The River Less Traveled: Kayaking the Paint Rock

When the Alabama summer arrives and the air itself is boiling, our thoughts naturally turn to “where can we go to cool off?”  Around here, there are only two outdoor options — head for a cave, or head for a river or lake.  We’ve been writing quite a bit about the woodlands, but this blog post is the first one on the topic of our local waters.

A couple of years ago, Ruth and I gave each other kayaks as an anniversary present.  We already owned an aluminum canoe, but the Minnow is a beast, and we don’t really have a good way to haul it, so we thought we’d try something that didn’t draw as much water and was easier to maneuver and load.  We had given sit-in kayaks a try at Elk River Canoe Rental and liked them, so we thought we’d get on the water more if we had our own boats.

Like many folks around here, we’ve floated sections of the Flint River.  In fact, we’ve done several segments, from Oscar Patterson Road in New Market down to Big Cove Road, and lack only a couple to complete the trip to the Tennessee River.  Here’s the thing — the Flint is great, it’s reliable, and not too technically challenging.  But it’s growing familiar, and we were in the mood for something different.  While doing trail maintenance at the Whitaker Preserve earlier this year, we had noticed that the Paint Rock River was pretty, with a moderately swift current, so we started researching put in/take out places.

This wasn’t as straightforward as I thought it would be.  The Paint Rock is the river less traveled, or so it seemed.  North Alabama Canoe and Kayak (NACK) had been known to organize trips in the past, but after hours of searching (well, three or four hours anyway) I found very few accounts online of trips on the Paint Rock. I did get a glimmer of an idea for one place to put in or take out, and from there started studying Google Maps and came up with a plan.

So on a sunny July Sunday morning, we tossed the kayaks in the back of the truck and headed for the river.  Our first stop was at NACK, since they presumably knew the river and might be willing to shuttle us.  Alas, NACK was swarming with folks, and we were told that NACK isn’t doing trips on the Paint Rock anymore.  I guess they’ve decided that they’ve got as much  business on the Flint as they can handle.  So we would be on our own.  As The Decemberists sing, “On the road/It’s well advised that you follow your own bag.”

We hopped back into our vehicles and drove east on Highway 72, through Gurley and into Jackson County.  thumb_IMG_2366_1024We turned north on Alabama 65, and about 1.8 miles past the turnoff to Jackson County Road 20 Highway 65 heads downhill and curves to the right.  In the bend of the curve, a dirt road takes off to the right.  There’s parking along that road for about five vehicles.  For a look at the location on Google Maps, search on 34.775363, -86.251535. If you see mile marker 10, you’ve gone too far. We walked down to the river and said hello to a family that was playing in the water there.  The river was shallow with easy walk-in access, and we saw that the river forked just upstream of this location, with an extremely shallow, weedy route to the right and a fallen tree across the left (main) channel. We marked the location on our GPS and dropped our shuttle vehicle.

We then drove farther north on Alabama 65, 3.7 miles up to where Jackson County Road 507 took off to the right. thumb_IMG_2312_1024At that junction, there’s a small grassy area with room for two vehicles, though if you drive across the bridge there’s room to park another vehicle or two as long as you are considerate and don’t block access to the fields. For a look at the location on Google Maps, search on 34.827768, -86.244078. There was another family there, packing up after having spent a few days canoeing and camping along the river. There’s a path down to the river, so after dropping the truck on the east side of the bridge, we carried the kayaks down the muddy path, which merges with a drainage ditch from the road. thumb_IMG_2313_1024It was dry when we made the trip, but this could be a muddy, slippery launch point under wetter conditions.

I had figured the route to be around 4.5 river miles. The river was relatively wide and slow at this point, which I always like when I’m remembering how to maneuver a kayak. thumb_IMG_2327_1024The water wasn’t particularly deep — in fact, I’d be surprised if the river was over 5 feet deep at any point in the trip. Most of the time it was under three feet, and had a little bit of a current.

thumb_IMG_2328_1024Within 10 minutes of our launch, we picked up an aerial escort, as a blue heron rose from a grassy bank and winged downstream, with a few grumpy croaks of warning or reproach. He led us downstream a while, then tagged up with another heron who escorted us farther down the river. Are herons territorial?  We enjoyed watching the big birds gliding down the river, though I’m not sure they enjoyed watching us, glowering from the bank or from a tree.

thumb_IMG_2336_1024The river was largely docile, and was mostly shaded though there were more than a few sunny stretches. There are a few simple rapids where the channel narrows, usually around a grassy bend. We had only one difficulty, where the river made a right turn between a couple of grassy shoals and a small tree trunk was across the channel (which was about four feet wide at that point). Ruth got hung up on the tree, but simply hopped out into waist-deep water and dragged her kayak to the bank and went around the snag. She was ahead of me and alerted me to the problem, so I did some proactive portaging. That was the only part of the trip that required a portage, though there were around three times that the river was so shallow we were briefly beached. For the record, the water flow was 110 cubic feet per second, as measured on the USGS Paint Rock River gauge. You might want to check this site before you plan a trip. For instance, as I write this post, the river is running at 48 cubic feet per second, which suggests to me that you’ll be doing a lot more portaging when the river is this low.

