Cooler than Cool: Stephens Gap Cave

We’re in the toughest part of the year for our modest little outdoors blog — the blazing hot center of the Alabama summer.  Every week when we plan where we’re going for our next adventure, we take a peek at the weather forecast.  We’ve got a list of hikes and floats we’d like to do, but when we see predicted heat indices over 100 degrees, it’s hard to get motivated to do anything other than lounge around in the air conditioning.   Sometimes that sounds pretty nice, but would make for one heck of a dull blog post.  So instead, we start thinking of ways to be cool outdoors.  And two of the best ways to cool off during the summer are either to get close to a waterfall or to get into a cave.  For our adventure this week, we decided to do both, and paid a visit to Stephens Gap Cave.

Stephens Gap Cave is protected by the Southeastern Cave Conservancy Inc., a nonprofit organization that acquires and protects caves in six states.  SCCi currently has 30 preserves and manages 170 caves.  Faced with decreasing access to recreational caves due to development, habitat threats, and liability fears of landowners, a grassroots group of southeastern caving enthusiasts banded together in 1991 to purchase caves and at least some of the overlying property.  According to their website, SCCi’s mission is “to conserve caves to preserve areas of scenic beauty, provide recreational access and opportunities, protect cultural and biological resources, and support scientific research.”

It’s no secret that North Alabama is a hotbed of spelunking opportunity, and it’s no coincidence that Huntsville is the headquarters of the National Speleological SocietyBut I was still surprised to find that 11 of the 30 SCCi preserves are in north Alabama!  Cave exploration is a very popular hobby in the area.  Ruth and I would not describe ourselves as cave explorers.  She isn’t fond of tightly enclosed spaces.  Back in the day, I enjoyed crawling around in East Tennessee caves, but now I occupy more space than I used to.  Still, we enjoy touring developed caves, such as the ones in Cathedral Caverns State Park and Rickwood Caverns State Park.  After perusing SCCI’s list of preserves, Stephens Gap stood out for one particular reason — it has a walk-in entrance.  We don’t have the gear or the knowledge to rappel into a pit, but we have legs, hiking poles, boots, and a healthy aversion to falling off ledges or into holes.

I’m not going to tell you exactly where Stephens Gap Cave is located, other to say it is in the vicinity of Woodville, Alabama.   There’s a reason for this — because the cave is protected by a conservancy, there are reasonable restrictions placed on visitation.  SCCi preserves require a free permit, which is easily requestable online via the SCCi website.  For some preserves, you can even request the permit for a same-day visit.  Most permit requests are reviewed and granted within 48 hours.  I requested our permit on a Saturday evening for a Sunday visit, and had it approved in about 30 minutes.  I wouldn’t venture to say the SCCi will always be that prompt, but these are some accommodating folks.  They want you to visit their caves, and even better, they want you to come back from their caves with a greater appreciation of these natural wonders.  The permitting process was easy and convenient, and the information that came with the permit about where to park and how to access the cave was extremely helpful.

We arrived at the spacious gravel parking area with the mid-morning sun already beating down on us.  The trailhead was prominently marked, and a narrow single-track trail promptly entered the woods.  The trail was well-maintained, and for about .4 miles it was largely level, passing through a power line cut and proceeding up into a hollow where it crossed and paralleled a dry creekbed.

The trail was easy to follow, with yellow trail markers and occasional yellow ribbons leading the way.  There were also quite a few wildflowers in bloom or identifiable by their leaves, such as brown-eyed Susan, sweet-scented Joe Pye weed, yellow leafcup, white-flowered leafcup, naked flowered tick trefoil, hepatica, St. Johnswort, fleabane, and wild hydrangea, to name a few.

There were a couple of annoyances on the lower part of the walk, however.  We were barely into the woods before the first of approximately one million gnats started buzzing around us.  Two coats of insect repellent didn’t faze them.  But the bigger annoyance was a light rain that appeared out of a clear blue sky.  Regular readers of the blog know I’m no fan of walking in the rain, but the real problem with the rain was the possibility it would make the trail and the cave entrance slippery.  To get the visit permit, you have to read and acknowledge a number of warnings about visiting the cave.  You can’t blame the SCCi for being careful — there are a lot of jackasses out there, and caves seem to attract them.  Still, a phrase about how the “so-called walk-in entrance” could get slick and dangerous when wet stuck in my mind.  All the disclaimers and waivers pretty much carry a subtext of “enjoy your visit, but you are quite likely to die here.”  We had started the hike on a hard-packed earth surface, but as the rain continued a little voice in the back of my head said quietly in an air of resignation, “Ah, so this is how it ends.”

Fortunately, the rain stopped a few minutes later.  The trail continued another .4 miles or so, following the creek and slowly rising up the hollow past walls of rock, until it took an abrupt turn to the right and climbed steeply.  The trail narrows and splits in this section, with the path to the walk-in entrance peeling off to the left, and a path to a pit entrance higher on the mountain continuing straight ahead.

Just a few dozen yards after the trail split, the walk-in entrance to Stephens Gap Cave looms off to the left, with a waterfall dropping through a 143-foot pit entrance to the right.  The combination of the hot air and the water-cooled air created a dramatic mist around both entrances.  The effect is breathtaking.

The walk-in entrance isn’t exactly a paved ramp, and hasn’t been engineered to make it easy to climb down into the cave, but we were able to carefully pick our way through the rocks, using our hiking poles for stability.  Once we got within about 20 feet of the entrance, a welcome wave of cool air greeted us.  Even before we went into the cave, Ruth turned to me and said, “This is worth it,” and I agreed.  While she went on ahead into the walk-in entrance, I made the discovery that I had left some of my photo equipment at work where it was needed for a project, and long and bitter were my curses.  But I broke out the emergency tabletop tripod and made the best of it.

The walk-in entrance descends into the cave at not too steep an angle, though the surface is rocky and increasingly damp as you go farther into the cave.  We didn’t find it too be slick, and the cave is relatively well-lit given its two large entrances.  The sun streamed in through the ceiling entrance, creating shafts of light that constantly shifted as clouds passed overhead.

The walk-in entrance leads down to a ledge that bends away to the right, but also slopes down to the left where a small waterfall erupts from the wall.  Jutting out from the ledge, a pedestal is seemingly spotlit, rising 30 feet from the bottom of the pit.  With the sound of rushing water echoing all around, it’s a magnificent setting worthy of a swords and sorcery film.  Which in fact, it was, as there was a trio of college students shooting a school project on the pedestal while we were there.  I don’t know how the film will turn out, but I give them an A+ for location scouting.

We stayed in the cave about an hour, soaking up the literal and figurative coolness before we reluctantly left Middle Earth and clambered our way back to the surface of the sun and retraced our steps back to the parking area.  We were a soggy mess by the time we got there, but let me tell you, for an hour we were the coolest kids in Alabama.

We’d recommend Stephens Gap Cave for most hikers, with the caveat that you must obtain a permit and avoid visiting after (or during) periods of heavy rain.  We didn’t bring any light sources, but didn’t really need them in the area around the walk-in entrance.  However, if you plan on exploring the cave, you’ll need light sources, helmets, and proper equipment.  The area around the walk-in entrance has dangerous dropoffs of 30 feet or more, and of course the nearby pit entrance is a 143-foot drop.  There have been three fatalities in this cave in the past 17 years, so please be careful!  But if you’ve got good footwear and know your limitations, this is one of the best payoffs you’ll ever get for a hike under one mile.

Water, Water, Everywhere: DeSoto State Park and High Falls Park

This time last year, Alabama was in a drought that by November was being called “the worst drought in memory” by some. Through the end of the summer and into the fall and winter, there just wasn’t much rain falling. Farmers struggled,  reservoirs shrank, wildlife habitats were impacted – all causing ripple effects across the economy and lifestyle of the state. Not to minimize the more serious impacts, but the drought also caused a severe case of “puny” at some of my favorite natural spots – the area waterfalls. The drought seems to be behind us now, as the uncontrollable grass growth in our backyard can attest, so the waterfalls are back! Last weekend Chet and I went west to the Sipsey and took in a couple of waterfalls there. This weekend I wanted more, so we headed east to enjoy two new (to us) waterfalls.

Our buddy Ted was free as well, so the three of us cooked up a plan to leave the house around 8 am and drive to High Falls Park in DeKalb County, take in the falls there for a short while, then drive to DeSoto State Park in time for the Sunday buffet lunch. We’d walk off all those calories with a hike to a couple of falls in DeSoto and then return home by late afternoon. This was a fantastic plan except for one small detail. I neglected to check opening hours for High Falls Park and it turned out we arrived at the entrance to the park only to find a locked gate. It was 9:30 and the park didn’t open until 10. We decided to simply drive on to DeSoto and try to catch High Falls on the way home instead. Only 45 minutes away, we arrived at DeSoto State Park too early for lunch so we started right away on our hike.

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I’d picked out a short but scenic-sounding hike from Johnny Molloy’s book 50 Hikes in Alabama that he called the “West Fork Loop.” Only 1.9 miles long, this loop hike starts and ends at the historic CCC Pavilion in the picnic area. The first challenge is actually to find the beginning of the trail. Molloy’s book describes walking down the paved walkway with the pavilion on your left, but after that it gets a bit vague. A look at our GPS track will show you the way we went, but I’m certain it’s not quite right. What I’d recommend is to walk down the sidewalk until it takes a sharp left towards the pavilion and then keep going straight off the sidewalk and into the grass. You’ll see a sign in the woods on your right for an outdoor classroom. This isn’t it. Keep on going down hill along that treeline though and you’ll find another unmarked trail heading off into the woods. Head down this trail until you see timbers set like stairs going farther downhill at a trail intersection. You don’t want to take those stairs, but instead turn right onto the yellow-blazed DeSoto Scout Trail (DST) and walk a short way until you get to a bridge going over the top of Indian Falls. There seem to be several wildcat trails that will eventually get you to the DST so really, the trick is to find a yellow-blazed trail and then head roughly south until you get to the bridge. Or just follow the sound of the falls. You can hear it clearly from the picnic area.

We admired the bridge and the top of the falls, but quickly moved on to the other side of the bridge to the point where you can climb down and explore the base of Indian Falls. There are a couple of stairs at the top, but then you’ll have to drop down about 3 feet to reach a short path that leads past a rock overhang and beyond to the falls. Indian Falls is formed when Laurel Creek drops into a ravine. After a 25 foot drop, the water continues to cascade over boulders below the falls as Laurel Creek heads downhill to join the West Fork of the Little River. It’s a beautiful site and the three of us clambered all over exploring and enjoying and getting just the right pictures. We were only 10 minutes into our hike and already I felt like the whole trip had been worth it!

