Trail Name: Marbut Bend Loop
Location: Elkton, Alabama
Length: 1.2 miles
Rating: Easy flat loop
Points of interest: Wildflowers, Elk River, boardwalk over flooded wetland
There is nothing I enjoy more on a hot summer day than to load up the kayaks and head out for a float down a nearby river. Around here, anyway, the rivers are cool but not frigid, often shady, and not too terribly challenging. The perfect combination for a relaxing and refreshing outing!
What I struggle with, though, is blogging about a float trip. A good float trip, in my mind, is an uneventful one. For me, the point of being out on the river is to disconnect from the world a bit and just relax. I know, I know – there are white water adventures that can be had in a kayak – but that’s not generally what I’m after. It makes for a great break from real life, but not an especially interesting thing to write about. All of that to say, this is gonna be a short post, folks!
Over the Memorial Day weekend, we were blessed with a visit from our youngest daughter. She was in town for a high school friend’s wedding, so technically I suppose she wasn’t really here for us, but we snagged a bit of time with her on Sunday. It was hot, and we wanted an outdoor activity that was close-by and cool, so a float down the river seemed like the perfect choice. To mix things up a little bit, though, we tried out a brand-new-to-us outfitter – Brown Bear LLC Canoe and Kayak Rentals. They offer float trips down the Flint River, but start farther north than North Alabama Canoe and Kayak. They are located right on the river where Winchester Road crosses over the Flint. They offer canoe and kayak rentals, shuttle service, and parking – all for competitive prices. They shuttle to two different put-in spots – one will get you about a 3 hour float, the other is around 6 hours. They also do take reservations, which we should have taken advantage of. The day we went, they were very busy. We had two kayaks of our own, but needed a third and it was touch-and-go there for a minute about whether they had one they could give us. We lucked out and were soon loaded up on the shuttle and on our way.
We opted for the 3 hour float, partially because we were a bit late getting on the river but also because this is the option that puts in at Blouchers Ford Preserve, managed by our friends at the Land Trust of North Alabama. Brown Bear has an agreement with the Land Trust that gets them onto this property, which is not yet open to the public. It also means that the put-in spot is not at all crowded. Our shuttle driver dropped us and another group of 3 off, kindly took a group picture of us, apologized for how low the water was (as if he had any control over that), and gave us some pointers about when to bear right or left along the river. He also let us know that at some of those spots, they’d put up signs so we just needed to look for those.
The water was low, but enough to float us. We checked out the old mill site, but from a distance since we were afraid we’d get grounded due to the shallow water. Then we headed on down river. I spotted a few turtles ( my total count was 4 I think), a loud mallard, and at least one really big blue heron. Chet spotted a banded water snake, but it swam right between us and got out of our way as fast as it could. There were a few other folks on the river, but it was not nearly as crowded as I’ve seen the Flint farther downstream.
The river was easy to navigate – there weren’t a lot of confusing forks and those we did come across did have those signs our shuttle driver told us about. There were plenty of places to pull over for a picnic or a wade, but I didn’t see any rope swings along the way like I’ve seen farther down. I’m guessing this part of the river is never quite deep enough, but that’s a pure guess on my part.
All in all, we had a very successful and blissfully uneventful float trip. I’d recommend the folks at Brown Bear – they were friendly and helpful, have a great location, and reasonable prices. Go check them out, and I hope your trip is as uneventful as ours was!
Carvers Gap, elevation 5512 feet, is on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina. From the north, Tennessee state highway 143 winds its way up to the gap, where it changes names to North Carolina state highway 261, curving away to the south. For us, it was a relatively short drive from Elk Park, NC, where we were staying on a little vacation — roughly 18 miles. But if you were approaching Carvers Gap on foot, starting from the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, it was a 340-mile trip northbound from Springer Mountain. Or, if you started on Mount Katahdin, 1,838.4 miles by foot southbound. Standing there, at the starting point of our hike on the AT from Carvers Gap to Grassy Ridge Bald, somehow it didn’t feel like we had earned it.