We stopped about halfway into the trip for a lunch break. There are plenty of accessible rocky beaches if you’d like to have a look at some flowers (like this phlox) or if you’d like to have a butterfly land on your back.

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I’ve heard the Paint Rock described as “snaky,” but Ruth only saw a couple of snakes swimming in the water, and they weren’t interested in us. Alas, we didn’t see any turtles, but we did see raccoon tracks at our lunch spot.

thumb_IMG_2345_1024This stretch of the river doesn’t have many obvious landmarks, but the bridge at County Road 506 is roughly the halfway point. Overall, it was much cooler on the river, and there were a couple of times there was a lovely breeze that sure made it feel like around 70 degrees.

I’d say the Paint Rock and the Flint are of similar difficulty, which is to say “not much,” though you can certainly get flipped if you make unwise decisions or fail to execute.thumb_IMG_2354_1024 I’m not that experienced a paddler, but I suspect this run would be a Class I. I’m not trained in classifying rapids, but my system consists of something like this:

  • Class I — overall pretty easy, with only about one swearing session per mile
  • Class II — moments of pleasure, long stretches of swearing
  • Class III — when/if I get off this river, someone’s gonna pay
  • Class IV — consists of standing on the bank, with lots of swearing, because I’m not going in there
  • Class V — (faints)

thumb_IMG_2350_1024Getting back to the Flint-Paint Rock comparison, the scenery is pretty similar, though the Paint Rock is much less developed. The Paint Rock is shallower overall, and I’ve heard that the fishing is better there than the Flint. The biggest difference between the Paint Rock and the Flint is the solitude. After we got on the river, we didn’t see another person until we came upon some folks about half a mile from our takeout point. So in 4.5 river miles, we saw one group of people.

It took us just a smidge over three hours to make the run once we hit the water. Ruth took these pictures as we neared the takeout point, so if you’re trying this run you would be well-advised to study them. If you go toward river left near the takeout point, the channel is blocked by a tree that is very likely to give you a swimming lesson. Head river right instead, and prepare yourself to walk the last 50 yards or so since it will be too shallow to float.
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According to our GPS track, the total distance on the water was 5.1 miles.

We had a great time floating the Paint Rock, and will definitely be looking about for other good routes on this river.  On our way back, we drove past NACK again and there were even more cars there.  I suspect on most weekend summer days you could almost walk down the middle of the Flint, stepping from boat to boat.  Follow your own bag.thumb_IMG_2317_1024

Easy Peasy Hikes: Harvest Square Preserve

When I was young, I remember seeing a TV version of the classic English children’s book The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett and being absolutely charmed by it. I was the kind of kid who spent long hours building “forts” in the hedges separating the fields near my house. My neighbor friend Julie and I would imagine we were Indians or explorers in the wilderness or spies with secret tunnels – whatever flights of imagination struck our fancy. The fact that being out of sight also might have gotten us out of cleaning our rooms just may have had something to do with the appeal, but I digress. The idea of a secret garden, walled off and forgotten by most was just the kind of thing I’d love back then. The Harvest Square Preserve is the same kind of place for me now. It’s certainly not secret or really hidden in the classic “can’t see it” sense, but this little gem of a preserve  tucked in behind the Publix on Highway 52 in Harvest is the kind of place that is hidden in plain sight because you’d never think to look for a spot like this there.

Harvest Square Preserve is 69 acres owned by the Land Trust of North Alabama and while that’s not  a very large area there’s a surprising variety in the trails available. All of them are short and mostly flat so Chet and I pieced together several to come up with a 1.5 mile outing: Beaver Dam Trail, Eagle Trail, and Dry Creek Trail. Beaver Dam Trail holds a special place in my memory as it was the first trail I hiked after I broke my ankle in 2013. It had taken me around 5 months to get to where I could even walk at all without crutches, boots, or canes and I was not yet to the point where I could manage uneven ground very well, but I missed hiking! The flat,  .5 mile Beaver Dam Trail was the perfect place to go. Here’s me then – still needing walking poles to navigate even this easy peasy trail – and now, with Casey the Hound for company.

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16blackberriesBeaver Dam Trail starts off just to the left of the bridge to the pavilion, along a path cut through a field of what seemed to be primarily blackberries (yum) but which also had a surprising number of summer wildflowers. Just in the short stretch from the signpost to the woods, we saw rose mallow, golden crownbeard, handsome Harry (my new favorite flower name!), seedbox, honeysuckle, giant goldenrod, and jewelweed.  The trail went into a wooded area along Dry Creek, where occasionally there is a stream. The trail is named for the beavers that seem to just love building dams along this creek. The creek on this day was almost dry. I don’t know if that’s because the beavers blocked it upstream, or if it’s just an intermittent stream – hence the name Dry Creek. Whichever, I didn’t see any beavers and not much creek!

thumb_IMG_2400_1024After coming out of the woods, Beaver Dam Trail intersects with Eagle Trail. There’s a bit of confusion over whether it’s the end of Eagle Trail or the end of Beaver Dam Trail – the maps online seem to indicate Beaver Dam ends here, but the signs on the trail have it continuing along the lake. Whatever the name of the trail here, going right takes you around the north edge of Terry Pond.  Terry Pond is one of two ponds on the property, both popular fishing spots for those with a current fishing license. I’m not into fishing, but one web site about the fishing here claimed that longear sunfish, bluegill, pumpkinseed (is that a fish?), and small mouth bass have been spotted in this pond. The Land Trust also does a “Tuesdays On the Trail” session here at least a couple of times during the summer where elementary school aged kids and their parents can learn about how to use American native bamboo to make cane poles for fishing.

