Rolling on the River: Cycling Around Buckeye Pond on the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge

You could say that bicycling is in my blood.  In case you’ve ever wondered, yes, I am actually distantly related to aeronautical pioneers Orville and Wilbur Wright.  At least that’s what my grandfather, the family genealogist, claimed.  Before they were tinkering with flying machines, they ran their own bike sales and repair shop, and even had their own line of bicycles.

As a kid I rode my bike all the time, mostly around the farm and up and down the gravel road that ran past it.  Like just about every boy my age, I learned my limits the hard way — by being launched by unseen potholes into brief terrifying moments of being unintentionally airborne, or by having my body grated by blacktop roads unforgiving of miscalculations on the variables of speed, momentum, road width, and the radius of a curve.  But the occasional bruise and/or skinned body part was an acceptable price for the freedom of having my own wheels and the opportunities that came with them.  At the time I thought nothing of it, but as an adult now I marvel that my parents casually accepted my blithe announcements that I’d be out working on my six 25-mile rides for my bicycling merit badge, and I’d be home for dinner.  I think I was 14 at the time.  And I never missed dinner, and I still have the merit badge.

As an adult, I rarely get a chance to pull the bike down off the rack in the garage, but I enjoy it when I do.  Our recent nice ride on the Richard Martin Trail whetted my appetite for a return to the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge.  The Wheeler is a great place to hike and bike, and especially a great place to birdwatch.  There are several miles of gravel roads, mostly flat or with gentle grades, on the reserve with very little vehicular traffic to dodge.  I picked out a 12-mile loop on the northern side of the Tennessee River between Redstone Arsenal and Decatur and we set off in the morning.

Our starting/ending point would be a gravel parking area off Jolly B Road (spelled as “Jolley B” on some maps).  To get there, turn south on County Line Road, and just before it ends turn left onto Jolly B Road.  Jolly B starts as a paved road, but soon splits with one fork going left into the Refuge, the other fork going right to a farm, and both forks turning into a gravel road.  Once you get onto the Refuge, travel with care (actually, travel with care the length of Jolly B — the paved portion has a sharp curve).  The gravel roads on the Refuge have some pretty substantial potholes in them.  You can get any vehicle with normal clearance down to the parking area, so there’s no need for four-wheel drive, but if you try to do the Dukes of Hazzard stuff on the Refuge roads, you’ll soon find out what it costs to replace an axle.  I don’t know how Jolly B Road gets its name, but I think it might stand for “Jolly Breakdown Road.”  After the road turns to gravel, the parking area is on the right, with one gravel road taking off to the west and Jolly B continuing to the south.

Great ragweed

Our ride started from the parking area along that road to the west, identified on maps as HGH Road.  There are no road signs anywhere on this part of the Refuge, so it’s a good idea to bring a map with you.  We stopped to admire the stands of great ragweed and snow squarestem growing at the edge of the parking area, with muscadines twining up into the trees, then we set off along the straight, flat doubletrack of HGH Road.  My best efforts at Internet research have failed to ferret out why this road (and another we’ll ride on later, JTT Road) are only known by initials.  My guess is they are named for the initials of landowners at the time the land was purchased by TVA in the mid-1930s.  Or perhaps they are the initials of former Refuge supervisors.  Can anyone shed any light on this, dear readers?

HGH Road continues west for 1.5 miles, pretty much straight and level, under the shade of the trees.   There was a good supply of our typical late summer wildflowers on the roadsides with asters and jewelweed being easy to spot as we rolled along.  HGH Road takes a curve to the north, with a closed gate to the southwest marking a possible route to return to Jolly B Road.  We turned north, next to a harvested cornfield.  This stretch opens up, running between fields with a thin strip of woods to the west screening Buckeye Pond.  This was one of the few downhill stretches on our ride.

We continued winding north and west as the road curved gently back into the woods.  We saw stands of lovely mistflower here, and noticed our old friend the Devil’s walking stick in several locations, with its profuse crown of berries.  About 2.9 miles from the parking area, HGH clears the top of Buckeye Pond and forks, with the right fork leaving the Refuge toward a house on New Hope Road.  We took the left fork and headed south, skirting the western edge of the pond.

The west side of Buckeye Pond is pretty similar to the east side.  HGH Road continues to the south, with very little grade change.  At about 4 miles from the parking area, HGH Road tees into John Gordon Road, running east-west.  Remember what I said earlier about bringing a map?  Well, I should have taken my own advice.  We turned east on a dirt road, toward Buckeye Pond, and it was a serendipitous choice since it took us to the pond itself.  Though HGH Road winds completely around the pond, there’s always a barrier of woods blocking the view of the water from the road.  Our side road quickly led to a huge open field, with the northern reaches of Buckeye Pond straight ahead.  As we rode toward the pond, a gorgeous great egret took wing, curving over the field to disappear into the distant woods.  The road was completely spanned by a large and deep puddle, but we were able to find a track to get around the obstacle and continue to the southwest until our road, now a grassy track, stopped completely in a thicket.  Clearly this wasn’t our planned route, so we backtracked to the field and headed back toward John Gordon Road.

