It’s amazing how often just being outdoors can lift your mood. Though I usually look forward to our adventures, sometimes I’ll start a hike with a bad attitude — maybe because I think it’s going to rain, or it’s going to be miserably hot, or maybe I didn’t get enough sleep the night before. But always, as I get onto the trail, I start feeling better as I enjoy the beauty of nature and breathe in the fresh air. Before our latest hike, to the South Sauty Creek trail in Buck’s Pocket State Park, I did have a bit of a bad attitude mostly due to lack of sleep, but in the back of my mind I knew the woods would cheer me up. Now that I’ve returned from that trip, I must say that for once I’ve come back from a hike with an even worse attitude.
Buck’s Pocket is a troubled park. It was originally among those to be closed in the Great Park Massacre of 2015 thanks to our gutless state legislators, but it received a last-minute reprieve of sorts. Instead of closing, it was kept open for day use, without any onsite staffing. Though it’s in a lovely setting, it’s a small park with few amenities — a small developed campground, primitive camping, a few trails, a tiny office, and a boat ramp located away from the main park. But its seclusion makes it a great getaway, with soaring views from Point Rock, a few waterfalls, and the tumbling South Sauty Creek. Back when it was on the chopping block, we hiked the Point Rock trail and marveled at the shamefulness of closing such a scenic and historic site.
And Buck’s Pocket has been in the news again recently. In December 2015 the state of Alabama awarded a $526,000 grant (from the Federal Highway Administration) for the construction of a 15-25 mile ATV (all terrain vehicle) trail system in Buck’s Pocket. This trail system is still in the planning stages, but when completed it seems likely that it will draw visitors to the park and could lead to further development of park amenities. I have to admit that I have conflicting feelings about this. Saving the park is great, but at what cost? Will turning it into the mud-bogging capital of North Alabama forever change its character? On the other hand, there are Alabamians who enjoy off-roading, and the parks are for everyone. We’re advocates of sharing the trails, and have had nothing but good interactions with cyclists and equestrian trail users. The state park system has been aggressively pursuing new outdoor recreation activities in the parks, such as partnering with companies to put in zip lines and adventure courses, and this would be another form of outreach. Overall, though, I have misgivings about how this ATV trail can be developed — especially a trail system of that length in a relatively small park. And trail sharing with off-highway vehicles doesn’t seem to be safe for any of the parties involved.
So once again, we made the drive over to Grove Oak, thinking this might be our last hike at Buck’s Pocket. On our last trip there, we had attempted to find the trailhead for the South Souty Creek trail, and had spotted it on our way out of the park. It was going to be a hot day, and I was looking for a trail that would be shady and would follow water for at least part of the way. Johnny Molloy’s 50 Hikes in Alabama describes South Sauty as “challenging” and “faint and sometimes hard to follow.” But, in a 3.7-mile there-and-back hike it would follow South Sauty Creek upstream before turning uphill and eventually passing two wet-weather waterfalls on the way to a creekside primitive campsite.
We arrived at the park around 9:15, passing some “road closed” signs on the shoulder until we crossed the main creek bridge and found a closed gate blocking the way. That was a bit of surprise since the park is supposed to be open during daylight hours, but the park website is woefully oblivious to the ground truth. That wasn’t a problem for us, since the trail actually begins before you cross the main creek bridge, on the left side of South Sauty Creek (as you face upstream).
One thing became immediately obvious — we weren’t going to get any cooling breezes from South Sauty Creek today. It was completely dry. We’ve been in a drought lately, but we had had a few small rains in the area a few days prior to the hike. South Sauty is a fairly substantial creek, as you can see from a photo of it from our trip in November 2015 — so it was a bit of a surprise to find a barren, rocky channel.
The trailhead starts on the side of the road, with little fanfare. The trail is marked, though, with a metal sign about 15 feet up a tree. It’s rather bizarre, though it makes a little sense considering that the first part of the trail is next to the creek, which frequently floods. I guess they got tired of replacing the sign.
The first .3 mile of the hike is in the flood plain of the creek, so the footbed is sandy and flat. Almost immediately upon starting the trail, we noticed that it has been quite a while since it has seen any maintenance. Though the pathway was obvious, there were numerous branches growing out into the trail and we were brushing our way through them. About 80 yards into the trail we saw the first blaze, a worn though visible orange bar on a pine tree. After about .3 mile, the trail begins to curve slightly away from the creek, where it soon skirts a dropoff created by erosion along the bank. The trail was pretty narrow here, and what with the overgrowth it was tricky going there for a few feet.
