After recovering from our hike in the Talladega National Forest on Saturday with Back Forty Brewery Trade Day Stout and salted caramel Moon Pies in front of a lovely fire, we woke refreshed and ready to explore some more. We filled up at the buffet breakfast in the Cheaha State Park restaurant (without Santa this time), then headed down to find another National Forest trail – the Chinnabee Silent Trail. This trail is named for the Creek Chief Selocta Chinnabee, who was an ally of Andrew Jackson in the Creek Indian Wars. Jackson named him Brigadier General and later called him “the bravest man I have ever seen.” After the war, Chinnabee and his family continued to live in their home near Munford, in an area now known as McElderry Station. Chief Chinnabee died in 1835 and there is a monument over his grave on McElderry Road where it enters into the state park. The “Silent” part of the trail name comes from the fact that Boy Scout Troop 29 from the Alabama School for the Deaf and Blind built the trail with the help of the National Forest Service between 1973 and 1976.
The whole trail is a 7.4 mile out and back trail that goes from a trailhead on Alabama 281 to the Lake Chinnabee Recreation Area and then back to the trailhead. This was a little more than we had time for this trip, but lucky for us, Cheaha Falls is only about a mile in so we opted to just go that far this time. We took a right out of the State Park on AL 281 and drove about 4.5 miles until we saw the trailhead parking lot on our left. The trail itself starts across the road and is well marked with white blazes. (The Hike America Alabama book we were using as our guide said the blazes would be blue, but apparently that’s changed since the book was published.)
The nice soft dirt trail leads away from AL 281 and heads back through woods of white oak and longleaf pine, then turns right and heads down one side of a small ravine. At .1 mile, it crosses a small creek at the bottom of the ravine. It’s a little tricky here as the trail looks like it continues more or less straight after the creek, but that’s not the right way to go. You have to make a sharp left after the creek and follow that trail back up the other side of the ravine instead. This would be a fantastic place for a sign or even a white blaze, but we didn’t see either. Lucky for us, the trail description we were following was pretty clear so we went the right way the first time.
After a slight climb up the other side of the ravine, the trail evens out again and continues through the trees. We saw nobody else on the trail on the trip out, so it was a beautiful and peaceful walk. The next landmark is at .5 mile where the trail crosses a dirt road and then it’s only another .5 mile to the fork that will take you to the base of the falls. The trail after the fork actually goes up first, to a clearing with a campfire. Out of the clearing, there are lots of little trails leading towards the river. No matter which one you take, you can get to good views of the top of the falls from a path that leads along the edge of the basin. To get to the base of the falls, though, head for the waypoint we marked on our GPS track to find the trail that leads down. You’ll be rewarded by a gorgeous fall that drops 30′ into a basin with a pool and tumbled boulders. We were the only people there that morning, so we spent almost an hour just soaking up the beauty and the solitude, taking pictures and even doing a little bit of yoga. Well I did anyway, I still haven’t talked Chet into trying it.
The hike back was uneventful, except that we passed some folks heading in. I guess we were just the early birds for a change!
We still had a bit of time before we needed to hit the road back home, so we decided to check out the CCC museum in the State Park before we left. The Civilian Conservation Corps, or CCC, was a New Deal program enacted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. It was a public works relief program that operated from 1933 to 1942 and put 3 million unemployed, unmarried men to work on unskilled manual labor jobs related to the conservation and development of natural resources in rural lands owned by federal, state and local governments. It also happened to end up training 3 million young men with valuable skills that were immediately useful when the US entered World War II. The beginning of the war was effectively the end of the CCC program, which was never intended to be a permanent agency. It was the most popular New Deal program and you can see CCC walls, trails, and buildings all over the US to this day.
Cheaha State Park benefited greatly from the work of several CCC companies. The records I could find were a bit conflicting, but as best as I could tell, Company SP-2 468 started work in Cheaha in 1933. SP-7 465-C started work in 1935, and a company that was either SP-17 2420-C or SP-17 2420-V also worked in the park until early 1942. According to The Civilian Conservation Corps in Alabama, 1933–1942: A Great and Lasting Good by Robert Pasquill, SP-17 2420-V was a white company of WWI veterans. According to CCC Legacy.org, the company at Cheaha starting in 1939 was SP-17 2420-C, an African American company. The state park website seems to have combined the two, listing it as SP-7 2420C and states that it was composed of African-American veterans of WWI. I’m not sure who’s right! In any case, the CCC companies stationed at Cheaha are responsible for much of what I think is charming about the park:
the caretaker’s cottage across from the store, still used as a residence (1935); Bunker Tower (1935); Redbud Pavillion (1935); Bald Rock Lodge (1942); Bald Rock, Rock Gardens, Pulpit Rock, and Lake trails; a second caretaker’s cottage and garage (1936) also still in use as a residence; cabins 1,2,3,4 (1935); the CCC reservoir (1934) once used to supply water to the park; cabins 5,6,7,8,9 & 10 (1936); the CCC primitive campground (the first camp in the park); the CCC Bridge (1935); Laurel Stone Pavilion (1937); and Cheaha Lake & bathhouse (1937). They also built the original road that led up to the highest point. This was mostly replaced with AL 281, but some parts of the old road still exist.
The museum is located in Bunker Tower at the highest point in Alabama, and holds all sorts of artifacts, photos, and even hand-written accounts from men who participated in the work at Cheaha.
After checking out the museum and chatting with the very friendly guy who was on duty there, we climbed the stairs up to the top of Bunker Tower to look at the views. I have to confess I enjoyed the view from McDill Overlook more, but if you can’t make that hike this is a good substitute.
After coming back down out of the tower, our visit to Cheaha was pretty much over. The drive out took us past one more notable thing – a possible marker tree. What do you guys think?
We enjoyed our stay at Cheaha so much, we are already planning a return visit. There are cabins and chalets to stay in, and trails to explore both in the park and nearby. I can’t believe it took us 23 years of living in Alabama before we made it there, and you can bet it won’t be another 23 years before we go back!