I’ve lost count of the number of times Chet and I have hiked part or all of the Old Railroad Bed Trail on the Land Trust of North Alabama’s Monte Sano preserve. Weirdly, though, it seems we haven’t ever blogged about it. When we came across an article on Rocket City Now that the Land Trust is now providing a free TravelStory tour for the trail, though, we had our hiking outing for the week.
We’ve used the TravelStorys app before when hiking in Red Mountain State Park in Birmingham (Red Mountain Rising and Different Perspectives: Red Mountain) so we knew what to expect, but for those of you who may have never heard of this app, here’s the scoop. TravelStorys is an audio app produced by a Wyoming-based, woman-owned company that uses GPS location services to determine where you are, and then plays automatically as you approach sites of interest. You don’t need cell service or Wi-Fi, as long as you have already downloaded the app and also downloaded the specific tour first. You will also have to enable location services for the automatic part to work correctly. Each tour has a number of different locations identified, with stories that start playing automatically as you get close by. While you don’t need to be looking at your phone to hear the stories, they often provide interesting images as well, so I usually check those out while I’m listening. You can also use the app ahead of time for trip planning if you like. All of the tours can be downloaded no matter where you physically are, and each has an overview and a map available. Clicking on the “stops” on the map plays the audio you would hear if it was automatically launched, and also displays any images along with a transcription of the audio.
We’re lucky to have one of these available in our area, actually. To date, they have produced more than 130 audio tours in 36 states and 3 countries, but there are only 2 in Alabama — the one in Red Mountain State Park, and the Old Railroad Bed one here. The local tour was made possible by the Ruth and Lyle Taylor Fund through the Community Foundation of Greater Huntsville.
Sunday was a cold but beautiful day, so we layered up and headed out to the Land Trust Bankhead Trailhead. We found a parking spot with no problem, though there were a number of other cars in the lot when we arrived. We parked near the Old Railroad Bed Trail sign and headed on out. The first short bit of this hike is actually along Bluff Trail, which has had some extensive rerouting work done since we’ve been here last. Newly routed access trails are well marked, and in really good shape. We noted that we crossed over an old section of trail to end up a bit higher up the slope. Things look a little different, but it’s easy to figure out where to go.
I hadn’t looked too closely at what the story locations were on the app — I figured it would be a bit more fun to be surprised. I was walking along thinking about how we were just about to the section of trail where my archaeologist daughter always looked for historic glass and ceramics when the app fired up its first story — all about how this area was the official dumpsite for the community of Monte Sano for a while. While I had actually known that, I did learn from the app that when the Land Trust was first laying in the trails, they had to haul away 20 truckloads of debris! Shortly after the dump site we came to the official start of the Old Railroad Bed trail, where another story started up. From it I learned that the railroad for which the trail is named is one of the country’s shortest-lived historical rail corridors. It started service in 1888 and shut down in 1896. The rail line was built to bring people from Huntsville Depot up to the Monte Sano Hotel faster than the four hour horse and carriage ride that was the only other option at the time since Bankhead Parkway hadn’t been built yet. Now, I’m not telling you everything from either of those two stories, or from the other eight story locations on the tour. That would spoil all the fun! Even though I knew some of the facts already, I think I learned something new at each point, and the historic photos really bring that time period alive. If you are interested in the free app, one way to get it would be to go here.
We continued on down Old Railroad Bed Trail, crossing a couple of foot bridges alongside which we could see the old rock supports for the bridges or trestles used by the railroad. This section also has several of the “mini-canyons” that are remnants of cuts made into the mountainside to allow the train to pass through. Though it’s really just two mounds of dirt and rock with a path through the middle, I’ve always liked these sections — they feel sort of mysterious and lost in time. Maybe I just have an overactive imagination, though.
The trail is surprisingly rocky. We wondered as we walked if all the extra rock debris had anything to do with the railroad construction. Certainly there are piles of rocks and dirt that sort of look like construction debris, but would they still be here 133 years after the line was finished? We passed another foot bridge with an interesting set of vertical rocks downstream. The TravelStory app had an explanation for that that had nothing to do with the railroad.
The trail passes more rock work — these probably for a raised trestle rather than for a bridge — and then curves downhill towards an unnamed creek that eventually merges in with Fagan Creek. It is my understanding that the rock work for the bridges are the ones that are more or less level with the existing trail when it is on or beside the old rail line. If we saw a set of stacked rocks much lower than where we thought the train might have run, we assumed that these were the footings for a trestle. I’m not sure we’re right, but it sounds good anyway! This is a very pretty area, I thought, but then I’m kind of a sucker for rocky creek cascades. The trail crosses the little creek and folds back on itself, now running on top of an embankment. You can still see a depressed area to the left that may have been the original rail line location.
Soon we came to the most evocative location on the hike — the “buttonhole loop”. I don’t think I knew it by that name before, but even without knowing the background you can just tell this is a place that has a history. The trail approaches a point — you can tell that the ground drops off to the right side and that there is a man-made hump of earth on that side. The trail forks, with the normal Land Trust trail signs pointing to the left. However, the trail straight ahead goes out to a point, and there is an information sign clearly visible there. We couldn’t tell which way the TravelStorys App meant for us to go, but there was a geo-location marker for a story someplace in the area, so we went to the point first to see if that would trigger it. It didn’t, but we got to read the historical sign and look down into the creek hollow. Though there is a fairly clear path leading down off the point to the left of the sign, it looked steep and we thought it unlikely to be the preferred route. We backtracked and took the signed fork. This section simply takes a longer and more gently sloping route to get you to the base of the point. There, you can clearly see multiple rows of horizontal rock blocks lined up across the creek. It doesn’t take too much imagination to picture a tall railroad trestle filling the hollow, with a steam engine puffing along across the top. Sure enough, that’s what the TravelStory audio was about here, and I was really happy to see images of the actual trestle too!
After crossing the creek on a somewhat rickety looking (but totally stable) wooden footbridge, the trail climbs up a bank and then levels out as it travels back in the direction of the parking lot. This section of trail is still pretty rocky, though level, with occasional views down into the Fagan Creek drainage. In fact, the next to last TravelStory was set at the big junction of Alms House and Old Railroad Bed trails where they cross Fagan Creek. It’s one of the lovelier spots in this preserve, to my mind. The trails cross the creek on a broad rocky shelf above a sharp drop off. The creek was barely a trickle this day, and in fact it often seems to have very little water in it, exposing the beauty of the water-carved rocks and boulders. Even in winter, the trees covering the surrounding slopes give it a private feel.
At this point, the tour on the app had us leave the Old Railroad Bed Trail to take the more direct route back to the parking lot via the Alms House Trail. This trail is one of the steeper ones, with at least one spot that had required a step up that was almost too high for my short little legs. The benefit of this route, though, is that it goes through what the app calls the “Fossil Field.” The area around Huntsville was at one time submerged under a shallow inland sea. This makes it a great area to find fossils, and this spot on the Alms House Trail, at a power line cut, is a great place to look for them. We found a couple of things that might be fossils anyway.
Shortly after the Fossil Field, the Alms House Trail takes a sharp turn uphill and to the right, while the path straight ahead turns into the Gaslight Trail. This piece of Alms House is the steepest, but it’s not very long, and soon we popped out at the parking lot, having covered about 1.7 miles. I actually forgot the GPS so that’s a guess, but looking at the map that looks about right. Though we’ve hiked this trail often, having the TravelStory app was like hearing it through new ears and seeing it through new eyes.