Right Here in River City

If you’re a fan of classic musicals, when someone mentions River City your mind might go straight to The Music Man and its song “(Ya Got) Trouble.”  Luckily, though I have a superficial knowledge of some musicals, I wouldn’t call myself a fan.  So when I hear someone mention the River City, naturally I think of Decatur, Alabama.   To be fair, Wikipedia lists 38 U.S. cities with that nickname, but our destination this past weekend was just to our west over the Tennessee River.

Ruth and I don’t actually visit Decatur often, and we didn’t know much about the city and its charms, so we decided to remedy this by exploring a part of the city on foot.  We had a window of opportunity on a Sunday morning for a quick visit, so I did some online exploring first and found a great resource on the City of Decatur’s website.  Their mobile site has links to two free walking tour apps that you can download, then use to navigate to points of interest in the River City’s two historic districts.  We chose the Old Decatur tour.

We arrived in Decatur just toward the end of the church rush but were still able to nab a parking place on Church Street within 100 feet of the tour’s starting point at the corner of Church and Bank Streets.  I fired up the app, cranked up the volume, and got oriented in the proper direction while an introduction to the city’s history played.  We learned that Decatur is a relatively old city, settled in 1817 as Rhodes Ferry and then incorporated in 1820 as Decatur, named for the naval hero Stephen Decatur, who had recently been killed in a duel.  It’s important to know this, as the historic district signs use a profile of a naval commodore, which could be mistaken as a man in a deerstalker cap, or maybe a headless shrugging ghost.

The city became a transportation hub, with its access to the Tennessee River and the arrival of the railroad in 1836.  The city changed hands several times during the Civil War, and ultimately most of it was burned or dismantled by 1864.  The city began rebuilding, though it was ravaged by yellow fever outbreaks in 1877 and 1888.  According to the tour, by 1886, the city had recovered to the point that 640 railroad cars passed through the city every day — almost as many as the number that pass through Athens per hour during the Storytelling Festival.  (Sorry, it’s an in-joke — the Athens Storytelling Festival, which we highly recommend, is plagued by seemingly-nonstop trains that interrupt the tellers.  It has become a game for the tellers, who find clever ways to incorporate the locomotive horns into their tales.)

Many houses from the Victorian era remain — in fact, the historic district is one of the largest collections of Victorian homes in Alabama.  The first stop on our tour, however, is for commercial buildings on Bank Street, built during the Reconstruction period.  The brick buildings on the left side are a mixed bag of vacant storefronts, antique stores, and professional services like a photography studio and a medical office.  One store has a pretty cool display of old lamps and other collectibles in the windows.  But perhaps the most interesting feature is in the middle of the street, which has a strip of brick pavement and sections of rail from the trolleys that used to run between Decatur and its erstwhile sister city, New Albany.

Continuing down Bank Street, the next tour stop is Simp McGhee’s.  It’s a restaurant named after a colorful character in Decatur history, housed in a building on the National Register of Historic Places.  No particular date is given for the building, but it is associated with a saloon run by the 1880s riverboat captain, who owned several businesses in town, including a brothel.   This block also has one of the Civil War history interpretive signs that describe the battle for Decatur and the garrison of 1,800 Federal troops stationed there in 1864-65.

Two blocks southwest on the corner of Bank and Cherry Streets, the old Hargrove & Murdock grocery building, built in 1897, is still in use as a commercial building.    For many years it was a downtown grocery, though it was the site of a brothel in earlier days.  I don’t know if this was the brothel that Simp McGhee is associated with, or whether it was a competitor.  Anyway, the building has handsome original arched windows on the front and interesting round windows on the south side.

The tour continues a couple of blocks down Cherry Street, leaving the arts and entertainment district and entering a residential area.  We were struck by contrasting sights on either side of the street — a somewhat passive/aggressive sign on a fence to the right, and on the other side, a bottle tree.  Bottle trees are a distinctive Southern garden decoration.  According to folklore, the bottles trap night-roaming evil spirits, and cobalt blue bottles are particularly effective.  I don’t know what goes on in that stretch of Cherry Street, but I suggest keeping a wide berth at night!

Though the tour is now in a neighborhood, the next stop is actually at another commercial building.  The John T. Banks Building, erected in 1887, was built by a druggist and it became the temporary Morgan County courthouse when the county seat was moved from Somerville.  It has since been used as a hospital and store, then later as a rooming house and apartment building, before its current use as office space.  It looks a little out of place next to the Victorian homes in the neighborhood.

This might be a good time to comment on the general vibe of the historic district.  There’s an eclectic mix of architectural styles in roughly a 5-by-6 block area.  Most of the houses are in great shape, though as is often the case in historic districts, there were a few in need of some TLC.  For the most part, these are family homes, with porches and lawn decorations.  People live here.  It’s a neighborhood, not a museum, with an organic, unplanned feel.

One of the stateliest homes on the tour is Shadowlawn, built around 1874 by one of the town’s doctors.  So named because of the massive willow oaks, it’s a classic beauty on the corner of Line and Cherry Streets.  It’s an interesting contrast to two more modest homes on the other side of the street, also tour stops.  The Leadingham House was a cottage for two maiden sisters, and next door’s Collier House is a Queen Anne built by the town clerk, who married another of the Leadingham sisters.

The next stop on the tour is a bit of a surprise — a small park on the south side of Shadowlawn.  Frazier Park is a quiet space with a traditional Japanese garden on one end, with water features and a more classical plaza on the other end.  It’s not necessarily historic, but it’s a nice place to take a break.

The next stop on the tour is the Judge Seybourn Lynne home on Ferry Street.  The home isn’t one of the older ones in the district — it was built in 1925 — but is historic by association with Judge Lynne, a federal judge who served nearly 30 years on a court that heard several important civil rights cases.  His views on civil rights evolved over time, as he was the dissenter on a three-judge panel that ordered the integration of the Montgomery bus lines, but he wrote the opinion that integrated the University of Alabama and later issued rulings to integrate jails and Birmingham’s most prestigious cemetery.

My favorite house on the tour is on Ferry Street.  The Williamson House, built in 1903, is a Victorian beauty with sweeping porches, leaded glass, and other architectural details, on a wooded corner lot.  In fact, that corner is Victorian heaven, as just across Walnut Street you’ll find the J.T. Jones House, built in 1899.  It’s another confection, in the Queen Anne style, with terrific woodwork on the facade.

I’m not going to post a photo of every house on the tour — you’ll just have to see them all for yourself.  However, it’s not a historic district if it doesn’t have a hitching post.  This one is from the Wert-Martin House, originally built in 1886, and much remodeled afterwards.  Note the curb here — it’s made of slabs of hewn stone, not cast concrete.

I really like that this tour highlights a variety of architectural styles.  The International Art Deco style of the house known as Fort Nash is quite a contrast to the wooden frame houses found elsewhere in the neighborhood.  Designed in 1939 by the head of the Architecture Department at Auburn, the exterior is composed of solid limestone walls and glass blocks.  It seems a bit industrial compared to other homes in the area, and I imagine there had to be a bit of pearl-clutching when it was first put up.  The tour narration says the house has a shuffleboard court and a full soda fountain, so it gets cool points for that, I guess.

The tour next continues down Line Street, past the Harris House with its peculiar lozenge-shaped windows, arriving at the Second Empire-style Moseley House.  Built in 1887 by one of the town’s largest property owners, the house has a distinctive mansard roof and very appealing detailing on the front porch.