You see, this roughly 2.3 mile segment of the AT is considered one of the highlights, a reward for those 763,915 steps from Springer Mountain, through the rolling mountains of north Georgia and higher mountains in the Great Smokies. For persevering through the shakedown miles during which you whittle away at what you were before you started the through hike; for pushing through the blisters, strains, cuts, fatigue, and nights crying in your tent while you toughen up for the trail; for climbing one hill only to find an even higher one behind it; for dressing in the cold, walking in a downpour, living on trail food, and smelling worse than you ever have — this is your reward. Glorious mountain balds, with 360-degree views of endless folding green mountains, or maybe a quilt of ambers, reds, and oranges if you started your through hike 4,130,533 steps away from Mount Katahdin.
Like most people who hike this segment of the trail, we drove up to Carvers Gap, found a spot in the paved parking over by the vault toilet, and crossed the road to slip through a gap in a split rail fence to start our walk. It was a busy Friday morning on the trail, with cars in the gravel parking lot at the side of the road and a school bus parked on the shoulder. Somehow, it felt a little like we were cheating — eating dessert without finishing our vegetables — but also like most people, we don’t happen to have the time to start at Springer or Katahdin, and must snatch at what glory comes our way.
The AT runs roughly east-west along this stretch, known generally as the Roan Highlands. Roan Mountain is on the western side of Carvers Gap, but our hike was to take us to the east, to summit three balds along (and near) the Appalachian Trail. The passengers for the school bus were just coming off the trail as we started, with many cheerfully wishing us a good hike. The wide, graveled trail almost immediately began a gentle switchback to the left, crossing a grassy slope to enter a balsam fir forest at about .1 miles. It’s a surprisingly thick little patch, shady and sheltered, with some of the trees marked with the iconic white blaze of the AT. Most of the trees had stubs from long-shed lower branches, forming a forest of turnstiles. Fortunately, our path continued wide and upward, emerging from the trees about .3 miles from the start of the hike, higher up on the edge of the bald. A glance back to the west shows our starting point, with Roan Mountain rising behind the parking area.
At this point the trail begins a more businesslike approach, still winding a little but marching more directly to the summit of Round Bald, at an elevation of 5826 feet, at about .6 miles. At times on the way to the top of the bald, we could see glimpses of the mountains falling away to the north and south. At the top, however, the clouds were hanging low and not allowing much in the way of long-range views. Still, it was a remarkable feeling to be on such a wide mountain summit, with the occasional cool gust washing over us. The grassy bald is huge — 100 yards wide at least — with the Pisgah National Forest to the south and the Cherokee National Forest to the north.
We didn’t tarry long, as the wind was whipping quite a bit, and continued eastward toward Jane Bald. The trail descends from Round Bald into Engine Gap, marked by signposts with the AT blaze, since there aren’t any trees. Fun fact: Engine Gap is so named because there used to be a steam engine there which was used to move timber from Tennessee to lumberyards in North Carolina. The gravel surface stops after topping Round Bald, switching over to packed dirt and increasingly, exposed rock, particularly on the climbs up the next two balds. We were a little late to catch the bulk of the spring wildflowers, but there were many thyme-leaved bluets, wild strawberries, and blackberries in bloom, with portions of the trail flanked by wild blueberry bushes just starting to fruit. This place is going to be a fruit market for bears in a few weeks!
The trail up to Jane Bald is gentle through Engine Gap, but when you come to the beginning of the climb up to the bald the trail becomes markedly steeper. It was here where we met a young man who asked us to take his photo, with the Roan Valley stretching away behind him to the south. We were happy to oblige, and I commented that he looked like he was in this for the long haul. “Yes, I am,” he replied heartily, and thanked us and strode briskly away northbound. It was mid-May, with 340+ miles down and 1,830-something to go — and he was loving it.
Just before the summit of Jane Bald, the trail emerges from a narrow, rocky corridor onto a large sloping rock, a tailor-made place to take a break and admire the views, particularly to the north. We stopped for a snack, then pressed on to reach the top of Jane Bald, at 5,807 feet. Clouds were beginning to break up to the south, so we could get a taste of the view to the south, with NC261 winding through the valley. Jane Bald is much smaller than Round Bald, but the views are marginally better.
