Labor of Love: Hurricane Creek Park

In 1961, Buddy Rogers purchased 120 acres of land in Cullman County and got to work making a dream come true. Buddy was a decorated fighter pilot in World War II who spent time after the war studying aerial photography near Denver. There, he spotted and then fell in love with a place called Seven Falls. After returning to his home in Alabama he joined the Air National Guard and it was when he was doing some aerial photography for them that he spotted an area that reminded him of his beloved Seven Falls. He went back later on foot to explore and found another natural area to fall in love with.  Just off what was then the new Highway 31, a narrow gorge dropped 500 feet through massive rock walls, cut by a clear little creek that reached its widest point at the very bottom. All around were the rock walls of the gorge, only slightly obscured by virgin hardwood forest, pine trees, and wildflowers. He decided right then and there that he would make it his life’s work to create a park out of the land.

First he had to convince the famers that owned the pieces of land he was interested in to sell to him, but once that was done, he set about single-handedly building the park. He hauled sacks of concrete in one bag at a time for the dam he built across the creek to create a swimming hole; he hauled 150 feet of steel cable in 8 feet at a time for a swinging bridge; he lugged in railroad ties to put in the steps in what he called Satan’s Stairway (now called Heaven’s Stairway); he cleared rocks and rubble out of what he named the Twilight Tunnel one bucketful at a time because it was too narrow for a wheelbarrow; he built a cable car system – a 1:25 scale model of the one on Lookout Mountain – driving angle irons into the bedrock and then fastening the rails to the angle irons. He opened the park for business, charging 25 cents a person and continued to run it, pretty much single-handedly, for 40 years. In 2003 at the age of 81, he decided it was too much for him to maintain so he donated it to the State of Alabama. The City of Cullman Parks and Recreation manages it now.


A couple of years ago, in the dead of winter, Chet and our buddy Ted Smith had gone down to Hurricane Creek for a hiking meetup, and both came back raving about the beauty of the place. I’ve been wanting to check it out ever since, so on a lovely recent Sunday we packed up the car and our packs and headed down to Cullman. The drive from our house is only about 45 minutes, which makes it closer than many of the “out of town” hikes we’ve done. The parking area is a small gravel lot with room enough for half a dozen cars more or less. There is a kiosk with information about birds you might see and about the geology of the place, but I noticed that some of the information on the signs had been carefully blacked out. It didn’t look like vandalism – it was too neat for that. Obviously, editing had been done. Down the hill from the kiosk is what looks to be somebody’s house. I’m guessing that at one time it was Mr. Rogers’.

The entrance is on the ground level, past what used to be the park office and a very odd looking wooden deck area. The park is free now, but only open Friday, Saturday and Sunday. There is no gift shop, no public restroom, and the office is just an unstaffed empty room behind a locked door. In researching for this blog post, I discovered that as recently as 2012 the park had an experienced rock climber who was the overseer of the park. The now-empty office space was a fully stocked pro shop for climbing gear and they ran rock-climbing classes for all levels. The odd deck configuration used to be climbing walls covered in hand holds. They also had a set of mountain biking trails in addition to the hiking trails, but those are closed now as well.

At one end of the deck, a gate opened onto a small ramp that led down to the start of the trail system. Just steps from the ramp, signs to the picnic area and the twilight tunnel pointed down the hill, while another trail led straight ahead. There was not a trail map posted anyplace but we were lucky to have remembered to bring along the map that Chet had picked up on his last trip, so we consulted that one and decided to take the downhill trail first. The trail system in this small park is sort of a figure eight – two 1.5 mile loops joined in the middle at the picnic area at the bottom of the gorge, with one side trail to a another picnic area, a maintenance road, and a short steep trail cutting up through one of the loops for a total of a little more than 3 miles of trail.

The trail we chose led down over the rim of the gorge, zigzagging through forest and rock overhangs on its way to the bottom. Not far from the top we came to a set of very steep stairs made of railroad ties and rebar. I was so busy navigating these that at first I didn’t notice the cable car in front of me!  What a cool feature that is – it’s really too bad it’s not working anymore.

 

We continued down for a short ways until we reached the bottom of the gorge. There, we crossed the pretty little Hurricane Creek on board bridges and started climbing up the other side of the gorge. The directional arrow on the Twilight Tunnel sign was pretty hard to spot, but if you look closely, you’ll see it carved into the tree – pointing us towards the left. Actually, the sign marks the beginning of the South Ridge Loop Trail and you could technically go either way on it to reach the Twilight Tunnel. However, for reasons I’ll explain a little later, I’d strongly recommend going the way we went.

