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.

2020 Hindsight

Once again, we’ve made it through another year on our little blog so it’s time for a bit of a look back. 2020 was a strange year, as the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on everything from schools to restaurants to the travel industry to hair salons. However, with much of the indoor stuff closed or limited, the outdoors turned out to be a very popular option. The area trails saw record numbers of people, meaning heavy use, full parking lots, and more trash to pick up. We also saw the impact on our little blog. WordPress provides a handy stats page, which we check from time to time. We were astonished to see our daily average number of views jump from about 57 to 147 views a day! For the year, we had 54360 views (as of Dec. 30), which is an increase of 159% over last year. Crazy!

We posted 52 times – 53 counting this one – and of those 41 were new and 11 were Quick Looks – exactly the same as last year. How’s that for consistency?

We mostly posted about hiking, but we did get in a couple of kayak float trips. Here are some relevant hiking stats for the year:

  • Our shortest hiking day was a 1 mile hike at Natural Bridge near Haleyville, Al.
  • Our longest hiking day was a 7.7 mile hike in Frozen Head State Park, Tennessee.
  • The hike furthest from home was our day out on Mount Mitchell in North Carolina
  • Total hiking distance for the year was 117 miles, which considering we missed a few weeks over caution over Covid19 is not too bad.
  • We hiked in Alabama, Tennessee, and North Carolina, but no overseas trips.
  • We visited private parks five times, state parks in Alabama, Tennessee and North Carolina, one TVA recreational area, two visits to whatever the Duck River Recreational Area is (county? city? something else?), two city preserves, one city greenway, a national wildlife refuge, a national forest, a national military park, a national forest, and both a national and a state archaeological park. Our favorite destinations, though, remain the Land Trust of North Alabama trails, with eight separate visits.

With all that variety it’s hard to pick a favorite, but we settled on Triple Scoop with Sprinkles: Wildflowers at Cane Creek Canyon Nature Preserve for Chet and Maple Leaf Marvel: Lula Lake for Ruth.

Next year will be a very different year, mainly because both Chet and I retired at the end of 2020!. Though we don’t plan to post more frequently, we do plan to hike more frequently, and maybe tackle some longer overnight kinds of hikes once the weather warms up a little bit. We’ll see what the year brings, but whatever it is, we’re looking forward to sharing it with all of you.

I’ll leave you with a sampling of photos from the year.

January

Paradise Preserved: Misplaced in Cane Creek Canyon

The following is a nearly totally fictional conversation in our house.

Me: Ruth, do you want to go to a tobacco-spitting contest?

Ruth: Eww, no!

Me: It’s at Cane Creek Canyon Nature Preserve.

Ruth: (grabs coat)

As regular readers of this blog know, the only truthful part of that little scene is the “grabs coat at the mention of Cane Creek Canyon Nature Preserve.” Whether they have ever had a tobacco-spitting contest there, I cannot say, but I find it extremely unlikely. A more likely scenario would be:

Me: I was thinking we might go to Cane Creek…

Ruth: (grabs coat)

Yep, it’s that kind of place. We have blogged about Cane Creek Canyon three times already, all from trips made in the spring. Our most recent trip was in April 2020. Our first post, from March 2019, is worth a visit if you’ve never been to the preserve. That’s the one in which we have the details on how to get there, and also the backstory on how Jim and Faye Lacefield opened this extraordinary property to the public, free of charge. The preserve is only open on weekends, with pre-registration required on their Facebook page (linked above).

The preserve has 15 miles of trails, and we’ve walked many, but not all of them. We were looking for another short but scenic hike as I am recovering from outpatient heart surgery, and it occurred to me that a winter hike at Cane Creek Canyon might reveal more of its charms without requiring a lot of mileage or challenging climbs. Initially I planned a hike that would take us to the extreme northwestern portion of the preserve to visit a couple of waterfalls, but I had to pare that back due to the out and back distance of about 8 miles. Instead, we went for a more modest exploration of some trails on the east-central portion of the preserve, to form a roughly 4 mile-loop.

We parked in the designated area near the gazebo, and since we had pre-registered we didn’t have to check in. Faye waved to us and asked if we had a map, and we said we had downloaded one and were good to go. Having an online copy of the map is more COVID-friendly than using the laminated maps available at the gazebo, but you’d better be sure of your technology…more about that later. We walked down the road to the junction with the trail leading to the picnic area and waterfall, because (a) it was on our way, and (b) who can resist a .25 mile hike to a waterfall?

