The Gleaming Taper’s Light

“I’m not getting up until there’s coffee,” said my bride, glaring balefully at me.  Fair enough.  It was seven a.m. on a Sunday, the day after we had put in a fairly hard shift with many other volunteers at a Land Trust of North Alabama trail maintenance event.  We were too knackered, and had too many other things on the schedule, to put in a hike on Saturday afternoon, and the forecast for Sunday called for rain.  So the deal was that I’d get up at my usual early hour, check the forecast and radar, and roust Ruth if there was a chance of getting in a short hike.

After a dose of coffee, we were on the road to Elkmont to try to get in a short segment of the Richard Martin trail, but conditions kept vacillating through drizzle, rain, light rain, general murky oppressiveness, and back to drizzle.  We decided to do a little scouting for a kayak trip we’ll make later this year, then headed back to the house.  On the way back, as soon as we left Limestone County and entered Madison County, Ruth pointed out that the rain had stopped and the skies seemed a little clearer.  My theory is that Elkmont has its own microclimate, probably due to goat flatulence.

Speaking of goat flatulence, let’s turn our attention to the Alabama Legislature.

I believe Mark Twain got it right when he wrote, “No man’s life, liberty, or property are safe while the legislature is in session.”

Paul Grist State Park
Paul M. Grist State Park

Our representatives on Goat Hill didn’t cover themselves in glory last year, requiring two special sessions to pass a budget that resulted in the loss of five state parks (though happily, two of them have re-opened under local government management) and curtailed dates of operation and services at many other parks.  As news of the proposed cuts spread, one state senator even proposed eliminating the Forever Wild land acquisition program to pay for keeping the parks open, drawing this rebuke from yours truly.  I wasn’t the only one to complain, and the bill was withdrawn.

Oak Mountain State Park
Oak Mountain State Park

See, here’s the problem with state park funding in Alabama — the state doesn’t provide any.  Well, if only that were the problem.  Not only does the state not provide any funding, it actually takes away the money that the parks raise through admission and user fees.

Desoto State Park
DeSoto State Park

I’m exaggerating a little — the state does provide a small amount of funding that supports the Parks Division of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (the folks in Montgomery) — but the bulk of the budget for operating the parks is raised by the parks themselves.  Some parks operate at a profit; other parks operate at a loss, but overall the system is self-sustaining.

However, in our recession-era lean budget years, revenues are down, expenses are up, and political fortitude is conspicuously absent in our elected representatives.  As a result, the legislature has transferred over $30 million from the parks over that past five years to the general fund.  Reserve funds have been exhausted, and so cuts had to be made.

And here we are in the 2016 Legislative session — any lessons learned?

Rickwood Caverns State Park
Rickwood Caverns State Park

Well, stuff hasn’t gotten any cheaper, there’s no windfall money to prop up the budget, and there’s still no appetite for raising taxes in one of the least-taxed states in the union, so it seems likely that we users of the parks will pay our fees only to see our parks close and the money thrown down some bottomless hole.  And the parks can’t do any kind of planning with the money that they raise, because they’ll likely be mugged by the Legislature again.

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Buck’s Pocket State Park

But wait!  To quote Oliver Goldsmith, “Hope, like the gleaming taper’s light, adorns and cheers our way.”  And from the most unlikely source: Senator Clay Scofield, the author of the bill last session aimed at gutting Forever Wild.  I must give Senator Scofield credit — he learned his lesson, and he really seems sincere in his efforts to keep the parks open.  He and Representative Kerry Rich have introduced bills that will prohibit the Legislature from redirecting funds raised by the parks.  SB 260 and HB 249 are identical, and call for a constitutional amendment that will ask voters to approve the following proposal:

“Proposing an amendment to the Constitution of Alabama of 1901, to prohibit any monies from the State Parks Fund, the Parks Revolving Fund, or any fund receiving revenues currently deposited in the State Parks Fund or the Parks Revolving Fund, and any monies currently designated pursuant to statute for the use of the state parks system from being transferred for another purpose other than the support, upkeep, and maintenance of the state parks system.”

