Let’s set the scene: it’s 1983, and George Peppard is on my TV screen, contentedly chewing a cigar as he says, “I love it when a plan comes together.” Peppard’s catchphrase is one of the enduring legacies of The A-Team, a show in which a group of soldiers turned mercenaries for the downtrodden stand up for the plucky but outmatched underdogs and beat the odds on a weekly basis thanks to improbable but inventive schemes built out of equal parts of charm, scrap metal, and weaponry. In case you’re not familiar with the characters on this classic TV show, the core members are Col. John “Hannibal” Smith, the master tactician and leader of the gang (George Peppard); Templeton “Faceman” Peck, the charming con man (Dirk Benedict); “Howling Mad” Murdock, the wildly unstable pilot and comic relief (Dwight Schultz); and B.A. Baracus, the muscled-up driver with a fear of flying.
Fast forward to 2016, and our plucky group of underdogs are the public lands team, battling to preserve land for recreation, watershed protection, and wildlife habitat. Here in the Huntsville area, various groups are working together on what would seem to be an impossible task worthy of the A-Team: knitting together a trail system that will allow hikers to walk from Monte Sano down to Ditto Landing on the Tennessee River. They’ve made great progress, and recently made another big stride in realizing their plan, and we were eager to check it out.
The trail we hiked recently started on the west side of South Shawdee Road on Green Mountain and meandered its way through the woods across a creek, up a hollow, along one arm of Green Mountain, around to Alum Cave, down to two waterfalls, and up again for a view over Alum Hollow. We had joined a group of other Land Trust of North Alabama members for a members-only hike on the latest addition to the Land Trust’s protected tracts. This new parcel of 122 acres is the amazingly generous gift of Robert and Sue Kuehlthau, longtime Green Mountain residents who decided to preserve this piece of the mountain instead of collecting around $11,000 an acre for their property.
This guided hike was led by Mike Dalen, with his trusty sidekick Keb, and fellow Land Trust board member Sally Warden acted as a sweep to make sure we didn’t leave anyone behind. The trail starts about a half mile south of the turnoff to the Madison County Nature Trail on South Shawdee Road. There’s a wide shoulder on the west side of the road where you can park. The Land Trust plans to turn this into a more formal trailhead, but for the time being just pull onto the grass. The trail is marked with pink ribbons and has a well-established footbed. It’s not completely groomed and marked yet, but is easy to follow. Considering the Land Trust had had access to the property for only two weeks before the hike, the trail is in very good shape!
The as yet unnamed trail starts out to the southwest, then swings northwest and parallels the plateau edge overlooking Alum Hollow. At about .7 miles, the trail descends into a shallow hollow and crosses a creek that drains from Sky Lake at the Madison County Nature Trail. The creek was fairly shallow and only a few feet wide, but most folks had to try out the improvised bridge of three narrow logs lashed together. No one got wet! (Though I should point out that on the return journey, one hiker decided to try to cross upstream on a few handy-looking rocks — and he got wet.)
After crossing the creek, the trail heads uphill at a gentle slope to top out again and wind toward the southwest. Two things struck me in particular during this section of the hike: (1) when Huntsville Speedway is open, as it was during this hike, this will not be a quiet walk in the woods, and (2) there’s a nice open feel to this hike, as there are very few invasive plants such as privet or bush honeysuckle on this part of the mountain. The forest here is mostly young hardwoods, with some pine groves.
At around 1 mile, the trail again descends rather steeply into a hollow, with another creek draining from north to south. We could hear the sound of rushing water at this point, and at the bottom of the hollow we had a choice of continuing on the trail to the south, or to head for the creek and get a look at the waterfall. Following our leader, we stuck to the trail for a little longer as it rose to meet Alum Cave, an impressive overhang that’s more of a rock shelter than a subterranean cave. Mike told us that there have been archaeological digs at the cave and on the bluff above it, with plenty of evidence of Native American use, dating back to 9,000 to 10,000 years BC in some locations. The cave was large and dry, and could easily shelter a group twice our size. We were then given around half an hour to explore the cave, which is where the trail ends for now, and to backtrack and look over the waterfalls.
Yep, I said “waterfalls.” The second creek, which drains the southwestern portion of Green Mountain, cascades down around 20 feet into a wide, shallow plunge pool. A line of rocks makes it easy to cross the creek downstream of the waterfall, and you can squeeze along a bank of wildflowers and drop into another depression where a narrower secondary creek drops over a ledge to form a thin, ten-foot waterfall.
The footing is a bit slippery down to the second waterfall, but afterwards it’s easy to hop the little creek and follow the trail as it loops west and north to climb back on top of the plateau. There are more views into Alum Cave Hollow, though they are pretty similar to what you’ve already seen on the hike in. The trail then turns away from the rim and widens. But further exploration had to end there, as the half-hour time limit was up, so we returned to the junction of the routes to the cave and the waterfalls.
Wildflowers were a little scarce on the higher and dryer portions of the trail, but as is usually the case, they became more plentiful near water. We identified over 10 different species, with notable examples of fire pink, early saxifrage, violet wood sorrel, plantainleaf pussytoes, and a particularly fine display of Virginia spiderwort on the bank between the two waterfalls.
A half-hour wasn’t enough time to thoroughly explore the cave and waterfalls, so we’ll have to come back! But it’s a short, mostly easy hike. The GPS track shows this as a 1.3 mile one-way hike (we were having some GPS issues on the way in), so the round trip back to the parking area is only around 2.6 miles.
And now the scene changes again, with a slow dissolve into a wavy-edged fantasy sequence. The A-Team is in Huntsville working on a mission for the Land Trust. Hannibal is working on a grant to purchase a small parcel which he can swap with the county to combine with state land, which after getting an easement across wetlands that a developer can’t use, can be linked with other preserved properties. And he’s designing an armored school bus with a flamethrower on top to take out the honey locusts and trifoliate oranges at the Whitaker Preserve. Murdock is walking his invisible dog on the Wildflower Trail. Faceman is at The Ledges, charming landowners into donating land. B.A. is cutting a new trail with me, sunlight glinting off his gold chains as he wields two pulaskis in one hand and a rock bar in the other, shifting a huge boulder out of the footpath. He glares at me and barks, “Shut up, fool!” And the credits roll.