Last Saturday, Chet and I spent several hours on a work crew with the Land Trust of North Alabama, cutting in a new trail that is to go from Oak Park up the mountain to connect with the Flat Rock trail. It was a lot of fun and I learned a new skill that is my new favorite thing to do – bench cutting. A bench cut is what you do when you have a section of trail that slopes across the footpath so it’s not level side-to-side. What I was doing was technically a partial-bench, where you cut into the slope on one side of the path and pull all the dirt over to fill in the lower side. It was very satisfying work, though I just might have been a little obsessive about getting it just perfect. Even before I got off the trail my back, shoulders, arms, and even ribs were starting to ache.
Since it was my turn to write the blog this week, it was my decision where we were going to hike on Sunday. I wasn’t sure just how sore I was going to be in the morning so I was trying to think of a trail that we haven’t done, that was relatively close (I had stuff to do!), and that was a medium length and not terribly difficult. One of Chet’s Christmas presents was the book 50 Hikes in Alabama by Johnny Molloy, so I decided to look in there for ideas. Many of the hikes described for North Alabama we’ve already done, but the Cathedral Caverns Double Loop entry (Hike #16 in the book) caught my eye. We’ve been to Cathedral Caverns State Park to camp and to tour the cave, but we didn’t do any hiking there. This hike sounded perfect – Cathedral Caverns State Park is less than an hour away and the double loop described in the book is 4.0 miles and moderate to easy – perfect! We woke up Sunday morning to an absolutely gorgeous day for hiking – a little crisp but with a lovely blue sky – and we weren’t even sore! A miracle! Or maybe it was the Advil I took before bed. In any case, we packed up and left about mid morning.
Both Chet and I grew up in East Tennessee so for years and years after we moved to Alabama, we made multiple trips every year back to visit family. Our route took us on US 72 East through Scottsboro and on to South Pittsburg so we know this road well. Cathedral Caverns State Park is off US 72, and we’d been there before, so we didn’t really plot a route to it – we just hopped in the truck and took off, confident we’d have no problems getting there. Well, yeah, about that — we apparently weren’t paying enough attention, and when we first saw a brown sign for Cathedral Caverns, we took the very next road. Turns out, that was Jackson County 5 and we drove on it all the way to New Hope before we realized it wasn’t the road we thought! Overconfidence bit us in the butt. We turned around, got back to US 72 and then took the right turn onto County Road 63, then in a couple of miles took a left onto Cathedral Caverns Road and drove right to the trailhead, which is a gravel lot just past Cave Road. Easy!
The hike itself starts across the road from the gravel lot, where there is an easy to spot post banded with yellow, blue, brown, and green. There are only four trails in this park and you could argue that they are maybe not terribly imaginatively named – the Blue Trail, the Yellow Trail, the Brown Trail, and the Green Trail. Or you could argue that the naming convention was really a work of genius because it made marking the trails a snap. All of them are very clearly marked with bands of paint on trees or posts so I don’t think it’s possible to get lost. Chet and I have snarked a little bit before about Alabama and trail signs but I take every bit of that snark back for this park – they did a great job! So starting at the banded post, we hiked about 200 feet up to the first trail junction. Here, the Blue Trail takes off to the left, but we put that off until later in the hike and forged ahead on the Yellow/Brown trail. This first loop took us along the lower slopes and then up to the crest of Mount Pisgah and back down again. There’s a Mount Pisgah that I’m familiar with in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina that tops out at 5,721 feet above sea level, but this Mount Pisgah only reaches a little more than 1000 feet above sea level – not such a daunting task. Lower down, the trail cuts through forests of hardwoods and cedars, interspersed with dry drainage ravines. This whole area is a karst region, so apparently most of the water just disappears straight underground and into the cave system that created Cathedral Caverns itself. We saw only one spot where there was any running water at all, though I guess it hadn’t been terribly rainy recently.
At .2 miles into the hike, there is another junction where the Green trail takes off to the left. This is where we’d eventually come back to once we finished the first loop, but for now we went straight ahead for another .1 where there was yet another junction. Here, the Brown trail takes off down the hill, while the Yellow Trail continues winding on up and around the eastern slope of Mount Pisgah until it tops out at the northern end at 1.0 mile into the hike. This section had the first of two pretty steep climbs, this one gaining 300 feet in elevation in less than a tenth of a mile. Not horrible, but my quads were tired and I was a little out of breath at the end of it! Otherwise, the trail went through a beautiful open hardwood forest and though screened by trees, you could see all around us the ridges of other mountains. After reaching the northernmost end of the mountain, the trail heads back south, passing a couple of pretty impressive sinks along the way. The first one is fenced off – I think it’s actually not on park property – while the second one is right next to the trail and I suppose you could climb down in it if you really wanted to. I did not (not a caver!) so we continued on to our next landmark – Beech Camp.
