Opposites Attract: Tannehill Ironworks Historical State Park

Our latest adventure was a study in opposites. I was looking for someplace that had a few easy trails (my hip flexor was acting up again) but also maybe some other interesting sights to see. Usually this means a trail with an historic cabin on it or maybe a beautiful waterfall. What I picked, though, was Tannehill Ironworks Historical State Park. About 2 hours southwest of Huntsville, not far off I-20 between Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, this park is more than 1500 acres of land spread across three counties. It has hiking trails, biking trails, and horse trails winding through trees and alongside creeks. But if you think this is your basic nature preserve, you’d be wrong.


After driving down the mile-long entry road and paying a $5 a person entry fee at the gate, we parked and reviewed a map to plot out what we wanted to do first. This part of the park is all about recreation.  This is where you’ll find the 195 improved RV campsites, bathhouses, a camp store, and a large and shady picnic area.  It was all very 2017-familiar. Just on the other side of the picnic area, though, was something labeled Craft Cabins. We headed that way and immediately shifted from 2017 to the 1800s.


The Craft Cabins are log homes from the 1800s that have been moved to the park and set up along a re-creation of an 1840s plank road. The plank roads were an improvement over rutted dirt roads and were built to spur development. On summer weekends, each of the cabins along the road hosts a different local artisan. This weekend there was an engraver, a potter, a quilter, and my favorite, the seamstress and her husband the antique sewing machine repairman. This couple dressed in period dress and were eager to tell us all about fashions in the late 1800s as well as the technology represented by the hand-cranked Singer sewing machines. I leafed through the fashion magazines of the day and learned about slatted bonnets, shawls, veils, parasols, glasses, petticoats, and crinolines.


Next up, we moved from cozy cabins to the industrial revolution. Birmingham was founded in 1871 and became the primary industrial center of the South due in no small part to its many iron and steel furnaces.  This quiet and still rural spot 30 miles to the southwest, though, is really where all that industry got its start and this park, managed by the Alabama Historic Ironworks Commission, was created in 1969 as part of an effort to preserve that history. In 1830, Daniel Hillman built a bloomery forge on the banks of the creek here. A bloomery forge was an early type of forge in use since the beginning of the iron age.  It was usually small and could be run by one or two people. Not many examples of this type of forge survive, but the foundations of this one were uncovered by a recent archaeological dig.  Though Mr. Hillman died only two years after he built his forge, the site was rich in ore and was in a prime location so a larger and more modern set of three blast furnaces was built on almost the exact same spot starting in 1859. These furnaces were used to supply pig iron to the Confederacy during the Civil War. On March 31, 1865, the furnaces were destroyed by the Union Army, but the advances made here are what gave the post-Civil-War Birmingham steel industry its start.


After checking out the outsides of furnace, the blower house, the water gate, and one more antique cabin, it was time for the actual hike part of our trip so we shifted again, this time from machines and industry to creeks and trees. We crossed the creek just past the furnaces intending to take a trail called the Slave Quarters Trail. First though, a word about the trails in this park, or rather the trail maps. There seem to be two different trail maps available online. The one we used is the one we got to from the “Activities” page on the website. It looks like a hand-drawn map with about 7 trails listed. We later found out that there is another trail map available from the “Forms and Links” page which is totally different. The trail names used on the first map aren’t always used on the second one. The first one has at least some mileages, while the second one has none. Really, what’s needed is a combination of the two, plus the mileage information from REI’s Hiking Project page for Tannehill.  There are many more trails here than I’d realized, which of course means we’ll have to make a return trip!

But back to the trail.  Slave Quarters Trail leads along an old roadbed, which a sign informed us had connected to the Montevallo Stage Coach Road. Being a roadbed, it was very level and easy to walk along. We saw no slave quarters or any other buildings along the route. My favorite thing about this trail though was that they have put in tree ID plaques along the way. Chet and I tried out our Tree ID Ninja skills by not looking at the plaque before we’d at least tried to identify the tree. We did … ok. I missed a few that I’m mad about, but got many others.


After a .7 mile amble through the woods, the trail intersects with the Old Buckville Stage Road Trail.  Turning right would have led us a mile down the road to an old slave cemetery, but in the interest of time we turned left, and almost immediately passed under a large metal arch that proclaimed we were on the “Shirley Real Trail.”  The only information I could find on this is that the trail is named for “two leaders in the conservation movement in Alabama” and is supposed to eventually have butterfly and wildflower gardens. Just past this sign another road leads off to the right to another large metal archway that is the entrance to the Boy Scout camp Camp Jack Wright.  We continued on looking for the grist mill or the pioneer farm but instead we made another shift.


This time, we moved from quiet idyllic nature to a bustling shopping area. We had wandered into the part of the park where they were holding their monthly Trade Days. From March through November on the third weekend of the month 350+ vendors set up stalls at Tannehill for your shopping pleasure. While we weren’t really there to shop, we did walk among the stalls a bit, and we were delighted to find a food vendor selling roasted corn – a huge favorite of Chet’s.


After enjoying the corn, we got our bearings again and found our way to the Grist Mill.  We checked out the dam, the millrace and the outside of the mill (it wasn’t open) before heading up a paved path towards what we hoped was the pioneer farm. This area is described as a collection of 19th and 20th century farm buildings and I had in mind something like the Mountain Farm at Oconaluftee Visitor’s Center or Cades Cove in the Smoky Mountains. What I found was not quite like that though. There was a working blacksmith shop complete with working blacksmith which was cool, but otherwise it was just a bunch of old farm buildings used for storage, none of which were opened. It was pretty disappointing.


We wavered a bit about whether to go back towards Trade Day to find the advertised creamery (ice cream on a summer day is just the best, isn’t it?), but decided instead to look for the train. They have a miniature railway that provides rides from the trade day area to the main camping area for $1. We could have walked the mile back to car, but I couldn’t resist the fun of a kiddie train so we found the “station” and waited for our ride. Soon we were onboard and enjoying a nice cool breeze as we rode down the track. As a bonus, when we got off in the main campground the train conductor told everybody to visit the creamery, which it turns out was NOT back in the Trade Day area, but was just across the street where the Tannehill Sweet Shoppe used to be. If that wasn’t a sign that we should get ice cream, I don’t know what it was. I had mint chocolate chip, while Chet enjoyed a salted caramel. MMMMmmm.


The final stop of the day was the Country Store, which doubles as the campsite registration and camp store. We were hoping to find corn meal from the grist mill, but they didn’t have any that day. Most days the grist mill is actually open and staffed with a man who grinds meal, but since it was closed today they didn’t have any meal to sell. I hate that we missed both the open and working mill and the chance to buy the corn meal!


In the end, we’d walked a respectable 3.5 miles, according to our Garmin track, but I feel like we barely scratched the surface of what this park has to offer. Tannehill Ironworks State Park has a little bit of everything – present and past, industry and recreation, ironworks and trees. Certainly in this case, opposites do attract.



Turn Left: Turkey Creek Nature Preserve

I don’t know if it’s just human nature, or a peculiarly Southern thing, but sometimes I get an inclination to just be contrary.  This usually manifests itself by an urge to do something in opposition to the wisdom of the crowd.  Even though the safe and expected thing is to zig, every now and then I just have to zag.  Maybe it’s a desire to assert my independence from the tribe, even though generally speaking the tribe is a good thing.  In the grand scheme of time, it wasn’t that long ago that our primate ancestors were food for lions and anything else sufficiently fast and cunning, until we figured out that we could band together and use our big brains to figure out a way to compensate for our lack of speed, endurance, and effective teeth and claws.

Though I don’t have any statistics to back me up, I suspect that 95% of the visitors to the Turkey Creek Nature Preserve park their cars in the gravel lot or off the pavement, then climb out and turn right.  It’s a one-way road, so when they head to the right they are making their way to the banks of Turkey Creek.  The crowd is pretty wise, in this case — it’s a nice big, cool creek, with a spectacular natural water slide formed from a cascade in a bend of the creek.

