So there I was on a Friday night, trying to pick out a hike for the weekend. “I wish,” I thought, “that I could find a nice 3-4 mile hike, not too far away, with waterfalls and wildflowers, in a place we’ve never been.” No ideas were forthcoming, so I took a quick look at Facebook and there discovered a post from a friend about a lost dog. I’ll usually read a few more details to find out about the general area where the dog went missing, and in this case it turns out that Deia went missing in Moss Rock Preserve. “Gee, that’s too bad,” I thought. Then, “where’s Moss Rock Preserve?”
Moss Rock Preserve is in Hoover, Alabama, about 100 miles south of Huntsville. It’s a city-owned 349-acre nature preserve, with a network of nearly 12 miles of trails draped through a little valley and ridge system. Hurricane Creek runs through the valley, and the slopes above have varying terrain types, with mixed forest, outcroppings, boulders, a sandstone glade, and waterfalls. The trails can be hiked in various combinations to form loops of differing lengths, and vary in difficulty. The Preserve’s website listed a bunch of wildflowers, trees, vines, shrubs, ferns, and fungi. So let’s see — not too far away, lots of hiking options, wildflowers, waterfalls, never been there — wish granted!
We drove down on a Sunday morning and elected to start our hike at the Boulder Field trailhead. The Preserve generally runs southwest to northeast, with the Sulphur Springs Road trailhead on the western end, Boulder Field roughly in the middle, and Simmons Middle School trailhead closer to the eastern end. I had picked out roughly a 4-mile loop that would start near the center of the Preserve, then wind its way eastward, then descend and close the loop back to our starting point, before then starting a loop to the far western end of the Preserve. It forms sort of a tilted figure-eight on our GPS track.
The parking area for the Boulder Field trailhead is a spacious dirt lot, which can hold in excess of 50 vehicles. There are a couple of porta-potties on one end. But the most striking thing about this trailhead is that the turn into the parking lot is right off a developed part of Preserve Parkway, with a couple of restaurants and other businesses literally yards from the trailhead. The Preserve is a planned community, and this particular retail area has a combination of businesses and residential lofts, next to the village green. It’s pretty upscale, but I’m thinking if you don’t get too grimy while you’re out hiking and bouldering in the Preserve you could walk off the trails and have a beer and tacos on your table in just minutes.
The trailhead is located in the northwest corner of the parking lot. We passed a sign listing the Preserve’s rules. In a nutshell: don’t trash the place, no bikes, leash your pets, no fires, no glass containers, no alcohol (in any type of container), open sunup to sundown. Sadly, there was also a flyer attached to the sign for the still-missing Deia. The unnamed trail enters a pine grove, with a dirt surface and a slight incline. In just a few yards, we reached the first of the boulders in the boulder field, where a sign showed future plans for a more formal arrangement of paths and staging areas for climbers. There are numerous sandstone boulders of varying sizes and shapes, which makes the Preserve a popular location for climbers. We didn’t happen to see any while we were there, but we took a few minutes to admire the boulders. I don’t know if there’s an eponymous Moss Rock or not, but there were plenty of candidates.
The established trails in the Preserve are nearly all named by color – the White trail, the Red trail, the Blue trail, the Orange trail, and the Powerline trail as the oddball. We started our hike with the Waterfall loop, a 1.5 mile loop comprising parts of the White and Blue trails. From the boulder field, we headed downhill (north) toward Hurricane Creek, passing the Hole-in-Rock boulder on our way. The White trail runs along the south bank of Hurricane Creek at this point, so we turned west (left) on the white-blazed trail and within a few yards crossed the creek on a study wooden bridge, now on the Blue trail.
