This past weekend was a busy one in the Wright household. In addition to our annual trek over to the Athens Storytelling Festival, we were also puppy sitting for our daughter’s three month old puppy Luna, and Chet was determined to get in some games as a soccer referee for AYSO Region 498’s regional tournament. With all that going on, I was a little concerned about getting in a good hike, but I needn’t have worried. The Land Trust had not one, but two guided hikes planned this past weekend. One was a hike led by local historian John Stanton on the Blevins Gap Preserve and the other a plant ID hike with Bruce Martin and Doug Horacek at Wade Mountain Preserve. Now, normally I’d rather hike with just a few other people, not a group. And a guided hike is usually (though not always) shorter, and at a slower pace than I’d prefer. However on this busy weekend, the guided hike at Blevins Gap Preserve sounded like the perfect fit. It was close by, short enough I thought that I could bring along the puppy, and I’m a sucker for local history. Sold!
We met up with a small group in the Publix parking lot in Hampton Cove where Mr. Stanton filled us in on a little bit of the history of the gap while we gave the last minute stragglers time to arrive. He pointed out that as you look towards Huntsville from the east, there is a definite low spot between the higher mountains right where Cecil Ashburn Drive comes across now. This gap was a natural crossing point and was likely used for centuries, starting out as a footpath then turning into a wagon road and now a paved modern road. I did some investigating when I got home and discovered that Blevins Gap is likely named for Dillon Blevins or his sons John and William, who all came into Madison county in the early 1800s and bought land around the gap. When there was a Huntsville, the Blevins Gap Road was the main road from Huntsville out to pretty much anyplace else. The road led from the intersection with the Four Mile Post Road – the official Post Road for Huntsville at the time – then wound over the mountain through Blevins Gap, down into Big Cove, over to Vienna (now called New Hope), then on eastwards to Old Gurley Pike. It was the interstate of its day, used by settlers, traders, Andrew Jackson’s troops in the war of 1812, and also, infamously, by the Cherokee on the Trail of Tears. The town of Huntsville maintained the Blevins Gap Road until 1875, when the residents of Monte Sano and parts northeast of Huntsville were successful in shifting city attention to the Big Cove Turnpike which more or less followed the route of modern day Governors Drive and Highway 431 over Monte Sano and down into Big Cove. Blevins Gap Road still exists on Huntsville city maps, though apparently it narrowly escaped having its name changed in the 1960s. The only piece still driveable goes from Bailey Cove Road towards the gap, dead-ending in a neighborhood on the west side of Green Mountain.
After hearing this little history lesson, our little group of eight plus two dogs drove on up to the parking lot at the Blevins Gap Preserve and started on our hike. The plan was to trace the Trail of Tears route that followed Blevins Gap Road, at least as much of it as is on the Preserve property, then link up with the Sugar Tree trail to form a 2.9 mile loop trail. Chet and I planned to go as far as time and Luna’s legs permitted. We started out on the Bill and Marion Certain Trail but soon came to an intersection where Smokerise took off to the right. The trail here looks nothing like a road. It’s a normal looking trail with a dirt footbed and scattered rocks. In less than .1 mile, we came to a junction with the Lowry Trail and the Smokerise turned sharply to the right. Shortly after this, Mr. Stanton stopped us to point out the faint remains of the Blevins Gap Road leading up the hill then explained that the trail at this point actually follows the road for a short while down the mountain. I’ve hiked on old roadbeds a lot, and usually they are wide, level, and have a gentle grade. This road was nothing like that. Well, I suppose it was wide-ish, but there were massive rocks that I can’t imagine wagons ever going over. But there was also evidence of rocks precisely placed to make a curb on the downhill side. It was definitely a road, just a pretty rugged one.
At several points along this stretch we stopped to hear Mr. Stanton tell us things about the road (official roads were by law 10 feet wide; Andrew Jackson said he’d rather build a road through the Alps than through this area it was so rugged; there are records from the 1800s naming those responsible for maintaining the road for each year) and about one of our favorite topics, marker trees! He has worked with the folks in the Mountain Stewards program, and explained that the marker trees or trail trees are found all over the United States and perhaps were introduced to this area by contact with the Miami Indians of Ohio. Luna, meanwhile, was content chewing on sticks and digging holes in the dirt.
We hiked on, coming to the point where the remnants of the Blevins Gap Road continue on down the mountain while the Smokerise Trail heads sharply left. The road itself ends up at the backyard fence of a man who is apparently distinctly disinterested in the piece of Huntsville history leading through his property – when Mr. Stanton stopped to ask him if he knew about the old road he called the police on him! We didn’t risk his wrath though and continued along the Smokerise Trail which levels out and edges along the bottom of small cliffs as it works its way southwest. I thought this was some of the most beautiful scenery on the hike.
There were a couple of points of interest along this stretch.The trail crosses a small creek that normally feds Esslinger Cove Branch and due to the extreme drought we’ve had this year it was completely dry. We also saw a pile of rocks that is probably the remains of a chimney and a rock wall at what must have been an old homestead. No records exists as to who might have lived there though. There is also a neat split boulder right off the trail that inspired stories about Tecumseh, The Prophet and the New Madrid Fault. Mr. Stanton pointed out a possible marker tree, but it was pretty far off the trail so we didn’t get close enough to tell for sure.
Soon after this Luna had had enough. We were at a point where it would take just as long to go ahead as it would have to retrace our steps though, so she became the little carried pup. Her timing was good, too, as it was not very much farther down the trail that we intersected with the Sugar Tree trail, which goes up steeply for .25 miles, then less steeply for another .25 miles. A good example of a marker tree is off in the woods to the left about half way up, though, so we stopped for a bit to marvel at it (and catch our breath). Farther up the hill we passed a couple of rusted remains of cars and a sinkhole. Then the trail levels out for the last mile or so of the hike.
Despite being carried more than half way, little Luna was pooped! I sat her in the car seat while I took off my pack and turned off the GPS, and she immediately settled in for a snooze. I think she enjoyed herself though. I know I did. And you can, too. This was a guided hike and I’ve been pretty sparing about revealing all the interesting stories and history we learned. That’s because this hike was really sort of a preview for a Trail of Tears History Hike on November 20th, again led by John Stanton. I don’t want to steal all his thunder. Come out and hear him for yourself!