As we returned to the field, we saw a large bird take off to our left, loudly gronk-ing as it flew south away from us.  It was a familiar sight — Brad the grumpy Great Blue Heron!  We always seem to run into him when we go to the Wheeler, and he was in his usual fowl (ha!) mood.  He offered to fly down and peck another hole in my bicycle tire, but I declined his kind offer.

After retracing our route to John Gordon Road, we rode west for about .15 miles before re-entering the Refuge by turning left onto JTT Road, which climbed a small hill to reach an intersection at the top.  To the east, a gated track led back toward the southern end of Buckeye Pond.  The more obvious route is to the west, so we took JTT Road until it teed into Rockhouse Road (heading north outside of the Refuge) and Rockhouse Bottoms Road (heading south toward the river).  We headed for the river, reaching it in about .25 miles, and pulled the bikes over to have a bit of lunch while perched on some rocks on the bank.  I had picked up a muscadine on the road earlier in the ride, so I had it for dessert.

After lunch, we headed east on Rockhouse Bottoms Road along the north bank of the Tennessee River.  Since we were on river bottomland, the level road was flanked by the river on one side and planted crops (maybe soybeans?) on the other.  I noticed quite a lot of fragments of mussel and aquatic snail shells in the tilled earth.

Rockhouse Bottoms Road was relatively busy.  It has unpaved access to the river in a few places, so it’s a popular place for launching small boats, and we saw at least one angler on the riverbank.   We met a couple of cars making their way slowly down the road.  Since it is more heavily traveled than the other Refuge roads we had ridden on our trip, it’s not surprising that it is much more potholed.   The potholes are easily dodged, but you’ll need to pay attention, which is difficult when there are such lovely river views.

The ride along Rockhouse Bottoms Road is a little over 4 miles, with a few stands of yam leaf clematis growing on the roadside as your near the northward turn back onto Jolly B Road.  After rejoining Jolly B and turning left (north) to close the loop, it’s only about .9 miles back to the parking area.  On the way north, there are a couple of places where you can get a good look at Blackwell Swamp if you’re so inclined.

All in all, it was a triumphant return to the Wheeler.  The bikes were in fine fettle, the weather was clear and warm, there were several showy late summer wildflowers in bloom, and the ride itself was good exercise without being too tiring.  We covered 12.3 miles according to the GPS track, and best of all, we were home in plenty of time for dinner.

Virgin Territory: Virgin Falls State Natural Area

We arrived at the parking lot around 9am on a Sunday morning to find that every space was already taken and folks had started parking along the road. This gives you an idea of how popular this place is. Granted, it was a holiday weekend and the weather was perfect, so it may be that more folks than normal had decided to adventure outdoors. Who could blame them? We certainly couldn’t! Despite hiking 4 miles, in the rain, the day before, I could not possibly have been more excited about the hike to come. For you see, we had finally made it to the Virgin Falls State Natural Area in Tennessee. This 1,157-acre natural area near Sparta, Tennessee is named for Virgin Falls – one of the most unique falls I’ve ever come across. But more about the falls later. First, the hike.

The round trip to the falls is listed as anywhere from 8.4 to 9 miles round trip, assuming no side trips are taken. Every write-up about the trail also makes it a point to describe it as strenuous. Honestly, it’s mostly the constant uphill coming back that’s difficult, but I’d agree that it’s a tough trail. We made it (obviously) but I will confess that there was a point on the way back when I still had a couple of miles to go to the trailhead where Chet’s joking suggesting of just rigging up my hammock tent and staying put for the night sounded like a pretty danged good idea.

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It doesn’t start out strenuous, though. The first 1.35 miles is really pretty easy hiking. The trail is soft underfoot and mainly level as it traces through the forest. At .25 miles there is an intersection with the Upland Trail that leads to Martha’s Pretty Point. I was concerned about my ability to complete just the minimal 8.4 miles to the falls and back, so we didn’t take this alternate route. Looking at things later, though, this side trip might have only added a bit more than 1/2 mile. From what I’ve read online it is worth it for the view from the point. Past the Upland Trail junction, the trail continues into a fairly open forest with a heavy undergrowth of massive green ferns. Footbridges cross over a creek which was not flowing much when we were there, but still damp enough to encourage wildflowers to grow. Brilliant red Cardinal flowers love the damp and practically glowed in the subdued light.  We also spotted a bright red mushroom and a stand of pinesap, a plant I’ve never seen before. About a mile in the trees around us closed in and became a thicket of sparkleberry, creating tree tunnels for us to slip through.

