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.

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