This past weekend was a gloomy one. I had hoped that Sunday, at least, would be a little bit sunny, but it was one of those Alabama winter days that I least enjoy – cold, damp, and the kind of overcast that makes it seem like late evening even at noon. It wasn’t supposed to rain, though, so I was determined to get out and walk a bit. Wheeler National Wildlife Center was having its annual Festival of the Cranes, which we enjoyed last time we went. I was tempted to go out for it again, but there were no new trails to explore, and I’m pretty sure the cranes will still be there for another few days. Instead, I picked a different walk near water – the Tennessee River Greenway.
Early in our blog’s life, we put up a series of posts that we called “Easy Peasy Hikes.” These were hikes with little elevation gain, a mile or less, and often ended up being hikes on one of the many greenways in the area. We’d walked many of them, but this is one we hadn’t explored before. This seemed like a good time to go check it out, so off we headed, with a plan to walk the greenway along the Tennessee River and then connect up with Aldridge Creek Greenway to cover some of the 4 or so miles of that one we’ve so far missed.
We should have known that the day wasn’t going to go as we’d hoped when it started raining on the drive to Ditto Landing. It wasn’t a hard rain – more of a drizzle – and so we pressed on. We turned into Ditto Landing off Hobbs Island Road, and almost immediately came to a “road closed ahead” sign. Strike Two – this wasn’t looking good. Luckily there aren’t a lot of roads at Ditto Landing and it was easy enough to blunder our way towards the parking lot that that was marked on the map as the “official” one for the Tennessee River Greenway. We found the parking lot alright, but the greenway parking was marked at the far end of the lot, closest to the river. There were barriers blocking off access to that whole end. Strike Three? Still, we are nothing if not stubborn, so we parked by the docks and headed off across the parking lot. It was immediately very clear why it had been barricaded off. It was an absolute sea of mud! Obviously, all the recent rain had flooded the whole area. Squishing and slipping our way, we worked our way across the mud to the greenway path heading out of the south end of the parking lot.
Once on the greenway, though, all was good and I was feeling better about the day. We ambled along beside the Tennessee River, which was flowing fast. The views, though gray, were still nice and we agreed that on a prettier day, it would be truly beautiful. Along the path we passed a couple of sculptures from the SPACES sculpture trail, and a scattering of benches from which, on a drier day, you might want to sit and admire the river from. Not wanting wet backsides, though, we simply walked down the path.
We passed an abandoned warehouse, which looked interesting, but had no signs to identify what it might once have been. I poked around on the internet from home later and came across an article from 2003 that described the building as having once been “Huntsville’s port terminal.” The article was describing plans to turn it into an upscale event venue, but it does not appear that ever actually happened. It has a nice view out onto the river though, and I can see the potential for something like that. Off to one side, we spotted a USGS monitoring station.
Walking on down the path, we could see the tip of Hobbs Island ahead. All I know about the place is that I’m pretty sure it’s privately owned, and according to Wikipedia it is the site of Chickasaw Old Fields and the home of a couple of Indian mounds. Sounds pretty cool, actually, but I don’t think you can get on the island. The other thing I know about Hobbs Island is that there is an annual open water swim event there hosted by Team Rocket Triathlon Club (TRTC). As we walked, we wondered if they started the swim upstream against the current, or downstream – and debated the merits of each approach. I don’t plan to enter the race myself to find out, but I did find a handy dandy link later at home that describes the event and the course for those who might be interested.
Next we passed the Huntsville Raw Water Plant Substation, i.e. one of the places that Huntsville Utilities pulls in water from the Tennessee River to eventually turn in to what comes out of our taps. Soon after that, we came to a gate that I think marked the official end of the greenway trail. Pavement continued beyond this, but the standard “bike lane/walker (or runner) lane” markings were gone. We wanted to find out if folks were allowed to park on that end of the greenway, so we walked on down to nearly the intersection with Hobbs Island Road. There are parking spots there, but they seem to be intended for the Whitesburg Boat and Yacht Club. I’d recommend parking at Ditto Landing anyway – there’s lots more parking there.
Having explored as far as we could on the greenway in this direction, we retraced our steps back to the edge of the muddy parking lot to decide what to do next. There’s no clear marking to indicate that the greenway continued on through Ditto Landing, though Google Maps clearly showed it as going on north. We sort of cross-countried it, using the least muddy path we could, so that we could connect up with Aldridge Creek Greenway as we’d planned. However, once past the mud, we came up against one more obstacle. Remember the “Road Closed” sign near the entrance? Yup. We were at the other end of that road closure area, which at this end was just mounded up dirt with no visible path through it. Strike FOUR! OK, so I know there are only three strikes before you’re out – maybe I had a foul tip on the last one or something. At any rate, that was it for me. It was cold, gray, drizzly and dreary and we kept running into issues. We’d walked all of the Tennessee River Greenway at that point anyway. We called it a day and started the walk back to the car. On the walk, though, we spotted a small rack of bikes marked “Pace.” These appear to be rental bikes unlocked via an app. I’m thinking the next time I head down this way, maybe we should do our own version of a triathalon – bring the kayaks for a cruise around Hobbs Island, walk the greenway up to the bike rack, then unlock a bike for a ride up the Aldridge Creek Greenway. It will have to be a bit warmer, and hopefully sunnier, but I think it sounds like a fine adventure. Who’s with me?