The tour winds up its look at the residential district with a jaunt down Lafayette Street.  Three more eclectic choices are highlighted.  The first is two side-by-side Sears kit homes, built in 1910.  Though the exteriors are slightly different, you can see both were built from the same plan.  We spoke with the friendly owner of one of the houses, who told us that one of the houses has a largely unmodified exterior, with a reconfigured interior, and the other has had external changes but has a mostly unchanged interior.  Across the street is a remarkable willow oak with an trunk reminiscent of columns I’ve seen in medieval cathedrals.  The second notable home is the Gibson House, another Victorian charmer from 1901, beautifully restored. The third remarkable house is comparatively plain, but the Todd House is one of only four surviving antebellum structures in Decatur.  Built in 1836, it has been renovated a few times, but the front door and sidelights are original.

The tour emerges from the residential district onto Church Street, where the next stop is the Carnegie Visual Arts Center.  This building was erected in 1904 as a Carnegie Library, one of 2,500+ built by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.  This specimen is typical of the exterior design, and served in its original purpose until the library outgrew the building.

The tour nears its end as it progresses northwest up Church Street, with a one-block jog over to Canal Street for a look at the First United Methodist Church.  This building dates to 1899, though the congregation dates back to 1835 and is the oldest church in Decatur.  The church features three large stained glass windows, protected by another (later) layer of glass on the exterior.

We followed Lafayette up to Church Street, passing this street mural, before turning northeast to close the loop on the tour.  The Old State Bank is one of the last stops, and is another of the pre-Civil War buildings on the tour.  It was built in 1833 as a branch of the Alabama State Bank.  Though it had an impressive building, it wasn’t very successful as a bank, closing in 1842.  A local physician converted the building into his home, and it was converted into a hospital during the war.  Since then, the building has had several uses, and now houses a museum that’s open on weekdays.  Damage from cannonballs and rifle balls is still visible on the bank’s stone facade.  A small building at the rear was originally the kitchen associated with the house/hospital, and now is used for public restrooms.  Though it’s not strictly in the historic district, one other home is listed on the tour.  The Dancy-Polk House, on the other side of Railroad Street next to the depot, is the third remaining antebellum structure in Decatur, dating to 1829.  This Federal-style home also served as a hotel and as the Federal headquarters during the war.  We didn’t go over for a closer look, as the house is currently being renovated.

We had a very pleasant stroll in the Old Decatur Historic District.  There’s very little elevation change, and all walking is on sidewalks.  We didn’t bring the GPS with us, but I’d estimate the walking distance as a little under 1.5 miles.  It took us about 90 minutes of leisurely strolling to complete the tour.  The tour app was easy to download and use, with good directions from site to site.  I wouldn’t have minded a little more architectural commentary, but I wouldn’t want to cause any trouble, especially in River City.


Backyard Treasure: Rainbow Mountain Trails

You know how it is – it’s the places in your own backyard that you somehow never seem to find the time to visit. If it weren’t for having family in from out of town, many Huntsville area folks might never have made the time to go visit the Space and Rocket Center, or Constitution Hall Village, or any of the other fantastic tourist sights in our area. We’re not here for just a few days after all, and there’s always next weekend.

I’ve been guilty of this myself, even when it comes to trails. Chet and I live in Madison and the Land Trust of North Alabama’s Rainbow Mountain Preserve is practically in our back yard, but I realized that we’ve only blogged about it once! I was on my own last weekend (Chet was otherwise engaged both days refereeing about a zillion soccer games for AYSO), so Casey The Hound and I decided we’d just explore the “backyard” preserve.

As I drove up to the parking area on Stoneway Trail, I could see that I was not the only one with this idea. The place was packed! There’s a parking lot on the left right next to the kiosk and the pavilion, but there was not a spot empty there. In fact, there were cars parked along the curb and in some spots that I’m pretty sure weren’t entirely official. There’s a second lot up the hill that holds a handful of cars, but that one was almost full as well. Luckily, I’d driven my little Honda Fit and could squeeze in along an edge.

Rainbow Mountain Preserve isn’t very big, but it does have a large pavilion and a nice shady playground, as well as 3 miles of trails. There is also a “Dog Waste Station,” which was a good thing because I’d totally run off and forgotten the poop bags for Sir Hound. I don’t know what it is, but for some reason being out in the “wild” really has an effect on his, erm, digestive system. It’s like he stores it up for days! At any rate, I was able to stock up a bit before we headed out, so that was nice.

I wasn’t terribly ambitious honestly – I’ve been fighting a bit of a cold and didn’t want to push things too much – so I’d picked out a short loop hike that would stretch all 6 of our legs a bit and take in some of the premier features of the Preserve. We started out walking through the playground and heading out on the east end on Rainbow Mountain Loop. With all the cars parked in the lot, I was sure the playground would be overrun with kids, but it was virtually empty. Everybody, it seems, was there to hike. The trail here is almost sandy and strewn with large rocks. It heads down, sometimes a bit steeply, losing almost 100 feet in elevation in the first .12 miles. We passed a trail that might have been one end of Jake’s Trail (I didn’t see a marker for it though) and continued on down until we got to the intersection with Spring Trail, which takes off to the right.

Only a few steps down the Spring Trail, the Wild Trail takes off to the right. Now though we haven’t blogged about this Preserve much, I have hiked almost all the trails at some point. All of them are attractive for one reason or another: Rainbow Mountain Loop is the granddaddy – the first trail here, I’m pretty sure; Ja Moo Ko has a cool name; Spring Trail has a pretty  little creek as well as (obviously) a spring; Jake’s Trail is named for a dog. Wild Trail has none of those attractions, and so I’ve often skipped it, always planning to come back to it another time. This weekend was “another time” and so down the Wild Trail we went.The trail is less popular than the other trails I think, and seems less well-traveled. It’s narrower and crowded in a bit by the forest understory, but not at all overgrown. While I passed many groups of people and dogs on the other trails I hiked this day, I passed not a soul on the Wild Trail. Casey and I really did have it all to ourselves. The trail is pretty level at first, and then turns uphill to regain some of the elevation lost at the start of the hike before coming, after only about .1 miles, to a T intersection. Here I had the option of going right to make a much shorter loop, or going left to make a longer one. I chose left because I wanted my loop to include both Baby Balance Rock and Balance Rock. The shorter loop would have put me out onto Rainbow Mountain Loop past where I’d see Baby Balance Rock.

After another quarter of a mile, I came to the junction with Rainbow Mountain Loop and turned right to get to the balance rocks. This is one of my favorite pieces of trail in the Preserve. I love that the trail goes over large rock slabs that have been cracked into giant stepping stones. I love that the views to the west include the neighborhoods below. I love the rock bluffs that the trail wanders above, below or through at various points. And I especially love the balance rocks.

Originally, there was just one Balance Rock named on the maps, but now the latest Land Trust maps also mark Baby Balance Rock. These rock formations look a little like upside down pyramids made of Legos. It is a pillar of rock, layered horizontally, and much much smaller at the bottom than it is at the top. It is a product of erosion of softer sandstone layers with harder layers above. They’ve managed to stay upright for years, but eventually Mother Nature will have her way, and the pillars will come tumbling down.

Casey and I explored the rocks around Baby Balance Rock and admired the views to the west. The bluffs just below we’d visited  (and blogged about ) on a Land Trust guided hike led by Redstone Arsenal archaeologist Ben Hoksbergen a couple of years ago, so I knew they contained several small rock shelters once used by area Native Americans for occasional shelter. We didn’t explore them all this time around, though, but continued on through the rock formations to get to Balance Rock.