But when Ruth and I visited recently, it was one of my contrary days.  Instead of turning right when we parked, we turned left, away from the creek, and onto the preserve’s trail system.  While Turkey Creek Falls is one of the best known swimming holes in this area, the preserve also offers five developed trails for a total of around 6.3 miles of hiking.  Since this is a hiking blog, not a swimming blog (if you’ve seen me swim, you’ll know why), we thought you might like to read about the trails.

First, a bit of info about the preserve.  It’s in Pinson, Alabama, which is about a 90-minute drive south of Huntsville.  Turkey Creek Nature Preserve is a 466 acre private reserve, formed by a partnership between Forever Wild and the Freshwater Land Trust.  The preserve protects several endangered species, both flora and fauna, in a diverse habitat.  Admission is free, and the preserve is typically open Wednesday-Sunday, and closed on major holidays.  Check their website for hours, as they may change with the seasons, but generally this is a day-use facility.  No overnight camping is allowed.

For our visit, we drove around to the Turkey Creek Falls recreation area and found parking on the side of the road.  There’s a small gravel lot here that will hold around 12 vehicles, but most visitors park along the road.  It’s a popular spot, so you’re best advised to arrive early (especially on a hot day!).  There are some changing rooms and porta-potties at one end of the parking lot.

We had studied the trail map in advance, and I had picked out a route that would cover the three longest trails in the preserve:  the Narrows Ridge trail (3.2 miles), Thompson Trace trail (1.4 miles) and Hanby Hollow trail (0.9 miles).  Narrows Ridge is a figure-eight loop trail, with 2.7 miles (the lower loop) on the west side of the preserve’s main road, and the other 0.5 miles (the upper loop) on the east side.   Upper and lower are somewhat of a misnomer, as the lower loop rises to a higher altitude than the upper loop, which is mostly at creek level.  The plan was to start on the Thompson Trace trail from the parking lot, turn left onto the Narrows Ridge trail, proceed down to the road and hike the upper loop, then re-cross the road and complete the lower loop back to the Thompson Trace intersection.  We’d then hike the entirety of Thompson Trace east to west to its trailhead at the Highlands Recreation area, then take the Hanby Hollow trail  west to east to return to the parking lot, for a total of around 5.5 miles.

The Thompson Trace trail starts from the north end of the parking lot, with a sign pointing to steps in the bank which lead to a kiosk with a trail map and other information.  The trail, blazed blue, rose gently on a well-packed dirt footbed.



We didn’t expect to see many wildflowers, but this short stretch of trail put on a modest show for us, with examples of hairy skullcap, oakleaf hydrangea, common yellow wood sorrel, and Appalachian loosestrife.

At a little under 0.1 miles, we reached the intersection with the Narrows Ridge trail and turned left at the well-marked junction of Thompson Trace and Narrows Ridge to start our clockwise loop.  In retrospect, I think this hike would work better if you turn right instead and hike the loop counterclockwise, but I’ll explain later.  The red-blazed Narrows Ridge trail was the only one on our hike that was open to cyclists, and as a result it was a little wider than the Thompson Trace and Hanby Hollow trails.  On occasion, it had a few strategically placed humps to give the riders a chance to catch some air.

The trail trended uphill to the north, then wound to the east, then climbed a little more as it turned to the southeast along the end of a ridge (Narrows Ridge, of course) on the north flank of Red Mountain.  The footbed in this area was in turns sandy, hard-packed earth, or loose sandstone pebbles.  Clearly, this is a sandstone ridge.  We had only been on Narrows Ridge for a few minutes before I spotted a rare sight:  a small pawpaw tree bursting with fruit!  I’ve been keen to try pawpaw jelly, as this edible fruit is described as being a mix of mango and banana flavors.  However, this is a nature preserve, so I contented myself with taking a photo and left the fruits for other hikers to enjoy (in ways that don’t involve eating).

At about a half mile into the hike, the trail descends through a couple of switchbacks down to Turkey Creek Road.  The start of the upper loop was about 50 feet to the right, on the other side of the road, with a signpost clearly marking the starting point.  The upper loop is actually quite different from the lower loop, in that most of it lies in the Turkey Creek floodplain.  As a result, most of the trail is level, with only a short and easy climb and descent at the midpoint of the 0.5 mile loop.  The footbed is very wide and lined with sticks and small logs.  The trail passes an off-limits area to the left which looks to be the remains of a building site (including a collapsed shed), then passes some large vine-covered trees.  Technically this is a lollipop loop, with the loop proper beginning at about 0.1 miles.  We hiked the loop clockwise, and found the north side of the loop to be the most interesting, particularly as we neared Turkey Creek.  The trail doesn’t go all the way to the creek, but this stretch had a few interesting wildflowers in bloom, such as Southern chervil and butterweed.  As we left the open area of the floodplain and the trail climbed a little, we noticed several wildflowers past their blooming period — mayapples, trillium, and violets.  This area is probably the best place to see spring wildflowers, so be sure to take this little loop if you’re visiting in the March-April timeframe.


After closing the loop, we retraced our steps and crossed the road to resume our hike of the lower loop.  This next half mile was the lowlight of the hike, a long, slow, straight climb along the side of Narrows Ridge, with traffic whizzing by on Narrows Road/Highway 151 to our left.  This is the section of the trail that made us wish we had hiked the Narrows Ridge loop counterclockwise, as this long climb would have been downhill instead.  Still, we’ve had far steeper climbs, and there were a couple of scenic large boulders along the way, with a small stand of bull nettles also catching the eye.


Just before the two mile mark into the hike, the Narrows Ridge trail finally heaves itself over the ridgetop and crosses the Thompson Trace trail.  We continued on our way on the Narrows Ridge lower loop, which flattened out on top of the ridge.  The car noise was much abated, and the trail gently wound a mostly level course past occasional stands of downy skullcap.  About a half mile later we came to the first Narrows Ridge-Hanby Hollow trail intersection, and shortly after that stepped over a very small armored creek crossing, one of only three running creeklets that we saw on this hike.

The trail continued north, then turned to the east and over the next 0.3 miles drew closer to Turkey Creek.  Just before a switchback not far from the second Narrows Ridge-Hanby Hollow intersection, we began to hear the sound of rushing water below us — the unmistakable roar of a waterfall!  Seconds later, we got further confirmation, as the water sounds were punctuated with shouts of glee from children.  We couldn’t see Turkey Creek from here, so the mystery and majesty of Turkey Creek Falls would continue to be a deferred pleasure.

At about 3.1 miles into the hike, we finally closed the Narrows Ridge lower loop, returning to the intersection with the Thompson Trace trail.  Finally, it was time to turn onto the blue-blazed trail, which climbed the northeast end of Narrows Ridge gradually at first, then abruptly got down to business and crested the top of the ridge and followed it to the southwest.  Thompson Trace trail is narrower, since it’s a hiker-only trail, but like all trails we sampled today was well-constructed, well-drained, and mostly clear of obstacles.  All trails that we traveled on this hike had at least one tree down, but all were easily stepped over or around.  The bulk of the Thompson Trace trail runs along the top of the ridge, so other than some mild climbs at either end, it’s a pretty easy walk.  The flora was similar to what we had seen earlier, though the ridgetop had more pines mixed in with the hardwoods, so that the footbed was padded with pine needles in many places.  We also saw a few American beautyberry shrubs in bloom in the stretch before the Narrows Ridge-Thompson Trace intersection.

After crossing the Narrows Ridge trail, the Thompson Trace trail continues southwest and turns north to run along the edge of the preserve, near Highway 151.  In about 0.4 miles, the Hanby Hollow trail takes off to the right, but we continued a few more yards to emerge into the Highlands Recreation (picnic) area, which is the western trailhead for the Thompson Trace trail.   Though we didn’t hike it, the paved Highlands trail leaves from the picnic area and proceeds 0.38 miles to a parking area farther east on Turkey Creek Road.