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. — George Santayana
You’d think that we would know better. Despite having several examples of plans going awry when we visit the Bankhead National Forest, we just keep going back, and the Bankhead keeps trying to kill us. Some examples include nearly stepping on a copperhead, wildly underestimating how long a hike would take so we ended up hiking in the dark, not finding a backcountry waterfall and instead finding recently-used hog wallows, and a tendency to wade across creeks in February. And no matter how long we plan to hike, we always end up hiking ten miles. But we keep coming back, because we love the Bankhead. It is completely indifferent to us, of course.
With all the recent rain, and a rare dry sunny weekend, we once again fell victim to the Bankhead’s siren call. It was all my fault. I thought this would be a great time to visit two new-to-us waterfalls that are at least partially off-trail. I’ve griped before about Bankhead waterfall enthusiasts who take photos of lovely waterfalls and then completely clam up about how to find them. The plan was to find Coal Mine Branch Falls and Holmes Chapel Falls, both on the central eastern side of the Bankhead. Coal Mine Branch looked like it might be a slight challenge, as there was very little information online, but the best information I found included GPS coordinates of the waterfall. Holmes Chapel Falls, on the other hand, is actually marked on Google Maps and is only a few hundred feet off one of the unpaved roads in the National Forest.
I decided we’d try Coal Mine Branch Falls first, as it was the more difficult one to find. That’s kind of a misnomer, since you can take a Forest Service road to a point less than half a mile from the fall — it’s hardly a grueling backcountry bushwhack. I’m going to be vague about exactly where we were, because — spoiler alert — we didn’t find Coal Mine Branch Falls. If we had found it, I’d be happy to share the route. Instead, it might be instructive to use this hike as an object lesson on what not to do when hunting for a backcountry waterfall in the Bankhead National Forest.
Lesson one: if you’ve not been to a given backcountry location before, try your best to get two independent sources on the specific location. That can be difficult given the conspiracy of secrecy that surrounds the Bankhead. I had only one source, and the GPS coordinates are, in retrospect, probably fairly correct. Since I had low confidence in them, we made assumptions about where the waterfall would be.
Lesson two: Trust your GPS and learn how to use it properly. I had laid in a waypoint for the waterfall, and our route involved parking on a Forest Service road, walking down another road into a cleared area, and then going cross-country down a ridge to reach a creek. I figured we’d get to the creek, then use the GPS to guide us to the waypoint. It turns out I didn’t use the GPS correctly to determine which way to go on the creek, so we headed upstream. If I had used a compass to take a bearing (even a compass on a cell phone), it would probably have pointed us downstream instead.
Lesson three: Don’t trust your GPS. Yeah, I know I said to trust your GPS earlier, but you should always have a map with you as a backup. GPS batteries die, you can lose signals when you’re deep in a ravine, or you can just misunderstand what the GPS is telling you. We forgot to bring map of the Bankhead with us — and just now, when I looked at the map, the location of the waterfall is clearly marked. We would have found it in five minutes if we had gone downstream. Instead, we went upstream and thrashed around pointlessly.
Lesson four: If you’re going off trail, and you know you’ll be descending a ridge and probably doing some creekwalking, bring your hiking poles. We forgot them, and as a result moved at a snail’s pace and let the terrain dictate our approach.
Lesson five: If you’re hiking in a Wildlife Management Area (WMA), bring your orange blaze gear with you. People sometimes equate the Bankhead National Forest with the Sipsey Wilderness, but the Sipsey is only a part of the larger national forest. Large portions of the Bankhead are WMAs. For your own safety, and in consideration of the hunters, you need to be visible when you are hiking in a WMA. We forgot our blaze, which was rude. It didn’t affect our route or our navigation, but we’ll never know how many hunters might have drawn a bead on us. And remember, in Alabama it’s always hunting season for something.
Lesson six: Use context clues. Though there are some official trails in the Bankhead, some of the more remarkable sights are not on any formal trail. Previous hikers sometimes resort to marking their own trails, typically by flagging a route, usually with plastic tape. We spotted a flagged route when we were creekside, but because we thought the GPS was leading us in a different direction, we ignored it.
We ended up hiking around a mile and a half in our futile attempt to find Coal Mine Branch Falls. It wasn’t a total bust, though, as it was a beautiful day and Coal Mine Branch is another of those lovely Bankhead waterways with the usual mix of shady green pools and sunlight-dappled cascades. We got some nice photos of things that are not Coal Mine Branch Falls.