The trail continues to the east, with Grassy Ridge beckoning. The weather was finally beginning to clear up, and we were keen to top Grassy Ridge Bald. The trail narrows to single track here and begins a long climb, at one point passing through a rhododendron tree tunnel. The trail re-emerged into an open area, where there’s a fork at 1.8 miles with the AT turning to the left (north) to stay along the flanks of Grassy Ridge Bald. We chose to continue straight to Grassy Ridge. The trail continued as a narrow track through alternating open and shrubby sections, climbing steeply to finally emerge at 2.15 miles onto another huge grassy summit with amazing views all around.
The trail meanders toward a large boulder, to which is affixed a plaque to the memory of Cornelius Rex Peake, a farmer and early champion of conservation of these mountains. Mr. Peake kept cattle on the bald and is credited with operating the farm at the highest altitude east of the Rocky Mountains. He was also the author of an early booklet on Roan Mountain, with descriptions of the flora, fauna, natural and human history, and notable characters on the mountain. We paused for lunch at his plaque, which marks the spot he intended for his grave. The weather was uncooperative on the day of his funeral, so he lies, as the poem on his plaque says, “halfway to the top.”
While Ruth tried out a potential basking rock, I continued down the trail a little ways through a clump of trees and farther on to a couple of overlooks. Little side trails in the area lead to fire rings, a reminder that this is would be an amazing place to camp and catch the sunrise and sunset. The views to the south of Round Mountain, Mid Ridge, Hawk Mountain, and farther peaks and ridges were fabulous. Grassy Ridge Bald is the highest in our trio of balds, topping out at 6,165 feet.
After a short break, it was time to retrace our steps back to Carvers Gap. Luckily, the weather had cleared to give us better views, particularly in Engine Gap, so we got some nice do-overs for views north and south. There were quite a few folks on the trail by now, so if you’re looking for solitude, you’ll need to look elsewhere.
So, now that we’re back from the hike, I’ve been thinking, “Did we earn it?” Ultimately, I’d have to say yes. True, we didn’t start from either end of the AT, but most people don’t. The AT exists for everyone – day hikers, section hikers, and through hikers. We made the climbs and the descents on the trail, for about 5 miles, under our own power. We got to enjoy one of the highlights of the AT, and it reminded us of the enormous value of our national scenic trails. They are a sacred trust. You could say that the payoff might have been sweeter if we had suffered a bit more for it, but for me hiking is about discovery, not suffering. And this brief look at the longest stretch of grassy balds in the Appalachians, far from being a filling dessert, made me want to go back and eat my vegetables.
And I sort of did just that after the hike, enjoying a barbecue plate with fried okra at the Pedalin’ Pig in Banner Elk, washed down with a local beer. Hey, I earned it!
My husband gives the best Christmas presents! Though nobody would mistake us for millennials, we do share the millennial desire for “experiences” over “stuff,” and so for the last several years, Chet has come up with some of the most interesting presents for me. Three years ago, it was a weekend stay in a tree house, with zip line adventures included. Last year, we spent a weekend in one of the original Pullman train cars at the Chattanooga Choo Choo and took a foodie walking tour. This year’s version turned out to be a weekend in a hobbit house!
No, we didn’t fly to New Zealand for a stay in the Shire (though that’s still on my travel bucket list). Instead, we drove a little less than two hours north, to a place near Columbia, Tennessee. Forest Gully Farms is an experiment in sustainable living which doubles as a really cool “glamping” location. Jon and Mandy Giffin run two separate homesteads, each with orchards, vegetable gardens and a chicken run. One I assume they live on. The other is the fifteen acre property that we rented for the weekend.
The drive up was pretty uneventful and we texted Jon when we thought we were about 30 minutes away. It turns out a stop at a bank for some cash burned up a bit more time than we’d anticipated, but Jon was patiently waiting for us. He introduced us to one of the farm dogs (Jedi) and then showed us around our home for the weekend – pointing out the adorable kid’s play area and the bathhouse on the way down the hill. The bathhouse has a half bath, a full bath and a laundry room and is spotless and beautifully fitted out. Off to one side was a large blueberry patch. We were a bit too early for the blueberries, but in season, they would sure be a delicious snack. That’s the thing about Forest Gully Farms – there’s the expectation that you will forage for whatever goodies you’d like. As we walked, Jon pointed out things we might not have thought would be edible but were perfect foraging foods – dandelions and oxalis for a couple. Redbuds apparently are pretty good as well. I tried the oxalis (AKA wood sorrel or sour grass) and found it to be tart and almost citrus-y – delicious! We also passed a small orchard, the vegetable plot and the chickens before we came to the hobbit houses.
