was looking around for a good 4-or-so mile hike within a few hours of Huntsville, the Long Hunter Day Loop keep popping up in my searches. It got great reviews and sounded like a nice place, so we decided to make the drive to the outskirts of Nashville on a recent Friday to check it out.

Long Hunter State Park is a 2600 acre park on Percy Priest lake just to the southeast of Nashville. In addition to fishing and boating, the park also maintains about 20 miles of hiking trails. I picked out a 4 mile lollipop loop trail that would take us along the lake. In reading up on this trail, one of the many comments mentioned that it is very popular and that if you go on a weekend, you’d better get there early because the parking lot at the trailhead frequently fills up. We found the trailhead easily enough, and discovered that even on a Friday morning there were a fair number of cars there. We found a spot easily enough, but it wasn’t like our experience last week in the Sipsey when we found a completely empty parking lot at the Randolph Trailhead. We had actually meant to go to the visitors center first, but missed the turn to it, so we cruised through the trailhead lot, decided we’d probably have no problems finding a parking spot, and headed on back to the visitors center. It’s a typical Tennessee State Park visitors center, with nice clean bathrooms, a few things for sale, information about Long Hunter’s participation in the Honey Project and a small diorama explaining the origin of the park name. That was something I was very glad to see, because I wondered about it. It turns out that “long hunter” was a name used in the 18th century for hunters primarily from Virginia who would go on very long expeditions – often at least a year or two long – down into the unexplored wilds of Kentucky and along the Cumberland River in Tennessee. The diorama didn’t make clear whether there is evidence of these men hunting in the area of the park, but it’s a pretty good assumption they did. After availing ourselves of the nice bathrooms (we had noticed that there is only a port-a-potty at the trailhead), buying a state park patch, and donating to the Honey Project cause, we headed on back to the trailhead.

The trail leaves out of the parking lot just past a nice informative kiosk. I particularly appreciated the fact that somebody nailed up blaze examples for both the trails you can access from here. First up was the Volunteer Trail, a 5.5 mile trail which eventually leads to a backcountry campground. Our route followed this trail for the first half mile before peeling off. The trail in the beginning was broad and very well maintained. It was busy – we passed at least a dozen people, many with their dogs – in this short section but there was plenty of room and everybody was very well behaved, so it was no problem. Tennessee Parks generally do a pretty good job with their signage, and this was no exception. We saw clearly posted trail rules as well as a very nice note about possible trees down on the trail.

The trail goes through a really pretty section of woods – primarily shagbark hickory, hackberry, and cedar. We passed one bench and crossed over a couple of small footbridges and then came to a short section with some interesting boulders. At half a mile, we came to the start of the Day Loop. The loop actually shares nearly another mile with the Volunteer Trail. At this junction we had to choose whether to continue on the Volunteer Trail and make the loop in a counterclockwise direction, or split off from the Volunteer Trail here to go clockwise, walking the shared section of the Volunteer Trail at the end. We opted to go clockwise, not for any particular reason. Either way would work just fine. From the junction, the Day Loop makes a beeline for the water. We had lucked into a gorgeous day, with sunshine and clear blue skies heightening the pretty blue of the water. However, for the first mile of the loop, every single path off the main track that would have led down to a little beach or view of the water was marked with a polite but stern sign indicating that this was not an official trail and that so called “social trails” take years to “heal.” Talk about laying on a guilt trip! Chet made some cracks about how this was the “trail of nope.” I mean, the lake looked pretty through the trees and it was a nice trail through the woods, but I longed to get to the water’s edge and I was afraid that we’d never really get that chance. We hiked on, and I noticed that the trail was slightly muddy in a couple places. Some of the reviews I’d read commented on a muddy trail, but at least on this day, a bit of damp dirt was all we found.

At about 2 miles in, the trail ascended a bit through some rocks that sure looked like they had fossils embedded in them, then curved down and towards a cove. I was delighted to find our first unsigned trail leading to the water! It happened to be on a point just before a lovely cove ringed by white rocky beaches. We scampered down to the shore, soaked in the beauty of the lake, and took a few selfies.