After we gave up on walking upstream, we decided to climb the ridge to return to the truck. The particular spot we chose was relatively steep but climbable, with a four-foot rock outcropping to climb at the very top. Ruth studied the route, then stepped up into a toehold and grabbed a sturdy-looking fallen log as a handhold. The log just slid off the slope, pitching her backwards and knocking her painfully into the rocks. She landed on her feet, but bruised her shins in the process. After a pause to make sure she was OK, we walked along the bottom of the outcropping to find a better place to continue our climb to the top of the ridge. Once again, the Bankhead had tried to kill one of us. We took the hint, and bushwhacked our way out, vowing to get better info and be better prepared for our next attempt.
There was still a consolation prize to be claimed — Holmes Chapel Falls, just about .6 miles from where we turned off Mt. Olive Road on our route to Coal Mine Branch Falls. (By the way, Google Maps calls just about every road in the area “Mt. Olive Road.” It lies — many of these roads are just marked with Forest Service Road numbers, such as FS 245). I had picked a route that in retrospect was unnecessarily complex, with long unpaved sections, so I suggest the following route to Holmes Chapel Falls. Our usual route from Huntsville takes us down Interstate 65 south to the Hartselle Highway 36 exit. Take Highway 36 through downtown Hartselle, past Danville and Speake about 23 miles until Highway 36 tees into Highway 33. The Warrior Mountain Trading Post is on that corner. Turn south (left) onto Highway 33, and travel about 5.3 miles to County Road 70 on your left. There will be a sign there for a turnoff to Pinetorch Trailhead and Brushy Lake. Turn left, and in about 5 miles you’ll see County Road 71 off to your left, with a sign pointing in that direction for Brushy Lake. Turn left onto 71, and in about 1.5 miles you’ll pass the Brushy Creek Recreation Area. This is a day use and camping area, and incidentally is the closest restroom facility in this part of the Bankhead. After you pass the recreation area, the pavement will end but the road will continue as a dirt road. About 1.3 miles past Brushy Creek, at an intersection turn right onto Highway 76 (which might also be labeled as FS 245, or, you guessed it, Mount Olive Road). In about 1.95 miles, there’s a pullout on the right where you can park. If you come to bridge over Rush Creek, you’ve gone too far.
From the pullout, you can see a dirt bank to the west, where an old road has been blocked off. We skirted the dirt bank to the left, then took the wide dirt road about .2 miles down to a unnamed tributary of Rush Creek. I hadn’t really done much research on this waterfall, knowing it was so easy to find, so I was gobsmacked to find this 60-70 foot beauty right at the edge of the road!
After the ridiculousness of thrashing about trying to find a smaller waterfall, it was absurdly easy to walk to this sublime single-drop waterfall. Facing the falls, there’s a faint trail off to the left, so we followed it and within a few yards the trail quickly descended to the bottom of the canyon, where we could get to the base of the fall. The trail is a little slick in spots, and has one particularly large stepdown, but it’s not difficult to manage.
We spent some time taking in the waterfall and then climbed back up and walked upstream a few yards. The road fords the stream just a few yards upstream of the waterfall, and the shallow water flowing over the flat rock shelf might invite you to wet your feet. The water was flowing pretty rapidly though, and we didn’t want to give the Bankhead another opportunity to kill us. You can easily walk right to the edge of the fall, if you have a death wish. There’s not much of a GPS track for this short hike, but it added about .45 miles round trip, giving us about a 2 mile total for the day.
So we had a 50% success rate, which is not bad considering how ill-prepared we were. A return trip to Coal Mine Falls is in order, and there’s another remarkable off-trail waterfall in the general area that’s begging for a visit. We’ll be back, with a map, and poles, and a better understanding of our GPS, and our blaze, and independently-verified coordinates, sometime in the spring. Some people never learn….
There is a lovely tradition of taking a “First Day” Hike on New Years Day. 24 years ago in Milton, Massachusetts the National Association of State Park Directors kicked off their “First Day Hikes” program. Since 2012, all 50 states have participated in this yearly event, and some of the National Parks have joined in as well. A couple of years ago, we went on the Monte Sano First Day hike. This year, we decided to branch out on our own.
To me the best pick for a “First Day Hike” is one that is close enough so that we can still participate in some other annual New Year’s Day traditions – which might be parades or football games for some, but which for us means a great party with lots of great food that a friend of ours throws every year. The hike should be close by, and also not too long (so that I have time to hike plus shower before said party). It’s also nice if it’s someplace either new to us or someplace we haven’t been recently.
