Most people associate ice cream with summer – the cool creamy goodness just tastes best when it is hot enough outside to fry an egg on the sidewalk. Plus, that’s when I think of ice cream trucks patrolling the neighborhoods playing their cheery little tunes. I’m not actually sure ice cream trucks do any such thing anymore so I just might be dating myself a bit, but in any case, summer and ice cream just go together for most folks. However, in our family, ice cream goes with spring. The reason for this is that whenever we hiked with our girls, we had a standing agreement: they identify 10 plants, usually wildflowers, and we’d stop for ice cream on the way home. Sure it was a bribe, but it seemed to keep them (mostly) content. And spring is the best time for wildflowers!
Last weekend, Chet and I had gone up to Tim’s Ford State Park for a ranger-led hike. That hike started at 9 and was over before noon, leaving us the rest of the afternoon to explore in that area. I looked around on Google Maps the night before and noticed a place called Short Springs Natural Area only 30 minutes away from Tim’s Ford. I’d never been there before, never even heard of it, but the description included waterfalls (multiple!) and a wildflower trail, so I was excited to check it out.
After our morning hike, we chatted with Ranger Stacie a bit and she told us Short Springs was a beautiful place. Hearing from someone in the actual outdoors business that it was a cool place was great since you never really know when you pick something off the internet. She also gave us some lunch suggestions, so off we went to Tullahoma.
The directions I had found online said it was hard to find, but perhaps signage or GPS has improved since that was written because we drove right to it. The trailhead is on Short Springs Road (pretty good clue there) and though Waze tried to get us to actually turn left onto the trail instead of right into the parking lot by the water tower, it was really pretty obvious. We parked, checked out the kiosk and informational signs in the parking area, then crossed the road to the trailhead.
There are six trails to choose from, most of them loops, and they intersect each other so you have a lot of choices as to the route you take. Since it was afternoon already and there was at least some chance that it might start raining, we plotted a route on the trail system that would take us toward Machine Falls first, so at the first trail junction we turned right onto the white-blazed Machine Falls trail. The trail here is very level and goes through a mostly still winter-dry area of trees. There was a confusing unmarked intersection with something that was blazed blue, but we just continued on the white-blazed trail and that did end up taking us the way we wanted to go. In about one-third of a mile, there is a stream crossing over Machine Falls Branch, then the trail turns and goes along beside the branch for another .2 miles before coming to an intersection with the Connector trail. This trail just takes you over to the return part of the Machine Falls Loop trail. It might be a shorter way to get to the trail to Machine Falls, but honestly looking at the map I’m not convinced it would be. We skipped it and went on another .1 mile to a spot where we could hear the falls and saw an unmarked but well-worn path leading off the trail to the left towards the branch. Sure enough, this led to a spot at the very top of the falls. The view from here of the falls, the rock house above the falls, and the ravine the creek goes down after the falls was a pretty one, though we could tell that the view from below would be much more impressive. Chet snapped a few pictures, and then we headed on down the trail.
Maybe .1 mile past the top of the waterfall we came to a sign for Adams Falls trail, which we knew from the map we’d found was also a loop. This trail is 1.1 miles and the description I’d read hadn’t made it a must-see, but honestly it was one of my favorite parts of the hike! This trail starts out like the Machine Falls trail – sort of dry and brown through the trees with only a few wintergreen, Christmas fern, and maybe a wild rose – but about half way around it comes to Adams Falls Creek and at that point, the wildflowers began. We spotted huge batches of sweet Betsy trilliums – some not quite blooming yet but many in full bloom – spring beauty, round lobed hepatica, Virginia pennywort, toothwort, star chickweed, some kind of lily, rue and mayapple – all in a stretch of trail that was only a little more than .1 mile long!
Just before the trail crosses back over Adams Falls Creek and heads steeply uphill, there is another small side trail that keeps going straight along the creek. Don’t miss it, because this is the only place where you can see Adams Falls. The falls are really interesting. They just sort of pop out of the bluff to your left and stream down the rocks to the creek below. There isn’t a creek coming down from up above to feed them and they are off to the side of where Adams Falls Creek drops over a ledge. I wonder if what we saw was a wet-weather phenomenon only.
