I am not a morning person. Not.At.All. There was a post on Facebook recently from Elephant Journal that sort of captures my attitude towards mornings:
A Poem for Mornings
Coffee, coffee, coffee,
Everybody shut up.
This is even more the case on a weekend morning, so when I suggested to my husband that I get up, on purpose, at 6:15 on a Saturday morning so that we could hit the trail really early, well, to say that he was surprised may be an understatement. But such is the lure of the Walls Of Jericho.
The Walls of Jericho is a 750 acre natural area within the Bear Hollow Mountain Wildlife Management Area in Tennessee and the Skyline Wildlife Management Area in Alabama. Between the two WMAs and the Nature Conservancy-held natural area itself there are thousands of acres of public lands in this area, but the major draw (at least for me) is the geologic formation that is the Walls of Jericho itself. I’ve seen it described as an amphitheater, a box canyon, or a gorge but basically it’s a place where Turkey Creek drains through 200-foot sheer rock walls into a rock basin. Whatever you call it, it is absolutely gorgeous.
First up, though: confession time. In 2008, Chet and I hiked the Walls of Jericho trail from the Alabama trailhead. I can see 7 years and a broken ankle in the rearview mirror, but I am in a lot better shape now than I was then. The thing that made the biggest impression on me that trip was how utterly exhausted I was trying to get back up the last couple of miles to the parking lot. As I remember it, there were some conveniently placed benches along that stretch and I used every single one. I even had to lie down flat on a couple of them to try to recover. It was awful! The other thing I remember about that hike was that we had just gotten some new hiking poles and were trying them out, and when we got to the end of the trail, Chet put down his poles to walk across a rock shelf to get a better vantage point for a picture, then slipped and fell so hard he broke his metal watchband and thought he’d broken his arm because he hit his elbow so hard. It was not one of our better outings and honestly I wasn’t impressed enough with the main attraction to be dying to go back. Turns out, there’s a reason for that but I’ll get to that in a bit.
This time, we decided to try the relatively new Tennessee trailhead as our starting point, which is just up the road from the Alabama trailhead. Though we opted to do an out-and-back on the same trail this time, it would certainly be a very doable thing to hike from one trailhead and end up at the other trailhead ,with only a short shuttle distance between the two.
To get to the Tennessee trailhead, just continue north on AL-79 for another 2.3 miles past the signs for the Alabama trailheads until you see the sign for the hikers parking lot on the left. It’s a little bit of a narrow entrance, but not too difficult to spot, and once you get in the parking lot is huge! On this morning there was nobody else around. Maybe because it was so flippin early!
The trail takes off from the very back of the parking lot, going straight through the woods for only about .1 mile before coming to an overlook. Just off to the right you’ll see an informational sign that tells you you’re looking at Little Cumberland Mountain, Pitcher Ridge, and Coppertop Point. The picture really doesn’t capture how pretty this view is!
From there, the trail goes towards the left along the edge of a bluff for about another .2 mile before it descends off the bluff through a ravine, then hugs another bluff for a bit as it winds through the forest and comes out on an old roadbed. The forest itself isn’t very remarkable and this time of year particularly it’s sort of drab. It’s a world of browns, except for stands of Christmas ferns that show a vivid green against the leaf litter and bare trees.
The trail crosses the old roadbed and begins to descend again. It starts getting a little steep then just keeps going down and down, steeper and steeper. If you know the movie “The Princess Bride” (and if you don’t WHY NOT!?), the only way to describe how steep parts of this trail are is to compare it to that hill that Princess Buttercup pushes the Dread Pirate Roberts down – the one where he slides and tumbles down for ages while saying “as you wish” – yeah, that one. Seriously, this trail drops 1000 feet in elevation from the overlook to Mill Creek. In one .5 mile stretch, it drops almost half of that – just shy of 500 feet in elevation. Crazy!
At the bottom of this section, we came to a trail intersection with the Mill Creek Loop Trail. This trail actually starts up at the overlook and loops the other way to meet up with the Walls of Jericho trail here. From this intersection back to the parking lot is 2.1 miles. To make it a loop you’d have to hike a little less than 2 miles of the Walls of Jericho trail to make a 4.a_smidge mile loop. It’s definitely something I want to come back to do!
