Magic Carpet: Taylor Hollow State Natural Area

During the spring, I’m always on the hunt for the very best spring wildflower trails. We have some lovely ones close to Huntsville, but Chet and I have hiked most of them at this point so I’m always on the lookout for a new place to go. One night a few weeks ago, I was half-heartedly typing in Google searches for “wildflower trails near me” or something along those lines, and I came across a reference to a place I’d never heard of: Taylor Hollow. The online trail reviews made it sound like a wildflower heaven on earth so I immediately started trying to figure out where this place was. Surprisingly in this day and age of “online everything,” it’s a little tricky.  By going to the Nature Conservancy website, I discovered that this gem is a 163 acre preserve run by the Nature Conservancy in middle Tennessee. There’s a map with a general area there, but they strongly encourage you to email them for directions, because the place is not marked and is difficult to find. I sent off my email on a Saturday night and got a response the next Monday. After a few emails back and forth to set up some ground rules, I came away with directions to the trailhead, plus permission to blog about their preserve as long as we didn’t give out directions or an address. If you want to go (and I would encourage everybody to do so!) just contact them via email or the phone number listed on the website. Trust me – it’s worth it.

It’s been a pretty rainy stretch recently – I can’t remember the last time we had a totally rain-free weekend – so we waited a bit until we got some cooperation from the weather gods and headed up into Tennessee one rare beautiful clear Sunday morning. It is a bit of a drive from Huntsville, but with directions in hand, we had no trouble finding where we were supposed to park. I was sure that, difficult as this spot was to find, we’d be the only people there, but when we drove up there were a couple of other cars parked already. So far so good, but the next challenge would be finding the trailhead. Actually, I should correct myself there – the next challenge turned out to be getting past the “guard rooster.” This guy came strutting down the gravel drive towards us, fluffy white companion-hen in tow. I was amazed that he was so bold! Farm-boy Chet was immediately a little concerned. He knows roosters, and has tangled with some pretty mean ones in his time growing up on a farm. He recognized this guy as not just bold, but aggressive. Sure enough, as we tried to calmly head up the driveway without riling him up, he tried to block our path, then crowd us off to one side. We got past him without incident, but he followed us all the way up the drive and made me very nervous!

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Guard Rooster and his hen

Once past the rooster, our next task was to find the kiosk that marks the beginning of the actual trail. This did not go terribly smoothly, to be honest. I’m not sure how much I can say without breaking my agreement with the Nature Conservancy, but I think I can say that if you see a lovely old tree-lined roadbed leading up past a barn and a pond, that’s NOT the way to go. That way did lead us to some beautiful wild blue phlox, periwinkle, pennywort, and a stand of shooting stars, though. We figured out we were wrong pretty quickly once we headed towards another farmhouse, and with just a little backtracking we found the right path. It led to a meadow and through the trees on the other side we could see the kiosk.

Up to this point on the correct trail, we hadn’t actually seen many wildflowers. We passed a stand of running cedar, but that was about it. However, under the kiosk sign was a beautiful little stand of Sweet Betsy trilliums, so things were looking up. The trail here is mostly level with just a little gentle up and down as it heads through the trees along a ridge line. The forest on either side is simply covered  with Mayapples. They aren’t the showiest of flowers when they’re in bloom, and these weren’t in bloom yet, but it was still pretty amazing to me to see so many of them spreading up and down the hillside.

We soon spotted a bunch of fineleaf toothwort mixed with cutleaf toothwort, an Allegheny spurge, a couple of star chickweed, some patches of rue anemone, a swath of twinleaf, and a few more stands of  trillium – both the toadshade kind and the wake-robin kind.  At a spot where the trail dipped down across a tiny wet-weather streamlet I spotted one of the flowers we’d most been hoping to see – the blue eyed mary. This little plant is native to an area that goes from Tennessee north into Canada, west as far as Oklahoma, and east into New York. It is so beautiful, but it is now endangered in Tennessee. We felt very lucky to have found a small stand of them!

We kept heading down the trail and started seeing some more patches of phlox, a couple of celandine poppies, and then a big patch of dutchmen’s breeches. I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen them in the wild before, so I was really excited about these! Mixed in with the dutchmen’s breeches there was also a nice stand of squirrel corn, but I’ll be honest – I didn’t even realize until we’d gotten home and looked at the pictures. The leaves and flowers are really similar! Next up were the deep, vivid purple of larkspur and more purple phlox and bent wake robin trillium. Below us, we could see a creekbed lined with green. I wondered if maybe that green could be trout lily, like that patch we’d found when we hiked Cutchenmine Trail recently.

The trail took a sharp turn to the left and headed down a set of stairs where the trail cuts between boulders. To my left, I saw a little stand of “my” Virginia bluebells that I had to stop and admire, and then, as I got to the bottom of the stairs, I was stunned to realize that all of that green we’d seen from above wasn’t trout lilies after all – it was an absolute carpet of the endangered blue eyed marys! As far as the eye could see, up and down the trail, on both sides of the creek were blue eyed marys. Acres of them! And not just blue eyed mary, but also bent wake-robin, and dwarf larkspur, and Virginia bluebells, and yellow woodland violets, and wild blue phlox, and mayapples, and twinleaf, and dutchmen’s breeches, and wood spurge, and squirrel corn, and … more blooming flowers packed into each square foot than I could have ever imagined.