At 1.25 miles the trail crosses Big Branch Creek without the aid of a footbridge. Some of the write-ups describe this as a rock hop water crossing, but when we were there there wasn’t any water to speak of. Just .1 mile along the trail from the crossing we came to the top of Big Branch Falls, a 15 foot cascade down into a rocky bowl. It had very little water dripping over when we were there, but the setting is still beautiful with a large rock shelter looking down into the bowl from the other side.

Past the cascade, the trail headed more steeply downhill towards Big Laurel Creek where a cable handhold is strung to help you get across. Though Big Laurel Creek had a nice water flow, it wasn’t particularly high and the cable wasn’t really required. There is a large camping area with several campsites on a rise just on the other side of the crossing, but the trail leads left and along the creek. Just .15 miles down the trail, the Upland Trail from Martha’s Pretty Point loops back in to join the main trail.

The trail continues to follow Big Laurel Creek as it tumbles through boulder sized rocks in a rugged creek bed. The trail follows along a rock shelf above the creek, at one point passing beneath a large rock bluff. It was mostly downhill, often requiring us to pick our way through rocks.  We stopped a couple of times and climbed down to creek level to enjoy particularly pretty cascades. My favorite I dubbed Glassy Pool. From above the water looked like it was frozen. A film of foamy bubbles covered the surface. At the upstream edge of the pool, water cascaded down, but seemed not to disturb the bubbles at all. A little farther along we stopped again for photos of another cascade and pool. Honestly, there were so many beautiful spots we could have stopped every few feet!

At 2.35 miles we finally reached Big Laurel Falls.  The approach to the falls is from above as the trail is level with the creek before it takes a 40 foot dive over a limestone lip. The trail then descends steeply – very steeply – over rocks and an indistinct path to get to a clearing in front of the falls. The water from the falls hits the rocks at the base, and then flows backwards and down into the cave that opens up behind the falls. I traced the water as best I could until it disappeared through a jumble of rocks at the back of the large opening. I could hear it rushing down, but couldn’t see where it went. The cave itself is wide, deep and tall, with ceiling heights of 80 feet in some spots. Big Laurel Falls is an “also ran” on this trail, but honestly, it rivals many of the other falls we’ve been to. If this was the only fall on this trail, it would be more than worth the trip.

We ate some of our lunch ( I massively overpacked for some reason), and then headed on towards the final goal. This next section of the hike Chet called his favorite – I think because at that point he was tired of climbing down rocks and over boulders, and this piece of the trail was relatively level as it followed a rock shelf above Caney Creek. We had turned away from the dry creekbed below Big Laurel Falls. The wildflowers here were different from down by the creekbed – naked flowered tick trefoil, devil’s grandmother, downy false foxglove.

At 3.5 miles we came to the junction with the Virgin Falls Loop. We had the option of going right to get to Virgin Falls via Sheep Cave Junction, but we went left since it looked like the more direct route to the falls. Here the trail heads towards rock bluffs that, were there not trees in the way, might provide views down to the Caney Fork River. We could certainly hear the rushing of water coming from someplace nearby. Soon we came to a steep rocky ridge. This might have been the steepest section of the whole hike, but it was mercifully short. At the bottom, there is an intersection with a spur trail that would take you out to the Caney Fork River and a campsite leading off to the left. Virgin Falls is to the right, less than a quarter of a mile away. At one point, there are obvious remains of a road, complete with bollards blocking it off and a post with a bit of barbed wire still trailing from it. The trail itself leads on up the hill – almost looking like it’s traveling along the roadbed.

At 4.3 miles we arrived at Virgin Falls itself. It is an impressive sight. Water roars over a cliff and drops 110 feet into a sink. Side trails take you down to the bottom, or up to the top of the falls. Chet braved the trip to the bottom of the falls with the cameras hoping to get some good shots, while I (and my aching back) strung up my hammock tent and relaxed for a bit. Chet reports that it felt like there were 60 mph winds and spray coming off of the falls at the bottom.  The water totally disappears after it hits the bottom – there is no creek leading out of the bowl. It made it difficult to get good pictures, and explains how we both totally missed the fact that there are massive caves at the base of the falls. I Googled a bit once we were home and discovered pictures of people standing in the caves with a good 6 feet of clearance above their heads. Of course, those pictures were taken during a drought when the volume of water rushing over the falls didn’t totally block what was behind them. I did bestir myself from the hammock to explore a path towards the top of the falls, though. I’d seen another group had found a way to get to a rocky outcrop just to the left of the falls. It looked cool, so I scrambled around until I got in the same general area. I discovered a large level clearing with a campsite on that side and a path to the very top of the falls. Chet and I admired the view from the top. Too bad we didn’t think to explore upstream. A mere 60 feet or so from the point it drops over the cliff, the unnamed creek that forms the falls flows out of a cave, making it the only waterfall I know of the flows out of one cave, and then disappears back into another.