36terrell_conn_footbed
Lake Guntersville State Park

Knowing our Legislature, I read over the entire text of the bill to see if there’s some secret drawback, but it seems legit to me.  While Alabama will still be primarily depending on the users of its parks to fund them, this constitutional amendment would enable the Parks Division to do long-range planning for renovations and improvements.  This bill is a modest start.  If it becomes law, it simply puts the measure to a public vote, which would presumably happen in November 2016.  If the constitutional amendment passes, it wouldn’t be binding until the 2017 budget, so no matter what happens now the Legislature is probably planning one last robbery for the 2016 budget.  Things will get worse before they get better.

cathedral_room2
Cathedral Caverns State Park

But if you’re a fan of our state parks, and you should be, ask your legislators to support SB 260 and HB 249.  Given the widespread support for Forever Wild, it may seem that these bills should sail through the session, but don’t count on it.  The theme for this session seems to be unearmarking, which is an effort to give the Legislature more leeway in how it builds its budgets (largely by reducing the amount of money earmarked by statute to go to mental health, old age assistance, “general welfare,” and aid to Confederate widows).  That’s not to say that there won’t be any money given to those worthy causes (except possibly for the Confederate widows), but around $400 million will be freed up to be spent as the Legislature sees fit.  SB 260 and HB 249 are swimming against the tide, so it’s important to speak up in support.  Legislators really do pay attention to those phone calls and emails.

04restaurant_view
Cheaha State Park

If you’re looking for an easy way to show your support, you can use this form letter from Conservation Alabama.  If you’re more old school and want to compose your own message, you can use the Find My Legislator tool to get contact info.

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Monte Sano State Park

In late breaking news, SB 260 was successfully passed in its committee hearing on February 23, and is now awaiting a date for its final vote in the Senate.  HB 249 is having its committee hearing on February 24.

Let’s all light a candle and cheer our way!

Peering back through time: Kings Chapel Loop

I am an unrepentant genealogist. I wonder sometimes if it’s because I am an only child raised far away from extended family that I am so compelled to dig out as much information as I can about all of my ancestors. That’s probably reading too much pop psychology into it, but it does sort of fit. After all, I’ve amassed a family tree with almost 2000 people in it! My engineer brain likes categorizing by things like “earliest to arrive on this continent,” like my 10th great grandfather, Robert Reynolds who almost certainly arrived in Salem, Massachusetts in 1630 on one of the boats in the Winthrop Fleet. While not as early, or as famous, as the Mayflower group, the Winthrop Fleet  was a group of 11 ships led by John Winthrop (first governor of the colony) that carried about 1000 Puritans plus livestock and provisions from England to the newly formed Massachusetts Bay Colony over the summer of 1630.  I also like to see how far back I can take a family line – knowing full well that a lot of it is guess work. I have an Edmund Shepherd in Surrey England in 1475 – not sure how legit any of that part of the line is, but it’s fun to follow the trail and think “maybe!” Dates and statistics are interesting to me, but honestly, it’s a lot more fun finding cool little stories. I love stories like the one of Jacob Schoff, my 5th great grandfather, who came to Boston from Germany in 1752, even though he knew the organizer was probably a crook who would swindle the passengers out of their savings and bring them to the colonies as indentured servants. Even though his father and brothers all went elsewhere instead of risking this fate, Boston it would be, no matter what the cost – all because the woman he wanted to marry, Elizabeth, was already in Boston! I could go on and on, but that’s the thing about family histories. Usually, unless you’re famous or have a really cool story – they’re not interesting to anybody but you.

Except … somewhere along the way I have come to love not just my family history, but putting puzzle pieces together to find out about the family histories of total strangers. I think it’s the puzzle solving aspect that gets me. So when I was looking for my next hike and came across a description of “Graveyard Hill Waterfall Loop” in Guntersville State Park I thought – “Perfect! A graveyard and a waterfall! Two things I love.” Well, as it turns out, we’d already been to the “waterfall” which honestly is more like a couple of small boulders with a tiny trickle of water, so we skipped that part of the loop and only did half of the hike described in Johnny Molloy’s 50 Hikes in Alabama as “Graveyard Hill Waterfall Loop.” Our route would take us through the Kings Chapel Graveyard though, so I was pumped.

