The Long Overdue Excursion

I have a confession to make. Chet and I have lived in the Huntsville area for 23+ years now and have hiked trails on Monte Sano, all of the Land Trust properties, local greenways, Bankhead Forest, up into middle Tennessee – and some of those trails many many times.  But in all that time I have never set foot on the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge! Chet took our girls once when they were little – I couldn’t go for some reason – so he doesn’t have this appalling gap in his local hiking log, but I have no good excuse. I just haven’t gotten around to it!  October is one of my favorite months of the year, but it’s an incredibly busy one due to all the non-hiking things we look forward to every year that fall in October (Fiddler’s Convention in Athens on the first weekend, Cemetery Stroll in Huntsville the second weekend, Storytelling Festival in Athens in late October – this year on the third weekend) so we only had a few hours in the morning to get out and hike. Since Wheeler NWR is close to our end of town and has some good shortish hikes, it seemed like the perfect place to go to get in a hike on a weekend with little spare time, plus I got to go someplace I’d never been before, so off we went.

01flint_creek_dancy_bottom Our first stop was the Dancy Bottom Trail. This one was a little tricky to find. It’s off Red Bank Road just before a bridge crossing Flint Creek, but it’s just a little gravel track that’s not really marked.  Sadly, up by the bridge right after you turn in it looks like it’s sometimes used by the locals as a dump site. You drive a short ways down the gravel track until it ends in a slightly wider area. There’s a nice view of the creek here and my first thought was that it might be a good spot to put in a canoe or kayak, but the bank is pretty steep here – there is probably a better spot up closer to the bridge.

02dancy_bottom_trailheadN03interpretive_signo signs or kiosks are visible immediately, but you should see what looks like  a trail taking off from the northeastern end of the parking area. As soon as you start down the trail proper, though, you’ll come to the first of a couple of lovely interpretive signs.

04dancy_bottom_footbedAfter that the going is pretty easy. The path is nice and wide, with a pea gravel footbed so it is very easy to walk on. There are some nicely made signs posted from time to time along the trail identifying trees. These are numbered and I’m assuming if we’d stopped at the visitor’s center first there might have been additional information tied to the numbers. At one point about 400 feet in, it looks like there is a trail taking off to the left. The main trail continues straight ahead so we followed that.


This pleasant walk lasted about .4 of a mile and then the trail turns into a very narrow and overgrown track.  We pushed through the plants and stepped over a few downed trees as the trail wound through a boggy area. Soon we came to a bridge over a swamp. At some time prior to our hike, a tree had fallen across it and barely missed taking out the bridge. We were able to just duck under it and cross the bridge which seemed to be unscathed, though the other end of the bridge has seen better days.


16dancy_muddy_trailOnce over the bridge, we came to what can only be described as a mud field. I’ve seen other descriptions of this trail say that during wet weather the area past the bridge is covered with water so it’s not like we didn’t have any warning, but it hadn’t really been that rainy the week before we went, so we were surprised it was so impassable. But impassable it was. We squished around a bit trying to see if we could find a way to get through it, but in the end we gave up and turned around here. The trail is marked on maps available in the visitors center (and online) as being 2.5 miles roundtrip. According to our GPS track, we went only a little more than .5 mile before we turned around.

17flint_creek18stile_over_treeA little discouraged, we headed back down the way we’d come, but since we felt we’d been a bit short changed on the trail, we decided to take that first fork and see where it went. Well, it was lovely. It led right along Flint Creek for almost .2 of a mile, before cutting back into the woods. Along the creek the footpath is pretty distinct, but when the trail turns into the woods you have to play “spot the ribbons on the trees” to figure out where you’re supposed to go. There have been attempts at improvements of a sort though. We came across a stile over a large tree, and crossed a couple of rough bridges over gullies. It has the look of a trail in the making and hopefully that’s what it was, because it would make a lovely loop hike. We eventually came out back on the pea gravel main trail and just walked back towards the car. Our total mileage for this trail was 1.8 miles. I’d rate it as maybe moderate. The pea gravel section was very easy, but the overgrown section and the spot-the-ribbons section was a bit more challenging.