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Along this part of the trail we saw prickly lettuce, cattails, trumpet vine, partridge pea, and more blackberries. The trail dead ends near the northeastern corner of the pond, so at that point we doubled back to the intersection with Beaver Dam Trail, and then from there headed south on Eagle Trail. This section of the trail stays along the edge of the pond and there is a very nice little dock that I imagine is a great spot for fishing. Along this stretch we saw more wildflowers: carolina false dandelion, Chinese bush clover, and passion flower. The trail ends back where we started at the beginning of Beaver Dam Trail.

41flagpole_plaque42tattered_flagNext up, we crossed a bridge over Dry Creek and checked out the Dale W. Strong Community Pavilion for Environmental Education. This large covered pavilion has four picnic tables and can be reserved by calling the Land Trust. The pavilion sits in an open field with woods along the back. Two trails actually start out of this field.  Senators Field is a 1 mile loop trail that goes around Turner Pond and then along the edges of a field before meeting up with Dry Creek trail to end up back at the pavilion. It’s my understanding that the Sparkman High School cross country team uses it for training, which I think is a wonderful example of how the Land Trust coordinates with the local communities to provide access to their properties.

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We chose to take the other trail out of the field – the Dry Creek Trail. This trail is very different from the Beaver Dam/Eagle trails because it is almost entirely in a nice shady patch of woods. Chet and I have quite a history with this trail as well. We were on one of the crews that did a workday when they were building the trail, then we’ve come back a couple of times to help do some rerouting and other maintenance.  We were really lucky the last time we came out on a maintenance day because one of the crew members that day was Bob Terry, who donated the land to the Land Trust! It was really interesting to hear him talk about the land and how it had been farmed. Terry Pond is named for him.

49pignut_hickory_signEntering the woods by the pavilion, the trail goes a short way before coming to a T. You can go either direction on this loop trail but we chose to go right this time. The trail winds through the woods and has a number of benches and informational signs installed by Boy Scouts for their Eagle projects. There is an option part way down the trail to take the Short Loop Trail, which is just a short cut over to meet up with the Dry Creek trail again, cutting off a good portion of the hike, but we chose to stick to the right and continue on the Dry Creek Trail.We did notice that while we continued to see some wildflowers in the woods (such as healall) there were a lot fewer of them here in the shade.

51fieldAt about the halfway point, the trail makes a big curve to the left just before it comes out onto a big field of what looked to be soybeans. Right on the curve, we noticed that you could still see trees downed by the tornadoes in 2011. This is notable to us because earlier in the spring of 2011 Chet and I had been among those helping cut the trail here that was going to be used by the cross country team. Not long after our maintenance day, the tornadoes struck and downed trees right along that stretch, obliterating the part of the trail we had just built. Granted, that was a minor issue considering that tornado outbreak was the largest ever recorded, with 355 confirmed tornadoes in 21 states. 348 people were killed, 238 in Alabama alone.  Still, it was disappointing to see our hard work blown away. You’ll note that the current Senators Trail which I described above stays well away from the woods for most of its new route. Less scenic maybe, but less likely to get obliterated again I guess.

55dry_creek_shadyAfter skirting the soybean field for a very short stretch, the trail heads back into the woods. This is one of my favorite parts of this trail because the trees here are very large which makes it seem mysterious and more secluded, feeding in to my “Secret Garden” fantasy I guess. Short sections of this trail have eroded in a way that has made large humps in the trail bed, and while there were a few humps that the trail went over earlier in the hike, there seem to be bit more of them here. It doesn’t make the trail hard to walk, really, it’s just notable because for the most part this is a very flat even surface. When Chet and I were doing our trail maintenance days recently, what we were doing was rerouting the trail to use a more meandering route, going with an easier grade to avoid the erosion that has caused these problems. I was pretty gratified to come back this time and realize that unless you knew what to look for, our “new” trail looked like the one that had always been there!

58dry_creek_lowtreeThe trail heads next to the soybean field, but deep enough in the woods so you only catch glimpses from time to time, until it makes a turn to the left to go back towards the pavilion. There is trail maintenance work still to be done here and if you have sharp eyes you might spot plastic ribbons tied to trees marking out a potential new path. This tree, for example has fallen almost across the trail but then hung in branches on the other side, so you have to sort of stoop to get through. Off to the right, though, we spotted the ribbons so I know it’s in the plans to fix it. Speaking of, if rerouting trails, building new ones, or just maintaining the ones that are there sounds like a fun way to spend a Saturday morning every now and then, the Land Trust would be happy to have you help! Check their webpage for announcements about trail maintenance days.

There is a short spur trail off to the right that is marked on the map as an “overlook,” though I’m not sure what you’re supposed to be looking at from there. I’d skip it, and continue on to the point where we decided to go counterclockwise on this loop trail, then head back toward the pavilion and the parking lot.