The trail tees into a path that leads both ways along a creek. We wandered downstream and across the creek, admiring the lush beauty of the forest around us until we got to a road and another stand of shooting stars. We then turned around, retraced our steps back to the tee and went the other way until the trail ends next to a small bluff. It was almost funny how we’d walk along and say, “Oh here’s just some more trillium,” or “hmm more larkspur,” or “oh, back to the bluebells again,” when just 30 minutes earlier we’d been fawning over a single tiny handful of blue eyed mary and marveling over each and every trillium. It was an embarrassment of floral riches.

The only thing that could have made this trail better would have been benches so that you could safely sit someplace and absorb all the beauty. The ground was so covered with flowers, there was no place off the narrow trail where you could step without tromping on something beautiful. Taylor Hollow is the most magical place I think I’ve ever been. It might be a bit out of the way, and it might require a bit more planning to visit, but boy is it worth it.

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Eagle Creek and Deer Skull Falls, Sipsey Wilderness

Regular readers of this blog will know that Ruth and I are always on the lookout for adventures in the Bankhead National Forest.  We’ve hiked quite a few trails in our closest National Forest, and decided that a recent rare dry weekend day would be a good time to try an off-trail jaunt to a couple of waterfalls we’ve never visited in the Sipsey Wilderness portion of the Bankhead.

It’s not difficult to find photos and descriptions of waterfalls in the Bankhead, and after a little research I found an account posted by a geocacher of a trip to Eagle Creek Falls and Deer Skull Falls.  I’d heard of Deer Skull Falls, but didn’t know anything about Eagle Creek Falls, and since it was a relatively short hike to visit them both we decided to try something a little more rugged than our usual fare.

One of my pet peeves about Internet posts about off-trail places in the Bankhead is when people post photos and vague descriptions of how to get somewhere, peppered with various disclaimers to the effect of “this is a wonderful place, but I won’t tell you how to get there yourself because it’s so dangerous and only a very experienced hiker such as myself could possibly get there safely.”  Poppycock!  Yes, there are inherent risks in hiking in general and backcountry hiking in particular, but if you go in with sufficient information, proper equipment, and a tiny bit of common sense you’re generally going to be fine.  Having said that, this off-trail hike is easily manageable for most hikers in decent shape, so don’t let the lack of a groomed trail keep you from visiting these Bankhead treasures.

So what are the must-knows about this hike?  Access is easy, right off Cranal Road (more about that later), but the trail is poorly marked at first, then isn’t marked at all.  In fact, after about 1/3 of a mile there isn’t really a trail to speak of.  Instead, you’ll be navigating alongside a creek for most of this hike, with frequent water crossings over a relatively shallow creek (depending on rainfall, naturally).  Since you’re going to be off-trail most of the time, good footwear is a must.  You’ll need something stable like boots or trail runners, but the key thing is to be able to avoid wet feet (or have a plan for embracing the wet feet and bring water shoes to change into).  The creek crossings are generally pretty easy and at least at the time of our visit in late March, the creeks were rarely more than shin-deep at worst, and usually not more than shoe-top deep.   The total hike is about 3 miles, 1.5 miles point to point, returning the same route.  About 2.3 miles of that distance will be on a creekbank or in the creek itself.

This is a relatively short hike, but be sure to allow plenty of time because your progress will be slower than usual as you will pick your way across the creek dozens of times (not exaggerating).  I also strongly recommend hiking poles or at least a walking stick for stability.  The incline/decline on this hike is minimal, especially after you make your way from Canal Road down into the hollows.  Also, because there is no marked trail, you’d be wise to carry a map and/or GPS, though the navigation is really simple.

So, let’s start hiking!  First, you’ll need to get to the starting point.  We made our usual approach to the Bankhead from the east, taking Highway 36 west through Hartselle until it tees into Highway 33 in Wren (the corner with the Warrior Mountain Trading Post).   After turning south (left) on Highway 33, in about 9.6 miles turn right onto Cranal Road (County Highway 6).  Cranal Road forms most of the southern border of the Sipsey Wilderness.  About 2.4 miles after passing the Sipsey River Recreation Area (last restroom access), FS Road 212 on the left (marked with a sign for Wolfpen Camp) is one potential parking spot to access the trailhead.  The actual starting point for this hike is on the right (north) side of the road about 100 yards farther to the west, where there’s a small dirt pullout into the woods that can accommodate two or three vehicles, so you might be able to park there.

The dirt pullout immediately forks as it enters the woods.  Both forks quickly dead-end.  You’ll want to take the fork to the left (the one perpendicular to Cranal Road).   This is obviously an old dirt road, but it quickly narrows into a track with an easily-discernible footbed.  The trail is not marked as such, but you might spot some orange flagging tied to a small tree, or even spot a faded white paint blaze or two.

The trail heads due north for about 300 feet before turning west and beginning a gradual descent into a hollow.  This section of the trail has a few downed trees, easily crossed or circumvented.  There are signs of a recent fire on the north side of the trail, though I don’t think this is from the Big Tree wildfire of October 2015.  A small rivulet began running just off the left side of the trail as we descended, gradually growing into a streamlet.  After descending 140 feet in elevation in about .4 miles from the trailhead, the trail’s footbed pretty much ceases as the streamlet flows into Eagle Creek, which flows west to east.  Turn right to follow Eagle Creek downstream.  For clarity’s sake, in the following paragraphs when I refer to the left or right bank of the creek, it’s from the perspective of facing downstream.