It was getting late and we knew we had a long slog back to the car, so we left the falls about 2:00 and retraced our steps. It certainly felt like it was all uphill. My near-breaking point was at the campsite above the cable crossing, where I did seriously consider stringing my hammock back up and telling Chet to just come collect me in the morning. But we made it out, and in only 8 hours. I must get in better shape because not only do I want to come back, I want to see all of it – Martha’s Pretty Point, Sheep Cave, maybe even the campsite at Caney Creek. And I definitely want to see the cave at the source of the falls!

Home Sweet Homestead: Cumberland Mountain State Park

The stars and planets aligned for us recently, as the combination of a holiday weekend and good weather opened up the possibility of some hiking a little farther afield from the Tennessee Valley.  We had been looking for a good opportunity to take an ambitious hike (for us), and Labor Day weekend fit the bill for a trip to middle Tennessee to see some waterfalls up on the Cumberland Plateau.  Ruth will be telling you about that hike on a future post.  This week I’m the warmup act, here to tell you about a little curtain-raiser of a hike we took to get loosened up for the main event.

We loaded up the truck with our hiking gear, an overnight bag, and most important, Casey The Hound, and headed up to Crossville, Tennessee to visit Cumberland Mountain State Park.   We had a big hike planned for Sunday, so I was looking for a nice hike for Saturday afternoon to set the tone.  Cumberland Mountain State Park has over 13 miles of hiking trails, and after perusing the trail map, it looked like a big loop of the Pioneer Short Loop and Pioneer trails was just the ticket.

But first, a word about Cumberland Mountain State Park.   This park has an interesting backstory, as it was established as a recreation area for the Cumberlands Homestead Project.  In 1934 as part of the New Deal, unemployed and impoverished citizens on the Cumberland Plateau were invited to apply for one of 250 homesteads in the 10,000 acres purchased by the Federal government.  The lucky homesteaders, selected through interviews, were granted property, homes, barns, and outbuildings, and were paid for their efforts to improve on their properties and for their work in building and running communal buildings such as stores and schools.  Most repaid the government for their homesteads through sweat equity.  When the program ended in the 1940s, families were given five years to finish paying off their properties, and most did.  Of the 250 homestead houses built, over 200 remain standing in the area.  One is maintained as a museum, along with the administration building and its scenic octagonal tower.  I wish I had done this research before our trip, as we failed to look at any of this and drove straight to the trailhead.  As a result, we didn’t see some of the best known features of the park, such as its well-reputed restaurant and the Bear Trace golf course, and tragically, we didn’t take a good look at its iconic stone bridge/dam, the largest masonry project built anywhere in the U.S. by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Nope, we just blithely turned into the park, off U.S. Highway 127, drove over the bridge, and turned left and left again onto Cabin Drive, where we parked in a large paved lot.  The trailhead for the Pioneer and Pioneer Short Loop trails is in the southeast corner of the parking lot, with a sign and a kiosk marking the start of the trail.  Restrooms are located about 50 yards away to the northeast.

The Pioneer Short Loop and Pioneer trails are intersecting loop trails that skirt the borders of Byrd Lake and Byrd Creek.  The Pioneer Short Loop is 1.8 miles, starting from the parking lot, heading west along the shore of Byrd Lake and a short bit of Byrd Creek, crossing the creek on a suspension bridge, returning east along the other side of the creek and lake, and finishing with a pedestrian bridge over the lake back to the starting point (and boat launch area).  The Pioneer trail is tacked onto the western end of the Pioneer Short Loop, adding 2.55 miles along the banks of Byrd Creek.

Since it’s a loop trail, you can hike it in either direction.  We chose to hike counter-clockwise, heading west along the northern shore of Byrd Lake.  The lake was formed by damming Byrd Creek at that impressive masonry bridge.  The first .35 miles of the trail flank the lakeshore, about 40 yards away with the lake usually visible through the trees.  The natural trail surface is soft underfoot, cushioned by evergreen needles, with only occasional rocks and roots.  For the first .2 miles, park cabins are visible to the right, with short side trails down to the lake.  The trail is marked with white plastic trail markers and white paint blazes.  (If you like the fancy plastic trail markers, I have good news for you — they’re for sale in the park office!)

This first .35 miles of the trail was home to a variety of wildflowers, most of which we’d see in multiple locations along the way.  We spotted smooth aster, downy false foxglove, hearts-a-bustin, and the coral berries of false Solomon’s seal, along with other old favorites such as daisy fleabane, partridgeberry, and spotted wintergreen.

