Pennywort and Periwinkle: Hike to Devil’s Den

You know, the Devil sure gets around.  Life was hard for our ancestors, what with misfortune lurking in myriad forms, and even when things were going well, floods, drought, pestilence, or the government could swoop in at any time to ruin your day.  No wonder folks believed the Devil was always waiting nearby.

When you stop to think about it, there are quite a few geological features named for him.  Sometimes the origin of the name comes from folklore, where some odd landscape feature was “caused” by some mishap befalling the Old Imp.  Other times place names are transliterated from Native American names.  For instance, if the local natives believed a cave was inhabited by an evil spirit, they may have named it “Evil Spirit Cave” in their native tongue.  European mapmakers, not really having an equivalent, used the best-known evil spirit from their own Judeo-Christian experience, and so “Devil’s Cave” was born.  And maybe some places got devilish names because they were actually physically dangerous and it was a useful way to discourage youngsters from getting themselves into trouble (until they got old and bold enough for curiosity to outweigh their fear of Old Nick).

As you can tell from previous posts, we’re fans of Alabama state parks. We’re actually fans of all state parks, and given our location in north Alabama, we’re roughly 100 miles (as the crow flies) from over 20 state parks in Tennessee, Georgia, and Mississippi. 12hiking_markerWe haven’t been up to Tennessee lately, and with our wet weather we’ve been craving some waterfall hikes. So when I noticed that the Tennessee state parks were doing a series of ranger-led guided hikes across the state on March 19, and Tims Ford State Park had a hike to a little-known waterfall, the stars were clearly aligning.  And did I mention we’d be going to a place called the Devil’s Den?

There were a couple of drawbacks, though.  The weather forecast was iffy — 40% chance of rain in the morning.  Also, the hike started at 9 am, and we were roughly 90 minutes away, so it would mean we’d need a relatively early start.  But adventure beckoned, and fortified by coffee we were on our way.  The drive was uneventful, though as always we enjoyed seeing backroads Alabama and Tennessee, including our first trip through Belvidere, TN and a drive up Owl Hollow Road.  00a_marble_plains_bcWe arrived at the park in time for a quick visit to the restrooms at the newly-built visitor center, then made the short drive down Marble Plains Road to its end at Marble Plains Baptist Church.  There we joined a group of 24 other folks, plus Ranger Stacie, and started the hike.

But first, a word about Tims Ford State Park.  It’s northwest of Winchester, TN on Tims Ford Lake, a 10,000 acre reservoir created by damming the Elk River.  Usually when I think about the Tennessee Valley Authority damming rivers for flood control and hydroelectric production, my memories are of sepia-toned photos from the Great Depression.  Tims Ford isn’t from the dim past, though — the dam was finished in 1970, so it’s not yet 50 years old.  But like all such dams, it flooded numerous communities — like Owl Hollow, now living on only in a road name.  The park’s visitor center has an exhibit on the area before the building of the dam that’s well worth a visit.  This was our first visit to Tims Ford, and we didn’t really get a good chance to look it over.  It’s a huge park, spread over non-contiguous parcels around the lake, with two campgrounds, cabins, a marina, a golf course, and several hiking trails (one ADA-compliant paved trail included).  One of its campgrounds has just been renovated, and it hosts many activities and events throughout the year.  Alabama Legislature, take note:  while you are closing state parks, Tennessee is renovating and expanding theirs.  They are pretty much in the same economy that you are.

00trail_entranceOK, back to the hike.  Our ramble today was on the Ray Branch trail, which winds for six miles along the lakeshore (or maybe 13 miles — the trail sign and the park map are in disagreement on this point).  The trail starts just off the gravel road that winds behind the church.  01ranger_stacieThere’s a dirt track on the right side of the road, and just a few feet later there’s a trail junction.  Ranger Stacie gave us some background on the park itself and the trail, and then we were on our way.

