Quick Look: Natural Well Trail

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Trail Name: Natural Well Trail

Location: Monte Sano State Park

Length: 2.5 miles

Rating: Moderate to Experienced, depending on which route you take

Points of interest: Natural Well (a deep pit cave)

Blog Post: The longest way ’round: Natural Well Loop

Notes: The route from the parking lot on Monte Sano Boulevard goes through a landslide area that can be difficult to navigate. The route from the picnic area in Monte Sano State Park avoids the landslide, but does require an entrance fee to the park and is a much longer hike to get to the Natural Well itself.

GPS Track: GPS Track

2017 Retrospective

It wasn’t always pretty, but we managed it — another year of 52 posts, one every week, chronicling our outdoor adventures in the Tennessee Valley and beyond.  Our social media consultants (I’m serious, we have two of them that we raised ourselves) tell us that we’ve built up an enviable amount of long-form evergreen content.  All the while, I thought we were just walking around, taking pictures, and saying what we did last weekend.  Who knew?

We started this blog in May of 2015, so we’re into our third year now.  It has been gratifying to see how our readership has grown since then.  In our first, partial year of blogging, we had 3,269 views from 1,229 visitors.  In 2016, those number jumped dramatically to 10,444 views from 4,521 visitors.  In 2017 our growth was a little more modest, but still as of this writing you lovely readers viewed 12,101 pages in 2017, with 7,470 visitors over the course of the year.

Looking back on all we did in 2017, it’s no wonder we’re enjoying the holidays by mostly staying indoors!  Here are a few interesting numbers:

  • We posted 48 times on hikes, floats, ziplining, or bike trips.  Sometimes we’d have multiple activities on a single weekend, but we were out and about on the vast majority of weeks during the year.
  • We took a total of 40 hikes during the year, for a total of 157.45 miles.  That’s up a little from last year.
  • Our shortest hike was around .75 miles, on a little amble around the Land Trust of North Alabama’s Chapman Mountain Preserve.  Our longest hike was 7.9 miles, and we covered that distance twice, on the TVA Honeycomb trail and on our hike to Virgin Falls in Tennessee.
  • We had two float trips, both on the Elk River, for a total of 11.6 water miles.  With those two trips, we completed the Limestone County canoe and kayak  trail.
  • After getting our bikes fixed up, we put in two bike rides for a total of 23.3 miles on the Richard Martin trail and a loop out at the Wheeler Wildlife Refuge.
  • Though we didn’t exactly rough it, we had five overnight trips during the year, staying with some friends, in a hotel, in a New England inn, in a rustic mountaintop lodge, and in a treehouse.
  • We visited state parks in Alabama, Tennessee, and New Hampshire.  It was our first trip to seven of those parks, with return visits to five others.
  • Federal properties were also a frequent target of visits, with two trips to national forests, four trips to TVA properties, one to a national park, and one to a national military park.
  • Various nature preserves were also on our list, with trips to the Monte Sano, Chapman, Rainbow Mountain, and Green Mountain preserves of the Land Trust of North Alabama. We also paid visits to one Nature Conservancy property, two nature preserves in the Birmingham area, and one city park in Tennessee.
  • Our most popular blog posts continue to be posts on Indian Tomb Hollow in the Bankhead National Forest (over 1450 views to date) and a float trip on the Paint Rock River (a smidge over 1400 views).  The most-viewed single post of 2017 was on our hike to the Nature Conservancy’s Lost Sink, with a whopping 93 views.
  • We’re not exactly taking the Internet by storm, but we had viewers from 58 countries, with 99% of the views from the U.S.  We had around 20% growth for the year, which is really flattering for our little hyper-local blog.
  • On the advice of our social media consultants, we promoted one of our posts on Facebook and pretty much tripled our number of Facebook followers.  Granted, we had a puny number of Facebook followers to begin with, but now we have nearly 100.  Which means, of course, that every time we post something to Facebook, about two people will see it in their feeds.

As is often the case, the end of the year is a good time to look back on goals that we set at the beginning of the year.  We didn’t really have formal, measurable goals, but our general plan was to do more winter hiking, use our new GoPro camera, to get in a couple of float trips, to do some overnight backpacking trips, and to get in a visit to the Great Smoky Mountains.  We didn’t do too badly — we got in a few cold weather hikes, posted some GoPro videos our on Facebook page, took two float trips, and had a lovely return to LeConte Lodge in the the Smokies.  As for the backpacking…well, these old bones are just too fond of thick mattresses, preferably in enclosed heated spaces.

So now we come to the goals for 2018.  All that activity in 2017 was frankly a bit much for us.  Our experts pointed out that it’s not necessarily the new content that is driving people to our site.  Also, not everyone is a fan of the long-form blog post.  So next year, we’re going to be cutting back on the generation of new content, and will instead leverage some of our evergreen content in smaller, to-the-point posts, with links back to the full post for those who are interested.  Most people aren’t hitting our site and scrolling back 2.5 years to read everything we’ve posted, so it might help to revisit some of those earlier adventures.  We still intend to post more or less weekly, but will add maybe about half the number of long-form posts.

We enjoy taking the trips and writing the blog, but it’s getting pretty challenging to come up with a new destination each week.  There is a finite number of outdoor adventure possibilities in the immediate area, and we were finding that we’d have to travel farther and farther to get to a new place.  With the travel time, we were getting to the point that we’d lose about half our weekend just getting in a hike, and then we’d lose two more weeknights every week putting together the blog post.  There is also the physical wear and tear on our middle-aged bodies to consider, especially as we have other outdoor volunteer obligations, like soccer and trail maintenance.  So 2018 is going to be a year for recharging.  We’ve got a list of places we want to explore, and there will be new content, but we’re going to rest, just a little, on our laurels (or maybe rest on our mountain laurels, as may be the case).