At this point, the next .25 miles of the hike is a series of creek crossings as the banks narrow on one side, then the other.  It’s not difficult to find a route, and it’s easier (and more scenic) to walk along the creek banks than to try to find a way higher up the slope.  At .65 miles from the trailhead, a feeder creek flows into Eagle Creek from the west, and a large flat area on the right bank of Eagle Creek is an obvious camping area, with a fire ring.  We continued on past the camping area on the right bank, and about 350 feet downstream we reached our first waterfall, Eagle Creek Falls.

From photos I had seen I knew this was a cascade-type fall, so I didn’t expect much.  But the photos don’t do it justice!  Eagle Creek roars over an approximately 20-foot drop, about 30 feet wide, with a shallow jade green plunge pool at the bottom.  The trail descends the left side of the falls (from the perspective of facing the falls), with a couple of big stepdowns to manage.  Once at the bottom of the falls, there’s plenty of room to wander and admire, and we spent several pleasant minutes there resting and taking photos.

 

 

We continued down the right bank of the creek after Eagle Creek Falls (the left bank quickly becomes too steep to navigate), following the creek as it wound past overhangs and the ever-pleasing interplay of mosses and shadows.   Another waterfall drops down from a small fold on the right bank about 450 feet downstream of Eagle Creek Falls, though we didn’t explore this particular one.  Instead, we kept zig-zagging from bank to bank, heading downstream.

Now we must pause for a moment while I ruminate on a matter of comparative physiology.  I’ve always maintained that the female of our species has a more highly-evolved brain, and I proffer my own wife as an example.  There she was, about 50 yards ahead of me, just starting to navigate a tricky crossing of Eagle Creek – evaluating options, looking downstream to plan her next several moves.  She was probably also processing many other things in the background unrelated to the business at hand — who can say what happens in the highly-evolved brain during a moment of zen?  I, on the other hand, was putting my primate brain to a more basic task, which means as usual I was the one who saw the snake she must have just stepped over or past.  “I’m thinking that it might be better to head upstream, then cross on those rocks over there, because the right bank looks like it’s flattening out.  We’ll make better progress there,” she called out, pointing the way.  “Snake!” I croaked, no doubt baring my teeth in an apish grimace.  “Where?” she cried, seeing that I had left out a vital piece of information.  “Up here, by me,” I hooted.  It was a lovely little brown water snake, I think — definitely non-venomous, and not in the least bit threatened or in any hurry to get out of my way.  It was about three feet long, and well camouflaged against most non-monkey brains.  I bring this up because this is at least the fourth time I’ve seen a snake after (or as) Ruth walked past or over it, oblivious.  I detoured around little beauty, and we both went our merry way.

About .25 miles from Eagle Creek Falls, we could hear another waterfall plunging down a canyon cleft on the left side of the creek.  This one seemed worth checking out, so we detoured just a few feet to admire what is probably a seasonal fall that drops around 40 feet or so as a feeder creek empties into the canyon.

 

After resuming our trek down Eagle Creek, we came to a point where it looked as if the creek flowed into a cliff face.  It actually just makes an abrupt bend to the right, flowing at shoe-top height over a broad, flat shelf.  As we pondered whether we should make another crossing here, we met a group of hikers on their way out and watched them just plod across the creek with no worries about getting wet feet.  Inspired by their example, and frankly a little fed up after all the creek crossings, I suggested that since we had brought water shoes we might as well put them to use.  Off came the boots, and we put on the Keens and just strolled down Eagle Creek.  Yes, it was a little cold at first but much better than our usual January or February Sipsey creek crossing.

The creek was a little deeper here, with one or two tiny dropoffs of about a foot, but still we were making good progress with good footing.  The creek is mostly flowing over a series of flat shelves here, so you could probably do this barefoot if need be.  About .25 miles past the abrupt bend, or .6 miles from Eagle Creek Falls, Little Ugly Creek flows in from the west.  Eagle Creek and Little Ugly Creek merge at this point, continuing east to soon drain into the Sipsey Fork.  Our next waterfall lies upstream on Little Ugly Creek, so we turned left (west).  Though there are no formal trail markers at this junction, there’s an unmistakable marker of a rock stuck through a split in a sapling on the left bank of Eagle Creek.    There is also a faint orange paint blaze on a larger tree nearby.

We splashed our way upstream on Little Ugly Creek, for which I’ll make the obligatory comment about how the creek isn’t ugly at all.  Though not as wide as Eagle Creek at this point, it is deeper in some spots, so we took a more amphibious route.  After about .1 mile, we came to Deer Skull Falls.

Deer Skull Falls is actually two waterfalls. To the left, Little Ugly Creek drops over a shelf maybe about 10 feet tall, plunging into a deep blue pool.  To the right, an unnamed feeder creek cascades from high above, with a final plunge of about 15-20 feet into a shallow pool.  The two waterfalls are separated by a rock outcropping which would lead one to believe that the two falls have the same water source, but that’s not the case.  Both falls have striking red-orange patches in the rock face, which I’ve seen described as iron-rich mineral deposits.

