A Proper Fall Hike

Last week Ruth wrote about our trip to Cloudland Canyon State Park, in northwest Georgia.  This week, I’m filling in a few details on where we stayed, as well as describing another hike we took in the park.

I don’t remember where I first heard about Cloudland Canyon, but the thing that stuck in my memory was that the park offers an option to stay in a yurt.  Late last spring I did some research, and found that (1) there are actually 10 yurts available, and (2) you have to plan months in advance to get one.   I started banging away on the reservations site, and after many attempts was successful in finding a yurt that would be available on a weekend that suited our schedule.  So, back in April, I booked a yurt for November, the weekend before Thanksgiving.  It’s pretty rare for us to plan a vacation seven months in advance!

12yurt_10So, what’s a yurt, you ask?  In its simplest form, it’s a round, roofed tent, typically built on a wooden platform.  At Cloudland Canyon, they are a compromise between tent camping and staying in a cottage.  Let’s start with the setting.  The 10 yurts are in their own yurt village, in a cul-de-sac off the main park road.  They are all nestled in the woods, sited back about 100 feet from the parking areas, with trees partially screening them from each other.  Our yurt (#10) was ADA-compliant, with a level gravel walkway leading from the parking area to the front entrance.  04yurt_stairsOther yurts are sited downhill from the parking areas, with broad steps leading down to them.  There’s a firepit with a grate and a couple of chairs outside the entrance, a water spigot, and a small wooden deck  leading to the front door.  Wait, you say — a door on a tent?  These yurts are supported by a sturdy wooden frame, with a door and windows framed in.  The doors can be locked, but the windows are roll-up flaps in the tent, with built-in screening.

thumb_img_4358_1024The yurts are quite spacious.  They sleep six, in two futons and one double bed that’s the top half of a rustic bunk bed.  You’ll need to bring your own linens.  They have hardwood floors, and are wired for electricity, with several outlets available around the perimeter.  There are a few more rustic furniture pieces — a shelving unit, a bar with some barstools, a small table with an inlaid checkerboard, and a floor lamp.  thumb_img_4359_1024For climate control, there’s a ceiling fan mounted below the skylight at the top of the yurt, and of particular interest to us, a small electric space heater.   Though the walls are fabric, they’re actually fairly thick and quilted, so they offer a certain amount of insulation.  We noticed that the fabric is tightly connected to the platform, so there were no gaps to be seen, and when the window flaps are rolled down and held in place with velcro the yurt is draft-free.

01yurt_deckAs an added bonus, the yurts have a large back deck with Adirondack chairs and a little side table.  We’re not usually fans of this style of chair, but these were surprisingly comfortable, with curved backs that made it easy to relax into them and admire the leaves (and stars, later that night).

Though there is a water spigot in the front of the yurt, there is no indoor plumbing.  The yurt village has a centrally-located comfort station with indoor facilities and a gender-neutral restroom, complete with a single shower stall each in the men’s and ladies’ restrooms.  The restrooms are heated, and were spotless.  We were probably at the farthest distance from the comfort station, which meant we had to trudge around 100 yards on the paved yurt village road to take care of the necessaries.  There’s parking right in front of the comfort station if you’d rather not make the walk in the dark.  The yurt village also includes a large picnic shelter and a playground, so it’s well-suited for family camping.

The checkin process was easy.  We stopped at the visitor’s center by the park entrance and were briefed on the codes to open the door and the gates to the camping area, should we need to pass through outside of the normal operating hours.   The welcome center doubles as the camp store, with the usual mix of souvenirs, camping equipment, and a tiny bit of food (well, ice cream and cold drinks).   Shortly after our arrival at the yurt, Cindy the campground host drove up in a golf cart to introduce herself and answer any questions.  She stays in a camper in the central area of the village, so there’s typically on-site assistance should there be any problems.