From the cove, the trail again gained some elevation, this time through some pretty moss covered rocks, then ran along the top of some small rocky bluffs. This section may have been my favorite of the trail. The lake was right there on our left, and there were numerous rocky outcroppings that would make for a great picnic lunch or basking spot. I noticed a very straight line of small rocks up the hill from us. When that line of rocks took a sharp turn to the right, I decided it must be the remains of an old wall. I wonder if this area was some farmer’s field at some point? They might have needed walls to keep livestock from falling off the bluffs.

Soon the trail turned inland, passed a small sinkhole, and then met back up with the Volunteer Trail. We turned right to head back towards the parking lot. This section of the trail is marked with both the white Volunteer Trail blaze, and the orange Day Loop one. The combined trail heads up a ravine, then bisects another rock wall before heading up and away towards the top of a small rise. The lake was no longer in view, but the character of the trail is still very pretty – lots of open woodland, rock slab footbed, and mossy glades. We pretty quickly covered the combined section and arrived back at the junction where we started our loop. From there, we just retraced our steps to get back to the truck.

I really enjoyed this hike. It’s a bit of a long drive from Huntsville for a relatively short hike, but it would be a good place to check out if you have the time or are in the area anyway. I think the Volunteer Trail might be another good one to try sometime, maybe with an overnight stay at the campground. This trail was popular – in total we passed around 25 people and 9 dogs on a weekday morning – but didn’t feel overcrowded. It’s also an easy hike. There’s very little elevation change, and we managed to get in 3.4 miles according to our GPS track with relative ease. Even with the long drive, we were able to get our hike in and still make it home in time to enjoy our new retirement habit – afternoon tea!

Another Way You Shouldn’t Go to Parker Falls

It’s human nature to protect the things that we find precious. Fortunately, there is also an altruistic streak in some people to make those precious things available for others to enjoy. One tangible result of this generosity is the preservation of public lands for our recreational use. The reality is that most of us cannot afford our own private estates of hundreds or thousands of acres. Fortunately through the foresight and determination of those who came before us, we have a well-established network of public lands scattered throughout the country.

But there’s a balance between protection and access that must be considered. There are respectful users of our public lands, who understand that they have a responsibility to leave as light an impact as practical as part of their visit to a protected place. I can’t quote statistics, but my impression is that there are many like-minded people who, while they can’t quote the Leave No Trace principles, would be in general agreement with them. There are many others, perhaps a smaller group, who make a conscious effort to study and appreciate aspects of the natural world and man’s footprint upon that world. And then there is a small minority of people who merely see the outdoors as a place of entertainment, provided as a gift for them to consume without consequences.

During the pandemic, there has been a huge outpouring of folks seeking the restorative qualities of a walk in the woods, or the serenity of listening to birdsong, or the mist on your face from being close to a waterfall. It’s facile to say that Nature has always been there for us. Make no mistake, Nature doesn’t care about you. It’s vast, and relentless, and indifferent. The painted trillium and flame azalea bloom for their respective pollinators, not for you. But we’ve learned to live within Nature and to bend it to our will. We came to a gradual realization that we benefit from species diversification, and that protecting waterways is a good idea for beings largely made of water. We got smarter faster than any other animal.

The point of this long rumination is to shed some light on the dilemma we’ve faced while blogging during the pandemic. As a general rule, we’re firm believers that public lands are for the public, and we want to tell you about great places to go to get your fresh air in the woods and your birdsong and your waterfall mist. After all, as taxpayers we are all paying for the maintenance of these lands. For private preserves that are open to the public, we’re happy to do our part to encourage our readers to experience these natural treasures, and maybe to suggest you ought to throw a few bucks their way so that their owners can keep them open for our enjoyment.

However, there are some folks who want to restrict the number of visitors to their special places. Sometimes there’s a good reason for it, such as protecting endangered species or keeping people from danger, but usually it’s out of the instinct to protect one’s own private paradise. Folks who frequent the Bankhead National Forest are the prime local example. They are happy to post photos and videos of the wonders found in hidden canyons, and maybe even grudgingly share the name of their Shangri-La (ironically, there actually is a Shangri-La Falls in the Bankhead). But if you ask how to get there yourself they clam up, because they don’t want anyone else to know. At this point, it’s kind of absurd — there are actual published maps of the Bankhead, and AllTrails is full of trail reviews and GPS tracks. But, I understand their reticence, as they’ve seen popular sites such as Kinlock Falls become garbage-strewn and Caney Creek Falls turning into a parking nightmare with irate landowners having vehicles towed.