After Balance Rock, Casey and I headed back to close our loop. We could have gone straight to the car by the water tower, but I opted to head down Jake’s Trail to finish up at the playground again. All told, we only hiked .9 miles in our mighty mountain trek. It wasn’t very far, but we had a good time, met lots of other dogs (and people), saw some  fall colors in the trees, and gave some love to a neglected backyard trail. A good day!


A Slender Tinkling Fall: Arethusa Falls

As you can probably tell from our last couple of posts, we had a wonderful time on our recent vacation in New Hampshire.  We had a hike up to a glacial lake, traveled a small piece of the Appalachian Trail, had our first visit to an Appalachian Mountain Club hut, and admired two waterfalls and a cascading creek, all in our first hike.  Our second hike was to a couple of mountain peaks, to get a view of fall foliage in the White Mountains.  We had a small window of opportunity to get in a third hike, and after consulting the excellent Northeasthikes.com website, we decided on a hike to Arethusa Falls, New Hampshire’s tallest waterfall.

We had actually packed a lot into our vacation, aside from the hikes.  On our first full day, we visited Robert Frost’s home in Franconia.  I’ve always been a big fan of Frost and gained a little appreciation of his world by visiting his farm.  Sharp-eyed readers might have noticed that my two blog post titles from this trip are drawn from Frost poems.  On this hike, the one we knew would be our last on this trip, I couldn’t help but think of some lines from “Birches.”

It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
Fortunately, the hike to Arethusa Falls was nothing like a pathless wood.  It’s a popular destination, and given that we had an afternoon appointment with a local history museum in Franconia, we got a quick start from the inn and headed out into the frosty morning to make the drive to Crawford Notch.  And what a treat, as this mountain pass is narrower than the Franconia Notch we had previously traveled, and was ablaze with color.  Tall cliffs on Mt. Webster and Mt. Willard towered over both sides of the road (U.S. Highway 302) through the notch.
We reached the large gravel parking lot just off Highway 302 about 8:45, and we were just the third car to park there.  There are actually two trails that depart from this lower parking lot — the splendidly named Frankenstein Cliff trail on the northern edge of the lot, and the Arethusa Falls trail, which leaves the lot to the west.  We hadn’t done a lot of research, so we made a rookie mistake by parking in the lower lot.  If you’re hiking to Arethusa Falls, you can continue on up the road to an upper parking area and save yourself about .15 miles of walking to the actual trailhead.  On the plus side, the walk up the road to the upper parking lot had great foliage views.  There was a cheeky chipmunk (is there any other kind?) that jumped on a stump to chatter at us as we walked by.

The trail proper begins at the top of the second parking lot, on the other side of a railroad track.  A second kiosk there has another trail map and more information, including a thermometer which showed that we were hitting the trail at a balmy 38 degrees F.  But our luck with the weather was holding strong, as it was a sunny day with calm winds.
The trail begins next to a house but it quickly entered a wood full of red, yellow, and orange leaves above and underfoot.  The blue-blazed trail continued, mostly level, for about .1 miles to where the trail split, with the Arethusa Falls trail continuing to the right, and the yellow-blazed Bemis Brook trail starting on the left.  We knew that there were more waterfalls to be seen on the Bemis Brook trail, so we decided to go left and get a gander at a couple of warm-up waterfalls.

After passing a dedication plaque, the Bemis Brook trail, unsurprisingly, headed straight for Bemis Brook and began heading upstream.  Shortly afterwards, we came to a quiet pool, signposted as Fawn Pool.  It’s a small pool, about 20 feet across and maybe a little over a foot deep.   Someone had left a leaf arrangement for fellow hikers to enjoy.  The creekbed leading into the pool is a wide, sloping shelf and we couldn’t resist just walking up the creekbed to the first waterfall on this trail.
And here I must pause to voice my opinion on a hot controversy about this trail.  The easternmost waterfall on the Bemis Brook trail is marked with a sign as “Bemis Falls.”  This makes perfect sense, since we’re on Bemis Brook, but if you look at the photos of this waterfall you’ll note that the setting of its lower tier is distinctly round — like a coliseum.  Not to jump ahead, but the westernmost waterfall on this trail is marked with a sign as “Coliseum Falls.”  You’ll see momentarily that this second multi-tiered cascade, while lovely, doesn’t evoke any image of a famous Roman ruin.  Some folks have stated that they think the signs are switched, and it makes sense to me.  Sadly, the USGS topo maps and Crawford Notch State Park maps are silent on the issue, as neither waterfall is marked on the maps, though a map on the kiosk in the lower parking lot identifies the easternmost waterfall as Bemis Falls.  Though this map and the sign say otherwise, I’m going to side with the New Hampshire State Parks blog and call the first waterfall Coliseum Falls, and the second one Bemis Falls.

Enough controversy:  let’s have a look at Coliseum Falls.

After taking a few minutes to admire the waterfall, we continued upstream, back on the trail, which became narrower, rockier, and more rooty as it began climbing the ridge.  At about .4 miles, we reached the multi-tiered second waterfall, which I’m calling Bemis Falls.  Bemis Brook tumbles down a series of drops, ranging from about eight feet down to less than a foot, with little pools after every cascade.

After reaching Bemis Falls, the trail no longer continues upstream.  Instead, it turns abruptly uphill and climbs steeply to rejoin the Arethusa Falls trail.  The climb is no nonsense; in fact, you could easily mistake the trail for an old rockslide, but blazes and a directional arrow about halfway up attest that yes, you are on the trail.

We turned left onto the Arethusa Falls trail to resume our trek to the big waterfall.  The mostly level trail we had last seen half a mile ago wasn’t level any more, gaining altitude on a rocky stretch before leveling out and widening a little.   We came to the first of two bridges, which was the worse for wear, having had a tree fall on it in the last few months.  The trail detours upstream a few dozen feet, where the stream is easily crossed at a point at which it is about a foot wide.

After crossing a second, intact bridge, we climbed a series of log steps before reaching the turnoff to Arethusa Falls.   At this point, a spur trail leads .2 miles to Arethusa Falls, and the trail continues to the north and west, continuing its climb of Frankenstein Cliffs.

Our climb along the ridge had taken us away from Bemis Brook, but the spur trail loses some of that altitude gain and heads back down towards the brook.  In about .1 mile we began to hear the sound of falling water, and at .2 miles on the spur trail we reached the bottom of Arethusa Falls.  This waterfall, approximately 176 feet tall, wasn’t particularly powerful on the day of our visit, and it tends to cling to the cliff instead of making a free plunge.  Its height and setting are impressive, and I’ve seen other photos of it with four times the flow, so perhaps we didn’t catch it at its best.   For comparison, Alabama’s tallest waterfall is Grace’s High Falls, in Little River Canyon, at 133 feet.

After enjoying the waterfall for a little while, we retraced our steps up the spur trail and returned to the parking lot via the Arethusa Falls trail. It’s worth noting that the portion of the trail we had skipped on the way up by taking the Bemis Brook trail was a fairly lengthy descent down a moderately rocky footbed.  If you want to see all three waterfalls, as we did, I’d definitely recommend taking the Bemis Brook trail on the way up, just to get the elevation gain over with quickly (unless the steep climb from Bemis Falls up to the Arethusa Falls trail is too intimidating).  I have to say it looked worse than it actually was.

We arrived back at the lower parking lot at about 11:45, taking three hours to hike a total of 3.2 miles according to the GPS track.  There were quite a few more cars in the parking lot when we returned, and I have to say of our three hikes, this one seemed to have the most foot traffic.  Given that it’s relatively short and not terribly strenous, with a three waterfall payoff, it’s easy to see why this hike is so popular.