We actually started the day by going to TVA’s Cave Mountain Small Wild Area, but that was a short hike so we had plenty of time to continue on to Guntersville State Park for a second adventure. It was a beautiful day for a drive through the countryside, and the state park is only about 30 minutes from Cave Mountain so it didn’t take us long to make our way to the park entrance. From the main entrance, the road tees into Aubrey Carr Scenic Drive. We took a left and drove just a short ways to the first parking lot on the right. Knowing the funding situation for Alabama’s state parks, we were happy to drop some bills in the fee box before we headed across the road to start on Kings Chapel Trail. This trail looks like it started life as an old roadbed so it is a very comfortable walk through the woods for the most part. If it is a clear day and you have pretty good eyesight, you might be able to spot a glimpse of Lake Guntersville through the trees. About half a mile in the old roadbed looks like it peels off to the right while the trail goes up steeply straight ahead.

That one had me huffing and puffing a little bit, but it was a short stretch and soon enough, Kings Chapel Cemetery came into view. While I don’t believe it is still used, this large cemetery has obviously been cared for over the years. Many of the graves are old worn stones, with no writing legible anymore. However, someone – perhaps the park service – has put up crosses with any information that is known – “Infant” or “Unknown” are the most common for these. There are also simple stones with still-legible hand lettered names and dates, as well as more elaborate carved tombstones and some modern stones that obviously were recent replacements for older markers. Most of the graves seem to have been from the 1860s to the early 1900s.

Chet and I wandered around the graveyard for quite a while, and one pair of graves in particular caught my eye. There was a fairly elaborate carved stone for “Estelle Atchely Presley,” wife of “Terrey Presley.” She was born in 1913 and died in 1929. The dates are what got me. This girl was only 16 years old when she died, but was already married. We wondered if maybe she died in childbirth, and sure enough, two stones over, there was a stone for “Roy Presley” infant son of T. R. and M.E. Presley, born and died Dec. 12, 1929.  Estelle’s death date was Dec. 28th, 1929, only about 3 weeks after her son died. Probably too late to be directly connected with issues during childbirth, though, so I wondered if there was more of a story there. When I got home, true to my genealogy obsession, I hit ancestry.com and did some digging. Here’s what I found: M. Estelle Atchely (first name either Mary or Minnie) was the daughter of Thomas Atchely Jr. and Julia Ann (Brock) Atchley. Thomas was the son of Thomas Atchely Sr., who served as a private in the Civil War in the 1st Alabama Infantry Regiment, and Alsey Jane Gipson. Thomas Jr. was born in Guntersville, and lived most of his life in Marshall County, working as a farmer. He married Fanny Hill in 1888 and they had 4 children. Fanny died at the age of 38 in 1897, one day after giving birth to her second son. Five months later Thomas Jr. married Julia Ann and they had 8 children. Estelle was the last. I don’t know exactly what happened to Julia, but she died when Estelle was 3. The family moved around a lot – they lived in Oleander in 1900, Wakefield in 1910, and Summit in 1920 – all little communities in Marshall County near Guntersville. That makes me wonder if he was maybe a sharecropper. He didn’t have a farm of his own to work or else he wouldn’t have been moving so much. It looks like Thomas Jr. married a couple more times, but there were no more children that I could find. Nonetheless, with a family of 12 children, possibly no mother, and a father who was probably just scraping by, it’s no wonder Estelle married young. The final piece to the puzzle, though, is heartbreaking. On “Find a Grave” someone has made the notation that Estelle died of 2nd and 3rd degree burns after her dress caught on fire when she sat too close to a heater.

The graveyard is the end point for Kings Chapel Trail and so to continue on the loop we took the well-marked Terrell Trail on around Graveyard Hill. This part of the trail is not too steep and winds through open woods. At about 1.7 miles in, the trail heads steeply down. Not quite “Princess Bride Crazy Steep Hill” steep, but steep enough that I was glad I was going down and not up! Right around here was were sharp-eyed Chet spotted another potential marker tree. We marked a waypoint for it on the GPS and took a picture of its bearing like we always do, but this time we couldn’t really tell what it might have been pointing to. If you’re interested, check out our GPS track and see if you can figure anything out. We’d love to hear about any ideas folks might have.