So there you have it – a short 1.5 mile hike with beavers, creeks, ponds, flowers, blackberries, fishing, shady trees, and even a soybean field. Quite the secret garden, in my mind.

Curry Mountain Backpacking Trip

Hiking isn’t always rainbows and unicorns.  But even a less-than-ideal day on the trail is better than a great day in the office.

Though we are primarily day hikers, we aspire to doing longer overnight hikes, which around here means bringing your necessities on your back.  Every now and then, we have a go at an overnight backpacking trip.  Back in June, after the luxury of staying at Charit Creek Lodge in the backcountry, we went for a contrasting experience for the second day of our adventure.  We woke up, had warm showers and a great breakfast, and made the short walk back to the car, then drove east to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

We need little prompting to take a trip to the Smokies.  We both grew up near there and made many trips to the mountains as kids for picnics, camping, wading and floating in creeks, hikes, and just driving around and looking at stuff.  It’s a compelling place, where the masses spill out of RVs into Mother Nature’s unending embrace.  It’s old, so old, mountains that were once like the Rockies but now worn down and wiser somehow.  It’s a place of slow but constant change, of beauty and melancholy.  And water everywhere, flowing in creeks, dripping off leaves, hanging in the air — and most reliably, pouring down on backpackers.  But more about that later….

After stopping in Maryville to load up on some provisions and a little equipment, we drove through Townsend to the Wye and headed east to the Metcalf Bottoms picnic area.  03footbedOur destination was the Curry Mountain trail, a 3.3 mile hike mostly uphill to the Meigs Mountain trail, where we had reserved a place at backcountry campsite 19.  Though there is usually parking at the trailhead, we knew there was construction in the area so we found a parking place at Metcalf Bottoms and loaded up our packs.

Backpacking for us is still a trial and error process, with the ratio of errors to successes slowly getting better.  Our last overnight backpacking trip was in the Sipsey Wilderness, where a steady rain washed out our notion of a cheery campfire and instead led to a restless night of tossing and turning, serenaded by coyotes.  We were a little bit better prepared this time, with more garbage bags packed to serve as impromptu pack covers, and our rain jackets were packed at the top of the backpacks.  The weather forecast was a little troubling, with about a 70% chance of rain.  You should always double that when you go into the Smokies backcountry, so we were resigned to doing some hiking in the rain.  But the summer storms usually pass quickly.

01ruth_trailheadOur hike started in bright sunshine, with a 200-yard trek along Little River Road to the trailhead.  We hit the trail at 3 pm Eastern, pretty much right on schedule.  The pack weight didn’t seem bad, and though the first part of the trail was uphill, we were making good time.  We rose quickly above Little River Road, paralleled it for a while, then the traffic noise faded.  02chet_trailheadAlso, the sunlight faded, and distant rumbles of thunder were well on the way to becoming less distant.

OK, some people love walking in the rain.  Ruth seems oblivious to it, especially when she’s in the mountains.  I regret to say that I’m not like that.  I’m miserable when I hike in the rain, and I probably wear an expression like a cat tied to a water sprinkler.  As the sky grew darker, it became obvious that this storm wasn’t going to miss us, so we broke out the garbage bags and covered up the packs, after first making sure our sleeping bags were safely in the dry.  I can tolerate camping in the rain, but if I have a wet sleeping bag it’s game over, at least if the car is within hiking distance.  I threw on the rain jacket and stowed the camera as the drops began to fall,

Onward we slogged, through a rhododendron tunnel and hemlock groves.  We never saw stone walls or piles of stone that marked former homesteads.  We did see some squaw root on the side of the trail, and crested dwarf iris (not in bloom).  After about half an hour, the rain stopped, and I rounded a corner to find Ruth waiting about 50 yards ahead with a triumphant air.  thumb_IMG_2189_1024She had found a sizable area of flame azaleas, one of our favorite mountain sights!  After briefly admiring them, we sloshed along and the trail leveled out for a bit at Curry Gap.

I think the etymology of Curry Mountain is interesting.  The name supposedly comes from the Cherokee word for the mountain, which is gura-hi.  This means a particular salad green, gura, grows here.  This was transliterated into “Curry-He,” which was attached to one mountain, and the next mountain over was logically named “Curry-She.”  Curry Gap is a passage between He and She.

The trail had another sharp climb after the gap, then leveled out again and widened out.  This trail was originally a mountain road to the Jakes Creek community.  Though we weren’t being rained on, there were still more rumbles of thunder and it seemed likely that we were in for another deluge.  The last part of the trail was a short rise, and finally around a bend I found Ruth waiting at the junction with the Meigs Mountain trail.  08campsite_19From this point we turned right and headed west about 0.4 miles to campsite 19, our destination for the evening.  We passed a turnoff to a cemetery on the way, but the thunder was getting closer and we were focused on getting our tent up before the rain started.

