When I was young, my parents used to take me to the nearby Smoky mountains on a regular basis. You might think that these would have been hiking trips, but my mother really wasn’t a fan of hiking so often we would just drive to a scenic spot, enjoying the views along the way. Once there, the first thing I would always do was to find the steepest, rockiest place I could see and try to climb it. Dad called me a mountain goat and I think might even have been a little proud of my fearlessness. Mom, on the other hand, was always really nervous and just wanted me to get down. Once I became a mother myself I could see where she was coming from, but to this day I’m drawn to the high places. I just can’t help myself.
Given this history of mine I can’t believe that I have not yet taken the opportunity to explore Stone Cuts right here in Monte Sano State Park. I finally fixed that oversight this past weekend with a quick trip up the mountain. We have been busy trying out trails all around Huntsville and up into southern Tennessee so it’s been a little while since we’ve been to the park. We were surprised to find that we were charged a $5 per person day use fee. There has always been a fee, but I didn’t remember it being a per person charge. Either I’m not remembering correctly or the recent park funding crisis has caused a change in policy. There is an annual pass to Monte Sano State Park that runs $100 for an individual and $150 per family. Unfortunately, this pass is only good in Monte Sano State Park. The Alabama State Parks do not have a state-wide park pass like some of our neighboring states do. Georgia has a $50 annual park pass that exempts you from parking fees in any Georgia state park. Mississippi has a $42 annual park pass which covers the entrance fee for one vehicle into any state park. Tennessee actually funds its state parks and so eliminated all access fees to state parks in 2006. Some parks in Alabama are free, but the bigger ones do have an entrance fee: Monte Sano, Oak Mountain, and Cheaha are $5, Blue Springs and Frank Jackson are $4, Paul M. Grist and Rickwood Caverns are $3, Meaher is $2, and the rest appear to be free. As much and Chet and I enjoy checking out the Alabama State Parks, we sure would make good use of an annual pass if there was one!
Once paid up, we drove to the North Plateau Overlook parking lot, took the requisite photos from the overlook, and then started our hike just past the gate that closes off the top of Bankhead Parkway. Being on a paved road, the going is easy here. It was another hot and humid day – more like an August day than a late September one – but up on the mountain and under the trees it was almost pleasant. There were red blazes on the trees along the road, so though our older map didn’t indicate it, it appears that the Sinks Trail actually now starts at the gate. In .2 miles, the trail takes off down the mountain to the right. This stretch is steep, but with plenty of switchbacks so it isn’t too difficult. In a short .2 miles we were down 150 feet and crossing the broad and level Mountain Mist trail. A short .1 miles past that we came to the intersection with Logan Point Trail.
We left the Sinks Trail at this point, though we’d see this intersection again on the return loop. We were only on the white blazed Logan Point Trail a couple of hundred feet before we reached yet another intersection – this one the start of the actual Stone Cuts Trail. The trail here is a little narrow and climbs briefly uphill until it reaches one end of Panther Knob trail. That trail heads straight on up the hill, while Stone Cuts veers off to the right and levels out a bit. Stone Cuts is blazed in red, though we also saw some of the old “Space Shuttle” signs on this section too. I’ve often seen these on various trails on Monte Sano and always wondered what their history was. I was delighted to find an in-depth article on it by Huntsville Outdoors – check it out!
We passed one more intersection – with the other end of the Logan Point Trail – and then finally arrived at a sign for the Stone Cuts Bypass. Here the bypass trail continues on straight, while the Stone Cuts themselves are visible to the left. I can’t imagine anybody except for mountain-bikers taking the bypass instead of going through the Stone Cuts, but maybe I’m just biased. As soon as you turn left from the bypass to stay on Stone Cuts Trail you can see a jumble of rocks with a pathway winding between. Boulders split vertically block the way, looking like a giant knife sliced down to cleave them in two. There is a path to follow, but also several side pathways to explore and one place where the rocks close in to form a tunnel. I scrambled down every side passage and even climbed up a bit to see if I could get to the top – in some places 30 feet above me. I was in mountain-goat heaven!
After the fun of the Stone Cuts, the rest of the trail seems pretty tame. Exiting the final rocks, it hugs the base of a bluff for a short stretch before climbing up so that you are level with the tops of the Stone Cuts rock formations. From there, the trail is pretty level along a broad ridge that drops off steeply to either side, then winds down to meet the bypass. Another quarter of a mile downhill and we reached an intersection with the Sinks Trail going straight and to the right, and the Kieth Trail taking off to the left. We headed right along the Sinks Trail back towards the Logan Point Trail. We passed a tree that had a “MMTR 50K” tag posted on it, which is a marker for the Mountain Mist 50 KM ultra trail race, run every year in January since 1995. I’m always amazed that anybody could run 50K, much less run it on the steep and rocky trails on Monte Sano, but lots of people from all over come to Huntsville to do just that.
This section of trail is said to be absolutely stunning in the spring. I can see where if there was water flowing down the dry creek bed that the trail follows, this could be prime wildflower real estate. I’ve heard there is a massive stand of Virginia Bluebells (my very favorite flower!) somewhere along here so you can be sure I’m going to check it out next spring.
In .6 miles we were back at the Logan Point intersection, and from there it was a simple matter of retracing our steps to get back to the parking lot. On the way in, however, I had noticed signs for a CCC Museum which I hadn’t known about, so we decided to check it out. It was staffed by a very nice and knowledgeable man who turned out to be an East Tennessee native. He’s related to a couple of the really old mountain settler families and told us interesting things about the property they owned a hundred years ago in what is now Gatlinburg. He also gave us some interesting information on the Cherokee in the area and pointed out the still-in-progress interpretive trail that leads out of the back of the building. Only 3 or 4 of the planned 10 kiosks are up so far, but Chet and I took a few minutes to check those out and read about Cherokee Nancy Ward and her children.
I couldn’t help but think about what a beautiful drive this would have been when Bankhead Parkway was still open all the way to the top. The road originally ran along the northern edge of Monte Sano, then curved south and then east as it climbed up until finally it curled around to the top. Years ago, the pavement crumbled away on what I call the back side and it was deemed too difficult to repair and maintain so the road was closed to vehicle traffic from the intersection with Fearn Street. When it was open, it would have been just the sort of drive Mom and Dad would have loved – beautiful scenery with a nice overlook at the top. Had we been living here when I was young I’m sure we would have made that drive. I’m sure I would have begged to go clamber around on the Stone Cuts too – wonder if I would have gotten my way?