The year in photos

January

February

March

April

May

June

July

August

September

October

November

December

Pointless: Logan Point Loop Trail

Despite the pressures of the hectic holiday season, or maybe because of them, Chet and I made sure to carve a bit of time out of our Saturday schedule of events to get out and enjoy the beautiful weather. It was a perfect day for a hike, just cold enough that a good walk would warm us right up and feel great. We did have those holiday pressures though, so I picked out a short and nearby hike for us, the Logan Point Loop Trail in Monte Sano State Park. We’ve passed the signs for this trail several times, but I don’t believe I’ve ever actually walked it so Saturday was the day.  We decided to take our sweet old hound Casey along with us too and soon had dog, packs, and cameras loaded up. We then we realized that neither of us had any actual cash on us. The park has an entrance fee of $5.00 per person so a side-trip to the ATM was in order. Entrance fee in hand, we headed for the park.

The Logan Point trail branches off of the Sinks Trail so we headed for the Sinks trailhead at the overlook near the CCC museum. There, we found a new-to-us sign indicating that parking there is only for those enjoying the view, and specifically not for hikers or bikers. Humph! Rule followers, though, we turned around and drove back to the nearest parking lot, which was at the camp store. From there, we walked  .18 miles back to the trailhead.

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I mark the Sinks Trail as starting from the gate that blocks off Bankhead Parkway just on the other side of the overlook parking lot. A short walk down the paved Bankhead Parkway leads to a Sinks Trail sign that points the way down the mountain. In the winter, there are great views of the farms and neighborhoods to the north. This is the steepest part of the whole hike, as the trail drops about 200 feet in about a quarter of a mile. There are numerous switchbacks, though, so it’s not too difficult. Once through the switchbacks, the trail crosses over the Mountain Mist Trail and continues on at a much gentler grade until it reaches an intersection with the Logan Point Trail.

The Logan Point trail starts by heading up a very short way until it reaches what I’ve been told was once an old wagon roadbed. Here, the Stone Cuts Trail heads to the right, while the Logan Point Trail turns left to follow the roadbed along below Panther Knob. This part of the trail is quiet and fairly level, with the mass of Panther Knob looming above and to the right, while to the left large boulders scatter across the gentle slope. We passed a couple of the old Space Shuttle shaped trail markers. You’ll find these signs tacked to trees all over the trails on Monte Sano and I’ve always been told they are the old “Space Walk” trail signs.  Huntsville Outdoors writer Luke Brisk has done some excellent research and collected evidence that these were perhaps a part of a reroute of the original Space Walk, also called the Discovery Trail. His article posted here is an interesting read and lays out the history and potential future for this trail.

About a third of a mile down Logan Point, we passed an intersection with Panther Knob Trail. The trail had a pink ribbon tied across it, but at more than head height. I couldn’t tell if this was an attempt to block entry to the trail or mark it with a sort of triumphant arch. Since my goal was to hike the Logan Point Trail, though, we passed up this side trip for later. Shortly past the Panther Knob intersection, we reached another sign marking a trail junction. This one was for the Alternate Logan Point trail. It continued on straight more or less along the wagon road, but it was marked as a more difficult trail than the main one. We stuck to the main trail, which cut off from the wagon road and became a narrow track through the woods.

This part of the trail wound through the trees along the very gentle slope under Panther Knob. I got the impression that this trail might be mainly used for mountain bikers, since we came across a few features that could only be explained as fun stuff for bikers to jump over. It took nothing away from hikers though, so that’s not a complaint. We wound through the woods, climbed over a bike feature or two, and soon spotted a sign off through the trees indicating that the property was closed during hunting season. From experience, we knew that this was probably one end of the Flat Rock Connector trail, which crosses over private property. The owner is fine with that, only asking that during hunting season folks stay off that trail. Having walked part of his property before in our ill-fated Flat Rock Trail hike, I can certainly understand why.  There were tree stands all over!  To reach the actual intersection with the Flat Rock Connector, we’d have had to have taken the Alternate part of the trail, but the two Logan Point trails are close together here as we were about to the place where the Alternate trail connects back up with the main one.

We continued on the main trail, crossing over several wooden bridges and finally passing a faded sign that indicated that no horses were allowed on the trail. That actually marked a return to the Monte Sano park property, as part of the Logan Point Trail – both the main and the alternate – are not technically on park property.  Here the trail starts climbing up a bit until it comes to the intersection with Keith Trail. At this point, Logan Point Trail turns sharply uphill to get to the ridge line and the intersection with Stone Cuts Trail. At the intersection a sign says that the shortest way back to the trailhead and picnic area, etc., is to the left, which would take you through the actual Stone Cuts, but we needed to get back to where we’d parked the car so we turned right.

To our right, impressive rock formations lined the trail. After hiking only a short way, we came to the sign for the other end of the Panther Knob Trail. We decided to go ahead and hike up to the top just to see what the views might be.  At the top, the trail was blocked by a giant tree that had fallen across the trail. We opted not to go any farther, but used the tree as a bench and enjoyed the views from the top. You could see east towards Ryland or Moontown and also west towards the park and some of the neighborhoods off Highway 72 near Chapman Mountain. After a nice little break, we headed back down to continue closing the loop.

