Last week, we broke a streak of posting new content, or at least a quick look, every Wednesday on Woodlands and Waters. We missed our deadline again this week. So what’s up with us?
Well, we have been busy over these last several weeks. We both retired in December 2020, and since then we’ve been slowly decluttering the house and working on long put-off projects. It has been our plan for quite some time to move to western North Carolina to be closer to family and the mountains, and it made sense to try to time the move for the spring house-selling season. The real estate market has been incredible in most parts of the country, and the same holds true in the Huntsville, Alabama area.
So our lives recently have been a blur of painting, carpentry, pressure washing, weeding, mulching, carpet installation (we paid someone else to do that!), and sorting through the accumulated detritus of living in this house for 25 years. We finally got the place ready for photos this past Monday, and it went on the market Thursday. So now we’re just waiting on the offers to come rolling in!
So what’s next? Assuming we get an acceptable offer, that will start the clock for our move to North Carolina. We’ve already rented a place there, so now we’re straddling two worlds — the past in Alabama and the future in North Carolina. Now our retirement plan shifts into a new mode: preparing for the move. That will entail the logistics of moving the contents of the house and storage unit into a smaller house and a different storage unit hundreds of miles away. Somehow, I don’t think we’re going to find ourselves with much idle time in the next few weeks.
Which brings me to the question of what is going to happen to Woodlands and Waters? In the short term, we are not going to be posting weekly, and in fact we may not post at all for a little while. Our tagline is “Outdoor adventures in the Tennessee Valley and beyond,” so we could theoretically keep on chugging along from our new headquarters. Or we could start a new blog … or take a break from blogging … we’re putting off making a decision until after the move.
But we have made one decision already. We’ve signed up for another year with WordPress, so all the content on Woodlands and Waters will still be around for a while. Maybe in post-move retirement we can get around to updating our long-neglected wildlflower pages. Anyway, if you’ve gotten in the habit of checking on us weekly, know that we’re temporarily sidetracked so you won’t be seeing much new content.
Like any move, it’s bittersweet to think about the things we probably won’t get to do in our current location. But on the other hand, we’re moving to a place that claims to have 250 waterfalls and over 1,000 miles of trails in the county. Now that’s a target-rich environment!
We’ve made several trips to the Cane Creek Canyon Nature Preserve, a privately owned and operated slice of heaven in Tuscumbia, Alabama. The preserve has over 17 miles of trails spread over its 713 acres, and while we’ve covered quite a few of them, we haven’t spent any significant time in the North Addition. This parcel was added in 2008 and adjoins the preserve on its north end, sort of in the shape of a T lying on its side.
We’ve been volunteering at Cane Creek from time to time over the past few weeks, and have really enjoyed it. The work is easy — signing in folks and giving them a brief orientation to the preserve, usually with the owners, Jim and Faye Lacefield, handy to answer the tough questions. One perk of volunteering is that we get the lowdown on ways to enjoy the preserve. For instance, Jim and Faye tipped us to the upcoming blooming time for the yellow lady’s slipper, found in a few locations on the preserve. Armed with their tip about where to find one, we made a mad dash after our volunteer shift to photograph this beauty just off the East Cane Creek trail.
This is one of the showiest of orchids found growing in the wild, at least around these parts.
When we mentioned that we hadn’t spent much time in the North Addition, Jim and Faye pointed out the north parking area, which leads directly into the northeastern portion of the tract. This was a revelation, though it’s in plain sight on the preserve map. The usual routes to the North Addition involve hiking down Cane Creek Canyon to the Devil’s Hollow trail, and then heading north on one of three or four connector trails. In any case, that’s a seven-mile round trip back to the main parking area, not counting any actual hiking you do in the North Addition. However, if you come to the main parking area in the southeast corner of the preserve, you can request a free parking permit at the checkin gazebo. The parking pass has directions to the north parking area. A permit is required because this parking area isn’t actually on the preserve, and is made available by the kind permission of one of the preserve’s neighbors. Displaying the parking permit on your dashboard tells the neighbor that you’ve checked in with the preserve.
Knowing that we could step out of the car and enter the North Addition in just a couple hundred feet was a game changer for us, and for other folks who make a long drive to the preserve. After studying the map, I plotted out a route that would take us to four waterfalls in the North Addition, with a stretch goal of visiting one other fall if time permitted and the water was flowing. Having secured our permit, we arrived in the north parking area, where there was only one other vehicle. Parking is somewhat limited on the north end of the preserve but is well-marked. A footpath leads south from the parking area, and quickly enters the preserve. At the time of our visit, lobed tickseed was in bloom along the footpath and throughout the preserve.
A little over 300 feet down the footpath, which becomes the Behel Lane trail when it enters the preserve, signs mark the intersection with the North Boundary trail to the right. We continued to the left and in about 50 feet reached another intersection, with the Flatwoods Long Loop trail continuing eastward, with Behel Lane trail continuing to the southwest toward Laurel Falls. There’s one of the preserve’s excellent backwoods privies near this intersection, and it’s the only one in the North Addition, so plan accordingly! The trail passes the privy and crosses a couple of footbridges, passing several large groups of squaw root as it descends to a final unbridged creek crossing just before the creek drops over Laurel Falls. This creek crossing is easy but can be deceptively slick.