There are three, all made of white cedar and nestled into a hill. Two of them are small bedrooms, and the middle one is a kitchen. Though foraging is encouraged, you don’t have to survive on weeds alone when you come here. The roomy kitchen is equipped with a large table, a full size refrigerator (with freezer), a microwave, a coffee pot, and a hot plate cooktop. There were plenty of pots, pans, plates, cups, and silver, plus games, reading material, and musical instruments. Though it had electricity (obviously) the one thing it didn’t exactly have was running water. There was an ingenious setup in one corner that had one of those jug water dispensers positioned over a sink. The sink emptied into a large plastic tub on a shelf underneath. Good enough for me! Besides, as long as there was coffee, I was going to be fine.
The bedrooms were small, but not too small. Each had a double bed and at least one other twin bed. The light wood and the white bed linens made the space feel bigger than it probably was, and though we were there at that perfect “not too hot, not too cold” time we sometimes get here in the South, each hut had a small heating and air unit, which will keep things comfortable any time of year. Again, there is no running water – i.e. no bathrooms – but the bathhouse we passed on the way is just up the hill. Just outside the kitchen hut, there was a nice fire pit and sitting area as well – complete with a supply of wood and a grill.
After unpacking the car, we decided to explore the farm a bit. There is a short figure-eight hiking trail that starts just beside the fire pit so we decided we would start there. The trail headed through the woods, which at the time we were there was still dotted with spring wildflowers. We saw many of our old favorites along the path – mayapple in bloom, twisted trillium, three colors of violets, phlox, star chickweed., spring beauty and more. The trail crosses a gravel road, which is the return loop of the figure eight, and then heads back into the woods. Below us down the hill we could hear the sound of water splashing. Wooden stairs laid into the slope made it an easy hike down to the creek. There, we found a cute little covered bench by the water, set to have the perfect view of a lovely small waterfall. We sat there a few minutes and just enjoyed the view and the sound of the waterfall, then continued on down the trail by the creek. It’s a really beautiful area. Though we could see one neighbor’s house briefly, it felt like we were a world away. The trail crosses the creek, goes past a hammock strung up between some trees, then finally runs in to a gravel road. At that intersection, a wooden plank laid across the creek led the way back up the gravel road that closes the figure eight.
After we completed the hike, we had daylight and time to kill before our dinner reservations, so we explored some more of the farm. My favorite part was the chickens! These chickens live a pretty good life. They have a roomy fenced in enclosure to run around in, with a cute little chicken coop on one end. The fenced in area is actually split in half – one half for the chickens and one half for the vegetable garden. We wondered if they rotate which side is the garden side from time to time to take advantage of all that chicken, um, fertilizer. At any rate, Jon had told us that the chickens love to be fed clover, so I spent some time collecting clover and feeding them through the fence. In a way it was payback for the eggs I collected from them for my breakfast. I guess you can tell I’m not a farm girl, because I was thrilled to death with all this! My husband grew up on a farm with chickens to look after, and I could tell he wasn’t as enthralled as I was.
That evening we went out to a local restaurant for dinner (Papa Boudreaux in nearby Santa Fe) , and then came home to our snug little bedroom. There were bad storms that night, but we were safe and warm and comfy in our hobbit hole. And it was probably one of the safest places to be in a storm – underground! The next day we spent hiking on the Natchez Trace, and then checking out a couple of brewpubs in Franklin – just 30 minutes away.
I loved my Christmas present and I would recommend it to anybody! This place is adorable, comfortable, and spotlessly clean. There’s plenty to enjoy on site, but if you’re in the mood to explore or hankering for some city life there’s lots to do in the area: Natchez Trace Park is just down the road for those looking for history both natural and not; trendy Leiper’s Fork and Franklin are about 30 minutes away; and if you really have to have some “big city,” Nashville is less than an hour up the road. There’s something for everybody!