 

It’s pretty amazing to see two such different, photogenic waterfalls in a 1.5 mile walk from the road.  It was a little too cool to pop into the Little Ugly Creek-sourced Deer Skull Fall’s plunge pool, but I bet it would be a superior swimming hole. I’ve read accounts of people continuing upstream on Little Ugly Creek to find rock shelters and possibly even remains of stills, but there isn’t an obvious trail and we didn’t have time for further explorations.  We met a couple at the falls who had bushwhacked their way from the Johnson Cemetery on Trail 202, so that is an option for getting to Deer Skull Falls, though you’ll have to thrash your way up and down some steep slopes.  We retraced our steps down Little Ugly Creek, keeping to the banks this time, and turned upstream on Eagle Creek to make our return.

There is one tricky bit of navigation to handle as you retrace your route.  Unfortunately, our GPS had conked out so we couldn’t confidently retrace our route back to the hollow we followed on our way in.  We knew we’d just need to look for a hollow with a creek flowing into Eagle Creek from the east, after we had passed Eagle Creek Falls and the camping area.  The first such little hollow had a creek, but didn’t seem to have a reliable footbed.  I scouted about 100 feet up the hollow and actually spotted a faded orange blaze on a tree, but it didn’t seem right.  We continued upstream on Eagle Creek, and within a couple of minutes came to some creek crossings that we recognized, and the next hollow had a faint footbed that eventually led us back uphill to the trailhead.

So we had quite the little adventure — a moderate hike, with little elevation change, and two gorgeous waterfalls (not counting a couple more seasonal falls), all off the beaten path.  It was another glorious day in the Sipsey, which never disappoints.

Quick Look: Lawson Branch Loop

 

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Trail Name: Lawson Branch Loop

Location: Shoal Creek Preserve, Florence, Al.

Length:  1.8 mile loop

Rating: Beginner

Points of interest: Lawson Branch, Marker Tree, Lawson Branch Falls

Blog Post: Shoal Creek Preserve: A New Favorite Place

Notes: It’s a short loop, so take on Jones Branch Loop while you’re there. It’s only 2.4 miles and has great views of Shoal Creek.

GPS Track: Shoal Creek Preserve

The Power of Three: Trillium Walk at the Huntsville Botanical Garden

For some people, it’s not spring until they have seen their first bluebird.  For others, spring hasn’t sprung until you don’t have to cover up your daffodils to protect them from frost.  For me, the sure sign of spring is the sight of a trillium in bloom.

We’ve mentioned a few times that Ruth is quite fond of bluebells, and we really enjoy our spring walks and the wildflowers that dot the trailsides.  They have become old friends to us — from the showy phloxes, shooting stars, and trout lilies to even the humble unwanted grape hyacinth — but the wildflower that always catches our attention has three leaves, and if in bloom, three sepals and three petals.  Around here, we have a pretty good representation of the trillium genus, with Sweet Betsy, twisted trillium, and lemon trillium growing in profusion on many local trails.  On our visits to the Smokies, we’ve also enjoyed large-flowered trillium, the glorious painted trillium, and my personal favorite, the diminutive charmer known as Catesby’s trillium.

Various maladies, work schedules, social engagements, and uncooperative weather have kept us off the trails these last few weeks, so I was rarin’ to go when I had a small window of time to attend a plant ID walk of the trillium collection at the Huntsville Botanical Garden.  Ruth and I have been to the Garden several times this spring, and we always make a beeline for the Holmes Trillium Garden to see what’s in bloom.  The plant ID walk was free with admission to the garden, and I knew that the guide for this particular walk would be a special treat — none other than Mr. Harold Holmes, the person responsible for starting the trillium collection at the HBG.

I joined a small group in the Visitor’s Center and Harold struck up a conversation with me, asking me what I knew about trilliums.  I knew three things about trilliums, I said, and after telling him those three things I found out that one of them was wrong!  So I knew I was going to learn a lot, which was great news.

As is often the case in the Rocket City, Harold was a retired missile guy who was looking for a hobby.  His wife said she wanted him to plant some native trilliums around the house, and he did some research and found the topic to be so fascinating that he built an amazing trillium garden at his house.  Actually, he didn’t volunteer that much about his own personal garden, but I’ve heard about it from some of the “grubbers” — volunteers at the HBG.  Anyway, he approached the HBG about starting a trillium collection in 2006.  He explained what he had in mind, and mentioned that it might take a while to get a good collection started, since it can take 7-10 years for a trillium to mature enough to bloom.  The HBG management eyed him warily and asked him what would happen to the collection if he didn’t live that long.  That’s a flinty bunch, those garden managers!  Luckily for all of us, Harold is still applying his scientific skills to the study of the genus, and the HBG has the nation’s most extensive collection of eastern North American trilliums.  Yep — we’re number one!

Twisted toadshade (Trillium stamineum)

I could use the cliche and say that Harold has forgotten more than I’ll ever know about trilliums, but that’s not true — I don’t think he’s forgotten anything.  We walked down to the Mathews Nature Trail trillium collection as Harold told us that there are two main types of trilliums — toadshades (subgenus Phyllanthereum), which have mottled leaves and flowers that do not grow on stalks; and wake-robins (subgenus Trillium), which do not have mottled leaves, and have flowers that grow on stalks.  The most common ones I’ve seen on the trails in north Alabama are the trillium cuneatum (Sweet Betsy) and trillium stamineum (twisted trillium).