Immediately after this crossing, the trail turns right and continues down a flight of steps to give a view of the top tier of Laurel Falls. A lot of things are happening at this section of the trail. Earlier in the year, on a brief reconnaissance of this trail, we noticed trout lilies in bloom on a boulder to the left of the trail. On our latest hike, we noticed a few specimens of French’s shooting star, a wildflower found in only two places in Alabama. A more common wildflower, Solomon’s seal, was also in bloom, and a few Quaker ladies were in bloom. Oh yeah, there was also a waterfall!
Laurel Falls is a two-drop waterfall, with a top drop of about ten feet and a second plunge of about 25 feet. We had reached the first of our four planned waterfalls, only .2 miles from the parking area, and it was in fine form.
The Behel Lane trail continued southwest and downhill, teeing into North Devil’s Hollow trail. More wildflowers dotted the edges of the trail — a clump of Virginia spring beauty, and some cranefly orchids (not in bloom yet). We took the North Devil’s Hollow trail to the west and quickly came to a creek crossing of Behel Branch, flowing southward into Devil’s Hollow Creek. This was a key landmark, as we left the trail briefly to head upstream. Almost immediately we saw what we were looking for, uphill to our left — the second waterfall of the day, Northwest Falls. There were a couple of delicate flows, each around 25 feet tall. For the record, I should add that though we went off trail to follow the right side of the stream up the bluff, had we continued on a few feet there is an official spur trail not on the map that runs up the left bank of the stream.
While I was snapping photos, Ruth headed to the right side of the falls and was able to scramble up the bluff, pointing out a jack in the pulpit and taking the time to admire an Alabama azalea in bloom. I followed her up the bluff, where we emerged as planned on the Northwest Falls Rim trail. Well, it wasn’t quite that straightforward — this particular trail isn’t heavily traveled, and is marked only with subtle ribbons or faded red washers nailed to some trees. From time to time a track would briefly emerge, but most of the time we went from ribbon to ribbon, heading westward along the bluff. We knew from the map that there was a spur trail out to an overlook known as Hobbs Point, but we weren’t determined to check it out since enough trees had leafed out to block out most views to the south. However, we missed the main trail’s turn to the northwest and continued on down the ridge until it ended at an overlook — Hobbs Point, I presume. From here we backtracked until we found a ribbon, and sharp-eyed Ruth spotted the turn we had missed (about .25 miles from Northwest Falls), which lead downhill to a metal gate.
The gate is on the Behel Gap trail, which is an old roadbed and considerably easier to navigate. We headed southwest, heading away from the trail to the northwest that leads to The Fin. The Fin is a narrow rock formation, and taking the Behel Gap trail in that direction leads uphill to the top. Our route led downhill instead, reaching a junction with the Upper Delony Hollow trail. This lovely little trail heads north-south. We turned right to head north; a left turn would have taken us to the south and the westernmost reaches of the preserve, portions of which we’ve previously hiked. As we walked along the mostly level trail, The Fin and its bluffline were visible off to the right. The trail had a smattering of wildflowers in bloom, such as fire pink and sweet William (phlox), as well as the occasional twisted trillium.
We passed Map Point 14 and soon afterwards came to another junction. To the left was a junction with the Lower Delony Hollow trail, which we would be taking later. We headed to the right and continued north on the Upper Delony Hollow trail, making an unbridged crossing of Sinking Creek along the way. At about .15 miles north of Map Point 14, the trail splits, with the left branch heading to North Delony Falls and the right branch heading to Behel Falls. We were going to visit both, so we went right and made another easy crossing of Sinking Creek. A few yellow and blue ribbons marked the footpath, but the route was as easy as just following the feeder branch upstream. In about .1 mile, we reached Behel Falls, a lovely shady little cascade with the best plunge pool we’d see on this trip. We paused here for lunch, and enjoyed playing peek-a-boo with a northern cricket frog who thought it was concealed on a Christmas fern.
We retraced our route back to the Behel/North Delony Falls junction, which has a faux marker tree (how had we not noticed that before?). I call it a faux marker tree because, though it has one of the typical forms, it’s clearly not old enough to be the genuine article. Our fellow blogger Steve Jones, a retired forester, has pointed out that since the last significant population of Native Americans left this area in the 1830s on the Trail of Tears, any “real” marker tree would have to be 190 years old. Nonetheless, this tree is a good landmark. And it’s a good thing, as the route to North Delony Falls is also not necessarily obvious at first from the junction. One tree has ribbons to mark the direction, but alas, it has fallen. The solution is to just follow this feeder branch upstream about .1 mile to the waterfall. This slender little fall drops about 20 feet into a small plunge pool. A couple of wildflowers were particularly fine here — foamflower and Jack in the pulpit.