The rest of the hike was pretty uneventful. We soon came to the intersection with Logan Point Trail where we’d turned left onto the wagon road at the beginning of our hike. From there we were just retracing our steps.

So there you have it – a trail with no grand vistas that also manages to miss the points of interest in the area. It does not go up onto Panther Knob, turns away from the Stone Cuts, and misses Super Cuts entirely. Though I titled this post “pointless,” that sounds harsher than I mean it to be  – I just couldn’t resist the play on words.  It’s a nice trail with a mostly gentle grade and if you do want to throw in a bit of excitement, turn left and head into Stone Cuts, or take the trail up to the top of Panther Knob like we did. At any rate, Casey the Hound seemed to enjoy his day out!

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As Advertised: Poplar Springs Section of the Cumberland Trail

According to the calendar, we were in the waning days of autumn.  But it sure didn’t feel like it, with temperatures in the high 20s, and the few leaves that clung to the branches on the mountainside were brown and dry.  It was a good day for a winter hike, and that’s why we were in the Prentice Cooper State Forest just a few miles northwest of Chattanooga.

Ever since our first section hike of the Cumberland Trail, I’ve been keen to get back to notch another few miles on this remarkable footpath.  The Cumberland Trail is a work in progress, a trail corridor stretching the state of Tennessee from south to north, from outside of Chattanooga to the Cumberland Gap.  The plan is to finish the trail in late 2019, with over 300 miles to be open for foot traffic only.

A couple of days before our hike, a snowstorm had rolled a 7-10 split through the southeast, dropping snow north and south of us, but it missed most of the Tennessee Valley.  Fortunately, warmer temperatures had followed to melt away the snow, so we were back in business for a weekend hike, and I looked over the excellent Cumberland Trail website to find a hike that wasn’t too far away, or too long, with good winter views.  The Poplar Springs section fit the bill perfectly — 4.9 miles (one way), just outside Chattanooga, with the possibility of good views of Signal Mountain and the Tennessee River.  We took two vehicles, with the plan of dropping a shuttle at the north end of the section (on Tennessee Highway 27, more ominously known as Suck Creek Road) and starting our hike from the southern end of the section, in the state forest.

The CT website mentions that there is parking at the northern terminus, with room for about 4-5 vehicles.  We found that to be true, but the pulloff is pretty close to a curve and it’s easy to miss.  Also, the road surface is quite a bit higher than the gravel parking surface, and after some alarming underbody scraping Ruth decided to try for a better parking area.  We ended up dropping a car about .3 miles north of the northern terminus, on a nice paved pullout.  There’s a larger parking area about .6 miles south of the northern terminus, so that’s an option if you’re there at a more popular time of year.

After dropping our shuttle, we followed signs to the Prentice Cooper State Forest (it was also sometimes marked as the Prentice Cooper WMA).  Two things to note: (1) Google Maps are completely useless in finding the southern terminus — follow the signs, and take careful note of your mileage and follow the driving directions on the CT site, and (2) because the state forest is also a wildlife management area, there are scheduled hunts that restrict access to the property.  When planning a trip, be sure to check the Prentice Cooper website to make sure the area will be open for hiking.

We arrived at the southern terminus after traveling a short distance down a gravel road that by state forest standards was in excellent shape.  The parking lot is on the right, prominently marked.  This is a very nice trailhead, with parking for several vehicles, a privy, picnic tables, and an information kiosk.  The Poplar Springs section hike begins across the road, with a wooden sign with mileages to various points of interest.

The trail begins as a nice level path through hardwoods, marked with the Cumberland Trail white blaze.  After a gradual descent, the trail crosses an old road at .3 miles, then levels out briefly before making another gradual descent to reach the first of several points of interest on this hike: a stairway through a narrow crack in a boulder, informally known as a “stone door.”  This would be a “little stone door,” as compared to the Great Stone Door in South Cumberland State Park, but it’s a fun little feature.

The sign at the trailhead said that it was .5 miles to the Indian Rockhouse, and indeed, as soon as you exit the stone door the trail bends sharply to the left and there it is — a magnificent shelter overhang that was once probably a hunting camp for the Cherokee, based on artifacts recovered by archaeologists during excavations.  It’s a nice rockhouse, relatively deep, tall, and long.  Long-suffering Ruth had to put up with my customary slaughtering of The Commodores’ “Brick House,” which I can’t help but sing when I see a particularly nice example:  “It’s a rock…house…it’s mighty mighty, where the natives all hang out.  It’s a rock … house …those rocks are stacked, and that’s a fact, ain’t holding nothing back.”

There’s a trail split at the rockhouse, with the Mullens Cove Loop heading off to the southwest.  A wooden sign directed us to the east toward Poplar Spring, so we continued along the face of the rockhouse, at the foot of a bluffline.  The trail is mostly level at this point, crossing a couple of small wet weather creeks as it gently winds to the east.  It was along this stretch that we had our first occluded views of the Tennessee River, about 700 feet below us to the south.  The morning sun glinted off the waters as the river wound around Elder Mountain, just one big turn upriver of Moccasin Bend.   At 1.4 miles the trail crossed a clearcut for a gas pipeline, which made for a clear view of the river and mountain to the south.

After stepping over another tiny wet weather creek, I started looking for a good place to have a quick lunch.  As it happened, we came around a bend in the trail to find a rock overhang with a natural stone shelf just the right height to serve as a bench.  We had dressed for the weather, but even though we were in the sun we didn’t tarry long, as we would start to feel the cold when we weren’t moving.