After we left the falls, our plan was to continue on along the DST. Shortly after the falls, there is a three way intersection with an unblazed trail teeing in from the right, and then what I first thought were two yellow-blazed trails forking right and left. The unmarked trail just led to a cabin. After closer inspection, we decided that of the two “yellow blazed” trails, only the left fork was really yellow. The right fork was blazed in a sort of yellowy-green that I called lemon-lime. Using Molloy’s descriptions we had been expecting a “green blazed Cabin Trail” at around that point so we decided it all matched up well enough and we should take the left fork. As it turns out, the trail map online labels the Cabin Trail blaze color as Lime Green, so I wasn’t so far off!

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Yellow blaze to the left, faint lime green to the right

The DST continues down next to Laurel Creek via some beautifully engineered stone steps until it is level with another smaller unnamed fall, where it turns sharply right and down to end up level with the West Fork of the Little River. From here the trail sticks closely to the river, which flows by sometimes quickly, rattling over small cascades, and sometimes slowly when it broadens and deepens. In one of the slower spots there was a tiny beach, where I took off my boots and waded for a minute next to a bush that turned out to be something called buttonbush, which I don’t think I’ve ever noticed before.

Actually, we saw a lot of wildflowers next to the river — some of them we’ve not ever seen before. If the wildflowers are this good in mid-summer, just imagine how incredible this trail must be in the spring! We saw starry campion, Maryland meadow beauty, healall, Shuttleworth’s ginger, naked flowered tick trefoil, stiff haired sunflower, as well as rhododendron and maybe even a trillium just past blooming.

At around .5 mile from the pavilion, there is a small wooden bridge across Lodge Branch, like Laurel Creek one of the many tributaries feeding the West Fork. We had to push through a small tree that was blocking one end of the bridge, but as soon as we were past the tree, the trail was clear again. However, as much as I loved the wildflowers, the river rapids and the little wading spots, I do have to say that overall this was not an easy trail. It involved a lot of scrambling over rocks and roots, a couple of flooded spots where we got our feet wet, lots of confusing unmarked side trails, and one difficult-to-spot but vital blaze.

At about the .8 mile mark we came to a spot on the trail where there was a large flat rock ahead and just to the left, right on the river bank. I went right over to it, thinking about whether I wanted to wade again, but decided to push on instead. I had to duck under a rhododendron branch that blocked the trail, but then continued on over a trail that was barely visible. It was all rocks and roots, but it did look sort of like a trail. It wasn’t until after I’d picked my way down this track for at least 5 minutes that Ted and Chet called me back telling me I’d missed the trail. We could only tell because we could see a yellow blaze further up the slope. We climbed up the bank to what was obviously the trail and then I backtracked to see where we went wrong. Turns out it was at that rock. My excuse was that I was intent on the idea of wading again. (I don’t know excuse Chet and Ted are going to come up with!) I suppose if I’d been paying more attention there was at least a slim possibility that I might have noticed a yellow blaze nearly obscured by shrubs, above my head and 30 feet or so up the trail to my right. You had to be looking in just the right spot, because the sharp trail turn itself wasn’t marked at all. No wonder we all missed it!

Mistake corrected, we forged on for another roughly tenth of a mile until we came to a sign for the “Gilliam Trailhead” pointing to a trail that went straight up the hill at at least a 45 degree angle. To me it looked for all the world like another wildcat trail, because an “official” trail wouldn’t have been built like that.  Molloy’s book didn’t mention a sign, though, and the maps we had looked at actually showed two different trails at around this mileage that headed straight up hill. I was getting hungry and was motivated not to miss the buffet so I encouraged the “try this one” option. We headed straight up to the ridge, then headed to our right to loop back towards our starting point.

The trail here was a lot easier going, and though it had fewer flowers and wasn’t right on the river it was scenic in its own way. It was blazed in the lemon-lime color so we were sure we were on the same trail we’d seen back at the original split near Indian Falls. If we hadn’t already thought it might be called the “Cabin Trail,” we certainly could have guessed at that name because every so often off on our left we’d pass a cabin. The cabins at DeSoto sure do look nice! They look to be well maintained, and as far as I could tell they are set far enough apart that you might really feel like you’re far out in the woods away from civilization. I’d like to come back sometime and find out if I’m right. Since the Cabin Trail follows a rim of the gorge it drops off steeply on the non-cabin side, with occasional views of the river visible through the trees.

Though it was easier going up here, we did have another spot where we lost the trail.  We followed the path as it led to a cabin, then tried to find the trail on the other side of the clearing. I found another bluff with a small waterfall, but I did not find the trail. Chet found it by backtracking to the last blaze, then keeping an eye out until he spotted a blaze off to the right. Again this one was maybe 50 feet from the trail junction. What is it with the people who mark trails that they think marking a junction is a bad idea!?!? Once back on the marked trail, we continued on another quarter of a mile until we reached Lodge Falls.  So named because they drop over the rim of the gorge close to the DeSoto State Park Lodge, this is a 20 foot waterfall with another set of cascades below as Lodge Branch tumbles over boulders on its way down to the West Fork, passing under that little wooden bridge we’d crossed earlier in the hike. We spent some time here trying to capture the falls on camera, then headed on up the trail past a couple of rock houses and then up to a sign for the Lodge and Restaurant.

At this point, we decided to turn left and head for the restaurant, finishing the hike after a lunch break. The buffet at DeSoto Park Lodge is tasty, generous, and very reasonable. For a little less than $12.00 a person we got drinks plus all we could eat fried chicken, ribs, cream corn, broccoli and cheese, baked potatoes, fried okra, salad, and if we’d been fast enough, peach cobbler. It was all good southern comfort food, prepared well,  and I know I ate way too much! After lunch, the last .3 of a mile back to the pavilion was pretty uneventful. We passed no more waterfalls or rock houses, just a couple more cabins.

We all piled back in Ted’s truck and headed back towards our original stop, High Falls Park. This 20 acre park in rural DeKalb County is not part of the Alabama State Park system, but as best as I can tell is a county park. There is no entrance fee, and the park is open at 10 am. Closing depends on season, but in the summer that’s at 6:00 pm. There is a pavilion with picnic tables and vending machines, and an air conditioned office. The office is where you can sign in, chat with the very friendly older gentleman manning the desk, buy some snacks, or use the restrooms. There are a couple of short trails, but we were there for the falls, so we took the shortest route – down the paved road to the top of the falls. Let me tell you, I was not expecting what I found. Formed when Town Creek roars down into a sheer-sided gorge, High Falls is 300 feet across and 35 feet high.

The top of the falls is a solid rock shelf going back at least as far as it is wide until it gets to a point where there is a nice looking pedestrian bridge. The bridge is built on the pillars of an old covered bridge that was built by the community in the 1920s. The water between the bridge and the falls is very shallow – maybe only knee deep in the deepest spots – so there were all sorts of folks young and old out wading, or sitting, or floating/lying in the middle of the river. At the base of the falls just out from from where the largest volume of water pours over the rim is a natural bridge. Young folks were jumping off the falls in the middle of the river or from this natural bridge. It is a spectacular setting!

Chet waded all the way out to the edge of the falls to take pictures of the falls and the jumpers. Ted and I waded not quite so far out but enjoyed the cool water on our feet after a day of hiking. I climbed up on one end of the natural bridge, but wasn’t confident I was limber enough to attempt climbing out any further. Ted texted our children to tell them what we were doing and that he had dibs on Chet’s truck and my cookbooks if we didn’t make it back.

We didn’t stay more than hour at the falls this trip, but I’ll be back! I did read that the volume of water we saw is not necessarily normal. In the winter, for example, the broader part of the falls can be dry, with only the section near the natural bridge having any water. Still, now that the drought is over and we’re in a fairly rainy summer, this is absolutely a must-visit spot!

Three Within Thirty: Short Hikes to Cool Places in the Bankhead National Forest

We’ve had a lot of rain around here recently, so when it was my turn to pick our hike I thought it would be a good idea to see groundwater at its most photogenic — in the form of a waterfall or two.  And when you think of waterfalls in North Alabama, one place springs to mind immediately — the Bankhead National Forest and its Sipsey Wilderness.  It’s been too long since we’ve been to the Bankhead, which regularly tricks us into ten-mile hikes and tries to kill us on every visit.

But I had a plan for this trip — instead of throwing down a single long hike, I planned three short hikes to places just a little off the beaten path.  All three are well-known to the locals, but we’ve never visited them.  The theme of our trip: three within thirty, or three hikes to cool places no more than thirty minutes from where you parked.

We took our usual route to the Bankhead, following the interstate down to AL-36 in Hartselle, and then followed AL-36 west through Danville until it teed into AL-33.  We took AL-33 into the National Forest and turned right onto Cranal Road, the route to three different trailheads in the Sipsey Wilderness.  However, our destination was Mize Mill Falls, which isn’t reached from one of the official Forest Service trails.  We passed the Sipsey Recreation Area, crossed the bridge over the Sipsey River, and parked on the south side of Cranal Road at the first dirt road, about a half-mile past the bridge.  There’s room for three or four vehicles here on the road shoulder.

The trail starts on the north side of Cranal Road, across from the dirt road.  Since this isn’t an official trail, there is no signage marking the trailhead — only a couple of orange ribbons hanging from trees flanking a narrow passage into the forest.  I had read that this trail was a little dodgy, so it was a pleasant surprise to find it had a well-established footbed, descending about 20 feet and bending to the right.  The trail was narrow and a bit rooty and rocky during the descent, but quickly leveled off and widened as it passed through a shady hemlock grove.  We could hear the sound of rushing water from where we parked the car, and when the trail leveled out Turkey Foot creek was off to the left, with the water now sounding like a gentle roar.

We wandered over to the sound of the water and looked down into a small canyon onto the top of Mize Mill Falls.  Turkey Foot Creek passes through a tight spot here and drops around 20 feet to the canyon floor.  We could tell it was a little beauty, and were eager to get to the bottom for a better look.  We returned to the trail, dodged over/under a few small fallen trees, and reached an apparent end of the trail.  However, the trail takes a sharp left here and heads downhill for another short, rocky stretch before leveling out after descending another 20 feet or so.

