“Call me Ishmael.”
Actually, no — call me Chet, and call my wife Ruth, for those are our names. But like Herman Melville’s Ishmael, I bring you a tale of mania and mayhem, a battle between two harmless hikers and an immortal monster known as the Flat Rock trail. Twice have we done battle with it, and twice we have been turned away, short of our goal of walking the longest continuous trail in Madison County. But on a recent May morning, we once again sailed forth to take on the Great White Trail a third time.
By a quirk of curriculum, I somehow managed to get through four years of high school English and an actual degree in English literature without the the pleasure of reading Melville’s Moby Dick. Still, I know enough of the general plot to perceive parallels between Captain Ahab’s mad pursuit of the great white whale that took his leg and our mad pursuit of completing a (mostly) unmarked trail that winds through Land Trust, state park, and private property with no consensus on where it begins or ends or how long it is. Our first attempt to hike the Flat Rock trail ended at a section on private property that was closed during deer hunting season. Our second attempt ended at the same place due to health issues. So you could say we have an obsession with this trail, since it represents unfinished business for us. But on this cool but clear May morning, we felt that the stars were aligned for a final attempt to complete the Flat Rock — we felt fine, we weren’t in hunting season, and we had a shuttle driver (the gracious Katie) lined up to pick us up at the end of the trail. So we hit the trailhead around 10:40 full of confidence that today would be the day.
“The warmly cool, clear, ringing, perfumed, overflowing, redundant days, were as crystal goblets of Persian sherbet, heaped up — flaked up, with rose-water snow.” Moby Dick, chapter 29
We chose to begin our hike at the recently-completed Oak Park trail, which connects to the Flat Rock from Oak Park on Oakwood Avenue in northeast Huntsville. This is the newest Land Trust of North Alabama trailhead, and it’s a trail that we’ve worked on a couple of times. Oak Park is a neighborhood on the northwest side of Monte Sano Mountain, and the residents took a very proactive role in proposing the trails and in creating them. Thanks to their initiative, it’s now possible for folks in their neighborhood to hike across city and Land Trust property to connect with other Land Trust trails at the Bankhead Trailhead about 1.5 miles away.
It was a beautiful, crisp spring morning, and we made quick work of the first part of the Oak Park trail. Our measurements are based on a start point in the Oak Park parking lot, as opposed to the actual trailhead kiosk, in case you’re playing along on our GPS track. The Oak Park trail meanders for .9 miles to its intersection with the Flat Rock trail. The footbed was hard-packed dirt, and the elevation change is around 200 feet in the first .6 miles, but the trail ascends via switchbacks so the climb isn’t that steep.
At .6 miles the trail splits, and is marked by a cairn. The Oak Park trail continues uphill to the right. The trail to the left, Buzzard’s Roost trail, is a .36 mile arc off the Oak Park trail that we had heard features a wet weather waterfall. Buzzard’s Roost was marked with ribbons at the time of our hike, and wasn’t quite as well-engineered as the Oak Park trail, so perhaps it’s still under construction. Almost immediately after the split, there was a dry creekbed that suggests there might be a nice little cascade to the right in wetter weather. Shortly afterwards, the trail jogged to the left and passed along the top of an embankment, and the canopy opened up a little in this section. About .1 mile after the split from Oak Park, Buzzard’s Roost crosses Dallas Branch and tees into a gravel road. Though the intersection was not marked at the time of our hike, the trail continues to the right and descends to Dallas Branch, then turns away steeply uphill. It’s worth the climb, though, as after about .1 mile a bluff appears to the right of the trail and you can walk right to the edge where Dallas Branch tumbles off in an approximately 20-foot waterfall. Or so it appears, anyway — the branch didn’t have quite enough oomph to slip out of its upstream pools, so we made a mental note to revisit this trail after a rain. After admiring the dry waterfall, we continued on the trail for about another 100 yards, where it teed into the Oak Park trail. We turned left and walked uphill on the Oak Park trail for about .1 mile before it terminated in the Flat Rock trail. Well, that’s what the trail diamonds said….
“If the gods think to speak outright to man, they will honorably speak outright; not shake their heads, and give an old wives’ darkling hint.” Moby Dick, Chapter 133.