At .35 miles, the trail takes a bend toward the shore, emerging onto a large flat rock that provides a nice unobstructed view of the lake.  From this point, the trail narrows to single track, in one stretch passing through a rhododendron tunnel before opening up again toward the end of the northern leg of the Pioneer Short Loop.  The lake has been gradually narrowing until it has become a wide, slow moving creek.  The partridgeberry is particularly prominent in this segment of the trail, joined occasionally by small stands of downy lobelia.

At .9 miles, the Pioneer Short Loop and Pioneer trails intersect, with the Short Loop turning left and crossing Byrd Creek on a suspension bridge.  Though our route was to take us straight to continue onto the Pioneer trail, we couldn’t resist walking across the bridge and having a look at Byrd Creek.

After recrossing the bridge, we continued past the kiosk onto the green-blazed Pioneer trail.  The northern segment of the Pioneer trail runs 1.05 miles to South Old Mail Road, for the most part staying within sight of ever-narrowing Byrd Creek.  The trail crosses a couple of tributaries, bending briefly away from the main creek.  After the second one, about .3 miles from the suspension bridge, an unmarked side trail takes off to the left to emerge on the northern bank of the creek, to face an impressive rock overhang on the south bank.

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The weather had been a little overcast, as we had timed our hike to barely follow the remnants of Hurricane Harvey as it swept northeastward.  The overcast finally gave way to a light rain as we strolled along the narrow trail.  There was some compensation, though, as we started seeing the distinctive foliage of Indian cucumber root, with its whorled leaves with a pink or red center and dark purple berries at the center of the whorl.  The rhizome is edible, and reportedly tastes like, you guessed it, cucumber.  We didn’t try any, since we don’t forage on public lands.

At 1.05 miles from the suspension bridge, the Pioneer trail briefly emerges from the woods onto South Old Mail Road.  We turned left on the road, crossed the bridge over the creek, and plunged into the woods again on the left side of the road just past a clump of jewelweed.  The trail entrance can be a little difficult to spot, but a green plastic trail marker is visible on a tree.

We were at the return point on our super-loop, now heading back east along the southern bank of Byrd Creek.  The terrain is similar to the north bank, but this was our favorite part of the hike due to several rock overhangs and narrow passages.  This side of the creek is rockier than the north side, but only a few places required paying much attention to footing.  The overhangs were a good place to get a break from the rain, and the trailside boulders turned some segments of the trail into passages.  We identified two more wildflowers in the next half mile:  the showy cardinal flower and the less showy downy rattlesnake plantain.  The downy rattlesnake plantain is another easy-to-spot wildflower, with its distinctive basal evergreen leaves with prominent white veins.

The southern leg of the Pioneer trail veers away from Byrd Creek three times to cross tributaries on bridges.  The second and third bridges have striking features.  The second bridge is a narrow log bridge with small limbs for the treadway.  It looks like something the three little pigs might have put together, but it’s sturdy enough.  Casey, however, preferred to cross the creek on foot, which is unusual for him since he’s not usually bridge averse.  The next .8 mile, between the second and third tributary crossings, was notable for a small stand of mistflower, a narrow “fat man’s squeeze,” a fairway of the Bear Trace golf course off to the right of the trail, and an odd shingle-covered bridge over the third tributary.

At 1.5 miles from South Old Mail Road, we came to the southern intersection of the Pioneer/Pioneer Short Loop trail, with the suspension bridge off to the left and another kiosk straight ahead.  The trail blazes and markers changed back to white, as we had completed the Pioneer trail and were now closing the southern leg of the Pioneer Short Loop.  Byrd Creek continued its transition into Byrd Lake along this stretch, with several nice views of the water off to the left.

At .9 miles from the suspension bridge, the Pioneer Short Loop trail crosses a small tributary on a plank bridge and the final pedestrian bridge is visible ahead.  We strolled across and made our way past the boat rental area up some steps past the restroom, back to the parking lot.  After a short rest, we followed the sound of music over to the patio near the restaurant, where the Foxfire Newgrass Band was playing 60s and 70s pop songs, bluegrass-style, with some classic bluegrass and spirituals thrown in.  They were great crowd-pleasers, canvassing the audience between songs to find out where we were from and taking a request from a gentleman who was celebrating his birthday.  My favorite moment occurred during a rendition of “Rocky Top,” when a band member interjected a “Roll Tide” between a chorus and a verse.  This was, of course, a nod intended for Ruth and me, though as former Tennessee residents we both internally cringed at the blasphemy of tossing an Alabama cheer into the iconic University of Tennessee song.  (No offense intended, Alabama fans — imagine how you’d feel if someone improvised a line from “Rocky Top” into “Sweet Home Alabama.”)  The lead singer started the next verse, but accidentally started repeating the previous verse.  He stopped singing in confusion while the rest of the band played on, laughing at him.  He recovered nicely, starting the next verse correctly after observing, “That Roll Tide threw me off.”