The trail again seemed to stop above a cleft between two boulders, but the only way to proceed here is down.  It’s only a drop of about eight feet, with good handholds and footholds, and to make things easier there’s a rope you can grab.  After getting to the bottom, at a lower level on the canyon wall, a small bluff stretches off to the right, with a trail along the bottom.

We could see the creek was just about 15 feet below us, and we had one more descent to make, with the lower reaches of the canyon wall to one side and a drop-off on the other.  The route here is narrow and requires some care to navigate.  We brought hiking poles with us, and we were glad of it.  As I was picking my route to start the final descent, I planted a pole, picked out where to step, and lifted a foot in preparation.  And then….

In all of our hikes, only once have we seen a venomous snake, and that was only after someone pointed it out to us, well off the trail.  This would be our first close encounter, as my next step would have landed squarely on this copperhead.  Fortunately for both of us, I spotted it in time and was able to hop backwards while shouting, “Snake! Snake! Snake!”  There wasn’t really any way around it, so we watched it for a few minutes and snapped some photos and video.  The snake figured out we weren’t prey, and it wasn’t prey either, so it calmly and slowly slithered off to the side to hide under a tree trunk, and I slipped on past and made the last climb down into the bottom of the canyon.  Ruth followed suit, and we crossed the creek on stepping stones, then turned left and walked into the natural bowl filled by the gorgeous Mize Mill Falls.

This is a very photogenic fall, tumbling in two cascades over three drops.  Its setting is stunning, with a large overhang to the left, and a bluff to the right.  There’s a sizeable though shallow plunge pool, which was beautifully dappled by the morning sun.

This little canyon is terrific!  If I had done better research beforehand, I would have known that Turkey Foot Falls is just a little downstream of Mize Mill Falls, and we could have gotten two waterfall visits with very little effort.  In fact, some maps list Mize Mill Falls as “Upper Turkey Foot Falls,” so apparently they are quite close, and there is some disagreement on what this waterfall is called.  It won’t take much convincing to come back for another look at the other waterfall, though.  We ate our lunch here, admired a butterfly that was also enjoying the canyon, and took bunches of photos and some video, then retraced our route to the car.  The copperhead did not put in an appearance on our way out, to our relief.  The total distance on the hike, according to the GPS track, was only about .35 miles round trip.  It took us about 26 minutes to get from the trailhead to the base of the waterfall, though at least 3 minutes were spent freaking out about the snake.  For the record, I’m not afraid of snakes.  I am, however, afraid of stepping on them, especially if they take offense.

Our next destination was on the western edge of the Bankhead.  We headed west on Cranal Road until it teed into County Road 2, also known as Kinlock Road, and turned north.  The road is paved for a little over two miles before turning into a gravel road after a sharp bend.  Shortly after that, “No camping” signs start appearing along the right side of the road, and if you’re there in the summer, you’ll start seeing vehicles parked on the road shoulder.  We found a spot to pull in and continued north, toward a bridge over Hubbard Creek.  However, before getting to the bridge, a set of steps leads off to the right and down the embankment to a trail that parallels Hubbard Creek.  You can hear the sound of rushing water pretty much as soon as you park, because you are at probably the most popular swimming hole in the Bankhead — Kinlock Falls.

We turned right on the trail and headed downstream.   Almost immediately we could see the top of the falls, where the creek is shallow enough for a crossing.  Like most falls, it doesn’t look all that impressive at the top.  We continued downstream and passed a rope swing on our way to the top of the bluff overlooking the falls, then settled in on a nice flat rock outcrop and took in the scene.

And what a scene it was.  Kinlock Falls is a cascade-type waterfall, dropping around 40 feet from top to bottom along a natural water slide.  The drop isn’t too steep, especially on the creek-left side, and while we watched a couple of people rode inner tubes down the waterfall into the very deep plunge pool.  There’s a rope along one side of the waterfall that the tube riders used to climb back up for another trip.

I’ve seen pictures of Kinlock Falls before and didn’t think that much of it. However, it’s much better in person, as you see the scale of it and hear the roar of the water.  Hubbard Creek is quite wide at the bottom of the fall, and deep enough to allow people to use the rope swing or even to jump in from the top of the bluff where we were sitting.  We spoke to one daredevil, who said it was a lot of fun but also pointed out that there are boulders on the bottom of the plunge pool, so you’ll need to pick your landing spot carefully, especially if you’re using the rope swing.  You can see the boulders easily from the top of the bluff.  About 100 yards down from the falls, the creek becomes shallow again, but the area between the shallows and the falls is a glorious swimming hole.

The natural setting is lovely, but this is a much-trafficked (by Bankhead standards) area, so there is a problem with litter along the trail and on top of the bluff.  There are no bathrooms or changing facilities, and no garbage cans either.  Also, getting from the trail down to the top of the bluff necessitates a short scramble downhill, but there are plenty of tree roots to use for leverage and/or footing.  The trail continues on down to the creek level, but will require some more scrambling to get to the water.  We were there on a summer Sunday morning, so there were only about a dozen people swimming and sliding, but by the time we left after lunchtime there were quite a few more cars and trucks and motorcycles parked along the road.  We didn’t bother to take poles on the hike, or to even bring the GPS.  The walk down to our  observation point took about five minutes.

It was time to move on to our third destination for the day, which was only about half a mile north on Kinlock Road.  The name “Kinlock” comes from the former home site of David Hubbard, an early settler.  Hubbard was a prominent politician, serving in the Alabama, U.S., and Confederate States legislatures.  He built a plantation house and a mill in southwest Lawrence County, where the small community of Kinlock grew around the plantation.  This general area of the Bankhead National Forest is known as the Kinlock Spring Historic District,  owing not only to the historical significance of the plantation and mill, but also to the many archaeological sites in the area.  The best known of these sites is the Kinlock Shelter, an enormous rock house used by the Yuchi tribe, and later by the Cherokee.

There’s a small parking area on the left that can hold two or three vehicles, and just past that parking lot is a gated Forest Service road that offers parking for another two or three vehicles.  We took a look at the historic marker for Kinlock, a plaque next to a trail that leaves from the parking area, but before we headed into the woods we walked back up the road to where I had noticed a column partially hidden in the woods.  About 50 yards south of the parking area on the east side of the road, the base of two columns, which I presume are from David Hubbard’s house, are still standing.  The house was built in the 1830s, though eventually Hubbard moved in the 1860s or 1870s, and eventually the house was abandoned.  However, it was in good enough shape that it was used as the headquarters for Civilian Conservation Corps Company 1403 when their camp was established in 1933.  The house burned in 1935, but the camp lasted until 1938, and was then converted to a summer camp for the 4-H Club.  We walked around the site of the camp, where there are still foundation stones visible and four piers for a structure that had some sort of plumbing in it — perhaps a wellhouse?

We returned to the parking area and took the trail that started at the historical marker.  It entered the woods and only a few yards later passed by Kinlock Spring, an important water source for the area.  The spring was still running, with one of the biggest spiders I’ve ever seen standing guard on one of its walls.  Though this is not one of the developed trails, the footbed was mostly level and well-established, and even broad as the trail went west, then north.  At one point the broad and flat trail crossed a bed of sandstone, passing through a grove of young pines.  The showiest wildflower of the day, Curtiss’ milkwort, was in bloom along this stretch.

The trail continued to the north, where at about .2 miles from the trailhead it teed into a gravel Forest Service road.  We turned left and about 300 feet later, the trail re-entered the woods on our right.  There aren’t any blazes and there’s no signage, but the trail is pretty obvious.  It continues mostly level for another 500 feet, at one point splitting left and right.  Stay to the left — we followed the right fork for about 100 yards and it didn’t look like it was going anywhere.

The trail then steeply descends into a hollow.  Footing is a little challenging in a couple of places, though we saw young children handling the descent with relative ease as we were climbing back out later.  The trail passes through a boggy area, and then, through the trees, the massive Kinlock Shelter announces its presence.

Friends, this is a BIG shelter.  It’s around 300 feet wide, up to 70 feet tall, and up to 100 feet deep.  Its overhang is taller and wider than Russell Cave National Monument or Cathedral Caverns, in case you’ve ever been to those sites.  At one end, a cave continues back into the hillside, which we didn’t explore.  It’s old — excavations have found evidence of human activity for thousands of years.  It’s still used as a ceremonial site, and for people who know what they’re looking for, there are ancient petroglyphs still visible carved into the stone.  Sadly, we do not fit into that group, but the sheer size and the orange and green tones of the sandstone make this a beautiful and impressive site.

After taking some time to soak in the atmosphere, we reluctantly saddled up and retraced our route out of the hollow back to the trail, and then back to the gravel road.  We turned left onto the road and decided to just hike it to its intersection with Kinlock Road, just a few feet up the road from the parking area.  The total distance for the hike, according to our GPS track, was about .875 miles, though some of the mileage includes our meandering in the old CCC camp.  It took us about 20 minutes to get from the parking area to the shelter.

The Bankhead National Forest and Sipsey Wilderness have so much to offer, and we enjoyed our short hikes to these three (slightly) hidden treasures.  Though they aren’t reached by official maintained trails, the routes to Mize Mill Falls and Kinlock Shelter were easy to find and mostly easy to follow, though there are no trail markings and they don’t appear on official maps.  Kinlock Falls is the easiest to find — when Kinlock Road becomes a gravel road, just look for parked vehicles on the right side of the road and head for the sound of water.

So for once the Bankhead didn’t trick us into any ten-mile hikes, though as usual it did try to kill us. Well, not really — as Ruth pointed out, it just reminded us that it could kill us if it wanted to.  It’s tough love from Mother Nature, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Serendipity – and Llamas: Trillium Gap Trail

At the beginning of this year as we looked over our hikes from last year, we realized a horrible truth. We had not once managed to get up to our beloved Smoky Mountains for a hike of any sort! We were determined to correct that oversight this year, but to be honest, had made absolutely no concrete plans. We have a list of hikes we’d like to do, and sure enough “Smokies hike” is on there, but that’s about as far as we’d gotten. Then something wonderful happened. A co-worker of mine sent me an email asking if Chet and I had plans for June 29-July 2. It turns out that they were part of a lucky group that had recurring reservations at LeConte Lodge for the Friday before July 4th. I should explain – it used to be that the lodge would let folks set up recurring reservations for the same date every year. In 1998 the rules changed and they no longer accept new recurring reservations. If you already had one set up, though, you were allowed to keep it for 20 years, which makes next year the last year for this group. In any case, my co-worker and his wife were not going to be able to make the hike this year due to injury and offered their two spots to us. We thought about it for about a nanosecond before we jumped at the chance.