Campsite 19 has three obvious tent areas, and as we were the only occupants for the night, we grabbed the one right off the trail.  thumb_IMG_2192_1024We arrived around 6:15 and worked quickly to get the tent up and the sleeping bags and pads arranged.  It still wasn’t raining, so we wandered uphill to the most distant tentsite and set up our backpacking stove and boiled water for a meal of dehydrated red beans and rice, with a dehydrated berry cobbler to follow.  To be honest, neither was particularly appealing, but it was warm food, and afterwards we packed away our garbage, covered the packs in garbage bags, and hoisted them on the pulley system that you’ll find in every backcountry campsite in the Smokies.09pack_pulley  Bears were very active in the park, and unbeknownst to us at the time, a bear had attacked a camper a couple of days earlier at another backcountry campsite.  We take the bear precautions very seriously.

After the packs were hoisted, we prepared ourselves for a rainy night, and it started up promptly.  I think it started raining around 7:30 and unlike your typical summer shower, it settled in and rained pretty much nonstop until around midnight.  We got a little water in the tent, and there were a couple of leaks that promised we’d be in for a damp night.  The water soon became a secondary concern, as lightning began popping around us.  We had one strike probably within 1,000 yards of us, and during the night we heard a few limbs come down.  Neither of us slept well, even after the rain stopped.  For me, it was a pillow issue — turns out I just can’t sleep without one.  Ruth’s bag was a little damp, and she had to contend with me tossing and turning, so in summary we had our usual lousy night’s sleep when backpacking.  Poor long-suffering Ruth.  I think I’ll be kicked out into a solo backpacking tent on our next overnight trip.

We were up early the next morning, if we can be said to have slept much at all, but at least it wasn’t raining, and I had the packs down from the pulley system and we were soon munching on apple fritters we had picked up the previous day for breakfast.  We made quick work of breaking down and packing up, and hit the trail around 7:30.

12huskey_cemeterySince it wasn’t raining, we were able to make side trips, which we did a few minutes later on the Meigs Mountain trail when we visited the Huskey Cemetery.  13polly_huskey_tombstoneLike many Smokies cemeteries, it had a mix of old fieldstones and a few more modern carved ones, like this one for Polly Huskey, born in 1866 and laid to rest here in 1909.  The Huskeys are an old Smokies family, with several landforms named after them, such as Huskey Gap, Huskey Branch, and Huskey Branch falls. Polly had 10 children, which seems pretty remarkable, but she herself was number 6 in a family of 15.  Then her father remarried and had another 9 children!

We didn’t tarry long, and we were at the Curry Mountain trail intersection after about 15 minutes of hiking.  We turned onto the Curry Mountain trail and headed downhill, reaching the flame azaleas around forty minutes into the hike.  21flame_azaleaAfter snapping some quick photos, we pretty much laid our ears back and trucked on down the trail, making good time despite my lopsided packing that caused a few stops to try to straighten it out.  We still didn’t see the rock walls we had missed on the way up, but did take a moment to admire a bear’s handiwork on this tree.  24bear_signHe was marking his territory, and we were happy to let him/her have it.

On the way up, I had noticed a small patch of Indian pipe on the side of the trail, and was pleased to spot it again on the way down.  Indian pipe is a chlorophyll-free plant, sometimes mistaken for a fungus, that is uncommon.  Ruth and I once went to a lecture/demonstration on medicinal plants, and the presenter passed around a jar of pickled Indian pipe, commenting it was good for chronic pain, and had a narcotic effect.  26indian_pipeSomeone asked him where he found it, and like most backwoods folks do when you ask about ginseng, he pretended not to hear the question.  So that’s a good indication of how uncommon it is!

Seeing as how our trip was mostly level or downhill, we set a good pace and were at the trailhead at 9:38.  After crossing the road, we headed back to the car, and like a horse in sight of the barn, we were focused on our destination and I nearly walked right past the tallest specimen of Jack in the pulpit I’ve ever seen.  They weren’t in full bloom so there’s not a good photo, but I’ve made a mental note that if I’m there again in late spring/early summer to go seek them out.

23foggy_trailSo our three-day mini-vacation came to an end, with a four-hour car drive in glorious taunting sunshine on our way back home.  We did pass a few dark clouds near Chattanooga, streaming their way northeastward to drench another set of Smokies hikers.  Even though a portion of our hike was soggy, and we spent a mostly uncomfortable night, we saw some brilliant wildflowers and enjoyed some misty scenery, particularly on our way down.  Mother Nature showed us the back of one hand and caressed us with the other.  Seems fair enough.

Sustainable Luxury: Len Foote Hike Inn

This is the second in our series on lodges that are only reachable on foot or horseback. No cars allowed! Check out Chet’s description of Charit Creek Lodge for our first installment. This time around, we’re looking at the Len Foote Hike Inn.

Hike Inn is perched at 3,100 feet on Frosty Mountain in the Chattahoochee National Forest. Avid hikers will be familiar with the area because it also is an approach trail to Springer Mountain, which is the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. The AT, as it’s known, is a 2,160 mile trail that goes from Georgia to Maine. People hike all of it at once (the thru-hikers), or complete it in multiple trips (the section hikers), or just walk a bit on it occasionally with no thought of hiking the whole thing. Count me in this last group! You don’t need to be a hardened AT thru-hiker to make it up to Hike Inn though. We made the 5 mile hike easily and saw folks of all ages on the trail – one family had a kindergarten-aged child hiking with his parents and grandparents.