With two of our three planned trails completed, we retraced our steps to the yellow-blazed Hanby Hollow trail, which soon crossed a small creek on a footbridge.  The trail follows the creek bank for a few hundred feet before turning east and crossing the Narrows Ridge trail.  Afterwards, the trail rises gently across the top of the ridge before turning left and beginning a slow descent through a subtle little hollow.  About a half mile after its first intersection with the Narrows Ridge trail, the Hanby Hollow trail again crosses Narrows Ridge, in the area where we had heard the waterfall below us.  This time, we continued down the back side of the ridge toward Turkey Creek.  After a somewhat steep slope, Hanby Hollow trail reaches Turkey Creek Road, where it would normally turn right and parallel the road back to the parking lot.  However, this stretch of the trail was closed, so we just hoofed it up the road back to the car.  The final tally, according to our GPS track, was 5.1 miles.

Finally, it was time to turn right and have a look at the main attraction — Turkey Creek Falls.  It was a warm day, and the creek bank had a good crowd of laid-back folks watching children (and a few adults) soaking in the creek.  We didn’t want to hike in swimwear and neglected to bring suits to change into, so the best we could do was to doff the boots and socks, put on water shoes, and cool our dogs in a small side rivulet.

Turkey Creek Falls is a powerful cascade in a bend in the creek, with a drop of about five feet on the right side of the creek and a terrific natural water slide along the left side of the creek.  At the end of the slide the creek widens and deepens into a nice swimming hole.


And about that water slide…well, I’ll just let the kids tell the story.


I’d guess that the preserve is at its busiest during the summer months, when a cooling dip would be most welcome, but the trail system offers year-round beauty without being too challenging.  The various trails make it possible to create hikes of various lengths, and you can choose to stay near the creek or to gain some altitude.  Throw your swimsuit into the pack, come for a visit, and turn left — but make sure you also turn right at some point when you return to your vehicle.  You can trust the crowd on this one.

Checking off the List: Elk River Leg 3

You know how there are those people who just can’t seem to function without some sort of sound filling up every waking minute? You know the type – they keep a radio or TV on at all times – at work, in the car, at home.  I, on the other hand,  am happy with a bit of silence – especially when I’m out in nature someplace. When Chet and I are out on the trail with nobody else around, we don’t feel compelled to talk the whole time. However, we do sometimes spend that time talking about adventures we’d like to take. Maybe we want to hike this same trail in a different season. Or maybe we passed a sign for a state park we’ve not explored. I’ve learned, though, that unless I write it down when I get home, I’ll forget all those brilliant ideas for weekend fun and then draw a blank the next time it’s my turn to pick. So now we have a list.

One of the things on the list was a note that we needed to do a kayak trip “in April or May.”  Kayaking and springtime just seem to go together for me. Spring rains mean that the rivers are high enough that we won’t spend our time dragging ourselves over rocky shallows, and the weather is usually that perfect “not too hot, not too cold.”  So when my turn to come up with our weekend adventure last rolled around, I picked the kayak trip off the list and decided on leg 3 of the Limestone County Canoe and Kayak Trail down the Elk River. In the last couple of years we’ve done leg 1 from Veto, Alabama down to Highway 127, and then leg 2 from Highway 127 to Easter Ferry Road. The third leg goes from Easter Ferry Road down to Hatchery Road, for a 5.6 mile float trip.


With just the two of us on this adventure, it was easy enough to drive two cars and shuttle ourselves, though Fort Hampton Outfitters would be another choice for those who want someone else to do the shuttling. We drove a vehicle to the Hatchery Road parking lot, which turned out to be a wonderful large level paved lot with a concrete boat ramp. We walked down to the ramp to give things the once-over in case there was anything tricky about how we’d need to get out. It was pretty straightforward, though we did notice that the water was very high.


We hopped back in the pickup truck and drove back up to the put-in spot at Easter Ferry Road. This lot is not as nice as most of the other ones on we’ve been in on the Trail. The access road down to the lot is steep and deeply rutted and it’s not as roomy as the lot at Veto or Hatchery Road. There is enough space for several cars though and some space to turn around as well. It’s not as nice, but it’s certainly good enough. It has a concrete boat ramp as well. I always like that better than having to scramble over rocks and roots to get in and out of the river, so points for that.


We quickly got our boats unloaded and were ready to go. Once we got out on the water, we discovered that it was very windy.  It was almost a standoff between the current pushing us downstream and the wind pushing us upstream! We didn’t have to work too hard, though, so I’m guessing the current won out.



The float itself was pretty uneventful. We passed a big Athens Utilities building of some sort. We had our usual blue heron sighting as one flew ahead of us down the river for a while. We also had another water bird of some sort keep us company for a long time. At first I thought it was a duck of some kind because it did that thing where it sort of ran over the water – flapping its wings so that the water was splashing and making a lot of noise – but never actually took off. We never got close enough to get good pictures, but from a distance it looked to me like the head and beak were thin more like a heron or an egret or something. I wish I knew what it was! We saw no fishing ospreys or swimming raccoons like we had on our last trips, and much to my dismay we only spotted one turtle!



We also spotted no good places to pull over and beach for lunch. I don’t know if the high water level had anything to do with it; I wondered if maybe there were normally places available but they were just flooded. In any case, this meant no lunch for us since we were both too chicken to attempt to unstrap the cooler mid-river. Knowing my luck, our lunch would have ended up feeding the fishes if I’d tried that. We had checked out this stretch of the river on Google  Maps before the float and noticed that there weren’t even supposed to be little islands along the way until almost to the takeout spot. We had estimated that the trip would take us around 3 to 3.5 hours, just based on our time on the upper stretches. When we came across an island only a couple of hours in, we thought Google Maps had just been wrong. We do joke that Google doesn’t really do that well with bodies of water. Rivers and creeks are often unlabeled, as are other bigger bodies of water. It’s almost as if the thinking is “if a car can’t drive there why bother marking it?” Much to our surprise though, Google got it right this time since the island we came to did end up being the one just before the take out. I guess the current helped us more than we’d thought because it only took us 2 hours to go the 5.6 river miles!


We beached on the boat ramp and pulled the kayaks out of the river, then Chet hung out in the parking lot while I did the run up to Easter Ferry to switch over to the kayak-carrying pickup truck. When I got back he told me that there must be a farm nearby because he was serenaded with lots of roosters crowing almost the whole time I was gone. Soon we had the kayaks loaded up, and started on the short trek home. Despite the lack of turtles and lunch spots, I really enjoyed my time out on the Elk again. We have one more leg to go to complete the entire trail. Maybe that would make a good fall trip. I’ll have to add it to the list.


Cumberland Trail: One Segment Down, Many to Go

Where, you might ask, is Tennessee’s second-largest state park?  Well, it’s just up the road from Chattanooga.  And it’s near Soddy-Daisy.  And it’s not far from Dayton, and just outside of Spring City, Caryville, and La Follette, and the northern edge is at Cumberland Gap.  If you know your Tennessee geography, you might be thinking that’s a very large park indeed, as those cities pretty much span the state from south to north.

And that’s exactly what the Justin P. Wilson Cumberland Trail State Park does.  It’s a linear park, which is a relatively new concept in land preservation.  Linear parks are typically very long and very skinny — just wide enough to protect a trail corridor.  They usually link public lands of various types, with strategic purchases or right-of-way agreements to bridge unconnected parcels, and often interconnect with other trail systems.  A well-known example at the Federal level is the Appalachian Trail, which is actually a unit of the National Parks Service.  As a National Scenic Trail, the AT is administered and cared for by a hodge-podge of federal, state, and local governments and a large number of hiking clubs.

The Cumberland Trail is an ambitious work in progress. When finished, it will be around 300 miles long, running from Chickamauga-Chattanooga National Military Park at Signal Mountain to Cumberland Gap National Historical Park  on the Tennessee/Kentucky border.  At present about 210 miles can be hiked, with the remainder of the trail on state-owned land estimated to be completed in 2019.  The trail is divided into segments of varying lengths, with directions to trailheads and points of interest documented for each section on the excellent Cumberland Trail Conference website.