This being an early spring hike, we were looking forward to seeing some wildflowers, and this trail didn’t disappoint.  02periwinkleAlmost immediately we passed through a glade full of periwinkle, a flower introduced from Europe often found at old homesites.  Ranger Stacie had prepared notes on the wildflowers on the trail, and throughout the hike she’d stop from time to time to point out wildflowers and ferns, identify them, and pass along an interesting tidbit (for instance, spicebush was also known as “boobie bush” because ladies were known to rub the aromatic flowers on, er, certain parts of their anatomy).   It’s a backcountry Chanel No. 5.

The trail descended toward one of the many arms of the lake, passing some examples of golden ragwort and cutleaf toothwort along the way.  Once the lake is in sight, it stays in sight as the Ray Branch trail winds along the lakeshore with very minor changes in elevation along the way.  We passed several other wildflowers along this stretch — spring beauty, common blue violet,  Christmas fern, and running cedar fern among them.

15mossy_footbedThis is a very pleasant, well-maintained trail for hiking and mountain biking. I don’t think I’ve been on a trail that had more moss on the footbed — practically along the entire length of the section we hiked. 13footbed_running_cedar One stretch was particularly nice, with a large patch of running cedar on one side and a view of the lake through the trees.  Ranger Stacie did a nice job of pacing the group, sometimes in the front of the pack, sometimes in the middle, and sometimes at the back, where she could answer questions from everyone in the group.

When we had gone about 1.5 miles, Ranger Stacie called out, “OK, only 10 more miles to go!”  07a_trail_split_to_ddThe adults exchanged knowing smiles, the kids gasped in dismay, and then we rounded a bend where a faint side trail took off to the right.  You’ll find a waypoint for the junction on our GPS track.  Devil’s Den isn’t on an officially maintained trail.  08devils_denIn fact, the faint trail pretty much disappears, but you’re in a small hollow and if you follow the rising bank on your right, you’ll come to the Devil’s Den, a cave that has mostly silted up.  There are a couple of narrow openings, but the cave doesn’t extend very far into the hill.  This area is particularly sensitive, so if you’re in a group try to walk in single file to lessen your impact on the landscape and plant life.  It’s definitely damper back there, and we saw the only rue anemone of this hike back by the cave.

We continued along the bank, and about 250 feet from the trail junction we came to the only waterfall in Tims Ford State Park. 11waterfallA small stream winds between the hills and drops between a narrow gap in the rocks, about seven feet below.  OK, so it’s not Victoria Falls, and we caught it on a day when its flow wasn’t at its peak, but it was indeed a waterfall, and you can easily squeeze into gap and have a close look.  But if you’re in a group with 27 people, you’ll have to wait your turn.

After enjoying the fall for a short while, we more or less retraced our steps back the Ray Branch trail and returned via the same route.  We enjoyed a chat with Ranger Stacie on the way back.  Her enthusiasm for the park was infectious as she told us about upcoming events, plans to improve the Ray Branch trail to make it a better mountain biking trail, and other ideas she had to bring people to the park.  17pennywortWe told her about our ice cream rule for identifying wildflowers, and she was quick to look up this example of pennywort that we found on the way back.  We owe her an ice cream, since we found far more than ten wildflowers on this trip!   Her competence and confidence makes her a great ambassador for her park.  It’s always a pleasure to be in company of someone who is doing exactly what she was meant to do.

We returned to the church, completing our hike of 3.6 miles, and drove back to the visitor center to get a patch to add to our daypack.  20red_tailed_hawkRanger Stacie had mentioned that there are some birds of prey there, and sure enough in a small building to the side of the visitor center we found a camera-shy great horned owl and Bella the red-tailed hawk.  Both birds are rescues and under the care of rehabilitation experts.  If you’re in the area around 4 pm, drop by for feeding time!

21route55_bbqBy then it was a bit past our feeding time, so we headed into nearby Tullahoma, after only one wrong turn, and took a recommendation from Yelp to try Route 55 Barbecue. It’s a tiny place with five tables inside and a few picnic tables outside.  We love trying local places, and Route 55 was hopping even though we had probably missed the lunch crowd.  We rewarded ourselves with pulled pork, and I heartily recommend the sweet tater casserole as a side.  I was eyeing the fried pies, but we had another hike on the docket and needed to be on our way.  Now I wish I had gotten one of those pies.  I could have said, “The Devil made me do it.”

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