A few months ago, I hatched a plot to surprise Ruth for her birthday with an overnight trip to the Sewanee, TN area. The weather was looking rather iffy for Saturday so I hadn’t planned any hiking activities, though on our way up we stopped at Falls Mill to view the historic mill and its impressive working waterwheel and antique machines. We highly recommend this former cotton and woolen factory/woodworking shop/grain mill. I’ve been in a few historic mills, but Falls Mill is notable for the size of its waterwheel, the age and uniqueness of its collection of mill machinery, and most of all, for the marvelous experience of seeing a working mill, with water-powered gears, shafts, and belts rumbling throughout the four-story building. As an added treat, we unexpectedly found one of our dear friends from our college days on the grounds, where he was running a wildflower show. So the weekend was off to a great start!
The main event for the weekend was a concert at The Caverns in Pelham, TN, the place where PBS films its Bluegrass Underground show. It’s a really cool place to hear a concert, and we were there for the “Cave-o-de-Mayo” show with the San Rafael Band from Nashville opening for Los Lobos. Sadly, Los Lobos had to cancel en route to the venue, as their plane was turned around due to bad weather, but the San Rafael Band played nearly two hours and were really terrific.
My plan was to not have a fixed plan for the next day, as there was still a chance of rain, so we decided to improvise for Sunday. We’ve been wanting to visit the Sewanee Natural Bridge, which was just a few miles away from where we were staying in Monteagle, but we also knew that it wasn’t a particularly long day hike and we’d want to bundle it with another stop. Opportunity was smiling through a patchy fog on Sunday morning, so we made the short trip down Highway Alt. 41 toward Sewanee and followed the signs to the gravel parking area. The natural bridge was originally owned by the University of the South (locally know as Sewanee, after the town in which it is located), who donated it to the State of Tennessee in the 1970s. Now it’s a part of South Cumberland State Park.
The walk to the natural bridge is probably the shortest hike we’ll ever have on Woodlands and Waters. The trail leaves from one corner of the parking lot and descends a graveled wide stair about 40 yards to the natural bridge. The natural bridge is a sandstone arch formed by erosion of the rock below. It’s about 25 feet high and spans about 50 feet, and is about 8 feet wide. The trail leads to the bridge, though there’s a short social trail that skirts a bluff to give you a good side view. You can and should cross the bridge, where you can clamber down to the bottom of the bluff from the far side.
Once at the bottom of the bluff, you can see small caves at the base. We had a look at the caves, one of which went well back into the bluff, then walked under and around the bridge to view it from other angles.
We walked briefly along the bluffs at the base of the natural bridge, but we didn’t stray far knowing that this is a small land-locked preserve. We did enjoy a natural “gargoyle” protruding from the rocks, and the numerous fallen blossoms of the tulip poplar tree.
After doing some research the previous evening, the birthday girl had decided that we’d volunteer to help on a trail building team at a relatively new section of the South Cumberland State Park. We’ve only done trail construction for the Land Trust of North Alabama, so we were excited to work with another crew, and also to give back just a little to the Tennessee State Parks that we’ve enjoyed all our lives. Unlike most state parks, South Cumberland’s 30,000+ acres are not contiguous. The park consists of nine separate areas, and one of the newly-added ones borders the Franklin State Forest. We’ve hiked a few trails in the state forest, but had not yet been to the Sherwood Forest area, of which one parcel is now a part of the state park.
The park’s portion of the Sherwood Forest parcel is around 3,900 acres, and is located off the Old CCC Road, which heads west off TN Highway 156. It’s a gravel road, but quite passable for passenger cars. We were the first to arrive at the trailhead, which is a large gravel lot at the end of the road (technically, the road continues, but it’s gated), with a kiosk next to the trailhead. Moments later, Ranger Jason Reynolds arrived and we introduced ourselves and signed the requisite waivers. After a while, it looked like it would just be the three of us, so we had the pleasure of getting a master class in full bench cutting from Ranger Jason. We hiked back into the start of what will be a roughly 2.5 mile loop trail, bearing left (south, curving westward) at the beginning of the loop, with Jason patiently answering our questions about the routing and design decisions he made in laying out the trail and some of the features we observed along the way.
