Island in the Clouds: Cheaha State Park

Between a more-hectic than usual work schedule and just the usual Christmas shopping, baking, and decorating craziness I was feeling a bit stressed. Chet, bless him, must have picked up on that, because he suggested that for our weekend hike we should head to Cheaha and spend the whole weekend there. A weekend getaway – he didn’t have to ask me twice!

Cheaha State Park is about 3 hours southeast of Huntsville, south of I-20 near Anniston. That makes it a bit of a drive but trust me, it’s worth it! The  park was opened to the public in 1933, making it the oldest continually operating park in Alabama. It sprawls across 2,799 acres mostly on the top of Cheaha Mountain, the tallest point in Alabama at 2,407 feet above sea level. Though the restaurant, hotel and some chalets are more recent, the Civilian Conservation Corps – the CCC – built the observation tower, eleven stone cabins, Bald Rock Lodge, and Cheaha Lake at the foot of the mountain during the 1930s.

The drive was a little long and it was pitch black by the time we turned onto the Skyway Motorway (aka Alabama 281) and wound our way up to the park entrance. As we drove, we could sometimes see the lights of Oxford twinkling in the distance but mostly it was just dark. And quiet. We didn’t pass single vehicle! When we stepped out of the car, we realized two things: 1) it’s a lot colder when you gain a bit of elevation, and 2) it was WINDY. I’m not a good judge of wind speed, so I’ll guess it was eleventy million miles an hour. Sounds reasonable to me anyway. We were anxious to find our cabin and get settled in for the night, so we dashed in, registered and got our map to the cabin and the code to get in the gate (it closes at 8:00) and headed right off again. We had a little trouble finding the cabin. The road is one way around the top of mountain, but there are a couple of places you could turn off so we had to stop at those intersections to double check our map. Luckily nobody was on the road so it didn’t really matter and we soon sorted it out.

91cabin16We had rented the cabin they call the “Museum Cabin.” It is one of the original CCC cabins, I think, but upgraded to include modern niceties like electricity, a bathroom with a shower, heating and air, a mini refrigerator, a microwave, and a small kitchen sink. It has one queen sized bed and a sitting area with a fireplace. We were glad for the heating unit, but it was still a bit chilly so we decided to head back to the store and pick up some firewood, along with some snacks for later.

Santa_Mrs_ClausThe next day we woke up in time to go to the Cheaha Restaurant for their buffet breakfast before we set out on our hike. They were having a “Breakfast with Santa” event, so the place was busy with families. Kids wrote letters to Santa and sat on his lap, chatted with Mrs. Claus, and made pinecone birdfeeders. It was a fun atmosphere. Santa and Mrs. Claus apparently used to work at the park in the summers, too, but didn’t do so this year. They live in Gadsden and just came up for the weekend. As for breakfast, it was delicious and you could not possibly beat the views. Coming in as we had at night, we just had no idea how beautiful a place we had come to. I don’t know if Chet’s pictures, wonderful as they are, even do it justice.

After filling up on pancakes, grits, hashbrowns, bacon, biscuits and coffee, we set off on our adventure. Though there are several trails within the state park itself, we really wanted to walk at least a little way on the famous Pinhoti National Recreational Trail so we headed to the Cheaha Trailhead just outside the park in the Talladega National Forest. The Pinhoti is a 335 mile long trail that starts on Flagg Mountain to the southwest of Cheaha and ends about 70 miles west of Springer Mountain in Georgia, the beginning of the Appalachian Trail. Obviously, we weren’t going to hike all of that trail, so we plotted a route that took us on the Cave Creek Trail, then on the connector between Cave Creek and the Pinhoti, then another 4 miles or so on the Pinhoti before cutting over on another connector back to the Cave Creek trail near the trailhead. We were thinking this would be around a 7 or 8 mile hike. See our GPS track here for more details.

The Cheaha Trailhead is probably the fanciest trailhead I have ever seen in my life! It was lovely. I especially liked the tiles inset into the low wall that had images of the leaves you’d be likely to see on the trail.

After walking through the arch and past a nice information kiosk just past it, the trail proper starts. We had heard Cave Creek was unblazed, not as well maintained as the Pinhoti, but well defined. I wasn’t sure what to make of that, but what we found was a trail that had a few blowdowns (I’ve seen much worse), a few simple signs, and sure enough no blazes anywhere. Honestly though I don’t think it would be possible to get lost on Cave Creek Trail. It was obvious where you needed to go. Around 400 feet from the arch and kiosk, a sign points to  Cave Creek trail heading to the left, while another sign points up the hill to the Pinhoti. This is the connector trail that we would eventually come back down at the end of the hike. You could do this loop either way, though.