44amicalola_fallsThe hike starts in Amicalola Falls State Park in the North Georgia mountains. This is one of Georgia’s most popular state parks, and boasts a spectacular 729 foot waterfall – the tallest cascading waterfall in the Southeastern United States. There are several ways to view the falls – you can drive a short ways up from the visitor’s center to the base of the falls, or walk a trail along Little Amicalola Creek and past picnic shelters and cottages to get to the same area. You can also take a trail from the base of the falls up to the top. This trail follows the creek and cascades up a steep slope and lots of stairs. Since we had a 5 mile hike ahead of us, we opted to take the other way to the top of the falls – we drove up the winding road. The trail to Hike Inn actually starts from a parking lot at the top of the falls.

08trailbedFrom the trailhead, the trail rises gently through the trees until it reaches the split to Springer Mountain. You can actually get to Springer Mountain from Hike Inn itself via a spur trail, but for those hikers who aren’t staying at the Inn before they set off on the AT, the approach trail is a more direct route.The trail up to the Inn is a nice one – soft underfoot, not too rocky, mostly not terribly steep. We were taking this hike in the early spring so we were able to see a good number of wildflowers and ferns: birdfoot violet, star chickweed, halberd-leaved violet, bellwort, lady fern, Christmas fern, running cedar fern, common blue violet, trailing arbutus, rattlesnake weed, Canadian dwarf cinquefoil, dwarf iris ( my favorite! ), and shining clubmoss. That’s 13 – so for those of you who remember the rules – that means ice cream with sprinkles, chocolate sauce, and a cherry. Sadly, no pie for this trip.

18rhodo_tunnelThe trail climbs up and down through the forest then crosses over a small creek a little over 2 miles in.  At 3.1 miles, after one of the steeper climbs on the trail, there is a lovely overlook with a thoughtfully placed bench. From the overview the trail heads down to Cochran Creek, where it passes through a rhododendron tunnel before crossing over a sturdy bridge. I just love rhododendron tunnels. They are cool, shady and just a little bit mysterious. I always feel like I’m going through a secret entrance to private world.

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After the bridge it is up up up for quite a ways, though again, there is a beautiful view near the top. This one is at around 4 miles.

Finally, the Inn appears on a ridge ahead through the trees.

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Len Foote Hike Inn is different from other hike-in lodges that I’ve stayed in. It is rustic, so don’t be expecting a 5 star hotel, but it is much more luxurious than the others. It has 20 guest rooms, with linens, pillows, blankets and towels provided so you don’t have to lug up your own.  The guest rooms are small – with room enough for bunk beds, hooks to hang your things on and that’s about it. However, there is electricity for lights and a fan, as well as a heater for the winter. We were quite comfortable in our little room.

27sunrise_roomThe lodge is made up of 4 main buildings. As you walk in at the front, there is a large covered stone porch with porch swings and then stairs that lead up to lobby where you check in. Guest rooms are also in this building, to either side of the lobby. Just behind the first building is the bath house. Here you’ll find men’s and women’s hot showers (!!!) and a number of composting toilets. The next building is the kitchen and dining hall, where they serve family-style dinner and breakfast and where you can find coffee, hot chocolate, water, or tea and sometimes cookies between meals. Finally, the last building has the Sunrise Room – a game room with windows all around looking out onto decks with rocking chairs where you can sit and enjoy the view.

33star_baseWe had arrived at the park fairly late, so we made it up to the lodge in the late afternoon – just in time to settle in and then meet in the lobby for the tour. Hike Inn is committed to conservation and environmental stewardship and the tour gives you a behind the scenes view at how that commitment plays out in the day-to-day running of the lodge. Solar panels on the roof of the Sunrise Room provide about 10% of the electricity for the lodge. The hot water for showers and housekeeping are provided courtesy of a solar-thermal water heating system, and the toilets are odor-free composting toilets that use a high-tech ventilation system to save more than 250,000 gallons of valuable drinking water every year.  Recycled barrels collect rainwater used to irrigate the staff vegetable garden as well as the native plants that line the trails that wind around the lodge buildings. Finally, guests are encouraged to clean their plates to reach 0% food waste, but what doesn’t get eaten, as well as office paper trash and other organic waste, is fed to beds of red wriggler worms that turn it all into valuable organic fertilizer. It’s really an impressive setup! They also showed us the “Star Base.” This is a massive granite block formation designed by Atlanta’s Fernbank Science Center to channel the light from the rising sun at the vernal and autumnal equinoxes so that it shines into a small cave.

After the tour, we had a bit of time to sit in the rocking chairs outside the sunrise room while we waited on dinner. Dinner was served family-style at long tables, which made it easy to get to know some of the other guests. We were served roast beef, mashed potatoes, rolls, and a dessert called “ooey-gooey” which I have no hope of describing. But it was delicious! After dinner, Chet and I went out and took on some of our fellow-hikers in a game of corn hole. As it got dark, we went back into the Sunrise Room and picked out a jigsaw puzzle to put together, but a full stomach and tired body meant an early bedtime for me. Besides I was hoping to get up early enough to see the sunrise! The staff will sound a drum if the sunrise is a good one, so I went to bed hoping for drumming in the morning.