We retraced our route down the Upper Delony Hollow trail, turning west onto the Lower Delony Hollow trail in search of our optional waterfall, Dry Falls. Here we ran out of luck, as we reached the apparent junction of the North Bluffs Loop trail and the spur to the waterfall, but the route to the waterfall was indistinct. We knew that if we missed the turn we’d flounder on the North Bluffs Loop trail, which is marked as difficult on the preserve’s trail map. The watercourses coming off the bluff were meager, and given that the falls was named “Dry Falls,” we didn’t have much expectation of seeing much, so we backtracked to the Upper Delony Hollow trail and retraced our route past The Fin, continuing east on the Behel Gap trail to its junction with the North Devil’s Hollow trail. This western piece of the North Devil’s Hollow trail was a highlight of the hike, as it gradually headed downhill through a particularly nice smattering of wildflowers: wild comfrey, yellow star grass, birdfoot violet, common yellow wood sorrel, and hairy phlox, to name a few.
We took the North Devil’s Hollow trail to its junction with the Behel Lane trail, passing Northwest Falls and Laurel Falls again on our way back to the north parking area. Our GPS track had our entire route at 3.55 miles. We saw four waterfalls and the typical profusion of wildflowers. Also, at some point in the North Addition, we went off-trail to admire an enormous bank of French’s shooting star in an underhang. Jim had tipped us off to its off trail location, telling us that a researcher who specializes in this particular flower says it’s the biggest contiguous patch he has ever seen. We marveled at the riot of blooms and watched a bumblebee make its pollinating rounds, causing each stem to bow under its weight. This plant is native to only six states, and is listed as threatened or endangered in three of them (but not Alabama). For this reason, I’m being vague about its exact location. If you’d like to know, ask Jim or Faye. Or better yet, sign up as a volunteer at the preserve and find out about its other secrets!
If you’ve never been to Cane Creek Canyon Nature Preserve, we’d recommend making the classic loop on your first visit. It’s a 3.25 mile loop that features the preserve’s tallest waterfall, the best scenic overlook, and easy walking along the East Cane Creek trail past the Boulder Garden wildflower area, down to the Linden Meadows picnic area. On a second visit, you should make your way to the Devil’s Hollow trail and its waterfalls. That’s a seven-mile round trip from the main parking area, or roughly 1.5 miles round trip from the north parking area. A third alternative is to park your vehicle in the north parking area and make your way to the main parking area, taking side trips as you like. Assuming you’ve first checked in at the main parking area and gotten your parking pass, it’s possible that Faye or Jim can shuttle you back to the north parking area if there’s enough volunteer support at the kiosk when you arrive at the end of your hike. By judicious use of the two parking areas, you can cover big chunks of the preserve without having to throw down a bunch of miles.
Important note: Cane Creek Canyon Nature Preserve is open 7 am – 5 pm on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. However, the preserve is closed April 30-May 13, 2021, so your next chance to visit is May 14, 2021. Future closures like this one can be prevented by building a cadre of local volunteers. If you’ve been to this preserve once, you’ll like it. If you go twice, you’ll love it. If you love it, give back by volunteering. If you’re interested, leave a note in the comments and we’ll put you in touch with the right people, and we’re happy to answer any questions.
Chet and I have been members of the Land Trust of North Alabama for many years now. We like the outdoors (obviously) and like to support organizations that preserve land and make it available for everybody to enjoy. We support them with both money and sweat – we donate every year and also do trail maintenance from time to time in order to make new trails or keep existing ones in good condition. We do this because we enjoy it and because it makes us feel good to be doing something for our community and that would be enough for us. However, like many other charitable organizations, with membership comes a few “thank you gifts.” When you donate to something like public radio, you might get a mug or a tote bag. When you donate to the Land Trust, you get experiences. You get priority registration for the popular guided hikes in the spring and the fall; you get exclusive access to their wonderful Tuesdays on The Trail program for kids; you get access to the very helpful Land Trust Map App, and you get invitations to members-only events, including my favorite thing – invitations to come visit properties not yet open to the public. It was just this kind of opportunity that came our way this week when we received an invitation to go out to the conservation property called Matthews Preserve with a small group of wildflower enthusiasts on a Monday morning. We jumped at the chance.
Since this property is not open to the public, I’m not going to talk about how to get there or what the parking is like or anything like that. In fact, this post is going to have have very few words. I’m going to let Chet’s beautiful photos take center stage. What I will say is that we met two Land Trust staffers and three other members on a beautiful morning, then were led on a short, perhaps one and a half mile winding walk through glades of wildflowers and next to a picturesque creek. It was peaceful and calming and absolutely gorgeous and I’m so glad I was able to experience it.
Though I’ve titled this post “Bluebells and Buckeyes,” you can see that there is much more to this place than that alliterative phrase suggests.