After the marker tree, the trail continues on down the flank of Graveyard Hill until it comes to a small shallow unnamed creek with a boardwalk across it. Chet and I had thought that there would be a spur trail leading to an old Terrell homesite right about here so we kept our eyes peeled. Soon enough we came to a side trail going off to the right with a large bridge over a ditch straight ahead. Unfortunately there was no sign here to indicate what we should do, but right felt like the right choice for the homesite so that’s what we did. Turns out that was the Terrell Connector trail and led over a couple of long boardwalks to a field. Nice in its way, but humph. Apparently any spur trail for the homesite was farther back on the trail and we missed it. I’m consoling myself with the thought that there probably isn’t any structure left there or it would have been marked more clearly on the map. Anyway, we retraced our steps back to the bridge and across the ditch, which turned out to lead to a clearing right on the edge of Aubrey Carr Scenic Drive a little east of where we started out.

 

The Terrell Connector trail continues across the road and leads up a hill for a short ways before coming to a trail junction. At a tee intersection, Terrell Connector goes to the left while Taylor Mountain trail heads right. We wanted to complete our loop so we went left. This part of the trail is mostly level with one creek crossing over a pretty impressively framed little bridge. In less than half a mile, though, we ended up back at the parking lot.

All in all, this was a very nice almost 3 mile hike. For me, the most interesting part of the hike was at the beginning in the graveyard, but even if you aren’t as interested in that kind of thing as I am, this loop is scenic and not terribly difficult. I’d highly recommend it!

 

Cave Mountain: Under and Over

mincepieWhenever there is a choice of cake or pie for dessert, I’ll usually opt for the pie.  Other perfectly reasonable people will opt for cake.  But whichever way your preference lies, I bet we all wish we could say, “both, please!”  Well, if you’re trying to come up with a short hike that’s not too far from Huntsville, and someone wants to see a cave, and someone else wants to climb a mountain, you can say “both, please” and head for Cave Mountain.

Cave Mountain is a TVA Small Wild Area in Marshall County, on the Guntersville reservoir.  03smallwildarea_signHere in the South we’re blessed with comparatively cheap electricity brought to us by the Tennessee Valley Authority, another program from the folks who brought us the New Deal back during the Great Depression.  In our rambles, we often poke our heads into old cabins and think about what a hard life it was for the homesteader.  Just to get the basic comforts — a warm house, food on the table, clothes on your back — meant hours of labor, measured largely by sunups and sundowns.  The impact of rural electrification in the South cannot be overstated.  The large-scale economic effects continue to this day, as cheap electricity is attractive to industry.  On the smaller scale, try going without electricity for a little while and you’ll appreciate everything that it makes possible in our modern lives.   TVA changed lives and landscapes, and along the way amassed a fair amount of land.   Many of the TVA facilities offer recreation opportunities, including over 150 miles of trails for hiking, biking, and horseback riding.    Ruth and I did a hike over in Muscle Shoals recently, and enjoyed the experience so much we wanted to try another hike on TVA property.

Cave Mountain is around an hour from Huntsville.  We popped on down Memorial Parkway south of the river, hung a left on Union Grove Road, and then a left on Snow Point Road, following the sign to Guntersville Dam.  After around two miles, Snow Point Road descends sharply and crosses a creek.  A gate is visible across the road ahead, and a sign points to a parking lot on the left.  The lot is spacious, with room for around 20 vehicles.

02trailheadThe online map of the Cave Mountain trail indicates that it’s a 1.2 mile loop, but the kiosk in the parking lot has a more up-to-date map.  The ground truth is that there are some options now in how you tackle this hike.  There’s a longer loop that winds around the flanks of the mountain, and another branch of the trail that climbs the mountain instead of running along the base of a bluff.    04rocky_footbedThe trail starts next to the kiosk and proceeds around 100 yards into the forest, at which point it splits.  Pie or cake?  We knew we were going to hike every option (both, please!), so we decided to start by hiking clockwise and headed to the left.  The trail rose modestly on a dirt footbed with exposed rocks underfoot and visible on either side.  05blazes_tree_signThis part of the trail ran right against the western border of the Small Wild Area, marked with red blazes.  Several tree species are identified with blue and white signs throughout this hike.