32sunriseI didn’t get it – I guess they thought it wasn’t a good one, but we got up just in time to see a bit of it anyway and Chet got this fabulous picture – not bad, huh? After the sunrise, it was breakfast – pancakes, syrup, coffee – mmmm – perfect fuel for the hike down. Some folks left from the Inn to hike up to Springer Mountain, but we simply retraced our route of the day before to get back to our car and start the drive home.

Speaking of the drive, it’s only about 3.5 hours from Huntsville so though we actually tagged this onto a longer 4 day mini-holiday, it would be doable as a weekend getaway as well. Reservations are required at the lodge, and they do fill up fast so make sure to call far in advance if you decide to try it out.

Easy Peasy Hikes: North Plateau Loop

This is the third in a series on short, easy hikes with little elevation change in Madison County, Alabama.  Bradford Creek Greenway and Madison County Nature Trail are the first two easy peasy hikes that we’ve discussed.

For many people, their first experience with a managed wilderness area will be in a state park.  598mssp_signWe are fortunate to have Monte Sano State Park right here in Huntsville, with 20 miles of hiking trails and another 14 miles of biking trails.  There are hikes with varying degrees of difficulty and length, so there’s something for everyone in just over 2,100 acres on Monte Sano Mountain.

Ruth and I are big fans of state parks.  There are 22 state parks in Alabama, and we’ve visited/hiked/camped in 11 of them, so we still have lots of exploring to do.  Did you know that in Alabama, state parks are almost entirely self-funded?  The Alabama Legislature doesn’t budget any operating funds for the parks, so the costs of keeping the trails maintained, the camping areas clean, and the facilities staffed come entirely from user fees.  The legislature does fund the central office and kicks in some money for maintenance or special projects like building lodges and golf courses (when the state gets a windfall like hurricane relief funds), but for the most part (90%) parks are funded by admission fees, campsite and lodging fees, boat launching ramps, and special events.  Any time that you hear an Alabamian grumbling about his or her taxes being wasted on a frivolous thing like a state park, set the record straight — the parks are funded by their users, not by taxes.

Given that the user fees are pretty reasonable, the Alabama State Park system as a whole isn’t a big moneymaker for the state.  Some parks do better than others — Gulf State, Oak Mountain, and Monte Sano, for instance, bring in more money than they cost to run, so they to some extent subsidize smaller or more remote parks like Buck’s Pocket, which operate at a net loss.  Our state park workers have to know how to stretch a dollar, and they do a great job of partnering with volunteer organizations to make the most of their human capital and natural resources.

Well, this will turn into a political rant if I go on any more about Alabama’s chronic underfunding of one of the state’s greatest assets, so let’s talk about hiking instead.  This easy peasy hike is a little more challenging that the previous ones.  For one thing, this hike intersects several other trails and points of interest in the park, so it would be a good idea to carry a map. You can pick one up at the camp store, or download one in advance.

There’s only one drive-in entrance to Monte Sano State Park, and that’s on Nolen Avenue.  When you enter park property, you’ll come to a gatehouse where your admission fee is collected if there is someone staffing the booth.  100gatehouseIf there isn’t anyone manning the gatehouse, there’s an honor slot for you to deposit your fee.  The day use fee is $3 for adults, with $1 charged to kids 6-12, seniors, and active military.  Kids 5 years and younger are free.  You can also buy year-round passes if you plan to be there frequently.  When we were there on a Sunday morning, the booth wasn’t staffed, so we cheerfully dropped our $6 in the slot, unlike the folks in the black truck behind us, who just motored on through.  There is no honor among thieves.

02hpl_trailheadWe drove on to the hiker’s parking lot, past the turns to the picnic area and lodge, and found a shady spot in the large gravel lot.  The trailhead is pretty obvious, with a kiosk on the south side of the lot with a trail map and park regulations and info.  Our easy peasy trail is the North Plateau Loop, which runs 1.2 miles in the northwestern section of the park.  From the trailhead, you’ll barely leave the parking lot before you make a turn to the right on a blue-blazed trail.  Of course, this is a loop, but for purposes of this hike we’ll start from the hiker’s parking lot and travel clockwise.

The first 0.1 mile of the trail is on a flat, packed earth surface through the woods, paralleling the parking lot and Nolen Avenue.  08decline_to_bridgeNorth Plateau Loop crosses the Fire Tower trail shortly afterwards, then enters a short but rocky decline to cross a bridge over a small creek.  The trail map identifies North Plateau Loop as a “more difficult” trail, but in fairness this trail is moderate only in a few spots.  The 50 yards downhill to the bridge are probably the most challenging section of the entire trail, with uneven natural rock steps to navigate, but pick your route carefully and you’ll be fine.

The bridge crosses the creek, and on the west side you can head downstream a bit off-trail to admire the pretty cascade.  Once you continue on, you’ll climb out of the tiny hollow and begin passing through the park’s picnic area.  thumb_IMG_2260_1024Concrete tables and benches and grills are found in shady spots, with a gorgeous view over McKay Hollow opening up to the left of the trail.  150lodge_overlook

At about 0.2 miles, you’ll pass the lodge, which is an attractive, relatively new event space/meeting room (as opposed to a hotel-type facility).  The lodge also has a viewing platform out back, also with a view over McKay Hollow to the south.  It’s a popular wedding venue, and I once went to a company Christmas party there.