The trail passes through a lot of rhododendron tunnels, which must be spectacular when they are in bloom. Cave Creek Trail goes along the eastern flank of Hernandez Peak, with views out over Horse Creek and the Talladega National Forest. At 1.3 miles, there is a boundary sign for the Talladega National Forest/Cheaha Wilderness. In another .23 miles, the trail comes to a rock outcrop with a nice view. Just after this, the trail forks and both forks head uphill. We took the right fork, though either would work; they join up in less than .1 mile. After a short climb, the trail levels out again. About .2 mile later, we came across what we’re pretty sure is a marker tree. And then another .1 down the trail, another one. Both had noses pointing in almost the same direction – within a few degrees by our reading of the GPS compass. What do you think? Marker Trees or do we just want to find them so badly we’re seeing them everywhere? We’ll send location and compass information along to the mountain stewards and find out I guess.

Shortly after the marker trees, the trail comes to a campsite, then takes a sharp turn to the right and down the hill. There is a trail sign here to point you the right way. Just after this, I spotted a well-worn trail heading off towards a creek so we just had to explore. This is Cave Creek, according to maps I looked at when I got home. At this spot it cascaded down through rhododendron bushes and over rocks and was quite pretty.

After we’d scrambled around taking pictures of the creek for a bit, we continued on up the trail. It crossed over the creek and started a steady climb. This is the part of the trail that we found to be the least maintained. There had obviously been a windstorm at some point and, unlike the earlier part of the trail where you could see trees down off the trail, trees were down on the trail here. It wasn’t too hard to get around them or over them though. Less than a mile from the creek, at the end of a fairly steep climb, we came to a sign for the Pinhoti Connector. This was an excellent place to stop and have our lunch, though it was pretty windy so we didn’t sit around for long.

49pinhoti_turkey_foot_blazeIf you looked at our GPS track, you may have noticed that we did a little dithering here. We took the connector up to the top of the ridge, and then expected to find the Pinhoti coming in and running along the ridgetop. The only trail we could see from the top was blazed red and led downhill. The Pinhoti is blazed blue or with a white turkey foot symbol. Going down just didn’t seem right but we hiked down the red blazed trail a bit, thinking it might come back up. When it didn’t look like it was going to, we turned around and went back to the top of the ridge. We looked all around for another trail option – tramping through the brush to get up to the top of the ridge in case we could find that “ridgetop trail” there. No luck. In the end, the only trail we could see was the red blazed one, so we went back down it only to find that we had lost faith in it just yards from where it joined the Pinhoti. Boy did we feel silly!

The Pinhoti at this point was not at all what I expected. It was very rocky and I couldn’t see an actual trail at all. I navigated a path through the rocks from blue-blazed tree to blue-blazed tree.  That didn’t last for long though and soon the trail turns into a nice dirt one. Here, the Pinhoti travels along the western flank of Hernandez Peak and is pretty level.

 

We passed the Talladega National Forest/Cheaha Wilderness Boundary sign in about .9 miles, then came across the only “critter” we spotted on the trail, a garter snake we called “Stripey McSlithers.” I wasn’t paying enough attention and just stepped right over him, only to give out a girlie scream when he suddenly moved out from between my feet. He stopped on the rock right next to me though and stayed absolutely still while Chet took pictures of him. What a cooperative little guy!

52garter_snake

Excitement over, we continued on as the trail took a big curve to the left and up. Within half a mile, we came to the McDill Overlook spur. It’s a .25 mile hike out to the overlook but do yourself a favor and do not skip it! I think it was my favorite part of the whole hike. I’ll get to that in a minute, but first, the less scenic point of interest. About 400 feet down the trail to the overlook, we saw something blue in a clearing just off the trail. At first I thought it was a campsite, but I quickly realized it was the wreckage of a small plane. Chet had read that there was an old plane wreck somewhere on this trail, but we were thinking it would be bits of metal far off the trail. Nope. You can’t miss this.

57crash_debris

When I got home from the weekend away I just had to find out the story of this plane. With some Google searching, Chet and I discovered the story. A 50 year old man flying solo took off from Longview, Texas Dec. 26, 1972 heading for Marietta, Georgia. He was not qualified to fly with only instruments, but the weather turned bad and despite having had a weather briefing, he ended up flying through it, only to crash trying to go over the ridge. He did not survive. Sad story, especially with the crash happening the day after Christmas!

Moving on to a more pleasant subject though, the trail continues from the plane to McDill point, which has the most stunning view!

63mcdill_overlook

I think I could have sat on the rocks in the sun here for much longer, but we had quite a bit of trail left to cover so we enjoyed it only for a little while before heading on back up the spur trail to the Pinhoti again. From the junction, the trail heads down then steeply back up again around a shoulder in the mountain to bring you to yet another spectacular overlook, Hernandez Point.

