I have to be honest, when Chet and I started out on our drive over to Forever Wild’s Shoal Creek Preserve near Florence, I was not optimistic that it would be a great day. For one thing, we had to drive an hour and a half to get to the start of the trail. I still work full-time and I never have enough time on a weekend to get everything done anyway, so spending three hours of my precious weekend time in a car didn’t thrill me. For another, it was a gray and rainy day, and yet still so humid that when I got out of the car it felt like the wet air just wrapped itself around me like a blanket. To top it all off, we didn’t have great directions to get where we were going, so we relied on Waze – a crowd sourced traffic and navigation app that we’ve been using a lot. Waze does a fine job usually. It helps that Chet has his configured to use the voice of the original Terminator to give us directions. “Object in the road ahead…GET DOWN!” in Ahnald’s voice is quite entertaining. However this time, Waze had a bit of a glitch. When we got about a mile from where Waze said we should turn, we spotted a sign for Shoal Creek Preserve pointing off to our right. Of course, we spotted it as we zoomed right by it and then dithered about whether to go on to where Waze was taking us or turn around. In the end we did both – followed the directions Waze gave us, determined that was NOT right, and then turned around. Not a great start so far.
However, almost as soon as we turned in to the road leading back to the parking lot we spotted a young deer bounding across the road and into the forest. We decided that might be a good sign. When we got to the large gravel parking lot, there was only one other car there. There is an official Forever Wild sign and nice kiosk set up with lists of rules, but unfortunately no trail maps on display. Luckily, Chet had done just enough research to have a good idea of what we should be doing so we relied on his memory and headed out. Facing the kiosk, there were two options, neither really marked with any signs or blazes. From Chet’s research, we knew that the preserve had both horse trails and hiker-only trails, so we took the one that led through a gap in the fence to the right of the kiosk because it looked more like a people trail. This first section led through an open area just full of wildflowers. We saw asiatic dayflower, prairie pea, poke salat, and various asters, among other things.
At the other edge of this open area, we were vindicated in our choice because we found a sign for Jones Branch Loop pointing us down the footpath that led off into the woods, well-marked by red blazes. About half a mile in, the trail dipped out of the woods briefly to cut across one edge of a power line cut before heading back into the woods again. Shortly after this, we came to what looked like a fork in the trail. The left side was clearly marked “Jones Branch,” but we could see glints of water down the trail on the right side, so we just had to go check that out. This footpath was obviously not the official, maintained path, but there was a path to follow so down we went. At the bottom, after dodging some pretty impressively large spider webs strung across the trail, we came to a rock lined cascade that fed into a small, still creek. We later verified this is Jones Branch.
After scrambling back up to the main trail, we continued on along a ridge that soon started giving us views of the impressive Shoal Creek. Now maybe it’s just me, but “creek” to me means small waterway – something I maybe waded across when I was catching crawdads as a child. Shoal Creek is not that kind of creek. This is what I would call a river. It’s huge! According to Wikipedia, it was actually originally called Sycamore River. It runs into the Tennessee River just south of here where the Wilson Dam likely has had some impact on its size as well. In fact, on some maps this waterway is labeled Wilson Lake instead of Shoal Creek.
Soon we came to another decision point. It looked like Jones Branch trail turned sharply to the left away from the water, but there was a nice wide path that looked like it might lead down to Shoal Creek so we decided to check it out. Sure enough, that path took us right down to one of the horse trails and to a spot with a bench and a lovely view of the water. A family of 4 were just leaving on their horses when we showed up. These were the only other people we saw on the trail all day.
After a short lunch break on the bench, we headed back up the way we had come and got back onto Jones Branch. The trail here mostly goes through the woods and is heading away from the water so no more river views. It also crosses the horse trail several times, but it is clearly marked so there’s no problem figuring out where you should be going. After around a third of a mile, we came to Lawson Branch. Geologist’s daughter that I am, I was fascinated by this little creek. Unlike most other creeks in this area, it didn’t seem to have much of a sandy or muddy bottom. It pretty much was just water flowing directly over rock. Where the Jones Branch trail meets this branch, it looks like the water has etched out a mini-canyon in the middle of the river.
At this point, we made a minor mistake. We should have stayed on this side of the river and walked upstream along the branch about 400 feet to reach the “official” intersection of Jones Branch loop and Lawson Branch loop trails. However, what we did was cross the branch then walk upstream on the other side, which technically is a part of the Lawson Branch loop. No biggie, but it did mean we didn’t really walk every inch of Jones Branch, and we ended up hiking this 400 foot section of Lawson Branch twice. At the intersection of the two loops, there are signs to sort things out, including one pointing you towards the parking lot, another bench, and a sturdy bridge to get you safely across without getting your boots wet like we had.
Lawson Branch is another loop trail that starts out following, well, Lawson Branch. After about a quarter of a mile, it turns away from the branch and heads back towards Shoal Creek. Here again, the trail is on a ridge high above the creek, so I’m thinking in the winter with fewer leaves on the trees the views from here would be spectacular. Somewhere along this stretch, I walked right past this beautiful eastern box turtle. Lucky for me, Chet was behind me at the time and spotted it for me. In my defense, I was sort of busy trying to knock down all the spider webs. I do have to say that the downside to this trail is that it is not heavily traveled which means that nobody was out there clearing out the spider webs from the trail for me.
Lawson Branch definitely saved the best for last, though. After turning away from Shoal Creek for the last time, we’d only walked about 200 feet when I spotted what to me was obviously a marker tree. If you missed Chet’s blog post explaining marker trees, check it out here. This one was pretty much straight ahead of us where the trail turned to the right, but the “nose” was pointing the other way. We bushwhacked in towards the tree and looked to see what it might be pointing towards. We were delighted to spot a beautiful waterfall through the trees. We realized, though, that the trail actually would loop around and get us there if we would just stay on it, so we headed back to the trail and sure enough ended up at the falls. We’re calling this Lawson Branch Falls, but I don’t know if it has an official name. It’s a double cascade, with the lower drop only 2 or three feet with an upper drop of maybe twice that. It had that same quality of the earlier cascades of being just cut through pure rock which made the water seem even clearer I think.
From the falls, the trail mostly follows along the branch for a third of mile back to the footbridge where we crossed back over to pick back up on Jones Branch trail. After the excitement of turtles, marker trees and waterfalls on Lawson Branch, this section of trail was sort of mundane. It’s a little more than half a mile back to the parking lot and though we saw passionflower and an eastern swallowtail butterfly to liven things up a bit, I think the most notable thing about this part of the trail is how terribly overgrown it is at the very end. Coming from this direction, we could see the kiosk above the plants so we knew we were heading the right way, but we would have never even guessed that there was a trail to the left of this tree if we had opted to try our luck to the left of the kiosk when we started instead of the right.
All in all, though, this was a great find and I’m so glad we came over to check it out. Thank you Forever Wild for preserving this beautiful spot!