Though this was our first visit to the yurt village, it’s obvious that our stay was not a typical one.  Most notably, as Cindy pointed out, we had the entire village to ourselves.  Though all 10 of the yurts had been previously booked, everyone had backed out on our weekend.  There were four factors at play: (1) due to the ongoing drought, the park’s creeks were dry, which meant the waterfalls were also dry; (2) as a side result of the drought, there were wildfires in the general area that could potentially affect air quality; (3) as a consequence of the drought and the wildfire risk, open fires were not allowed in the park; and (4) the weather forecast called for some cold temperatures on the second night of our stay.  It was a bit odd being the only ones in the campground, but on the other hand it meant we were the King and Queen of Yurt Village, free to traipse down to the comfort station in our pajamas.  We knew in advance about the ban on the open fires and planned accordingly, and we practically never caught a whiff of any wildfire smoke.  We didn’t expect the creeks to be flowing, and as for the cold, we had the space heater, and had also brought sleeping bags, on the advice of the park.  As a point of reference, on our first night the temperature dropped down into the low 40s outside, and the space heater practically roasted us.  On the second night, the temps dropped into the low 20s, and the space heater did its best but it got fairly chilly in the yurt.  We were glad to have the sleeping bags, and were perfectly comfortable overnight.  I’d guess the interior temperature dropped into the high 40s/low 50s, but after quickly dressing and putting on a pot of coffee I didn’t mind it a bit.

When we planned the trip, we knew that our cooking options would be limited because of the fire ban.  We’re used to having cold breakfasts anyway, and typically pack lunches for our hikes, so the only problem to solve, food-wise, was supper.  Again, a little internet research led to two terrific finds — the Canyon Grill, located less than a mile from the park entrance, and Thatcher’s Barbecue and Grill, located down the mountain in Trenton.  We had reservations on Friday night at the Canyon Grill, and I’m glad we booked a table in advance.  Though it’s off the beaten path, it’s a well-known foodie hangout for folks from Chattanooga and even Atlanta.  It’s known for its steaks and seafood, and based on our meals, deservedly so.  This isn’t a food blog, so I’ll spare you the details, but I will say I had their grilled red cabbage as a side, and wow!  I’m not a grilled veggie kind of guy, but this might change my mind.  One quirk of the place — it’s in unincorporated Dade County, so the Canyon Grill can’t serve alcohol.  However, you’re encouraged to bring your own, and there’s not a corkage fee.  We grabbed some wine glasses on the way to our table on what looked like an enclosed porch, and had a tasty upscale meal in a casual environment.  Be warned, though: sides aren’t included with the entree, and if you order an appetizer things can add up very quickly.  It was worth every penny, though.

We’re big fans of barbecue and love trying local places, and Thatcher’s fit the bill perfectly.  They’ve been around for six years in two locations, and recently (February 2016) expanded into a larger space in downtown Trenton on the de facto town square.   We went for the pork and brisket with the obligatory fried sides — in this case, the somewhat unusual pickle spears and green tomatoes.  Those count as vegetables, right?  Like most barbecue places, it was easy on the budget, and the joint was pretty busy.

turkeysAfter all that eating, we’d need to get in a few miles on the trail.  Ruth has already described our Sunday morning hike on the West Rim Loop trail, so I’ll tell you about our Saturday hike.  The day started well, with Ruth spotting four deer in the yurt village on the way to do her necessaries, and as we drove to the welcome center we were briefly delayed by a flock of wild turkeys crossing the road.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many wild turkeys in one place!  The purpose of the trip to the welcome center was to inquire about the Bear Creek Backcountry trail, a 7.1 mile jaunt that requires a permit and is subject to closure.  Sadly, it turns out that it was closed, so we asked about an alternative hike.  The ranger recommended the Sitton’s Gulch trail, a six-mile out and back that runs along the canyon floor.  Knowing that we’d be walking around the rim the next day, it seemed like a good idea to explore the bottom of the canyon too, so off we went.