All in all, it was a very nice 4.4 mile warmup hike.  The terrain is mostly flat and the trail surface is mostly level.  This would be a good trail for beginning trail runners, and the two interlocking loops make it possible to tailor the hike to a shorter 1.8 miles if you just do the Pioneer Short Loop.  The hike took us a little under 3 hours, and we even had enough energy left to catch a show at the Cumberland County Playhouse that evening after checking in with our friends Cindy and Dale, who had graciously offered to house us and dog-sit Casey during our more challenging hike planned for the next day.  Our Labor Day weekend was off to a great start!

Beating the Heat: Richard Martin Trail

Almost exactly a year ago, Chet and I took our bikes over to Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge for an adventure.  We had a great time, up until the point where Chet’s front tire had a complete blowout, leaving him walking with almost 2 miles left to go to get back to the truck. Honestly, my bike wasn’t in much better shape but at least I didn’t have a flat so I biked to the truck (praying the whole time my frayed tire wouldn’t give out) and hustled back to pick up Chet and his wounded machine. We returned to the house and hung the bikes up in the garage – all the while telling ourselves we’d take them both to the bike shop for a full tuneup and new tires soon. Months went by and those bikes were still hanging in the garage. Winter passed, then spring, then most of the summer, but finally we managed to bestir ourselves and took them in for some much needed TLC. This past Saturday, they were ready. And even more miraculously, we remembered to pick them up. Ok, so we didn’t really remember until 15 minutes before the shop closed, but we roared up just before the doors locked and the good folks at Madison Cycles graciously stayed open long enough for us to retrieve our now shiny and newly refurbished bikes.

Knowing the bikes should be ready, I’d already planned our weekend adventure around having them. Sunday morning, we packed up a lunch, some water, and Chet’s camera, threw the bikes in the back of the truck and headed to Piney Chapel Road in Athens, Alabama. This is the location of the southern end of the Richard Martin Trail, a rails-to-trails project that has taken an abandoned rail line and turned it into a multi-use trail for hikers, bikers, joggers, and horseback riders. We’d explored the northern end of it before, riding from Veto, Alabama down to Elkmont, but now was the perfect time to check out the rest of the trail.

The parking area at this southern end is a roomy gravel lot with room for 10 or more pickup trucks and trailers. The area also featured a very nice picnic pavilion in a lovely grassy setting, and a new cinder block building housing restrooms. We didn’t hang around to check out the amenities, though, but instead crossed tiny Delaney Road to get a start on the trail itself.

 

Technically, the trail starts at the corner of Delaney and Piney Chapel roads. Crossing over from the parking lot puts you a few yards north of the intersection so, being a bit of a nerdy engineer type, I insisted on walking a few yards back towards Piney Chapel Road so we could start at the official “Mile 0” sign. From there, I was interested to find that you could still actually see the rail line, complete with rails and railroad ties, just across the street, heading south.  Of course it makes sense – this was a working rail line until 1986 and before the Civil War the track was a part of the Decatur-Nashville railroad, one of the first rail lines in the area.  The Richard Martin Trail has just reclaimed the 10 mile stretch between Veto and this intersection in Athens.  We took a few pictures, enjoyed the morning glory and Carolina buckthorn blooming by the trail, then headed down the inviting gravel path.

 

One nice thing about a rails-to-trails project is that the railroads have very nicely already graded the entire thing for the benefit of the trains that used to rumble down the tracks. These trails are generally well-engineered, wide and gently graded pathways making them ideal for bikes, in my humble opinion. While there is some rise and fall in the terrain, none of it is very steep, making for easy rides. The first stretch of the Richard Martin trail is practically level. The wide path plunges almost immediately into a lovely deeply shaded wooded area surrounded at first by grassy glades interspersed with large oaks. We had the path to ourselves, at least at first, and enjoyed the cooling effect of the air rushing past us. At the .6 mile mark, we came to our first bridge across Swan Creek. It’s in a little bit of a rough condition, with plywood patches here and there across the deck. It was solid enough otherwise, though, so we just continued on across it. Soon after, at 1.25 miles, we came to a prettier covered bridge also crossing Swan Creek or maybe one of its tributaries. Here we stopped again for pictures and noticed a stand of Florida blue lettuce, and some beautiful cardinal flowers along the water, with an added bonus of an absolute carpet of jewelweed in bloom in the foreground. Chet also spotted a mysterious plant with a large cluster of berries. We puzzled over it and took pictures, but couldn’t come up with an ID on the trail. Once home, we figured it out … and felt a little silly. It was a devil’s walking stick. I’ve never seen one when it had berries before and totally missed the dead-giveaway spines running up the trunk! My tree ID ninja skills are rusty!

