Hiking the Hellmouth

Like a lot of folks, Ruth and I like to start our day by catching at least a little bit of the local TV news.  When we first moved to the area, many years ago now, one of the local stations had a daily segment from their Shoals Bureau (that’s Muscle Shoals to any readers who aren’t familiar with north Alabama).  The odd thing about the reports from the Shoals was that they were always bad news.  I guess the personnel at the time were real fans of the “if it bleeds, it leads” news adage, and every day it seemed that someone was bleeding in Muscle Shoals (or elsewhere in the quad-city area) and this intrepid reporter knew all about it.  The Huntsville reporters would be doing stories on new businesses coming to town, parades, and cute kids with dogs.  The Shoals bureau countered this with murder, arson, and an ever-changing daily mélange of misery.  In a masterstroke, the reporter once had a story that started out as good news — “The elderly man reported missing last night has been found!” — cue astonished looks from Ruth and Chet at this unexpected bit of fortune from the Shoals — and then… “but he was dead.”

So we have had a little in-joke for years about the Shoals.  Whenever either of us mentions the Shoals, the other sings a little blues riff.  (You know the one: Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy.”  You might know it as the riff George Thorogood ripped off for “Bad to the Bone.”)  Because the Shoals is a town that knows the blues.  Other cities have their greenways and Arts Districts and funky boutiques.  The Shoals is the land of broken dreams, promises down the drain, the place where a laugh dies on your lips while still in its infancy.

So naturally, when it snowed and the roads cleared enough to get out and hike, I said, “Let’s go to Monte Sano — we’ll still see some snow there.”  But a little bit of quick research yielded the sad news that the Mountain Mist 50K trail run had been postponed to the day of our hike.  That meant we’d be fighting for parking, followed by dodging hundreds of runners who would be on the trails we planned to hike.  No offense is intended to the trail running community.  We knew we would be a nuisance to them, trudging along slowly and snapping photos, so we set our sights elsewhere.

We’ve been enjoying Johnny Molloy’s 50 Hikes in Alabama, and I thought we’d try a hike he described on the TVA Muscle Shoals Reservation.  Given the two inches of snow slowly melting in our back yard, we’d maybe get a few photos of snow in shady spots in the woods, or failing that, some nice river views.  We drove about an hour and fifteen minutes to the reservation, noting along the way that there was precious little snow to be seen as we headed west.  The Muscle Shoals TVA Reservation has quite a network of trails, as shown on this map.  Our planned route was a 2.7 mile loop, starting from the parking lot for the wildflower gardens.  Once you get to Wilson Dam Highway in the Shoals, look for a sign pointing to the nature trails.  You’ll be turning onto Thunder Road, technically in Sheffield, so if you plug that address into your favorite navigational aid, it will take you right to the parking area.  There’s ample paved parking on the left as you turn onto Thunder Road, and more parking is available if you continue past the first lot and bear to the left.  Both lots are close to a building with restrooms.

Our hike started out on the Old First Quarters trail, but we had a little trouble getting started properly.  The key here is to cross Thunder Road from the first parking lot and head for a paved trail.  13oldfirstquarters_trailheadThough trailheads are fairly well marked, we found the nomenclature to be a bit confusing.  There are paved trails, unpaved trails, and a jogging path that often looks like a two-lane road (which it probably was at one time).  After a false start, we figured out that the start of our particular hike was across the road from the parking lot.  We headed toward the Reservation Road trail, which is not a road, is paved, but is not the jogging trail.  See what I mean?  The proper start to the Old First Quarters trail is just to the left of the gates across the Reservation Road trail.

The trail quickly plunges into the woods, running to the left of a ravine.18ofq_trailbed  About .1 mile into the walk, a trail comes in from the right leading to the CCC shelter.  We skipped it for now, knowing we’d get to the CCC shelter soon enough.  Instead, 17ruth_on_ofq_bridgewe crossed the bridge and continued on for another .2 miles, at which point a bridge spanned the ravine to the left and the Rockpile trail continued uphill to the right.  At this point we had our first good view of the Tennessee River, and tucked into a shady spot off the right side of the trail there were just a few icicles clinging to the rocks.