At approximately .2 miles into the hike, you arrive at another split.  This is a subtle one.  One choice is to turn left and descend.  Another choice is to continue more or less straight ahead.  Both are blazed white, like the rest of the trail, so we assumed the left turn would comprise the outer loop so we headed downhill.  07descent_to_powerlineAs it turns out, both branches meet up at the same place about .1 mile later, and the trail then turns left and descends sharply to the northwest into a power line cut.  10ice_flowerThe descent is a bit steep in places, and hasn’t been engineered so there are a few places where footwork can be a little tricky.  This part of the trail was just getting some sunlight on it, and we noticed quite a few ice flowers.

After reaching the power line cut, the trail turns right and passes between a slough on the left and a bluff on the right.  Almost immediately we came across a stairway to nowhere.  We couldn’t tell if it was something under construction or a ruin, but clearly our path continued onward.  We continued along the foot of the bluff, which isn’t blazed in this stretch, but the trail is pretty obvious.

11pylon12staircase_to_nowhere16trail_along_bluffbottom

18cave_mtn_caveIn about .1 mile from the power line cut, it’s time for pie!  In other words, you’ve arrived at Cave Mountain Cave (yep, that’s what it’s called).

Cave Mountain Cave is a former Civil War potassium nitrate (saltpeter) mine  previously known as the Long Hollow Nitre Works.  We broke out the trusty cell phone flashlight apps and meandered  through the graffiti-filled cave around 900 feet into the mountain before the ceiling lowered enough to require crawling.   21cave_mtn_cave_crawlOther online sources say the cave continues onward for quite some distance from here, but from this point onward you’d better have spelunking experience and equipment.  I’m not a spelunker, but I’ve done enough cave exploring with experienced spelunkers to recognize that there are a lot of ways to get hurt or dead if you don’t know what you are doing.  There are dangerous drops in this cave past the crawling section.

20cave_mtn_cave_passageHaving said that, just walking back into the cave is a lot of fun.  The surface is pretty even by cave standards, and the ceiling is over seven feet in most places (though there is a stretch where it drops to a bit under six feet).  There are no formations to speak of, and every surface is covered with graffiti, so this might not be a good place to take young readers unless you want to do a lot of explaining.  We did the cave cliche thing and turned our phones off at the end of the cave, and yep, it was pitch black.  The cave is around five feet wide, so it’s never a tight squeeze.  Ruth is a little claustrophobic but didn’t have any anxiety during our jaunt.  23cave_mtn_cave_viewoutWell, not about the enclosed space, anyway.  We did spot a few bats — four clustered together, and one outcast bat out by himself.  Given that the ceiling isn’t that high, they were in arm’s reach.  We left them alone, of course, for multiple reasons: (1) bats can carry rabies; (2) they were sleeping, so bothering them would just be rude; (3) we didn’t want a “bats in my hair” situation.  So we left them to do their part in building up another lode of crystallized bat poo (aka saltpeter) for when the South rises again.  One other thing — many caves in the South have been closed in the past few years to protect bats from the spread of white nose syndrome, a deadly infection spread by a fungus.  There were no notices indicating that the cave was closed, at the cave or at the kiosk, so we figured it was OK to go in.  On previous hikes we’ve passed caves that were closed, and always stayed out to do our part in preventing the spread of the disease.

24marker_treeAfter emerging from the cave, we almost immediately came upon a marker tree!  I guess we were so excited by the cave that we didn’t notice it at first.  After getting its coordinates and getting the bearing of its “nose” we continued our walk along the base of the bluff past the tupelo gum trees in the slough.  26tupelosAs we passed around the eastern side of Cave Mountain, we could hear frogs croaking in a nearby pool.    At the easternmost part of the hike, the mountaintop branch of the trail came into view on our right.  We decided to complete the outer loop, then continue on around clockwise to start from the other (western) end of this branch trail.  29wild_catSo we continued to the left, winding slightly downhill, where we glimpsed this “wild cat” off the trail in the woods.  At about .9 miles into the hike, we returned to the first trail junction and continued looping around.

