Whenever I mention to somebody I’ve just met that I enjoy hiking, I almost always get asked the same question: “Have you hiked the Appalachian Trail then?” I always feel like I’m letting people down or coming off like a “fake” hiker because the answer to that question is a resounding “no way!” Day hiking or short overnight backpacking trips are one thing, but hiking for weeks or months at a time is just not my thing. Given this attitude, I suppose it’s not a huge surprise that the Pinhoti trail hasn’t been a big lure for me. Frankly, I’d never even heard of it, or at least paid attention to people talking about it, until last year. For those as oblivious as I was, the Pinhoti is a 335 mile long trail that stretches north-east from Flagg Mountain near Sylacauga, Alabama through Talladega National Forest and on into Georgia, ending 70 miles west of Springer Mountain at the intersection with the Benton-MacKaye Trail. From there it’s possible to hike Benton-MacKaye to Springer Mountain which just so happens to be the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. I was fascinated to discover that the first Appalachian Trail Conference in 1925 did include plans for the official trail to stretch over into Alabama. Using Benton-MacKaye and Pinhoti that original plan is actually a reality, though several sections of the Pinhoti are still along roadways, so it’s not yet a solid trail.
Interesting, but as I said, the long distance aspect of this is not going to be something I tackle any time soon. However, day hikes are another matter and so on our second visit to Cheaha State park, we included another very short section on the Pinhoti Trail in our Saturday hike. The next day, we wanted to squeeze in another short hike and Chet found one that sounded interesting to me. It was a hike near Piedmont, Alabama that included a stretch on something called the Chief Ladiga Trail. Chief Ladiga was a Muscogee chief in the Piedmont area. I found all sorts of references on the internet that claimed he was one of the signers of the treaty of Cusseta in 1832. This was the treaty that gave up the Muscogee lands to the US government and paved the way for the removal of the Muscogee along with all other Native Americans east of the Mississippi. The one transcript of the treaty with the Creeks I found online does not list anybody called “Ladiga” as a signer, though I suppose that doesn’t mean he wasn’t there. This trail is a result of Alabama’s first rails-to-trails project. It runs 33 miles from Weaver, Alabama (near Anniston) to the Georgia state line near Piedmont. At the state line it connects with the Silver Comet Trail, another paved rails-to-trails walkway that runs another 61 miles to Smyrna, Georgia. Taken together, the Chief Ladiga/Silver Comet is the second longest paved trail in the US. Another long-distance trail that I’ll likely only hike sections of, but still, interesting. However, the Chief Ladiga was just the side-note – the rest of the hike was actually a more northern section of the venerable Pinhoti.
After the breakfast buffet at the lodge restaurant we packed up, checked out and hit the road north. Much of our route was through back roads in a part of Alabama I haven’t driven around in much. I always enjoy seeing new areas so it was a nice drive just because of that. The most interesting thing about it, though, might have been when we spotted a wild turkey on the side of the road! I rarely see wild turkeys, so it was exciting to me to spot one. Plus the trail symbol for the Pinhoti is a turkey foot so I chose to believe that it was an omen of a good hike ahead of us. Soon after, however, we ran into a bit of bad luck, or maybe just bad navigating. We didn’t have great directions to the trail head. We only knew it was off Cleburne County Road 94. County Road 94 splits off of Vigo Road and follows right alongside Terrapin Creek in a big U to end up right back on Vigo Road again a few miles down the road. Navigating there was easy enough, but we soon discovered that it mattered very much which end of County Road 94 you started from. There is a bridge out about a mile from one end that looked like it had been out for years. The trailhead we were looking for turned out, of course, to be closer to the other end. Luckily it was simply a matter of retracing our steps back out to Vigo Road, turning right, driving around 3 miles, and turning on the other end of CR 94 to set ourselves right.
There is no trailhead parking here. County Road 94 is very little traveled though so parking at the side of the road is no problem. We found the trailhead signs, pulled into the grass to park and were soon on our way. The trail goes through a small patch of woods then looked to me like it teed into another trail. I wasn’t sure which way I needed to go – I really should be better about reviewing maps before I head off! – so I was a little unsure, but we could see the Chief Ladiga trail just beyond the trees so we turned right and in just a few feet we had joined it.