12rockpile_icicles11riverview_at_ravine 10rockpile_steps_up

24river_view_from_pavilionWe took the Rockpile trail to the right, and climbed up the rock stairs to head eastward toward Wilson Dam.  Throughout this hike, we repeatedly climbed or descended stone steps set by the phenomenal men of the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.  This was a short but steep ascent, but yielded nice views of the river to the left.  21pavilionAt about .5 miles we emerged into a cleared area which was dominated by the stone CCC pavilion building.  This area is the Civilian Conservation Corps Park, which has several picnic areas, a playground, and the CCC pavilion itself.  Though the pavilion was built in 1935, it’s still in great shape (though it has had a recent renovation).

29rockpile_continuationOur hike continued eastward on the Rockpile trail, along a gravel path briefly before re-entering the woods.  At .8 miles the Fisherman’s trail merged in from the right, and the trail followed an old roadbed and began to descend toward the river.  A fenced area appeared on the right, with bricks and chunks of concrete visible along the trail.  33rockpile_structureThe trail is skirting the location of the now-demolished Wilson Steam Plant.  According to Molloy, the steam plant was built in 1918 to provide electricity for two nearby nitrate plants.  When Wilson Dam was completed in 1924, it took over the electrical generation duties, and the steam plant was eventually torn down in 1968.  There’s not much left of it, but there are still some parts of the structure visible from the trail.

The trail descends to the river, passing through an area with telltale cinders from the steam plant.  About 1 mile into the hike, the trail crosses a skimmer wall, a concrete walkway built out into the river to keep debris from getting into the steam plant’s water intakes.  There’s some tricky footing across some rip rap (bulldog-sized irregular rocks), but once you get to the skimmer wall there’s a nice view up and down the river.  There were a couple of guys fishing in the little enclosed pool.  Apparently Wilson Reservoir is known as the smallmouth bass capital of the world, but they didn’t get any action while we were there.  The Rockpile trail continues on all the way to Wilson Dam, but we turned around here to continue our loop.


After retracing our steps back up the bluff, past the park and pavilion, we descended again to the end of the ravine (at the Rockpile/Old First Quarters junction) and crossed the bridge to continue the Rockpile trail on the west side of the ravine.  40rockpile_to_westThe trail ascended sharply again up stone steps, arriving at the sandstone foundation of the Overlook, a CCC building from the mid 1930s, now gone. 42overlook_foundationThe Rockpile trail turns away from the river at this point and ends at the Jogging trail, which is a two-lane paved road here.  Before you reach the road, the Southport trail begins off to the right, though it’s not marked at this point.

45southport_foundationThe Southport trail is a narrow path past some of the original quarters of the men who built Wilson Dam.  Again, we noticed old bricks and tiles along the trail, and the foundations of one building were visible off to the left.  46powerline_pylonAt about 1.9 miles into the hike, the trail crossed a power line cut.  It was a little confusing here, as the trail isn’t explicitly marked (blazes are very much an afterthought in this reservation), but we walked across the power line cut and rejoined the obvious trail in the woods on the other side.  After descending for about .1 mile, the Southport trail joins the Jogging trail/road briefly, before crossing the road and again entering the woods at a well-marked junction.

48southport_signThe Southport trail climbs and winds through a shady area, skirting a ravine to the right, with the Gunnery Hill trail intersecting it twice along the way.  Southport was a thriving river town founded in the early 1800s, site of the southern end of the Florence ferry and cotton warehouses.  50southport_footbedThe Civil War, and the subsequent collapse of the cotton economy, doomed Southport.  The trail doesn’t have any historic markers, but we glimpsed signs of development and decay, like this collapsed bridge.  After about .7 miles, the Southport trail emerged into the wildflower gardens behind the restroom building, where it was easy to retrace our route back to the parking lot.  51southport_collapsed_bridgeWe were there at the wrong time of year to enjoy the wildflower gardens, but they look like they would be very nice in the spring.

All in all, it was a nice 2.7 mile loop.  We saw very little snow, even in the shady areas, and after we got back I looked up the snowfall totals for the area.  The official total for the Shoals?  Zip, zilch, nada.  I guess it had something to do with its proximity to a hellmouth.  06snow_on_christmasferrnsBut seriously, this little section of the Shoals was a treat.  It was very busy, with many hikers and joggers enjoying the trails.  The reservation has many trails to pick from so it would be easy to put together hikes of various lengths.  This TVA pocket wilderness is very pretty and convenient.  Though we didn’t get much of a look at the quad cities, clearly they have green spaces, art galleries, arts festivals, museums, and trendy little boutiques.  We saw cute kids with dogs, and new businesses, and I’ve seen evidence that they have Christmas, homecoming, and Veterans’ Day parades.  We’re here to report that we went to the Shoals for a hike — and we had a fine time.

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