The north and south segments of the loop trail are under construction, but the loop itself is not yet closed. We would be extending the south segment. Jason gave us instructions and a demo on full bench cutting, and soon the dirt was flying. I won’t bore you with all the technical stuff, but we learned a lot about engineering a more stable footbed with good drainage. I’ll tell you this — when Ranger Jason builds a trail, it stays built! We dug and chopped and extended the trail, well, not a whole lot of yards, but it was quality work. People will walk this trail 20 years from now and won’t even know about the big hole we filled with rocks, and the reverse slope, and the small trees and stumps we cleared and the grooming of the surface so that water will drain and the edge of the trail won’t drop away. Instead, they’ll be free to concentrate on the views and the wildflowers and the birdsong.
We were all business while we were toiling away, but had a great conversation about trail building practices and what it’s like to be a ranger. Every time I speak with a ranger I’m struck by what a wealth of knowledge they have about the land in their care. Like us, Jason had a keen eye for spotting wildflowers, and pointed out a little brown jug in bloom and had us sniff its leaves, which are marvelously fragrant when crushed. (Disclaimer — we crushed this wildflower’s leaves under the direction of a State Park Ranger. Do not go randomly crushing wildflower leaves in parks unless you know what you’re doing and have permission — those wildflowers belong to all of us! Also, that particular little brown jug was right on the edge of the trail and likely to die anyway since we had probably chopped some of its roots. Being a trail builder has its perks.)
After a while, Jason proposed that we hike the rest of the loop, including the unfinished portion, to return to the north side of the loop, which he said had some nice features. We made our way along the flagged route, which follows the base of a bluff around a point that overlooks Lost Cove. Though we were past the peak wildflower season, we spotted several jack in the pulpits, some fire pink, and mountain laurel in bloom. Ruth demoed the iNaturalist app to identify four-leaved milkweed, and Jason made a very impressive spot of an Eastern green violet in its fruiting stage.
This is going to be a really great trail! The overall elevation change is quite manageable for most hikers. Indeed, that was a goal for this trail — to be a scenic trail with views, but not to have the degree of difficulty found in many other trails in the South Cumberland State Park. After we met up with the finished portion of the northern segment of the loop, I was briefly confused when the trail passed by a natural bridge. I thought, this can’t be the Sewanee Natural Bridge — we’re miles away from it. And of course, it wasn’t — it is an as-yet unnamed natural bridge, smaller than its neighbor in Sewanee, but also with a trail that is routed over the bridge (you can also bypass it if you’re acrophobic). This feature alone is a good reason to hike this trail, but as we headed back toward the trailhead to the northeast, another overlook yields long distance views over Lost Cove, up toward the north where Crow Creek emerges from Buggytop Cave. North Alabama folks might recognize Crow Creek as a much wider body of water crossed over by U.S. Highway 72 around Stevenson, AL on its way to the Tennessee River.
Though the Sherwood Forest Day Loop is still under construction, and will likely be under construction for months, the completed portion on the north segment of the loop (turn right at the beginning of the loop) has quite a payback for less than a mile of hiking. We’ll be keeping an eye on this project and will definitely be back when it’s finished. There are frequent work days scheduled with Ranger Jason, listed on the Friends of the South Cumberland website and also on the South Cumberland State Park’s website listed under Upcoming Events. Everyone, go help him finish this trail. Jason Reynolds is a knowledgeable, friendly, and dedicated employee of the Tennessee State Parks system, and it was a real pleasure to work with him.
When Chet and I were young newlyweds, we would have the most earnest discussions about the most frivolous topics. Something about being young and so sure of ourselves, I guess. One particular discussion was about what the “cutest” animal was. We put a fair amount of thought into it, as I recall, and in the end the top of the cuteness scale was deemed to be the otter. I’m fairly certain that was my choice, and that Chet was just being agreeable, but nonetheless in our house otters ruled. So you can understand why, when I heard there was a chance at seeing river otters in the wild, I was determined to make the attempt!