250amphitheaterAs you continue westward, your next point of interest is the amphitheater.  This performance space hosts events throughout the year, and we’ve seen plays and movies in this space in previous years.  As we were passing, crews were setting up for a jazz concert.

After you pass the amphitheater, you’ll continue to head west along the top of the ridge through the picnic area.  300stone_pavilionYou’ll come to another observation point, with low stone wall to your left and a large wooden picnic pavilion to your right, with the picnic area parking lot beyond the shelter.  Just ahead to your left, at the end of the observation point, is a stone pavilion, also with a nice view.  A small seep starts just uphill of the stone pavilion and trickles past its west end.

This turn is the only tricky one to navigate, because the trail map is inaccurate.  As you approach the stone pavilion, the trailhead for McKay Hollow takes off downhill on your left, and the trail appears to continue straight over the seep and leads into a clearing with more picnic tables.  The clearing itself has three trails leaving it, and we tried them all without spotting any blue blazes.  301route_past_pavilionHere’s the trick — don’t cross the seep.  Instead, when you get to the stone pavilion, look right (toward the parking lot) and you’ll see blue blazes on several trees and a signpost when you get closer to the woods.  It’s pretty obvious when you’re looking in the right direction.

North Plateau Loop enters the woods west of the picnic area and heads north, crossing Nolen Avenue right at the park entrance booth.   The trail continues on the other side of the road, and almost immediately you’ll pass the west end of the Fire Tower trail.  As an aside, the Fire Tower trail would also make for a good easy peasy hike — it’s pretty much flat, with several points of interest and trail intersections, which makes it easy to cobble together loops of various lengths.   Our favorite stretch has historical markers for a couple of former mansion sites, and a trail marker tree stands just off the trail in that area.

Continuing on North Plateau Loop, the trail tends slightly downhill and turns to the right and flattens out just after you pass the Cold Springs trail on your left.  Cold Springs is also another interesting trail, one which goes downhill from here to exit the park and to continue on Land Trust of North Alabama property, all the way to a relatively large and reliable spring.  400route_near_campgroundWe continued to the right on a quiet, level footpath.  This part of the trail was the highlight — shaded, soft underfoot, and quiet.  That’s a little surprising given that the trail runs past the park campground, but because the trail is farther down the ridge we could only see the tops of a few RVs.  There is less foot traffic in this stretch, though it should be noted that after you cross Nolen the North Plateau Loop is open to both biking and hiking (it’s open only to hikers in the section that runs through the picnic area).  550red_spotted_purple_butterflyThis stretch had several summer wildflowers and a red-spotted purple butterfly was there to check them out.

Speaking of wildflowers, we saw a smattering of them on this hike. Just behind the hikers parking lot we saw nettleleaf sage and greater tickseedDowny false foxglove, prairie fleabane, spiderwort, and St. John’s wort were blooming in the picnic area.  We also saw tall bellflower and ashy hydrangea in the shadier spots north of Nolen.

If you look downhill along this stretch of the trail, you’ll see the closed section of Bankhead Parkway that used to serve as another entrance to the park.  The roadbed proved to be too difficult to maintain, so for years it’s open only to foot and bicycle traffic.   As you near the end of this part of the trail, Bankhead Parkway will loom ever nearer to the left.

500observatoryJust before you get to the road, a side trail leads off to the right.  It’s worth checking out, as you’ll find the Von Braun Astronomical Society planetarium and observatories.  The facilities are only open to the public during special events, but for stargazers this is the place to be!

Once you rejoin the North Plateau Loop, the trees will begin to thin out and you’ll arrive in a paved loop with a parking lot that serves as another overlook, this time to the north and east.  600ruthcaseychetA kind gentleman from Gadsden offered to take a group photo of us.  As you can see, Casey the Hound came with us for this hike, as dogs are welcome if they are kept on a six-foot leash.

From this point, you’re pretty much back in the developed section of the park.  The trail re-enters the woods on the east side of the overlook, crosses a road that goes to some of the cabins, then continues briefly through the woods before emerging next to a large picnic pavilion and the park office.  700blaze_signThere are some clever signs here to give you a hint about sticking with the blue blazes, and the tip of a fencepost is also painted blue to guide you down the last 80 yards of the trail, where you’ll cross Nolen to return to the hiker’s parking lot.

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Note the two black diamonds on the McKay Hollow Trail sign. That’s a warning that this is a very difficult trail.

North Plateau Loop is a good introduction to the developed areas of the park, in case you’ve never been there.  You can use it to get to the Fire Tower trail, McKay Hollow trail, Cold Springs trail, and the Sinks trail (off Bankhead near the planetarium).  Some of these trails can be very challenging (McKay Hollow in particular), so if you’re looking to extend your hike pay attention to the trail map and the degree of difficulty that is marked on their signposts.  As you may have guessed, there’s also a South Plateau Loop, of similar difficulty, with many other points of interest and trails intersecting with it.  If you are into mountain biking, the South Plateau Loop and associated trails are very popular, especially with younger or less experienced bikers.

Alabama’s state parks offer miles and miles of trails, with beautiful scenery and a wide variety of recreational opportunities.  Monte Sano is one of the best, so check it out!