Ever since I found out about this park, I’ve been keen to hike a segment or two.  A nice long holiday weekend gave us the chance to make the slightly over two-hour drive to our selected segment:  Soddy Creek Gorge South.  Many of the completed segments are fairly long — a few even have overnight camping spots — but we wanted something we could do as a day hike since we needed to be back home that evening.  Soddy Creek Gorge South is a 4.9 mile segment with trailheads relatively close, but it did mean we’d have to have a shuttle vehicle.  Ruth and I drove up separately through light rain to Chattanooga, where we took US Highway 27 north to Soddy-Daisy, then headed up onto the Cumberland Escarpment via the somewhat terrifying Mountain Road (yeah, that’s its name — apparently “Pray You Don’t Meet Anything Bigger On the Way Down Road” was already taken) and Mowbray Pike.  Mountain Road/Mowbray Pike is a narrow, extremely winding road that snakes its way up the escarpment.  We elected to drop a vehicle at the Mowbray Pike trailhead, and to start our hike from the Little Soddy trailhead.

For this segment at least, road signage is clearly not a priority.  Though Google Maps did have both trailheads as navigation points, we sailed right on by the Mowbray Pike parking lot, which is reached by a short, narrow gravel road angling away from the direction of travel (if you’re coming from the south).  There is no sign on the road to direct you to the parking area, so when your GPS says you’re getting close, better strap on your eagle eyes.  After dropping a vehicle in the parking lot (a nice gravel lot with room for several vehicles), we drove north to the Little Soddy trailhead and parked in a small unmarked pullout at the junction of Hotwater Road and Sluder Lane.

This segment of the trail starts as a spur trail about 200 feet north of the parking area on Hotwater Road.  With no fanfare (or signage), the trail enters the woods, where we immediately spotted a kiosk next to a small, unnamed branch off Little Soddy Creek.  We descended a brief rocky and rooty decline, crossed a wooden footbridge, checked out the info on the kiosk, and headed on down the blue-blazed trail.  A word about the blazes — typically in Tennessee state parks, the main trail is blazed white, and spur trails are blazed blue.  That’s not always true in parks with extensive trail systems, though.  In this particular case, the Little Soddy trailhead is not actually on the Cumberland Trail — it’s at the end of a .4 mile spur, so for the first part of our hike we were following the blue blazes.

After the kiosk, the trail levels out and winds through an open understory roughly paralleling the creek.  This is a historic site, as there were many coal mines scattered about the general area.  There aren’t any open mines on this segment — all of the ones that we saw were collapsed.  Small signs marked historic sites, but we didn’t have the brochure available from Cumberland Trail website, so we weren’t ever sure of what we were looking at.  The kiosk at the trailhead has a place to distribute brochures, but it was empty at the time of our visit.  Since we didn’t have the info, and the annoying light rain was continuing, we plowed on ahead instead of taking the yellow-blazed loop toward more historic sites.  This part of the hike was quite nice, as the trail dropped into a hollow and crossed Little Soddy Creek on a footbridge with a mountain laurel blooming next to it.  We spotted a flame azalea, one of our favorite backcountry sights, well off the trail but didn’t bushwhack to get a better look, thinking we’d see more of them (we didn’t).

At .4 mile, we reached the connection to the Cumberland Trail proper.  We turned right to follow the route to the Mowbray Pike trailhead.  A note about trail distances — they  seem to be a bit vague in this section, at least.  According to the trail signage, our total distance from trailhead to trailhead would be 4.6 miles.  The Cumberland Trail Conference website says it’s 4.9 miles, and the Tennessee State Parks website says it’s 4.42 miles.  Our GPS track came out to 5.0 miles, though we did a little off-trail wandering.  That might suggest that the Cumberland Trail Conference website is the most accurate, but we found the mileages to the various points of interest listed on the CTC site didn’t match up with our GPS during the hike.  It might have been weirdness with our GPS, but based on our very limited experience I’d say don’t get too hung up on the mileage, and assume any distance has a plus or minus 10% margin of error.

Once we were on the white-blazed Cumberland Trail, we wound along the coal vein, with Little Soddy Creek to our left for a while.  At times we were on an old roadbed; other times, we were on a narrow footbed.  Very occasionally we saw artifacts from the mining days, such as a coiled length of iron near one of the footbridges.  This section of the trail was relatively low and wet, though the trail is well-engineered and drains nicely, with well-placed stepping stones, stairsteps, and creek armoring.  The abundant water no doubt contributes to a number of wildflowers and ferns in this area, such as running cedar, dwarf crested iris, whorled coreopsis, spotted wintergreen, and bowman’s root just to name a few.

The trail had been inching uphill away from the creek, and at about 1.3 miles made a hairpin turn and begin climbing up the ridge to Clemmons Point.  The change in elevation brought into view the first of several rock formations we’d see along this piece of the hike, though views to the east were largely blocked by the trees.  The drier conditions led to fewer wildflower sightings, though by this time we had recorded over ten wildflowers and earned ourselves our customary post-hike ice cream treat.  We did spot a nice stand of white milkweed in bloom.

The trail undulates a little in this section, dropping from a narrow path along the top of a mine tailing to the bottom of a former strip mine trench.  For the most part, however, the trail stays high and eventually begins passing impressive rock formations on the right.  The trail levels off for the next couple of miles, with rocks to the right and occluded views of the valley to the left.  In this section, at around mile 2.7, the white blazes were sporadically supplemented by fresh-looking bright orange blazes, often above eye-level.  The white metal blazes were no longer in use, but there were still faded white paint blazes from time to time.  It was a little confusing, but we hadn’t passed any obvious trail junctions, and none are shown on the map, so we kept rolling along.

The rain had stopped about the time we reached Clemmons Point, but I was still a little grumpy, complaining that the trail was very nice, but this section didn’t have any unique features.  And right on cue, a little forest denizen popped up on the side of the trail — an Eastern box turtle.  Needless to say, Ruth was delighted!  We snapped a few pictures of our little friend and left her to continue her journey.

The trail continued southwestward, staying level and relatively straight as it passed more impressive rocks, including one that had a sizeable tree growing through a crack.  Several times during the hike we crossed over coal seams, places where small bits of coal were visible on the surface.  It reminded me of our hikes on Ruffner Mountain except of course the surface minerals there are iron ores.

After crossing a small stream at about 3.6 miles, guess what was waiting for us in the center of the trail?  Yep, it was ANOTHER Eastern box turtle!  (I’m certain it was a different one — we’re slow, but we’re not THAT slow).  In all our years of hiking, we have never seen two different land turtles on the same hike.   We paid our respects to the state reptile of Tennessee, and edged past him.

At about mile 4.0, after passing more impressive boulders and bluffs, we noted one bluff with a sizeable overhang that the CTC identifies as a rock house.  We didn’t explore this particular one, but at mile 4.3 a short side trail leads to a small rock house that has been confirmed as a Native American site by an archaeologist.  We detoured briefly to check it out, before continuing to the most interesting section of this segment.

At about 4.4 miles, the trail passes between two large rock formations, in a feature known as the “Little Stone Door.”  This narrow open passage is reminiscent of its namesake, the nearby “Great Stone Door,” which we have previously described.

The clarion call of a waterfall sounded as we walked through the Little Stone Door, and indeed a small waterfall tumbles down from a ledge.  I couldn’t find a good vantage point to photograph the entire drop of Mikel Branch, but bushwhacked down the hill far enough to get a look at the bottom portion of the falls.  It’s possible that the bottom of the fall is outside the park boundary, and as we made our way back uphill we came across one of the higher portions of the cascade, on the back side of one of the large boulders.  Keep an eye out for park boundary markers in this area, but also follow the sound of water to see pretty cascades if you can do so without trespassing.

