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.
Beaver 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!
After 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.
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.
Next 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.
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.
Entering 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.
At 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.
After 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!
The 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.