Whether you are a millennial choosing experiences over things, or an old retiree like me tired of collecting “stuff” that needs to be dusted, washed or otherwise maintained, or somebody someplace in between, these Land Trust perks are just the thing!
The Wildflower trail is on the Monte Sano Preserve, and can most easily be reached from the Cleermont Trailhead, at the end of Cleermont Drive. This .58 mile trail begins at the end of a cul-de-sac in a neighborhood, with Fagan Creek flowing westward past a small parking area that can accommodate only eight or nine cars. If you’re not lucky enough to snag a parking space, another longer alternative is to park at the Land Trust’s Bankhead Trailhead. From there, you can reach the Wildflower trail by heading down the Alm’s House trail, turning west on the Fagan Springs trail, then turning left to reach the eastern end of the Wildflower trail.
The Wildflower trail runs roughly east-west, on the south side of Fagan Creek. For purposes of this trail description, we’re starting on the west end from the Cleermont Trailhead. We visited the trail on a cool and cloudy afternoon, a couple of days after a heavy rain that pushed Fagan Creek over its banks. Though the trail is generally level, it gradually rises west to east. The footbed is rocky and rooty, and it has some water crossings over a couple of feeder streams. The largest of these is unbridged, though the feeder is usually dry. The trail is suitable for children, but not for baby strollers.
The west end of the trail begins at the end of the cul-de-sac, with a Land Trust kiosk marking the beginning of the route. The Wildflower trail promptly presents its credentials as you descend a few feet from the roadbed, with its claim to fame appearing mostly on the south side of the trail — a large stand of yellow trout lilies (Erythronium americanum). This trail has one of the largest patches of trout lilies on public lands in the Huntsville area. Trout lilies can be easily identified by their mottled leaves and nodding yellow blooms, with the tepals (the yellow “petals” on the flower) strongly recurved. We caught the trout lilies just before they were in the heart of their flowering season, so they had a characteristic pink shade to the backs of the tepals and were a little shy about fully opening and recurving. In the photos below, the one on the left is a yellow trout lily not quite in full bloom. The photo on the right is an example of the flower in full bloom, taken during a different hike.
The trout lilies are found mostly on the west end of the trail, but they are kept company by a number of other wildflowers. To Ruth’s delight, she spotted a solitary Virginia bluebell (Mertensia virginica) (her favorite!) in bloom just off the trail. It was also just a little early for bluebells at the time of our hike, but we did an exploratory hike a couple days later on Monte Sano State Park’s Sinks trail, which has a huge bluebell glade about 1.25 miles from its western trailhead on the closed section of the Bankhead Parkway. This patch will be in full bloom within days.
There’s another iconic wildflower with mottled leaves just now beginning to bloom on the Wildflower trail — Sweet Betsy (Trillium cuneatum). This is the most common trillium in our area, distinctive for its three mottled leaves and maroon bloom that rises from the junction of the leaves. Again, we were just a few days early for the blooming season for this one, but in the next couple of weeks you’ll see magnificent examples on this trail. The photo below on the left is from our recent hike; the one on the right is an example of a Sweet Betsy in full bloom. Though we didn’t see any on our recent hike, the Wildflower trail has another trillium that you might spot — the twisted trillium (Trillium stamineum). This is similar to the Sweet Betsy, but the petals are twisted like vintage airplane propellers. If you love trilliums, you’re in luck: one of the best trillium collections in the country is right here in the Rocket City, at the Huntsville Botanical Garden.
At the time of our visit, the Wildflower trail’s most prolific wildflower was the cutleaf toothwort (Dentaria laciniata). So named for its resemblance to teeth hanging in a bunch, this little beauty varies in color from white to pink. Both photos below were taken on our recent hike. The one on the left is from a specimen in a shaded area, in a more introspective mood; the one on the right is in a sunnier spot.
We were happy to spot some yellow flowers trying to blend into some of the trout lilies, but their stems and leaves gave them away — they were large-flowered bellworts (Uvularia grandiflora). This little beauty droops below its broad green non-mottled leaves, its yellow petals carelessly twisted and twirled like it just came from the salon with a casual summer ‘do. We’ve seen other bellworts on Land Trust trails, but the twisted petals and relatively large blooms are the identifiers for this species. Trilliums, trout lilies, and bellworts are all in the Lily family, and it’s remarkable to find three types of lilies in the same .58 mile all in bloom at the same time.
Next came a trio of common wildflowers, all on the creek side of the trail. Sharp-eyed Ruth spotted a small stand of star chickweed (Stellaria pubera) near the creek. These flowers love water and are found on many trails in the area. She also spotted just one example of a wild blue phlox (Phlox divaricata) that looked like the creek had rolled over it just as it started to bloom. Peeking out through the flotsam, this is one of several types of phlox we have in the area, and is an early bloomer. I had seen a few examples of wild geranium (Geranium maculatum) foliage earlier on the trail, and finally spotted one little shy blossom peeking out above its leaves. All three of these are just now starting to bloom, and should be in better supply during the last two weeks of March.