Given that we had a mileage limit for this hike, we decided to take the most direct route to get to our points of interest. This meant climbing the steep portion of the Ridgetop trail on the far side of the waterfall, and shortly afterward we were at the preserve’s outstanding overlook, known as The Point. It was an interesting contrast to see the view into the Cane Creek valley, with Red Rocks Ridge to the north. With the green leaves of spring and summer out of the way, you can see how deciduous trees dominate the landscape.

From The Point, there are a couple of ways to get down into the Cane Creek valley. Again, we took the shortest route, marked on the map as the Steep Trail. I don’t know if that’s its formal name, but it certainly lived up to the description as it drops rapidly down a narrow footbed with rocks to one side and a daunting drop on the other. It would be unwise to tackle this trail without poles or a very good sense of balance. We went with the poles option and made our way down to the Boulder Garden, which is a wonderful wildflower site in the spring.

We were now on the East Cane Creek trail, with the Linden Meadows picnic area just ahead. We made a quick stop there for a bite of lunch, before returning to the East Cane Creek trail and then bearing right at the next fork to start on the Shelf trail, a new one for us. After crossing Waterfall Creek on a concrete bridge, we trudged uphill for about 50 yards on the section of the trail described as a ramp, before leveling out.

The Shelf trail was to be the longest single trail we would cover on this hike, about .8 miles. We hiked on the broad level trail to the northwest, with the canyon rim to our right barely visible through the trees. Farley Falls, which is usually dry, was more audible than visible, and we didn’t see a side trail to it so we stuck to the main route. We reached Map Point 10 on the trail, which is shown as a four-way junction. The signage at this point confused us, as it only indicated the way we had come and the Middle Road, descending to the west. The trail appeared to continue, so we attempted to consult our downloaded trail map. It turns out that when you download a map and send it to someone via Facebook Messenger, the map no longer becomes visible when you lose cell coverage — even if you have already opened the message and viewed the attached file. If you’re offline, Facebook can’t track you, so I guess they retaliate by not showing you messages you have already seen. So, the lesson learned is when you think you’ve downloaded something, make sure you can get to it when your phone is offline!

So there we were, not exactly certain which was the correct route to take. Here I shall expound on my “four degrees of being lost.” The fourth degree is when you are not on a trail, don’t know how to get to a trail, and don’t know how to figure out where you are or what to do next (this is when rescuers are likely to get involved). The third degree is when you are not on a trail, but you have a good idea of how to get back to a trail by following landscape cues (has happened to us a few times, but solved with GPS backtracking). The second degree is when you are on a trail, but you don’t know which one it is or where it goes (typically, about 75% of the people hiking in the Bankhead National Forest). The first degree is when you are on a trail, but you’re not sure which one it is, but you have a good idea of how to travel to get to a known landmark. This is more a matter of being misplaced, not lost, and that was our current situation. Our solution was to take the Middle Road downhill, because we knew it would lead to Cane Creek and the East Cane Creek trail, and we could find our bearings from there. Once we were back at the creek, it was easy to continue to the northwest toward the Hogback Boulders, which we wanted to see anyway.

At this point we got enough cell connectivity to consult the trail map and figure out we should just follow the creek up to Five Points Glade, bear north toward the landmark called “The Gap,” and tee into the Shelf trail and turn right. This route worked perfectly, and soon we were skirting the Hogback Boulders on the west, then turning southeast on the Shelf trail to skirt them on the north. The preserve’s trail guide describes the boulders as “huge tilted sandstone blocks” that came to their present location as a result of a “collapse of the ridge face long ago…in a single, catastrophic event.” That would have been something to see! Side trails allow for a closer examination of the boulders.

We continued along the Shelf trail, passing a junction with the Palace Bluffs trail, and continuing on to Map Point 10, where we had been misplaced earlier. From this point, we retraced our steps to the south end of the shelf trail and walked along the East Cane Creek trail, passing the upper bridge before turning east onto the South Boundary road. This was familiar territory, and our usual route out of the canyon back to the parking area. It was also a good opportunity to revisit Tree Fern Cave, as we finished up our 3.9 mile hike.

As we suspected, the preserve was a great place to visit in the winter. Though there were no wildflowers in bloom, the geological features and long-range views are better appreciated when not blocked by leaves, and the creeks and waterfalls were running. Cane Creek Canyon Nature Preserve is a four-season attraction.

