Longtime readers of this blog know about our wildflower identification motivational tool: if we identify ten wildflowers while on a hike, we get ice cream! It’s something that we started when our kids were young, but now they’re full grown adults and moved away to the Big City. But we still love ice cream, so the tradition stands.
We’ve enjoyed our late winter/early spring hikes, but this year we haven’t really had one that featured a lot of wildflowers. We were definitely feeling ice cream withdrawal, so it was time to throw down a hike at a reliably flower-festooned site. After considering options, we decided it was time for another visit to one of our favorite sites in the entire Tennessee Valley, the Cane Creek Canyon Nature Preserve. This magnificent 700-acre privately owned preserve near Tuscumbia, AL is, simply put, a treasure. The owners, Jim and Faye Lacefield, opened the preserve in 1996, totally free of charge, and are frequently at the welcome kiosk to hand out maps and advice.
With the COVID-19 crisis cooping folks up indoors, all of the area outdoor resources are seeing record use as people seek some fresh air therapy as a cure for cabin fever. We’ve been working from home, so we have cabin fever too, but we’re fortunate to still be gainfully employed and (knock on wood) healthy. Cane Creek has also been under siege, but to give you some idea of the generosity of the Lacefields, while other outdoor recreational facilities have been closing, they actually massively expanded their opening hours to serve as an educational resource for our sudden influx of home-schooled (or distance learning) kids. The Saturday before our visit, they had a single-day record of 325 visitors.
Knowing that the even better weather on Sunday would bring crowds, we got a relatively early start and arrived around 10:15, to find only a handful of cars. Pleasantly surprised, we had a brief chat (at a safe distance) with Jim. One of my goals for the trip was to see French’s shootingstar, a rare wildflower that grows on the Preserve. In fact, botanists say the world’s largest colony of French’s shootingstar is in Cane Creek Canyon. Jim said we had timed it perfectly and gave us directions on where to look.
Our planned route took us past the picnic area to the large waterfall, under which Jim had suggested we might find our elusive rare shootingstar. We knew it was going to be a great wildflower day when we spotted six flowers or flowering trees before walking the .25 miles from the parking lot to the waterfall. The dogwoods were in bloom, and red buckeye was practically everywhere. We also spotted yellow star grass, partridgeberry, violet wood sorrel, and common blue violet. We were over halfway to ice cream, and we were just getting started!
With all the recent rain, the waterfall was in fine form. We scrambled down to have a look behind it, but didn’t see any French’s shootingstar. However, sharp-eyed Ruth spotted a Jack in the pulpit. We then opted to climb back onto the trails and took the trail along the creek, heading south toward the South Boundary Road. It was a beautiful day, and the creek looked really inviting. Jim had warned us that some of the creek crossings, particularly down on Cane Creek, had unusually high water. We had one creek crossing here on Waterfall Creek, but it was only a few inches deep.
Once we reached the boundary road, we turned west and stuck with the road, making our way to Tree Fern Cave and a rock outcropping just past it where Jim said there was a small patch of French’s shootingstar. Along the way, we added four more wildflowers/shrubs to our list for the day: wood violet, Alabama azalea, pinxter azalea, and Virginia spring beauty. Hey, that’s ten! And we were just getting started.
With Tree Fern Cave looming off-trail to our right, we made a beeline for the rock outcropping and sure enough, there was a small stand of French’s shootingstar in bloom.
After admiring this rare beauty, we continued on down the road, sloping downhill until we came to the East Cane Creek trail. As we neared the creek, the wildflowers started coming thick and fast, with Sweet Betsy trillium and lobed tickseed heading the charge.
And when we reached the creek and turned north to follow the creek up to the Quarry bridge, well my friends, it was slow going even though the trail was wide and level. It was a wildflower showcase. There was hispid buttercup, sweet William phlox, wood vetch, Robin’s plantain, and Carolina spring beauty, just for starters.