This year’s pick was the Jones Valley Loop Trail, a “new to us” trail. In 2016, the Jones family of Huntsville donated Bailey Cove to the Land Trust of North Alabama. If you’ve lived in Huntsville long at all, these names probably sound familiar to you. In 1939, Carl and Ed Jones bought a worn out 2500 acre farm property south of the small town of Huntsville (population then: 12,000). They planted Kentucky grass instead of cotton and made a very successful business out of raising cattle. Today, although much of the land has been developed, Jones Farm is still in business and is considered the largest working urban farm in the U.S. If you climb over the hill to the east of the Airport Road/Whitesburg Drive intersection, you’ll see Jones Valley spread out before you. Soon, the name of the road changes to Carl T. Jones Drive, passes by in-demand “Jones Valley” neighborhoods and a large commercial shopping area (Valley Bend – named for Jones Valley), plus a 33 acre Jones Family Park which has paved trails, a couple of ponds, and some lovely views. At the intersection of Carl T. Jones Drive and Cecil Ashburn Drive, the road name changes again – to Bailey Cove Road, a major north-south road that was once the home of Grissom High School. Turn left on Cecil Ashburn from Carl T. Jones, and you’ll soon be at our hiking location – 24.2 acres of the old Jones Family Farm and a hiking trail that climbs along Bailey Cove Branch as it tumbles down from Huntsville Mountain. To access this new property, park at Huntsville Southeast Church of the Nazarene at the Land Trust of North Alabama Blevins Gap Nature Preserve Fanning Trailhead.
The trail itself is a short one and not difficult. It starts off at the northern end of the parking lot. Cross the little footbridge that leads from the parking lot to the trails and then instead of turning right to climb steeply up Huntsville Mountain on the Fanning Trail, continue on straight on the Jones Valley Loop Trail. You won’t actually find this trail on the Land Trust online maps or posted at the kiosk yet, but it is well marked with both ribbons (red going out, blue coming back) and trail diamonds, so don’t let that stop you! We hiked the trail clockwise by bearing left at the fork. The trail is initially very level. We’ve had a lot of rain, so a couple of spots were a little boggy, but nothing that was impassible. As we walked through the typical North Alabama landscape of mixed hardwoods and rocky karst formations, we could hear water rushing up ahead.
At .1 miles, we came to Bailey Cove Branch, which is the little stream that carves out a gully in a fold of Huntsville Mountain and flows out into Bailey Cove. Bailey Cove Branch is the main attraction of this hike at this time of year. The trail crosses the branch, follows along one bank of the branch towards the top of the gully, crosses over, and then follows along the other bank on the loop back. All along the way, the little stream tumbles over small cascades, streams over long shelves of rock, and forms pools deep enough to look like they’d be refreshing to wade or wallow in in the summer. The real star of the trail, though, is nearly at the beginning. There’s a pretty little waterfall that drops maybe 7 feet right where the trail first comes to the branch. You can see it from one bank, but if you cross the branch and follow the trail on the other side, you’ll soon come right to the top of the little fall. We lingered there awhile so that Chet could take a bunch of pictures, then headed on up the trail.
The woods really are a lovely break after all the hustle and bustle of Christmas and New Year’s. Though there aren’t wildflowers this time of year, a bit of red nandina berry or vibrant green moss would occasionally light up the foreground. We saw interesting rock formations, acorns starting to sprout, and a “swirly” log ( some combination of wood grain and moss growth made it look like one of those turned wooden bowls with the beautiful swirls). Chet saw some hepatica leaves, which makes us think this area might be a promising one for spring wildflowers. We’ll have to check it out in the spring.
After following along the branch for a good little ways, the trail does turn away from the water briefly and heads uphill, but soon turns back to the water and to the other water crossing, at .4 miles. Both of these crossings were easy. As I said earlier, we were here on a day when there had been a lot of recent rain so the water was fairly high, but even then we had no trouble getting across. I have heard that some folks have been on this trail and found no water at all, so I suppose we were just lucky to get such a beautiful waterfall! After the second crossing, we had a momentary confusion about which way to go. The clearer trail was marked with blue ribbons and headed off to our right along the branch. Another trail was marked with red ribbons and seemed to head straight ahead and uphill, as if it might eventually connect up with the Fanning Trail above us. Neither trail had a visible trail diamond. We opted to try the blue-ribboned trail first, and soon saw a trail diamond for Jones Valley Loop, so we feel pretty confident we picked the right way. I will say that up to that point, we saw trail diamonds frequently. Once we got on the blue ribboned section, though, we saw few diamonds and most of the ones we did spot were facing the other way. The footbed is clear and easy to follow, though, and the ribbons didn’t let us down.
The path led us back down the other bank of the branch, past the top of the little waterfall, and then joined back with the original trail so that it really forms sort of a lollypop. All in all, we hiked .8 miles. A perfect First Day hike!