As we sat munching our sandwiches, we could hear the faint sound of water nearby and thought perhaps we had another little stream to cross.  But to our delight, just around the next bend in the trail we came across a wet weather waterfall, about a twelve-footer, dropping over a ledge.  The trail guide on the CT website had mentioned we might cross some wet weather creeks, but didn’t mention the possibility of a wet weather waterfall, so this was a pleasant surprise.

The trail continued east, with interesting rock formations to the left and views of the river to the right.  We passed through sparse hardwood copses, mostly bereft of leaves with the exception of sparkleberry bushes and their welcome pop of red against the brown and blue landscape.  There were even a few die-hard late purple asters from time to time, adding another splash of pale color to the trailsides.

At approximately 1.8 miles into the hike, the trail reaches the Suck Creek gorge, with Signal Mountain looming across to the east.  Suck Creek got its name from the rapids at its junction with the Tennessee River, before the river was dammed and the rapids were submerged.  The gorge is impressive — around 800 feet or so deep — with the waters of Suck Creek and Highway 27 undulating along the bottom.  The Cumberland Trail turns north at this point to follow the west side of the gorge.  At 2.2 miles, an interesting rock formation known as chimney rocks  is visible off the right side of the trail.  Three rock pillars have eroded in such a way to form freestanding columns, similar to hoodoos that you would see in the western US.

As we turned into the gorge, we had our last look at the river, rolling on in to Chattanooga.

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We continued northward along the edge of the gorge, crossing another couple of small wet weather streams, then turned inland to get to the head of a hollow.  We heard the sound of a much larger creek to our right, and soon we could see Sulphur Branch tumbling along down the hill from us.  We knew from the CT trail description that there was a waterfall near here, and spotted what looked like a small fall below us as we approached a wooden bridge over the creek.  But the trail notes said the waterfall was upstream of the bridge, so we bushwhacked about 100 yards up the creek to find, as advertised, a very nice 20-foot waterfall in full flow.

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It took a little scrambling to get to the waterfall, which is hemmed in by a large wall of boulders and tree trunks.  It’s well worth the side trip, though.

After enjoying the waterfall, we retraced our steps back to the bridge, crossed Sulphur Branch, and climbed a set of stone steps up the other side of the hollow.  The trail headed east to again follow the Suck Creek gorge northwards, passing more scenic rock formations along the way and also going through another mini-stone door at 3.2 miles.

After the mini-stone door, the trail bent to the right and in .1 mile arrived at a junction with the Lawson Rock Overlook to the east and a spur trail to the Poplar Springs campsite to the west.  We first checked out the overlook, named for a ranger who family lived in the area, and marveled at the view of the confluence of Signal Mountain, Suck Creek gorge, and the Tennessee River.  I left Ruth to wander on the ledge, which always gives me the heebie-jeebies, and went to check out the campsite.  The narrow and occasionally indistinct trail, marked with faint blue blazes, crossed a jeep road and reached the campsite in around 900 feet.  The campsite is primitive — just a rock fire ring and a few logs to sit on in a level patch of ground.  A sign marks the way to Poplar Springs, the water source for the campsite.

After Lawson Rock Overlook, this section of the Cumberland Trail has pretty much shown all its charms.  The trail begins a long gradual descent from this point, making use of stone steps and one set of wooden stairs as it winds northward along the gorge.  The trail drops into a hollow and crosses a comparatively large feeder stream, at which point a spur trail leads .4 miles to the highway to link with the alternate parking to the south of the section’s terminus.  There’s no bridge, but the creek is easily rock-hopped.  Since we parked north of the terminus, we continued across the creek and continued working our way down toward the highway, now visible below us.  Oddly, this was the one part of the trail, just about .2 miles from the end, where we had the most footing problems.  Ruth had a tumble but emerged unhurt, and I nearly toppled over here too.  I should say that overall the trail is very well engineered, with very few soggy places and many thoughtfully placed stone steps.  Just watch your step as you near the northern end of the trail.

We reached the wooden staircase that marked the end of this section of the Cumberland Trail and climbed on down to Highway 27.  From here, it was just a short .3 miles along the shoulder of the surprisingly busy road up to our shuttle vehicle.  Given a few short detours and this little jaunt at the end of the hike, our GPS track put the total hike distance as 5.4 miles.

We very much enjoyed this hike. We met only two other hikers along the way, so it rates high for solitude (on a cold day, anyway).  If you want to do an out-and-back hike of a portion of this section, we’d suggest starting as we did at the southern terminus and heading to the waterfall at Sulphur Branch, roughly the halfway point of the hike, or turning around at the Lawson Rock Overlook.

All in all, this hike was exactly as advertised — a scenic winter hike with good views, a rock house, and a waterfall.  Actually, it was better than advertised, with our bonus wet weather waterfall, numerous cool rock formations, and stretches of quiet solitude (mostly along the first half of the trail).   Isn’t it great when something exceeds your expectations?

Chapman Mountain: A Family Legacy

In 1932, Bob Terry’s grandfather bought a chunk of land that took in a large part of of the east side of Chapman Mountain. At the time, the rugged land was considered to be “out in the country,” and had in the past been home to at least one known moonshine still. Mr. Terry planned to develop it into a housing development with homes down in the flat and all up the mountainside. For reasons that included difficulty in getting water to the site, this development was never built. The Terrys did farm a bit of cotton on the level parts at the base of the mountain, but for the most part the land remained pretty much untouched.