One such popular site is Parker Falls, accessible via a 1.7 mile out and back trail off Kinlock Road, on the western border of the Sipsey Wilderness. There’s not an official Forest Service trail there; instead (so I’m told) there’s an increasingly indistinct track that threads past private property to descend into a canyon, with a problematic final descent to Parker Branch. There’s a tiny bit of roadside parking at the start of the trail, pretty much at the Lawrence-Winston county line. This summer, dozens of cars lined the road in this location, and (by Bankhead standards) droves of people walked the trail, to the point that the descent into the canyon was badly eroded and dangerous. The word, from reputable sources, was that this area should be avoided, and bloggers should remove posts that describe how to get to Parker Falls, at least until a safe approach can be put in place. This wasn’t a problem for us, since we had never been there.

But the lure of the forbidden is a powerful motivator. People started asking if there was a back way into the falls, and were met with the usual stony silence. It was clear that the usual way to get to Parker Falls was not viable, and that further use would increase the damage. So…I started poring over topo maps to see if there was another way to get to Parker Falls. Was there a back-country route, off-trail, that could reliably be followed to safely gain access to the canyon floor? Could it be done within our practical limits of mileage and ability?

I considered a couple of routes starting from the Randolph trailhead on Cranal Road. One option was to take a Forest Service road next to the trailhead, which ran north to within a mile or so of the falls. However, that final mile involved skirting private property and then negotiating a very steep descent (in actuality, probably a cliff) into the canyon. One could take the road up to the beginning of the private property and try to skirt it and another private tract to the west, but this would ultimately probably lead to the proscribed usual track into the canyon.

Since Parker Falls is in a canyon that runs north-south, the final approach is going to come from either the west or the east. The west approach was out, so I started looking at approaches from the east. There were two viable options there. The first was to hike to the junction of the Rippey (201) and Randolph (202) trails, then head due west to hit a feeder stream and follow it northwest into the canyon. However, this would involve about a mile of creek walking, and would put us out at the top of the falls. The second option was to take the Rippey trail north to a point that would be about .5 miles from the falls, then follow another feeder stream northwest to come out at Parker Cascades, then head upstream to the falls. I plugged in GPS waypoints along both tracks. When Ruth pointed out she had thrown away her water shoes, it became obvious that the better route would involve less creek walking, so we’d be taking the Rippey trail as far north as we could before going off-trail.

We drove over to the Bankhead on a cool and clear Thursday morning and discovered we had the Randolph Trailhead to ourselves. Wow — this midweek post-retirement hiking is paying benefits already! We were soon on our way and made quick work of the trail leading from the trailhead to the 201-202 split. Along the way, we passed a few patches of snow still clinging to some fallen logs.

At roughly .3 miles, we came to the Rippey/Randolph split and took the left fork to stay on the Rippey trail. It has been a little while since we’ve hiked this trail, and I had forgotten how much I like it. It passes through open woods, with dashes of color from leaves clinging to American beech trees and the shiny green leaves of American holly trees. In the spring it’s a good trail for spotting dogwoods, redbuds, and azaleas. The footbed is soft and relatively level, and other than having to duck under a few fallen trees, it’s easy walking.

At about one mile from the 201/202 trail split we arrived at my GPS waypoint for where we would leave the trail and head west for the intermittent stream. At this point, the hike ended and the adventure began.

After a gentle decline of about .1 miles, the terrain narrowed to form a hollow, and a small stream emerged from the leaves. We followed it downstream with little difficulty as it grew to about three feet wide. As is typical in the Bankhead, since we were following a stream we had to make two or three crossings as the bank on one side would rise. Still, it was going very well, and we were within .1 mile of Parker Branch without having to creek walk. But then, the walls narrowed and the creek flowed over a drop. We were able to skirt this drop to the left (facing downstream), but after clambering down a little discovered why creek walking would have been a bad idea.

So, when you’re looking at a topo map, and a stream runs through a V with lots of tightly packed contour lines on either side, it means the water is going downhill rapidly. I had hoped it would be a navigable cascade. Instead, it was this.

We were able to scramble to the bottom of this two-tier waterfall without much difficulty. While I was snapping some photos, Ruth did some reconnaissance downstream. After all, we were really close to Parker Branch. But, she discovered we were also still quite a few feet above the valley floor, with yet another waterfall to negotiate.