Please note, in January, 2019, Cecil Ashburn Drive will be closed for a massive construction project. As best as we can tell, though, the businesses on Cecil Ashburn up as far as the church claim they will still be open, and the only article I found online about the church only expressed concerns about their congregants from Hampton Cove having to drive so far around to get to church. I have to assume there will be at least some access to the church parking lot available. Also, the Land Trust asks people to be respectful of the church’s worship schedule by avoiding this trailhead on Sunday mornings before noon and Wednesday evenings after 6 pm.
Well, here we are at the end of another year, and our little blog is still going strong. Thank you, dear readers! In 2018, we made the decision to cut back a little on the blogging, or to be more precise, to cut back on the outings but to still try to post something every week. Our social media consultants advised us to use some of our “evergreen content,” which we did by posting short “quick look” posts that revisit some of our earlier adventures dating back all the way to 2015. I thought it was a good strategy, but was a little worried that our viewership stats would suffer if we weren’t generating new content every week.
There’s a reason our social media consultants are thriving in their careers — they were right! As I write this, we’ve had 20,577 views in 2018, which is a 66% increase over 2017! It turns out that feeding, clothing, and sheltering our social media consultants had benefits we didn’t even imagine at the time. Of course, we love our daughters and would have fed, clothed, and sheltered them anyway.
Though we did cut back on our outings, we still managed 23 hikes and one float trip over the course of the year. We visited some of our old favorites for new hikes (the Sipsey Wilderness, Green Mountain Nature Preserve, Lake Guntersville State Park, South Cumberland State Park) and discovered some new (to us) places to hike that will probably get return visits in the future (Natchez Trace, Franklin State Forest, Red Mountain, to name a few). We made only the one float trip, but it was on the Paint Rock River. Our previous Paint Rock River float trip post is our most-viewed post over the life of the blog, so we were really happy when a company started offering rentals and shuttles on this lesser-traveled waterway.
The highlights for the year? It’s an easy call for Ruth — Taylor Hollow State Natural Area, an astounding spring wildflower Nature Conservancy property north of Nashville. For me, it would be the collective hikes we took in Oregon, particularly the little two-mile stretch of the iconic Pacific Crest Trail we covered in the Columbia River Gorge. Here are a few other interesting tidbits from 2018 for Woodlands and Waters.
In looking back on our goals for 2018, we had pretty much one plan — to cut back on our posting of new content, and we nailed that. We hoped to post more or less weekly, with about 50% new content, and we were pretty much on the mark. For 2019, we’d like to keep to the same general plan – post weekly, with new content about half the time. We’ve got one trip planned already for April to an interesting nearby destination, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we throw in a few dayhikes in areas that would require us to make an overnight trip. I’ve retired from my soccer activities, which will free up quite a few Saturdays for hiking (and some lawn maintenance, much to the relief of our long-suffering neighbors). There are news trails finished, planned or in progress on Land Trust properties and we’ll be paying them a visit. We keep a running list of ideas, and it’s exciting to think about getting out there in 2019.
So happy holidays, dear readers, and wish us luck in working off all those holiday mince pies and gingerbread houses. As you can see from the photos above from actual holiday sweets made by in the past two days by Ruth and our multi-talented social media consultants, I’m going to have to put in more than a few miles on the trails.
If you live in the Huntsville area, you will have been aware that it has rained NON STOP for most of the past few weekends. It’s been a serious blocker to our hiking plans. Sunday was a gray and dreary day, but at least it wasn’t actively raining so we planned a quick hike on the Rock Bluff Trail at Burritt on the Mountain. It was close by and we’d never blogged about it so it seemed like a reasonable idea. I’ll be honest though, I didn’t really expect much more than to stretch my legs a bit and breathe in some fresh air, but it turned into an unexpected learning experience!
This is a less-than-a-mile trail that circles along the rock ledges beneath the Burritt Museum. Getting there is usually pretty easy for us. Our usual route to Burritt is to go up Governor’s Drive to Monte Sano Boulevard, which leads right to the Burritt entrance. However on this day, we got to the Monte Sano Boulevard light only to discover they’d closed the whole intersection for utility work. Back down the mountain and over to the “back way” on Bankhead Parkway we went. We weren’t entirely sure we’d be able to get to Burritt that way either, but we lucked out – the road closed just beyond where we needed to turn up the Burritt driveway.
Crisis averted, we parked in the small parking area off the left side of Burritt Drive. This parking area has space for four cars, but only one spot is not a handicapped space. The reason for that is that this is a rare handicapped-accessible trail. While the entire loop is not paved, all of it out to the main feature is – but we’ll talk about that later. The paved trail starts out just past an set of informative signs. These signs give information about the Land and Water Conservation Fund, pictures of invasive species to be on the lookout for, and the hours and emergency contact information for the park. With that out of the way we headed down the paved, leaf-covered trail.
Almost right away, we came to the first of what would turn out to be many nature trail signs. These varied from a simple numbered wooden post (though we failed to pick up any guide to what the numbers meant), to a small tree identification sign, to large metal signs complete with long text descriptions and colored graphics. Most described trees or wildflowers, but some also included geology or history.