As much as we enjoy our treks in the hills and hollows around here, it was a nice change of scenery to hike in New Hampshire, and we’ll definitely be back in the future to do more walking in the northeast.  It whetted our appetite to hike in other parts of the country too, with the Pacific Northwest currently sitting at number one on our wish list.  It’s a big wide world out there, and there are wonders around every bend.


Boa Viagem: Sugarloaf Trail

When I was six years old, my mom and I moved back to the United States from Brazil. My dad was staying a few more months to finish up his contract with USAID (United States Agency for International Development), but for a lot of reasons – the timing of the school year and my grandmother’s failing health primarily – Mom and I came back early. I don’t remember very much about that trip back honestly. I don’t remember the goodbyes to the people I’d lived around as long as I could remember or anything about the plane ride itself. But what I do remember, at least a little bit, is being on a cable car and looking out to see only granite and ocean. Later on, of course, I figured out that we’d made a stop in Rio on the way home and I’d been on the famous cable car up to the top of the Pão de Açúcar, or Sugarloaf Mountain. This granite monolith stands at the mouth of Guanabara Bay with views up the bay, over the city, and out to the Atlantic Ocean. It was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2012. The cable car system was built in 1912, and has been rebuilt several times since, but based on the dates I was probably riding in one of the original wooden cars. I don’t remember much else about it – I have no memory of being on top of the mountain or even of coming back down – but those views made an indelible impression on me.

It just occurred to me that maybe this early experience explains why I always want to climb. I want to climb up on the top of the tallest rock, or out to the edge of the bluff, or (when I was little anyway) up to the highest tree branches. But maybe that’s just pop psychology. In any case, one of the things I most wanted to do during our trip to New England in early October was to be someplace where I could get that view – the iconic “fall in New England” one from on high with rolling ridges painted scarlet, orange, and vivid yellow stretching out as far as the eye could see. We’d seen glimpses of that on some of our drives, but seeing from the car is not exactly what I was looking for.  Chet found us a hike that sounded promising – a 3.2 mile round trip that climbed to around 2500 feet plus up to two peaks and offered excellent 360 views. The trail name? The Sugarloaf Trail – so named because the peaks are called North Sugarloaf and Middle Sugarloaf, We just had to check it out.

This being a shorter hike, we took our time in the morning. No alarm was set, and we took the time to order off the menu at breakfast instead of rushing through the buffet. After a filling breakfast of pumpkin pancakes (for me anyway), we made our way to the White Mountain National Forest near the town of Bethlehem, NH and up Zealand Road to the Sugarloaf trailhead. The trailhead parking was easy to find. There was a reasonably large gravel lot with a kiosk off on the right side of the road. We parked near the north end of the lot close to what looked to be the obvious trailhead. It didn’t actually say “Sugarloaf Trail” and it was marked as a cross country ski trail, but it was yellow blazed, as we’d expected, and headed in roughly the right direction. Off we went. Until we ended up, just a short way down the trail, in the campground. We’d obviously gone wrong, but squinting at the picture of the trail map on Chet’s camera wasn’t getting us anywhere. Back we went to the parking lot where we reviewed the trail map at the kiosk more carefully. The map was a bit cluttered, but it did look like the trail was on the other side of the Zealand River so I walked down the road and across the bridge and found … the actual trailhead. Clearly marked as such, too. Sigh.


Now that we’d actually found the trail, it was a very nice one. For the first .2 miles it is joined with the Trestle Trail and follows along beside the Zealand River on a nice well-traveled footbed. We were already seeing more colorful trees than we had on our last hike – I think it was just that there were fewer spruce here – and the river was a nice backdrop. At the junction, the Sugarloaf Trail takes off sharply uphill on a very rocky section, before leveling out and coming to what looked to be an old road crossing.


Beyond the road crossing, the trail heads back into the trees. It’s fairly level through here, but at least on this day it was a bit muddy. There were a couple of boardwalks, but other places had large rocks we could hop across to keep our boots more or less dry. Past the mud, we started climbing up. The trail was carpeted with red maple leaves, and we passed several large boulder formations, including one that looked like it would be fun to climb through – if you didn’t have a pack on anyway. After the split boulder we continued climbing up, now more steeply but with occasional stone stairs to help us along.


At .9 miles we reached the saddle between the two peaks and had to pick which way we wanted to go. We’d heard that the middle peak had the better views, so we decided to start with that one. Just in case my back flared up and limited us to just the one, we wanted to make sure to make it to the best one! The middle peak was to the left. At first the trail goes along the relatively level ridgeline. Though this part of the trail was more spruce forest and moss than vivid fall leaves, in some ways this was my favorite part of the trail. I just love the smell of balsam, the feel of soft evergreen needles underfoot, and the intense green of the moss brightening the shade from the trees.


Soon the trail climbed over a giant boulder we dubbed “stepstone rock” for the steps carved out of one edge, and soon after that we began to head down. Wait! Down isn’t the right direction! True, but in this case we had to go down in order to curve around and start heading steeply up. And I do mean steeply! This part had sections that weren’t quite rock-climbing, but I did have to use both hands and feet to get up some of the rocks. One reviewer of this trail advised that you not try it if it was wet. I’d agree with that. Finally, a steeply inclined set of stairs (some folks had called in a ladder but it did have treads) came into view, and we knew we were near the top. I climbed up the “ladder,” then over a deeply shaded trail section webbed with roots to come out in a small clearing. I could see a path straight ahead and beyond, breathtaking views, so I dropped my pack on a rock and took off through the gap in the bushes.


Oh, what a view. We were on a set of large granite shelves surrounded by the White Mountains. To the northeast we could see the Presidential Mountain Range including Mount Washington and its cog railway. To the southwest were the Twin Mountains, with Mount Lafayette and Franconia Notch beyond. Due south was Mount Hale. Due north and a little lower down we could see the granite shelves of North Sugarloaf Mountain. In between were acres and acres of colorful fall leaves. I took loads of pictures, but honestly I don’t think the camera adequately captured how stunning it all was. You’re going to have to go look for yourselves! We soaked in the beauty for quite awhile as we ate our lunch and I did a bit of rock basking. We couldn’t stay forever, though – we had another peak to visit!


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We retraced our steps back to the junction in the saddle and this time took the other trail towards North Sugarloaf. This trail almost immediately turns into a rockier scramble down, around, and then again steeply back up towards the peak. At times this was even more of a scramble than the middle peak, though this side seemed more rooty than rocky. At the top we went a bit left towards the opening in the trees and past a big boulder at the entrance to a clearing.


Past the boulder, we first went right to a small shelf with views of the Rosebrook Range. After Middle Sugarloaf this shelf is smaller and the views are not quite as panoramic, but to be fair they are just as gorgeous. We had thought we would be able to see Middle Sugarloaf from here, and didn’t really get the view we expected, so we tried another trail out of the initial clearing. This one led through a stretch of undulating trail through evergreens with that vivid green moss on either side. Lovely.  At the end of this short trail, we found another view point but it was a much more limited view and we still didn’t really have the view of Middle that we expected. I’m not entirely convinced we didn’t miss something on this peak, but that’s a good excuse to come back again.