And, thanks to a rare bit of good news in this horrible year, it will continue to be a four-season attraction for the foreseeable future. The preserve is presently privately owned by the Lacefields, and has been kept open as a free nature preserve through their efforts and those of a few volunteers. Though the Lacefields are currently in fine fettle, generosity does not imbue immortality, at least not in the literal sense. In October, the Lacefields announced a partnership with the Land Trust of North Alabama, in which the preserve will continue to be protected from development and will receive maintenance beyond the Lacefields’ lifetimes. The Land Trust has a conservation easement for the majority of the property that allows for low impact, fee-free recreational and educational access, and the easement will apply to all future owners of the property. We are beyond thrilled about this, as long-time Land Trust supporters and volunteers, and also as fans of the preserve. It’s the most significant conservation news for the year, at least in North Alabama. We’ve been to all of the Land Trust preserves, and take it from me, none of them compares to Cane Creek Canyon. Though this transformational partnership will pose some logistical challenges for the Land Trust, preserving this paradise for public access is more than worth the effort.

Awesome Times on the Awesome Trail

A few weeks ago now, husband and hiking partner Chet had a bit of out-patient surgery. It turned out well, thank heavens, but it did require a short spell of inactivity and we decided to take it a bit easy for our first post-op hike. We wanted someplace we hadn’t been to (of course) but that was fairly easy and both long enough to be worth the drive and short enough not to be too taxing. The new Awesome Trail at Joe Wheeler State Park fit the bill perfectly. Officially opened in the spring of 2020, this eight mile trail is built for multiple uses: hiking, biking, trail running, bird-watching, or just strolling. Though billed as a single trail, it is really more of an interconnected network of eight trails: Luther’s Pass, The Punisher, Luther’s Cut-off, Page Farm Trail, Jimmy Sims Trail, Blue Trail, Yellow Trail, and Red Trail. We planned a 4 mile loop made up of Jimmy Sims, part of Page Farm Trail, Luther’s Cut-off, and part of Luther’s Pass Trail.

Though it appears that there are several possible entry points to the Awesome Trail, we opted to park at the State Park Boat Ramp. This is on the north end of the Awesome Trail and provided easy access and plenty of parking. I am always surprised by the fact that there are pelicans in the lake here. I always think of pelicans as beach birds, but American White and their cousin Brown pelicans are found farther inland in Alabama, and a large flock of the whites seems to have taken up residence on Wheeler Lake. Our first segment of the Awesome Trail was the Jimmy Sims Birding Trail. It starts out of the south end of the boat ramp parking area and is well marked. The trailhead includes a nice history of the trail and the man it is named for. Built in 2007 as a short half-mile birding trail along the water, it has since been incorporated into the new Awesome Trail, but maintains its trail name honoring Jimmy Sims, park employee and naturalist. This first section of the trail was right along the water, with nice views of the lake and the pelicans. Though we found our route on the whole to be well marked, with some beautiful wood-burned signs, the only problem sign was right here near the beginning. About 1/4 mile from the trailhead, we passed a sign that claimed the marina was now only 3 1/2 miles away. Since the sign at the start said it was four miles away, that sign seems to have been misplaced by about 1/4 mile. We didn’t let the misleading sign bother us one bit, though, and continued walking along the broad and gentle trail.

Soon, the trail turns away from the lake a bit to meander through the woods nearer to the road. We came to the first of many bridges here, and were charmed to find a “thank you” stamp on one of the treads. It read “Joe Wheeler State Park Says Thank You To “A Year To Volunteer.” I did not know what “A Year To Volunteer” was, but assumed it was related somehow to the Recreational Trails Program grant that made the trail possible. It turns out, though, that “A Year To Volunteer” is a relatively new program begun in late 2019 by a couple named Phil and Shar Roos. Their mission is visit all 50 states, volunteer in each one, and inspire others to spend 365 days of their lives giving back, too. In April of 2020, the YTV crew came to Joe Wheeler State Park to lend a hand in rebuilding the park after a tornado downed thousands of trees in December of 2019. They remodeled the campground store, built and installed bridges, painted, cleaned, drywalled, and a whole lot more, and in the end helped move up the reopening of the park from 2021 to Memorial Day 2020!

