Leaf Peepers: Fall leaves from past hikes

This week, Chet and I are in New Hampshire on a fall vacation. I’ve always wanted to see the New England leaves and this turned out to be a great week for us to do that. However, with all the planning and packing, plus some time spent at the Tennessee Valley Old Time Fiddlers Convention in Athens (an annual tradition for us), we had no time to get out and hike before we left. Don’t worry – we’re making up for lost time up here and will return with hikes to talk about, but in the meantime, here are a few of my favorite fall pictures from hikes closer to home.

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Pass the Buck

It’s a bad sign when you’re on a hike and your wife starts talking about flamethrowers.

But let’s begin when the idea seemed like a good one.  We had a fairly busy weekend planned and didn’t have a lot of time for a hike (or more accurately, we hadn’t planned enough in advance to pull off a last-minute camping trip).  I was perusing our list of possible future blog posts and the perfect solution presented itself — a short hike on the TVA Buck Island Small Wild Area down in Guntersville.

Small Wild Areas are pockets of land managed by TVA for recreation.  They are usually pockets of land in the general vicinity of a dam that, in TVA’s words, “are sites with exceptional natural, scenic or aesthetic qualities that are suitable for low-impact public use.”  We’ve visited a few of them, and generally they offer some very nice short hikes with interesting features and/or scenic views.

Buck Island Small Wild Area is easily accessed from AL Highway 431.  We headed south out of Huntsville and turned left onto Buck Island Road just after passing the Guntersville Municipal Airport.  Buck Island Road splits at the entrance to the Gunter’s Landing community.  We turned north and followed the road around the edge of the airport until it terminated at a gravel cul-de-sac with a gate at the far end.  There’s room to park several vehicles here, though we were the only ones there on a Saturday afternoon.

There were a couple of signs spelling out the rules for the Small Wild Area, though it was only identified as TVA managed land.  Apparently you can hunt on the property and can camp there for up to 14 consecutive days.  There’s no developed campsite there or any facilities, but judging from the bullet holes in the signs, apparently hunters are making use of the property.  I guess there must have been some big game standing in front of the sign at some point, since one of the rules is that unauthorized target shooting is not allowed.

The trailhead is not explicitly marked.  Beyond the gate, an unpaved stretch of Buck Island Road was the closest thing we could see to a trail, so we headed off into the woods.  We knew from the trail map that this was a lollipop loop, though the TVA website is a bit ambiguous about the trail length — 1.6 or 2.2 miles, take your pick.

Though we were on a wide level roadbed, it was fairly overgrown at this point.  Since this property is unsullied by any attempt to actually mark a trail, we were left to our own devices to figure out exactly where to go.  About 500 feet down the trail, a gap to the left suggested a possible route, but we knew from the map this was much too early to begin the loop, so we continued down the road past patches of goldenrod, long-bristled smartweed, mistflower, daisy fleabane, jewelweed, and panicled tick trefoil.  A boggy area off to the right seemed interesting, but there were no good views of it.

At about .15 miles another opening appears to the right, flanked by a couple of cedar posts set in concrete.  This spur only goes back around 100 yards, with an improvised firepit and some nearby logs which suggests that this might be meant as a primitive campsite.  At about .4 miles, there’s an obstructed view of the lake, which sad to say, is the best view you’ll get on this hike.  At least there were a few partridge peas to brighten the way.

At about .5 miles into the hike, we saw our first suggestion that we were actually on something that was meant to be a developed trail — a metal sign identifying a sugar maple next to the overgrown road.  I guess some game sapsuckers must have perched on the sign, judging by the bullet holes that riddled it — after all, unauthorized target shooting is prohibited.

We passed a TVA boundary sign which we think actually marks the edge of the Small Wild Area, not an actual boundary between TVA and private land.  This can be confusing, since Small Wild Areas typically exist inside a larger TVA parcel.  We noticed a couple more openings off to the left which could have been where the loop rejoins the trail, but in the absence of any trail marking (seriously!  TVA couldn’t afford a gallon of paint to blaze some trees?) we continued on down the road.  We knew that by bearing right we’d eventually come to a point where the trail would bend to the left and go uphill, and at .7 miles we came to a split where the road continued straight and slightly downhill, with a wide path heading steeply uphill to the left.