Photos don’t really do justice to the steepness of the terrain. After considering our options, we didn’t see a safe route to the bottom, so we backtracked to the top of the first waterfall and after consulting the map decided to climb the ridgetop and try to work our way south, looking for an opening in the bluffs that we might be able to exploit. Along the way we came across a length of steel cable buried in the leaves, which made us wonder if it was part of a system for snaking logs to the top of the ridge. I looked at topo maps dating back to 1936 but didn’t see any evidence of a road or building here.

The next part of our adventure is far from the highlight. We worked our way around the bluffline, twice wandering downhill into laurel hells with some sparkleberry demons thrown in for good measure. The going was tough, though we knew we were working our way upstream toward Parker Falls. At one point, I took a seat and began making my peace with beating a retreat back to the trail. Ruth had disappeared into the brush, but soon emerged to say she had found a possible way down. It involved climbing/sliding down about five feet, and then came out on a slope that could be negotiated to the canyon bottom. Given that you could clearly hear Parker Falls at this point, it was worth a shot. And indeed, it worked without being too terrifying (though there was the question of whether we’d be able to climb back up). We emerged right at the top of Parker Falls, and could easily make our way to the base.

Compared to other falls in the Bankhead, Parker Falls is a modest beauty, about 12-15 feet tall, with no plunge pool to speak of. I snapped away while Ruth got close enough to get her dose of waterfall spray. We considered heading downstream to Parker Cascades, about half a mile away, but adding a mile to our hike was problematic when we had less than three hours of daylight left, an uncertain climb out of the canyon, and a straight-up bushwhack to get back to the Rippey trail.

The return trip was a bit of a slog. We were able to climb back out of the canyon following our original route, but wanted to then head due east to intercept the trail. Our GPS track shows that we generally tried to do that, occasionally deviating off an eastward bearing to take advantage of terrain. After a while, I just became determined to bull my way due east through hell or high water, just to get it over with, and we emerged on the Rippey trail about .1 mile south of where we originally left it. From there, it was an easy hike back to the trailhead.

So, had we found the route to the promised land? Ultimately, I have to say no. Though we were able to get to Parker Falls via our backcountry route, I wouldn’t consider it something that could be easily replicated by people who are not familiar with using topo maps and GPS. Anyone who is comfortable with those tools can easily figure out what we did. However, this route is not for the casual hiker. For a good part of it, there’s no trail at all, and no markings to follow. There are plenty of places to fall off a bluff. And we intentionally hiked this in the winter, when we’ve have better visibility through the underbrush and fewer opportunities to meet the Bankhead’s usually docile reptiles. Overall, the hike ended up being 4.8 miles, so it’s not exactly a shortcut (though we did wander a bit). I think the best bet for most folks is to wait until the more established route to Parker Falls has been rehabilitated, and let’s hope that’s something that can happen soon.

New Year, New Look: Old Railroad Bed

I’ve lost count of the number of times Chet and I have hiked part or all of the Old Railroad Bed Trail on the Land Trust of North Alabama’s Monte Sano preserve. Weirdly, though, it seems we haven’t ever blogged about it. When we came across an article on Rocket City Now that the Land Trust is now providing a free TravelStory tour for the trail, though, we had our hiking outing for the week.

We’ve used the TravelStorys app before when hiking in Red Mountain State Park in Birmingham (Red Mountain Rising and Different Perspectives: Red Mountain) so we knew what to expect, but for those of you who may have never heard of this app, here’s the scoop. TravelStorys is an audio app produced by a Wyoming-based, woman-owned company that uses GPS location services to determine where you are, and then plays automatically as you approach sites of interest. You don’t need cell service or Wi-Fi, as long as you have already downloaded the app and also downloaded the specific tour first. You will also have to enable location services for the automatic part to work correctly. Each tour has a number of different locations identified, with stories that start playing automatically as you get close by. While you don’t need to be looking at your phone to hear the stories, they often provide interesting images as well, so I usually check those out while I’m listening. You can also use the app ahead of time for trip planning if you like. All of the tours can be downloaded no matter where you physically are, and each has an overview and a map available. Clicking on the “stops” on the map plays the audio you would hear if it was automatically launched, and also displays any images along with a transcription of the audio.