After taking in Adams Falls, we headed up a steep stretch of trail to continue the loop and get back to Machine Falls trail. Up high again, we were away from the trilliums, and I had just moaned a bit about no more wildflowers when we came to a beautiful patch of Quaker ladies (a kind of bluet) lit by a shaft of sunlight. Always surprising, this trail.
Soon we came to the intersection with Machine Falls trail again and headed steeply downhill again to get to Machine Falls Branch. Along the way we saw purple phlox and spiderwort just about to bloom along the edge of the trail. At the bottom, there is a log bridge over the creek, and then a sign points to a side “trail” to the base of Machine Falls. I say “trail” because it was really more of a rock hop up one side of the branch than an actual trail. We didn’t have any trouble with it or get our boots wet but I can imagine it might be tricky footing for some. Here again the creek turned out to be a fantastic ecosystem for wildflowers: we saw trout lilies, white trillium, and my very very favorite spring wildflower – bluebells!
As expected, the view of Machine Falls from the base is pretty spectacular. I sat and soaked up the view while Chet took pictures. It was a popular place that day, with several groups making their way up the branch to take in the falls, including a family with a curious dog and a toddler. Maybe my assessment of the difficulty of getting up that branch was off – they certainly didn’t seem to have any trouble!
After checking out the falls, we went back down the creek and then explored the Wildflower trail. Honestly, I think I saw more flowers on Adams Creek and that short stretch to Machine Falls than I did on this trail, though we did see quite a few beautiful examples of bloodroot. Towards the end of the trail, we could see a waterfall in the distance up Bobo Creek and what looked like a trail that headed that way so we couldn’t resist checking it out. This is surely an “unofficial” trail but it did go quite a way towards the falls before it petered out. We rock hopped to the other side to get a better view and found a similar trail on the other side which gave us good access to a pair of waterfalls – the one we saw from the wildflower trail plus a smaller one just to one side. Neither of these are marked on the trail maps I have seen. Chet took a few pictures, then we headed back to the last few steps on the Wildflower trail to rejoin Machine Falls trail.
Here, the trail goes pretty steeply up – steep enough that there are a couple of spots with stairs. At the top though the trail levels out and soon comes to the intersection with the other end of the Connector trail. Once again, we passed it up and continued until we got to the junction with the Busby Falls trail, which we turned right to take. The trail itself is unremarkable, at least at this time of year. It follows along a bluff over Bobo Creek, but not close enough so that you have views down to it very often. However after about a quarter of a mile you can hear the rush of water over falls off to your right, and a couple of well worn paths lead toward the edge of the bluff. Busby Falls are pretty, but you can’t really get very close to them. From their namesake trail, you are a good 90 feet above the top of the falls. Still, it’s a nice view and I suppose if you’re determined to get to the base you could just try to walk up Bobo Creek starting from the Wildflower trail.
We rejoined the Busby Falls trail and less than a .1 mile later came to the Laurel Bluff trail intersection. That loop is another 1.5 miles and since it was getting late we decided to put it off for another day and continued on back towards the parking lot. We passed a set of concrete steps and a concrete foundation of what used to be an old Boy Scout building, but otherwise the rest of the hike was pretty uneventful. Short Springs Natural Area is only 90 minutes away, not hard to find, has plenty of parking, and has 6 pretty well marked trails. I’d recommend it to almost anyone! Check out our GPS track here.
As we started the drive home, I pointed out to Chet that we had found way more than the 10 wildflowers required for ice cream. I remembered the Jiffy Dip that Ranger Stacie had recommended in Tullahoma. I think she was recommending it for lunch, but when we had driven past it on the way in, I noticed two things: 1) there was a big ice cream cone painted on the window, and 2) there was a Sonic right across the street. I figured if I was wrong about the Jiffy Dip, we could just go across the street to Sonic for our ice cream fix. We successfully navigated our way back and sure enough, they did have hand dipped ice cream. In fact, they listed 8 or 10 flavors. They had had a run on ice cream earlier in the day, though, and by the time we were there the only flavor they had left was vanilla. Now, I’m usually a chocolate kind of girl, but it was ice cream and I’d always rather support a small local business than a chain, so I ordered a cone. It was delicious! It might have been the best vanilla ice cream cone I’ve had in years. MMMmmmmm Spring….