Once we rejoined the trail, we continued to the west, crossing Mikel Branch on a footbridge before passing through a powerline cut with an impressive view down into Soddy Daisy, with the Tennessee River and the cooling towers of the Sequoyah nuclear power plant visible to the east.  After crossing one last stream and one last coal seam, this segment of the Cumberland Trail heads uphill for its last .2 miles before descending into the parking lot at the Mowbray Pike trailhead.  After picking up our shuttle vehicle, we made our way down to Soddy-Daisy, where we had our ice cream treat at Sonic, then made our way home through several heavy rainstorms.

So, that’s 1 segment down, and 28 to go (of the current sections — there are many more to be added).  Or, if the trail is going to be around 300 miles long, we’ve covered about 1.67% of it.  That’s not really enough to do any generalizing, but we did form a few impressions of this segment.  On the plus side, this segment is very well engineered, with good drainage and reasonably good marking (the orange blazes stopped near the Little Stone Door, and the white metal blazes returned).   We never saw another hiker at any point on this segment, so the solitude rating would be quite high.  There were many scenic rock formations, historic sites, some pretty creeks, and a very good selection of late spring/early summer wildflowers.  And of course, two turtles!

On the minus side, this segment is rather secretive, with no signage on the roads to identify the parking areas.  Also, it’s in need of some general maintenance, as a few sections are overgrown with poison ivy lurking in the narrowest sections, and there are several downed trees.  The trail is still navigable, with stepovers and a few places where you’ll have to skirt the deadfalls, but it would benefit from some attention from a sling blade and a chainsaw.  Changing to orange blazes halfway into the trail, without any description of this in the trail description on the CTC site, is a little unnerving, and almost caused us to do some unnecessary backtracking to make sure we hadn’t missed a trail junction.  This is not meant to nitpick with the fine volunteers who build and maintain this trail — it’s just meant as a heads-up to any of our readers who fancy hiking this segment.

Overall, this was a very enjoyable introduction to the Cumberland Trail, and we’ll certainly be back to do other segments.  We have no illusions of being AT thru-hikers, but maybe the Cumberland Trail would be achievable for us as segment hikers.  Of course, if we get ambitious (and win the lottery), we might just finish the Cumberland Trail and just keep going on the Great Eastern Trail, which is a yet longer trail planned to run from Alabama to western New York State.  The Great Eastern Trail will be around 1,600 miles.  And it looks like the Pinhoti Trail will be part of it, so the seven miles or so that we’ve hiked on the Pinhoti puts us at about 0.4% along the way of completing the Great Eastern Trail.  Well, a guy can dream, can’t he?






Hidden Spaces: Neverseen Falls

This week’s blog is going to be a bit of a different one. I’m not going to tell you exactly where we were, much less publish the GPS track that you can pull up and look at. I know, I know – this is a “hiking blog” – isn’t that sort of the point of such a thing? Well sure, usually, but we live in an area with such an embarrassment of natural riches that not even the efforts of the Land Trust of North Alabama, Monte Sano State Park, and the many county and city parks can possibly build trails to all the beautiful spots there are here.

They sure do try, though. By my very unofficial back-of-the-envelope count, there are more than 100 miles of trails just in the Huntsville area. With so many trails to pick from, why would you ever go off trail in the first place? Good question.  I tend to be a rule-follower and “Stay on Marked Trails Please” is a sign you see at most trail heads. From my time trail building for the Land Trust of North Alabama, I’ve learned a lot about the work that goes in to laying out the path for a trail – work that happens long before anyone picks up a lopper, McLeod, Pulaski or chainsaw. Careful thought goes into routing the footbed in a way that minimizes the chance for erosion. Those short cuts straight down a mountainside that folks sometimes make aren’t just quick routes for impatient humans, they are also quick routes for water during storms. Water that’s rushing down a mountainside isn’t soaking into the soil and water that isn’t soaking into the soil isn’t there after the rain is over for the plants that need it. Also, having a defined path that everybody follows means keeping all those human footsteps landing on roughly the same spots. This minimizes the  area that is affected by the soil compaction that happens when we heavy humans tromp on the ground. Compacted soil isn’t soil that can soak up water which again means thirsty plants. There’s also the little matter of safety. Keeping to a defined and maintained trail is going to mean less chance of getting yourself hurt. Not a guarantee, mind you – my worst hiking injury was on a beautiful level footpath – but scrambling over rocks and pushing through underbrush is just asking for trouble.

All of this is to say that we don’t make the decision to go off trail lightly, but sometimes we just can’t help ourselves. We’d heard about a waterfall (and you know how we love our waterfalls) and we really wanted to find it. All I’ll say about its location is that it is close enough that we could squeeze in a trip there in between rain storms on a Sunday afternoon. It’s also not a total secret. I’m sure lots of folks know about this place, and our pictures will probably give it away to those already in the know. There’s a difference between telling people a place exists and drawing a map right to it, though, so that’s the approach I’m going to take.

As we set out on the trail it was not quite raining, but it was spitting at us a little bit. The forecast had been for 80% chance of rain and we were sure we’d be soaked through.  Soon though we were under the trees and didn’t feel another drop of rain for most of the hike. It did, however, make for a sometimes pretty muddy trail.

This first part of the hike was covering old ground for us, but it didn’t take long to get to the point where we thought we were supposed to turn away from the trail and head straight up a rocky creek bed. There was no trail along the creek bank. We pretty much just rock-hopped and scrambled up the creek. It was a little steep, the rocks were sometimes slippery, and we had to clamber over a few downed trees but we made it.

Our goal was a bluff which had a bit of water dripping over the edge. This wasn’t a roaring waterfall like those you can find in the Sipsey Wilderness or South Cumberland State Park, but it’s a beautiful setting – quiet except for the water dripping, lush and green all around contrasting with the browns and reds of the rocks. I loved the dimpled rocks under the drip line of the fall. I wonder how many years of dripping water it took to make those?

Such a lovely spot, isn’t it? And just think – things like this are all around us just waiting to be discovered, as long as they’re not paved over first. Good thing we have folks like the Land Trust to preserve them for us!


Return to Alum Hollow

Back in April 2016, we published a post about a new property on Green Mountain in Huntsville donated to the Land Trust of North Alabama by the Kuehlthau family.  We had joined a members-only hike to check out the in-progress trail down to the waterfalls and Alum Cave, and noted in our post that we didn’t have enough time to explore the property and we would have to come back.  You can mark that as a promise kept, as we returned just a little over a year later with Casey The Hound to see how this property was faring.

And the answer to our question was:  very well, thank you!  At the time that we visited, only two weeks after the Land Trust had been given access to the property, the only parking was in the grass on the side of Shawdee Road.  The trail had a decent footbed, but was marked with ribbons, and had a creek crossing on an improvised bridge of three narrow trees lashed together.

A year later, the Green Mountain Nature Preserve, as it is now known, is thriving and developing.  The first and most obvious change is that there is now a sign marking the preserve and a gravel driveway leading from the road back to a parking lot that can accommodate around 10 vehicles (with some room for overflow, which was a good thing because the parking lot was full on our Saturday morning visit).

The trailhead now has a kiosk with a trail map and other information, and just beyond it is an interpretive sign describing the historical significance of Alum Cave.  The trail, now marked with Alum Hollow Trail diamonds, stretches out into the woods beyond the parking lot.

The Alum Hollow trail is much as we remembered it — a largely flat, slightly meandering path through open mixed woodlands.  We had only been on it for a short while before we came to another sign of progress — a new trail heading off to the left.  The new trail isn’t open yet, so we honored the request on the sign and left this trail for another day.

Although on our previous visit we didn’t think the Alum Hollow trail had much in the way of flowering plants, this hike timed out better with the flowering seasons for sparkleberry and St. Johnswort.  Sparkleberry was particularly prominent, with its peely/flaky bark.  St. Johnswort was just about to start blooming.  We caught one solitary blossom already open.