It was time to head back down.  Our total mileage for this trail (including our little meandering there at the beginning) was 3.9 miles, as you can see from our GPS track. Though it has some steep sections, it’s very doable and short enough that you can hike it and have plenty of time to enjoy the views in just a few hours. Maybe it wasn’t my Brazilian Sugarloaf, but this New Hampshire version has its own charms.  No cable car takes you to the top, so you have to work a bit more, but the views were just as stunning. This time, though, instead of granite and waves, it will be granite and vivid fall leaves  that I’ll remember.


Way Leads on to Way: Lonesome Lake

We needed a vacation.  Sure, we travel all around the Tennessee Valley and take all-too-short trips to visit our family out of state, but it has been over four years since Ruth and I took a week off for a grand adventure with just the two of us.  Neither of us have experienced a New England autumn, so we’ve been planning for months to go up north to peep at the leaves.  After some consideration, we chose Franconia, New Hampshire as our base of operations.  It’s in the White Mountains in the northern part of the state, so we knew we’d get mountain scenery.  Ruth also has ancestral connections with the town stretching back to 1773.  There were plenty of hiking options too, with a national forest and several state parks nearby.

After taking a day to settle in, we headed a few minutes south to Franconia Notch State Park, where I had mapped out an approximately 6-mile loop hike.  Franconia Notch is a gap in the Franconia Range of the White Mountains, through which I-93 winds.  It was a treat to be on an interstate that has exits to campgrounds — not exits leading to roads to campgrounds, but exits that lead to the parking lots for campgrounds.  Our first trail, the Lonesome Lake trail, leaves from the Lafayette Place campground, on the west side of the interstate.  This is a popular place for hikers, as several trails begin here, including hikes on the east side of the interstate (there’s a tunnel leading to the other side).  We were hiking on a Tuesday morning and had no trouble finding parking near the trailhead.  As a side note, we passed that exit on a Saturday morning, and people were parking about a mile away from the campground, on the shoulder of the interstate.

The yellow-blazed Lonesome Lake trail wasted no time in putting on a show.  Immediately after leaving the trailhead from the parking lot, the trail crosses the Pemigewasset River on a wooden bridge.  A deep blue sky was reflected in the quiet waters, with puffy white clouds drifting about.  It was a cool day with no rain in the forecast, and we quickly warmed up as we headed up the mountain.  After a short walk through a flat stretch of woods with a carpet of fallen birch and maple leaves, we crossed a campground road and the Pemi trail and shortly after that reached another more elaborate trailhead sign.  I’m not sure what is officially the trailhead, but after passing this sign we entered the woods for good and began gaining elevation.

As the trail began to gain the roughly 1,000 feet in elevation over the next mile or so, it began to reveal its charms, such as a wooden stairsteps and rocky waterbars, a tree straddling a rock, and a tiny footbridge.  But it also showed its teeth, as a portion of the first .4 miles up to the junction with the Hi-Cannon trail was a wide but rocky channel.

Despite the rugged terrain, this is a superbly engineered trail, with several impressive rock staircases to handle some of the switchback turns, and occasional footlogs over the rare muddy patches.  Though the grade was relatively steep, there were a few switchbacks to make the climb reasonable.  It must be said that long stretches of the trail require stepping from rock to rock, so keeping an eye on our footing was a priority.  That said, it took us a smidge over an hour to make the climb to the edge of Lonesome Lake.

Lonesome Lake is a glacial lake around 12 acres in size, with an average depth of 4-8 feet.  It sits in a basin, with Cannon Mountain and the Cannon Balls (two smaller peaks on the same range) providing runoff to fill the lake.  A nice couple snapped a photo of us on the eastern shore of the lake. Trails loop around the lake, so we headed northwest to take the loop counterclockwise. It’s a longer distance to get to the opposite side of the lake, but we had heard that it had great views of Cannon Mountain and a marshy area.

Going counterclockwise, the trail runs .8 miles through a marsh, nearly always on elevated footlogs.  It was here that I saw the only wildflower in bloom, a bedraggled New England aster, but we also spotted black chokeberry and a tree we didn’t know festooned with bright red berries.  We later found out this is the mountain ash tree, which isn’t really an ash (it’s actually in the rose family).

The views of the marsh and the lake and the mountain were as promised.  We zigzagged along the north and western sides of Lonesome Lake, eventually reaching a dock where we stopped for a quick lunch.  Afterwards, we took the spur trail to the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Lonesome Lake Hut.  This is our first visit to an AMC hut, and this one was really impressive, with two bunkhouses that can sleep 48 people and a dining hall that serves up tasty hot meals (they had turkey soup and pot roast on the menu, as well as a selection of baked goods).  It has bathrooms accessible to day hikers.  We were catching them near the end of the fully staffed season, though the hut stays open year round.  The main building has solar-powered electricity and a wood stove for heating, and the entire complex is off the grid.  We had a chat with one of the croo (they spell it that way), who noticed Ruth’s LeConte Lodge shirt and mentioned that one of his AMC comrades at a nearby hut is the winter caretaker at LeConte.

After a brief break at the hut, we continued on around the lake until we reached the intersection with the Cascade Brook trail.  Cascade Brook spills from Lonesome Lake and makes its way down the mountain to join the Pemigewasset River about two miles south of Lafayette Place.  The Cascade Brook trail is also a section of the Appalachian Trail, so we were going to get to hike about 1.3 miles of the AT in the White Mountains.  We noticed kind of an odd wooden marker on a tree at the trail junction, but also spotted the familiar white blazes disappearing into the woods next to the brook.

If you Google “most difficult sections of the Appalachian Trail,” guess what comes up as number one on a lot of lists?  Yep, it’s the White Mountains.  This particular little piece isn’t one of the worst miles in the White Mountains, but it had some typical features:  narrow, rooty pathways; trail sections that were literally creekbeds; and sections that were just rocky channels — and most of it steeply uphill or downhill.  Maintaining the AT is a challenge, what with all the foot traffic, but it seems the AMC has hit upon a sustainable approach in Whites:  reduce wear on the trail by removing all the dirt and replacing it with granite boulders.  It was a tough descent for about half a mile, though views of the brook, the occasional footlog, the smell of the balsams, and the glorious leaves made it more bearable.

Between .5 and .8 miles from the lake, the trail leveled out a bit and ran closer to the brook, which had small cascade after cascade.  We passed occasional mossy boulders tossed down from heights and stands of bunchberry in its fall foliage.  On this stretch we met a hiker coming up from below, who warned us that the Basin Cascade trail, which we were planning on taking, was badly overgrown and scarcely marked, and that she had thrashed her way uphill and was relieved to come upon the Cascade Brook trail.  This was sobering news, as it would add almost two miles to take an alternate route, but we pressed on.

Back at the lake when we first turned onto the Cascade Brook trail, there was a warning about a bridge being out.  We came to the brook crossing, which required some rock hopping, but it was very manageable.  It didn’t hurt that the view downstream was none too shabby!

After the crossing, the trail splits, with the blue-blazed Basin Cascade trail heading left and the AT/Cascade Brook trail heading right.  The first few blazes on Basin Cascade had been chipped away by natural damage or miscreants, but we were able to follow the trail until we saw better defined blazes.  We think this may be what confused the hiker we had met earlier, because we found the trail fairly easy to follow.  Almost immediately, we heard the sound of rushing water, and followed the trail into a small ravine to view Rocky Glen Falls.  It’s a three-tiered waterfall, but the best views are of the lower tier.  The total drop is 37 feet.

After the waterfall, the trail continues along Cascade Brook, with some steep and rooty sections.  There were more hardwoods at this elevation, and the maples and birches framed the many cascades.  There’s another brook crossing shortly after Rocky Glen Falls, but again with a little rock hopping it’s not that difficult.  A wooden sign on the other side of the brook points to the trail, which is again a rocky footbed as it parallels the creek to the north.