The trail climbed steeply for a little less than .2 miles to the top of a hill, where the path was completely blocked by waist-high vegetation for about 30 yards.  We pushed on through to the apparent summit, where a black walnut was identified by another metal sign, but there was no view of the lake from this overlook.  There was a spur trail that may have gone to an overlook, to be fair, but it wasn’t marked and honestly, we were beginning to get a bit impatient to get off this train wreck of a trail.  It didn’t help that after we reached the summit the trail simply disappeared, with no obvious footbed leading down the north side of the hill.  We thrashed around a little, following a manway that offered a passage through the woods, skirting a dry creek bed on the way down, until we emerged onto an old road bed.  We considered options and turned left (south) and quickly got reinforcement in the form of another tree ID sign, this time on a reclining white ash.  Since that was as much navigational aid as we could expect, we continued south and rejoined the stem of the lollipop at about 1.45 miles.

We retraced our steps westward toward the parking lot, while Ruth talked about how a flamethrower would really improve this trail, especially after she noticed the tick trefoil seeds adhering to her.  We returned to the car without any wildfires breaking out, finishing up at 2.2 miles according to the GPS track.

With some rerouting, navigational aids, and maintenance, this could be a nice easy trail with a nice variety of habitats.  Given the trail’s current condition, our recommendation is that you pass the Buck (Island Trail) and head instead to the TVA Honeycomb Trail or the Cave Mountain trails, both of which are in the general area of Guntersville Dam.

On our way back to town, we planned to stop at Natural Bridge and Ghost Creek Falls, an outstanding property on Cottonville Road in Marshall County.  The 32-acre property is privately owned for now, but the owners have given the Land Trust of North Alabama the first shot at purchasing this tract with a natural bridge, caves, and waterfalls.  We’ve never been to this site, but our visit this time was a perfunctory one as a wedding was either about to get started or had recently finished.  We didn’t want to be wedding crashers, so we drove by close enough to snap a rather unsatisfactory photo that doesn’t really give you a good idea of how cool this place is, then headed on our way.  The Land Trust has to raise the money by the end of the year, or else the property will be offered for sale on the open market.   You should check it out next time you’re in the area, or even better, pass a few bucks to the Land Trust to help preserve this property for the public.

 

 

That’s a Wrap: Limestone County Canoe and Kayak Trail

The weather in Alabama in September can be maddening. One minute we’re being teased with the promise of crisp fall air, the next we’re back to sweltering heat and humidity. Soon enough, these hot and humid days will be a distant memory, but at the moment every weekend is a guessing game as to exactly which September weather we’ll be getting. At any rate, the last time it was my turn to pick our weekend adventure, it was heading back towards hot and humid, with a real chance of an actual popup shower, so I decided on a kayak trip thinking it would keep us cool. Way back in April of 2016, we’d floated down the first leg of the Limestone County Canoe and Kayak Trail, and I decided this would be the weekend we did the final leg.

This last leg of this trail down the Elk River in Limestone County starts at a boat ramp near Alabama Hwy 99 on Hatchery Road and ends at Sportsman Park on Elk River Mills Road in Athens. We loaded up the truck and headed towards our takeout point in Athens, watching the dark clouds roll west to east over us and passing through at least one rain shower on the way. I was worried that it would be rainy and gloomy our whole time on the river, but it turned out to be a passing shower after all and we had glorious blue skies after that. We dropped my car at Sportsman Park, where there is a huge parking area, boat ramp and dock available at no cost. The drive to the boat ramp at Hatchery Road is only 11 minutes. We’d been there before, when we did our last Elk River float, and found the parking lot to be much the same. It is a very large gravel parking area with a concrete boat ramp leading into the water. This time around we had the added bonus of a welcoming party of sorts. A large blue heron was hanging out right next to the parking area near where a little creek enters the river. My first heron sighting and I hadn’t even left the car!

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We made short work of unloading the kayaks and were soon floating out on the river. The Elk is a broad and slow moving river by the time it gets down to this point, which makes for a very different kind of a float trip than what you’d get further upstream.  Last time we were out, we had a pretty strong headwind to paddle against. This time around, winds were calm and had we not had a schedule to keep to we probably could have just let the river slowly carry us down the stream. As it was, I had plans in the evening and hoped to get off the river in time to get home and shower first so we helped ourselves along a bit but still, the paddling was pretty easy.

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The first landmark was the Alabama Highway 99 bridge just downstream of the boat launch. Beyond the bridge, the river flows slowly between low tree-covered banks. I kept my eyes open, as always, for turtles. One problem with a wide, deep river like this is that it is an awfully long way between the shorelines, so veering from side to side to scope out all the potential turtle-sunning spots becomes pretty exhausting. Chet spotted one that slipped into the water before I could find him. I was worried that would be our only turtle sighting, but I was wrong – we saw several, most of which disappeared before I could get a camera focused on them, but one little guy was pretty bold and hung out long enough for me to coast up on him and snap a picture before he slid off his log. We also spotted several houses with lovely riverside settings. Must be a nice place to live.