19flintcreek_kiosk21flintcreek_trailheadWe hopped in the car and headed to our next destination, the Flint Creek Trail. This trail is off the north side of Highway 67, almost across from the main visitor’s center entrance. It is well marked and has ample parking. There is a dock with a kiosk next to it that has information about the history of the reserve, as well as information about the birds and other animals you might spot there. The trail we planned to hike starts up the parking lot towards the road from the kiosk, where a couple of boardwalks cross over coves. We headed across the boardwalks, stopping to admire the many many animal tracks in the mud and to take in the view from the bench part way across.

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After the second boardwalk, the trail heads into the woods. We passed up a trail to the left and continued straight ahead until we saw a pavilion off to the right of the trail. We explored it for a few minutes, though there’s really not much to see there. I suppose it would be a good place to run into in  case of a sudden downpour, though.27pavilionI was a little confused about which trail to follow from here. Had we not detoured to the pavilion the trail seemed to go straight ahead, but there also was what looked like a trail going off to the right side of the pavilion. In the end, we decided to follow our initial trail and go straight. This section of the trail was marked with very nice white letters:

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We didn’t have anything to tell us what the letters were all about though. Again, I suspect if we’d visited the visitor’s center first, we might have found out. We did make some jokes about what would happen when they ran out of letters. Apparently the answer is that they just stopped marking things, because “Z” was the last one we saw on the loop.

30benchAbout the time the letters ran out, the trail curves to the left and back around towards the river. We didn’t have the signposts anymore, but instead there were a couple of really nice benches. Earlier in the hike, the trail runs closer to the highway and there was a fair amount of road noise, but back here away from the road the noise disappeared and It was very nice to sit on those sturdy benches and enjoy the natural noises of the forest.

After a brief sit-down, we continued on around towards the lake and Chet noticed these really cool trees. The first one had a limb growing horizontally right along the ground, and then five or so limbs growing straight up out of it. The vertical ones just looked like trees in their own right until he pointed out that they were growing out of the horizontal limb. We couldn’t tell if the horizontal one had fallen and been pinned or what caused it to grow that way. The second tree we thought at first might be a marker tree pointing towards the water,  but in the end we decided it probably isn’t.


32big_vineNear this part of the trail we were pretty close to the river and I spotted a beautiful white egret wading just a little ways out from the shore. Unfortunately getting to a spot to get a good picture required a good bit of tromping through the leaves so he heard us and flew off with a lot of loud sqawking before we could snap his photo. After rejoining the main trail at the pavilion we went a short ways back towards the boardwalks, and then took the trail marked with the letter “B”  – the short loop. Like the big loop, this trail provides some nice views of the creek and a pleasant and level walk through the woods.

I wish our GPS hadn’t died before we started this trail, because I really don’t know how long anything was. The website for the Wheeler says the Flint Creek Trail is 1.5 miles, but there are two loops off of it, and I’m unclear whether the 1.5 miles is for both loops or just the main one.

Finally, after we’d hiked both trails we’d planned on for the day and realized we had a little bit of extra time, we decided to go check out the visitor’s center. Since we were there on a Sunday in the fall, we assumed that the building would be closed, but we thought we’d check it out anyway. I’m so glad we did! It turns out that they are open and staffed 9am to 5pm seven days a week from October through February. In March they reduce their opening hours to 9am to 4pm Tuesday through Saturday. Inside there is an exhibit showcasing the wildlife that you can find in the refuge plus information on the history of Wheeler. The day we were there the information desk was staffed by a very friendly and helpful couple who volunteer a couple of months at a stretch. They can provide maps, good tips on the trails, and information about upcoming events at the refuge. I can’t believe it took me so long to get out there, but now that I’ve been, I’m already planning a few more excursions there. You should go too!

Not What You Think It Is: Old Stone Fort

It was a lovely fall day in early October, with nothing on the calendar, so we thought that we’d venture a little bit afield of Huntsville and head up to Tennessee to see if there was any fall color just north of us.  After considering some options, we decided to check out Old Stone Fort State Park up near Manchester.