We’re lucky to have one of these available in our area, actually. To date, they have produced more than 130 audio tours in 36 states and 3 countries, but there are only 2 in Alabama — the one in Red Mountain State Park, and the Old Railroad Bed one here. The local tour was made possible by the Ruth and Lyle Taylor Fund through the Community Foundation of Greater Huntsville.

Sunday was a cold but beautiful day, so we layered up and headed out to the Land Trust Bankhead Trailhead. We found a parking spot with no problem, though there were a number of other cars in the lot when we arrived. We parked near the Old Railroad Bed Trail sign and headed on out. The first short bit of this hike is actually along Bluff Trail, which has had some extensive rerouting work done since we’ve been here last. Newly routed access trails are well marked, and in really good shape. We noted that we crossed over an old section of trail to end up a bit higher up the slope. Things look a little different, but it’s easy to figure out where to go.

I hadn’t looked too closely at what the story locations were on the app — I figured it would be a bit more fun to be surprised. I was walking along thinking about how we were just about to the section of trail where my archaeologist daughter always looked for historic glass and ceramics when the app fired up its first story — all about how this area was the official dumpsite for the community of Monte Sano for a while. While I had actually known that, I did learn from the app that when the Land Trust was first laying in the trails, they had to haul away 20 truckloads of debris! Shortly after the dump site we came to the official start of the Old Railroad Bed trail, where another story started up. From it I learned that the railroad for which the trail is named is one of the country’s shortest-lived historical rail corridors. It started service in 1888 and shut down in 1896. The rail line was built to bring people from Huntsville Depot up to the Monte Sano Hotel faster than the four hour horse and carriage ride that was the only other option at the time since Bankhead Parkway hadn’t been built yet. Now, I’m not telling you everything from either of those two stories, or from the other eight story locations on the tour. That would spoil all the fun! Even though I knew some of the facts already, I think I learned something new at each point, and the historic photos really bring that time period alive. If you are interested in the free app, one way to get it would be to go here.

We continued on down Old Railroad Bed Trail, crossing a couple of foot bridges alongside which we could see the old rock supports for the bridges or trestles used by the railroad. This section also has several of the “mini-canyons” that are remnants of cuts made into the mountainside to allow the train to pass through. Though it’s really just two mounds of dirt and rock with a path through the middle, I’ve always liked these sections — they feel sort of mysterious and lost in time. Maybe I just have an overactive imagination, though.

The trail is surprisingly rocky. We wondered as we walked if all the extra rock debris had anything to do with the railroad construction. Certainly there are piles of rocks and dirt that sort of look like construction debris, but would they still be here 133 years after the line was finished? We passed another foot bridge with an interesting set of vertical rocks downstream. The TravelStory app had an explanation for that that had nothing to do with the railroad.

The trail passes more rock work — these probably for a raised trestle rather than for a bridge — and then curves downhill towards an unnamed creek that eventually merges in with Fagan Creek. It is my understanding that the rock work for the bridges are the ones that are more or less level with the existing trail when it is on or beside the old rail line. If we saw a set of stacked rocks much lower than where we thought the train might have run, we assumed that these were the footings for a trestle. I’m not sure we’re right, but it sounds good anyway! This is a very pretty area, I thought, but then I’m kind of a sucker for rocky creek cascades. The trail crosses the little creek and folds back on itself, now running on top of an embankment. You can still see a depressed area to the left that may have been the original rail line location.

Soon we came to the most evocative location on the hike — the “buttonhole loop”. I don’t think I knew it by that name before, but even without knowing the background you can just tell this is a place that has a history. The trail approaches a point — you can tell that the ground drops off to the right side and that there is a man-made hump of earth on that side. The trail forks, with the normal Land Trust trail signs pointing to the left. However, the trail straight ahead goes out to a point, and there is an information sign clearly visible there. We couldn’t tell which way the TravelStorys App meant for us to go, but there was a geo-location marker for a story someplace in the area, so we went to the point first to see if that would trigger it. It didn’t, but we got to read the historical sign and look down into the creek hollow. Though there is a fairly clear path leading down off the point to the left of the sign, it looked steep and we thought it unlikely to be the preferred route. We backtracked and took the signed fork. This section simply takes a longer and more gently sloping route to get you to the base of the point. There, you can clearly see multiple rows of horizontal rock blocks lined up across the creek. It doesn’t take too much imagination to picture a tall railroad trestle filling the hollow, with a steam engine puffing along across the top. Sure enough, that’s what the TravelStory audio was about here, and I was really happy to see images of the actual trestle too!