Bob Terry’s father did not follow his father’s footsteps into land development or agriculture. He was a gifted linguist who spoke 9 languages and taught foreign language at the University of Georgia for many years. His passion was education, as is demonstrated by the fact that he made sure that every one of his 11 grandchildren could get a college education.

When it was Bob Terry’s turn to pick a vocation, he picked forestry – “because I didn’t have to learn any languages,”  This self-deprecating humor is typical Bob Terry, but it’s obvious he has a passion, too: a passion for land preservation. The Harvest Square Preserve in western Madison County is on land donated by the Terry family, and Bob Terry himself has come to many a trail maintenance work day at Land Trust properties all over Madison County to lend a hand (and put to shame those decades younger who can’t keep up with his pace!)

On Dec. 3, 2017 the lives and passions of three generations of the Terry family came together at the groundbreaking for the Terry Educational Pavilion at Chapman Mountain. On land originally owned by his grandfather, now the Land Trust of North Alabama’s newest nature preserve, Bob Terry helped to ceremonially break ground for a 1,920 square foot pavilion that will be used host an expanded science and environmental education program. The pavilion will include running water for bathrooms (they’ve obviously solved the problem of getting water to the site) and solar-powered electricity. It will be the gathering point for classes, and the starting point for group camping experiences and hikes on the planned 10 miles of multi-use trails winding through the property.

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On groundbreaking day, a good crowd gathered to listen as Land Trust executive director Marie Bostick outlined plans for the project and then introduced three speakers. Bob Terry spoke about the history of the property and his family, then representatives from Vulcan Materials and Toyota Manufacturing spoke about their long involvement with and support for the Land Trust that led them to this project. Then we all climbed up towards the pavilion site to watch as the three tossed the ceremonial first shovelful of dirt.

After the dirt tossing, land steward Lori Pence led a group of around 35 on a short loop hike on the property. We started at the pavilion site and went north on the Moonshine Trail. Bob Terry verified that there had indeed been a moonshine still on this land, though he was quick to point out that the still pre-dated his family’s ownership of the land.  A heavy fall of leaves and little previous foot traffic made for a bit of an indistinct footbed, but trail diamonds plus red ribbons tied to the trees marked out the path. The trail cuts through land covered in tall, straight pine trees. Chet asked Mr. Terry if the family had planted the trees to sell for pulp, but apparently they just all grew up naturally after they stopped farming on the land.

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Soon we reached the intersection with the Terry Trail – named of course for the Terry family. This is a 1.1 mile trail that loops through most of the lower section of the property. Most of that 1.1 miles are to the right of this intersection, but on this day we turned left to head back to the south. This section of the Terry Trail  was very level and for a short time followed alongside an old rock wall. Later I was told that the rock wall used to extend all the way across what is now Highway 72. We also passed the rusted and bullet-riddled hulks of a pickup truck and a Chevrolet Monte Carlo. Given that we were headed towards the “Moonshine Trail,” there was lots of joking about whether this was evidence of moonshiners outrunning the revenuers, but seeing as the Monte Carlo wasn’t even in production until 1970 (thank you Wikipedia!) I’m sure that wasn’t the case.

When the Terry Trail intersected again with the Moonshine Trail, we turned right to head up to the spring. I’ve actually been to the spring before, on an earlier Land Trust members hike on Chapman Mountain. It’s a lovely site and at that time there was water flowing over the rock ledge and down to form a bubbling little creek. This time, the spring was nearly dry, with just a slightly damp patch on the downhill side of the rock ledge indicating where the water might normally flow. Still, it’s a pretty location, and Lori told us that in the fall when the leaves turned, the hillside was ablaze with yellow. After admiring the spring and taking a group picture, we headed back to the parking lot.

Our GPS failed to pick up our track for this hike, but it was a short one – maybe .75 mile. The whole of the Moonshine Trail is .5 miles, and the section of the Terry Trail we hiked looked to be about half of that distance. There are currently 3 miles of trails roughed in on the preserve, but there are big plans for more trails, including many that will be multi-use hike and bike trails. In fact, Sorba (Southern Off Road Bicycling Association) of Huntsville has a received an IMBA (International Mountain Bicycling Association) “Dig In” grant to fund a Master Trails plan at Chapman Mountain. The goal is to have 10 miles of trails on the property.

These are exciting plans, but you might be wondering what you can do at Chapman Mountain today.  The answer to that is “it depends.” The Land Trust intends to open the property to the public in February 2018, when it will be open from dawn to dusk like the rest of their properties. However, there are two ways to explore the property even before it’s open to the public – become a Land Trust member, and/or sign up for a Chapman Mountain Trail Care day. Becoming a member is easy – you can do it online – and it gets you benefits like free access to a Carto Maps app, discounted tickets to Land Trust events, discounts from partners, and most important for this discussion, invitations to free member only hikes. I heard from the Land Trust staff at the groundbreaking that they’ll be having several member only hikes on the property between now and the official opening. If hands-on trail building is more your style, you could join me and Chet in volunteering to become a part of the awesome Trail Care Crew. Though I haven’t seen a schedule, I would think there’s a good chance that trail building work is going to be happening at Chapman Mountain sometime before the public opening – maybe we’ll see you there! More information on becoming a member or volunteering can be found on the Land Trust website. Go check it out!