The trail headed back towards the water, and soon came to a unique feature – a bird blind. This is a plywood wall with many small “windows” cut into it for people to peer through at the birds out on the water. It made for a pretty picture frame as well.

Another turn away from the water brought us back up towards the road, and to another bridge, this one over Weaver Branch. It was one of the more scenic bridges since it went over running water and not just a dry ravine. It, too, had a nice decorative tread – this time with the name of the branch on it.

Shortly after Weaver Branch, we came to the end of Jimmy Sims Trail and the trail junction for Page Farm Trail and Luther’s Pass. At this point, we could have taken either one depending on which way we wanted to do our loop. Page Farm Trail heads uphill and away from the lake, while Luther’s Pass runs along the lake. I decided to do the inland part of our loop first, so we turned left onto the white-blazed Page Farm Trail. Note that the trail is blazed white, though on the map we had it was marked in purple. This section of the Awesome Trail has a bit more elevation change, and even included a very nice sign warning bikers of the need for a low gear at one point.

After 3/4 mile, we came to the Luther Cut-off Trail, which is a shortcut back over to the lake and the Luther’s Pass trail. The Page Farm trail continues another couple of miles to the Pro Shop and Golf Course. You could still make a loop by taking a trail called “The Punisher” to the marina and then picking up the south end of the Luther Pass Trail to come back north, but that would have been a much longer hike than we wanted to try, so we took the shortcut. The Cut-off trail is only a tenth of a mile before the lake comes back into view and it connects back with Luther’s Pass. This final stretch of trail was a pretty and fairly easy walk along the lake. We spotted a bit of fall color hanging in there, and a nice little surprise tucked into the crook of a tree – a rainbow-painted rock with the word “Hope” inked in. That was a cheery thought to end the hike on.

Soon we were back at the intersection with the Page Farm Trail and from there it was just a matter of retracing our steps back to the boat ramp parking lot, admiring the flock of White Pelicans as we walked. In the end, our GPS track says we covered 3.97 miles.

I leave you with the ear worm that is Dixon Lanier Merritt’s wonderful limerick, written in 1913:

A wonderful bird is the pelican.

His bill will hold more than his belican.

He can take in his beak,

Food enough for a week,

I’m damned if I know how the hell he can!

Bespoken: Lesser-Traveled Trails on Wade Mountain

Trails in our local parks and preserves are taking quite a beating these days, with record visitation numbers. This is probably true also on the Land Trust of North Alabama‘s Wade Mountain Preserve, which has two trailhead approaches — one on Spragins Hollow Road in north Huntsville, and the other at the Wade Mountain Greenway, off Pulaski Pike NW near Bob Wade Lane. However, there is a lesser-known third trailhead just down the road from the Spragins Hollow parking lot that accesses three relatively new trails, having been constructed in the past couple of years. Ruth and I had personal experience with those trails, having done multiple volunteer work days at the site known as the Fleming Trailhead, but we had never actually hiked them in their entirety.

The main reason the trails from the Fleming trailhead are more lightly traveled is that you have to park at the Spragins Hollow Trailhead. There is no parking at Fleming, and there are signs to that effect. To get to the Fleming Trailhead, after parking at Spragins Hollow, walk west on Spragins Hollow Road for a little over half a mile. There are only a few houses along this segment of the road, so traffic is very light. The trailhead is on the left (south) side of the road, with a split rail fence, signage, some benches, a bike rack, and a kiosk.

We stopped by the kiosk and snapped a photo of the trail map for later reference. There is only one trail leaving from the kiosk, and the footbed is well-established. This is the Fleming trail, which passes through a tiny grove of immature pines before crossing a power line cut. Only .1 mile from the trailhead, the Fleming trail ends (for now) and continues as the NICA trail. The footbed makes the routefinding obvious here, but at the time of our hike there was flagging heading back to the east. There is not a cleared route here at present, though its general direction suggests that the Land Trust may be planning an extension of the Fleming trail back toward the Spragins Hollow parking lot, thus eliminating the road walk.

For now, the hike continues along the NICA trail. The NICA trail is named for the National Interscholastic Cycling Association, an organization that, to quote their website, “develops interscholastic mountain biking programs for student-athletes across the United States.” The Fleming trails were largely laid out and created by the mountain biking community, though they are also open to hikers and horses. Until I worked on these trails, I had no idea there was a high school mountain biking league, but indeed there is, with teams from Grissom, Huntsville, Randolph, Bob Jones, Buckhorn, and James Clemens high schools, as well as a couple of composite teams made up of multiple schools (so I gather). While I don’t think the Fleming trails are used for events, they are used for training.