Harold pointed out several specimens in bloom, and told us that the collection that is known as the Holmes Trillium Garden is actually made up of several smaller collections.  Some are memorial gifts to the Garden, some are donated by other trillium enthusiasts, and some are special purpose collections used for research.  A few of them are candidates to be declared as new species, or are rare.  At the time of my visit, more of the toadshades were in bloom, such as the lemon, reclining, and Louisiana toadshades.  Toadshades vary quite a bit, from flower color (Louisiana is bi-colored, for example) to leafstalk height (reclining grows just barely above the ground), to leaf shape (lance-leaf has pointier leaves).  Most toadshade leaves are mottled and fade after pollination, but not so for the splotch-leaf toadshade.  And for some species, the flower odor is a telling characteristic — either pleasantly fragrant (Sweet Betsy) or pungently fetid (stinking toadshade).  Odors are very fleeting, though, and can usually only be detected during pollination (just a few days) and on warm days.  And though trilliums generally follow the rules, Nature is chaotic — some trilliums can actually have more than three leaves, and a few species break the mottled leaves/no flower stalk pattern.

This was much more than a plant ID walk, though.  Harold told us about his research in propagation of trilliums, growing them from seeds or by manipulating the rhizome to encourage growth.  He has in some cases gotten plants to flower in about half the usual time.  He had placed a few posters along the walk to show some of this process, and had a tub full of 3-year-old “babies,” showing their characteristic three leaves but years away from blooming.  It turns out that what I had thought was the entire trillium collection was only one part, as there are many more trillium beds toward the back of the garden, north of the Bush Azalea Trail.  These research collections are the site of science in action, as various propagation techniques are trialled here.  Trilliums are also raised in the Garden’s greenhouses, for scientific research, for display, and more than a few for the Garden’s annual plant sale (coming up April 13-15, with an early-bird day on April 12 for Garden members).

I learned so much in two hours!  Harold’s self-deprecating sense of humor, personified in the “Trillaholic” cap he was wearing, kept things entertaining, and it was a privilege to listen to someone so enthusiastic and knowledgeable.  I know a lot more than three things about trilliums now — such as they can live 50-70 years, deer love to eat them, and ants are crazy about trillium seeds.

Bent wake-robin (Trillium flexipes)

And as it turned out, it was my lucky day.  Harold had potted two bent wake-robins as door prizes, and thanks to my sharing a birth month with him, I was a lucky winner!  After getting some tips on how to transplant it (I mean seriously — when a trillaholic gives you a specimen from the nation’s best trillium collection, you’d better not go home and bungle it), I brought my prize home and promptly planted it on a north-facing slope, near some azaleas (Harold tends to pop trilliums near azaleas in the Garden).

So word to the wise — the first two weeks of April tend to be the peak time for seeing trilliums in Garden.  Let’s hope for good weather!

 

Quick Look: Short Springs Natural Area

 

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Trail Name: Machine Falls Trail

Location: Short Springs State Natural Area, Tullahoma, Tennessee

Length:  roughly 1.6 miles to Machine Falls, loop

Rating: Beginner

Points of interest: Machine Falls, wildflower glades

Blog Post: Sweet Spring: Short Springs Natural Area

Notes: Easy, short trail to a beautiful waterfall tucked into a ravine filled with spring wildflowers.  Others trails in the same natural area lead to smaller waterfalls and more wildflowers.  The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation calls Short Springs “one of the very best spring wildflower locations in the state,” and for good reason!

GPS Track: Short Springs

Things are not always what they seem: Cutchenmine Trail

After what seemed like weeks and weeks of rain, this past weekend promised to be a gorgeous one. A little chilly maybe, but rain-free. Chet and I had gone to the Huntsville Botanical Garden on Saturday afternoon and noticed that many of the native wildflowers were starting to bloom, so I started looking around for a wildflower hike. It’s a bit too early to get out and see masses of flowers, but I do love these first very early spring days. The woods are still mostly sleeping and brown which makes the few delicate early spring blooms really stand out. I searched around for recommended wildflower hikes that we’ve not already done a million times, and came up with a surprising one: Cutchenmine Trail in Lake Guntersville State Park. It’s not someplace that immediately came to mind as a wildflower haven, but we haven’t actually ever hiked it, so we decided to check it out.

The Cutchenmine Trail follows an old road bed, supposedly built by a man named Cutchen who wanted a more direct route to get out coal from his mine. Despite the name, the mine itself isn’t a feature you pass on this trail. Still, a hike beside the lake with the promise of wildflowers and some bird spotting – maybe even an eagle! – was enough to make this my choice for the weekend. I’d read online that there was parking at the trailhead, but that it was somewhat limited, so Chet and I parked at the Park Office parking lot just across the bridge over Short Creek. That added a good .4+ miles each way to our overall hike, but for me finding an easy-to-get-in-and-out-of parking spot is worth a little extra walking. For future reference, there are also restrooms attached to the Park Office. Often our hikes don’t start anywhere near restroom facilities so this was noteworthy. Once we got to the trailhead, there was one car parked in a gravel area with room enough for maybe 3 more cars, so I guess I was too pessimistic about my parking options on a Sunday morning.