We walked quickly back to the second trail split, the subtle one I mentioned several paragraphs above.  We went straight this time, and to our surprise found ourselves back at the place where the trail plunges down toward the power line cut.  30trail_to_topWe were expecting that the trail would instead turn right and head uphill, so we puzzled for a while, then backtracked to the subtle trail split.  That’s where a sharp-eyed Ruth noticed a third option, climbing up the hill in a hairpin turn behind us.  The online map and kiosk map show the trail split, but don’t reflect that there are actually three choices in that junction instead of two.  Pie, or cake, or ice cream?  We took the hairpin turn to the right and started a steep but short climb up Cave Mountain.  It’s about a 100 foot elevation gain in around .1 mile, with few switchbacks, so it’s a little quad-burner there for a while.

35dam_view_cavemtnThe climb was worth the effort.  We had a great view of Guntersville Dam to the northeast, noisily discharging water on one end.  There were good views of our modest mountains in all directions, with Lake Guntersville shining behind the dam.  34cave_mtn_footbedattopWe enjoyed a bite of lunch, then wound back down the eastern side of Cave Mountain, with a few more switchbacks than there were on the way up.  The total distance of the section of the trail that passes over the top of Cave Mountain is .4 miles.  After rejoining the outer loop, we retraced our steps back to the parking lot, noticing along the way that our “wild cat” was no longer there, but we could hear its engine snorting away nearby.

Given that we did a little thrashing around, our total distance for this hike was 2.0 miles.  You can have your pie and cake, as we did, or skip the cave or mountaintop to reduce your mileage as you see fit.  This hike was actually an appetizer for us, since we had another hike planned in the area, so we broke another eating rule and had our dessert first.  Ruth will write about the main course next week, though I hope she won’t use such a tortured metaphor.  Maybe I shouldn’t blog when I’m hungry.

The longest way ’round: Natural Well Loop

When I was a snarly teenager, my mom used to stay the most annoying things. One of my least favorite was “If you put things away, where they belong, when you have them …” followed by a very pointed look at whatever it was I’d laid down on the counter or the table or wherever. It used to drive me nuts. If I could get away with it, I’d stomp off to my room and slam the door, leaving the objectionable object where it was. Often this was accompanied by “I’ll put it away in a minute mom, JEEZ!”  Usually, though, I had to very begrudgingly pick the thing up and put it away right then and there. Oh the injustice!  Another annoying thing she used to say was “the longest way ’round is the sweetest way home,” usually said in a super annoying chirpy-happy voice while I was stuck in the back seat of a car – hot, motion sick and miserable. What?!? This didn’t even make any sense to me. Presumably home is the place you’re wanting to go in this scenario, right? Of course everybody knows that you’d want the fastest, shortest way to get there. Stupid parents.

68mountain_mist_trail_runThis last saying of hers kept running through my mind on our latest hike. Last time out, we had  planned on taking another one of the hikes from Johnny Molloy’s 50 Hikes in Alabama – #12 Natural Well Loop – but decided not to because they were running the Mountain Mist 50K Trail Run that day. We’d heard that something like 400 people had signed up so we figured parking would be a nightmare plus all the trails on our proposed loop were part of the Mountain Mist route so we’d either be stepping off trail all the time to let the runners pass, or even worse, holding somebody up and ruining their race! We ended going to Muscle Shoals instead, but the idea of going to Natural Well again stuck with me and I insisted we do it this weekend.

The last and only other time I’ve hiked to the Natural Well was years ago. We parked at the Land Trust parking lot on Monte Sano Boulevard across from the entrance to the Burritt Museum and took the Natural Well trail straight to it. Coming from that direction, Natural Well trail is an old roadbed and so it was a fairly short and easy hike. I remember being astounded that such a cool geologic feature was so accessible and yet I hadn’t even known it was there! However, in the intervening years, a landslide across the trail that was initially just a bit of an annoyance has eroded to the point where it’s really pretty hard to get across. At least it was around 2014 when we walked that way to see if we would be able get through. I was still working my way back to full mobility from my broken ankle so coming to the landslide area and just seeing a jumble of rocks uphill and downhill and pretty far across made me decide my ankle wasn’t up to it.