There’s not a lot of suspense about the waterfalls — there’s one visible and audible when you first approach Hurricane Creek. The trail map marks three waterfalls on an unnamed branch that slides down the ridge from the north. Two are labeled — Lower Falls and Upper Falls. Both are cascade-type waterfalls, and the Lower one is particularly striking, with a slide into a shallow pool, and then a wider set of cascades at the bottom. We paused for photos at the Lower Falls, and Ruth had a look at the sandstone glade just to the east of the waterfall. We took the Blue trail uphill to the Upper Falls, winding past our first wildflowers of the day — violet wood sorrel and yellow jessamine (more about both of those later). It was a warm day, and by the time we reached the Upper Falls it was tempting to splash about in the water — indeed, a few families with small children were doing just that. We continued our climb uphill, passing the unnamed waterfall, which is really just a mossy little slide into a shallow pool.
About .2 miles from the start of the Blue trail, we came to a split, with the Blue trail heading east and west. This is a good time to discuss the marking system in the Preserve. Trails are blazed with paint on the trees, with the paint color corresponding to the trail name. At major junctions, there are laminated signs with arrows in the direction of points of interest, with mileage to the destination. At some intersections or points of interest, there will also be a safety station. These are color-coded signs with numbers on them, such as a blue 10. The colors correspond to the trail names, and the numbers are sequential and mark specific locations on the trail map. The idea is that if you’re lost, you’re never far away from a safety station. If you have a map, you can quickly figure out where you are. If you don’t have a map, you can tell your rescuers where to find you. We turned right (east) at this junction, heading toward Turtle Rock.
This stretch of trail also had several occurrences of yellow jessamine. This vine with its attractive flowers, also known as yellow jasmine or Gelsemium sempervirens (to use its Latin name), has a resemblance to honeysuckle and a pleasant scent. We saw the blossoms in many places, and later saw some children who appeared to be carrying some of them. This plant is extremely poisonous. All parts of it are poisonous if consumed, and even eating one flower can cause serious illness or even death to small children and pets. It’s from the same family as the Strychnine tree, and guess what’s made from the seeds of that tree? For some people, contact with the sap can also cause contact dermatitis. Seriously, this is a plant for which if you consume ANY amount, you are advised to contact the nearest Poison Control Center. Since the vine and leaves resemble honeysuckle, people may be fooled into trying to suck the nectar from the flower.
We continued east on the Blue trail, passing a boulder on the left and a stand of longleaf pines on the right, until coming to an intersection with the White trail about .3 miles from the Blue trail’s split above the waterfalls. This is the eastern terminus of the Blue trail. We headed east (straight) on the White trail. The other option is a left turn (north), which leads to another area with interesting boulders. But we’ll have to save that for another day, because Ruth was intent on seeing Turtle Rock! Hey, she loves her turtles (who doesn’t?). In a little under .2 miles on the White trail, we reached Turtle Rock, which Ruth declared to be sufficiently turtle-y, and we had a snack break. From here, the trail turns south and downhill, winding next to an unnamed branch that empties into Hurricane Creek. This was a wildflower-rich area, with many examples of violet wood sorrel and Quaker ladies, and a few specimens of common blue violet and common grape hyacinth. As a general rule, violet wood sorrel was in bloom all over the Preserve. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a site with this many specimens in bloom.
In about .2 miles from Turtle Rock, the White trail curves to follow the north bank of Hurricane Creek. The trail flattens out here, with the creek offering pretty views upstream as it cuts through a rock shelf. This section of the trail also has signage identifying common trees in the Preserve, courtesy of the Boy Scouts. Remnants of a washed-out bridge are caught in a pinch point in the creek, a reminder that flooding has swept away some bridges in the Preserve. We didn’t have any water crossings that posed a problem, but if you’re visiting in times of high water, crossings of Hurricane Creek might be tricky in spots. We walked upstream to a point where the trail seemed to be becoming indistinct, but did lead to a nice cascade. We eventually figured out from looking at the trail map that we had missed a turn, and were supposed to have crossed the creek about 100 yards downstream. This crossing is probably the source of the washed-out bridge. We carefully rock-hopped across and continued west on the White trail, now on the south bank of the creek.