 

We continued on through the trees, glimpsing fields and farmland occasionally to either side. Every half mile, there is a small wooden sign posted with the mileage from the Mile 0 marker where we’d started. This sure made it easy for me to figure out how far we’d gone so that I could remember where on the trail we saw things! At about 1.5 miles, we came to our first road crossing at Huber Road. This is a small road and lightly traveled, at least on Sunday mornings, so we had no trouble crossing it. The trail heads back into the woods on the other side for another half mile or so before coming out to an open area alongside Railroad Lane. Less than a tenth of a mile away was our second road crossing, this time at the slightly larger Hays Mill Road. On the other side of the road, there is a large information sign about the Rails to Trails project with rules and hours – as if this was an official trailhead of some sort. There’s no parking here, though, really so I found it kind of odd. Maybe the trail stopped here at one point?

 

Past the sign we entered maybe my favorite stretch of the trail, a section that runs right alongside Swan Creek at a spot where the creek broadens and slows down to form a bayou. The water is still and algae covered and floods a glade of trees so that the trunks reflect and shimmer in the water. It’s dark in the shade of the trees, and quiet.  At least until I stepped close to the bank, which startled frogs hiding there so that they squeaked and jumped in the water. I’ve never heard a frog squeak before, but that sure is what it sounded like! I kept a sharp eye out for turtles, but sadly, saw none. We rested on a nicely built bench placed there courtesy of BSA Troop 235, had some water, and enjoyed the quiet until the bugs convinced us to move along.

 

The next mile and a half was uneventful as we flew past trees and fields along the gravel path. Soon, though the landscape changed a bit to include some small hills around us as we approached the historic site of the Battle of Sulphur Creek Trestle. This Civil War battle, a part of the longer Battle of Athens, happened  September 25, 1864, when Confederate troops led by Nathan Bedford Forrest  set out to destroy the strategic trestle at Sulphur Creek. By noon that day, the Union force surrendered. It’s not clear to me if the actual trestle survived that battle, but I can tell you that there is no sign of it now. You can see Sulphur Creek far below on either side of the pathway, but instead of a wooden trestle, the path goes along a pretty solid-looking earthworks.  On the other side of the creek, the land rises up a bit again, then slopes back down towards Elkmont, about a mile away. Close to Elkmont we started noticing some extra wooden sign posts. Not the mile markers – we still had those – but these were posts with smaller numbers carved into wood. We saw “13,” “15,” and “16” if I remember right.

 

We pulled up to downtown Elkmont right at 11:00 – lunch time! The church on the corner had a full parking lot, but otherwise Elkmont was practically deserted except for the two of us and another family setting out on bikes down the trail towards Veto. We snagged a prime spot at a concrete picnic table, ate our sandwiches, then wandered the quaint one block downtown and took a few pictures before heading back. It was too early for any of the businesses near the Depot to be open. Before we left, we looked around the parking lot at the Depot to see if we could find any kind of flyers for the mystery marker posts. We found what looked to have once been a pamphlet box, but the box itself was long gone – maybe knocked off by vandals. I guess we’ll never know what those posts are marking!

 

The return trip took us back through the same sights, but we did spot some things on the trip back that we’d missed on the way out. Just after the bayou and before the crossing at Hays Mill Road, Chet spotted some old railroad ties and a broken cement marker with the letter “W” incised into the concrete. Later research revealed that this may have been an old “Whistle Post”- a sign placed by the tracks so that engineers would know when to sound the whistle on the train. I’ve included a picture of the broken post below. What do you folks think?

 

We crossed back over Hays Mill Road, noting that coming from this direction it might not be obvious where the actual trail is. Stick to the faint gravel path to the right of the paved Railroad Lane. Farther along, I stopped to admire the cardinal flowers I’d missed on the way out, while Chet admired a muscadine vine with actual muscadine grapes. He’s often talked about how muscadine vine is something we see everywhere, but he’s never seen an actual grape in the wild. Well, he can’t say that any more!

 

All in all this was a very pleasant 11 mile bike ride. It was August in Alabama, but the shady path was cool, and the air rushing past as we whizzed along on our newly refurbished bikes was even cooler. Now I’ll be on the lookout for some more bicycling adventure spots. Any suggestions?

Somnis Catalans: Catalan Dreams

Yep, there’s no doubt about it — we’re in the summer doldrums.  With the hot temperatures and work and social demands, we weren’t able to fit an outdoor adventure into our schedules this past weekend.  Once again, we’ll have to ask your indulgence as we present instead a summer re-run of a hike we took at a point in the past.

Usually, we focus on trips in the Tennessee Valley or just outside it, with the hope that our local readers will be inspired to try a hike or a float or zipline in the area.  However, one of the best things about hiking is building memories of an experience, memories that you can relive at times when you’d rather be outside but you’re stuck inside doing something else.  Or you’re feeling the wanderlust, but it’s raining buckets or you’re snowed in or the air outside is hotter than the Devil’s chili peppers.  The great thing about adventure is that you live it more than once — the first time when you experience it, and the other times when you relive it.