After crossing the creek on a somewhat rickety looking (but totally stable) wooden footbridge, the trail climbs up a bank and then levels out as it travels back in the direction of the parking lot. This section of trail is still pretty rocky, though level, with occasional views down into the Fagan Creek drainage. In fact, the next to last TravelStory was set at the big junction of Alms House and Old Railroad Bed trails where they cross Fagan Creek. It’s one of the lovelier spots in this preserve, to my mind. The trails cross the creek on a broad rocky shelf above a sharp drop off. The creek was barely a trickle this day, and in fact it often seems to have very little water in it, exposing the beauty of the water-carved rocks and boulders. Even in winter, the trees covering the surrounding slopes give it a private feel.

At this point, the tour on the app had us leave the Old Railroad Bed Trail to take the more direct route back to the parking lot via the Alms House Trail. This trail is one of the steeper ones, with at least one spot that had required a step up that was almost too high for my short little legs. The benefit of this route, though, is that it goes through what the app calls the “Fossil Field.” The area around Huntsville was at one time submerged under a shallow inland sea. This makes it a great area to find fossils, and this spot on the Alms House Trail, at a power line cut, is a great place to look for them. We found a couple of things that might be fossils anyway.

Shortly after the Fossil Field, the Alms House Trail takes a sharp turn uphill and to the right, while the path straight ahead turns into the Gaslight Trail. This piece of Alms House is the steepest, but it’s not very long, and soon we popped out at the parking lot, having covered about 1.7 miles. I actually forgot the GPS so that’s a guess, but looking at the map that looks about right. Though we’ve hiked this trail often, having the TravelStory app was like hearing it through new ears and seeing it through new eyes.

Do It Yourself: First Day Hike at Cathedral Caverns State Park

Like most people, Ruth and I were glad to see the year 2020 finally come to an end. Though it ended well for us personally, with both of us retiring and enjoying an extended holiday with our kids, it was a year of suffering and deprivation as well. We’re usually up for wiping away the past year and welcoming the new year with a First Day Hike, so we opted to join a naturalist-guided hike at Cathedral Caverns State Park.

First Day Hikes are a tradition of American State Parks, as these free guided hikes are offered in all 50 states. It’s an excuse to burn off the holiday calories, and also to introduce folks to trails and programs close to home. The one we selected was at a nearby state park, on a trail that we had already hiked almost exactly five years ago. We were looking forward to revisiting, to see what had changed and to learn more about the flora and fauna.

We arrived about fifteen minutes early, and only one other car was in the trailhead parking area, with no other hikers in sight. This gave us time to model our new hiking T-shirts, received as gifts. Ruth’s says, “Retired — full time hiking since 2020.” Mine says, “Hike, because people suck.” Our friends and family appreciate our respective world views, I suppose.

The appointed time for the hike arrived with no change in attendance, and we waited an extra ten minutes to make sure. To be fair, the forecast the previous evening called for substantial thunderstorms at the time of the hike. In actuality, the storms rolled through hours earlier, leaving us with a warm, clear afternoon. We never saw any indication that the hike had been cancelled. No registration was required, so there was no way to contact anyone to let them know about a cancellation. Well, we were there, the weather was great, and the trail was calling, so we just decided to do it ourselves.

The Blue Trail was the intended route of the guided hike, a 1.2 mile loop over easy territory. The trailhead was visible a few yards up the road from the parking area, so after one last look-around for any late-arriving guides, off we went. The Blue, Yellow, and Green trails all share the same trailhead, but only about fifty yards later the Blue Trail splits off to the left. The trails are blazed by wide paint blotches.

When we reached the junction where the Blue trail peeled off, a nice wood-burned sign marked the intersection. We’ve seen these at Lake Guntersville and DeSoto State Parks, so it must be a regional specialty. At the time of our first visit, the trail was marked with a blue-painted stick screwed into a beech tree. And hey, it’s still here!