The NICA trail, at 1.3 miles, is the backbone of the Fleming trail system. Though it’s not particularly steep, it rises about 300 feet over that distance, through many switchbacks, generally heading south and uphill. The trail is wide, and occasionally on the lower stretches has some berms for banked turns.

Our hike took place in mid-November, which to be fair is not a time for most local trails to be at their best. Most of the leaves had fallen, and the mix of evergreens and hardwoods didn’t make for much vivid color. Though the trail system leads to a peak of Wade Mountain, the elevation is relatively low and there aren’t really any great views. Wildflowers were long gone, though we did find a few American beautyberries barely hanging in there. The trail is well-marked here, with the characteristic Land Trust diamond trail markers and occasional bits of flagging. The NICA trail winds to the edge of the power line cut (farther up the mountain), where it passes a bench and then levels out, passing the northern end of the Low Peak trail at 1.2 miles (all distances are measured from the Spragins Hollow parking lot).

After passing the Low Peak junction, the NICA trail continues mostly level before slowly edging uphill to a three-way trail intersection at 1.55 miles. This junction also has a bench so it’s easy to spot. As you face the bench, flagging for an as-yet undeveloped trail stretches to the southwest (to the left of the bench). To the right of the bench, the southern junction of NICA and Low Peak heads to the north. Behind you, the NICA trail continues to the south.

We wanted to complete the NICA trail, so we continued along the best-established footbed to the south. Now that we were near the top of the peak, the trail became rockier, with some stones protruding through the leafbed. At about 1.7 miles, after passing through a few winding passages in which the footbed wasn’t so well-established, we spotted a chain link fence and houses ahead of us. We thrashed around a little bit at this point, as the trail seemed to take an odd turn to the left here and apparently dead-ended. Ruth scouted ahead and discovered that the correct route is to turn right and follow the fenceline, and in about .1 mile we ended up at the southern terminus of the NICA trail. The trail actually terminates in a neighborhood, at the end of Melrose Road. Note that there is no designated parking here for the trail — this is a neighborhood, so be respectful.

We retraced our steps back to the second bench and the southern junction of the NICA/Low Peak trails. Low Peak is a .4 mile trail, a little higher on the mountain, and is level for almost all of its length. The footbed was mostly obliterated by leaves but diamonds and flagging made it easy to follow. Low Peak is a doubletrack through the trees, with some exposed rocks to the west of the trail. The trail was so wide (probably an old road) we didn’t pay close attention and walked right past the point at which it turned sharply to the east and downhill. A couple of minutes later we noticed a lack of diamonds and flagging and backtracked to the junction. It was marked, but you have to pay attention!

The last little stretch of Low Peak was less than .1 mile before we teed into the NICA trail and retraced our route back toward the parking lot. It was on the last bit of the return trip that we saw the only other folks we’d see on our hike — a couple of horseback riders and a very focused dog. We stopped for a brief chat and found out it was their first time on these trails.

Our GPS track put the total distance at 3.9 miles. It was a lovely late autumn day on easy and agreeable trails. Compared to the other Wade Mountain trails, the Fleming trails are perhaps a bit less charismatic — no water, no stone walls, no long-distance view of the Toyota engine plant. But they offer solitude, and the crunch of leaves underfoot, and maybe if you’re lucky, a fallen maple leaf with the sun hitting it just so.

Maple Leaf Marvel: Lula Lake

Lula Lake Land Trust is a bit of a different kind of place for us. For one thing, there’s an entry fee, which most of the parks and land trusts around Huntsville do not have. Yes, we are spoiled. But their Core Preserve is also only open the first and last weekends of the month, and you must have an advance reservation to get in. Their next three public access weekends are already sold out. This means that unlike our normal “winging it” approach, we had to actually plan this hike a couple of months in advance.

I’d never heard of Lula Lake, and it was really just luck that Chet came across it one day when he was clicking around on some hiking links. It sounded interesting – there is a tall waterfall and scenic lake – so we made our reservation and marked it down on the calendar.

