The Devil’s Air Conditioner: Mill Creek Loop Trail

In retrospect, it was an ambitious plan.  After having a break from hiking over the past few weeks, I was eager to get boots on the ground again.  Our weekend schedule was pretty full on Saturday, but all we had on the docket for Sunday was to help the Land Trust of North Alabama clean up after an event at Three Caves.  We’d finish up by noon, which left time for a quick trip somewhere.  After mulling over some options, I settled on a return to the Walls of Jericho tract to hike the Mill Creek Loop trail, a 3.6 mile jaunt leaving from the Tennessee trailhead just over the border in Franklin County.

It was a surprisingly tough cleanup at Three Caves.  The annual Moon Dance is typically the Land Trust’s biggest event, so there were a lot of chairs to put away and garbage to clear out.  The weather was unsettled throughout the morning, dropping light rain on us at one point, and as we drove up the Paint Rock valley into Hytop, Alabama the clouds lowered, parted, lifted, lowered again, blew about, and generally fidgeted.  It took a little over an hour to arrive at the gravel parking lot, where ours was only the second vehicle.  In case you’ve never been to the Walls of Jericho tract, there are actually four parking lots in about a 3-mile stretch of Alabama 79/Tennessee 16.  We were at the fourth lot, as you travel south to north, which is the hiker’s parking lot.

We were last at the Walls of Jericho in November 2015, and Ruth chronicled our trip in a previous post.  On that trip, we noticed on our way down to the Walls that there was a well-marked side trail taking off to the right and made a note to come back and explore it on another day.  It took us about ten months, but “another day” had arrived.  I had since performed a little research and discovered that the main attraction of this trail was the Mill Creek blow hole, a cave from which a stream rushes to join Mill Creek.  We mentioned our hiking destination during the Three Caves cleanup, and our fellow volunteer Tony’s eyes lit up.  He had been there a few weeks earlier and still seemed pretty excited about it.  His enthusiasm was contagious!

05loop_intersection_signWe hit the trail a little after 1 pm, entering the woods at the trailhead to the right of the information kiosk.  It looked like the skies were considering clearing, though the wind was shaking drops off the leaves from the previous rain showers.  We made the short walk to the beginning of the loop trail and briefly considered our options.  On the Tennessee side of the Walls of Jericho, there are presently four trails — a half mile loop, a one mile loop, the Mill Creek Loop, and the Walls of Jericho trail.  Often they overlap.  08woj_footbed_topThe loop trails are marked with blue diamond-shaped metal markers.  The Walls of Jericho trail is marked with white diamonds, and the Mill Creek Loop is marked with red diamonds.  We decided to head to the left, to take the loop in a clockwise direction.  We noticed right away that this trail hasn’t seen a good lopping in quite a while, though the footpath was obvious and the trail was well-marked with white and blue diamonds.  The half mile loop and Walls of Jericho trails overlap until the trail takes a sharp bend to the right and begins a steep descent along (and sometimes inside) a ravine.

Now marked only with white diamonds, the Walls of Jericho trail levels out for a bit, with a small bluff to the left, and briefly parallels, then crosses an old road bed.  12woj_reentry_fromroadTurn left on the road and re-enter the woods to your right in about 15 yards.  Now the descent gets serious, down what Ruth dubbed “Princess Bride Hill.”  There is a little trail engineering to help with the footing, but that was offset by having to step over several small trees down on the trail.  The descent is really steep — about 500 feet in half a mile.  The footing was a bit uncertain due to the recent rain, but at about 1.4 miles we arrived at the southern trailhead for the Mill Creek Loop trail.

Mill Creek Loop trail is fairly level, gently winding generally northward for .25 miles and skirting another old roadbed before curving northeast along the edge of the Mill Creek valley.  The creek wasn’t visible, but we could hear water rushing below us, and at .4 miles we came to the spur trail to the Mill Creek blow hole.  The sign was fairly alarming, with a warning about watching your footing.  Well folks, you’d better take that warning seriously!  Ruth and I were both wearing hiking boots and using hiking poles, and we both fell on this nasty little .15 mile trail down to Mill Creek.  Luckily, we both escaped with only minor muscle strains.  The spur ends abruptly at a tumble of large rocks, and we picked our way downstream along the dry Mill Creek toward the sound of rushing water.  And there was the blow hole.