I’ve seen some descriptions of the park in which it’s called “Old Stone Fort State Archaeological Park,” which gives you some idea of what sets this park apart from others.  I gathered that it would be a mound site, like Alabama’s Moundville, in a scenic area, probably near water, and would be primarily of interest because of its history.  Like many others before me, I was wrong about Old Stone Fort.  Yes, the historical aspect is interesting, but it takes a back seat to the remarkable natural setting and the scenic trails that wind through the park.

We weren’t in any great rush to get there, so as a result we didn’t arrive in the parking lot for the museum and trails until almost 11:30 on a Sunday morning, after a roughly 90-minute drive.  44enclosureThere were a few cars there, but I wouldn’t call it overrun. I had looked at the park map on its website and knew that the most interesting trails would be in the peninsula between the Duck River and Little Duck River, but that map didn’t show how much the rivers had eroded around the limestone shelf nearly encircled by the rivers.  I was expecting an old village site maybe 20 or 30 feet above a bend in the river.  What we found instead was a partially enclosed area with a large, open field in the middle, soaring at least 70 feet above two shallow but sizeable rivers, partially enclosed by low mounded walls, with occasional historic ruins.

10dam_near_museumWhen we stepped out of the car, we could immediately hear the sound of falling water off to our right, and on our walk toward the museum came across the first of many excellent interpretive signs scattered throughout this area of the park.  I assumed that the water I heard was from a waterfall on the Duck River, which flows past to the northwest side of the peninsula. As we neared the museum, we could see that the source of the sound was a old dam, over which the water was flowing and dropping around 10 feet.  It turns out that this river gorge was a popular place for mills, what with the natural force of the water dropping around the eroded channel.  There had been a gunpowder mill near this site during the Civil War, but I believe the dam dates to 1963.

02museum_entranceThe park has a small museum with exhibits and artifacts describing the native Americans from the middle Woodland period who lived in the area and developed the site.  Early European settlers assumed that the site had been fortified, given its strategic location and the low earthen walls that partially surrounded it.  They dubbed it the Old Stone Fort, but they were only partially right.  It was old (built around the 1st through 5th centuries AD) and the walls were actually built of stone but eventually became covered in earth, but it was never a fort.  Instead, archaeologists have determined it was a ceremonial site, since they found very little evidence of habitation, and the alignment of the entrance is within one degree of sunrise on the summer solstice.

09bear_right_at_signWe walked past the museum, which is mostly underground with a nice viewing patio on its roof, and looked over an exhibit of a dugout canoe before heading toward the hilltop enclosure.  18duck_riverThere is one main trail, the Old Stone Fort trail, which circles the enclosed area, but the more interesting hiking is to be found outside the walls, roughly parallel to the Old Stone Fort trail, so we ignored the hint offered by the sign and hung a right to slip through a gap in the wall to follow a trail that paralleled the Duck River.

12blue_hole_fallsAlmost immediately, we came to Blue Hole Falls, where you can clamber down the bank a bit to get a good look at the top of the fall.  It’s really a series of drops totaling around 25 feet, but the longest single drop is around 15 feet.  By this time, we were starting to encounter more people on the trail, so we didn’t tarry long.

Continuing downriver, we came upon some ruins off to the right of the trail, overlooking the bluff over the river.  This was the remains of the main paper mill, one of three that were in this general area.  Built in 1879, this mill supplied newsprint to newspapers throughout the Southeast.  We hiked down to the river at this point, where we had a good view of the mill’s foundations.



We could again hear the sound of falling water, and picked our way along a path downstream to Big Falls, a 30-foot fall that is preceded by another 8-foot drop over a shelf.  24big_fallsLike Blue Hole Falls, we had a pretty good view at the top of the falls, but the trail was impassable past Big Falls.  If you’re thinking of doing this hike, your best views of Big Falls would be from the river itself (if you’re willing to swim), or possibly taking the nature trail that runs past the park’s campground and bushwhacking down to the northern side of the river.

The Little Duck River (left) joins the Duck River.