Once we were back on the White trail, we continued west back to the starting point of our loop, at the White/Blue trail intersection next to the waterfalls. We were both feeling pretty good at this point, so we decided to throw in another loop in the western portion of the Preserve. We continued west on the White trail for about .2 miles before crossing Hurricane Creek on another wooden bridge. We headed northwest, away from the creek, passing intersections with the Red trail and the Blue trail before crossing another small branch with a small waterfall upstream of the crossing. The White trail then followed the branch south to Tunnel Falls, which is about a 3-foot drop where the branch flows through a small hole in a rock. It’s a cheery and docile waterfall, and had a couple of little girls playing in the natural kiddie pool at the bottom. Those girls had the right idea — it was a decidedly warm day!
After Tunnel Falls, the White trail turns west, then south, with glimpses of traffic on Preserve Parkway through the trees. This stretch of the trail had a good crop of early wildflowers, including dewberry, wood violet, and common yellow wood sorrel. Roughly half a mile from Tunnel Falls, several side trails head south to the Frog Pond, a marshy pool right on the edge of the Preserve Parkway. We could hear frogs serenading us as we neared the swamp, but they grew silent as we approached. We took a snack and water break and waited them out, and they obliged by resuming their croaking conversation. It was a glorious racket!
Our next point of interest was Patriotic Junction, the place where the Red, White, and Blue trails connect in the far western end of the Preserve. The White trail ends at this point, so we took the Blue trail north, passing a spur trail to the Sulphur Springs Road trailhead and parking area. The tree placards made a welcome return on this stretch, pointing out trees new to us (the cherry laurel) and old favorites (shagbark hickory). The Blue trail wound generally northeastward, with some of the more challenging elevation changes in this part of the Preserve. Fortunately, there were occasional benches on this portion of the trail. About .6 miles from Patriotic Junction, after briefly following a service road before turning north to follow the blue blazes, we arrived at another notable boulder feature, known as the Great Wall. From here, a sewer pipe crosses into the Preserve from the neighborhood up the slope, and houses became visible to the left as we continued eastward. They were soon masked, as the trail turned steeply north, then jogged east again just short of a power line cut. This last turn was easy to figure out coming from the west, but might be tricky if you’re hiking this section of the Blue trail east to west. Look for a couple of rocks with blue painted arrows to route you away from the power line cut.
At this point, we were in the home stretch. The Blue trail is largely level in this section, with more of the cursed yellow jessamine and occasional clumps of false garlic and Allegheny serviceberry. We continued east until we reached the branch that forms the waterfalls farther down the slope. That was actually a mistake, as the Blue trail turns downhill before reaching the branch, so we backtracked until we found the blazes and headed downhill past the waterfalls to close our loop. Along the way, we enjoyed the sight of a group of young people laying out an elaborate picnic scene, which looked like it was going to be the scene of a wedding proposal! We didn’t hang around to see what would happen, but if you know someone who got engaged at Moss Rock Preserve on March 10, please pass along our congratulations.
After retracing our route back to the car, we finished with a total distance of around 4.2 miles. Did I mention it was a warm day? We were looking forward to some ice cream, having earned it by identifying Allegheny serviceberry, violet wood sorrel, nandina, yellow jessamine, Quaker ladies, common blue violet, wood violet, partridgeberry, common grape hyacinth, dewberry, oak leaf hydrangea, red buckeye, yellow wood sorrel, false garlic, and leatherleaf mahonia. I said to Ruth, “You know, if someone had an ice cream truck in this parking lot, they’d make a killing. I wish they had one here.” As we drove out of the parking lot and passed the taco and Italian restaurants, what did we see? A food truck for Urban Pops parked by the side of the road, open for business! Wish granted!
So that’s two wishes. According to folklore, I have one left. World peace? Infinite park funding? I’m going with this one: I wish that someone will find Deia, and that she’s OK.