This time we were going to take the long way around, starting at the picnic area in Monte Sano State Park and piecing together parts of four trails to make a figure-eight loop. From the parking lot, the McKay Hollow Trail is a gravel path down one edge of the picnic area towards the overlook. It’s easy walking, but only for a little ways. Just past the stone gazebo at one end of the overlook, the trail bears to the right, past the “DANGER HIGH BLUFF” sign, and then right over the top of Blue Springs Falls. This is a beautiful fall that drops about 15 feet by my estimation. It often doesn’t have a lot of water, but the day of our hike had a nice little flow going. After crossing the top of the falls, the narrow and rocky trail does a switchback to a better vantage point for the falls, then continues on down through McKay Hollow. There are some great overlooks on this higher part of the trail – including a spot with these mysterious man-made circular structures, and one just past that overlooking a huge slab of rock that looks like it’s cleaved off onto the bluff shelf below. Just after the big rock, the trail does another steep switchback to get down onto a shelf along the hollow, before heading very steeply down again. This section had some pretty big “steps” down – rocky places where it was not quite rock-climbing, but not something I was able to just walk down – I had to use my hands as well as my feet to make it. I kept thinking about the Mountain Mist runners – how on earth does anybody run 50K – longer than a marathon which is already more than I could ever manage –  on terrain like this? Crazy, and yet the official race results web page listed 296 people that ran at least some part of it, and 258 of those finished the whole thing. Wow – just wow.

Part way down this steep stretch, we came across a young man who had rigged up a slack line across the hollow. A slack line, or high line, is webbing stretched between two anchor points that somebody walks across – sort of like a tightrope but with a lot more give. He was resting between walks so I didn’t get to see him cross, but I chatted with him a bit while Chet was still scrambling down the hill above me. He said that he’d love to make a living traveling the world doing highline, but he wasn’t good enough yet. He had fallen twice already that morning and had scrapes on his arms to prove it. The mom in me was appalled, but he assured me that he had a safety harness and that it had saved him – he hadn’t hit the jagged rocks below after all. Ah youth – he was probably rolling his eyes at my momness, but he was very nice about it all. We wished him well and continued on our way.

Just below, at about .8 mile into the hike, the trail levels out a bit at Blue Spring and then McKay Hollow trail continues across Blue Spring Creek while our route, on Natural Well trail, peeled off to the right. In only .1 mile, though, there’s a junction with the Arrowhead trail.  We took off to the right on Arrowhead, and would end up at this junction again near the end of the hike. This part of the trail was an easy walk – especially after the scramble down McKay Hollow. The path was pretty level, with a rocky bluff above us. I spotted a deer that must have thought he was part-mountain goat scrambling up the rocks at one point, but of course he was too hidden in the trees for a good picture. At 1.3 miles in, the trail crosses the rocky stream bed of McKay Branch and heads back up the other side of this little hollow until you reach a four way intersection where Arrowhead meets up once more with Natural Well trail. We’d come to this intersection again later in the hike, but for now, we turned right and headed uphill again on Natural Well.

 

This is another pretty steep section where the trail takes a number of switchbacks and crosses over dry stream beds before finally topping out at the main attraction of the hike, Natural Well. This pit cave is reported to go 190 feet straight down, then slopes to a total of 325 feet underground. From there apparently there is an 1150 foot horizontal passage that can be explored if you get a permit from the State Park office. I’m not a caver, so that part of it doesn’t really appeal to me. Just the hole in the ground and the beautiful layered rocks in the opening were enough of an attraction for me.

34natural_well

We stopped here briefly for lunch and some pictures, but then headed on up Natural Well trail towards the hikers’ parking lot on Monte Sano Boulevard. This is the section of the trail that is an old roadbed, so the going is pretty easy after a brief climb up past an old CCC building. Chet did some research and discovered on old Huntsville maps from the 1930s that the CCC camp for the men who worked at the state park was right here. That’s why the road was there, and the stone building is probably the remains of some utility building for them. The old road hugs a long rockhouse along the base of a bluffline for a stretch and then levels out. I was wondering if we’d have to cross that blasted landslide area before we got to our next trail junction with the Arrowhead, but nope – we found the Arrowhead at 2.8 miles with no landslide in sight.

