Return to Cheaha and Little Caney Head Loop

There’s no doubt about it — October is my favorite month. What with the break in the temperatures and the arrival of fall color, it’s a great month for hiking. Throw in two of our favorite festivals — the Tennessee Valley Old Time Fiddler’s Convention and the Athens Storytelling Festival — and it’s a mighty fine time to be in north Alabama. This year, we started our October in fine style, with a weekend trip to Cheaha State Park, in Delta, Alabama.

I have the sweetest wife! We really enjoyed our previous trip to Cheaha, and as a birthday present for me, she reserved a cabin for a weekend in January of this year. 27redleafUnfortunately a snowstorm caused us to reschedule, so we decided to wait until fall. We were able to shoehorn a trip into the last weekend in September, so we drove up on a Friday afternoon, checked in at the park store and bought some firewood, beer, and salted caramel Moon Pies, and headed for Cabin 8. However, our trip was slightly delayed when we rounded a curve and encountered four deer sauntering across the road. They were in no hurry, and we were delighted to see them. After a couple of minutes, they moved on out of the way and we drove to the cabin.

In our previous visit, we had stayed in Cabin 16. Cabin 16 is a throwback — it replaced a cabin originally built by the CCC in 1935, which later burned down and was replaced in 1996. When 16 was rebuilt, though it was modernized to some degree there was a deliberate effort to evoke its original features and architecture. It’s small, built for two people, with a limited kitchen (microwave, sink, and coffeemaker). This time we were in cabin 8, built in 1936 by the CCC and renovated in 1996. It’s a bit fancier than the museum cabin, with two queen-sized beds in a combined bedroom/living room, a built-in dining area, a full kitchen, and DirectTV for those people who miss the point of going to the park. Other features include a full bath (tub/shower combo), central heat and air, fireplace, outside grill, and two outside firepits with tables and chairs.

Though this cabin was more “modern” than Cabin 16, all of the cabins have a pleasingly authentic feel to them, from the stone and timber exterior to the open-ceiling interior and rustic furniture. The beds were comfortable. We did notice, however, that there were some maintenance issues. None of the outlets for the microwave worked, which might have just been a circuit breaker issue, and one of the electric stove burners didn’t work at all, and upon inspection I noticed the burner socket had a chunk missing in the ceramic. Losing a burner and the microwave did put a dent in our dinner plans, but Ruth improvised and was able to cope. For a group of four counting on a bigger meal, this could be an issue. More significant, however, was the large number of missing or non-working light bulbs in the exterior lighting. There are around six exterior lightposts that illuminate the way from the parking area down steps to the front door and around to the firepits. Only one was working, which could have been an issue if there wasn’t a streetlight in the parking area, and if we didn’t bring a flashlight. And to mention a pet peeve of mine, the bedside lamp had a compact fluorescent bulb of such low wattage that it actually made the room appear darker! Maintenance issues like these are endemic all over our state parks (indeed, in our national parks too), but initiatives like Amendment 2 will really help the parks plan for maintenance. I’ll be haranguing you about that in a future post, dear readers — apologies in advance.

thumb_img_4160_1024After we settled in to the cabin, we weren’t quite hungry yet and were in the mood for a quick stroll to work out a few kinks from the drive. Luckily for us, we were close to the Pulpit Rock trailhead, which has a west-facing view from an imposing cliff. The red-blazed trail leads .3 miles from a parking area just past Cabin 16, starting with a steep, eroded descent before leveling out and then gradually climbing to the westernmost point of Cheaha Mountain. On the way we stopped to eye a possible marker tree. Since this was an impromptu hike, we didn’t bring a GPS to mark its location or get the bearing of its “nose,” but my recollection is that it pointed more to the north than the west.

We had timed our hike well, arriving in time to get a good look at the cliff before sunset. Ruth the mountain goat willingly climbed out on the rock to pose for a few photos while my stomach lurched at the idea of hanging out in space like that. A few other folks joined us by then, and we enjoyed a very pleasant sunset together.

Afterwards, we made our way back to the cabin, where I got a fire going in the back firepit while Ruth fixed dinner. It was a great way to wind down the day, eating dinner by the fire and sipping on some local craft brew (Gadsden’s Back Forty Beer Company‘s Truck Stop Honey brown ale, in case you were wondering). Dinner always tastes better when you eat it next to a fire, don’t you think? We talked and watched the fire and listened to the crickets and frogs and what we think was the call of a barred owl.