Half a mile from Rocky Glen Falls, another waterfall comes into view.  Kinsman Falls is a narrow 22-footer where the brook drops through a narrow channel into a plunge pool.

This little brook just keeps on giving.  After Kinsman Falls, the slope of the brook increases dramatically and the water slides rapidly down the mountain in a series of near-plunges.  It would make a terrific water slide, except that you’d probably reach escape velocity by the time you reached the bottom!

About half a mile from Kinsman Falls, the Basin Cascade trail tees into the Pemi trail.  We turned north, following the Pemi trail signs, and came to a confusing jumble of paved and gravel trails.  A natural feature known as The Basin is found here.  The Pemi River splits just upstream, and one channel flows into a deeply eroded pothole.  It’s a pretty cool little pool — it even  has its own exit on the interstate, with a parking lot and pit toilets.


Though the Pemi trail had a trail sign near The Basin, we thrashed around and couldn’t find the actual trail.  The Pemi trail runs northward along the west side of the Pemi River, but since we couldn’t find it we did the next best thing and hiked two miles up the paved multi-use trail on the east side of the river.  The relatively long distance and struggles with the rocky footbeds had taken a toll on Ruth, so we were happy to walk something a lot less challenging back to Lafayette Place.


The GPS track said this was a 6.5 mile loop, and it took us 6.5 hours.  The going was pretty slow, even on the downhill sections, but we also took some long breaks at the hut and the waterfalls.  This was a challenging hike for us, but it exceeded all expectations.  What a great start to hiking in New Hampshire!

Leaf Peepers: Fall leaves from past hikes

This week, Chet and I are in New Hampshire on a fall vacation. I’ve always wanted to see the New England leaves and this turned out to be a great week for us to do that. However, with all the planning and packing, plus some time spent at the Tennessee Valley Old Time Fiddlers Convention in Athens (an annual tradition for us), we had no time to get out and hike before we left. Don’t worry – we’re making up for lost time up here and will return with hikes to talk about, but in the meantime, here are a few of my favorite fall pictures from hikes closer to home.

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Pass the Buck

It’s a bad sign when you’re on a hike and your wife starts talking about flamethrowers.

But let’s begin when the idea seemed like a good one.  We had a fairly busy weekend planned and didn’t have a lot of time for a hike (or more accurately, we hadn’t planned enough in advance to pull off a last-minute camping trip).  I was perusing our list of possible future blog posts and the perfect solution presented itself — a short hike on the TVA Buck Island Small Wild Area down in Guntersville.

Small Wild Areas are pockets of land managed by TVA for recreation.  They are usually pockets of land in the general vicinity of a dam that, in TVA’s words, “are sites with exceptional natural, scenic or aesthetic qualities that are suitable for low-impact public use.”  We’ve visited a few of them, and generally they offer some very nice short hikes with interesting features and/or scenic views.

Buck Island Small Wild Area is easily accessed from AL Highway 431.  We headed south out of Huntsville and turned left onto Buck Island Road just after passing the Guntersville Municipal Airport.  Buck Island Road splits at the entrance to the Gunter’s Landing community.  We turned north and followed the road around the edge of the airport until it terminated at a gravel cul-de-sac with a gate at the far end.  There’s room to park several vehicles here, though we were the only ones there on a Saturday afternoon.

There were a couple of signs spelling out the rules for the Small Wild Area, though it was only identified as TVA managed land.  Apparently you can hunt on the property and can camp there for up to 14 consecutive days.  There’s no developed campsite there or any facilities, but judging from the bullet holes in the signs, apparently hunters are making use of the property.  I guess there must have been some big game standing in front of the sign at some point, since one of the rules is that unauthorized target shooting is not allowed.

The trailhead is not explicitly marked.  Beyond the gate, an unpaved stretch of Buck Island Road was the closest thing we could see to a trail, so we headed off into the woods.  We knew from the trail map that this was a lollipop loop, though the TVA website is a bit ambiguous about the trail length — 1.6 or 2.2 miles, take your pick.

Though we were on a wide level roadbed, it was fairly overgrown at this point.  Since this property is unsullied by any attempt to actually mark a trail, we were left to our own devices to figure out exactly where to go.  About 500 feet down the trail, a gap to the left suggested a possible route, but we knew from the map this was much too early to begin the loop, so we continued down the road past patches of goldenrod, long-bristled smartweed, mistflower, daisy fleabane, jewelweed, and panicled tick trefoil.  A boggy area off to the right seemed interesting, but there were no good views of it.

At about .15 miles another opening appears to the right, flanked by a couple of cedar posts set in concrete.  This spur only goes back around 100 yards, with an improvised firepit and some nearby logs which suggests that this might be meant as a primitive campsite.  At about .4 miles, there’s an obstructed view of the lake, which sad to say, is the best view you’ll get on this hike.  At least there were a few partridge peas to brighten the way.

At about .5 miles into the hike, we saw our first suggestion that we were actually on something that was meant to be a developed trail — a metal sign identifying a sugar maple next to the overgrown road.  I guess some game sapsuckers must have perched on the sign, judging by the bullet holes that riddled it — after all, unauthorized target shooting is prohibited.

We passed a TVA boundary sign which we think actually marks the edge of the Small Wild Area, not an actual boundary between TVA and private land.  This can be confusing, since Small Wild Areas typically exist inside a larger TVA parcel.  We noticed a couple more openings off to the left which could have been where the loop rejoins the trail, but in the absence of any trail marking (seriously!  TVA couldn’t afford a gallon of paint to blaze some trees?) we continued on down the road.  We knew that by bearing right we’d eventually come to a point where the trail would bend to the left and go uphill, and at .7 miles we came to a split where the road continued straight and slightly downhill, with a wide path heading steeply uphill to the left.

The trail climbed steeply for a little less than .2 miles to the top of a hill, where the path was completely blocked by waist-high vegetation for about 30 yards.  We pushed on through to the apparent summit, where a black walnut was identified by another metal sign, but there was no view of the lake from this overlook.  There was a spur trail that may have gone to an overlook, to be fair, but it wasn’t marked and honestly, we were beginning to get a bit impatient to get off this train wreck of a trail.  It didn’t help that after we reached the summit the trail simply disappeared, with no obvious footbed leading down the north side of the hill.  We thrashed around a little, following a manway that offered a passage through the woods, skirting a dry creek bed on the way down, until we emerged onto an old road bed.  We considered options and turned left (south) and quickly got reinforcement in the form of another tree ID sign, this time on a reclining white ash.  Since that was as much navigational aid as we could expect, we continued south and rejoined the stem of the lollipop at about 1.45 miles.

We retraced our steps westward toward the parking lot, while Ruth talked about how a flamethrower would really improve this trail, especially after she noticed the tick trefoil seeds adhering to her.  We returned to the car without any wildfires breaking out, finishing up at 2.2 miles according to the GPS track.

With some rerouting, navigational aids, and maintenance, this could be a nice easy trail with a nice variety of habitats.  Given the trail’s current condition, our recommendation is that you pass the Buck (Island Trail) and head instead to the TVA Honeycomb Trail or the Cave Mountain trails, both of which are in the general area of Guntersville Dam.

