Whenever 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. Here 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.
The 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. The 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. This 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. As 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. The 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.
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. Other 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.
Having 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. Well, 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.
After 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. As 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. So 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. We 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.
The 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. We 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.