At about .3 miles, we came to the junction with the first of two new trails in the preserve, the East Plateau trail.  Though a new directional sign is clearly on the way, it’s easy to make out the pathway heading off to the right, and the established footbed and trail diamonds make it pretty clear that you’re on an official trail.    This route is a pleasant alternative to taking the Alum Hollow trail, as it meanders to the north and crosses a small seep before turning west to roughly parallel Alum Hollow.  It was on this stretch, as we began our turn to the west, that we had our one notable wildlife encounter, with an Eastern American toad.  This was along a damp section of the trail, though the footbed was well drained, and another boggy area after the turn to the west is bridged with cinder block stepping stones.

First stream crossing on Alum Hollow trail

The East Plateau is a mostly level, well-graded trail, slightly narrower that Alum Hollow, but overall we’d rate it as an easy-peasy.  Our GPS track is a little suspect for the East Plateau trail, but I’d say it’s around .5 miles, which makes it slightly longer than sticking to the main Alum Hollow trail.  I actually prefer East Plateau because it’s less traveled, and just as level and scenic as Alum Hollow.  However, taking the East Plateau route bypasses a very pretty stream crossing, as the two seeps on East Plateau join to make a narrow creek that runs south, where it is crossed by the Alum Hollow trail.

After around .5 miles, East Plateau rejoins the Alum Hollow trail, which then descends and crosses a larger creek on a new wooden bridge.  This is a big improvement over the old lashed-together bridge, though the Land Trust has impishly left the old bridge in place in case you want more of an adventure in your crossing.

After crossing the creek, we climbed out of a small hollow and about 100 feet later we came to the second newly-developed trail, the West Plateau trail.  Like it’s counterpart to the east, West Plateau winds through a mixed hardwood/pines forest, mostly level though there are a few short climbs.  West Plateau has a rockier footbed that East Plateau, and it has a couple of points of interest along it’s roughly .4 mile route.  The first is a crossing of what looks like a former dirt road running north/south.  The trail is easily spotted directly across the road, so it’s not difficult to navigate.  The other point of interest is what looks like another possible trail in the making, marked by green ribbons on a persimmon tree.  We didn’t go bushwhacking, but it looks like there might be room to route another trail into the northwest and far western edge of the tract.

The West Plateau trail merges back onto the Alum Hollow trail just as it descends somewhat steeply into another hollow.  The trail forks at this point, with the downhill fork leading to a waterfall, and the level fork continuing to the southeast to reach Alum Cave.  We went to the waterfall first and enjoyed the sight and sound of tumbling water.  Though it’s not marked on the official trail map, you can continue past the waterfall and along a narrow, wet path to reach a second, smaller waterfall with a tiny waterflow.

We retraced our steps and climbed halfway up the hollow, turning to the right to pass under the impressive rockhouses of Alum Cave.  It would be a nice place to take shelter — deep enough to stay out of the rain, sun, and wind, but with the sound of the nearby waterfall and a peaceful view over Alum Cave Hollow.

After a short rest, we returned back to the trailhead, except this time we stuck to the Alum Hollow trail for its entire length.  Casey surprised us on our return creek crossing, as he eschewed the nice new bridge to instead take the rickety narrow lashed bridge.

Although on our previous trip last year we didn’t see many wildflowers, they were in better supply for us on this trip.  East Plateau had several clumps of Two-Flowered Cynthia, and we spotted a few Quaker ladies along Alum Hollow between the East and West Plateau trails.  West Plateau had a few large bluets in bloom.  As usual, most of the flowering activity was near the creeks, as a mock orange was in bloom above the main waterfall and Virginia dayflower was in bloom near Alum Cave.  On the trip back to the parking lot, we also saw some downy serviceberry, smooth creeping bush clover,  Southern ragwort, yellow star grass, and whorled loosestrife (just beginning to bloom).  Hey, that’s ten, plus the sparkleberry and St. Johnswort mentioned earlier  — I’m claiming retroactive ice cream!

The final tally on our hike was 2.2 miles, though I’m a little doubtful about our GPS track on East Plateau — we had some signal dropouts so some of the track is shown as a lot straighter than is actually the case.  I think it’s safe to say that taking the East and West Plateau trails don’t add any significant distance to a hike down to the cave and waterfalls, so they’re worth the detour.  Both trails also have benches on them, as does Alum Hollow, which is yet another improvement made in year since our last visit.

The Green Mountain Nature Preserve is a great example of the progress made possible by generous benefactors, ambitious and visionary Land Trust staff, and dedicated volunteers.  It’s no surprise that this property has become so popular, and as the Ditto Landing to Monte Sano trail system edges closer to reality, this preserve will be a key piece in this hiking corridor.

Roadside Respite: Little Cedar Mountain

These days, when I have to travel by car long distances I have a tendency to just get in and drive single-mindedly as long as I can stand it. I’m sure part of that is my nerdy engineer tendencies that drive me to find the quickest and most efficient way to get from point A to point B. Walking or driving, I’ll analyze the route, looking for obstacles to avoid and shortcuts to take. Just ask my kids sometime about my patented power walk through a crowded airport.

Still, you’d think that as much as I enjoy the outdoors I’d heed all those road trip advice articles which tell you to stop frequently to stretch your legs. That’s certainly how we did it when I was growing up. My mom always packed a picnic in the car for any long trip. We’d drive awhile, then find a nice spot someplace for a picnic lunch or dinner. This worked out because my parents also didn’t enjoy driving on highways. They preferred to patch together a route using little country roads, which often had little lay-bys with picnic tables tucked into a wooded area along the way. Now, it sounds a bit idyllic. Then, of course, I chafed at the time it took to get anyplace. I didn’t enjoy the journey – I just wanted to get to the destination.

All of this came to mind this past weekend when we decided to check out Little Cedar Mountain Trail in Tennessee. I was looking for someplace new but relatively close by  that would give us 4-6 miles of hiking. Little Cedar Mountain fit the bill perfectly. Only about an hour and a half from Huntsville, this trail is in the 320 acre Little Cedar Mountain Small Wild Area managed by TVA.  It is a 3 mile lollypop loop trail that promised views of Nickajack Lake. There’s also an optional 1 mile connector trail that goes past a unique ridgetop wetland pond. To get there, we took US 72 east up to I-24, then went east on I-24 for two exits. At the bottom of the exit ramp, we turned right and found the entrance to the parking area almost immediately to the left. (Well OK, we actually turned left off the ramp, drove about 5 minutes in the wrong direction, turned around and then found the parking lot, but do as I say, not as I did… ).

The parking area is right next to the interstate – kind of like those lay-bys on the country roads of my youth. There is space for about 6 cars, a nice kiosk with a good trail map and information about the wildlife to be found on the trail, and a couple of bear-proof trash cans. There are no restroom facilities. As we stood there listening to the roar of the semis passing just over our heads I was thinking this might not have been a great plan after all. Hiking along listening to traffic is not really what I yearn to do when I’m wanting to get away from it all. Nonetheless, we set out on the trail which takes off from the east end of the parking area. It immediately crosses a footbridge over a small stream and then heads away from the interstate and into the woods. It was amazing how quickly the noise from the interstate faded! We followed along the creek for a short ways then turned away from it and through the woods. I saw my first wildflower in this stretch – a daisy fleabane. At the .3 mile mark, the trail splits. Left would take you towards the lake. Right takes you along the back side and then up to the top of Little Cedar Mountain. It’s a loop so either way will work, but we opted to go right first. Maybe it’s that Puritan delayed-gratification thing, but I figured the views of the lake would be the highlight of the trail so I wanted to save the best for last.

The “back side” doesn’t disappoint, though. It starts off as a level, sometimes wide, soft footbed through the trees. We saw lots of wildflowers in this section: Mayapples, purple phacelia, hairy skullcap, and the star of the day – Indian Pink. There were tons of these vivid red and yellow flowers! After a bit, the trail starts to climb. There were a couple of downed trees to climb over or under, and a few that required making our own path through the brush to get around, but none of it was terribly difficult. Higher up we saw trumpet honeysuckle in bloom, St. Johns Wort almost in bloom, and trillium just after the blooms had dropped.