06view_from_restaurantThe next morning we had a leisurely start to the day, changing into our hiking gear and driving down to the park restaurant for its buffet breakfast. For my money, there’s not a better view in a restaurant anywhere in Alabama. 07wedding_archWe carbed up and watched a group of folks decorate for a wedding on the deck (congratulations, Zak and Leah, from two strangers who admire your taste in wedding venues, and best of luck!). A challenging hike was in store for us — almost ten miles in the nearby Talladega National Forest.

In planning hikes for this trip, I discovered one of the tricky parts about hiking in or near Cheaha. The trails in the state park are mostly pretty short, but there are many scenic hikes of various lengths in the national forest. The challenge lies in putting together an achievable loop hike for a day trip. After mulling over several potential routes, I decided we’d try a lollipop loop that started at the Nubbin Creek trailhead, taking the Nubbin Creek trail to its end, turning onto the Odum Scout trail for a short portion, turning onto a section of the Pinhoti trail, then taking a connector over to the Cave Creek trail, then finishing up by taking Cave Creek to its junction with Nubbin Creek and returning to the trailhead. It would be a 9.9 mile trip, with some of it over difficult terrain. To my delight, I found this exact route listed as #32 in Johnny Molloy’s 50 Hikes in Alabama, a book which features many hikes that we have recreated. Once again, we’d follow in Molloy’s footprints.

We didn’t have any trouble finding the Nubbin Creek trailhead, tucked away with a gravel parking lot off a gravel road (Nubbin Creek Road) in decent condition. We did have a false start to the hike, however, as two trails (neither one blazed or signposted) leave from the parking lot. Molloy says the Nubbin Creek trail leaves from the north end of the parking lot, but the two trails are closer to the east and west sides. We tried the west side but it quickly petered out, so east is clearly the way to go. 08nubbin_creek_trailheadTo make it easy on you, if you’re in the parking lot facing Nubbin Creek Road, the trail you want is to your left. And, it’s abundantly obvious once you start on that trail, for a signpost lurks just out of view from the parking lot, along with a kiosk. Ah, Alabama National Forests and your aversion to blazing — here we go again.

10nubbin_footbedThe first part of the Nubbin Creek trail has gradual elevation and is an easy walk through open woods. At .3 miles, the trail bends sharply to the left, and a manway takes off to the right (Molloy describes this manway as being straight ahead, but it’s really more of a right turn). 11nubbin_overgrownBecause the trail narrows at this point and is a bit of a laurel tunnel, you can be fooled into thinking the trail turns right, but we knew to stick to the left. Molloy says there is a view of Mill Shoal Creek from the manway, but given the vegetation and prioritizing finishing the hike proper, we gave the manway a miss and decided we might check it out on the return trip.

12cascadeAfter passing through the overgrown part of the trail, we came to a sign marking the beginning of the Cheaha Wilderness boundary, a sub-section of the national forest, at .5 miles. We crossed a dry creek bed and headed steadily uphill through an easy section until we reached Mill Shoal Creek at 1.2 miles. 13cascadeThough this hike often crosses or skirts Mill Shoal Creek, it rarely had any water in it due to the severe drought that has gripped this area of the state. However, at 1.2 miles the creek actually had a little water flowing, though it was a far cry from the cascade that Molloy describes in his book. We didn’t expect otherwise, given the conditions.

thumb_img_4196_1024After crossing the creek and a couple of dry tributaries, we emerged onto a more open east-facing exposure of Little Caney Head. Views could be quite good from here in the winter, but there were few gaps in the trees at the time of our hike. 14nubbin_climbingThe ascent continues to be gradual until about 2.0 miles into the hike, at which point the trail climbs a gap and notches up the steepness to rise about 300 feet in elevation over .4 miles. It was steady but not terribly demanding, and we soon found ourselves at the intersection with the Cave Creek trail. Nubbin Creek trail makes a sharp turn to the left here, with Cave Creek coming in from the right. This is the starting point of the loop, and we decided to hike it clockwise, as Molloy suggests.

Nubbin Creek actually descends gradually about 100 feet in this section before leveling out for the next .7 miles. The only notable landmark in this section is at the 3.1 mile mark into the hike, where Nubbin Creek makes one more crossing over a tributary of Mill Shoal Creek. After passing through the little shady thicket over the creek, the trail turns briefly east, then makes a slow, relentless climb to the southwest. 15nubbin_climb_to_parkerIt was on this section of the trail that we met our first fellow hiker, a young man who was making good time so we stepped aside to let him pass. He thanked us for clearing the spider webs off the trail, and said he’d return the favor. I should mention at this point that we spent a lot of time on this hike waving our hiking poles ahead of us to (usually, but not always) clear the spiderwebs. It’s an occupational hazard of hiking little-traveled trails. There were four occasions on which I stopped to let a spider crawl off my hat onto a nearby bush. Really, it was the least I could do after wrecking hours of work on the part of the spider.