As early as 1958, Mr. Robert M. Davenport began buying up land that nobody wanted in the Rock Creek watershed. This land had been mined, clear-cut and used as a garbage dump, but Mr. Davenport saw the beauty beneath all that and wanted to preserve and restore it. On his death in 1994, his will established the Lula Lake Land Trust, which at the time preserved 1200 acres. In the years since, his children have continued his work and now the Land Trust has preserved almost 8000 acres, including helping almost double the size of another gorgeous Lookout Mountain location – Cloudland Canyon.

Our reservation was for 1:00 on a Sunday afternoon, so we didn’t feel any stress about getting up super early to get on the road. We took an overland route from Huntsville to Trenton, Georgia, then over more little back roads to Lula Lake Road. Google Maps took us close, but directed us to a random spot down the road from the actual Preserve. We had seen the Lula Lake Land Trust sign, but drove right on past it thinking that maybe that was an exit only. We trusted Google too much! It only cost us a few minutes though so we were still pulling into the parking lot respectably close to our reservation time. The entry area was fairly large, with room for at least 50 cars. They had volunteers staffing the entrance who checked our ticket and told us to go ahead and park and then come to the tent for further instructions. The friendly volunteers at the tent gave us several recommendations for loop hikes and made sure we had a copy of the trail map, and then we were on our way.

The first three-quarters of a mile are an easy walk down an unnamed mostly gravel road. Just a little ways down the road there was a short patch of pavement, which made sense when we were hiking back up it later as that stretch was a bit steeper than the rest. We were surprised by several cars driving down the road. Though we had been directed to park in the parking lot, and all signs there seemed to indicate everybody had to do so, some folks are apparently allowed to drive instead. There is a handicapped-accessible parking area along the road, so perhaps these folks were headed there. Or maybe there are some special members-only privileges.

We knew from the map that we should look out for a road peeling off to the right heading down into a meadow. The meadow is also a place where there are restrooms and a nice picnic area by the creek. We spotted the turn easily enough and headed for a bridge that crossed the creek next to some of the picnic tables. A family with several small kids was playing in the creek. On the other side, a short connector trail headed steeply uphill to join another access road at the junction of South Creek Trail and Middle Trail. The family from the creek came on across the bridge and followed us up the connector trail. It made me happy to hear one of the kids exclaiming “I LIKE HIKING!” as they climbed the hill behind us. At the junction, South Creek Trail goes to the right, so we turned left. The access road appears to continue straight ahead, but is gated off here. Just to the left of the gate is where the Middle Trail starts.

Middle Trail is a natural footbed – the first one so far on this hike. In this section, it is a narrow little trail cut into a cross-section of slope. In just a little more than a tenth of a mile, it rises a bit and merges back with the access road. Coming out onto the road, the way to the right is blocked by a gate, but the rest of the Middle Trail runs along the roadbed to the left.

In this section the land opens out into a broader shelf with very little understory. We wondered if maybe this is the area where REI sets up for their group camps. As an option to coming to Lula Lake on their public access days, they have also contracted out with REI to provide group hikes and occasional overnight stays in the park, for a price. Check with REI for their next event if you’re interested in that. The “I like hiking” family were following our same route and passed us on the road when we stopped to help give directions to a very lost couple. They were walking south but were sure they were headed towards the falls, which are to the north. We showed them where we thought we were on the map and the route we planned on taking. Wife wanted to follow our lead. Husband was not convinced. We left them to sort it out on their own. There are not enough trails in this park to get very lost, after all. In the meantime the “I like hiking” family had spotted a Lion’s Mane mushroom off to the side of the trail, so we stopped to admire that as well. We passed a couple of connector trails that led downhill and back towards Rock Creek before taking the final slightly steeper section of Middle Trail up to the top of the ridge.

The trail tops out onto Bluff Trail, which runs along a broad ridge. At the Middle/Bluff intersection there is a large firepit with sturdy benches placed around it. Just beyond the firepit, one of many spectacular views opens up into the Chattanooga Valley. There are rock outcroppings all along Bluff Trail – both to the north and to the south – and though it wasn’t crowded by any stretch we did see several couples or small groups sitting out on the rocks enjoying the gorgeous fall day and those views. We admired the views ourselves for a bit before continuing north on Bluff Trail.