And the hits kept coming, as we walked the 1.5 miles to the Quarry bridge. Foamflower, twisted trillium, and wood anemone were plentiful. When we reached the Boulder Garden wildflower area, even more were in bloom: early saxifrage, fire pink, rue anemone, pennywort, and wood betony joined our growing list.
As we neared the Quarry bridge, there were more natural wonders to behold: mayapples everywhere, in glorious bloom; a yellow buckeye (another good spot by Ruth); funky fungi on a fallen tree; spring cress; and one of Ruth’s favorites, dwarf crested iris.
We reached the Quarry bridge and crossed without incident, to begin our secondary goal of exploring some sections of the preserve that were new to us. First up was to try the West Bluff trails, a loop trail with some shorter inner loops. Though it was signposted, it was immediately evident when viewing them from the intersection with the West Cane Creek trail that these trails are much less traveled.
The trail was advertised as steep on the trail map, and it lived up to that reputation. It was also carpeted with flowers, so we had to watch our step so we could avoid crushing little beauties like this Southern wood violet. After climbing a couple hundred yards, we reached a sign pointing to the left. The footbed was pretty indistinct at this point. We wandered to the south for a little while, pausing for lunch on a handy shaded boulder. It was amazingly quiet, given the large number of people roaming the preserve. After lunch we kept trying to find a footbed, but finally gave up after about .25 miles of thrashing around. We just retraced our steps back to the West Cane Creek trail, but not before notching four more wildflower IDs: white baneberry, Jacob’s ladder, wild comfrey, and squaw root.
So West Bluff trails had not panned out, but there was still a destination in the general area we’ve not visited: Hooper Falls. We turned northwest on the West Cane Creek trail, and in about .15 miles reached the intersection with the trail to Hooper Falls. This trail is obviously an old road bed, and it stretches .66 miles from the intersection to the falls. It was a very pleasant walk, with Cucumber Hollow Creek running on one side of the trail and scenic rock outcroppings on the other. Along the way, the trail actually leaves preserve property, but the remaining section of the trail is leased from a neighboring landowner. Near the falls the trail splits, with a sign pointing left to the base of the falls. Don’t bother going right at the split, as hikers are not permitted to walk to the top of the falls.
Hooper Falls is a very nice three-drop waterfall tucked into a fold in Cucumber Hollow. Most of the other falls in the preserve are single drop (the main waterfall has two drops), so it was a nice contrast. It’s a lovely little grotto, but also a popular destination so we didn’t tarry long.
We had about reached our limit for the day, so we retraced our steps back along the Hooper Falls trail. Even then, we were still spotting flowers and other interesting fungi we had missed on the way in: stout blue-eyed grass and devil’s urn, to be specific. We made our way back to the parking area, along the way picking up our last two wildflower IDs for the day: downy yellow violet and false Solomon’s seal, just beginning to bloom.
So, what was the final ice cream tally? Counting flowering trees and shrubs, I think we saw and identified at least 39. So that’s three scoops, with sprinkles on top! Our GPS track had the hike at just over five miles.
When we returned to the parking area, we were very surprised at the number of cars now parked along the entrance road. We found out the next day that over 450 people had visited the preserve on Sunday, shattering the previous record set just the day before. It reminded me of the old Yogi Berra comment, “No one goes there nowadays, it’s too crowded.” Unfortunately, some of those guests were jerks who left some litter and, more to the point, infringed upon the Lacefields’ generosity by arriving late in the day and staying past the 5 pm closing time (which is prominently posted in multiple places). This is why we can’t have nice things, Alabama.
Despite this, the Lacefields are trying to find ways to keep the preserve open during the COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps this blog post will encourage you to visit the preserve — and that’s good, you should! — but please, please check the Friends of Cane Creek Canyon Nature Preserve Facebook page before you go, because the operating hours and procedures for visiting are somewhat in flux. We’ve said before that this is a place that everyone should visit — but let’s not all do it at once, and pick up your trash, and show some respect for the owners, who are just trying to be a ray of sunshine in these dark times.