We drove up after work Thursday night so that we could meet the group for breakfast early Friday morning. Breakfast was where we coordinated who’d be in what cabin and got an idea about what trails folks were going to take. We had a lot of folks hiking up Alum Cave Trail, a family going up Rainbow Falls Trail, a group running up Boulevard Trail, and another couple taking Brushy Mountain Trail until it joined up with Trillium Gap Trail. Chet and I had thought about Brushy Mountain, but in the end chose to start at the Grotto Falls parking lot and hike up Trillium Gap Trail. This meant we had somebody in the group on every open trail (Bullhead Trail is closed for the season due to fire damage from the 17,000 acre fire that burned into Gatlinburg in November 2016).  It turned out three other folks in our group wanted to hike up from Grotto Falls as well, so after a quick group picture, the five of us hopped in a car and headed to the trailhead.

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Trillium Gap Trail is the one the llamas use to get supplies up to the lodge on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. To be honest, since we were hiking on a Friday that’s a lot of the reason I picked it. I love llamas! Sure enough we parked just a few spots down from the llama trailer. They’d beaten us to the trail, probably by a long time, so we saw no sign of them in the parking lot. It’s a nice trailhead. There’s plenty of parking and even a building that looked like it might be a restroom. The trail headed out of the far end of the parking lot and with that we were on the trail and heading up.

 

The first part of the trail was pretty rooty, but not difficult footing. I was impressed once again by the sense of age that I get on these trails. The trees seem bigger and more ancient, the trails like footpaths that have been used since prehistory. I don’t know – maybe it’s all in my head, but it just feels different in the Smokies in a way that I can’t quite explain. My favorite thing about hiking in the Smokies at this time of year, though,  is all the rhododendrons and mountain laurel. Nine species of rhododendron (or rhododendron family) shrubs bloom in the park, and from May into July the mountains are just covered in blooms. On the lower part of the trail, we saw lots of rosebay rhododendron, as well as black cohosh and wild hydrangea.

 

The trail winds through eastern hemlock groves and crosses several little streams before the feature that makes Trillium Gap Trail one of the most popular trails in the park comes into view. Grotto Falls, at 1.3 miles from the trailhead, is formed when Roaring Fork drops 30 feet over the falls. The trail actually goes behind the falls, which is always fun. It would have been more fun if it hadn’t started raining, though. It always rains on us when we hike in the Smokies so we were prepared with raincoats and pack covers, but we were hoping to get at least a few miles of rain-free hiking in. It was not to be. The rain started at the falls, and kept up pretty much the whole way up. It made for a very misty hike with no views down into the valleys. Chet was able to get a few good shots of the falls in before we raincoated-up and started slogging our way up the trail.

 

The trail after the falls is steeper and rockier. It was raining pretty hard at first so sometimes it felt a little like we were walking up a creek. That was just how the salamanders like it, I guess, because we saw several clinging onto rocks and scampering along the trail. There was one small creek crossing, and then at the 2.9 mile mark we arrived at Trillium Gap. This is a gap or pass between Mount LeConte and Brushy Mountain and in fact there is a short spur trail that leads to Brushy Mountain where there normally are great views up to LeConte and even as far as Sevierville. This day was so misty and rainy that we debated whether we wanted to check it out or not. As we sat on a wet log eating trail mix and discussing our options, a couple come down the spur trail. When we asked if there was any view, they said they could see LeConte peeking through the clouds a bit. Just after they said that, though, the skies opened up again so we decided to skip it and just keep heading up to the lodge. My “raincoat” was more of a windbreaker apparently, since it seemed to keep very little of me dry, and my boots either aren’t waterproof or have lost their waterproofing because my feet were damp too. I was ready to get off the trail and into something dry!

 

From the gap, Brushy Mountain trail leads straight ahead for 5.5 miles to the trailhead at Porters Creek. Trillium Gap Trail makes a sharp right turn at the gap and heads uphill steeply towards the peak of Mount LeConte, 3.6 miles away. Trillium is not the steepest trail to LeConte – Alum Cave is steeper – but I will say that particularly after the gap it climbs pretty relentlessly uphill with only a few level sections. This section was rocky again, and we saw tall meadow rue, small purple fringed orchid, mountain laurel, wood sorrel, catawba rhododendron, and umbrella leaf.

 

My least favorite things were the erosion control steps (or whatever they’re called). There were many of these, and I found them hard to climb up. My knees and thighs were sore the next day and I’m blaming these evil things! We started passing people headed down from the lodge, which got my hopes up that we were getting close. Towards the top the trail does have a couple of almost level sections, the last of which cuts through a stand of balsam firs. Finally, finally, we came to a sign about “No Horses Beyond this Point,” then a bridge, then staff cabins or outbuildings, and then on the left – the llamas!

 

They were penned behind the dining hall, munching on leftover pancakes from breakfast, while being saddled up for the trip back down the mountain. We admired them for a few minutes before we went on to find our cabin to drop our packs, change out of wet socks and boots, and then head straight to the dining hall for the all you can drink hot chocolate that comes along with your room. Next order of business was a trip up to the office to officially check in and buy our “only available if you hike to the top” 2017 LeConte T-shirt. This year’s design is a nice one! Warmed a bit by hot chocolate and now with a dry shirt to put on, my next activity was a good nap.

 

We were staying in one of the three bedroom lodges. These buildings have a large porch with rocking chairs, a common room with a small table and a couple of chairs, and three small bedrooms. There is no electricity or running water in the cabins or lodges, though kerosene lanterns and propane heaters are provided. There are flush toilets in a separate building, and you get a bucket at check in to go collect hot water from a spigot if you want to take a sponge bath.  I believe each bedroom has a double bunk bed in it, similar to the beds in the individual cabins. We claimed the top bunk, not knowing anything about our roommates. We knew the couple we were staying with had planned on leaving Huntsville in the early morning and driving straight to the trailhead. These are the folks who planned on hiking up Brushy Mountain, which is a 9.1 mile hike. We’d been told they are super hikers, but still we figured after a long drive and a long hike the last thing they’d want is to have to climb up to the top bunk. As it turned out, they ran into a two hour traffic snarl in Chattanooga caused by a wreck so they changed plans and hiked up Trillium Gap Trail instead since it was “only” 6.7 miles. They arrived in time for dinner though, which is the important thing. If you’re not checked in by 6:00, you’re out of luck!

I’m pretty sure that the dinner served at the Mount LeConte Lodge hasn’t changed in decades, but it is delicious. We had potato soup, some sort of roast and gravy, mashed potatoes, green beans, stewed apples, a peach half, and chocolate chip cookies. Water, hot chocolate and coffee come with the meal, though you can also order wine with dinner for a flat rate of $11, which gets you as many refills as you’d like of red, white, or rose wines.  They also can accommodate vegetarian and gluten free guests, though those meals must be requested a week in advance. Dinner is served family style so when Chet and I have been up here before we were seated at a table with people we’d never met. This time, because we were such a large group, we ended up sitting with folks in our group, though since we were “fill ins” we really didn’t know them either. This year, we got a bit of entertainment at dinner. A young woman got up and played us something classical on a violin. I didn’t hear the introduction so I don’t know what that was all about, but it was very well done and everybody seemed to enjoy it.

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After dinner, we went back to the cabin for a bit, then heard there were deer wandering among the cabins so we went to find them. Deer have gotten much bolder in the years since I’ve been here. It’s apparently not uncommon to see them wandering among the cabins, totally unfazed by all the humans. After that, most of us headed up to the office, which is the hangout area. There is a large propane heater surrounded by rocking chairs, several tables, and stacks of games and puzzles to keep us entertained. Some folks worked on a puzzle, one group played monopoly, another group was trying to teach a couple of people Euchre, and the rest of us just hung out and chatted. We met a guy who has a YouTube channel about hiking. He and a buddy were on a several day hiking trip, carting some pretty impressive video equipment along with them. We met another couple of guys who had hiked 19 miles that day to get to Mount LeConte from Clingman’s Dome. Needless to say these were some fit young guys – at least one of whom was a Marine. I felt a bit like a wimp for only hiking 6.7 and doing it pretty slowly at that! There was much discussion about whether it made any sense at all to hike up to Cliff Tops for the sunset. The mountain top was shrouded in clouds so we opted to skip it. A little while after official sunset, though,  the clouds  parted and we got a bit of sunset after all! We all streamed out onto the deck to look at the sky, and then someone noticed that the nightly Dollywood fireworks were starting up. It was a bit strange to be looking down on fireworks!

 

Soon enough folks were starting to wind down and we headed off to bed. It had been a rain soaked hike on a day with few views and no spectacular sunset but still, the magic of LeConte meant that I went to bed a happy woman. I was back in “my” mountains and even better, I got to see llamas! It was a great day.

 

The Launch Pad: Thanks for Thirty Inspiring Years, Land Trust of North Alabama

In 1940 Huntsville, Alabama was known as the watercress capital of the world.  Early the next year, this sleepy town of 13,000 was energized when 35,000 acres southwest of downtown were designated as the site of three chemical munitions plants.  Watercress took a back seat to technology during World War II, and the city grew to support its new main industry.  After the war ended, demand for munitions predictably declined, and it looked like maybe watercress was going to make a comeback.  But in 1950 the Army relocated some German rocket scientists here to work on missiles, and Huntsville was reinvented.  About ten years later, NASA came into the picture, and the city could now style itself as the Rocket City.  With the end of the Apollo program in the 1970s, it looked like Huntsville would never be the same, but new space programs like the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station, the growth of Army and other defense programs on Redstone Arsenal, and the rise of biotechnology companies once again relaunched Huntsville onto different, but familiar, new trajectories.

The city grew to cover 210 square miles, with a population of over 180,000 people in 2010.  That’s just the city proper.  Madison County had a population of 66,317 in 1940, and now is estimated to have a population around 357,000.  All these people had to live somewhere, so cotton fields were plowed under and replanted with houses, and more houses crept up the sides of the mountains.  Leaders in the city of Huntsville became concerned about the loss of green spaces, and formed an ad hoc committee to review the situation, and it recommended the establishment of a land trust.  So on June 24, 1987, the Huntsville Land Trust was incorporated, and now known as the Land Trust of North Alabama, it’s celebrating its 30-year anniversary.

landtrustlogoRegular readers of this blog know that we are big fans of the Land Trust.  We’re members and trail care volunteers, and more to the point, we hike its 62+ miles of trails regularly.  Given their history and development, Huntsville and north Alabama are often described as a launch pad for high technology and science.  It strikes me that the Land Trust is also a launch pad of a different sort — a starting point for adventure, for growing a love of the outdoors, and for forming an appreciation for the environment and a desire to preserve and protect it.