Less than a tenth of a mile down the trail there was a split, with Bluff Trail narrowing and continuing straight ahead, while a gravel road bed veered left and started downhill. Given the choice between a trail and road, Chet and I are always going to opt for trail, so we stuck with Bluff Trail and I’m so glad we did. We came to the preserve to see Lula Falls, but on this day, my favorite part of the hike was this next section of Bluff Trail. There were more spectacular views off both sides – Chattanooga Valley on one side and the Rock Creek valley on the other. As the trail turned and started winding down off the ridge and down in to the valley, we went through a grove of maple trees that had all turned the most spectacular colors. I’ll be honest – I don’t usually have high expectations for fall color here in the south. Usually what we get is a few dull reds and washed out yellows mixed in with a lot of just plain old brown. This day, though, was one of those rare southern fall days where the leaves were putting on a show, and no place was the show more spectacular than in this half mile section of trail. This alone was worth the trip for me.

After marveling over the maples, the trail finally tees into the access road that we didn’t take down from the Bluff Trail, then tees again into the main access road to the falls. We turned right and headed for the true showcase for this park, Lula Falls.

We passed the lost couple coming back from the falls, so they obviously found their way just fine. They did recognize us and greeted us with a cheery “you were right!” so I guess there are no hard feelings. We admired some striking layered boulders along the trail and very shortly came to a spot with a view of the top of the falls. Lula Falls is formed when Rock Creek freefalls 120 feet over a rock shelf into a river gorge. It’s an impressive view even from the top.

We were following the “Classic Loop” route recommended in the flyer we picked up at checkin, which passes up Old Lula Falls Trail to take Lula Falls Trail to the base of the falls. Lula Falls Trail is a pretty rugged little trail. It’s short – only .1 miles – but it is a steep and rocky maze that was a bit hard to pick out with all the fallen leaves. At one point I was a bit ahead of Chet picking my way through some rocks when he asked me if I was sure I was still on the trail. I was not sure, but I decided to forge ahead anyway. He took a different route through the rocks and we soon discovered that his way was the right way. Mine worked well enough, but it wasn’t the official route.

Soon we came out in the area right in front of the falls. These are some very impressive falls from that vantage point. They are very tall, very loud, and there’s lots and lots of spray even standing a good 20 or 30 feet away from the impact point. The rush of air and water coming off the falls made me wish I’d brought another layer! I climbed around the base while Chet clambered around on the rocks a bit downstream looking for the perfect photo spot. It was getting a little late, though, and the park has a closing time of 5:00. It seems they take that closing time pretty seriously, because both the volunteers at the checkin and the printed flyer recommend that you not even bother heading down to the base of the falls if you get to the top any later than 3:30 this time of year.

We decided to take Old Lula Falls Trail back up to the access road, just so we could check another trail off the list. This trail is listed as being .1 miles as well, but I imagine it’s really even shorter. It is basically a straight shot down the slope from the access road to the base of the falls. It’s very steep, and the rocks towards the bottom are very slippery due to all the spray from the falls. After a rocky stretch near the bottom, the trail turns into all steps, but not normal sized steps – some of them have a good three feet of rise. I was glad I had my poles!

The walk back to the parking lot was a mostly flat stroll along the main access road. Just upstream of the falls, we passed a picnic area set beside the beautiful Lula Lake. This emerald green lake is fed at one end by a small waterfall and is very scenic. It would be tempting to jump in and cool off in the summer, but there is a strict no swimming policy here.

The rest of the hike was pretty uneventful, with the exception of one more glorious maple tree. We made it back to the parking lot right at 5:00, after a total of 4.75 miles according to our GPS track. Most of the cars were gone by then, and there was only one lone volunteer (and her little dog) manning the tent. All in all, this was my favorite hike from this fall. I know a lot of that was luck – a beautiful day in an unusually colorful fall season in the south – but even without that this is a gorgeous park to visit.

From the Forest to Your Fridge: Foraging Guided Hike

Riddle: how do you turn a Canadian electrical engineer into a feral forager? Answer: feed him acorn bread. At least, that’s how Jesse Akozbek tells the story, and he should know because it’s his story. Jesse is the creator of the Feral Foraging website, in which he educates his readers on skills and resources needed to identify and prepare plants and fungi harvested in the wild. The Land Trust of North Alabama recently held a members-only guided hike led by Jesse at the Monte Sano Preserve, and we jumped at the chance to learn more about foraging.

First, a disclaimer, which Jesse was careful to include in his presentation: foraging is not permitted in Land Trust of North Alabama properties. Rules vary as to where you can legally harvest, and how much you can harvest, and Jesse has a post about this on Feral Foraging.