69hernandez_overlook

From here, the trail continues at about the same elevation for about another mile, passing some interesting rock formations and a nice plaque.

Here we made our second navigational error of the day. We were getting a little tired and thinking we might be close to the connector back down to the Cave Creek Trail, so when the trail we were following went straight down the side of the mountain, we were thinking we’d end up at that intersection. Nope. We were on a rough roadbed. The trail did not continue across and there were no signs to say which way to go. We picked the direction that felt right and walked a short ways, but the GPS map didn’t look right. We were moving away from where we needed to go, it looked like. So we turned around and went the other way on the road. That thing was STEEP, and it just led us right back up close to where we’d been, but not actually on the trail. So we guessed where the trail would be and just cut through the underbrush until we found it. From there, we retraced our steps to what we are now calling “Misdirection Point.” Coming up to this rock outcropping, the trail looked to us like it went right. Silly silly people – I guess we should have spotted that tiny blue blaze way off to the left of the rocks where it looked like it was just a dead end….

The trail heads steeply down just past that blue blaze and then levels out a bit. Turns out we still had about .8 mile to go before we found the connector back down. We crossed a dirt road a couple of times, climbed up to another overlook with an even more impressive plaque, and then finally found the connector trail back down to Cave Creek Trail and the trailhead.

In the end, our 7 or 8 mile hike ended up being about 8.4 miles – not too bad for all the wandering we did I guess – but I was pretty tired!

We headed back to the state park determined to check out the museum at the entrance. Chet was thinking it was the CCC museum, which we thought would be really interesting. There is one in the park, but that’s not the one we went to. This little museum building across from the store is an Indian artifact museum. It’s small – just two small rooms full of cases of artifacts collected by one man. There was a lady there to answer questions, but honestly we were pretty tired and didn’t spend much time there.

As we were on the way back to the cabin for a rest before dinner, a couple of deer crossed the road. We always joke that our deer pictures are usually just the rear view as they run away, or just the back end with the head behind a tree, but these little guys were much more cooperative. The older one crept across first, with the younger one bounding after.

After a hot shower and a bit of a rest in the cabin, we headed back to the restaurant for dinner. We were there pretty early so at first were the only customers. We got to talking with the waitress who told us that since the state parks have had to cut back due to Alabama’s budget issues (don’t get me started), Cheaha is only open on the weekends during the fall and winter. What this means is that the full time staff ends up working their 40 hours over 3 days. Our waitress for breakfast was still there through the dinner shift, and the woman who was manning the museum we visited in the afternoon had been the hostess on duty during the Breakfast with Santa that morning. Man, those are some long hours!

Finally, we went back to the cabin and had another go at a fire. The first night’s fire had been a bit of a disappointment but this time we had collected some twigs and small sticks to help us get started and ended up with a great fire. We had also picked up some treats for ourselves at the store – Back Forty Trade Day Cuban Coffee Stout and salted-caramel moon pies. Those and a fire – the perfect end to a great day.

93beer_and_moonpie

2 thoughts on “Island in the Clouds: Cheaha State Park

  1. We love to hear about new people discovering Cheaha. It is one of our favorites and in fact, we love it so much that we publish a guide to the wildflowers of the park which is sold at the camp store (all proceeds go to the park). The next time you go to the park try taking Pulpit Rock Trail which is very close to the cabins. It is short but worth the pain of coming back up from the trail to the parking area. We take 2 vehicles so we can do thru hikes rather than out and back. One of the nicest for this is to park at the paved area on 281 for Turnipseed Camp. Take the Chinnabee Silent Trail down to Cheaha Falls and then all the way down to Lake Chinnabee where your other vehicle will be waiting for you. This trail is only around 5 miles or so but it will take you longer because there are so many spots you will want to stop and explore around Cheaha Falls (you can follow a path down to the base of the falls) and in the area of Devil’s Den. There is an area with a lot of debris still after the Great Flood a couple of years ago but it is not very large and then you end up following Cheaha Creek down to the parking area at Lake Chinnabee. There is a 2 mile loop trail called the Lakeshore Trail that is quite nice but depending on the water level you may not be able to ford Cheaha Creek to reach it. You can drive down to the primitive camping area on the Lake and take that half of the trail as an out and back. The other trail we love is to park at the Cave Creek trailhead and take that trail to near the connector but bear left and follow the Nubbin Creek Trail. It is about 7 miles and you have to go to Shinbone, turn right on a small road by the church (it will become a dirt road) which will take you to the Nubbin Creek Trailhead to leave your other vehicle. Another good out and back trail is to take the Skyway Trail at Adam’s Gap and follow it in for about 2 miles to Hubbard Creek and then back out. There is a large camp area there right beside the creek. Congratulations for finding the Cheaha gem and hope you go back for many outings there.

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