At almost exactly the 1 mile mark, the connector trail (also called the Pond Trail) splits off to the left. We passed this up for now and continued on up to the top of the ridge. Soon we were at the top and could start to see bits of the lake in the distance. At about 1.5 miles, we came to a fantastic lake overview, then the trail turned and headed along the top of the ridge, with lake views the whole way off to our right.  After a short stretch we came to the other end of the connector trail, but once again passed it up to continue on the loop. We spotted false garlic, squaw root, and fire pink on this side of the mountain.

The trail headed down, sometimes pretty steeply, through boulder fields until we reached the lakeside. There was this perfect boulder right at the edge of the lake that was calling my name, so we took a little side trail over to it and rested there for a bit. Whenever I see a large, slightly sloping boulder in a sunny spot I just have to use it for basking – lying down and just soaking up the sun. This was the most perfect basking rock I’ve ever found! It was comfortable, warm and sunny and yet still a bit shaded by trees, and I had the sound of waves lapping on the lake right next to me. All this and we spotted a large bird flying to and from a giant nest on an island just across from us. We watched it for a while hoping Chet could get a good enough photo with his telephoto lens to help us identify it. Eagle? Osprey? It was big, and the nest was huge. The wings looked coppery to me and it might have had a white or at least lighter colored head. Once we got home and zoomed in on the pictures, we decided it was an osprey.

After reluctantly leaving my basking rock, we headed on up the trail which looked like it might have been an old roadbed at one time. There was a stone wall along the trail here from when this area was a farm – before Nickajack Dam flooded the area. The trail soon turned up hill and climbed back over a lower end of Little Cedar Mountain to get us back to the lollypop junction. This section had dramatic rock boulders and even more interestingly, is one of only two areas in the world where a flower called John Beck’s leafcup grows. Sadly, it blooms June – October so we were too early for flowers and didn’t know to look for its leaves. Maybe next time.

At the lollypop junction, we had a decision to make. Did we want to call it a day or do another loop to check out the connector trail? We’d have to retrace our steps quite a bit and figured we’d have to put in another 3 miles to complete the connector and get back to the car. It was only 2:15 and we figured we had plenty of time before it got dark, so we went for it. Besides I’d only spotted 9 wildflowers that I could identify on the trail, and if I could just find 1 more I’d get ice cream!

We opted to go counter-clockwise again, mainly because we felt that way was a little less steep. The plan was to hike to the connector, walk the length of it, then turn around and retrace that part too instead of taking the steeper route back down to the lake. Since we’d already hiked a good bit of this, there was a lot less stopping to admire things so we made really good time. I have to say, though, the connector trail was a bit of a disappointment. It was nice enough I suppose and maybe when the dogwoods are in bloom it would be prettier, but it was basically an easy trail through the woods. There were no views of the lake until it connected up with the main trail, and the pond, while biologically interesting, I suppose, was not very scenic. Maybe I was just tired, but it looked like a glorified mud puddle to me. Luckily, the advertised 1 mile trail length was a bit off, at least according to our GPS which had it at .7 mile. We finished the connector, admired a good sized sinkhole right before the end, then turned around and booked it back to the car.

Despite seeing cars in the parking lot, we’d had the trail entirely to ourselves most of the day. We passed maybe ten people total, so while this place isn’t totally unknown it’s not crowded either, but Chet and I enjoy getting out and finding these lesser known places. We ended up hiking 6.7 miles, but for travelers wanting a shorter break, I’d recommend taking a left at the lollypop junction and heading straight for the lake.

Little Cedar Mountain might not be a traditional hikers’ destination, but having found it, I’m now inspired to look for other roadside hikes. This summer I’ll be driving from Alabama to Washington DC, and you’d better believe I’m going to look for opportunities like this one to take a break from the road, stretch my legs, and enjoy what nature has to offer.



Around the Bend: A Dog’s Eye View of Marbut Bend

About once a year, we invite a guest blogger to chime in on a favorite hike or outdoor adventure.  Our entry for this week is courtesy of our four-legged friend Casey The Hound, who brings his unique canine perspective and seemingly inexhaustible bladder to every hike.  Well, every hike that we bring him on, anyway.  (It’s a sore point with him — don’t bring it up!)

Hello, dear readers, it is I, Casey The Hound.  As much as I like sleeping on the porch, I’m always up for an adventure, and when I saw the human members of the pack strapping on their boots, I knew it was time to put on the puppy eyes and to gently remind them it has been a while since I’ve been Outside the Fence.  And every now and then, it works!

I could tell something was different about this trip, though.  Usually I just get clipped onto the leash and away we go, but today I was fitted with a harness I had never smelled before.  I used to have a harness we’d use for hiking, but I’ve become a bit of a round hound and it won’t buckle anymore.  This new harness had a looser fit, and it didn’t have a place to connect a leash.  Instead, it had a couple of places to connect a camera!  Not only was I going on a walkabout, I was going to make my debut as a vid-e-dog-ruff-fur.  I think that’s what they called it.

Our hike was to a location that’s not terribly well-known, except to maybe a few humans.  We drove from Madison about 45 minutes out to Elkton, Alabama, to a Tennessee Valley Authority property called Marbut Bend.  TVA has all these little pockets of property scattered around the area, and this particular one is a short, easy, ADA-compliant walk of 1.2 miles around a field, down to the Elk River, and over a flooded field on a boardwalk.  It’s a bit out in the sticks, so TVA provides these directions.

Carolina thistle
Cutleaf evening primrose

By the time we got there, I was ready to stretch my legs.  A brown sign marks the entrance to the gravel parking lot, which can accommodate at least eight cars.  There was one vehicle there ahead of us, and I caught a whiff of a lady and a dog about 300 yards away from us.  While the humans fiddled around with cameras and backpacks, I gave the parking lot a thorough sniff and, ahem, took care of some business under this Carolina thistle.  If humans need to take care of any business, they’d better do it back in town — there aren’t any facilities.  Also, note to self — be very careful about doing any kind of business around thistles.  It might have been a better idea to target the cutleaf evening primroses blooming along the guard rail, but they were very pretty.

The view from the parking lot is quite enticing.  On the other side of the guard rail, looking to the south, there was a large patch of yellow wood sorrel in a lush grassy meadow.  Since this is a loop trail, you can either turn east or west to start, and my methodical pack decided to hike clockwise.   The trail to the east starts at a yellow gate, and heads east paralleling Buck Island Drive.  It’s a flat gravel surface, well-maintained, suitable for strollers or wheelchairs.  This is only a hiking trail, so no bikes or horses are allowed.

After about 500 feet (human feet, that is), the trail turns south.  The big grassy field is to the right, and a thin strip of woods is to the left.  The air was sweet with scents of honeysuckle and privet, with small oaks and sycamores shading the edge of the path.  About 450 feet after the turn to the south, a small footpath leads through a gap in the trees to a view of a cove.  This footpath is a natural dirt surface, which felt good on my paws, but could be rough going for a human on wheels.

Venus’ looking glass

We returned to the gravel trail, and soon passed a study-looking bench on the left.  I didn’t really need a break, but the rest of the pack stopped to look around and take a photo of a Venus’ looking glass.  Afterwards, it was back on the trail, which curved right and crossed the field.  It’s a nice field.  You can have a picnic on it.  You can even camp on it, as long as you’re tidy and don’t stay more than 14 days.  You should take your dog there, and maybe bring a frisbee.  I’m too nearsighted to catch a frisbee.  You don’t want to know how many dog treats have bounced off my snout, much to the pack’s amusement.  The only thing this old dog catches is rays, on the back porch.

The trail turns south again, with a line of trees to your right, then splits.  When the trail was originally opened in 2014, the only choice was to turn right, cross through the thin line of trees, and head south again for a brief look at the river.  However, a new option was added in 2016, when a pier was added to give a much better look at the river and its wildlife.  So now, when you come to the split,  continue straight instead of turning right.  After passing through a small patch of woods, the pier stretches straight ahead of you.  It’s glorious — you can walk out and get a great view of the Elk River.  There are a couple of benches, and it’s a great place to look at wildlife and do some fishing.   It’s roughly the halfway point of the hike.