The Flat Rock trail is not the easiest path to follow. As I mentioned earlier, it starts on Land Trust property, passes onto private property, enters another Land Trust parcel, crosses into Monte Sano State Park, passes through multiple tracts of private property, crosses into Land Trust property, continues on to private property…well, you get the idea. Loved by few, claimed by no one, and maintained as an afterthought, Flat Rock is an orphan trail. The Land Trust maps used to show only its northwest end, and it loops in and out along the edges of the Monte Sano State Park trail map that is handed out at the park store. SORBA Huntsville, the off-road bicycling group, has a version of the map that shows the entire route, though this version of the map is seven years old. On our first attempt to hike it, there were no trail markings whatsoever, other than occasional random ribbons and a few numbers spray painted on trees. On our second attempt to hike it, we put up trail diamonds on the Land Trust portion of the trail for about half a mile, but never again saw any trail signage.
We had noticed on the latest Land Trust trail map that Flat Rock was no longer listed, and the trail that had formerly been called Flat Rock was now called the Bankhead trail. The ground truth was quite different. When we connected from the Oak Park trail, there were Flat Rock diamonds running southwest to northeast, as we had left them on our previous attempt. As we headed up the wide, former roadbed to the northeast, we came to a cleared area (perhaps a utility access road) with a nice board bridge over a gully, which we didn’t remember from our previous hikes. About .2 miles later, we realized we hadn’t seen a trail diamond in a while. And we know that the Land Trust boundary was near the utility road, but there was no Land Trust boundary sign either. You can see at this point our GPS track is a mess as we backtracked to the last trail diamond and tried to figure out what was going on. Fortunately, at this time we met a mountain biker who turned out to be our good friend Julian, who set us straight. Though we had started out on a trail marked as the Flat Rock trail, we were actually on the Bankhead trail, which is a new trail developed by SORBA to connect from the Dummy Line trail (and the Bankhead parking lot) to a point farther north on the Bankhead Parkway, inside the state park near the water tank (for those of you familiar with that portion of Monte Sano). The new Bankhead trail is a reroute of the Flat Rock trail, running a bit east and uphill of the original Flat Rock trail. The Land Trust Monte Sano trail map reflects this, but the old Flat Rock diamonds haven’t been replaced yet.
So, the one part of the trail that we thought was marked was actually rerouted and renamed. It seemed our Great White Trail was now the Great Gray Trail. Moby Dick had changed his name to Moby Richard. We considered our options, and decided we’d pick up the Flat Rock back where it was rerouted. Eagle-eyed Ruth spotted the reroute, and we were soon back on our way, crossing the utility road farther to the west.
An aside: I’ve since been in touch with the Land Trust to get their take on the trail situation. I’m not a representative of the Land Trust or of SORBA, so this is not an official position statement from either group. The general idea, though, is that both organizations were uncomfortable with maintaining and promoting a trail that runs through so much private property. The landowners had given the members of both groups permission to cross their property, but they could (and do) close sections of the trail as they please (as we found out the hard way on our first attempt). The Bankhead trail is intended to take the place of Flat Rock, and may be further developed in the future on state park property to make it a longer trail. Neither SORBA nor the Land Trust are encouraging people to travel on the Flat Rock trail anymore. It appears that neither group will be maintaining the Flat Rock trail, and indeed it has disappeared from the Land Trust Monte Sano trail map. No doubt the Land Trust will be replacing the trail diamonds to match their map.
After rejoining the Flat Rock trail, we quickly crossed out of the Land Trust property and were walking along the north side of Monte Sano Mountain. We were in familiar territory, and the trail was pretty much as we had left it — a wide, former roadbed with very little elevation change, and occasional large puddles and easy-to-navigate blowdowns. About a half mile after crossing the utility road, Ruth spotted what might be a marker tree just barely off the trail to the left. Its nose was pointing toward a bluff which had a spring at its base, though there were small creeks flowing from it that also made its location pretty evident. The jury may be out on whether this is a marker tree or not. The trail in this section has narrowed as it follows the base of a bluff, but it was still easy to follow with only a few blowdowns. We also enjoyed some late spring wildflowers in this stretch, such as heartleaf skullcap and Indian pink.
We did have one little surprise in this stretch, as a baby bird shot from under a root with a sharp peep of alarm. We paused long enough to snap a photo and left it to find better cover. After walking for about 2 hours and 40 minutes, we reached the point at which we had been turned back twice. We had covered almost five miles at this point, but were excited to finally venture into virgin territory!
“The long-drawn virgin vales; the mild blue hill-sides; as over these there steals the hush, the hum; you almost swear that play-wearied children lie sleeping in these solitudes, in some glad May-time, when the flowers of the woods are plucked.” Moby Dick, Chapter 114.