There were also a couple of early bloomers on their way out, but you’ll still find a few of them on the Wildflower trail over the next couple of weeks. The first one we spotted was Virginia spring beauty (Claytonia virginica), a delicate little grass-leaved flower with white petals striped in pink. The other was sharp-lobed hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba), which has petals that are usually white, but can also be light pink or light blue. Its mottled three-lobed leaf with pointed tips and hairy stem are the key identifiers.
This is a good time of year for violets, and we saw two species in bloom on our hike: the common blue violet (Viola sororia) and the long-spurred violet (Viola rostrata). Both have heart-shaped leaves with toothed edges, but the common blue is typically a deep blue or purple with a white center, and the long-spurred is a lighter blue shade with a prominent spur that extends from the back side of the flower. We saw examples of both species pretty much the entire length of the trail.
Another ubiquitous flower, rue anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides) was scattered along the length of the trail. This is another early bloomer, though it tends to stick around longer than most of the spring ephemerals. The petals are typically white, but can also be pink. The upper leaves on this one are also distinctive, with three lobes that remind me of a spork.
Finally, we’d like to finish with one of our favorites, the shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia). If swans turned into flowers, they would look like this. Rising from a basal rosette of long green leaves, the flowers hang in a cluster from a tall green stem. The five white petals curve back extravagantly, with a pointed yellow beak aimed at the ground. They were just beginning to bloom at the time of our hike, but should be out in profusion if you get onto this trail pronto.
In just over half a mile, we identified 15 wildflowers, some just starting to bloom, some approaching their peak, and some waiting for summer to grace us with their presence. And we probably missed a few! The Wildflower trail usually has something in bloom nearly all year, but its glory days fall mainly into the next two weeks. This is a time-sensitive walk, my friends — don’t delay!
Awhile back, I had someone ask me if I’d ever hiked the Grundy Forest Day Loop up in South Cumberland State Park. I have and I started to pull up a blog post about it only to discover that though this is a must-hike destination for this area, and though we’ve hiked it at least once, we’ve never actually put up a post about it. It was my turn to pick the “blog” hike this week, so naturally I decided it was time to fix that oversight.
South Cumberland State Park is headquartered in Monteagle, Tennessee, only an hour and half away from Huntsville. The park is a little different from some in that it is not contiguous. There are nine separate areas that make up the more than 30,000 acre park. The Grundy Forest Day Loop is in the Grundy Forest State Natural Area piece of the park and is about three miles down the road from the visitor’s center. I remember the first time we hiked here, I was really dubious about whether we were in the right place. To get to the trailhead, you turn on a tiny road next to an auto shop and head back around a school and then down another small street lined with houses. Normally, I’d expect to see state park signs guiding the way, but for this trailhead the only sign I spotted was at the very last turn. Sure enough, you do end up in a fairly sizable parking area complete with very nice restrooms, a picnic pavilion and an informative kiosk. Trust Google Maps. It will get you there.
My plan for the day was to hike to Sycamore Falls. This waterfall is actually on the Fiery Gizzard Trail, a 13-miler that runs between this trailhead and the parking lot at Foster Falls. Fiery Gizzard is on my hiking bucket list, but it’s going to have to wait until we’re in good enough shape to throw down that many miles in a day. For today, my less ambitious plan was to hike part way around the Grundy Forest Day Loop, hop off onto the Fiery Gizzard for .6 miles to get to Sycamore Falls, and then come back to finish the Day Loop Trail. All told, I expected this to be a relatively easy hike of about 3.2 miles.
Since the Grundy Forest Day Loop is, well, a loop it doesn’t really matter which direction you hike it. I opted to hike it clockwise. The first bit of the white-blazed trail goes through a mixed hardwood forest and high above the Little Fiery Gizzard creek. It was a gorgeous day – sunny but not hot – and I enjoyed walking along listening to the creek and the birds and admiring how the light filtered through the trees just so. I had hoped to see some early spring wildflowers, but I was disappointed there. Soon, the trail turned and headed down a rocky section to end up under a large rock overhang. From here, the trail is almost never out of sight of the creek.
We still hoped for some spring wildflowers, but about all we spotted were wintergreen leaves (no flowers), and partridge berry berries. Soon we were at the Blue Hole. This area boasts a very scenic 10 foot waterfall with a gorgeous blue-green plunge pool that is often used as a swimming hole in the summer. It was a bit too cold for a swim today, though, so we continued on across a nicely constructed bridge to the foundations of a historic CCC pump house. There is a great view of the falls and the swimming hole from there.
