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. We 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. If 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.
We 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. North 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. Concrete 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.
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.
As 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. You’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. Here’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. We 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). This 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 tickseed. Downy 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.
Just 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. A 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. There 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.
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!