 

All Poetry: Lookout Mountain Loop

Sunset Rock offered stunning views, all the way to Moccasin Bend to the north and across Lookout Valley to the west, but General Braxton Bragg and General James Longstreet were not enjoying them on the morning of October 28, 1863.  It was a crisp fall day, with the ridges painted scarlet and gold, but the autumn leaves were not the subject at hand.  Instead, it was the Union troops marching into Lookout Valley through Running Water Creek Gap, a few miles to the southwest, across Lookout Creek, that confirmed reports that Fighting Joe Hooker was nearby, and an assault on Confederate positions on Lookout Mountain might be happening sooner than later.  Bragg ordered Longstreet to attack, in an attempt to hold on to Lookout Valley, and the next night the armies clashed at the battle of Wauhatchie at a rail junction in the valley.  The attack was unsuccessful, (due in no small part to the Confederates retreating from some of their positions because they mistook a bunch of spooked Union mules as a cavalry charge), and the Confederates retreated across Lookout Creek and joined up with the lines on the mountain.

The stage was set, and on November 24 12,000 of Fighting Joe’s men attacked the mountain in a thick fog, routed the 2,400 Confederates from their positions and claimed the mountain by midnight.  The battle was known as “the battle above the clouds,” though the entire mountain was swathed in fog throughout, causing Ulysses S. Grant to later comment, “The Battle of Lookout Mountain is one of the romances of the war.  There was no such battle and no action even worthy to be called a battle on Lookout Mountain.  It is all poetry.”

I don’t think the hundreds of casualties on both sides would find this assessment all that poetic.  Perhaps it wasn’t as impressive as other Civil War battles, but the Union success in the Battle of Lookout Mountain directly led to the Union’s success at Missionary Ridge, the lifting of the siege of Chattanooga, and the clearing of the way for marching into Georgia.

So there’s today’s history lesson, courtesy of an interpretive plaque by the National Park Service and a few pages from Shelby Foote’s excellent The Civil War: A Narrative.  While we knew that we lived within two hours of a significant Civil War battle scene, it wasn’t just the history that drew us to Lookout Mountain for a recent hike.  It was the more than 30 miles of trails on the sides and top of the mountain that piqued my interest, so we picked out a short loop of trails and headed on up to I-24 and Lookout Mountain, just southwest of Chattanooga.

There are several trailheads on the Lookout Mountain Battlefield.  We opted to start our hike at the Cravens House, a historic home which was destroyed in the aftermath of the Battle of Lookout Mountain and then rebuilt on the same site in 1866.  There are two parking lots for Cravens House — the upper one is larger, and right next to the house.  We had heard that parking could be scarce in this lot, especially on weekends, so we tried our luck with the smaller lot just downhill from the house.  The lower lot can hold about eight vehicles, and overlooks a monument to soldiers from Iowa.  By the way, the roads around Cravens House are extremely narrow, so I wouldn’t recommend bringing an RV or camper to this trailhead.  We took a short trail from the lower parking lot uphill to the main parking lot and house.  The house wasn’t open yet, but a ranger was giving a talk on the battle next to some cannons.  We listened in for a bit, and Ruth wandered around a large column commemorating troops from New York and had a look around the grounds.

The trailhead proper begins across the road from the upper parking lot, to the right as you’re facing away from the house.  The Cravens House trail starts to the right of a kiosk, which has a trail map and park information.  There are more monuments on a short trail to the left of the kiosk, but we were on a bit of a schedule so we went to the right and entered the woods on a nice flat trail.  After about .1 mile, we came to a split, with the Cravens House trail heading left and uphill and the Rifle Pits trail coming in on the right fork.  We’d use Rifle Pits to complete our loop later, so we took the left fork and climbed a short stretch with stone and wood waterbars.

After about 50 yards, the trail leveled out and wound its way around to the southwest on a bench below the top of Lookout Mountain.  Though we were there in early November, quite a few autumn leaves persisted on the maples and understory trees to brighten our way on a chilly morning.  The trail was well-maintained, with no blowdowns, but like all of the trails we would travel today, had no blazes or other markings except at trail junctions.  One large distinctive tree had a limb that jutted over the footpath before turning upward.

At about .5 miles from Cravens House, the Cravens House trail tees into the Bluff trail at another kiosk.  At this point you can turn left and travel about another half mile to reach the top of the mountain and Point Park, a fee area with monuments and the iconic view of Moccasin Bend and downtown Chattanooga.  We wanted a longer loop, so we saved Point Park for another day and instead turned right (southwest) onto the Bluff trail.

This was my favorite trail of the day.  The Bluff trail, at least this section, doesn’t run along the top of a bluff.  Instead, it runs along the base of a sandstone bluff pocketed with holes, fissures, and intriguing passages that would (and in fact, did) make excellent defensive positions.  This trail is a little narrower than Cravens House, but has little elevation change in this section.  Each turn seemed to lead to even more picturesque rocks looming to the left, with increasingly higher dropoffs to the right.  Some areas just off the trail are closed due to unstable footing or damage to the plant life.  A set of concrete stairs helps in one tricky transition area, after which the trail winds along even taller bluffs.

At about .6 miles from the Cravens House/Bluff trail intersection, we reached the base of Sunset Rock.  As we neared this observation point, we finally started seeing some views of the Tennessee River and Lookout Valley off to our right.