Our group met in the Bankhead parking lot, with around 20 folks in attendance. Jesse first reviewed some basic plant identification skills — compound vs. simple leaves, and opposite vs. alternate leaf arrangement. We then moved to one side of the parking lot near the Tollgate trail, next to a black locust tree, the first featured plant of the hike. Ruth provided a perfect segue into dangers of the woods by nearly stepping on a 5-6 foot snake, probably a black racer or rat snake. It’s a standing joke that she never sees snakes, and indeed she might have stepped on this one, though it was slithering a quick retreat into a clump of bush honeysuckles. But I grabbed her and hooted my usual erudite warning of, “Snake, snake, snake!” Poor little snake was probably more scared than I was, and a good deal more sensible.

After the excitement, Jesse filled us in on why we might want to pay attention to the black locust — it turns out that its flowers are edible, and can be made into a delicious jelly or syrup. From there, we headed down the Tollgate trail, with stops to discuss late-flowering aster (because it was in bloom), eastern red cedar (berries can be used to make gin or tea), persimmon (a delicious fruit if eaten when ripe), and honeysuckle, whose flowers can be made into a tasty jelly.

We turned east on the Gaslight trail, where more potentially tasty treats awaited. It had been dry for several days before our hike, so fungi were few and far between. Jesse pointed out a clump of false turkeytail growing on a dead tree, just to make the point that there are several tasty mushrooms out there, but also to warn that it’s particularly important to get good advice and to practice your ID skills. While there are edible mushrooms in the area, there are also lookalikes that are at best not tasty, and at worst, mildly to severely poisonous. True turkeytail, as opposed to the false ones we found on the hike, is thought to have therapeutic uses. False turkeytail was a good example of a lookalike, and Jesse gave some tips on how to tell them apart. The next stop was to discuss goldenrod, a ubiquitous late fall wildflower which can also be turned into a jelly. Jesse has a video on his YouTube site if you want the details. While the group gathered around to look at the plant examples, a few other group members spotted some fossils off the trail in a more open area. You can’t eat them, but they are very cool to look at.

Another plant of interest was the poison ivy lookalike, fragrant sumac. I would definitely have pegged this one as poison ivy, but (1) it has that lovely sumac color at this time of year, and (2) it lacks a stem leading to the terminal leaf node. The berries of another sumac species, smooth sumac, can be used to make a sumac-ade. This stretch of the Gaslight trail took us across a power line cut, where Jesse pointed out a clump of one variety of St. John’s wort, a plant that has been studied as a therapeutic for mild depression, and long-used as a herbal remedy. (The one we saw on this hike is not the variety used medicinally (Hypericum perforatum), but is more likely one of the ornamental varieties.) This was also a good opportunity for Jesse to point out contraindications of some plants. For instance, while you can make juniper tea from the red cedar’s berries, they contain an acid which can be dangerous to pregnant women. As another example, St. John’s wort can have a side effect of causing sensitivity to sunlight. Some herbal remedies can have interactions with pharmaceutical medicines, though most interactions are weak (with notable exceptions such as St. John’s wort, Chinese ginseng, and goldenseal), so you should always consult with medical professionals before trying herbal remedies if you are on prescription drugs.

We followed the Gaslight trail to its termination in the Alms House trail, where we headed creekside for Jesse’s tale of how a taste of bread made from acorn flour turned him into a feral forager. There were several oaks near the creek, and it looks like despite its many faults, 2020 is a good year for acorns. Acorns were in fact a staple food of Native Americans in these parts, and they are highly nutritious and gluten-free. They are also highly bitter, due to being chock-full of tannins, so they have to be leached in water before they can be used.

We returned to the parking lot via the Alms House trail, which is a relatively steep and rocky climb. I sure could have gone for sumac-ade, or maybe some acorn bread spread with goldenrod jelly, but had to make do with plain old water and some horrible processed peanut butter crackers to fuel my ascent.

This was another enjoyable guided hike from the Land Trust, and we learned quite a bit. Jesse was very patient about answering the group’s questions, and later followed up the hike by sending us his notes on the plants and fungi he pointed out during the walk, as well as a list of recommended resources for further study. If you want to learn more about foraging and preparing your harvest, we highly recommend Feral Foraging as a place to start your adventure.

Update, 21 November 2020: There are a couple of places where I missed some of the nuances of Jesse’s presentation, and he was kind enough to provide additional information. I made a few minor updates as a result.