The first thing you notice about the blow hole is the sound.  You can hear the water from a point above the spur trail, but when you’re down at the creek level it sounds like a small waterfall.  The second thing you notice when you get to the bottom of the valley is the cloud of mist rising to your left.  And when you walk down to the cave and stand in front of it, the third thing you notice….

If you’re reading this post on a laptop or mobile device, go to your kitchen, open your refrigerator door, and stick your head in as far as it will go.  That’s the third thing you notice about the Mill Creek blow hole, if you’ve made the hike in the summer.  A blast of cold air (maybe 60 degrees) continuously flows from the cave, which generates a cloud of mist when it hits the 90-degree air outside the cave.  The view down Mill Creek is uniquely atmospheric, with mist dancing in the air.  The cold air was actually shocking to us, after having struggled through the heat and humidity to this point.

The cave is a sizable one, with an entrance about 8 feet wide and over 5 feet high.  I snapped a photo from the cave entrance, and the flash shows that the cave continues well back into the mountain.  We didn’t go cave exploring since the kiosk at the trailhead said all the caves were closed, but this one looks like a beauty.  There are some hikes that we recommend avoiding in the summer, since views would be better when the leaves are down, but this is one hike we can wholeheartedly recommend taking on a hot day.

27blowhole_caveThis was Cherokee country at one time, and the cave reminded me of the Cherokee cosmology.  Traditional Cherokee beliefs held that there are three worlds — the upper world, a sky realm from which various idealized animals descended to form the middle world (the earth as we know it), and the lower world, which was similar to the middle world except it had opposite seasons and was entered through springs and caves.  The Cherokee believed the seasons were opposite between the middle and lower worlds because the water flowing from underground was cold in the summer and warm in the winter (in comparison to the air temperature).  The cold air roaring out of the blow hole would have been convincing evidence.

We spent a delightful time reveling in the cold air while we worked up the courage to make our way back up to the parking lot.  After about half an hour, we climbed back up the spur trail and turned left to continue along Mill Creek Loop.  The trail was gentle at first, trending uphill but gaining height gradually.  This part of the trail seemed less traveled, as the footbed was indistinct in several places.  As we noticed back in November, the trail is marked with double diamonds whenever there is an abrupt change in direction, and that was very helpful along this stretch in particular.  Once the trail turns away from Mill Creek, a grueling 700-foot climb over the next .7 miles will test your resolve and tax your legs.  There’s a brief break about halfway up when the trail crosses a roadbed again.  Turn right and in about 20 yards there’s a signpost on the left side of the road that leads to the really steep part of the climb.  The re-entry to the trail is about ten yards past the signpost.

At one point the trail enters an open area and appears to continue straight ahead.  thumb_img_4050_1024However, the actual trail continues into the woods to your right, at about 2 o’clock from the bottom of the open area.  There aren’t any diamonds here, but they quickly resume in the woods.  This last part of the Mill Creek Loop appears to be least traveled and was overgrown in short stretches.  48downed_treeAfter one last diabolical climb (apparently, the trail designers thought that switchbacks were for wimps), we reached the northern end of the Mill Creek trail and turned right to return to the trailhead and parking lot.  The trail is marked with blue diamonds at this point, as Mill Creek has teed into the one mile loop trail.  The next .35 miles are easy and level, except for the only fallen tree we encountered that required a detour.  We passed the overlook, with the vista to the west blocked by summer foliage, and made the left turn to return to the parking lot.  The final mileage on our GPS track was 3.9 miles, and we finished it in about four hours.

While the blow hole was the main attraction, we also enjoyed a few late season wildflowers and berries, such as mapleleaf viburnum, American beautyberry, hearts-a-bustin’, and small-headed sunflower.

Though this was a challenging hike, especially after spending the morning on some semi-strenuous labor, it was another memorable outdoor experience to chill in front of the Devil’s Air Conditioner (OK, I made that up).  Nature seems to have an endless capability to surprise and delight.  Just get out there and be amazed!

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