On our way back to town, we planned to stop at Natural Bridge and Ghost Creek Falls, an outstanding property on Cottonville Road in Marshall County.  The 32-acre property is privately owned for now, but the owners have given the Land Trust of North Alabama the first shot at purchasing this tract with a natural bridge, caves, and waterfalls.  We’ve never been to this site, but our visit this time was a perfunctory one as a wedding was either about to get started or had recently finished.  We didn’t want to be wedding crashers, so we drove by close enough to snap a rather unsatisfactory photo that doesn’t really give you a good idea of how cool this place is, then headed on our way.  The Land Trust has to raise the money by the end of the year, or else the property will be offered for sale on the open market.   You should check it out next time you’re in the area, or even better, pass a few bucks to the Land Trust to help preserve this property for the public.



That’s a Wrap: Limestone County Canoe and Kayak Trail

The weather in Alabama in September can be maddening. One minute we’re being teased with the promise of crisp fall air, the next we’re back to sweltering heat and humidity. Soon enough, these hot and humid days will be a distant memory, but at the moment every weekend is a guessing game as to exactly which September weather we’ll be getting. At any rate, the last time it was my turn to pick our weekend adventure, it was heading back towards hot and humid, with a real chance of an actual popup shower, so I decided on a kayak trip thinking it would keep us cool. Way back in April of 2016, we’d floated down the first leg of the Limestone County Canoe and Kayak Trail, and I decided this would be the weekend we did the final leg.

This last leg of this trail down the Elk River in Limestone County starts at a boat ramp near Alabama Hwy 99 on Hatchery Road and ends at Sportsman Park on Elk River Mills Road in Athens. We loaded up the truck and headed towards our takeout point in Athens, watching the dark clouds roll west to east over us and passing through at least one rain shower on the way. I was worried that it would be rainy and gloomy our whole time on the river, but it turned out to be a passing shower after all and we had glorious blue skies after that. We dropped my car at Sportsman Park, where there is a huge parking area, boat ramp and dock available at no cost. The drive to the boat ramp at Hatchery Road is only 11 minutes. We’d been there before, when we did our last Elk River float, and found the parking lot to be much the same. It is a very large gravel parking area with a concrete boat ramp leading into the water. This time around we had the added bonus of a welcoming party of sorts. A large blue heron was hanging out right next to the parking area near where a little creek enters the river. My first heron sighting and I hadn’t even left the car!


We made short work of unloading the kayaks and were soon floating out on the river. The Elk is a broad and slow moving river by the time it gets down to this point, which makes for a very different kind of a float trip than what you’d get further upstream.  Last time we were out, we had a pretty strong headwind to paddle against. This time around, winds were calm and had we not had a schedule to keep to we probably could have just let the river slowly carry us down the stream. As it was, I had plans in the evening and hoped to get off the river in time to get home and shower first so we helped ourselves along a bit but still, the paddling was pretty easy.


The first landmark was the Alabama Highway 99 bridge just downstream of the boat launch. Beyond the bridge, the river flows slowly between low tree-covered banks. I kept my eyes open, as always, for turtles. One problem with a wide, deep river like this is that it is an awfully long way between the shorelines, so veering from side to side to scope out all the potential turtle-sunning spots becomes pretty exhausting. Chet spotted one that slipped into the water before I could find him. I was worried that would be our only turtle sighting, but I was wrong – we saw several, most of which disappeared before I could get a camera focused on them, but one little guy was pretty bold and hung out long enough for me to coast up on him and snap a picture before he slid off his log. We also spotted several houses with lovely riverside settings. Must be a nice place to live.


Next up were a couple of coves in the river. These seem to be the favorite haunts of wading birds as we saw a couple of snow white egrets standing or wading in the shallows away from the main channel. While floating to watch the egret, Chet suddenly pointed towards the nearby shore, where we saw some type of large hawk – brown and red with yellow feet – perched in a shrub. I took a video, but it’s too far away to really tell much. I tried to float closer, only to have it jump down on the ground where I couldn’t see it any more.  After some Google research at home, I’ve decided it was likely either a red tailed hawk or a coopers hawk. I’ve never been so close to such a large bird in the wild!


The next big landmark was the pier at Marbut Bend. Chet and Casey and I had checked out this TVA property back in May and admired the pier from the land. This time, we saw it from the water and it was lovely as ever, though I’m not sure you could really clamber up on the pier from a kayak anyway.


Just past the pier, the river takes a sharp, nearly 90 degree, turn to the left. There is water to the right as well, but that way just leads to another cove. Right at the bend, the land rises up on the right side to form tall tree-covered bluffs. The other side is still flat as a pancake, making the bluffs seem even more dramatic. In this section of the river, the wind picked up and we had to paddle straight into it. The river channel is long and straight, and with the headwind, it felt like we were paddling down a wind tunnel. Here again, we saw some pretty jealousy-inducing homes with large decks and views down to the river. I also spotted turtles along either shore, but with the wind I wasn’t about to waste any energy trying to get close enough for a picture. Straight ahead there was a transmission tower at what looked to be a bend in the river. When we got closer, we saw that it was just covered with birds of all types. I laid back for a few minutes, and watched them soaring overhead and then landing back on the tower. This trip was actually remarkable for all the birds. We saw at least 4 herons, 4 or 5 egrets, plus the hawk, plus all these birds on the tower. I saw more birds than turtles, and that’s a little unusual.


Just past the tower, there was a small island in the center of the channel. We’d had lunch before we hit the river, but I was a little hungry and pretty thirsty, so I was hoping to find a good beach. No such luck. That’s another downside to a broad deep river like this – not many good beaching spots! Just past the island, though, we spotted a place that looked like it would work and headed across the river to it. It turned out to be a spot where a road dead ended at the water just next to where another one of the many unnamed little creeks flowed into the river. We checked out Google maps to figure out where we were, and it looked like we were pretty close to our take out spot so we had a short break and then headed back out on the river.

Here, the river had become really wide – I later measured the main channel at around .3 miles wide at this point. The widest part, counting the large coves, was 1.2 miles wide. It felt more like a lake than a river to me! Indeed, my memories of playing on a lake in my childhood summers all revolve around being pulled around by a motor boat while I skied or tubed along behind, and sure enough, there were folks out pulling tubers behind them. Chet got a nice video. It’s interesting to note that I think we saw not one other kayaker on this whole section. We saw pontoon boats, and I think a motorboat, but we were the only people-powered boats we saw on the river.


Next up were a series of snags in the middle of the river, making me wonder if it was really that shallow or if these were flooded islets. Google maps shows some little islands right around there, so I’m guessing it was the latter. After negotiating our way past the snags, we could see the bridge at Elk River Mills in the distance. Now on our past kayak trips, spotting the takeout point meant you were maybe 10 minutes from landing. Here, we paddled and paddled and the bridge didn’t seem any closer. We watched motorboats speed ahead of us, duck behind some smaller islands off on our left, and finally pop up still some distance from the bridge. I thought we’d be paddling for days! Later I measured the distance and it was 1.3 miles from where I think the snags were to the bridge. No wonder it took so long!


We pulled our kayaks out at the boat ramp and dragged them out of the way. While Chet went off to pick up the pickup truck, I hung around the parking area and checked out the nice little dock, the river views and some of the informational signs about the canoe trail. There’s also a gas station and convenience store at the top of the parking lot, which is a nice change from the usual nothing-for-miles take out points we use.



So that was it – we’d completed all four legs of the Limestone County Canoe and Kayak Trail. The Elk River continues, of course, until it flows into the Tennessee River another 12 miles downstream, but that section didn’t make the cut for the canoe trail for some reason. The Elk is a river of many personalities – small, rocky and windy up near Tim’s Ford Dam, deeper but still narrow near Veto, and finally broad as a large lake near its end. All of it is beautiful, quiet, and chock full of wildlife. Any of it would be a good spot for your next float trip!