Can anyone put a number on how many children had their first hike in the woods on a Land Trust property?  How many people have filled their lungs with fresh air out on a trail in those 30 years?  Who has been inspired by a wildflower, or a gnarled tree, or a babbling creek?  Who took to the trails on foot, bike, or horse to train for bigger adventures?   Well, we did — last weekend.  We recently had an opportunity for a little adventure come up unexpectedly, which Ruth will be blogging about next week, and to prepare ourselves we went to where it all started for the Land Trust:  to the Monte Sano Preserve on the west side of Monte Sano Mountain.

We’ll be hiking with a group next weekend, so we joined some members of the group on a practice hike to meet each other and to stretch our legs.  We planned a modest little loop, made up of the Toll Gate, High, and Bluff Line trails, that would amount to a smidge over 4 miles.  We met up at the Land Trust’s Bankhead Trailhead, and after introductions ten humans, two dogs, and a cockatoo started the loop by leaving the parking lot and heading up the northern section of the Toll Gate trail.

Gray-headed coneflower

The best thing I can say about the northern section of the Toll Gate trail is that it is a necessary evil.  The southern portions, which wind from the Bankhead parking lot down to Toll Gate Road, are tolerable, though the trail parallels Bankhead Parkway for most of its length.  The northern section starts out close to the road, but soon turns to the northeast into more quiet territory.  Which is nice, because you’ll be able to hear your tendons snap when you stumble on the loose rocks that make up the entire length of the former roadbed as it winds up the mountain.  It is, hands down, my least favorite Land Trust trail, and I’ll probably keep whining about it until the Land Trust reroutes the trail completely and lets Satan, I mean Nature, reclaim the old route.  If you are using this trail to form part of a loop, I recommend hiking it uphill since you are a little less likely to fall up a mountain.  There are a couple of nice things I’ll say about this part of the hike, though: (1) it’s relatively short, about .5 mile, and (2) we saw a few wildflowers along the way, most notably St. John’s wort and gray-headed coneflower.

Wild potato vine

After slip-sliding up the Toll Gate trail, we turned right onto the High trail and things immediately began looking up.  The High trail is a largely level path that runs about 200 feet below the western rim of Monte Sano Mountain for a distance of 1.47 miles.  There’s a small quarry that forms a little pond near the Toll Gate-High junction.  Once you’re past the quarry, the footbed changes from old roadbed gravel to dirt, and the woods close in around the trail.  Butterfly weed and wild potato vine were blooming near the quarry.  At about .2 miles from the junction, the trail widened and was more disturbed, due to the damage done by an EF-2 tornado that hit the slopes of the mountain in early December 2016.  Volunteers did outstanding work to clear the trails on the preserve and in the state park, and their efforts are much appreciated.

The next landmark on the trail is a power line cut, with an iconic view to the west where you can see the Saturn V rocket at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center off in the distance.  All the trails in this vicinity of the preserve cross this power line cut, but the view from the High trail is arguably the best one.  As is often the case, wildflowers grow well in the open area under the power lines.  We saw hairy ruellia, blackberries, water hemlock, and narrowleaf vervain here.

After crossing the open area, the High trail re-enters the woods, heading roughly south as it crosses some small creeks and passes a side trail to the basin where the guests of the Monte Sano Hotel soaked in the “healing waters” of the Mountain of Health.  At about .8 miles from the Toll Gate-High junction, the trail crosses a more substantial creek (easily rock-hopped) that runs down the mountain and joins with the spring-fed Fagan Creek.  The trail is at its best in this section — quiet, shady, level, well-drained, with occasional splashes of color from trumpet creeper blossoms.  After crossing the creek, the trail bends to the southwest before curving south again to tee into the Bluff Line trail.

We turned right onto Bluff Line to loop back to the Bankhead trailhead.  If you want to extend your hike, you could choose to turn left instead and walk about .6 miles to the South Monte Sano Trailhead on Monte Sano Boulevard, or turn left and then take the Waterline trail past Dry Falls down to the Three Caves Trailhead.

In my memory, the Bluff Line trail parallels the High trail, just a little lower on the mountain.  Indeed, at first it’s not much of a change from the High trail — nice and shady and level.  However, my memory had conveniently skipped the part that you have to lose some altitude to get lower on the mountain, and in the case of the Bluff Line trail, that altitude is lost fairly abruptly, as the trail drops 300 feet over the next .35 miles.  The trail doesn’t use many switchbacks, so as a result it’s badly eroded in many places.  You’ll need to watch your footing as the trail descends.  There was one very nice consolation prize, however, as we came across a couple of small leatherleaf mahonia shrubs in an open area about halfway down the descent.  It’s eye-catching in that the leaves look like American holly, but on these particular specimens some of the leaves were bright red or pale yellow.  It’s not native to this area — in fact, it’s considered an invasive, but it’s an exotic beauty.  Apparently it has very fragrant flowers and showy fruit too.  It’s a little tramp!

The Bluff Line trail tees into and briefly overlaps the Wagon trail as it levels out and curves to the northeast.  At this point, we began paralleling the High trail, as the footbed smoothed out, with occasional exposed rocks on either side of the trail.  We saw yellow leafcup, false Solomon’s seal, and even a couple of old trilliums along this portion of the trail as it worked its way gradually back to the more substantial creek we had crossed earlier in the hike.

As we worked our way back north, the Old Railroad Bed trail became visible to the left, below us.  About a half mile after crossing the creek, the Bluff Line trail re-entered the area of tornado damage, more visible at one of the smaller creek crossings.  This might give you an idea of what those trail maintenance volunteers were facing!  Almost immediately afterwards, we were crossing the power line cut again, a bit lower on the mountain, and a few different wildflowers were growing here, just about 300 feet lower in altitude.  We identified Loomis’ mountain mint, tall ironweed, horse nettle, and heal all in bloom here.

I should point out that a couple of the plants that we found in the power line cut are dangerous.  Water hemlock and horse nettle are extremely poisonous.  All parts of both plants will make you sick if ingested, particularly the root of the water hemlock and the fruit of the horse nettle.  The water hemlock is a member of the carrot and parsnip family, so it’s not far-fetched that someone might take the notion to dig one up.  The horse nettle berries resemble yellow cherry tomatoes.  Like the tomato, the horse nettle is in the nightshade family, but if you snap up enough of these fruits, you’ll be launching yourself right into the afterlife.  Keep a close eye on the kids, folks.

After we crossed the power line cut, we were in the last .25 mile of the hike, which looped back to the Bankhead parking lot.  Before we reached the parking lot, just past the intersection with the Old Railroad Bed trail, we noticed a new bluebird house off the trail.  This reminded me that the Land Trust is more than just a collection of properties.  It also has an active environmental education mission and works with partner organizations to produce several programs throughout the year.  It’s best known for its Tuesdays on the Trail summer education series for children, but there are other events for all ages, such as guided hikes for members and non-members and workshops on building birdhouses and bat shelters.

Our loop hike came in at 4.1 miles, and was a great little warmup for our upcoming longer hike.  With the various Land Trust preserves scattered throughout the county, there’s bound to be just the right hike for you — all at no cost (though donations and membership are welcome!).  And the best part is that more land is being saved for our benefit and efforts are underway to open a new preserve by the end of the year.

Thirty years after its founding, the Land Trust of North Alabama is thriving.  If you haven’t visited a Land Trust launch pad, that’s the best way you can celebrate this anniversary.  We offer our heartfelt thanks to the visionary people who started the Land Trust, and to those who have kept it going and growing over the years.

 

Opposites Attract: Tannehill Ironworks Historical State Park

Our latest adventure was a study in opposites. I was looking for someplace that had a few easy trails (my hip flexor was acting up again) but also maybe some other interesting sights to see. Usually this means a trail with an historic cabin on it or maybe a beautiful waterfall. What I picked, though, was Tannehill Ironworks Historical State Park. About 2 hours southwest of Huntsville, not far off I-20 between Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, this park is more than 1500 acres of land spread across three counties. It has hiking trails, biking trails, and horse trails winding through trees and alongside creeks. But if you think this is your basic nature preserve, you’d be wrong.

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After driving down the mile-long entry road and paying a $5 a person entry fee at the gate, we parked and reviewed a map to plot out what we wanted to do first. This part of the park is all about recreation.  This is where you’ll find the 195 improved RV campsites, bathhouses, a camp store, and a large and shady picnic area.  It was all very 2017-familiar. Just on the other side of the picnic area, though, was something labeled Craft Cabins. We headed that way and immediately shifted from 2017 to the 1800s.

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The Craft Cabins are log homes from the 1800s that have been moved to the park and set up along a re-creation of an 1840s plank road. The plank roads were an improvement over rutted dirt roads and were built to spur development. On summer weekends, each of the cabins along the road hosts a different local artisan. This weekend there was an engraver, a potter, a quilter, and my favorite, the seamstress and her husband the antique sewing machine repairman. This couple dressed in period dress and were eager to tell us all about fashions in the late 1800s as well as the technology represented by the hand-cranked Singer sewing machines. I leafed through the fashion magazines of the day and learned about slatted bonnets, shawls, veils, parasols, glasses, petticoats, and crinolines.

 

Next up, we moved from cozy cabins to the industrial revolution. Birmingham was founded in 1871 and became the primary industrial center of the South due in no small part to its many iron and steel furnaces.  This quiet and still rural spot 30 miles to the southwest, though, is really where all that industry got its start and this park, managed by the Alabama Historic Ironworks Commission, was created in 1969 as part of an effort to preserve that history. In 1830, Daniel Hillman built a bloomery forge on the banks of the creek here. A bloomery forge was an early type of forge in use since the beginning of the iron age.  It was usually small and could be run by one or two people. Not many examples of this type of forge survive, but the foundations of this one were uncovered by a recent archaeological dig.  Though Mr. Hillman died only two years after he built his forge, the site was rich in ore and was in a prime location so a larger and more modern set of three blast furnaces was built on almost the exact same spot starting in 1859. These furnaces were used to supply pig iron to the Confederacy during the Civil War. On March 31, 1865, the furnaces were destroyed by the Union Army, but the advances made here are what gave the post-Civil-War Birmingham steel industry its start.