It was a short drive to the main trailhead for the park, over on the east rim of the canyon.    This is the oldest part of the park, first developed in 1939 by the CCC.  This is the main day use area for the park, with several picnic shelters, a campground and cabins, an interpretive center, and overlooks into the canyon.  Cloudland Canyon is at the junction of two gulches formed by Daniel Creek to the west and Bear Creek to the east.  Think of it as an upside-down Y, with the day use area being at the intersection.  We started at the trailhead and walked to the east rim of the canyon to stare goggle-eyed at the impressive views.   It was a beautiful day, with clouds scooting across the sky to produce dramatic lighting effects on the west rim.

The paved Overlook trail and the Waterfalls trail leave from the main trailhead, splitting at the canyon rim with the Overlook trail heading off to the right and the Waterfalls trail switching to a dirt surface off to the left.   22cabinWe took the Waterfalls trail, and within a couple hundred yards we passed some cabins off to the left, and then the yellow-blazed trail turned to the right and started its descent into the canyon.  It’s a gradual decline on a well-graded trail at this point, turning to hug the east side of the canyon wall past fractured sandstone formations.  One prominent rock, which we later found out was called Turtle Rock, juts out over the trail.

Shortly after Turtle Rock is where the fun begins.  There’s about a thousand-foot change in elevation from the top of the canyon to the bottom, and the bulk of the descent is made via a series of staircases.  28stepsGoing downhill wasn’t so bad, but we knew that the approximately 600 steps back up were going to be a challenge!  Overall, the trail was beautifully maintained and the metal stairs had sturdy wooden rails.  After just a handful of those steps we arrived at the spur trail to Cherokee Falls, but since we knew it was dry we decided we’d check it out on the way back.

31foliageThe trail wound slowly downward, past sheer rock walls with gorgeous fall foliage off to the left.  I remember gazing at the trees and thinking, “At last, a proper fall hike!”  It seems like we didn’t see much fall color on our hikes in October, and maybe it was the striking contrast with the rock walls, but I thought the trees just popped on this hike.

32daniel_creek_bridgeIn less than half an hour we reached the bottom of the canyon, where a wooden bridge twisted its way over the (mostly) dry Daniel Creek.  The turnoff to Hemlock Falls takes off to the left before the bridge, but again we decided to visit the waterfall on the return trip.  We headed across the bridge and descended one final set of stairs before coming to the official south trailhead for the Sitton’s Gulch trail.  The creek drops right below the bridge, and a tiny trickle of water flowed over the rocks there in a sad little mockery of a waterfall in wetter times.

34sittons_gulch_footbedSitton’s Gulch is formed by the confluence of Daniel and Bear Creeks, and is named for an early settler who operated a mill on what is now known as Sitton’s Gulch Creek.  The blue-blazed trail is very wide and well graded, though it undulates a little for around the first mile.  36dry_creekThe trail followed the dry creek, leveling out as the valley widens.  Just before two miles into the hike, a side trail took off to the left, and another did the same about .3 miles later.  We stuck with the main trail, and soon finished in a parking area at the north trailhead.   42changing_roomThere were a couple of wooden structures on either side of the trail, which we assumed were privies.  It turns out that they weren’t — instead, they were changing rooms.  It seemed odd at first, but signage on site explained that there are nearby caves for which there are guided tours, so the changing rooms were a place to climb out of (or into) your caving clothes.

This talk of caves was intriguing.  We knew there were two caves in the general vicinity, and deduced that the earlier side trails might lead to them.  43blocked_cave_entranceWe had no intention of entering the caves, however.  A permit is required, and we didn’t have the proper equipment or training for such an adventure.  We took the side trails and clambered up along the bluff, spotting the sealed entrance to Case Cave and another narrow hole that may have led somewhere, but we’ll leave the spelunking to the professionals.  Speaking of which, Georgia Girl Guides offers various tours of a cave in the park and another nearby cave, so check them out if you’re looking for a fun activity while you’re staying at Cloudland Canyon.

We rejoined the Sitton’s Gulch trail and backtracked our way up the creek, stopping to marvel at the high canyon walls and knowing that our final destination was at the top!  We made our way back to the bridge, and this time continued upstream a short distance to check out the bone-dry Hemlock Falls.  It’s a shame that we missed it during full flow.  It’s a 90-foot waterfall, probably about 40 feet wide in full flow.