At the end of March, Chet and I had discovered Cane Creek Canyon Nature Preserve near Tuscumbia, Al. I was enchanted by the place, and quickly “liked” their “Friend of Cane Creek Canyon” Facebook page so that I could keep up with things there. A couple of weeks ago, they posted there about the “Cane Creek Salmon” run. Now, I have nothing against fish, but under normal circumstances they aren’t anything to make me get up extra early on a Saturday morning for. However, these particular fish (actually river redhorse) swim upriver to spawn, and are followed by ….. you may have guessed ….. river otters! This was my chance. I had plans for the evening that meant we had to be heading back home no later than 3:30, and after factoring in the drive there and back, and how far I planned to hike (and how slowly we hiked there last time), I got up extra early on a Saturday just to make this hike happen.
I’m not going to keep you in suspense. We saw no otters. There had been lots and LOTS of rain in the week before we went, and all that rain made the water conditions not right for the fish. No fish meant no otters. Luckily, we’ve learned that it’s always best to have a Plan B, so we came prepared. Last time we were here, we had planned a 7 mile out-and-back hike through Devil’s Hollow, but ended up spending so much time admiring the views and the flowers in the southern part of the preserve that we ran out of time and had to turn back only about halfway out. This time, my Plan B was to make it all the way out to Karen’s Falls at the end of the hollow.
We started off as we’d done last time – past the picnic shelter and down to the waterfall on Waterfall Creek. The water was really flowing over the falls, but we didn’t stop there long. We took a bit of an alternate route this time – instead of going across the top of the waterfall, up to the Ridgetop trail and out to The Point, we instead stayed on the “parking lot” side of the waterfall, and headed for the South Boundary Road. This route took us along a beautiful little stretch of Waterfall Creek – the trail winding gently through the trees along the creek, with a few spring wildflowers still putting out blooms.
At the South Boundary Road, we turned to hike towards Tree Fern Cave. This trail is really an old gravel road with occasional meadows along one side, and leafy green hardwood forest on the other. An occasional Alabama azalea brightened up the woods. At Tree Fern Cave, we stopped just for a moment to admire the volume of water rushing over the twin falls, then headed down the steep road to join up with East Cane Creek Trail, following that all the way out to the Blue Hole. Except for a short stretch along the creek right after the waterfall, all of this was trail we’d hiked before so we made very good time. The water was very high and moving very fast all along the creek. We peered at the water, hoping we’d see an otter sunning on a rock, but had no luck. Given the water conditions, I was not at all surprised to get to the Blue Hole and find other hikers there who reported no fish or otter sightings either. Given my time constraints, at this point I gave up on the otters and went to Plan B – the hike to Karen’s Falls.
From the Blue Hole, a short backtrack across the Blue Hole Glade took us past a gigantic American Colombo and back to the trail, which turns sharply away from the river and up a small incline to arrive at Five Points Glade. Turning right would take us either back to the creek or to the Big Cedars Boulders, but that was the opposite direction from where we wanted to go. A left turn took us up a hill and through a spot marked on the map as “the gap” – where the trail heads through an area with large boulders scattered on either side. We spotted the bright red blooms of fire pink along the trail, mixed in with mayapples and trillium.
At Map Point 5, we took the trail up the hill on the right, towards a rock shelter called “Tractor Cave.” We opted to skip the side trail to this shelter on the way out, planning to check it out on the way back if we had the time and the inclination. I’m not entirely clear what this part of the trail is called. It’s not East Cane Creek Trail any more, nor is it any of the other trails named on the map – Shelf trail, or Fossil Bluff or Palace Bluffs – but whatever it’s called it is a lovely trail. Broad and well-groomed, it’s easy to hike on and very pleasant. We admired the bluff formations to one side, spotted a stone bench along the trail, and soon arrived at Map Point 6. Here, Fossil Trail turned off to the left, but we continued on, as the trail turned to go up the small gorge cut by Devil’s Hollow Creek. The creek is 30 feet or so below, and screened by trees, but we could hear the water really rushing here. We opted not to climb down to try to find Big Spring and instead kept going another 250 feet – past a privy that Chet reports is nice enough, but not quite as nice as the one at Linden Meadow) – to arrive at Map Point 7 and the official start of Devil’s Hollow Trail.