 

After checking out the outsides of furnace, the blower house, the water gate, and one more antique cabin, it was time for the actual hike part of our trip so we shifted again, this time from machines and industry to creeks and trees. We crossed the creek just past the furnaces intending to take a trail called the Slave Quarters Trail. First though, a word about the trails in this park, or rather the trail maps. There seem to be two different trail maps available online. The one we used is the one we got to from the “Activities” page on the website. It looks like a hand-drawn map with about 7 trails listed. We later found out that there is another trail map available from the “Forms and Links” page which is totally different. The trail names used on the first map aren’t always used on the second one. The first one has at least some mileages, while the second one has none. Really, what’s needed is a combination of the two, plus the mileage information from REI’s Hiking Project page for Tannehill.  There are many more trails here than I’d realized, which of course means we’ll have to make a return trip!

But back to the trail.  Slave Quarters Trail leads along an old roadbed, which a sign informed us had connected to the Montevallo Stage Coach Road. Being a roadbed, it was very level and easy to walk along. We saw no slave quarters or any other buildings along the route. My favorite thing about this trail though was that they have put in tree ID plaques along the way. Chet and I tried out our Tree ID Ninja skills by not looking at the plaque before we’d at least tried to identify the tree. We did … ok. I missed a few that I’m mad about, but got many others.

 

After a .7 mile amble through the woods, the trail intersects with the Old Buckville Stage Road Trail.  Turning right would have led us a mile down the road to an old slave cemetery, but in the interest of time we turned left, and almost immediately passed under a large metal arch that proclaimed we were on the “Shirley Real Trail.”  The only information I could find on this is that the trail is named for “two leaders in the conservation movement in Alabama” and is supposed to eventually have butterfly and wildflower gardens. Just past this sign another road leads off to the right to another large metal archway that is the entrance to the Boy Scout camp Camp Jack Wright.  We continued on looking for the grist mill or the pioneer farm but instead we made another shift.

 

This time, we moved from quiet idyllic nature to a bustling shopping area. We had wandered into the part of the park where they were holding their monthly Trade Days. From March through November on the third weekend of the month 350+ vendors set up stalls at Tannehill for your shopping pleasure. While we weren’t really there to shop, we did walk among the stalls a bit, and we were delighted to find a food vendor selling roasted corn – a huge favorite of Chet’s.

 

After enjoying the corn, we got our bearings again and found our way to the Grist Mill.  We checked out the dam, the millrace and the outside of the mill (it wasn’t open) before heading up a paved path towards what we hoped was the pioneer farm. This area is described as a collection of 19th and 20th century farm buildings and I had in mind something like the Mountain Farm at Oconaluftee Visitor’s Center or Cades Cove in the Smoky Mountains. What I found was not quite like that though. There was a working blacksmith shop complete with working blacksmith which was cool, but otherwise it was just a bunch of old farm buildings used for storage, none of which were opened. It was pretty disappointing.

 

We wavered a bit about whether to go back towards Trade Day to find the advertised creamery (ice cream on a summer day is just the best, isn’t it?), but decided instead to look for the train. They have a miniature railway that provides rides from the trade day area to the main camping area for $1. We could have walked the mile back to car, but I couldn’t resist the fun of a kiddie train so we found the “station” and waited for our ride. Soon we were onboard and enjoying a nice cool breeze as we rode down the track. As a bonus, when we got off in the main campground the train conductor told everybody to visit the creamery, which it turns out was NOT back in the Trade Day area, but was just across the street where the Tannehill Sweet Shoppe used to be. If that wasn’t a sign that we should get ice cream, I don’t know what it was. I had mint chocolate chip, while Chet enjoyed a salted caramel. MMMMmmm.

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The final stop of the day was the Country Store, which doubles as the campsite registration and camp store. We were hoping to find corn meal from the grist mill, but they didn’t have any that day. Most days the grist mill is actually open and staffed with a man who grinds meal, but since it was closed today they didn’t have any meal to sell. I hate that we missed both the open and working mill and the chance to buy the corn meal!

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In the end, we’d walked a respectable 3.5 miles, according to our Garmin track, but I feel like we barely scratched the surface of what this park has to offer. Tannehill Ironworks State Park has a little bit of everything – present and past, industry and recreation, ironworks and trees. Certainly in this case, opposites do attract.

 

 

Turn Left: Turkey Creek Nature Preserve

I don’t know if it’s just human nature, or a peculiarly Southern thing, but sometimes I get an inclination to just be contrary.  This usually manifests itself by an urge to do something in opposition to the wisdom of the crowd.  Even though the safe and expected thing is to zig, every now and then I just have to zag.  Maybe it’s a desire to assert my independence from the tribe, even though generally speaking the tribe is a good thing.  In the grand scheme of time, it wasn’t that long ago that our primate ancestors were food for lions and anything else sufficiently fast and cunning, until we figured out that we could band together and use our big brains to figure out a way to compensate for our lack of speed, endurance, and effective teeth and claws.

Though I don’t have any statistics to back me up, I suspect that 95% of the visitors to the Turkey Creek Nature Preserve park their cars in the gravel lot or off the pavement, then climb out and turn right.  It’s a one-way road, so when they head to the right they are making their way to the banks of Turkey Creek.  The crowd is pretty wise, in this case — it’s a nice big, cool creek, with a spectacular natural water slide formed from a cascade in a bend of the creek.

But when Ruth and I visited recently, it was one of my contrary days.  Instead of turning right when we parked, we turned left, away from the creek, and onto the preserve’s trail system.  While Turkey Creek Falls is one of the best known swimming holes in this area, the preserve also offers five developed trails for a total of around 6.3 miles of hiking.  Since this is a hiking blog, not a swimming blog (if you’ve seen me swim, you’ll know why), we thought you might like to read about the trails.

First, a bit of info about the preserve.  It’s in Pinson, Alabama, which is about a 90-minute drive south of Huntsville.  Turkey Creek Nature Preserve is a 466 acre private reserve, formed by a partnership between Forever Wild and the Freshwater Land Trust.  The preserve protects several endangered species, both flora and fauna, in a diverse habitat.  Admission is free, and the preserve is typically open Wednesday-Sunday, and closed on major holidays.  Check their website for hours, as they may change with the seasons, but generally this is a day-use facility.  No overnight camping is allowed.

For our visit, we drove around to the Turkey Creek Falls recreation area and found parking on the side of the road.  There’s a small gravel lot here that will hold around 12 vehicles, but most visitors park along the road.  It’s a popular spot, so you’re best advised to arrive early (especially on a hot day!).  There are some changing rooms and porta-potties at one end of the parking lot.

We had studied the trail map in advance, and I had picked out a route that would cover the three longest trails in the preserve:  the Narrows Ridge trail (3.2 miles), Thompson Trace trail (1.4 miles) and Hanby Hollow trail (0.9 miles).  Narrows Ridge is a figure-eight loop trail, with 2.7 miles (the lower loop) on the west side of the preserve’s main road, and the other 0.5 miles (the upper loop) on the east side.   Upper and lower are somewhat of a misnomer, as the lower loop rises to a higher altitude than the upper loop, which is mostly at creek level.  The plan was to start on the Thompson Trace trail from the parking lot, turn left onto the Narrows Ridge trail, proceed down to the road and hike the upper loop, then re-cross the road and complete the lower loop back to the Thompson Trace intersection.  We’d then hike the entirety of Thompson Trace east to west to its trailhead at the Highlands Recreation area, then take the Hanby Hollow trail  west to east to return to the parking lot, for a total of around 5.5 miles.

The Thompson Trace trail starts from the north end of the parking lot, with a sign pointing to steps in the bank which lead to a kiosk with a trail map and other information.  The trail, blazed blue, rose gently on a well-packed dirt footbed.

 

 

We didn’t expect to see many wildflowers, but this short stretch of trail put on a modest show for us, with examples of hairy skullcap, oakleaf hydrangea, common yellow wood sorrel, and Appalachian loosestrife.

At a little under 0.1 miles, we reached the intersection with the Narrows Ridge trail and turned left at the well-marked junction of Thompson Trace and Narrows Ridge to start our clockwise loop.  In retrospect, I think this hike would work better if you turn right instead and hike the loop counterclockwise, but I’ll explain later.  The red-blazed Narrows Ridge trail was the only one on our hike that was open to cyclists, and as a result it was a little wider than the Thompson Trace and Hanby Hollow trails.  On occasion, it had a few strategically placed humps to give the riders a chance to catch some air.

The trail trended uphill to the north, then wound to the east, then climbed a little more as it turned to the southeast along the end of a ridge (Narrows Ridge, of course) on the north flank of Red Mountain.  The footbed in this area was in turns sandy, hard-packed earth, or loose sandstone pebbles.  Clearly, this is a sandstone ridge.  We had only been on Narrows Ridge for a few minutes before I spotted a rare sight:  a small pawpaw tree bursting with fruit!  I’ve been keen to try pawpaw jelly, as this edible fruit is described as being a mix of mango and banana flavors.  However, this is a nature preserve, so I contented myself with taking a photo and left the fruits for other hikers to enjoy (in ways that don’t involve eating).

At about a half mile into the hike, the trail descends through a couple of switchbacks down to Turkey Creek Road.  The start of the upper loop was about 50 feet to the right, on the other side of the road, with a signpost clearly marking the starting point.  The upper loop is actually quite different from the lower loop, in that most of it lies in the Turkey Creek floodplain.  As a result, most of the trail is level, with only a short and easy climb and descent at the midpoint of the 0.5 mile loop.  The footbed is very wide and lined with sticks and small logs.  The trail passes an off-limits area to the left which looks to be the remains of a building site (including a collapsed shed), then passes some large vine-covered trees.  Technically this is a lollipop loop, with the loop proper beginning at about 0.1 miles.  We hiked the loop clockwise, and found the north side of the loop to be the most interesting, particularly as we neared Turkey Creek.  The trail doesn’t go all the way to the creek, but this stretch had a few interesting wildflowers in bloom, such as Southern chervil and butterweed.  As we left the open area of the floodplain and the trail climbed a little, we noticed several wildflowers past their blooming period — mayapples, trillium, and violets.  This area is probably the best place to see spring wildflowers, so be sure to take this little loop if you’re visiting in the March-April timeframe.

 

After closing the loop, we retraced our steps and crossed the road to resume our hike of the lower loop.  This next half mile was the lowlight of the hike, a long, slow, straight climb along the side of Narrows Ridge, with traffic whizzing by on Narrows Road/Highway 151 to our left.  This is the section of the trail that made us wish we had hiked the Narrows Ridge loop counterclockwise, as this long climb would have been downhill instead.  Still, we’ve had far steeper climbs, and there were a couple of scenic large boulders along the way, with a small stand of bull nettles also catching the eye.