29trail_markerWe climbed back up to the trail and shortly thereafter took off to the right at the sign to the Moat, Backbone, and Forks of the River trail.  The trail marking scheme was interesting here, with color coding and shapes to indicate which trail you were on.  The first part of the trail (marked as “Alternate Trail Access” on the park’s map) took us to the Forks of the River trail, an easy walk down to the confluence of the Duck and Little Duck rivers.  We then continued along the Little Duck River on the Little Duck River Loop trail (also known as the Backbone trail), following the river upstream along a wide, flat former roadbed until it took a sharp bend to the left away from the river and ascended a narrow ridge.  This turn isn’t very well marked.  The trail appears to follow an old stream bed for 100 yards or so before you spot a trail marker and begin a sharp climb.

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Once you top the ridge, after about 75 yards of climbing, you’ll be at my favorite part of the hike (not counting the waterfall views, of course).  Backbone Ridge is a narrow ridge between the Little Duck and the bluffs on which the walled enclosure was built.  It’s not quite a knife’s edge.  The footing is good, with a nice overlook to the left and our best hint of fall color toward the top.  It tops out in a tree tunnel, then descends sharply to rejoin the Forks of the River trail.  It’s a little confusing at this point, as we headed left after descending the ridge.  Instead, you’ll want to continue straight to join the Moat trail, which follows an old dry channel that early settlers, in keeping with their theory of the place being a fort, thought was a moat.  It’s actually a natural channel.  We headed eastward, then climbed sharply to rejoin the Old Stone Fort trail along the southern end of the walled enclosure.

37ridgetop 38ruth_ridgetop 39blush_of_color

In the last part of the hike, we followed the Old Stone Fort trail to the northeast, keeping an eye and ear out for Step Falls on the Little Duck River.  50step_fallsWe could hear falls and occasionally glimpsed them down below us, but eventually came to a place where we could again descend down to water level.  53step_falls_upstreamStep Falls is actually a series of four waterfalls, and we joined the party at fall number 3 (numbering from upstream to downstream).  The third fall is the most scenic, dropping around 20 feet in a couple of cascades.  The first two Step Falls, upstream, are much less dramatic.

We finished the hike proper of 3.7 miles around 2:30, then took a few minutes to look over the museum.  We had hoped to time things so that we could drop by the Dutch Maid Bakery in Tracy City on our way back, but alas, the lying Internet said they’d be open until 3:30.  We arrived at 3:40 only to find the place locked up, so no salt rise bread for us on this trip.

This was an enjoyable, scenic hike that was mostly easy except for a brief bit of scrambling on the Forks of the River trail and the steep ascent and descent of Backbone Ridge.  Portions of the outer Old Stone Fort trail pass some steep dropoffs, though the footing is good and the footbed is wide so there’s no danger if you pay attention.  So, the Old Stone Fort is not a fort, the Moat trail doesn’t go near a moat, and the waterfalls don’t have particularly imaginative names.  There are also paved trails, a picnic area, and camping if you’d like to stay a while.

Old Stone Fort might not be what you expect — but you might find that it’s better than you expected!

Here’s a link to the GPS track for this hike.

Volunteering: The Engine of Progress


September 26 was National Public Lands Day and though Chet and I are both very involved with doing trail maintenance for the Land Trust of North Alabama, I wasn’t aware of this initiative until it was almost over! I figured I wasn’t the only one, so I thought I’d use my blog post this week to let folks know about it for next year, and also about other ways you can volunteer to maintain our treasured public lands.

National Public Lands Day started in 1994 by the National Environmental Education Foundation with 3 sites and 700 volunteers. This yearly event, usually held on a Saturday in late September, has grown to be the nation’s largest single-day volunteer effort for public lands. In 2014, about 175,000 volunteers worked at 2,132 sites in every state, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. This year, they were up to 2,517 sites.

Locally, there were NPLD events in the Bankhead Forest and on Redstone Arsenal, but the event that I was involved with was one for the Land Trust of North Alabama. Toyota is a national sponsor of NPLD and this year the local Toyota Motor Manufacturing Alabama group teamed with the Land Trust to make improvements at the Monte Sano Preserve trailhead on Bankhead Parkway – one of the most popular trailheads in Huntsville. On a cold, rainy Saturday morning, 80 Toyota volunteers gathered to install 2 interpretive signs, repair benches, repair a wooden picnic table and install 4 new ones, install a dog waste station, update the environmental education pavilion, install a grill, repaint the kiosk and prepare it for new updated signage, reroute part of the Tollgate Trail, and repair 2 bridges.  I was there as a Land Trust volunteer, and honestly that day that mostly meant I ran to get folks tools or put things away when they were done with them. Those Toyota folks really did the hard work and got so much done!