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The first thing we noticed at the trail head was the overflowing garbage can right next to the trail sign. It was not the best introduction to a trail and I was afraid that we were in for depressing and trashy hike. However, just a few steps past the garbage can, we spotted the first of the wildflowers: common blue violets, slender toothwort, spring beauty, and the leaves of some kind of trillium not yet in bloom. That was a good start!

Soon, we crossed a bridge that had both a ramp and stairs as the exit on the far end. I’m guessing that the ramp was put in place for bikers as this is a popular beginners mountain bike trail. The ramp slopes oddly toward the water, which might be fun on a bike, but for me, I took the stairs. Across the bridge,  the blue blazed trail heads up a hill and we spotted more wildflowers: star chickweed, rue anemone, a May apple almost in bloom, cut leaf toothwort and more trillium – these with not-quite-yet-open buds. We also spotted quite a bit of red buckeye, which isn’t technically a wildflower, but it was in bloom and we knew what it was so we made note of it as well.

We’d gone less than a quarter of a mile, and had identified 8 flowers already! Readers of this blog may know about our longstanding tradition about wildflower spotting.  The rules are simple: if we identify 10 plants, we earn ourselves an ice cream. We were almost there already!

The trail climbs and falls a bit as it works its way down the south side of King Hollow and back towards the mouth of Short Creek. At the end of the hollow, the trail takes a broad curve left to follow Short Creek upstream. This part of the trail was mostly level, and was cut back enough from the waterline that we had no problems with a boggy trail, even after the never-ending rains of February. This did mean, though, that we were back into the dry winter woods again with fewer wildflowers to catch our eye. Somewhere along here we started noticing that the blue blazes were sometimes orange blazes with a bit of blue daubed over the top, and sometimes they were just straight up orange blazes. No matter – you really can’t make a wrong turn on this trail so don’t let the blaze colors worry you. We came to a spot with large boulders and tumbled rocks. On the lake side, there was a patch of leaves that looked like daffodils not yet in bloom. We decided that it just might have been a homesite of some sort. Just a little ways down the trail we spotted more trillium, these in full bloom, and a sprig of wintergreen. We were up to 9 – surely we’d find one more.

In reading trail descriptions, I’d read that at “about a mile” we’d come to a bridge, so I’m guessing we were at a mile when we came to a lovely curving bridge over a dry creek bed. Just after this bridge, the trail climbs up a hill and then levels out for a stretch before easing back down to water level again. We kept our eyes open for birds, hoping for herons, egrets, or maybe even an eagle but the only thing we saw was a smaller bird of some sort. I’m terrible at bird-spotting – Chet and I joke about how all birds to us are just “blurry splotchets” – so I don’t know what it was, but it definitely wasn’t one of the ones we were looking for.

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Again going on the trail descriptions I’d read, I told Chet that the trail ended at “a dry creek bed.” As we got closer to what felt like the end of the trail, we crossed a small creek that actually had water flowing in it, and then could hear rushing water from a substantial creek ahead. It turned out to be a pretty wide expanse of rushing water – certainly not dry at all! Color me confused. Then I looked at the Guntersville Park map  — the NAME of the creek is “Dry Creek.” It seemed substantial enough that I can’t imagine it ever being dry, but apparently it often is in the summer, hence the name.

We sat and enjoyed a bit of a snack and watched the water tumble over the rocks. Chet kept eyeing a patch of bright green up the bank on the other side of the creek. He’d brought a massive telephoto lens to take bird pictures, so he pulled that out to see if he could figure out what the green patch was. It looked like trout lilies! Here in Huntsville, the only place I know of where trout lilies bloom is on the Land Trust of North Alabama’s Wildflower Trail on Monte Sano.  I’ve never seen them anywhere else, so they seemed like a rare thing to find. With this as motivation, we decided we’d wade across the creek. Now, it was a nice day – I’d even taken off my fleece and was hiking just in a long sleeved top and jeans. However, that water was pretty dang cold. We always seem to do this, Chet and I. Usually we do our winter water crossing in February, so I guess we did a bit better this year by waiting until March, but still – brrrr! We’d not packed water shoes or hiking poles, so we just went barefoot, and improvised with some dead fall sticks we picked up to help steady us in the pretty strong current. We made it without falling or dropping electronics in the water, so I’m calling it a success.

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On the other side we found what was indeed a large swath of trout lilies, interspersed with toadshade trillium, violets, and toothwort. It was actually such a carpet of them that we had a hard time figuring out where to put our feet so that we wouldn’t be crushing some lovely bloom. It was a great way to wrap our 10 wildflowers and earn our ice cream. When I got back home, I did some research and discovered that trout lily is actually fairly common in its range, which goes from Alabama to Ontario, west into Missouri and Oklahoma, and north to Minnesota. Not so rare after all!

Our hike back was just retracing our steps and was uneventful. We still saw no birds, but passed quite a few hikers – I counted 13 including one large family that had all ages from babe in arms to grandparents out enjoying the weather.