Our next landmark was the bridge where the Fiery Gizzard trail peeled off from the loop trail. After you cross the bridge, Sycamore Falls is only .6 miles down the trail. However, there was a slight problem. Back at the kiosk, we’d seen signs about a bridge being out. It didn’t say which bridge, though, and since there are actually quite a few bridges on the loop (usually over smaller feeder streams) we decided to start the hike anyway and just see how far we could get. Turns out the bridge that is out is the one we needed to cross to get to the falls. Hmm what to do? The signs painted a pretty dire picture about the dangers of trying to cross on foot. Slippery rocks, strong currents “Please TURN BACK NOW” in big bold letters. And yet… The signs were warning of not crossing during high water. There hadn’t been much rain, so while there was certainly a current, it wasn’t dangerously high. Plus we frequently and successfully make creek/river crossings in the Sipsey, which has similar slippery rocks and strong currents. We had failed to bring water shoes, which meant we would have to go barefoot (ouch), and we’d both assumed the trail would be easy enough to only require at most one hiking pole instead of two. We weren’t ideally outfitted for this but we thought we could do it safely. We were encouraged by the fact that as we sat there deciding what to do, a couple and their dog appeared on the opposite shore. They’d crossed just as we were planning to, and we watched them manage the crossing back over with no issues. I’ll be honest, I’m not sure it was really the right thing to do, but it did turn out OK. We made it across, though it was pretty slow going and I sure did miss my water shoes and other pole!
Once re-booted, we headed on down the trail. In such a short stretch of trail there are several really interesting highlights. First up was the junction of Little Fiery Gizzard Creek and Big Fiery Gizzard Creek, followed almost immediately by a place called the Black Canyon. This is a gorgeous slot canyon where the creek, now doubled in size, rushes over a waterfall and down into a narrow gorge.
The trail continues, now next to Big Fiery Gizzard Creek, through quiet forest and under a few rock outcroppings to another interesting site – Chimney Rock. This is one of those things where the picture just does not do it justice. This stack of rocks towers overhead and is at least 20 feet tall. Past Chimney Rock, the trail wraps around the hill, passes a small stand of bright yellow violets, then descends to the junction with the spur trail to Sycamore Falls.
From here, there are actually two choices. The more official looking trail leads uphill along the top of a small ridge to the top of the falls. The other route takes you along the creek to the base of the falls. We took the more official looking trail and enjoyed the great view of the falls and the pretty blue plunge pool, then instead of going back to the junction, we scrambled down the ridge to get creekside for a better view from the base. There is not an easy way to get to a great picture-taking spot of the falls, to be honest. Chet decided to brave another water crossing to get over to a small rocky island in the middle of the creek. I decided that I’d let the good photographer do that, while I chilled on a rock creekside and hoped he didn’t fall in. After the photo session, we took the creek-level footpath back to the junction, then retraced our steps back to the washed out bridge and across Little Fiery Gizzard Creek back to the main Grundy Day Loop trail.
The trail on this side of the washed out bridge gains quite a bit of elevation, helped by several sets of really nicely engineered steps. We soon passed Hanes Hole Falls, another 10 foot little beauty with a nice plunge pool, and then the trail started to gain elevation again and made a hairpin loop. Once the trail tops out, we passed a a couple of spur trails to the Grundy Forest Hemlock Grove campground. This campground has 5 campsites and is hike-in only – no vehicles can access it. The campsites accommodate 4 adults and two children in tents or hammock tents. The nearest bathroom is at the trailhead. Reservations are required in advance.
Just after the campground, we had a couple of nice surprises. First up, we spotted a small stand of quaker ladies – another wildflower! But a bigger surprise was still to come. We came to a sign about a historic CCC camp, with an interpretive loop trail heading off to our left. This hadn’t been here last time we hiked this trail and since we are big fans of the CCC, of course we took this unexpected side trip! In the 1930s CCC Camp 1475 was located here, on a relatively flat stretch above Little Fiery Gizzard Creek. There were massive bunkhouses, kitchens, mess halls, baths, a fire tower, and even an ice house here – enough infrastructure to support a camp with around 200 men. These men converted the wasteland that was the coke oven operation just to the north into the recreation area that became Grundy Lakes. They built fire towers, trails, and roads. They fought forest fires and were instrumental in saving a good portion of downtown Tracy City when it caught fire in 1935. It’s hard to imagine such a busy place in this setting now. Until recently, this area was overgrown with trees. The Friends of South Cumberland State Park, along with the South Cumberland State Park Rangers, identified, cleared, and conserved the area, working for a little over a year to do so. The interpretive site was dedicated in April 2019. The interpretive signs along the trail point out the foundations of the bath house, the ice house, and the grease trap for the kitchen. We learned that the pump house foundation we’d stood on to get our pictures of the Blue Hole Falls was used to pump water from there up to the CCC camp baths and kitchens. Old photographs show what it looked like during the time it was in use. It was very evocative. We learned, too, that the CCC used a system of temporary structures for most of their camps, so when the camp moved or was simply de-commissioned, most of the evidence that there had been anybody there was hauled away to be used elsewhere.
After ambling around the CCC trail and reading all the signs, we still had a bit more than half a mile to go to get back to the car but it was an easy stretch with not much uphill. Just before the end, we passed over the top of one more waterfall – Schoolhouse Branch Falls. This waterfall is taller than any we’d seen all day at 20 feet, but it doesn’t have much water flowing over it, so it isn’t as impressive as the others we’d passed.