The next stretch of the trail still heads mostly down but not quite as steeply. In this stretch we found what just has to be a marker tree. We marked a waypoint for it on our GPS and when we got home tried to look it up on the Mountain Stewards website, but I don’t think they have it listed yet. We’ve sent in the information to them so we’ll see what they think! There was nothing obvious it was pointing towards, but we didn’t go exploring so who knows!
Next up was the Alabama border. Before we cross over that line, though, I want to take a moment to talk about how well marked the trail was in Tennessee. This trail used white diamonds, and a short loop out of the parking lot used blue diamonds. The scheme seemed to be to use single diamonds for normal trail, double diamonds to indicate a sharp turn in the trail, and triple diamonds to mark the end of the trail. They marked the heck out of this trail! You could usually see at least 3 diamonds ahead of you from any spot on the trail – more if there were doubles or triples involved.
Alabama wasn’t so prolific in their signage. If you are lucky, you’ll spot their “hiking trail” logo, but they seemed few and far between and a couple of times both going out and coming back, we weren’t entirely sure we were on the trail and couldn’t for the life of us find a sign!
Once in Alabama, the trail does another of its “pretend to be a cliff” things and drops 200 feet in just under .2 miles. At the bottom, the trail turns into an old roadbed that follows along Mill Creek. Continue on straight down the road – don’t turn left and head uphill – and it’s a broad and easy path to follow all the way to the intersection with the trail from the Alabama trailhead. Just after this intersection, there is a footbridge that goes over Mill Creek, and then another .4 brings you to a second footbridge at the confluence of Turkey Creek and Mill Creek. My memory of the first footbridge is of a much bigger structure. This one seemed a little narrow and kind of wobbly to me. Chet thinks that the bridge we went over this time is a replacement. Right after the second footbridge, there is a clearing and a primitive campsite right next to Clark Cemetery. The cemetery has lots of very old-looking unmarked rough stone markers, a few legible old stones dating from the 1800s, and a couple of modern replacement stones.
After the cemetery, the trail follows a dry creekbed which branches off Turkey Creek for a short way until it joins back up with the main channel, then follows that all the way to the end. This part of the trail is probably my least favorite in a way. The footbed is narrow and rocky and there is a steep dropoff on one side. My whole “steep” scale is going to have to be recalculated after the first part of this trail, but there are a couple of spots which my maps tell me drop 50 feet in less than a tenth of a mile. Not “Princess Bride” steep, but still…. The cliffs along the side of the trail are pretty impressive though.
Finally, we got to the point where the trail descended into a bowl with a pretty cascade towards the back and shelves of rock with water flowing over it on the way out of the bowl. This is where confession number 2 comes in. This is where we stopped in 2008. Now, I could say that Chet’s slip and fall and hurt elbow made us give up and just head on back, but I’m pretty sure we thought we were “there.” We weren’t. This is pretty, for sure, but it’s not really the famous Walls of Jericho. It’s sort of the front porch for the Walls of Jericho.
This trip, we stopped here and ate our lunch and took some photos, but then we went up the steep little trail to the right of the cascade into the Walls Of Jericho proper. I think I’m just going to let the pictures speak for themselves:
As you can see in this last photo, most folks continue on up the canyon from the amphitheater. There you’ll find large holes in the limestone which I’ve heard sometimes have water spouting out of them. The day we were there all this area was dry, but the formations were still fantastic! This time we ended at the back of this canyon. It looked like the end of the road, though on maps you can see Turkey Creek on up above it. I’ve seen pictures with a waterfall at this last spot, but there wasn’t one when we were there. The pool at the bottom looks interesting though. It looked like it sloped steeply down and underneath the rocks.
After enjoying the view here, we headed back down the canyon, stopping to take one last picture from the top of the first cascade of the beautiful plunge pool before retracing our steps and hiking back out.
The hike out was uneventful, but boy let me tell you my legs, hips, and booty sure felt it making those steep climbs back up. We were surprised to find that we made the hike in almost exactly the same time going out as coming back in. There was less stopping to take pictures on the trip back, but we surely kept a slower pace climbing up those inclines!
When we made it back to the area near the overlook, we were rewarded with some beautiful views of fall color.
Some other sights along the trail included ferns, hepatica, interesting trees and rocks, a bird’s nest, and very colorful leaves.
So this time, I think we actually did it. I think we’ve finally been to the Walls of Jericho. And it was worth getting up extra early on a Saturday morning for, too!