This particular walk has been on my mind ever since I heard about the recent terror attacks in Barcelona.  We were lucky enough to visit the Catalan capital in spring of 2012 while our daughter was there on a study abroad program, and we loved every minute of it (well, except for the Barcelona fútbol team losing every match it played while we were in the country).  Megan took us to some of the city’s highlights.  We walked down La Rambla, and drank from the Font de Canaletes, which if tradition is to be believed means that we will return to Barcelona.  We took in the fantastic architecture of Antoni Gaudí, including what is now my favorite structure on Planet Earth, his Sagrada Familia church.  We walked in various districts, admiring the old city, the churches, the beach, the markets, the plazas.  It struck me as a lively, friendly, cheeky city, and reading about the attacks, including a (thankfully, foiled) plot to set off explosives near the Sagrada Familia, left me feeling sad at the loss of life and the cynicism behind such an assault on a lovely city with lovely people.

Megan, smart young woman that she is, knew that as great as Barcelona is, her parents would be pining for a bit of greenery after a while, so she planned a trip to Montserrat while we were there.  Montserrat is a rocky ridge about an hour by train northwest of Barcelona.  The word “Montserrat” (literally, serrated mountain) is variously used to describe the mountain, the abbey, the basilica, and the national park, all in the same general location.  Montserrat is the spiritual heart of Catalonia, with a still-functioning monastery founded in the 10th century.  It’s a spectacular setting, and just getting there is a little bit of an adventure, as you take the train to a station at the foot of the mountain, then either take a cable car or a funicular to the top.  We opted for the funicular (one of the steepest in Europe), and found that the combination of the roughly 4,000 foot altitude, spring temperatures, gusty winds, and low clouds  made for cooler conditions than we had planned for.  After getting a sweatshirt at the gift shop and a warm lunch at the cafeteria, we toured the Basilica.  I’ll spare you all the details of what we saw, but I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.   The Basilica itself is a reconstruction from the end of the 19th century, as the original Gothic building was severely damaged in the Napoleonic Wars.

Having seen the indoor sights, it was time to explore the mountain itself.  There are several walking paths along the mountaintop, and we chose to take a 7 km loop hike to the highest point, Sant Jeroni (St. Jerome).   The trail begins at the top of another funicular, which rises another 600 feet above the monastery.  The trail itself was well marked and easy to follow, consisting at first of a wide, gravel path.  There were three really striking elements to the walk, evident from the very beginning:  (1) views down to the monastery and the plains below; (2) the pink conglomerate that the mountain is formed of (so different from our limestones, sandstones, and shales); and (3) the fantastic rock formations eroded by wind and water to be seen on all sides of the trail.

The trail itself was easy.  Since we started pretty much at the top of the mountain, the trail was largely flat until the approach to Sant Jeroni.  Along the way, twisted, weathered rock formations rose on either side of the trail.

After crossing a small stream on a wooden bridge, we climbed up a steeper, more wooded section of the trail until we reached the simple Sant Jeroni’s chapel.  From here, a paved trail ascended to the highest point of Montserrat, where under optimal circumstances one can see most of Catalonia, from the Pyrenees to Mallorca.  As you can see in the photo below, it wasn’t optimal conditions.  In fact, it was a complete whiteout, with howling winds and an air temperature around 40 degrees Fahrenheit (not counting the wind chill).

We didn’t hang around at the summit for very long.  Our return route had us retrace our steps back to the little bridge, at which point we took a different branch of the trail to return down the spine of the mountain, with more amazing views.  As an added bonus, there were several showy spring wildflowers in bloom.  Finally, as we neared the end of the trail, a steep (and long) set of stairs returned us to the monastery.

It was a grand day out!  The hike was relatively easy (except for the StairMaster workout at the end) and short, but packed in fascinating scenery, geology, and flora along the way.

It strikes me that this hike began with a visit to a church, where we viewed the Virgin of Montserrat, a venerated statue of one of Catalonia’s two patron saints.  La Moreneta, as the 12th century carving is nicknamed, has been inspiring the faithful to make the pilgrimage to Montserrat for hundreds of years.  About an hour by train to the southeast, the people of Barcelona got up the day after the terrorist attacks, made a new shrine to the victims on the paving stones of La Rambla, and then packed the street in a show of “business as usual.”  You can call it defiance — but I call it faith.

Filling in the Blanks: Alum Cave Trail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Horton Hears a Cicada: Henry Horton State Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wingstem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fly Like an Eagle: Zipline Adventures II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

32tower_zip2

 

Cooler than Cool: Stephens Gap Cave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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