Soon the trail came to something of an intersection – a path straight ahead led to one of the large metal signs, but an equally well-traveled path headed sharply to the left past a bench and towards another large metal sign. The path ahead turned out to be a spur that just led to the rock formation described by the sign. The main trail is the one that headed left, towards a sign that compared the bark of a persimmon tree to an alligator. The sign was complete with a cast of alligator skin for actual comparison!
Next up was a long boardwalk over a boggy section. Uphill was a lovely rock bluff formation. Downhill, several little streams coming out of springs at the base of the bluff burbled down the mountain towards the old Big Cove Turnpike trail, Governor’s Drive, and on down into the valley. Here, there was a sign about the geology of the area, and a very wet and muddy path up towards a small cave. We followed the request on the sign not to enter the cave and kept on the main trail.
Just a little past the cave was my favorite educational sign on the trail – one about the shagbark hickory. Now, we see shagbark hickory often in our hikes in this area. It’s a very common tree, and even better I can actually identify it by just the bark. I’m afraid I’ve lost a lot of my tree-id-ninja skills from my Botanical Garden class, but this tree I remember. So a sign pointing out shagbark hickory you wouldn’t think would be terribly exciting, but this one was because I learned something new. I learned that the word “hickory” came from an Algonquin Indian word – “Powcohicora” which was the name of a soup they made from boiling, then pounding, nuts. The soup could actually be made from several different kinds of nuts, but its association with the hickory nuts must have been a strong one because that’s the one that stuck. I’m a sucker for word-origin stories, so I loved learning this new fact!
Soon after the shagbark hickory sign, the Discovery Trail heads off through the woods to the left. We had also passed a “Discovery Trail” sign back at the very beginning of the hike (though I didn’t mention it), and I assumed that it was some sort of loop trail that went farther down the mountain. Looking at maps once I got home, though, I realized that the first “Discovery Trail” is a short trail that connects the trails at Burritt with Trough Springs Trail across Monte Sano Boulevard. This Discovery Trail is another short connector-type trail that leads to the Big Cove Turnpike Trail.
Just past the Discovery Trail junction, we came to a section of trail that appears to have been heavily damaged. It looked for all the world like tornado damage – not just the downed trees, but trees sheared off at the top, too. I don’t remember reading reports of a storm that caused damage in this area this year, but maybe I just wasn’t paying attention. Thankfully, somebody had kindly come out with chain saws to clear the larger trees, so it was no problem to walk through the area. Above us, we could see the stone chimneys of some of the historic buildings in the paid area of the park.
The next notable sight is the main feature of this hike for most folks – the large concrete cross. The 74 foot tall cross has marbleized chips embedded in it to better reflect the light. At one point, it was lit at night by floodlights. That is no longer the case, but it’s a Huntsville landmark nonetheless. After admiring the cross and the impressive honey-locust planted near the base, we headed on up the trail – which at this point is more like a road, as it is surely the access road to maintain the cross. It was very muddy after all the rain.
The hike was almost over at this point. We followed the road around until a sign pointed out that the trail turned right. We had another confusing moment here. There was a sign for “Trail” and then just a couple of feet away from that another sign for “Oak Tree Trail.” From the map, I knew that the Oak Tree Trail headed up the bluff to the paid area. The road we had been on continued on towards Burritt Drive, which we could just see up ahead. We decided to try the Oak Tree Trail just to see where it ended up, and walked all the way to Burritt Drive, coming out at a spot just across the road from where we’d parked. Something wasn’t quite right. We retraced our steps, trying to figure out where “Oak Tree Trail” was, only to discover that it split off from the trail right where its sign was. What happens is this: the gravel road goes straight, coming out at a gated gravel road just above the entry gate. After the “Trail” sign, though, it’s no longer Rock Bluff Trail. Rock Bluff Trail turns off the road at the “Trail” sign, and then “Oak Tree Trail” splits immediately off of that and climbs up to the right.
All told, we probably hiked less than a mile – though our run of questionable luck that day included the fact that the batteries in the GPS died just steps onto the trail so no GPS track with mileage for us! We avoided the rain and quite enjoyed stretching our legs after being cooped up for far too long. It was an added bonus that this trail included so many educational signs, and I even learned something new!
Over the years, we’ve had numerous occasions to make the drive from Huntsville, AL to Kimball, TN, to get to I-24. Toward the east end of that route, as you near South Pittsburg, the view to the northwest grows ever more mountainous, with a particularly prominent peak looming over the Cornbread City. I’ve often wondered about the hiking opportunities in the general area, so a little internet research led me to an interest in Franklin State Forest.