The walk along the Chief Ladiga was a very pleasant one. The views of the ridges in the Talladega National Forest to the left were beautiful, and there is a bridge over Terrapin Creek as well. We paused to look for turtles in Terrapin Creek (I Like Turtles!) but didn’t see any. I had heard voices and thought that folks might be kayaking down the creek, but the water was very low here and filled with grass. It didn’t look like a very pleasant part of the creek to try to float down. It turned out the voices were a family of four on bikes riding down the paved trail. In about half a mile, the Pinhoti leaves the paved pathway and heads into the woods.
Though this hike was in early October, nobody bothered to tell Alabama that summer was over, so it was still pretty hot. Walking through the shady trees on a soft pine-needle covered footbed was very pleasant. We crossed an old red dirt road, then started a gradual climb. We hadn’t gone far before we ran in to the only other hiker we saw – a solo woman hiker who mentioned that she was staying at a nearby campground. I assume she was talking about Chief Ladiga Trail Campground, which is right off the trail at mile marker 7. It got me to thinking about what a great area this would be for a long weekend camping trip. Terrapin Creek is there for splashing in or floating down; if you pack your bikes you could bike down the paved Chief Ladiga like the family we passed; and the Pinhoti passes right through here so there are miles and miles of hiking trail. Food for thought!
Back to the trail, it winds about half a mile up to the top of a low ridge, then turns right and follows along the ridgeline above a steep hollow. At the bottom of the hollow there is supposed to be a tributary of Terrapin Creek, but it was either dry or too far away to hear because there was really no hint of it from where we were. The ridgeline walk is easy and reasonably level. We passed a National Forest Boundary marker, with its distinctive red blazed tree and “bearing tree” plaque, then climbed up and across a fold in the landscape to a different ridgeline and started climbing. This section turned out to be much steeper, rising 450 feet in a little more than two thirds of a mile. It was also a narrow track cut into the slope and rocky so footing could be a little tricky. At 1.6 miles, there is supposed to be a waterfall. At this exact spot, though, a massive tree had fallen across the trail and its crown totally obscured any trickle of a fall that might have been there. We did hear dripping, so there was water someplace, but it certainly wasn’t visible. After we gasped and struggled our way up another .2 miles, we reached a spot where the trail crosses over the little branch we’d been following. This spot is the water source for the Oakey Mountain Shelter, so we knew we were getting pretty close. From here the trail still climbs, but not as steeply, through a more open woods to the top of Oakey Mountain, then descends to a trail junction at 2.1 miles. Here the Pinhoti continues straight ahead, while to the left a short trail leads to the Oakey Mountain Shelter, which is visible through the trees.
This is a very nice, well maintained shelter. It is a three-sided wooden shelter raised up on concrete blocks. There are pegs along one outside wall for hanging stuff, and a shelf on the other outside wall for putting stuff that won’t hang. There is a picnic table and a nice fire ring, and folks have left a sleeping pad, a tarp, an emergency supply kit and even a sweatshirt for the next folks to use as needed. Signage at the shelter seemed to indicate that the Horn Mountain Trail Club had something to do with the shelter, but Hike Alabama’s “hiking clubs and organizations” site lists that club as being no longer active. Whoever is responsible, they’re doing a great job!
After eating lunch, checking out the shelter, and taking pictures of this little guy, we started our hike back. This is an out-and-back trail, so we were just retracing our steps. Check out our GPS track for our exact route.
Now I’ve gone from not having heard of the Pinhoti to hiking three separate (short) sections of it. Like any long-distance trail there’s a wide variety of landscape on the trail. The section near Cheaha has fantastic views, but slow-going rocky footpaths, while the section near Piedmont is partially on a paved walkway then was a mostly gentle grade through woods. I’m sure the other parts of the trail have a totally different character as well. Something for everybody!