Devil’s Hollow is described as a “true Appalachian cove,” full of a wide variety of trees and plants. It’s a box canyon, with Devil’s Hollow Creek running down the middle and rock walls on three sides. It is astonishingly green and lush at this time of year. We spotted large jack-in-the-pulpits, foamflower, several kinds of trillium – and stands of mayapples that threatened to totally engulf stone benches set in their midst. Soon we had nearly reached the end of the hollow, and that’s where the waterfalls start.
First up is Johnson Falls, tumbling off the bluff to the right. We made our way to the base of the falls – trying to be as careful as possible about where we put our feet as there is no official trail. There is a low rock shelter behind the falls, and Chet scrambled around taking pictures from different angles while I sat and just enjoyed the light filtering through the green leaves and the sound of the water hitting the rocks.
Next up, again on the right, is Yellowwood Falls, with a larger rock shelter underneath and a clear trail to follow. By this point I was starving, though, so I didn’t wait around long and instead went on ahead to the main event: Karen’s Falls. You could see these falls almost straight ahead, as they rush over the rocks that form the very end of the canyon. It’s a dramatic sight – the trail dead ends at the base of the falls, where water rushes through a narrow notch in the rim of the canyon, falls 30 feet to hit a rock shelf, which fans the water out like a skirt before it falls another 10 feet into a pool. We sat here and ate our lunch and just enjoyed the beauty for a bit.
Property owner Jim Lacefield had highly recommended that we take the Underbluff Trail on our way back, so we backtracked just past Johnson Falls to the trail marker pointing the way. According to Mr. Lacefield, a walk along the Underbluff Trail is a walk inside an ancient beach. Over the eons, Devil’s Hollow Creek has cut down through the sandstone to reveal a vertical view back through time to when this area was part of a shallow sea and a barrier island. If you look closely you just might recognize ripples caused by the water flowing out to sea. I’d trust his word on this – he’s an authority on the subject, after all – check out his popular book on the geology of ancient Alabama! Primed with this information, we crossed Devil’s Hollow Creek on a little “stepping stone” bridge and headed steeply up towards the bluff.
At the bluff, we were a little confused about which way to go. We knew that the trail should eventually follow underneath the bluff to our left, but there was a sign that seemed to indicate there were two options – one labeled “Steep Route” to the left and one labeled “Rock Route” to the right. We went left, but I’m not sure that was the right choice. The trail started off clearly, then faded and split and I’m not really sure that the route we ended up taking was really how we were supposed to go. In the end, we just headed towards what looked like a trail that led underneath the overhanging bluffs, figuring that had to be it. It seemed to work, but I wonder if the “Rock Route” is a little clearer.
At any rate, the Underbluff Trail is pretty much exactly what you’d think it would be. The narrow (and sometimes very slope-y) trail edges right underneath the bluff, in places under dramatic overhangs. Not far from where we started, the bluff folds in on itself a bit to form a hollow for Malone Branch to flow down. The trail follows the bluff and takes you behind the falls that form when Malone Branch drops off the bluff. Past the falls, there was a spot I called “The Squeeze” because the best footpath takes you between a boulder on one side and the bluff wall on the other. To our left, the land dropped off steeply to the canyon floor, with Devil’s Hollow Creek burbling away down the middle. After a bit, the trail itself drops off the bluff and down to the canyon floor, across the creek on a sturdy footbridge, and ultimately back up to Devils Hollow Trail near Map Point 7.
From there, we just retraced our steps back to the parking area. We decided against the side trip to Tractor Cave after all – there’s plenty enough to see here to warrant another trip, so we can catch it then. All told, we’d hiked right around 7 miles according to our GPS track, and we made it back to the kiosk well before our deadline of 3:30. We even had time to sit for a bit in the Adirondack chairs under the trees and have a chat with property owners Jim and Faye Lacefield. It was a lovely day. Yes, I was disappointed about the otters, but Cane Creek Canyon Nature Preserve did not disappoint and I left delighted with Devil’s Hollow.