The Blue trail is a relatively wide and gentle path through a mixed hardwood and evergreen woodland. Its overall direction at this point is southwest, with a footbed of leaves, dirt, and exposed rock. This first stretch roughly parallels Cathedral Caverns Road for .4 miles before meeting Cavern Cove Road. Over this short distance, there are a few points of interest. First, let’s mention the signage and wayfinding. Very quickly into the hike, a mileage marker on a tree denotes the first .1 mile of the trail. I can’t say that we saw these signs every tenth of a mile, but we did see a couple more of them closer to the end of the loop. The other item of note is that this trail is relentlessly blazed, with paint-ringed trees constantly visible. At one point, we counted six within about 50 yards, and that was facing in one direction. There are occasional blue-painted PVC pipes driven into the ground along the footbed. We also noticed a couple of wooden signs identifying trees, specifically wild cherry and eastern red cedar.

There are also more natural attractions in this segment of the loop. To one side of the trail, a resurrection fern, refreshed by the morning rain, added green accents to a blue blaze. A little farther on, a little grove of saplings sported shaggy coats of tree moss. Mother Nature was showing off her softer side, but only a few feet away a thorny honey locust served as a warning to would-be tree huggers. It would have been a nice contrast for a naturalist to point out.

At .4 miles, the Blue trail tees into Cavern Cove Road, and a short road walk is necessary before plunging back into the woods. I have to recognize whoever is marking this trail with making this turn so obvious. First, as you arrive at the road, woodburned arrows point the way to turn. In case that was too subtle, blue paint on the pavement points the way. But if you didn’t notice that either, directly across the road, a fallen log and a boulder have blue arrows pointing the way. And if somehow you missed that too, a blue-painted section of PVC pipe on the road shoulder leads the way. The only thing missing was having a member of the Blue Man Group enthusiastically pointing to the right while pounding on a blue-painted PVC xylophone.

I don’t know if there’s a minefield straight ahead or not, but we took the multiple hints and turned right. After a roadwalk of about 90 yards, a blue arrow on the pavement, an opening in the trees to the left, and multiple blue blazes put us back on a trail through some pines and privets. We crossed a small drainage twice, first on a bog bridge and then later over a culvert. At about .5 miles from the trailhead, the trail emerged in a field at the side of Cathedral Caverns Road.

When we hiked this trail in 2016, there was no indication of what to do at this point. As you might expect, things have improved since then. A sign points you to the right, and a PVC pipe marker routes you along the edge of the woods. If you head toward the road when you reach the pipe, a blue triangle painted on the roadbed points to an opening in the trees across the road.

After crossing the road and the field on the other side, we entered the woods and crossed a bridge over a creek and turned left. This junction has a couple of benches. When we were here in 2016, a temporary bridge spanned the creek, with the current bridge in a heap downstream due to the Christmas flooding of 2015. The footbed is particularly wide in this section, and was the only part of the trail that had some puddling.

Winter hiking has its charms. Though we didn’t see any wildflowers in bloom or pretty fall colors, the lack of foliage opened up views that might have otherwise been missed. For instance, an old ford of the creek is visible when the leaves and grass are not so prominent. With fewer distractions, fungi and lichens can attract the eye. Some fallen trees produced two notable specimens — a fruticose lichen (I wouldn’t venture a more specific guess as to species), and a sizeable polypore or shelf fungus that had previously grown high in a now-fallen tree. I wish we had a naturalist with us to shed some light on these, but at least we noticed them. We did identify a couple of other botanical highlights — the fuchsia fruit of American beautyberry, clinging to bare branches, and false turkeytail growing up a dying tree.

Our route followed the creek upstream, passing the .9 and 1-mile markers before emerging from the woods. At this point the trailhead parking area is visible ahead, but more paint on the pavement points the way across Cavern Cove Road. A blaze on a power pole confirms the route across the grass, and the final stretch of the trail is on a gravel road skirting the primitive camping area off to the right.

Back in the parking area, we chatted with another hiker who was there for the guided hike, though she thought the start time was an hour later than our impression. Apparently we were all wrong, as no guide showed up at that time either. But no matter — it felt great to start the new year with a short hike (1.27 miles by our GPS track), and though we’re not naturalists, it was nice to be reminded that nature takes the long view, and endures. And sometimes, you just have to be your own guide.