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Despite the weather, I had a great time and I am so grateful to Toyota for donating time and money to this project.

Now, you might be asking – do I have to wait a year to get my volunteer on? Why no, no you don’t. As a matter of fact, the Land Trust has a very active volunteer program. I’m going to use the rest of this blog post to talk about how Chet and I volunteer with them, but check out their volunteer page for all sorts of other ways you can volunteer and who to contact about it.

Chet started us out. His first trail maintenance day was in November of 2011, when he joined a group that worked on pulling weeds and lopping branches on the Waterline Trail on Monte Sano.  He must have talked it up a good bit because a week or two later I joined him out at what was to become Harvest Square Preserve to help the Sparkman cross country team put in a trail there. That trail sadly got obliterated by the tornadoes that came through in 2012 (it has since been repaired), but that didn’t discourage us and we continued to come out to any trail maintenance day we could.

Trail maintenance can mean a lot of things, actually, requiring varying levels of know-how, strength, and effort. The Land Trust has a cache of tools for all the jobs, though you can also bring your own if you’d rather. They also provide gloves and water so really, all you have to bring is yourself!

annandale_trailheadThe easiest thing we do I think is to put up trail diamonds to mark the trails. Sometimes we’re replacing diamonds that have been defaced, swallowed by a tree, or attached to a tree that has fallen over; sometimes we’re swapping out diamonds when trails have been renamed or just marked incorrectly; sometimes we’re putting up diamonds on a new trail. The Land Trust provides the diamonds, screws, and a cordless drill (though Chet and I usually bring our own drill). You do have to know where the trail is supposed to be but usually you’d be with the Land Steward who could make sure you were marking the right thing. If you want your own maps, though, the Land Trust website has a good set of pdf trailmaps you can download or CartoMaps has a set of very good trail maps available for iPhone and Android for many Land Trust properties.  Also, one of the perks of becoming a Land Trust member is free access to the CartoMaps. Chet and I used them recently when we put up trail diamonds on Flat Rock trail and they were really very nice.

53dry_creek_overgrown Another fairly easy job is doing pure maintenance on an existing trail. On this kind of trail maintenance day, we lop branches that are crowding into the trail, pull weeds, and remove any fallen trees. It’s mostly pretty easy work. Honestly I think the hardest part is carrying the tools to the part of the trail that needs the work. Sometimes you have to hike in a mile or so to get to where you’ll be working. I usually avoid the heavy chainsaw (I’m a wimp) and stick to the lighter loppers. Sometimes the less used trails can get very overgrown, as you can see in the photo at the right.

wild_trail_markingMy favorite trail maintenance jobs by far though are the total re-route or brand new trail varieties. The current Land Steward, Brandon, has gone to a lot of training about how to site your trails to prevent or correct for erosion. Some of the trails created long ago have quite a bit of trouble with that sort of thing, resulting in big gullies or tricky footing. Brandon takes the topography into account and marks out a new route following a gentler slope for the troublesome piece of the trail.  He usually has gone ahead beforehand and marked out the new route with ribbons on the trees. Building a new trail is a very similar kind of thing, but to me it’s more exciting because I’m helping to make something brand new! The tools we use for this kind of work include the trusty loppers, cordless drill, and chainsaw, but also the Pulaski (Chet’s favorite tool), and the McLeod (sort of a glorified rake). This work involves the standard lopping and maybe some chainsawing, but in addition we use the Pulaskis to chop out roots or rocks that are in the way, and the McLeod to rake off the leaves and debris from the trail-to-be and then to tamp the dirt down to make a solid pathway. My favorite thing is walking back at the end of the work session on a trail that looks like it’s been there forever, but wasn’t there in the morning. Check out the before and after pictures below on a trail re-route on Monte Sano from August to see what I mean.