Like the picnic area trail we’d come down on the other side, this trail winds up through the trees and the rocks, passing through some impressive rock overhangs along the way. Within maybe a third of a mile, we arrived at the Twilight Tunnel. There is an option to bypass the tunnel, but since it was one of the highlights of the park there was no way I was going to miss it! This long crevice in the rock wall is not so narrow that you have to take off your backpack and suck in your gut to get through it, but narrow enough that your shoulders brush the walls on either side of you. It’s called the Twilight Tunnel because apparently it never gets completely dark. Harrumph I say! I couldn’t see a thing the whole way through and basically had to feel my way blindly down the tunnel hoping there wouldn’t be a deep hole to step in or anything. To be fair, I did pull out my cell phone to try and snap some photos, and the light from the phone probably undid any adjusting my eyes had done. The crevice is described on one web site as being 60-90 feet long. I have no idea if that is right but it sure felt like a long way! Going the way we did, the entrance is pretty level, and then you climb up through the rocks to get out. Going from the dark into the light it’s not so bad, but trying to go the other way would require you to climb down those rocks without being able to see where you were going. That’s why I mentioned that at the arrow near the creek, the better way to go is left.


Once safely through the tunnel and back into the light, we had our lunch on the top of a large rock slab, then headed on towards the area marked as “Hidden Valley” on our map. We soon came to the other end of the tunnel bypass trail and then had to look around a bit to figure out where we were supposed to go. It looked like there was a faint trail straight ahead or another one that climbed up the rocks to the right. Climbing the rocks was the way to go, as we determined by seeing another trail sign at the top.

The next attraction was the bottleneck. This is another “fat mans squeeze” type of feature – also with a trail to bypass it if you’d rather. Can I take a moment to talk about the simple charm of this place? The flowerpot decorated trail marker at the beginning, the cable car, the almost kitschy signage, the hand drawn trail map – no soulless polished corporate image stuff here! It’s delightfully quirky.


Satisfied that I am not shaped like a cork, we continued on around the loop towards Hidden Valley. Here the trail dips back into a cove with a wet weather fall at one end. When Chet and Ted were here before, there were icicles all along the rim of the falls. This time, there were only a few drips and not much of a fall but it was still a beautiful spot.


From Hidden Valley we soon came back around to the start of the South Ridge Loop and headed back across Hurricane Creek. Next up was the picnic area and swimming hole.  There is a large covered pavilion with many picnic tables plus a few scattered tables out in the open so there’s plenty of room to spread out a nice picnic lunch. This is also where Mr. Rogers built his dam. The water falls over the dam into a small pool. There was a family with a couple of teenaged kids there when we passed through. The kids were testing out the water below the dam. They assured me it was cold enough to take your breath, but the big flat angled rock on the other side (accessible by walking across the rocks that form the top of the dam) is a nice place to lie in the sun to dry off and warm up.

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From the picnic area there are trail choices to make. You could take the High Trail section of the North Ridge Loop Trail back around to the entrance, or you could take the Low Trail, which is a short steep trail that cuts through the middle of the loop, coming out on the High Trail at the top. We opted for the Low Trail because we wanted to see Heaven’s Stairs. These are the stairs Buddy Rogers called “Satan’s Stairs.” They go through a slit in the rock just as narrow as the Twilight Tunnel, but not closed overhead. Up the stairs, the trail heads left through the trees until it comes out near the park entrance – just beyond where we’d originally gone down the Picnic Area trail.

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Left here would have taken us out of the park, but we turned right in order to hike the High Trail back down to the creek. We also wanted to check out something on the map marked as “Natural Bridge.” We saw some pretty amazing natural bridges in Big South Fork when we visited up there last summer so I was excited to see what this was. Well, it’s very nice, but it certainly doesn’t compare to the Twin Arches.

The trail back down to the creek again led through some fantastic rock overhangs, a nice pebble-decorated concrete marker put up by the boy scouts,  and past some more places where I’ll bet there’s a nice waterfall after a good rain.

 

Arriving at the creek at the bottom, we decided to check out picnic area #2 on the map. A wooden plank bridge leads across the creek to the other side, then a set of double bridges takes you back across to an area where there should have been more picnic tables. The double bridges were pretty rickety – the second one seemed to have come off its footings and rocked pretty significantly when we crossed it. Once on the other side there was no sign that I could see of a picnic area and though the trail continued straight ahead, we soon saw “Private Property” signs so we turned around.  The side trip would have been a bust except that we came across a delightfully fierce eastern black king snake. This little guy was only about a foot long at most, but boy was he trying to look as scary as he could! He shook his tail so we’d think he was a rattlesnake and tracked Chet with his head – snapping his jaws at him every once in awhile.  No harm done on either side though.

At this point the only thing marked on the map that we had not seen or walked over was a maintenance road that went from the creek up to the High Trail. I wanted to say I’d hiked every bit of the park, so we took that back up as our way out. I wouldn’t recommend it. It was surprisingly steep – steeper than any trail in the park –  and while it was a pretty road through the forest, nothing too exciting could be seen from it – no rock overhangs, no natural bridge – nothing spectacular.

After we caught our breath from the climb up the maintenance road, we headed on back to the truck, satisfied that we’d explored every bit of the park. I was happy to see that the parking lot had at least 5 or 6 other cars there by the time we left. We’d run in to 4 other groups while we’d been hiking around. There was a family with young kids, the family by the dam with the teenagers, a couple with dogs, and another young couple. The park is a little out of the way and only open on weekends, so I was happy to see that though it looks to have fallen on some hard times, it hasn’t been forgotten. Buddy Rogers’ labor of love continues to bring joy to those who seek it out.

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