16parker_high_pointThis portion of the hike was one of the most taxing, as the trail climbed more steeply for about a mile without any switchbacks to reach Parker High Point. The hardest part of the climb was the first half mile or so past the creek, with a climb of about 400 feet in that distance. The trail became rockier as we neared the top of the ridge, but finally leveled out and wound past some exposed boulders. Again, this would probably be a place with great views to the southeast when the leaves are down, but we didn’t stop to bushwhack to a vista.

A17odum_scout_footbedt 4.1 miles into the hike, we came to the end of the Nubbin Creek trail, with the High Falls trail coming in from the left and the Odum Scout trail continuing to the right. Our loop led us onto the Odum Scout trail, which is narrow and eroded for about the next .25 miles as it descends. I guess it was worn down by the boots of countless Tenderfeet. It was here that we finally saw the first consistent blazing on our hike, though brown isn’t the most visible choice. The trail then climbs over the ridgeline and down the other side to reach a junction at 5.0 miles. The mighty Pinhoti trail passes southwest to northeast here, with the Odum Scout trail continuing to the north and splitting to form the northern terminus of the Chinnabee Silent trail. 18trail_signsThis junction, like all the junctions on this hike, was well marked with wooden signs. Since this is the intersection for three trails, there are several backcountry campsites here with fire rings. There’s not a nearby water source, but it’s a nice broad open area in which to camp. Camping is allowed pretty much everywhere in the backcountry of Talladega National Forest, but we recommend following the Leave No Trace principle of minimizing your impact on the landscape by re-using established campsites.

19pinhoti_footbedWe continued our loop by turning right (northeast) on the Pinhoti trail. We had hiked a segment of the Pinhoti in this same area on our previous trip to Cheaha, and remembered that stretch as being rather challenging due to the footbed becoming a series of small, sloping rocks. This section was no different, so although the change in elevation was minimal, the hiking speed was abysmal as we picked our way along the rocks. The Pinhoti is well-blazed though, so we didn’t have much trouble finding the next light blue blaze. Boulder outcrops became the norm, with glimpses of a vast valley off to the northwest.

The highlight of the hike is at mile 5.9, where Molloy describes “a signature rock promontory that offers a westerly panorama piercing the heart of Alabama.” This overlook doesn’t appear to have a formal name, so we dubbed it “Signature Rock” and spent some time admiring the view, taking pictures, and generally basking.

24pinhoti_boulderfieldAfter soaking up the beauty for a bit, we saddled up again and worked our way up a gradual incline through a boulder field to reach an intersection with a connector trail at 6.5 miles. This was familiar territory as we’d hiked it on our previous visit, so we turned right and went up and over the ridgeline. We paused at the top to munch an apple, where we met the second and last hiker we would see today. After exchanging greetings and finishing our apples, we descended the other side of the ridge to meet the Cave Creek trail at mile 6.8. 25cave_creekTo close the loop, we turned south (right) on the Cave Creek trail and made an easy descent for the next .7 miles to return to the junction with the Nubbin Creek trail. From there, we retraced our steps back down Nubbin Creek, making good time since nearly all of this section was level or trending downhill. When we reached the intersection with the manway and the potential elevated view of Mill Shoal Creek, we reluctantly decided to check it out. We knew the creek was dry here and that overgrowth might make it difficult to get a good view, and after working our way downhill for about .1 mile without seeing any sign of an overlook, it was time to throw in the towel and head back uphill, then return to the parking lot.

We made it back to the parking area around 4:15, having started around 9:45 in the morning. It took us about 6.5 hours, not bad for a 10.1 mile hike. 26deer_at_cabinAnd when we got back to the cabin, we had a welcoming committee — two deer were grazing in the front yard. We had enough energy to gather some sticks for another fire, and after cleaning up and taking a little rest we went down for dinner at the lodge. Afterwards, we capped off the evening with another fire in the firepit and another craft beer (Weihenstephaner’s Korbinian doppelbock, a much-appreciated contribution from my brother-in-law Max). But it was to be an early night, as we had another hike planned for the next day — and Ruth will be bringing you that story next week.

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