After taking in the view for a few minutes, we continued along the Bluff trail for another 250 feet or so before a spur trail took off to the left, rising up the bluff on a series of natural rock staircases (well, the rocks had a little help from the CCC).  The views are even better on the top of Sunset Rock, which is what brought Bragg and Longstreet up there in 1863.  We took in views of Moccasin Bend, Wauhatchie Junction, and Running Water Creek Gap.  Ruth indulged in her two favorite high-altitude hobbies — climbing out on a ledge to give me heart palpitations and finding a nice flat basking rock.  Sunset Rock is a popular place.  We saw several other people there, some of whom hiked up the same way we did, and others who parked on nearby West Brow Road.  Some of the rocks have climbing hardware driven into them, as Sunset Rock is one of the better rock climbing sites in the park.

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After a quick lunch, we were ready to get down off the heights.  It was noticeably colder on the exposed blufftop and a stiff wind was blowing.  We retraced our route back down to the Bluff trail and continued on about a hundred feet before reaching the Gum Spring trail intersection.  We turned north onto Gum Spring, which is rather steep in this section with loose rocks underfoot.  We were glad to have our hiking poles with us.  The steep portion was pretty short, maybe only around 100 feet, before the trail briefly leveled out and began a more gradual descent of the mountain.  At about .6 miles from the junction we spotted a small rock-lined spring on the side of the trail.  There wasn’t any signage, so I don’t know if this is the eponymous Gum Spring.

Just past the spring, we came to a junction with the Upper Truck trail.  Gum Spring and Upper Truck share the footbed for a short distance here.  We turned right (northeast) on the nice wide, flat trail that was clearly an old road.  In about 50 yards Gum Spring trail split away to the northwest, but we stuck with the Upper Truck trail.  This is easy walking; in fact, it’s easy biking too as we met a handful of them on this section of trail, one of four trails in the park designated as a bike trail.  The trail forks in about .1 mile from the second Gum Spring trail intersection, with the Upper Truck trail continuing to the right and the Guild trail winding away to the left.  We continued on Upper Truck, where one point of interest is reached at about .05 miles from the second Gum Spring/Upper Truck trail intersection: the remains of CCC Camp Demaray.  A trailside historical plaque describes the CCC and this camp, which was in use from 1933-1939.  As always, we’re amazed by the enduring work of these men, who built the majority of the trails in the park.

At about .4 miles from Camp Demaray, the Rifle Pits trail joins in on the right (to the east).  This trail has a short, relatively steep climb at the beginning, then levels and curves back to its intersection with the Cravens House trail in .62 miles.  This trail leads past historic Confederate defensive positions, which to my untrained eye looked more like a bunch of rocks than any actual pits.  There are a couple of signs identifying areas where the Confederates cleared away brush and timber to improve their firing lines, so the pits are probably somewhere between those signs.  This would be a good place for an interpretive plaque.  Toward its eastern end, the Rifle Pits trail skirts the edge of the park, and houses with nice views of the river are visible just off the trail.

After rejoining the Cravens House trail, we closed the loop and returned to the upper parking lot to complete a 3.6 mile hike, according to the GPS track.  We had made pretty good time, so we took the opportunity to take a free tour of the Cravens House, which was manned by a helpful and informative ranger, suffering the cold in an unheated historic home.  The original house was only one story, but when it was rebuilt after the war a second story was added.  The downstairs rooms consist of a sitting room, an entry parlor, and a dining room.  The upstairs rooms were all bedrooms.  The kitchen is a separate stone building, with remnants of running water evident in the sandstone sink by the door.  The house appears to be in good shape, with glorious wraparound porches offering a great view over Moccasin Bend.  There are some interesting decorative pavers under the front porch, but they were most likely made at the Southern Clay Manufacturing Company in Robbins, Tennessee (about 100 miles north) in the late 1880s or later, so they probably don’t date back to the 1866 rebuild.

Though this was a relatively short hike, it crammed in several interesting historical and natural features.  It was a great introduction to the trails on Lookout Mountain, and we’ll definitely be back!  We only covered about 10% of the trail system, so there are plenty of other discoveries waiting for us.

One more thing:  Ulysses S. Grant, here’s some poetry for you.

Oh, green be the laurels that grow,
Oh, sweet be the wild-buds that blow,
In the dells of the mountain where the brave are lying low.

William Dean Howells, “The Battle of Lookout Mountain”

Breaking the rules: Galaxy of Lights

I have a hard and fast rule about Christmas. There will be no Christmas decorations put up, no Christmas music played, no Christmas-y activities at all –  until after Thanksgiving day.  It seems somehow disrespectful of the day set aside for giving thanks to rush past it to the next holiday. However, I do make one exception, and that is dog walking night through the Galaxy of Lights at the Huntsville Botanical Garden. For those that might be unfamiliar with this Huntsville holiday tradition, the Galaxy of Lights is a 2.5 mile trail of lighted holiday displays that winds through the Botanical Garden. Between November 24 and Dec. 31, you can drive through displays from 5:30 – 9:00 pm.  Driving through the displays is nice, especially when it is really cold outside, and you can listen to your own holiday music if you want. Cars move pretty slowly through the displays so there’s plenty of time to enjoy each one. However, as you might expect, we’re not really the driving types, so for folks like us there are walking nights starting November 16. From 5:30 to 8:00 pm on these nights, no cars are allowed on the trail so that you can walk through without dodging cars and choking on exhaust. Even better, there are two specially set aside dog walking nights for those of us who also want to bring along our furry babies. The downside to the walking and dog nights, though, is that they are only available up until the drive-through nights start. In other words, if I want to enjoy the Galaxy of Lights while walking with my pup, I’m gonna have to break my rule about “no Christmas-y activities before Thanksgiving.”  In my defense, the Galaxy of Lights isn’t purely a Christmas display. It’s a display of all sorts of scenes – most of them seasonal in some way, but there are also flowers, bees, prancing deer, snowmen, and even dinosaurs. So – not just a Christmas activity – which means I’m not really breaking my rule, right?