This part of the trail, on private property, was one of the best sections. The trail once again widened and continued as a nice, shaded, level route along the north side of Monte Sano. The property boundary signs had warned about the trail being closed during hunting season, and very shortly after entering this tract we saw a tree stand to the left. Not far from there, also on the left, we saw a giant white oak. While not quite as big as the Sipsey Wilderness big tree, it was still a whopper.
About .6 miles after entering the new (to us) section of the trail, we reached the eponymous flat rock, an exposed spur the forms the northeast corner of Monte Sano Mountain. Here the soil has eroded to leave three large, flat, bare patches of rock. This was perhaps the highlight of the trip, as there were many wildflowers in bloom in the cleared area as well as in the powerline cut to the north. Ruth basked a little in the sun while I wandered around and snapped photos of smooth ruellia, carolina rose, prickly pear, lesser daisy fleabane, bull thistle, narrowleaf vervain, and foxglove beardtongue.
We spent quite a while at the flat rock, enjoying the view to the northeast, soaking up some rays, and polishing off some fruit salad packed as a snack. We had traveled a litter over 5.5 miles at this point and enjoyed the break. I explored a little and found what is probably the Flat Rock Connector trail, which heads uphill to the southwest to join the Logan Point trail in the state park. The trail wasn’t marked, though there was some sort of plastic sleeve attached to a tree at the trailhead. The flat rock is actually on private property, so I wasn’t surprised that there weren’t any navigational aids. After a short rest, we continued on the Flat Rock trail, which turns to the south at this point and continues as a wide track.
“Then be called ten times a donkey, and a mule, and an ass, and begone, or I’ll clear the world of thee!” Moby Dick , Chapter 29.
After passing another deer stand, we soon came to the end of this owner’s property, as there was a matching set of signs about the trail being closed during hunting season. From here, the trail narrows. For the most part, we were able to follow it though it wasn’t marked at all. There were a couple of times we had to reconnoiter a little to pick up the footbed. The combination of having a sometimes indistinct trail and the realization that we still had a long way to go began to wear on our patience. Even a sighting of a five-lined skink and this eastern fence lizard only briefly lifted the mood. The trail isn’t that scenic on the east side of the mountain. The creeks were mostly dry, and there were no trails merging in, though at one point we did pass a mystery cairn festooned with ribbons. We also passed what might be another marker tree. This was an unusual one with a split trunk, so it’s hard to say whether this tree was culturally modified or not. Its “nose” had a bearing nearly due east.
Though it was still mostly level walking, it was another 3.4 miles before we came to the next recognizable landmark, a small cairn marking the junction with a connector to the state park’s Goat trail. It was past 4 pm, and we had hoped to be off the trail by then, but knew we still had at least half a mile to go before reaching the end of the trail, and possibly quite a bit more than that. Ruth looked like she was about to go all Samuel L. Jackson at any minute.
“He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it.” Moby Dick , Chapter 36.
We took some hope from reaching the Goat trail connector, as we knew it meant we were drawing near to the end of our quest. We trudged grimly on, then about 9.75 miles into our hike we spotted open space through the trees and emerged onto the edge of the powerline cut. Maps differ a little bit on what is the official end of the Flat Rock trail, but the majority seem to suggest that the trail ends at the powerline cut, or continues down it to Dug Hill Road. At any rate, we were done with hiking in the woods, and needed only to walk down the powerline cut to meet our shuttle driver. But, remember Captain Ahab? He thought he had the Great White Whale conquered, only to be dealt a deadly blow at his moment of triumph. I thought we’d have a gentle walk down a nicely mown hillside. But instead, we had to climb a fairly intimidating arm of the mountain. At first, there was a worn footpath, but as we climbed it began to peter out, and eventually it closed in with tall grass and briars hiding gullies and ruts.
We thrashed our way up the mountain, pushing our way past its inscrutable malice as best we could. Footing was uncertain, and the briars had an extremely annoying habit of growing horizontally along the ground instead of standing up in canes like proper briars. We both nearly fell several times, and even when we caught ourselves it came with the price of being slashed along our shins. It took us nearly an hour to travel the last 1.2 miles on what we thought would be one of the easier parts of the hike. But at last we staggered across Dug Hill Road to meet Katie, some six hours and 40 minutes and 10.9 miles after starting.
So, we had finished it. We had completed the Flat Rock trail on our third attempt. We had slain the whale, and unlike Ahab, lived to tell about it. Though there were parts of the trail that we enjoyed, what with the navigational uncertainties, whims of private property owners, and the difficult descent at the end, we can’t recommend this trail for anyone. There are more scenic and accessible options on Monte Sano. By all means, make your way to the flat rock via Logan Point, but not during hunting season, or you might be the one who gets harpooned.