 

Next up were a couple of coves in the river. These seem to be the favorite haunts of wading birds as we saw a couple of snow white egrets standing or wading in the shallows away from the main channel. While floating to watch the egret, Chet suddenly pointed towards the nearby shore, where we saw some type of large hawk – brown and red with yellow feet – perched in a shrub. I took a video, but it’s too far away to really tell much. I tried to float closer, only to have it jump down on the ground where I couldn’t see it any more.  After some Google research at home, I’ve decided it was likely either a red tailed hawk or a coopers hawk. I’ve never been so close to such a large bird in the wild!

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The next big landmark was the pier at Marbut Bend. Chet and Casey and I had checked out this TVA property back in May and admired the pier from the land. This time, we saw it from the water and it was lovely as ever, though I’m not sure you could really clamber up on the pier from a kayak anyway.

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Just past the pier, the river takes a sharp, nearly 90 degree, turn to the left. There is water to the right as well, but that way just leads to another cove. Right at the bend, the land rises up on the right side to form tall tree-covered bluffs. The other side is still flat as a pancake, making the bluffs seem even more dramatic. In this section of the river, the wind picked up and we had to paddle straight into it. The river channel is long and straight, and with the headwind, it felt like we were paddling down a wind tunnel. Here again, we saw some pretty jealousy-inducing homes with large decks and views down to the river. I also spotted turtles along either shore, but with the wind I wasn’t about to waste any energy trying to get close enough for a picture. Straight ahead there was a transmission tower at what looked to be a bend in the river. When we got closer, we saw that it was just covered with birds of all types. I laid back for a few minutes, and watched them soaring overhead and then landing back on the tower. This trip was actually remarkable for all the birds. We saw at least 4 herons, 4 or 5 egrets, plus the hawk, plus all these birds on the tower. I saw more birds than turtles, and that’s a little unusual.

 

Just past the tower, there was a small island in the center of the channel. We’d had lunch before we hit the river, but I was a little hungry and pretty thirsty, so I was hoping to find a good beach. No such luck. That’s another downside to a broad deep river like this – not many good beaching spots! Just past the island, though, we spotted a place that looked like it would work and headed across the river to it. It turned out to be a spot where a road dead ended at the water just next to where another one of the many unnamed little creeks flowed into the river. We checked out Google maps to figure out where we were, and it looked like we were pretty close to our take out spot so we had a short break and then headed back out on the river.

Here, the river had become really wide – I later measured the main channel at around .3 miles wide at this point. The widest part, counting the large coves, was 1.2 miles wide. It felt more like a lake than a river to me! Indeed, my memories of playing on a lake in my childhood summers all revolve around being pulled around by a motor boat while I skied or tubed along behind, and sure enough, there were folks out pulling tubers behind them. Chet got a nice video. It’s interesting to note that I think we saw not one other kayaker on this whole section. We saw pontoon boats, and I think a motorboat, but we were the only people-powered boats we saw on the river.

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Next up were a series of snags in the middle of the river, making me wonder if it was really that shallow or if these were flooded islets. Google maps shows some little islands right around there, so I’m guessing it was the latter. After negotiating our way past the snags, we could see the bridge at Elk River Mills in the distance. Now on our past kayak trips, spotting the takeout point meant you were maybe 10 minutes from landing. Here, we paddled and paddled and the bridge didn’t seem any closer. We watched motorboats speed ahead of us, duck behind some smaller islands off on our left, and finally pop up still some distance from the bridge. I thought we’d be paddling for days! Later I measured the distance and it was 1.3 miles from where I think the snags were to the bridge. No wonder it took so long!

 

We pulled our kayaks out at the boat ramp and dragged them out of the way. While Chet went off to pick up the pickup truck, I hung around the parking area and checked out the nice little dock, the river views and some of the informational signs about the canoe trail. There’s also a gas station and convenience store at the top of the parking lot, which is a nice change from the usual nothing-for-miles take out points we use.

 

 

So that was it – we’d completed all four legs of the Limestone County Canoe and Kayak Trail. The Elk River continues, of course, until it flows into the Tennessee River another 12 miles downstream, but that section didn’t make the cut for the canoe trail for some reason. The Elk is a river of many personalities – small, rocky and windy up near Tim’s Ford Dam, deeper but still narrow near Veto, and finally broad as a large lake near its end. All of it is beautiful, quiet, and chock full of wildlife. Any of it would be a good spot for your next float trip!

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.

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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.