 

Just before the two mile mark into the hike, the Narrows Ridge trail finally heaves itself over the ridgetop and crosses the Thompson Trace trail.  We continued on our way on the Narrows Ridge lower loop, which flattened out on top of the ridge.  The car noise was much abated, and the trail gently wound a mostly level course past occasional stands of downy skullcap.  About a half mile later we came to the first Narrows Ridge-Hanby Hollow trail intersection, and shortly after that stepped over a very small armored creek crossing, one of only three running creeklets that we saw on this hike.

The trail continued north, then turned to the east and over the next 0.3 miles drew closer to Turkey Creek.  Just before a switchback not far from the second Narrows Ridge-Hanby Hollow intersection, we began to hear the sound of rushing water below us — the unmistakable roar of a waterfall!  Seconds later, we got further confirmation, as the water sounds were punctuated with shouts of glee from children.  We couldn’t see Turkey Creek from here, so the mystery and majesty of Turkey Creek Falls would continue to be a deferred pleasure.

At about 3.1 miles into the hike, we finally closed the Narrows Ridge lower loop, returning to the intersection with the Thompson Trace trail.  Finally, it was time to turn onto the blue-blazed trail, which climbed the northeast end of Narrows Ridge gradually at first, then abruptly got down to business and crested the top of the ridge and followed it to the southwest.  Thompson Trace trail is narrower, since it’s a hiker-only trail, but like all trails we sampled today was well-constructed, well-drained, and mostly clear of obstacles.  All trails that we traveled on this hike had at least one tree down, but all were easily stepped over or around.  The bulk of the Thompson Trace trail runs along the top of the ridge, so other than some mild climbs at either end, it’s a pretty easy walk.  The flora was similar to what we had seen earlier, though the ridgetop had more pines mixed in with the hardwoods, so that the footbed was padded with pine needles in many places.  We also saw a few American beautyberry shrubs in bloom in the stretch before the Narrows Ridge-Thompson Trace intersection.

After crossing the Narrows Ridge trail, the Thompson Trace trail continues southwest and turns north to run along the edge of the preserve, near Highway 151.  In about 0.4 miles, the Hanby Hollow trail takes off to the right, but we continued a few more yards to emerge into the Highlands Recreation (picnic) area, which is the western trailhead for the Thompson Trace trail.   Though we didn’t hike it, the paved Highlands trail leaves from the picnic area and proceeds 0.38 miles to a parking area farther east on Turkey Creek Road.

With two of our three planned trails completed, we retraced our steps to the yellow-blazed Hanby Hollow trail, which soon crossed a small creek on a footbridge.  The trail follows the creek bank for a few hundred feet before turning east and crossing the Narrows Ridge trail.  Afterwards, the trail rises gently across the top of the ridge before turning left and beginning a slow descent through a subtle little hollow.  About a half mile after its first intersection with the Narrows Ridge trail, the Hanby Hollow trail again crosses Narrows Ridge, in the area where we had heard the waterfall below us.  This time, we continued down the back side of the ridge toward Turkey Creek.  After a somewhat steep slope, Hanby Hollow trail reaches Turkey Creek Road, where it would normally turn right and parallel the road back to the parking lot.  However, this stretch of the trail was closed, so we just hoofed it up the road back to the car.  The final tally, according to our GPS track, was 5.1 miles.

Finally, it was time to turn right and have a look at the main attraction — Turkey Creek Falls.  It was a warm day, and the creek bank had a good crowd of laid-back folks watching children (and a few adults) soaking in the creek.  We didn’t want to hike in swimwear and neglected to bring suits to change into, so the best we could do was to doff the boots and socks, put on water shoes, and cool our dogs in a small side rivulet.

Turkey Creek Falls is a powerful cascade in a bend in the creek, with a drop of about five feet on the right side of the creek and a terrific natural water slide along the left side of the creek.  At the end of the slide the creek widens and deepens into a nice swimming hole.

 

And about that water slide…well, I’ll just let the kids tell the story.

 

I’d guess that the preserve is at its busiest during the summer months, when a cooling dip would be most welcome, but the trail system offers year-round beauty without being too challenging.  The various trails make it possible to create hikes of various lengths, and you can choose to stay near the creek or to gain some altitude.  Throw your swimsuit into the pack, come for a visit, and turn left — but make sure you also turn right at some point when you return to your vehicle.  You can trust the crowd on this one.

Checking off the List: Elk River Leg 3

You know how there are those people who just can’t seem to function without some sort of sound filling up every waking minute? You know the type – they keep a radio or TV on at all times – at work, in the car, at home.  I, on the other hand,  am happy with a bit of silence – especially when I’m out in nature someplace. When Chet and I are out on the trail with nobody else around, we don’t feel compelled to talk the whole time. However, we do sometimes spend that time talking about adventures we’d like to take. Maybe we want to hike this same trail in a different season. Or maybe we passed a sign for a state park we’ve not explored. I’ve learned, though, that unless I write it down when I get home, I’ll forget all those brilliant ideas for weekend fun and then draw a blank the next time it’s my turn to pick. So now we have a list.

One of the things on the list was a note that we needed to do a kayak trip “in April or May.”  Kayaking and springtime just seem to go together for me. Spring rains mean that the rivers are high enough that we won’t spend our time dragging ourselves over rocky shallows, and the weather is usually that perfect “not too hot, not too cold.”  So when my turn to come up with our weekend adventure last rolled around, I picked the kayak trip off the list and decided on leg 3 of the Limestone County Canoe and Kayak Trail down the Elk River. In the last couple of years we’ve done leg 1 from Veto, Alabama down to Highway 127, and then leg 2 from Highway 127 to Easter Ferry Road. The third leg goes from Easter Ferry Road down to Hatchery Road, for a 5.6 mile float trip.

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With just the two of us on this adventure, it was easy enough to drive two cars and shuttle ourselves, though Fort Hampton Outfitters would be another choice for those who want someone else to do the shuttling. We drove a vehicle to the Hatchery Road parking lot, which turned out to be a wonderful large level paved lot with a concrete boat ramp. We walked down to the ramp to give things the once-over in case there was anything tricky about how we’d need to get out. It was pretty straightforward, though we did notice that the water was very high.

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We hopped back in the pickup truck and drove back up to the put-in spot at Easter Ferry Road. This lot is not as nice as most of the other ones on we’ve been in on the Trail. The access road down to the lot is steep and deeply rutted and it’s not as roomy as the lot at Veto or Hatchery Road. There is enough space for several cars though and some space to turn around as well. It’s not as nice, but it’s certainly good enough. It has a concrete boat ramp as well. I always like that better than having to scramble over rocks and roots to get in and out of the river, so points for that.

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We quickly got our boats unloaded and were ready to go. Once we got out on the water, we discovered that it was very windy.  It was almost a standoff between the current pushing us downstream and the wind pushing us upstream! We didn’t have to work too hard, though, so I’m guessing the current won out.

 

 

The float itself was pretty uneventful. We passed a big Athens Utilities building of some sort. We had our usual blue heron sighting as one flew ahead of us down the river for a while. We also had another water bird of some sort keep us company for a long time. At first I thought it was a duck of some kind because it did that thing where it sort of ran over the water – flapping its wings so that the water was splashing and making a lot of noise – but never actually took off. We never got close enough to get good pictures, but from a distance it looked to me like the head and beak were thin more like a heron or an egret or something. I wish I knew what it was! We saw no fishing ospreys or swimming raccoons like we had on our last trips, and much to my dismay we only spotted one turtle!

 

 

We also spotted no good places to pull over and beach for lunch. I don’t know if the high water level had anything to do with it; I wondered if maybe there were normally places available but they were just flooded. In any case, this meant no lunch for us since we were both too chicken to attempt to unstrap the cooler mid-river. Knowing my luck, our lunch would have ended up feeding the fishes if I’d tried that. We had checked out this stretch of the river on Google  Maps before the float and noticed that there weren’t even supposed to be little islands along the way until almost to the takeout spot. We had estimated that the trip would take us around 3 to 3.5 hours, just based on our time on the upper stretches. When we came across an island only a couple of hours in, we thought Google Maps had just been wrong. We do joke that Google doesn’t really do that well with bodies of water. Rivers and creeks are often unlabeled, as are other bigger bodies of water. It’s almost as if the thinking is “if a car can’t drive there why bother marking it?” Much to our surprise though, Google got it right this time since the island we came to did end up being the one just before the take out. I guess the current helped us more than we’d thought because it only took us 2 hours to go the 5.6 river miles!

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We beached on the boat ramp and pulled the kayaks out of the river, then Chet hung out in the parking lot while I did the run up to Easter Ferry to switch over to the kayak-carrying pickup truck. When I got back he told me that there must be a farm nearby because he was serenaded with lots of roosters crowing almost the whole time I was gone. Soon we had the kayaks loaded up, and started on the short trek home. Despite the lack of turtles and lunch spots, I really enjoyed my time out on the Elk again. We have one more leg to go to complete the entire trail. Maybe that would make a good fall trip. I’ll have to add it to the list.

 

Cumberland Trail: One Segment Down, Many to Go

Where, you might ask, is Tennessee’s second-largest state park?  Well, it’s just up the road from Chattanooga.  And it’s near Soddy-Daisy.  And it’s not far from Dayton, and just outside of Spring City, Caryville, and La Follette, and the northern edge is at Cumberland Gap.  If you know your Tennessee geography, you might be thinking that’s a very large park indeed, as those cities pretty much span the state from south to north.

And that’s exactly what the Justin P. Wilson Cumberland Trail State Park does.  It’s a linear park, which is a relatively new concept in land preservation.  Linear parks are typically very long and very skinny — just wide enough to protect a trail corridor.  They usually link public lands of various types, with strategic purchases or right-of-way agreements to bridge unconnected parcels, and often interconnect with other trail systems.  A well-known example at the Federal level is the Appalachian Trail, which is actually a unit of the National Parks Service.  As a National Scenic Trail, the AT is administered and cared for by a hodge-podge of federal, state, and local governments and a large number of hiking clubs.