So if you want to get some exercise in the great outdoors while giving back to our community, I encourage you to join us for a trail maintenance day. The Land Trust usually puts up a Facebook post on their page about upcoming maintenance days, plus if you go to the volunteer page I linked above, there is contact information for getting on the email notice list. Depending on weather and other Land Trust obligations, they usually try to have a maintenance day roughly every month or 6 weeks. Hope to see you there!

Unfinished Business: the Flat Rock Trail

Back in 2012 when Ruth and I set the goal to walk all Land Trust of North Alabama trails in a single year, we set aside the Flat Rock Trail to be the culminating experience. Of the planned hikes, that would be the longest one, measuring 8.8 or 9.6 miles (opinions vary), and would require a shuttle. We thought we’d need to work up to that distance, since we were only doing short hikes at the time, and if we did it around the end of the year we might get good views.

Things were working out according to our plan, as we completed every Land Trust trail except Flat Rock, and we set Dec. 23 as the date on which we would finish our goal. chet_tollgate_trailheadWe started out from the Land Trust hiker’s parking lot on Bankhead Parkway, ready to throw down some miles. After a brief jaunt up to Panther Knob to knock that trail off the list, we made our way down to the Flat Rock trail, and after a little blundering around, found what we assumed was the trail and went on our merry way.

The Flat Rock starts on the west side of Monte Sano Mountain and winds north and east, then descends down the east side of the mountain, emerging on Dug Hill Road, after passing through Land Trust, Monte Sano State Park, and private lands. We walked the first mile or so on Land Trust property (we think, as there wasn’t a trail marker to be found anywhere) until we reached a Land Trust boundary sign, then pressed on around the north end of the mountain. endofthelineWe were feeling pretty good about the hike, but on the north end of Monte Sano we were brought up short by a sign on the trail: closed October-January. As I mentioned, large portions of this trail are on private lands, with access generously granted to hikers by the landowners. We respect landowners’ rights, and since this landowner didn’t want hikers on his/her property during hunting season, we turned north at the cell phone tower and walked through a neighborhood down toward Highway 72, calling our shuttle driver to give her the new pickup location. Though it was disappointing not to finish the entire trail, we had finished the Land Trust portion so we had met our goal. But it seemed a hollow victory, so we immediately pledged that we’d be back to finish the hike in its entirety. It was unfinished business.

Flash forward almost three years. After sitting out most of 2013 due to an injury, we started working back up to relatively long distances in our day hikes, and knowing that the window of opportunity would slam shut again in October, we planned a return trip to the Flat Rock on September 27 of this year. 2015-10-05-14-28-36The weather was good, we had a shuttle driver lined up, and we were motivated. In fact, I wanted to go for extra credit and do a little trail maintenance on the Land Trust portion of the trail. We were armed with a new Land Trust high tech benefit – the CartoTracks interactive PDF maps of the Land Trust properties. We thought this would be a good opportunity to give this a field test, and I had snagged some trail diamonds and directional arrows from the Land Trust’s land steward. The actual starting point of the Flat Rock trail has changed, so this was a good excuse for putting down the first and only official trail markings.

Though the weather was good (one day after a rain), there was a metaphorical cloud on the horizon. Ruth had been sick for about a week prior to the hike, and the lingering effects included issues with her back. There was some doubt about whether we should give it a try, but Ruth was determined to conquer the Flat Rock, so we set off hoping that maybe some fresh air would do us both some good.

We got started at the Land Trust parking lot a little before 10 am and traveled a blessedly short distance on the upper Toll Gate trail, which is in our opinion the worst trail on any Land Trust property. 01tollgateWe trudged about a tenth of a mile up the rocky former roadbed until we came to the newly-created Dummy Line trail, which takes off to the left and runs parallel to and between Bankhead Parkway and the Toll Gate trail. This new trail is a great improvement over this stretch of Toll Gate, which is the worst kind of annoying trail. Rocky trails are just part of hiking, but give me a trail that either has a bunch of slippery small rocks to scramble over, or a bunch of large pointy rocks to dodge. Toll Gate fiendishly blends the worst of both worlds to create a graveyard of hikers’ ankle bones and bikers’ teeth.

