Ruth and I are big fans of hiking in the Bankhead National Forest, and we’re always on the lookout for interesting walks and landforms. In January of 2014, we were looking for a short but memorable hike to mark the one-year anniversary of Ruth’s broken ankle (suffered while hiking in England — there’s a story for another blog post!). Ruth wanted to take her “defiance hike” in the Bankhead, and after some research I found a hike off the beaten path that didn’t look too difficult but offered two points of interest — a very old cemetery and a striking example of a trail marker tree.
The hike would begin off Lawrence County Road 86 in the northeastern corner of the Bankhead. This is not one of the formal trails maintained by the Forest Service, and information was pretty sketchy on how to find the trailhead. We knew that we would take Alabama Highway 36 to Lawrence County 86, and that part went pretty well. The paved road soon gave way to a gravel road, and then to our surprise the road was submerged by a flooded Gillespie Creek.
After getting out of the truck and hiking through the flooded section, I decided it was only a few inches deep and not moving fast enough to pose a real danger, so we drove on through.
We knew that the trail started at a gate on the right side of the road, and we had passed one just after Gillespie Creek, but we had dashed out of the house in such a hurry that we had left our map of the Bankhead Forest. Ugh, rookie mistake! It didn’t seem like we had gone far enough down the road, so we parked at an obvious pullout on the south side of Lee Creek and struck out along an old roadbed. After a while the roadbed turned into a trail, and then the trail petered out. We struck off uphill to the top of Dillashaw Mountain to try to get our bearings and found another old roadbed, but by now it was obvious we were in the wrong place.
Disgusted, we walked back down Forest Service Road 264 (which is what 86 is renamed to when it enters the National Forest) back to the truck.
It was a nice walk in the woods with some good creek views, but the “defiance hike” was more of a “doofus hike.” We weren’t sure at the time where we were, so we dubbed it “Bupkis Hollow” since we found bupkis there. We weren’t lost — we just weren’t where we thought we were.
A couple of weeks later, after careful map study, we decided to give it another go, and this time we remembered the map. We retraced our route to County Road 86 and this time we stopped at the gate we had passed on our previous attempt.
The trail begins as an old roadbed, nice and level. The hollow, between Chestnut Ridge to the north and High House Hill to the south, was the site of a battle over two hundred years ago between the Creek and Chickasaw tribes. One version of the story is that survivors (of the losing side, I presume) were thrown down a sinkhole in the canyon, which is the tomb for which the hollow is named.
So the place is sacred to the local Native Americans, and it’s also notable as a homesite for the pioneering Gillespie family. Given that we were in a hollow named for a tomb, on our way to see a cemetery, it didn’t seem at all odd to run across some animal bones on this part of the trail.
Since this isn’t a maintained trail, it’s not like there are signposts to the cemetery or the trail marker tree. After a short walk on the old roadbed, the footpath narrowed a bit in a swampy area near Gillespie Creek. We picked our way along until we spotted some flagging tape on a tree off to the right. We followed it about a quarter of mile until it ended seemingly at random. We returned to the trail and continued farther into the hollow until we found a faint footpath off to the right about a mile from the trailhead. About 50 yards off the trail, we came to the unmistakeable, magnificent marker tree.
What’s a marker tree? They go by a number of names, such as Indian marker trees, trail marker trees, and culturally modified trees. Marker trees were manipulated into unusual shapes by the local Native Americans for various purposes. In some cases, they marked tribal boundaries. In other cases, they pointed to culturally significant sites or important landforms. In other cases, a series of modified trees would be used to mark a path.
In the southeast, these trees (almost always hardwoods) are formed by bending a small tree horizontally and staking it down. Over time, a large limb grows upward and forms a new trunk. The old top of the tree is then typically lopped off, leaving a distinctive nub that points the direction to whatever is being marked. To the left is an example of the more common shape of a marker tree, found on the Fire Tower trail in Monte Sano State Park. I believe that this one points in the direction of a spring.
After you’ve spotted a couple of marker trees, you find yourself looking for them everywhere you go. We found the one to the right in March 2015 on the Mitchell Ridge trail in the Sipsey Wilderness.
By contrast, have a look at the one on the left on the Land Trust’s Bethel Springs property. Trees may grow into abnormal shapes because of damage or disease, and I think that’s what happened here. This tree is a cedar, which typically wasn’t used by the native peoples for marker trees, and you can see by its trunk that it’s not old enough to date back to when this area was populated by native peoples.
Back to Indian Tomb Hollow. As you can see, this is not the most common configuration for a marker tree. In this case, it looks like the young tree was split and both halves were tied down until new trunks grew upwards. It’s a living goalpost!
If you’d like to find out more about marker trees, there’s quite a bit of info on the Internet, with Mountain Stewards being a good place to start. Also, there’s a documentary to be shown on Saturday, June 13 at 7 pm in the Chan Auditorium on the University of Alabama in Huntsville’s campus. It’s free and open to the public.
After we looked the tree over, we continued on about a quarter of a mile and took off to the right (north) up a narrow trail for about a hundred yards before reaching Indian Tomb Hollow cemetery. Though the sign is impressive, the cemetery wasn’t all that exciting — only three marked graves, all with recent replacement headstones. This is the final resting place of James Gillespie, a veteran of the War of 1812, and some family members. The cemetery seems to date from at least 1849.
We ended our hike by returning via the same route, for a total of 3.6 miles on the day. This area beckons for another visit. I’ve heard that the hollow has a deep rock shelter if you continue to the west past the cemetery trail. And High House Hill is known for interesting geologic formations, though getting to the top requires a bushwhack. And now, looking at the map, if we had crossed the creek and turned right on our Bupkis Hollow hike a couple of weeks earlier (instead of turning left and climbing Dillashaw Mountain), we would have explored High House Hill. Always make sure you have the map before you leave the house, kids!