The Cumberland Trail is an ambitious work in progress. When finished, it will be around 300 miles long, running from Chickamauga-Chattanooga National Military Park at Signal Mountain to Cumberland Gap National Historical Park  on the Tennessee/Kentucky border.  At present about 210 miles can be hiked, with the remainder of the trail on state-owned land estimated to be completed in 2019.  The trail is divided into segments of varying lengths, with directions to trailheads and points of interest documented for each section on the excellent Cumberland Trail Conference website.

Ever since I found out about this park, I’ve been keen to hike a segment or two.  A nice long holiday weekend gave us the chance to make the slightly over two-hour drive to our selected segment:  Soddy Creek Gorge South.  Many of the completed segments are fairly long — a few even have overnight camping spots — but we wanted something we could do as a day hike since we needed to be back home that evening.  Soddy Creek Gorge South is a 4.9 mile segment with trailheads relatively close, but it did mean we’d have to have a shuttle vehicle.  Ruth and I drove up separately through light rain to Chattanooga, where we took US Highway 27 north to Soddy-Daisy, then headed up onto the Cumberland Escarpment via the somewhat terrifying Mountain Road (yeah, that’s its name — apparently “Pray You Don’t Meet Anything Bigger On the Way Down Road” was already taken) and Mowbray Pike.  Mountain Road/Mowbray Pike is a narrow, extremely winding road that snakes its way up the escarpment.  We elected to drop a vehicle at the Mowbray Pike trailhead, and to start our hike from the Little Soddy trailhead.

For this segment at least, road signage is clearly not a priority.  Though Google Maps did have both trailheads as navigation points, we sailed right on by the Mowbray Pike parking lot, which is reached by a short, narrow gravel road angling away from the direction of travel (if you’re coming from the south).  There is no sign on the road to direct you to the parking area, so when your GPS says you’re getting close, better strap on your eagle eyes.  After dropping a vehicle in the parking lot (a nice gravel lot with room for several vehicles), we drove north to the Little Soddy trailhead and parked in a small unmarked pullout at the junction of Hotwater Road and Sluder Lane.

This segment of the trail starts as a spur trail about 200 feet north of the parking area on Hotwater Road.  With no fanfare (or signage), the trail enters the woods, where we immediately spotted a kiosk next to a small, unnamed branch off Little Soddy Creek.  We descended a brief rocky and rooty decline, crossed a wooden footbridge, checked out the info on the kiosk, and headed on down the blue-blazed trail.  A word about the blazes — typically in Tennessee state parks, the main trail is blazed white, and spur trails are blazed blue.  That’s not always true in parks with extensive trail systems, though.  In this particular case, the Little Soddy trailhead is not actually on the Cumberland Trail — it’s at the end of a .4 mile spur, so for the first part of our hike we were following the blue blazes.

After the kiosk, the trail levels out and winds through an open understory roughly paralleling the creek.  This is a historic site, as there were many coal mines scattered about the general area.  There aren’t any open mines on this segment — all of the ones that we saw were collapsed.  Small signs marked historic sites, but we didn’t have the brochure available from Cumberland Trail website, so we weren’t ever sure of what we were looking at.  The kiosk at the trailhead has a place to distribute brochures, but it was empty at the time of our visit.  Since we didn’t have the info, and the annoying light rain was continuing, we plowed on ahead instead of taking the yellow-blazed loop toward more historic sites.  This part of the hike was quite nice, as the trail dropped into a hollow and crossed Little Soddy Creek on a footbridge with a mountain laurel blooming next to it.  We spotted a flame azalea, one of our favorite backcountry sights, well off the trail but didn’t bushwhack to get a better look, thinking we’d see more of them (we didn’t).

At .4 mile, we reached the connection to the Cumberland Trail proper.  We turned right to follow the route to the Mowbray Pike trailhead.  A note about trail distances — they  seem to be a bit vague in this section, at least.  According to the trail signage, our total distance from trailhead to trailhead would be 4.6 miles.  The Cumberland Trail Conference website says it’s 4.9 miles, and the Tennessee State Parks website says it’s 4.42 miles.  Our GPS track came out to 5.0 miles, though we did a little off-trail wandering.  That might suggest that the Cumberland Trail Conference website is the most accurate, but we found the mileages to the various points of interest listed on the CTC site didn’t match up with our GPS during the hike.  It might have been weirdness with our GPS, but based on our very limited experience I’d say don’t get too hung up on the mileage, and assume any distance has a plus or minus 10% margin of error.

Once we were on the white-blazed Cumberland Trail, we wound along the coal vein, with Little Soddy Creek to our left for a while.  At times we were on an old roadbed; other times, we were on a narrow footbed.  Very occasionally we saw artifacts from the mining days, such as a coiled length of iron near one of the footbridges.  This section of the trail was relatively low and wet, though the trail is well-engineered and drains nicely, with well-placed stepping stones, stairsteps, and creek armoring.  The abundant water no doubt contributes to a number of wildflowers and ferns in this area, such as running cedar, dwarf crested iris, whorled coreopsis, spotted wintergreen, and bowman’s root just to name a few.

The trail had been inching uphill away from the creek, and at about 1.3 miles made a hairpin turn and begin climbing up the ridge to Clemmons Point.  The change in elevation brought into view the first of several rock formations we’d see along this piece of the hike, though views to the east were largely blocked by the trees.  The drier conditions led to fewer wildflower sightings, though by this time we had recorded over ten wildflowers and earned ourselves our customary post-hike ice cream treat.  We did spot a nice stand of white milkweed in bloom.

The trail undulates a little in this section, dropping from a narrow path along the top of a mine tailing to the bottom of a former strip mine trench.  For the most part, however, the trail stays high and eventually begins passing impressive rock formations on the right.  The trail levels off for the next couple of miles, with rocks to the right and occluded views of the valley to the left.  In this section, at around mile 2.7, the white blazes were sporadically supplemented by fresh-looking bright orange blazes, often above eye-level.  The white metal blazes were no longer in use, but there were still faded white paint blazes from time to time.  It was a little confusing, but we hadn’t passed any obvious trail junctions, and none are shown on the map, so we kept rolling along.

The rain had stopped about the time we reached Clemmons Point, but I was still a little grumpy, complaining that the trail was very nice, but this section didn’t have any unique features.  And right on cue, a little forest denizen popped up on the side of the trail — an Eastern box turtle.  Needless to say, Ruth was delighted!  We snapped a few pictures of our little friend and left her to continue her journey.

The trail continued southwestward, staying level and relatively straight as it passed more impressive rocks, including one that had a sizeable tree growing through a crack.  Several times during the hike we crossed over coal seams, places where small bits of coal were visible on the surface.  It reminded me of our hikes on Ruffner Mountain except of course the surface minerals there are iron ores.

After crossing a small stream at about 3.6 miles, guess what was waiting for us in the center of the trail?  Yep, it was ANOTHER Eastern box turtle!  (I’m certain it was a different one — we’re slow, but we’re not THAT slow).  In all our years of hiking, we have never seen two different land turtles on the same hike.   We paid our respects to the state reptile of Tennessee, and edged past him.

At about mile 4.0, after passing more impressive boulders and bluffs, we noted one bluff with a sizeable overhang that the CTC identifies as a rock house.  We didn’t explore this particular one, but at mile 4.3 a short side trail leads to a small rock house that has been confirmed as a Native American site by an archaeologist.  We detoured briefly to check it out, before continuing to the most interesting section of this segment.

At about 4.4 miles, the trail passes between two large rock formations, in a feature known as the “Little Stone Door.”  This narrow open passage is reminiscent of its namesake, the nearby “Great Stone Door,” which we have previously described.

The clarion call of a waterfall sounded as we walked through the Little Stone Door, and indeed a small waterfall tumbles down from a ledge.  I couldn’t find a good vantage point to photograph the entire drop of Mikel Branch, but bushwhacked down the hill far enough to get a look at the bottom portion of the falls.  It’s possible that the bottom of the fall is outside the park boundary, and as we made our way back uphill we came across one of the higher portions of the cascade, on the back side of one of the large boulders.  Keep an eye out for park boundary markers in this area, but also follow the sound of water to see pretty cascades if you can do so without trespassing.

Once we rejoined the trail, we continued to the west, crossing Mikel Branch on a footbridge before passing through a powerline cut with an impressive view down into Soddy Daisy, with the Tennessee River and the cooling towers of the Sequoyah nuclear power plant visible to the east.  After crossing one last stream and one last coal seam, this segment of the Cumberland Trail heads uphill for its last .2 miles before descending into the parking lot at the Mowbray Pike trailhead.  After picking up our shuttle vehicle, we made our way down to Soddy-Daisy, where we had our ice cream treat at Sonic, then made our way home through several heavy rainstorms.

So, that’s 1 segment down, and 28 to go (of the current sections — there are many more to be added).  Or, if the trail is going to be around 300 miles long, we’ve covered about 1.67% of it.  That’s not really enough to do any generalizing, but we did form a few impressions of this segment.  On the plus side, this segment is very well engineered, with good drainage and reasonably good marking (the orange blazes stopped near the Little Stone Door, and the white metal blazes returned).   We never saw another hiker at any point on this segment, so the solitude rating would be quite high.  There were many scenic rock formations, historic sites, some pretty creeks, and a very good selection of late spring/early summer wildflowers.  And of course, two turtles!

On the minus side, this segment is rather secretive, with no signage on the roads to identify the parking areas.  Also, it’s in need of some general maintenance, as a few sections are overgrown with poison ivy lurking in the narrowest sections, and there are several downed trees.  The trail is still navigable, with stepovers and a few places where you’ll have to skirt the deadfalls, but it would benefit from some attention from a sling blade and a chainsaw.  Changing to orange blazes halfway into the trail, without any description of this in the trail description on the CTC site, is a little unnerving, and almost caused us to do some unnecessary backtracking to make sure we hadn’t missed a trail junction.  This is not meant to nitpick with the fine volunteers who build and maintain this trail — it’s just meant as a heads-up to any of our readers who fancy hiking this segment.

Overall, this was a very enjoyable introduction to the Cumberland Trail, and we’ll certainly be back to do other segments.  We have no illusions of being AT thru-hikers, but maybe the Cumberland Trail would be achievable for us as segment hikers.  Of course, if we get ambitious (and win the lottery), we might just finish the Cumberland Trail and just keep going on the Great Eastern Trail, which is a yet longer trail planned to run from Alabama to western New York State.  The Great Eastern Trail will be around 1,600 miles.  And it looks like the Pinhoti Trail will be part of it, so the seven miles or so that we’ve hiked on the Pinhoti puts us at about 0.4% along the way of completing the Great Eastern Trail.  Well, a guy can dream, can’t he?