Though we were not on a roadbed anymore, the path here is a narrow but easy one that wanders gently downhill through the woods. I saw another deer in this stretch – well only “deer booty” this time as one bounded away just downhill from us. This section also had more smoketrees in one place than I’ve ever seen in my life. I’d never heard of smoketrees before we came to Alabama, but the American smoketree is native to rocky mountain soils in Kentucky, Tennessee and northern Alabama. It’s small and has very dark gnarled branches. Frankly usually I have to look twice to make sure it’s a smoketree and not a dead grape vine. One giveaway is the orangy-yellow color of the heartwood. They’re not rare, I guess, but you don’t find them on every trail so they must be selective about where they grow.

21a_smoketree

Another fun feature on this stretch of the trail was a marker tree. We always love looking for these when we’re out hiking and were excited to find one on this hike. We dutifully took a compass reading and marked a waypoint on the GPS so we could report it to the Mountain Stewards organization. About .5 mile farther along, the trail splits with the bike trail going straight ahead and across a beautiful little branch. We couldn’t resist checking it out for a bit before we went back to pick up the hikers’ trail, which leads to an old cistern. Here, water rushes out of the mountainside and then collects into the cistern – a low cement walled structure that just pooled up the water a bit before letting it flow on down the hill to the beautiful cascades we’d just visited. While we were here, it occurred to us that maybe this is what the marker tree was pointing to, so we marked a waypoint on the GPS and checked it out when we got home. After loading in the GPS track, Chet plotted the angle between the marker tree and the cistern. We had put the waypoint for the tree actually on the trail, instead of right at the tree, but we had used our iPhone compass app to check out what direction the “nose” was pointing – 161 degrees. The angle the map tool calculated from the tree waypoint (remember it a couple of yards away from the tree) to the cistern waypoint was 158 degrees! We’re almost positive that tree was pointing to the location of the spring that the cistern was built around.

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From the cistern, the hikers’ trail rejoins the bikers’ trail to become just the Arrowhead trail again. At 4.1 miles in, the Arrowhead continues on but we took a .1 mile connector trail called the Big Cat Hill Bypass as suggested by the book. I’m glad we did, too, because this next stretch, nice as it was, did sort of seem to go on forever. From the Big Cat Hill Bypass junction, it was another 1.4 miles to the four way trail intersection of the Arrowhead and the Natural Well trails. This time, we took the only path from there we hadn’t yet been on – turning right to go downhill on Natural Well. This part of the trail might have been the most challenging of the whole hike. The footbed was muddy and steep and narrow. Again, I can’t imagine running down it, and I think it was on the Mountain Mist route! The trail bottoms out at the lowest point on the hike at McKay Branch. We rock hopped over the streambed then headed back up along Blue Spring Branch – another steepish segment with another stream crossing – before finally coming back to that first trail junction of the Natural Well and Arrowhead. At this point, we’d completed the figure-eight of the hike, and just needed to retrace our steps out past Blue Spring itself and back onto McKay Hollow trail and the switchbacks up to the falls and the picnic area.  We did have a bit of a scare though – just as we were starting up the hollow there was a mighty crash and then the sound of something heavy careening down the steep hillside. I was really afraid I’d see our slackline friend tumbling down the hill and breaking bones, but it turned out to be just a big rock, dislodged while he was trying to get his rigging down.

The hike back up was pretty uneventful otherwise. It was just as steep going up as going down – Chet said his arms hurt a bit the next day from hauling himself up some of those rocks on his poles. We saw quite a few people enjoying the day – a few runners, a lady hiking with her dog, a family with a couple of young kids climbing the big boulder, and a mom and two not at all snarly teenaged girls.

 

Naturally, time has changed my perspective a bit and I now see that both of Mom’s once annoying sayings had wisdom I was blind to at the time. It is easier to put things away when they’re in your hand and that has the added benefit of avoiding some of the frantic “where did I PUT MY KEYS” melt-downs I’ve been known to have. As for the “longest way ’round” concept that I thought was so stupid, I get now that it was shorthand for the idea that things you have to work harder for are all the more satisfying when you finally reach them.  So it was with the Natural Well trail for us. As we were walking on the Big Cat Hill Bypass Chet and I both agreed that this set of trails might be our favorite hike we’ve ever taken in Monte Sano State Park. And you know what? If our objective had been to just get to the Natural Well, and we’d been able to go the easy way, we would have missed so much – the falls, the slackline dude, the deer, the marker tree, the beautiful unnamed cascade and the historic cistern. The longest way round was, after all, the sweetest way.