With the extra CCC trail distance, we ended up hiking a bit more than we’d planned. Our GPS track put us at 3.77 miles. We’d made a couple of river crossings (Chet made four!), seen at least four waterfalls and several nice cascades, investigated the history of the area on the CCC trail, and spotted a few early spring wildflowers. It was a great day out!
Honestly, I don’t remember how I heard about this place. I was probably just wandering around virtually on Google Maps, checking out any spaces marked in green. But I was intrigued by Owl’s Hill Nature Sanctuary in Brentwood, TN, and we recently made the two-hour drive north to check out their hiking trails and to get a look at their namesake residents.
The sanctuary was originally owned by Huldah Cheek Sharp, heiress of the Cheek family, who gave the Cheekwood mansion to Nashville as a public garden and arts center. Needing a new place to live, she bought a 160-acre farm in Brentwood, eventually naming it Owl’s Hill after hearing the calls from a great horned owl on the nearby ridge. Starting in 1983, the property passed into Cheekwood’s ownership, and in 1988 a naturalist was hired to begin establishing a nature sanctuary. In 2007 the sanctuary was turned over to an independent non-profit organization, and over time the sanctuary has grown to over 300 acres, with 4.3 miles of trails, and over 2,000 species of flora and fauna identified on the property.
Today, Owl’s Hill is open to pre-arranged groups and to visitors who buy a day pass online for $5. The day pass is good for the day of purchase only, and is available on Owl’s Hill’s website. The sanctuary also runs a number of educational programs and camps, and looks like it would be a great place for budding naturalists.
We purchased our day pass and drove up on a Friday morning, arriving without incident and joining a couple of other cars in the gravel parking lot. Our first order of business was to report to the visitor center to check in. The visitor center is currently closed due to COVID-19, but there was a bell to ring to summon someone, and the sanctuary’s naturalist promptly appeared to check us in and brief us on the trails and the facility. The amenities include picnic tables and portajohns, and of course visitors are asked to follow leave no trace principles while on the property. Because this is a nature preserve, dogs are not allowed, and the trails are for hikers only. Checking in and out is required, but this has the upside of chatting with the staff and getting recommendations and questions answered. For example, we had planned to hike a trail that features a lot of elevation change, and found out that hiking it counter-clockwise is recommended due to where the muddy spots are and the relative steepness of the ascent/descent.
After checking in and getting a photo of the trail map displayed on a nearby kiosk, our next order of business was to check out the three (at present) resident owls. Owl’s Hill is not an authorized rehabilitation facility for owls, but they are licensed to care for non-releasable owls. For each owl, there was a sign with information on the species and detailed information on the particular owl in the enclosure. We respected the barriers between the path and the enclosures, so we didn’t get any decent photos of Boomerang (the great horned owl) and Orion (the barn owl), but Shakespeare the barred owl was close to the front of his cage and was a willing model. Someone at Owl’s Hill has a subtle sense of humor, since owls are mentioned frequently in Shakespeare’s works, and in almost every case, negatively. Throughout the canon, owls are regarded as ill omens and bringers of bad news. In Henry IV, Part 3, Gloucester is taunted with, “the owl shriek’d at thy birth, an evil sign.” The eponymous king in Richard II bitterly comments, “For night-owls shriek where mounting larks should sing.” Later in the history cycle, Gloucester, now ascended to the throne as Richard III, derides messengers with “Out on you, owls! nothing but songs of death?” when he doesn’t get good news. There are plenty of other examples in this excellent web page. Owls get much better press in the Harry Potter books. Nonetheless, Shakespeare the barred owl was a regal specimen, surveying us with slow-blinking intensity.
The nexus for most of the sanctuary’s trails is located behind the owl enclosures. The Sharp Creek trail, blazed in yellow, is a central loop that intersects every trail in the sanctuary. We began our walk by heading clockwise on this trail. We didn’t really have a plan for a point-to-point hike — instead, we wanted to ramble a bit, looking for early spring wildflowers and sampling a portion of the trails.
The Sharp Creek trail, when traveled clockwise, runs through a cedar grove next to a stacked stone wall. Here we saw the first of the deer tracks that we saw on literally every trail we followed during our visit. The trail passed a pond on the left, with a large growth of periwinkles just starting to bloom on our right.
At about .2 miles from our starting point behind the owl enclosures, we came to the junction of the Sharp Creek and South Ridge trails. Though we intended to climb the ridge eventually, we decided to follow the Sharp Creek trail a little longer since it was following the creek at this point and we thought we might see some wildflowers there. That turned out not to be the case, but we enjoyed exploring a large meadow with a viewing platform and some large trees. We were particularly struck by a large hackberry tree, so old that it had grown out of its typically warty bark. Throughout the sanctuary, certain trees had signs with QR codes that led to videos with various country music stars providing information about the species. This is a program called “If Trees Could Sing,” provided by The Nature Conservancy and local partners. We’ve seen these also at Montgomery Bell State Park. After leaving the meadow, the trail winds closer to the seasonal creek, which was in fine flow during our visit. The wildflowers were still sleeping along the creek, so we walked about .25 miles from the Sharp Creek/South Ridge junction before turning around at a small wooden bridge over a tiny tributary.