We returned to the Waterfalls trail and began the brutal ascent of the 600 stairs.  It’s really not all that bad — there are frequent landings and a few benches along the way, so you can take your time.  Near the top, we took the spur trail to Cherokee Falls, which was also pretty much dry.  It did have a puny little flow oozing down the wall, so there was a black plunge pool at the bottom of this 60-foot waterfall.  We snapped a few photos, Ruth reclined on a basking rock for a bit, and then we headed up on the trail back to the top.

58overlook_trail_viewWhile we were there, we took a moment to wander down the Overlook trail to one of the “formal” overlooks of the canyon, and also stopped in at the interpretive center for a few minutes.  It’s cozy, with a display of taxidermy animals and some tanks with turtles and a corn snake.  It’s staffed by a naturalist, so if you want in-depth information about the flora and fauna in the park, it’s the place to visit.

All in all, it was a proper fall hike.   We had beautiful blue skies, a bracing wind, impressive rock formations, and colorful fall foliage.  What more could you ask for?  Well, a little water would have been nice, so we’ll just have to plan a return trip in the spring to check out the wildflowers.

Yield 2 Centaurs: Cloudland Canyon

34maple_leaves_wwChet and I are not chatty hikers. Our hikes are usually filled with long stretches of companionable silence. I often use this time to puzzle through some problem from work, plan out the next house improvement project, or make mental to-do lists.  But just as often I find that something on the trail will spark my imagination and off I’ll go into flights of fancy. One of our hikes this past weekend definitely fell in the latter category for me.

 

For our  latest adventure we drove two hours east from Huntsville over a network of roads suggested by Google Maps – through Scottsboro to Stevenson, then up and across Sand Mountain and down into the valley where I-59 runs before winding up the western flank of Lookout Mountain to the entrance for Cloudland Canyon State Park. This Georgia state park is one of the largest in the state, and its 3,485 rugged acres have to be some of the most scenic. The park centers around a 1000 foot deep gulch cut into the mountain by Daniel Creek, Bear Creek and Sitton Gulch Creek.

01stateparksign

The most popular hike in the park is the West Rim Loop Trail, a 5 mile trail shaped like a lollipop that starts on the eastern rim of the gulch and winds around to the western rim, with views both into the gulch and westward down into Trenton and across to Sand Mountain.  The trailhead is in the main part of the park, near the interpretive center, picnic areas, bathrooms, playgrounds, cabins and campsites. Right away, there are spectacular views as the trail follows along the eastern rim of the gulch formed by Daniel Creek. I couldn’t help wondering what it would have been like for early explorers to come across this for the first time. Lookout Mountain here is almost five miles wide at the top, and coming from the east you wouldn’t know the canyon was there until you were pretty much on top of it. Can you imagine?

02canyon_view_from_eastrim

Like many parks we’ve visited, Cloudland Canyon is at least partially the product of the Civilian Conservation Corps. The CCC was active here in the late 1930s up to about 1941.  The rock walls and cabins they constructed in over 800 parks nationwide have a distinctive look that I usually recognize right away, but don’t think I’ve ever seen stone supports quite like the ones they used here. Chet thought they looked a little like the Daleks from Dr. Who.

04rail_supports

The trail runs about a tenth of a mile right along the rim and behind the East Rim cottages (number 2 I think should have the best view) before turning and heading down and towards the head of the canyon.  In another tenth of a mile, we came to a sign that pointed to the left for the West Rim Loop Trail and to the right to the Waterfall Trail. We had a hike planned for another day that would take us on the Waterfall Trail (and besides the drought had dried up the falls entirely) so we stayed left and headed on along and above Daniel Creek on a trail edged with thick rhododendron growth.  We could see what we thought was the top of Cherokee Falls below us, though since the creek was dry it was hard to tell for sure. In a little less than two tenths of a mile we came to a bridge that took us over the creek.  At this point, we crossed from the East Rim to the West Rim and started climbing back up. I say “climb” but really the trail is a series of switchbacks, so the grade never seems very steep. When it is, steps have been engineered using rocks to make the climb easier.