The trail continues, paralleling the creek, and soon crosses a dry feeder creek. Blazes were becoming less frequent and more faded at this point, and were yellow. We knew that the trail would intersect a loop, at which point we could continue along the side of the creek or turn uphill, but the junction was a subtle one and we didn’t see it. Just as the trail turned uphill, we noticed some orange tape on a tree near the bank so we dutifully dropped a waypoint there to mark what we thought was the intersection with the loop. As you can tell from our GPS track, the actual junction was about 350 feet to the northeast, but we didn’t figure that out until later.
At about .4 mile, the trail definitely turns uphill. Fallen trees and overgrowth are more common here, but the footpath is still visible. Faded yellow blazes and occasional orange flagging mark the way along an old roadbed. We knew from Molloy’s description that we would cross a creek and pass between two large boulders at .7 mile, so when we came to a large boulder we thought we had found the next landmark. We were having some problems with the trip computer on the GPS, so we weren’t sure if we had gone .7 mile, but we continued on up the roadbed. There were no blazes here, and we tried following what we thought was a faint footpath to the west. It was slow going, with no sign of any blazes, and we could hear occasional traffic on the park entry road about 20 feet above us. This didn’t match the map, so we backtracked to the large rock and tried heading southeast on a barely discernible track.
From here on out, the hike pretty much followed the same pattern. One of us would spot a very faint smudge of yellow paint on a tree, then we’d go to that tree and wander in all directions until we found another faint blaze. There was no footpath at all. We did eventually find the feeder creek that was the landmark we were looking for (it was dry, of course), and we thrashed our way easterly and downhill until Ruth spotted two large boulders with a gap between them. The going was no better after that. Sometimes when I hike, I find myself wishing that I had my trusty pulaski, so that I could remove some tripping hazards. Other times, I wish I had my loppers so that I could clear a path through the undergrowth. At this point, I found myself wishing I had a flame thrower.
We stopped for a quick lunch and considered our options. We had been hiking for 90 minutes and had covered about a mile. There was really no trail to speak of — it was just a scavenger hunt for faded blazes, making our way through briars, poison ivy, and fallen trees, usually separated until one of us would shout, “found a blaze.” We were so far back in the wilderness I was afraid that at any moment I might step into a nest of defeated politicians. Given that South Sauty Creek was dry, and every feeder creek was dry, it was a pretty good bet that the wet weather waterfalls would be dry too, so we decided that when/if we found the junction where the loop turned back toward South Sauty, we’d just complete the loop instead of taking the spur past the waterfalls. We set out in search of the next blaze and found it about 50 feet east of us, and then we were again off-trail. We backtracked, and quickly spotted this “unique” trail junction marker, about 50 yards from our lunch spot.
OK, so it seemed that orange blazes were marking the loop, and yellow blazes were marking the spur to the east. We started looking for orange blazes, knowing we would be heading down to South Sauty Creek, just a couple hundred feet below us. We never found any orange blazes, so in disgust we just walked downhill knowing we would get to the creek. Once we got there, it just seemed like it would be easier just to walk down the rocky creekbed than to thrash along in the unmarked woods. The footing wasn’t too bad, and as a consolation prize I spotted this interesting rock. Anyone know what’s going on here? Is this a metamorphic rock with strange inclusions? Rock art? Chunk of concrete with rusted remains of some sort of metal mesh? As you can see, it seems similar to other rocks around it, so I don’t think it’s concrete.
After walking about .15 mile down the creekbed, I spotted an opening on the bank where a dry stream (our second feeder stream, from higher up on the ridge) joined South Sauty. Perhaps we could use this landmark to rejoin the loop portion of the trail. So we headed back into the woods, roughly paralleling the creek, and never once saw an orange blaze. But in about 300 feet, we emerged onto a narrow footbed that looked familiar. We had reached the true junction of the southwestern edge of the loop, and from here we just retraced our steps back to the trailhead, completing 1.7 miles in a miserable 2 hours and 22 minutes.
It was a frustrating hike. The trail was poorly marked and hadn’t seen any maintenance in years. Before this hike, I was having misgivings about Buck’s Pocket being transformed into a noisy, muddy motocross track. After this hike, I think if the State Parks Division isn’t going to do a better job of maintaining the trail, they may as well just pave it.
I have to say that South Sauty Creek trail is the worst trail I have hiked in any Alabama state park. It could be a really good one, though, with some cleaning up and marking. It has a lot going for it — a nice creek and two waterfalls, at least in wetter weather — and we spotted a few late summer wildflowers and the foliage of some spring bloomers. The state park system announced in April that Ken Thomas has been appointed Alabama’s first State Parks Trails Coordinator. This is a welcome development. It might be a moot point if the plan is to bulldoze ATV trails all over Buck’s Pocket, but if not, Mr. Thomas, please help me fix my bad attitude about this trail.