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On the last dog walk night for the season, November 20, Chet and Casey and I met up after work and headed out to start our adventure. I have to be honest with you, this is such a popular event that I always dread this part. Traffic backs up more than a mile from the entrance as everybody and their brother (and their pups) seem to converge on the Botanical Garden at about the same time.  If you’ve never been before, you might make the rookie mistake of heading for the normal Garden main entrance. Don’t do it. For the Galaxy of Lights, all cars are routed in via Phantom Road, which is a road off  Bob Wallace near I-565. There is a large “Enter Here” sign that is pretty unmistakable. That and the massive line of cars should tip you off about where to go. Once you creep the mile or so into the Garden itself, they have an army of helpful volunteers directing you to open parking spots. In all the years I’ve been going to this event, I’ve never not been able to find a parking space. Some years I was farther away than others, but they always seem to find a way to get everybody safely parked. This year, they had arranged for access to some of the parking around the new Louis P. Morris Elementary School, which probably helped a lot. We parked in this area this year and were soon walking over towards the pavilion to buy our tickets. And now’s the time to mention another tip – if at all possible, buy your tickets in advance. We did not, and as we walked over towards the pavilion we saw a line of humans and their dogs stretching away into the distance on our left. It was the line for tickets. My heart sank and I cursed myself for not thinking ahead, but a helpful volunteer pointed out that we could also just run down the hill to the main Guest Center and buy our tickets there. From the looks of the line, that would save us some time, so we headed that way. The Guest Center itself was a bit of a zoo, with people lining up for tickets at the main desk while folks who had finished the walk were weaving their way through the crowds in the lobby to get to the exit, but I was fairly quickly pointed to a cash-only register in the gift shop and soon had tickets in hand. Then it was back up to the entrance, where the line actually seemed to have gone down by quite a bit. I was thinking we hadn’t maybe saved much time after all with our jaunt down to the guest center when another kind volunteer pointed us to the “pre-purchased tickets” entrance which saved us from any line at all, and with that we were through the gate, had our “members only” hot chocolate and cookie tickets, and were on our way.

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First up, Casey the Hound had to sniff (and pee on) every.single.luminary along the path. I’m pretty sure that as far as he’s concerned these luminaries are the whole reason for coming. He could not possibly care less about all the lights, though he does enjoy greeting every other dog there as well as reveling in the occasional scritch behind the ears from some appreciative dog lover outside of his family.

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For the humans with him, though, the reason to come is for the light displays. Each of the nearly 200 displays is sponsored, often by a business, but sometimes by a family or individual. Some are big, and some are small.  Most are animated, a few are not. There’s really something for almost everybody. I’m not going to detail every one of them here, but I did want to highlight a few of my favorites, or at least a few that we got decent pictures of. Apparently taking pictures in the dark is not one of my skills.

After passing under a set of suspended snowflakes, the path winds past several displays and then passes two spots of interest – the place where Santa hangs out for the younger set, and the “spirited coffee” stall right next to it. (Draw your own conclusions about that juxtaposition.)  Just past here, we came to a very popular light display – “Sweet Home Alabama,” and just after that was one of my favorites – the “Cinderella’s Castle” tableaux. The “North Pole” Elf also caught my eye.

Next up was the icicle forest. We moved off to one side to get a picture and I heard several groups in a row come by and say “Oh this is my very favorite one!” It is beautiful and while I’m sure it’s nice to drive through, I think it’s even more fun to walk through – particularly if the snow blower towards the middle is going. Kids especially get a kick out of walking through the fake snow. Past the icicle forest we came to dinosaur-land, then some lovely (but not really seasonal) flower, peacock, and bee displays, and a beautiful menorah.

At about the half way point along the trail, there is a tent set up where you can buy hot chocolate, cookies, or brownies. As a garden member one of our perks is that we get a ticket for a free hot chocolate and a cookie. For just a couple of dollars I upgraded us to a brownie (they were delicious) and we settled on a nearby bench to enjoy our snack. There are also several picnic tables set up here, so finding a spot to sit for a minute is not hard. On really cold nights, the outdoor heaters they have running are probably much appreciated. It’s a nice spot to take a little break.

Just past the hot chocolate stand is another one of my favorites – the student art display. While I could not find anything recent about the rules, I know that at one time the Garden hosted a student art contest. Students would submit seasonally themed drawings, some of which would be chosen for display during the Galaxy of Lights, with their names, school, and teacher identified. I don’t know if that’s how they still do it, but however it’s done, I’m always impressed by what these young kids have produced!

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In the home stretch now, we passed a large nativity scene, the Huntsville Depot in lights, and another of my favorites, Old Man Winter.

We finished up by going through a forest of sparkly green trees and then followed the path around Little Smith Lake back to the Guest Center. As we made our way back across the parking lots to our car, we stopped to chat with one of the volunteers who told us that this was a record breaking night. They’d had 1700 dogs come through that night (not to mention the humans that came with them). She said that is almost twice what they saw last year!

Walking nights are over for this year, but you can still drive through the displays most nights starting November 24.  There area  couple of nights that are closed due to fun runs so be sure to double check the calendar before you go, but there’s still plenty of time to get out and enjoy this Huntsville holiday tradition, and maybe next year, you can join with me in breaking the rules and experiencing this delightful tradition on foot.