We returned to the trail junction and took the red-blazed South Ridge trail. This 1.2 mile trail is the most challenging on the property, due to the 350-foot elevation change to climb from the hollow to the top of a sandstone ridge. The first .15 miles of the trail were a gradual uphill climb through a hardwood forest, with a couple of interesting tree forms off to the right of the trail. Even better, our first wildflowers of the hike were on this stretch of the trail — harbinger of spring (also known as pepper and salt), and slender toothwort.
After the first .15 miles, the South Ridge trail turned serious, with some direct ascents and a couple of narrow switchbacks over the next .25 miles. While we stopped to gasp for breath, we had a chance to read some of the tree ID ribbons, pink plastic ribbons stapled to certain mature examples. I was pleased to see a fine example of my favorite ash, the blue ash, represented (doesn’t everyone have a favorite ash species?).
Upon reaching the top of the ridge, the trail leveled out, running southeast along the ridgetop with chunks of sandstone as the footbed. We stopped on a weathered log for a snack and to catch our breaths.
We continued along the ridgetop until we reached a junction with an unpaved road. The trail continued along the roadbed to the right, with a timely red blaze marking the way. But the real show was just to the left. There they were by the side of the road, like two painted floozies from the big city stepping off the stagecoach, with the respectable ladies of the town looking down their noses at them. It was two flowers we had never seen before — the broad yellow flowers of winter aconite, next to another solitary clump of white and green-accented snowdrop. Friends, it took me quite a while to identify these two, as they don’t appear in any of my wildflower books. The reason? They aren’t considered wildflowers. Both are non-native ornamentals that have escaped into the wild (or perhaps they were planted there to take comfort in each others’ presence, snobbily overlooked by snooty botanists). We didn’t see either of these flowers anywhere else on the property.
We followed the old roadbed along the ridge, with obstructed views off to the left into the hollow. Along the way we passed a small storage building with a concrete deck, and shortly afterward we began a slow descent down the ridge. I guess there must be some property line weirdness in this area, as the trail suddenly turned back uphill and we had to regain about 30 feet of altitude before dropping down into a saddle between lobes of the ridge.
As we made a gradual descent along the saddle, we spotted one more wildflower — a solitary Virginia spring beauty peeking shyly through the leaves. From here, the footbed widened and quickly came to the paved driveway of the contemporary house that overlooks the sanctuary (not associated with Owl’s Hill). We had been advised about this junction, and knew that we’d cross the driveway and go through the gate to continue our walk. There were also signs to help guide us, in case we forgot. After passing through the gate, we skirted another stone wall as we headed downhill into the orchard area and the end of the South Ridge trail.
We spent a few minutes exploring the site of the orchard, now converted into a picnic and play area with a stage suited for educational programs. Many small trails wind around in this area, for a total of 1.2 miles, but we chose to head back to the Sharp Creek trail to check out the trails in the northeast section of the sanctuary. But of course we had to check out the dung beetle playhouse (sadly chained shut due to deterioration of the interior).
Once we had returned to the Sharp Creek trail behind the owl enclosures, we headed counterclockwise and uphill for about 200 feet before coming to the junction with the blue-blazed Haircut Loop trail. This is a lollipop loop, and the stem wasted no pleasantries, climbing about 100 feet in elevation over an ascent of around 400 feet. In other words, steep! However, once we reach the loop the elevation flattened out as we skirted the hill counterclockwise. Once we reached the north side of the hill, the orange-blazed Hilltop trail climbed to the top of Haircut Hill. We were happy to let it, instead turning downhill for just a few yards before intersecting the white-blazed Old Oak trail.
The Old Oak trail is also a loop, so we decided to go clockwise (west). The trail was wide at this point, descending gently downhill to its namesake, a giant white oak that is estimated to be around 350 years old. As you would expect, it’s massive, though it has a pretty sizeable cavity on one side that suggests that age has taken its toll.
The Old Oak trail narrows at this point and then tees into the Sharp Creek trail. We turned right (north) and in about 150 feet we rejoined the Old Oak trail as it headed east and uphill to rejoin the Haircut Loop trail. We took the Haircut Loop around the west side of Haircut Hill, then descended back to the visitor center and checked out. Our GPS track said we had wandered 3.26 miles across the sanctuary.
We enjoyed our visit to Owl’s Hill, and expect that it will really ramp up the wildflower display as soon as spring arrives. The trails were very well marked and maintained, with the ability to craft looped routes of varying lengths and difficulties. To paraphrase King Lear, it’s good “to be a comrade with the wolf and owl.” Well, with the owl anyway….