At home, I was determined to see if I could find any evidence of the mine. Google maps was no help – it doesn’t even show the Park Office or the trailhead, much less any indication of an old mine. I tried to find it on a US topo map site that had maps of the area as far back as 1936. No luck. Then we hit paydirt. Chet found an old survey map of the area online, which clearly shows that the land we’d been hiking on was once owned by a family named “Critcher.” FW Critcher and Mrs. H Critcher are marked as landowners of property just north of Dry Creek on a map of Marshall County from 1909. A little more googling turned up an obituary for a Col. James Critcher. Col. Critcher died in 1893 in his home “near Martling” (which is a community in the area), having lived in Marshall County since 1836. It mentions that though he was a state representative – at least for a time also in the Senate – he also devoted his time to farming and, most notably for my purposes, to “opening coal veins on lands belonging to him and to his neighbors.” One more search turned up the fact that his wife’s name was Harriet – perhaps the Mrs. H. Critcher on the survey map from 1909. Is it possible that “Cutchenmine Trail” is misnamed? To me, it seems more likely that the mine was Col. Critcher’s, and the road and subsequent trail should have borne his name as well.

So there you have it. We’d found a trashy trail that turned out to be a treasure of wildflowers, that used blue blazes except for when they were orange, that was prime viewing for eagles but netted us no sightings of any birds, that ended in a dry creek that was anything but dry, that had a large stand of rare flowers that might not be so rare, and that might in the end be a trail named after a Mr. Cutchen who was really perhaps a Critcher. As Plato said (through Phaedrus) “things are not always what they seem; the first appearance deceives many.” Usually that quote is used as a warning or an admonishment not to judge a book by its cover, but in this case for the most part it’s more like an assurance of things being better than you might expect!

Quick Look: Caney Creek Falls

 

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Trail Name: Caney Creek Falls Trail

Location: Bankhead National Forest

Length:  1.7 miles, one way

Rating: Beginner

Points of interest: Caney Creek Falls

Blog Post: Plan B

Notes: Easy, short trail to a beautiful waterfall. There is a second lower fall downstream as well.

GPS Track: No track for this one

The Devil’s Advocate: Devil’s Backbone State Natural Area

Finally, a weekend day that wasn’t cold and/or rainy!  I had been thinking about a road trip up into Tennessee to check out a hike along the Natchez Trace, and opportunity was knocking.  I won’t say that Spring has sprung, but looked like it would be a nice day for a ramble.

The Natchez Trace, in case you don’t know, is a fabled route that links Nashville and Natchez, Mississippi.  It was originally a game trail used by prehistoric animals,  expanded by native Americans and later emigrants and explorers to run over 440 miles. Thomas Jefferson wanted to develop the trail into a road to link the eastern U.S. with what was then the frontier, and between 1801-1809 the trail became a wagon road. Today, the route is roughly recreated by the Natchez Trace Parkway, which is a unit of the National Park Service.  Parts of the original Trace are still visible along the route — you can even hike portions of it.

Like the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Natchez Trace Parkway links many historic and natural sites.  The Parkway is paved, usually two lanes winding through lovely scenery, with pulloffs every few miles for picnics, hiking, camping, and sightseeing.  It’s uncommercialized — though there are some campgrounds along the Trace run by the NPS, there are no hotels, stores, gas stations, or restaurants, though many such establishments have grown up not far from the Parkway.

There are hiking opportunities all up and down the Trace, though many of them are short jaunts into the woods, just enough to give you a break from the car.  One notable exception is the Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail, a series of trail segments totaling around 60 miles along various segments of the Trace.  Most of those miles are in Mississippi, so I was looking for a hike a little closer to home.

Like many public lands corridors, the Trace takes advantage of nearby parks, wilderness management areas, and other types of preserves to magnify the wilderness effect.  One such parcel, the Devil’s Backbone State Natural Area, is just off the Trace, about a two-hour drive northwest from Huntsville.  I thought we might show some sympathy for the Devil and check out the roughly 3-mile lollipop loop hike.

We had no difficulty finding the turnoff to the parking area on the west side of the Trace near mile marker 394, as all such features are well-marked.  The paved parking area has room for about 10 vehicles, and we arrived just as a lady and her dog exited the trail, soon to leave us as the only car in the parking lot (at that time).  There are no restroom facilities at the trailhead.  The trailhead proper is easy to spot, with a kiosk, the usual empty map holder, and various rules and notices posted.

The trail starts out as a wide and level path into a hardwood forest.  The white-blazed footbed curved gently along a ridgetop before making a short dip across a fold in the landscape.  When we were about .25 miles from the parking lot, the woods were quiet enough that we couldn’t hear any road noise.  We walked quietly along the natural dirt surface, with brown leaves on either side of the trail, green moss along the footbed in places, and bare branches of oaks and hickories stretching overhead.

After .46 miles, we arrived at the loop portion of the lollipop trail.  After checking out our copy of the trail map (downloaded from the State Natural Area website), we decided to hike the loop in a clockwise direction, so we turned left and wound more or less west.  One topic of conversation along this stretch of the trail concerned the tract’s odd name — the Devil’s Backbone.  Yes, we were on a ridgetop, but it didn’t really undulate all that much, and there weren’t any exposed rocks that might suggest vertebrae.  Other nearby ridges were higher, so this one didn’t really stick out above the general landscape.  The trail itself was very docile — fairly flat, well-drained, well-blazed, well-maintained, with no confusing side trails.  What the Devil?