Tennessee has 15 state forests, all administered by the Tennessee Department of Agriculture. These managed forests are the source of timber harvests, but most are also multiple-use areas, with recreational facilities for hiking/horse/OHV trails, hunting, and fishing. They are often found contiguous to other public lands such as state parks, where they preserve environments and provide corridors for long distance trails such as the Cumberland Trail. We’ve not actually hiked in any of the Tennessee State Forests, and given its proximity to South Cumberland State Park, we figured that Franklin State Forest would be a good one to start with.
Official information on the state forests can be a bit slim, compared to the slicker websites used by the state parks. That’s not such a surprise — the state Department of Agriculture doesn’t have tourism as a primary focus. There’s a skimpy one-page website for Franklin State Forest, with a link to a road use map that also shows hiking trails. The map does a good job of showing the network of paved and dirt roads and hiking trails, but doesn’t include any trail names. There’s no description of the trails either, but fortunately the blogosphere has found the place and there are a few accounts of hikes in the forest. There’s this one from Hiking the Appalachians and Beyond, and another from The Outcasts Hike Again. Both blogs (check them out, they’re great!) make salient points about hiking in the Franklin State Forest. The first post is about three years old, and the second is about ten years old, but both are still fairly accurate.
The Franklin State Forest was acquired in 1936 from a coal company (coal and iron ore mining was a big thing in this area, before even better deposits were found in Birmingham). The 7,737-acre tract is heavily forested, almost exclusively by hardwoods, and straddles state highway 156 about half an hour’s drive north of South Pittsburg (or, you can travel south from Sewanee, TN if you prefer — the distance from Huntsville is about the same). The Forest is situated on the Cumberland Plateau, with most trails and roads offering views into mountain coves. By combining roads and trails, it’s possible to put together loop hikes of various distances.
I decided we’d try a 4.4 mile loop in the northern end of the Forest. One factor in that decision was the location of the Ranger station, straddling the Franklin-Marion County line on highway 156. It’s an easily located landmark, with a trailhead right across the road. There’s a sign marking the State Forest at the Ranger station, and a conglomeration of separate buildings and garages, including a cabin, but there’s no signage directing you to any particular place for parking or info. There is a kiosk in front of the cabin, and we followed another truck past it into a large field to the south of the cabin where a handful of horse and OHV trailers were parked. We didn’t observe any restrooms there, or a ranger, but we parked, donned our blaze vests (hunting is allowed in many state forests), and checked out the kiosk. It had a copy of trail map from the website and a few pages of regulations for the use of state forests.
We knew from the trail map there was a trail starting on the other side of the road from the kiosk, and we found the trailhead with relative ease. There was no signage marking this as a trailhead, other than the letter “A” affixed to a tree, and white blazes visible in the distance. I’ve seen references to this trail being called the “Fern Trail,” but I’ve not seen this notated in signage. The single track enters the woods, and heads southeast through a well-blazed corridor, with mostly paint blazes and the occasional white plastic strip mounted to a tree. There was a downed tree, easily skirted, and a little creek eased in on the left as we walked along the trail. I had had some reservations about the trails being well-marked, but they turned out to be unfounded. Throughout our hike, the footbed was always easy to follow, and frequent blazes were fresh and easily visible.
The first .35 miles were typical for a late fall hike around here — mostly bare trees, with leaves covering the footbed and concealing the occasional loose rock. There wasn’t much elevation change. This stretch of the trail had a few small wooden signposts at the base of some trees, perhaps a remnant of some signage for a nature trail. We came to our first trail junction at .35 miles, and the single biggest navigational shortcoming of hiking in the Forest became evident. Our little creek had widened, and our trail effectively teed into one of the unpaved roads. A plastic arrow at the base (huh?) of a tree directed us to a trail junction marked as “B,” in a sign on a tree. OK, we had gone from A to B, but our trail map didn’t include any of these markers, so we couldn’t align “B” with a particular point on the map. This is something the Outcasts had railed upon at some length in their post 10 years ago, but to their credit they had somehow laid their hands on a different trail map with the junctions marked. Here’s a link to their photo of that map. It’s pretty low-res, but it’s the only map I’ve found of its type. On the GPS track of our hike, we’ve marked waypoints for the “lettered” intersections that we traversed.
So there we were at “B” – wish I could tell you it was the intersection of the Fern Trail and the “XYZ” trail, but apparently trail names are for the unimaginative. We had to make a water crossing here. We were hiking the day after a heavy rain, and the creek was shallow but relatively wide here. The good news is that there was a wooden walkway over the creek. The bad news was that the second half of it was submerged. The water was only a few inches deep, so we kept our boots on and made a (mostly) dry crossing.