03flat_rock_first_diamondAfter a very pleasant two-tenths of a mile on the Dummy Line trail, we came to a flagged intersection where a trail took off to the left and descended to Bankhead Parkway. According to our CartoTracks map, this was the newly-established beginning of the Flat Rock trail. Out came the cordless drill, and behold: the first trail diamond ever on the Flat Rock trail!

This first part of the Flat Rock trail is the worst stretch, as you scramble down the hillside, cross Bankhead Parkway, and then scramble about 50 feet down a steep and slippery bank to a level track that continues northeast, paralleling the road. 04flatrock_descentWe thrashed around a little in this section, as the trail we were following down the bank continued more or less north, but the map clearly showed that the Flat Rock trail heads northeast at this point. We put up a bunch of diamonds and directional arrows to sort it out. Somehow in our confusion we turned off the GPS tracking on CartoTracks, but once we got it going again we knew we were on the right path.

This next part of the trail is on another old road bed, nice, wide, and level. The trail takes a slight bend to the left, then back to the right until you reach a cleared area that seems to be an ATV road and the end of the Land Trust’s portion of the Flat Rock trail. 07atv_roadWe were about at 1.3 miles into the hike at this point, and could stow the drill and trail diamonds and just get down to hiking proper instead of the stop-and-start of putting up trail signage. This junction is a little tricky, as it appears that you can just continue straight across the cleared area, but this will put you into a neighborhood. Instead, turn right and follow the ATV road until you see the trail re-entering the woods on the left.

Now that you’re off Land Trust property, to paraphrase Hamlet, angels and ministers of grace, defend thee! 08mudholeThe Land Trust portion of the trail was largely obstacle free, but once you get onto state park and private lands, the trail is largely unmaintained (except for much-appreciated efforts by SORBA). Though the trail is mostly level, there are large mudholes in this section, though they all have detours around the edges so you can keep your feet dry. Unfortunately, there are several blowdowns in this section of the trail, with hikeable workarounds, but at this point Ruth’s back was beginning to signal that perhaps this wasn’t the best rehabilitation choice.

The trail continues onto private property, usually marked quite prominently, so stick to the trail and don’t go wandering off! It crosses several creeks, almost all of which were dry on our hike, and offers some nice views of small bluffs on the right side of the trail. At about 2.75 miles we encountered a large downed tree that necessitated a very dodgy climb down and up a hollow. It wasn’t pleasant hiking, and I think it would be ever more miserable if you were pushing a bike. With the bushwhacking and constant supply of spider webs equipped with spiders across the trail, we weren’t making good time and Ruth was getting glummer as she wrestled with the desire to finish the trail and the desire to get her back onto a hot pad.

16eastern_box_turtleWe knew from our previous hike that there were some escape routes we could take to get off the Flat Rock, and that the best one was coming up soon. It was the place where we had been thwarted earlier, at the cell phone tower at the top of Hillside Road, and we decided we’d pause there, let Ruth stretch her back, and consider our options. She wasn’t looking like she was enjoying herself, though she did perk up when we came across this eastern box turtle. Well really, who wouldn’t?

When we got to the cell phone tower, we took a break and considered our options. We weren’t making good time and weren’t likely to, and we weren’t even to the halfway point of the hike. It was clear that Ruth wasn’t going to hike her way out of back pain, so we decided that even though we could probably finish the hike, it would be a miserable experience for both of us. Once again, we trudged down toward Highway 72 and had our shuttle driver pick us up on the way.

Damn you, Flat Rock trail! Though it’s disappointing not to finish it this time, it’s not going anywhere and we’re going to give it another shot when we’re both feeling well. We feel like we learn something every time we hike, and the lessons learned on this one were (1) don’t take on a big hike if you’re not confident you can finish it; (2) always have an escape plan (which we did); and (3) don’t be too proud to admit that you’ve reached your physical limits for the day, even if you don’t accomplish your goal. Hiking is supposed to be fun, but there are lots of stories of people who made a series of bad decisions that ended up leading to rescues (or worse).

So, the Flat Rock trail gets bragging rights for a few more months, but we’ll be back, and we will prevail!

Here’s a link to our GPS track for this hike.