Another topic of conversation along this stretch was the bumper crop of acorns underfoot.  They were everywhere!  The State Natural Area website describes this parcel as a high-quality example of a Western Highland Rim forest community with eight distinct community types.  Seven of those types include oak trees, with white oaks, northern red oaks, southern red oaks, black oaks, scarlet oaks, and chestnut oaks all represented.  Some of the acorns had been split open, and the nutmeats on many were strikingly pink and yellow.  Some research has led me to the conclusion that the pink color is a reaction to exposure to air, and isn’t indicative of a particular type of acorn.  These were some big suckers, though, and there were quite a few chestnut oak leaves in the general vicinity.

As we walked along we noticed a sound from up ahead and off the trail to the left.  Looking back on it now, maybe it was the Devil leading me astray, using a sound that was similar to a flock of wild turkeys.  I decided to go cross-country to see if I could get a glimpse, and fought my way through a countless clumps of brambles.  I had no luck with the turkeys, or whatever it was, and got lost on my way back to trail.  Ruth had heard me thrashing around nearby and left the trail to find me, so we both ended up off the trail and separated.  Fortunately, we had our cell phones with us and were in a pocket of cell coverage, and we quickly linked up and used the GPS track to route ourselves back on the trail.  Ruth put a virtual leash on me at that point, so no more off-trail adventures for me.  Get thee behind me, Devil!

At about one mile from the beginning of the loop, a signpost pointed to the left, routing us downhill instead of continuing along the ridgetop.  At this point the trail descended about 160 feet over .2 miles into a hollow, with a feeder creek at the bottom.  We stopped to enjoy the creek, admire a nearly hollow beech, and have a snack, then started looking for a crossing.

I knew from other trail reports that this part of the trail could be confusing, and it lived up to its reputation.  There wasn’t an obvious crossing point near the hollow beech, and the footbed headed upstream, so we started off in that direction.  I quickly spotted some blazes that had been painted over on some trees, which suggested a trail reroute, so we backtracked and started looking for another route.  That idea proved fruitless, so we returned to the obvious footbed and soon found some white blazes interspersed with painted-over blazes.  It’s as if the trail builders did a reroute at some point, then decided to go back to the original route.  Anyway, I’ll make it easy for you — just follow the one obvious footbed and ignore the painted-over blazes, and you’ll head upstream to a plank bridge over the creek, which has narrowed and split into two channels at this point.  After the first crossing, the trail turns back downstream and shortly afterwards crosses the other channel on another plank bridge.  The hollow beech is literally within view just a few feet from this second bridge, on the other side of the creek.

What goes down must go up, so the trail now rises steeply to regain the ridgetop, climbing 140 feet in .2 miles.  From here, the hike is pretty much a carbon copy of the southwestern side of the loop, except that it’s only about .7 miles back to the beginning point of the loop.  From there, it was an easy trek back to the parking lot, which now had a couple more cars in it.  All in all, this was a pleasant ridgetop/hollow hike, though it didn’t really offer any long-range views or outstanding natural features.  Our overall distance, according to the GPS track, was 3.3 miles, though our off-trail wanderings probably added about .1 or .2 miles to the actual length of the trail.

Early saxifrage

We had planned one other stop on our trip.  Since we had had so much rain lately, it was a good bet that waterfalls would be putting on a good show.  Jackson Falls is one of those pull-out sites on the Trace, around mile marker 404, so we headed north for about 10 miles and took the exit for the falls.  The ramp wound down and under the Parkway, leading to a large paved parking area with restrooms and a couple of picnic tables.  A large wooden sign directs you to the points of interest — Jackson Falls to the right, and a Duck River overlook to the left.  We joined a small but steady stream of folks heading down the paved trail to the waterfall, at one point passing an overachieving clump of early saxifrage growing on a rock face.

The descent is short, 900 feet, with concrete steps in one section.  Small cascades tumble off the rock face to the right, at one point flowing over the trail (bear that in mind in case you’re planning a trip when it’s icy outside).  The waterfall is a real beauty — a two-stage waterfall, with a slide at the top leveling out before a plunge.  It’s not easy to get to a good vantage point for either part of the waterfall, though the trail continues, unpaved, downstream to a point where you can get a good luck at the plunge and plunge pool.  This is one of the most popular stopping places in this section of the Parkway, and indeed there were a few of us politely jostling for position to get photos and video.

The geology of the fall is rather interesting.  Jackson Branch used to run parallel to the Duck River, but over time floods and erosion wore down the bluff separating the branch and the river.  Eventually, the river carved out enough of the bluff that it partially collapsed and the branch abandoned its original watercourse and instead emptied into the Duck River.

After enjoying the falls, which as you’ve probably guessed are named after Andrew Jackson, we headed up the trail and decided to check out the short (.3 mile) trail to the Duck River overlook.  Sorry, I can’t advocate for this trail — it’s steep and offers no clear view of the Duck River, and ultimately it just leads to the next pullout on the Parkway.  My knees wish they had that .6 mile back.

Though the drive from Huntsville is a little long, there are plenty of interesting sites along the Natchez Trace, and I suspect we’ll be back to hike at least a few more interesting areas.  In researching for this post, I ran across a very enlightening bit of information.  It turns out that the local people who used the Trace, back when it first became a road, called it “the Devil’s Backbone” due to its “remoteness, rough conditions, and the often encountered highwaymen” (see the Wikipedia page linked earlier in this post).  What do you know — the Devil really IS in the details!