Beech Camp is described as a “flat” in the book, but honestly it didn’t look very flat to me! I was expecting a sort of bald or open field, but it’s just a slightly flatter wooded section where the Green and Yellow trails come together. It’s named for a large beech tree “in the flat” but I couldn’t pick out which tree it was. There is a fire ring, a couple of stump stools, and an open sided shelter there though, and it made a nice lunch spot for us. It was a bit windy and between the wind and just cooling off because I wasn’t moving I got a bit chilly so we didn’t stop for long before we headed on down the trail – the Green trail now since the Yellow ends at Beech Camp.
There’s one more steep stretch soon after Beech Camp, where the trail turns sharply left and heads straight up to the crest of the mountain, gaining 200 feet in about a third of a mile. The trail isn’t on the top for very long, though, before you start heading down again. This might have been my favorite part of this first loop. The trail leads along a rocky bluff with mountain ridges on the horizon, but glimpses of green fields down below as well. It’s a lovely spot. There’s one more steepish climb at 2.1 miles in, then at 2.3 miles it intersects the Green trail coming down from Beech Camp and it’s pretty much just straight down from there. We came to that Green Trail/Yellow & Brown Trail junction we’d passed originally, turned right and retraced our steps back almost all the way back to the starting point. The Blue trail starts right there at the very beginning, and that was the beginning of our second loop.
The Blue trail starts out as an old roadbed, so it is wide and easy to walk on. It also was surrounded by cedar trees which made the trailbed soft underfoot as well. Along the way, somebody (Boy Scouts maybe?) had put up really pretty identifying signs for some of the trees. I really liked the way they had the name of the tree plus an example of the leaf or needles carved into the sign. After about .4 miles along the Blue trail (3.0 miles overall) we were supposed to cross Cavern Cove Road. The ditch we had to jump across looked a little scary at first, but turned out not to be too bad. We then turned right and walked a short ways up the road before spotting the Blue trail sign on the other side and heading back into the woods. This stretch took us through a cedar thicket and along a little drainage or unnamed creek for a short way before we crossed on a concrete bridge and came out into a field.
This is the only point in the hike where it wasn’t obvious where we should go. The book said we were supposed to cross the field and Cathedral Caverns Road, then enter the woods on the other side and cross over the primary stream of the park. From the field, though, we couldn’t see an obvious blue marked post or any sign about where exactly we were supposed to “enter the woods.” We guessed that we needed to head a bit to the right, and for once we were right! Turns out, there’s probably a good reason for why we couldn’t see a Blue trail marker. We took this hike only three weeks after the massive rain and flooding this area had around Christmas. The nearby Paint Rock River reached almost 3 feet over flood stage in the days right after the rains, which dumped 8 or 9 inches of rain on some of the surrounding areas. Cathedral Caverns itself had what was described as “a river of floodwater” flowing into it. As we crossed the rickety little footbridge, we saw the remains of a nice new bridge sitting along the bank downstream and a couple of nice tall blue-marked posts jumbled on the bank as well. I’m guessing before the floods that submerged most of this part of the trail, those posts were visible from the field across the way. I’m not sure what to think of the current bridge – it looks pretty old and felt a little rickety but it got us across.
From here it was only about half a mile to where we had parked our truck. The trail leads along the creek and through the woods, with the ground sloping up steeply on one side. We could see that water had flowed right down the path where we were walking – I’m sure every step would have been underwater just weeks ago. The trail comes out into a clearing and then from there it’s pretty much just walk across the road and then across a field to get to the parking lot. I didn’t see official Blue markers, but we really didn’t need them. Back at the truck, we made sure to drive up to the welcome center and buy a Diet Dr. Pepper. We love our state parks, and knew that our visit today would get them nothing since there’s no entrance fee for this park, unless you tour the cave. I looked for a donations box, but didn’t see one; at least they’ll get a bit of profit from our soda purchase.
The book claims this hike is 4.0 miles, but our GPS logged it as 3.8 miles. It’s really pretty easy walking. I rated it moderate only because of those two or three steep parts on the Yellow and Green trails. If you’re looking for a nice walk a little off the beaten path, check out Cathedral Caverns State Park – you’ll not regret it.