After enjoying a brief rest and getting a good lungful of river air, we walked back down to the pier and turned left to rejoin the trail, which curves gently to the northwest around another grassy field.  The humans looked at the hispid buttercups and butterweed growing at the edge of the woods.  I decided to go in for a closer look.

About .2 miles after leaving the pier, the trail makes a sharp left through another stand of trees, and begins, in this dog’s opinion, the coolest part of the hike.  The next 900 feet or so is an elevated boardwalk over a flooded wetland.  It stretches straight across an expanse of murky green water, full of aquatic plants and dead trees.  This area was originally part of the field, but beavers dug channels from the river and flooded this section.  Now it’s a wetlands teeming with wildlife — fish, raccoons, deer, beavers, and especially birds, such as great blue herons, wood ducks, barred owls, and red-shouldered hawks.  There’s a bench about halfway across where you can sit and take it all in.  Let me tell you, you can smell for miles here!

At the end of the boardwalk, the trail turns east and continues on solid ground skirting the wetlands.  This part of the field is still a bit boggy, and has a good stand of cattails and a few oddly-disguised poles.  Anybody know what’s going on here?  The tops didn’t seem to have nesting platforms on them, but they are obviously fake.  This last little bit of bogland seemed popular with the avian set, as we heard ducks and saw one red-winged blackbird.

After one last short boardwalk, we arrived back at the parking lot, turning east and paralleling the gravel road (behind a guard rail) to complete the loop.  The hike is a super easy one — it’s relatively short, flat, and with a good gravel or wooden footbed throughout.  It has varied points of interest — fields, river, and bogland — and is a great place to spot wildlife.  It’s suitable for all ages, though you might want to keep a close watch on toddlers on the boardwalk since there are no guardrails there.

It was a good hike for an old dog, and I think young dogs would enjoy it too.  Marbut Bend has something for everyone.  Except maybe for cats.  But really, who knows what they are thinking?  I’m back on the porch now, digesting the post-hike celebratory pig’s ear, and thinking it over.  It might look like I’m sleeping in the sun, but don’t be fooled.

Swiss Family Wright: Tree House Adventures at Historic Banning Mills

Normally, Chet and I post here about a hike we’ve taken, or a float trip, or once or twice about a zip line adventure. The subtitle of our blog is, after all, “Outdoor Adventures in the Tennessee Valley and Beyond.” Emphasis on the outdoor adventures part. Occasionally, though, the place we stay is just as much a part of the adventure as whatever it was we were doing outside. Mount LeConte Lodge, Hike Inn, Charit Creek Lodge and the yurt in Cloudland Canyon were all unique places to stay and we talked about the lodging as well as the trails in those blogs. Our stay at Historic Banning Mills is in the same category, though totally unique in its own right.

After a long afternoon of ziplining fun, it was finally time to check in to our room. They have a number of room options. There is a lodge with rooms like you’d get in a hotel, and a few cabins that I’m sure are lovely, but my wonderful, adventurous husband had booked us in to one of their Tree House Rooms. These are not the tree houses some of you lucky people may have had in your backyards – an open platform or at best a shack made of plywood. Nope, these tree houses are large sturdy rooms with all the modern comforts. They were furnished with a comfy king size bed and a table and chairs. There was electricity so we had lights, a TV, a DVR, a microwave, a mini refrigerator and a Keurig. There was plumbing so we had our own bathroom with shower and also a jetted jacuzzi tub. There was even a gas fireplace, though it was too warm for us to want to try it out. To get to the tree house, you have to walk across a swinging bridge but after all the sky bridges we’d gone across that day, that was a piece of cake. Once inside, except for occasional bit of swaying (which was worst for some reason in the bathroom) it really did sort of feel like any other nice hotel room. The house itself is basically a structure on top of what looks to be, um, more a a ‘”former tree” than an actual living leafy tree. Still, we were high off the ground, and the views off our private back deck were lovely. We looked down on the top of a blooming dogwood tree, had a view of the creek and a couple of the zip line platforms, and had a pair of acrobatic squirrels to entertain us as they scampered up the guy wires of the tree house next to us to lounge on their empty deck.

After some down time in the tree house, it was time for dinner. Banning Mills does not run a public restaurant, but they do provide free breakfast to all overnight guests. You can also make a reservation for dinner onsite, though that  is extra. We decided we wanted to try a local restaurant, though.  There are choices fairly nearby in Carrollton but Chet has a co-worker who lives in Villa Rica and recommended Gabe’s Downtown, a Cajun place with a delicious sounding menu. It’s about a 25 minute drive from Banning Mills. When we arrived we found the restaurant was packed and had a 30 minute waiting list. We put our names on the list, gave them our phone number, and then went across the street to Uncorked On Main. Chet had seen this place when he was looking around for dinner options. It sounded like a bottle shop and since we always like to pick up local beers from places we visit we decided to check it out. It turned out to be more of a bar/meeting space with a brand new restaurant attached. We saw a few bottles of wine, but no displays of beer like we are used to at our local bottle shops like Wish You Were Beer or OTBX. They did, however, have a bar and we had 30 minutes to kill so…. There were “only” 6 taps (we’re so spoiled!) but a Reformation Brewery porter called Stark sounded good so I ordered it. The very personable older gentleman behind the bar told me I had to try something not on their menu board – a mix of the Stark with a Reformation Belgian ale called Cadence. He told me it was actually a mistake that somebody made, but then discovered that it tasted really good together. He called it the R&R. He was right. It did taste really good together! We hadn’t gotten more than 2 sips into our beers, though, when Gabe’s called to tell us our seat was ready. That was a short 30 minutes! While they wouldn’t hold a table long enough for us to finish our beer without guzzling it, they did kindly agree to just moving the folks behind us on the list up one slot. Sure enough, about the time we finished our beer, Gabe’s called again to tell us the next table was ready. What service!


Gabe’s is a small restaurant in what looks to be an historic building in old downtown Villa Rica. It has exposed brick walls, old wooden floors, and the big shop windows in the front like the old businesses on the courthouse square in Huntsville have. There are 15 tables of various sizes and a bar tucked along one wall. The service was efficient, friendly, and quick and the food was delicious! We split an order of loaded fried green tomatoes and I had an order of shrimp and grits. My only complaint is that it was too much food! It was impossible to eat it all, no matter how delicious it was. I didn’t even have room for dessert. Stuffed but happy, we headed on back to Banning Mills to sleep off the food coma.

The next morning, we went down to the buffet breakfast, which offered eggs, bacon, biscuits and gravy, fruit, yogurts, and scones along with coffee and a selection of juices. After breakfast, we checked out a very small history museum in the basement, and then took advantage of our access to the resort to explore some of the nature trails on the property. Historic Banning Mills is not a public park and access to the trails is limited to folks who have paid for a zip line adventure or who are staying overnight. While there is a trail map, no distances are marked on it, and trails are mostly just labeled “Hiking Trail” or “Horse and Hiking Trail.” Nevertheless we felt like we could find our way well enough from the maps and the signs and started exploring. We were most interested in checking out the mill ruins marked on the map, so we headed towards Snake Creek and followed the signs. We saw ruins of a dam, ruins of a small mill, ruins of larger paper mill, and finally, an abandoned, but still standing, red brick mill building. This mill was built in the 1830s as a textile mill and supplied Confederate uniforms during the Civil War. A couple we met on the trail told us that they’d heard General Sherman wanted to destroy it, but that it was so well hidden that he never found it and that’s why it is the only mill still standing along the creek. I haven’t been able to find any evidence that that is anything more than a tall tale though.

In any case, it was a lovely day, and we enjoyed our short walk. Early spring wildflowers were blooming along the creek, and the sky was blue overhead. The adventurers were overhead, too, as sky bridges, swinging bridges, and zip lines criss-cross the gorge. It was fun watching them zip along, especially after having done some of that ourselves the day before.