Rolling on the River: Cycling Around Buckeye Pond on the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge

You could say that bicycling is in my blood.  In case you’ve ever wondered, yes, I am actually distantly related to aeronautical pioneers Orville and Wilbur Wright.  At least that’s what my grandfather, the family genealogist, claimed.  Before they were tinkering with flying machines, they ran their own bike sales and repair shop, and even had their own line of bicycles.

As a kid I rode my bike all the time, mostly around the farm and up and down the gravel road that ran past it.  Like just about every boy my age, I learned my limits the hard way — by being launched by unseen potholes into brief terrifying moments of being unintentionally airborne, or by having my body grated by blacktop roads unforgiving of miscalculations on the variables of speed, momentum, road width, and the radius of a curve.  But the occasional bruise and/or skinned body part was an acceptable price for the freedom of having my own wheels and the opportunities that came with them.  At the time I thought nothing of it, but as an adult now I marvel that my parents casually accepted my blithe announcements that I’d be out working on my six 25-mile rides for my bicycling merit badge, and I’d be home for dinner.  I think I was 14 at the time.  And I never missed dinner, and I still have the merit badge.

As an adult, I rarely get a chance to pull the bike down off the rack in the garage, but I enjoy it when I do.  Our recent nice ride on the Richard Martin Trail whetted my appetite for a return to the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge.  The Wheeler is a great place to hike and bike, and especially a great place to birdwatch.  There are several miles of gravel roads, mostly flat or with gentle grades, on the reserve with very little vehicular traffic to dodge.  I picked out a 12-mile loop on the northern side of the Tennessee River between Redstone Arsenal and Decatur and we set off in the morning.

Our starting/ending point would be a gravel parking area off Jolly B Road (spelled as “Jolley B” on some maps).  To get there, turn south on County Line Road, and just before it ends turn left onto Jolly B Road.  Jolly B starts as a paved road, but soon splits with one fork going left into the Refuge, the other fork going right to a farm, and both forks turning into a gravel road.  Once you get onto the Refuge, travel with care (actually, travel with care the length of Jolly B — the paved portion has a sharp curve).  The gravel roads on the Refuge have some pretty substantial potholes in them.  You can get any vehicle with normal clearance down to the parking area, so there’s no need for four-wheel drive, but if you try to do the Dukes of Hazzard stuff on the Refuge roads, you’ll soon find out what it costs to replace an axle.  I don’t know how Jolly B Road gets its name, but I think it might stand for “Jolly Breakdown Road.”  After the road turns to gravel, the parking area is on the right, with one gravel road taking off to the west and Jolly B continuing to the south.

Great ragweed

Our ride started from the parking area along that road to the west, identified on maps as HGH Road.  There are no road signs anywhere on this part of the Refuge, so it’s a good idea to bring a map with you.  We stopped to admire the stands of great ragweed and snow squarestem growing at the edge of the parking area, with muscadines twining up into the trees, then we set off along the straight, flat doubletrack of HGH Road.  My best efforts at Internet research have failed to ferret out why this road (and another we’ll ride on later, JTT Road) are only known by initials.  My guess is they are named for the initials of landowners at the time the land was purchased by TVA in the mid-1930s.  Or perhaps they are the initials of former Refuge supervisors.  Can anyone shed any light on this, dear readers?

HGH Road continues west for 1.5 miles, pretty much straight and level, under the shade of the trees.   There was a good supply of our typical late summer wildflowers on the roadsides with asters and jewelweed being easy to spot as we rolled along.  HGH Road takes a curve to the north, with a closed gate to the southwest marking a possible route to return to Jolly B Road.  We turned north, next to a harvested cornfield.  This stretch opens up, running between fields with a thin strip of woods to the west screening Buckeye Pond.  This was one of the few downhill stretches on our ride.

We continued winding north and west as the road curved gently back into the woods.  We saw stands of lovely mistflower here, and noticed our old friend the Devil’s walking stick in several locations, with its profuse crown of berries.  About 2.9 miles from the parking area, HGH clears the top of Buckeye Pond and forks, with the right fork leaving the Refuge toward a house on New Hope Road.  We took the left fork and headed south, skirting the western edge of the pond.

The west side of Buckeye Pond is pretty similar to the east side.  HGH Road continues to the south, with very little grade change.  At about 4 miles from the parking area, HGH Road tees into John Gordon Road, running east-west.  Remember what I said earlier about bringing a map?  Well, I should have taken my own advice.  We turned east on a dirt road, toward Buckeye Pond, and it was a serendipitous choice since it took us to the pond itself.  Though HGH Road winds completely around the pond, there’s always a barrier of woods blocking the view of the water from the road.  Our side road quickly led to a huge open field, with the northern reaches of Buckeye Pond straight ahead.  As we rode toward the pond, a gorgeous great egret took wing, curving over the field to disappear into the distant woods.  The road was completely spanned by a large and deep puddle, but we were able to find a track to get around the obstacle and continue to the southwest until our road, now a grassy track, stopped completely in a thicket.  Clearly this wasn’t our planned route, so we backtracked to the field and headed back toward John Gordon Road.

As we returned to the field, we saw a large bird take off to our left, loudly gronk-ing as it flew south away from us.  It was a familiar sight — Brad the grumpy Great Blue Heron!  We always seem to run into him when we go to the Wheeler, and he was in his usual fowl (ha!) mood.  He offered to fly down and peck another hole in my bicycle tire, but I declined his kind offer.

After retracing our route to John Gordon Road, we rode west for about .15 miles before re-entering the Refuge by turning left onto JTT Road, which climbed a small hill to reach an intersection at the top.  To the east, a gated track led back toward the southern end of Buckeye Pond.  The more obvious route is to the west, so we took JTT Road until it teed into Rockhouse Road (heading north outside of the Refuge) and Rockhouse Bottoms Road (heading south toward the river).  We headed for the river, reaching it in about .25 miles, and pulled the bikes over to have a bit of lunch while perched on some rocks on the bank.  I had picked up a muscadine on the road earlier in the ride, so I had it for dessert.

After lunch, we headed east on Rockhouse Bottoms Road along the north bank of the Tennessee River.  Since we were on river bottomland, the level road was flanked by the river on one side and planted crops (maybe soybeans?) on the other.  I noticed quite a lot of fragments of mussel and aquatic snail shells in the tilled earth.

Rockhouse Bottoms Road was relatively busy.  It has unpaved access to the river in a few places, so it’s a popular place for launching small boats, and we saw at least one angler on the riverbank.   We met a couple of cars making their way slowly down the road.  Since it is more heavily traveled than the other Refuge roads we had ridden on our trip, it’s not surprising that it is much more potholed.   The potholes are easily dodged, but you’ll need to pay attention, which is difficult when there are such lovely river views.

The ride along Rockhouse Bottoms Road is a little over 4 miles, with a few stands of yam leaf clematis growing on the roadside as your near the northward turn back onto Jolly B Road.  After rejoining Jolly B and turning left (north) to close the loop, it’s only about .9 miles back to the parking area.  On the way north, there are a couple of places where you can get a good look at Blackwell Swamp if you’re so inclined.

All in all, it was a triumphant return to the Wheeler.  The bikes were in fine fettle, the weather was clear and warm, there were several showy late summer wildflowers in bloom, and the ride itself was good exercise without being too tiring.  We covered 12.3 miles according to the GPS track, and best of all, we were home in plenty of time for dinner.