The next .3 miles of the hike were along an unpaved road. It was easy walking, except that this section of the trail is also used by horses, and some had been by earlier that morning. What with the heavy rain of the night before, the trail was often muddy, particularly when it narrowed. Our choices, as Ruth pointed out, were mud or briars, which seemed to line just about every trail we traveled that day. The blazes along this stretch were white, though there were some occasional black ones as well, and one rogue blue blaze. At the end of this segment, another larger creek flowed north to south, with two crossings evident, and the white blazed trail continuing along the creek without crossing. This was intersection “C,” and the creek is Sweden Creek, or a tributary of it, depending on which map you consult (the Forest’s trail map doesn’t show bodies of water at all). We were properly confused at this point. We thought we knew where we were, but not certain. The trail on the far side of the creek was also blazed white. Finally, I had the brainstorm of checking Google maps, and bless them! they had all of the trails marked on the map. Our little current location dot finally helped us correlate where “C” was on the map, and we were in business.
Now that we knew where we were, we had to cross Sweden Creek. (By the way, “Sweden Creek” is the official name of the creek, but this is a corruption of a settler’s family name, “Sweeten” — oddly enough, Sweden Creek drains into Sweeten Cove.) There are two crossings close to each other at intersection “C,” but both required some slightly ambitious rock hopping. We went downstream about 30 yards and found a narrower, easier crossing. The next .3 miles were much nicer hiking, as we were now on a horse-free path that turned south and climbed slightly as it approached the rim of Main Cove. Based on other blog posts and information we discovered later in the hike, it’s safe to say we were on the North Rim trail at this point. Our next intersection skipped a few letters, as now “X” marked the spot where another trail merged in from the north. A blue blazed spur trail from this clearing leads to a small rock outcrop with a hint of the views to come.
The next .85 miles are the highlight of the North Rim trail, as the footpath parallels the bluffline with views into Main Cove. At first the views are occluded, but as the trail approaches some relatively rare pine groves at about .65 miles from “X,” there are two blue-blazed short spur trails to the edge of the bluff, where the views to the south and southeast are quite spectacular. There are a couple of easy creek crossings in this segment, easily managed by rock hopping.
After the soaring views, the trail turns north away from the bluffline and tees into a blue blazed road at intersection “Y.” The blue blazed road continues to the northeast, where it apparently ends at Collins Falls. We didn’t know that at the time, and turned west instead to complete our loop. We almost immediately met two folks on horses, with two friendly accompanying dogs, and exchanged pleasantries. Those were the only people we saw on our hike, not counting the kids zooming around on OHVs in the parking area. The trail passed a sizeable pond and recrossed a creek or two as it meandered generally westward toward Sweden Creek. There was an obvious trail split in about .2 miles, but we stuck to the left at the fork and after about .65 miles we stayed to the left at another intersection. About half a mile after that intersection, we were back at intersection “C” by Sweden Creek.
At this point we could either retrace our steps back to the trailhead, or we could tack on a little more mileage. We were feeling pretty good, it was a beautiful day, so we decided to turn our hike into a figure-8 loop, with Sweden Creek being the middle point. We turned south at “C” and continued along the North Rim trail. We knew that Sweden Cove falls was in the general area, and hoped that by following Sweden Creek downstream a bit we’d get a look at the falls. The trail was narrow and muddy, churned up by horses, and though we could hear rushing water below us the trail began to loop away from the cove without there being any obvious route down the steep bank to our left. We came to the remains of a signpost next to an abandoned trail, and thought aha! here was a manway down to the falls. It turned out be badly overgrown (not quite a rhododendron hell, but at least a rhododendron heck) and after bushwhacking a little we clambered out onto an outcrop where we could see Sweden Cove falls very far below us. Our pictures from there were horrible so I’m not going to post them, but apparently it’s a 25-foot fall. We didn’t see an easy way down to the fall, so we retraced our route back to the trail.
The trail meandered generally westward, at one point crossing a creek on an actual footbridge before coming to intersection “D” about half a mile from intersection “C.” For the first and only time on this hike, there were trail signs, informing us that we had been hiking on the North Rim trail, that the West Rim trail apparently begins here, and the Sweden Cove trail leads .9 miles to the Ranger station. Well done, Eagle Scout J. Davis!
Our last segment was on the blue blazed Sweden Cove trail, an old roadbed that climbed generally to the northwest before teeing into another trail in about .2 miles that had a few of the blank placard-type signs we had seen at the base of some trees at the beginning of our hike. We stayed left at the intersection so we wouldn’t end up back at the “A” trailhead, and instead emerged on highway 156 between Lake Road and the Ranger station, both of which were easily visible. This trailhead didn’t have any signage. From here it was an easy walk along the road shoulder back to the parking area, about .6 miles from “D.”
All in all, Franklin State Forest was a pleasant surprise. There are three or four other short loop hikes that we’re considering as future excursions, so we’ll be back! Now that we’ve somewhat cracked the code of the trail map and the intersections, we’ll be a little more confident. This is one place where you should definitely do your homework before setting out, but as long as you know which side of highway 156 you’re on, just head east or west (as appropriate) until you find the highway and you won’t get lost. Of course, you might be miles from where you parked.