As we were climbing up a set of those steps, I thought I saw where the trail was going to go through a cave or a tunnel. I was thinking that would be pretty cool, but as I got closer I realized I was wrong – the trail just went in front of a small opening in the rock. Maybe it was those flights of fancy kicking in again, but put a door over the opening and it could have passed for a Hobbit house from Lord of the Rings! We peered inside and couldn’t see that it went further than just the one small room, but it sure looked like it could have been a cozy spot to get out of the weather. The trail passed in front of it, then actually climbed up over the top of it so that we were standing on the “roof”.

Just past this, we saw a structure through the trees and realized it was one of the yurts from Yurt Village. A yurt is a sort of  cross between a tent and a cabin. The yurts at Cloudland Canyon, though made of canvas and wood, are roomy enough to sleep six and are remarkably well-engineered. They include a deck off the back, wooden floors, actual beds, locking doors, screened windows, and even electricity and a ceiling fan. Hobbit houses and Yurts – this place was magical!

19yurt_village

We passed a spur trail to the West Rim Campground then came to our first view down into the gulch from the West Rim side. It did not disappoint.

22first_view_westrim

The trail continues along the very (and I mean very) edge of the canyon rim for a bit before turning away towards the west and up a small side canyon. Soon we came to a post marking the start of  the “lollipop” part of the trail. This is about the one mile mark into the hike overall.  To the right we could see that the trail led back towards the canyon rim; straight ahead the trail led off into the woods. We knew from the maps that this way led towards views off Lookout Mountain to the west and decided to save the canyon views for the later part of the hike when the light might be better. Straight ahead it was. This section of the trail is nice, but really pretty unremarkable. There are several spur trails off to campsites or cottages, but mostly we were just walking through the woods. At around the two mile mark,  we came to a road crossing and then shortly after that we arrived at the western edge of Lookout Mountain, with fantastic views down into Trenton and westward to Sand Mountain.

From here, the trail runs along the western edge of Lookout Mountain, but set back a little from the very edge so views to the west are a bit obstructed by trees most of the way. We walked between some large boulders then found ourselves at a point with Trenton and Sand Mountain to our left, and Sitton Gulch coming in from our right.

 

After soaking in the views from the lookout point here, we hiked on back along one edge of the gulch formed by Sitton Gulch Creek, with fantastic views all the way. You can really see the band of sandstone at the top of the canyon walls.  We stopped for lunch at a nice fenced overlook with stunning views up and down the canyons (as well as a perfect basking rock), then kept walking up the West Rim until we arrived back at the loop junction. At this point, I think I’m just going to let Chet’s pictures speak for themselves. I keep using the words “stunning views” over and over and I don’t think that really adds any value.

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From the loop junction, we retraced our steps back to the main trailhead, leaving the  views of the gulch behind for a little while. Even away from the views though, this trail has a bewitching beauty (and maybe even a fairy house or two).

“Cloudland” is defined in dictionaries as “a realm of imagination or fantasy”, and for me, Cloudland Canyon lived up to that name. Others who have hiked this trail must have had the same impression as I did of being in a magical place… Yield 2 Centaurs, indeed.

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Crushing on Ruffner Mountain

Since we’re in relatively close proximity to the Cumberland Plateau, we often head northward when we have the luxury of time to make our way to a hike. Sometimes we take advantage of the Bankhead National Forest to our west for our rambles. Recently we’ve been heading east to locations in northeast Alabama, where we’ve thrown down some miles on the Pinhoti Trail. So it was about time that we set our sights southward to check out a great hiking location in the greater Birmingham area.

The Magic City has several places well worth checking out for hiking and outdoor recreation. We’ve been putting together a wish list of parks to visit, and decided that Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve would be a good entry-level destination. The Preserve sits inside Birmingham city limits, a few miles east of the city center and only a couple of miles away from the airport. Its roughly 1,000-acres is comparable to the Land Trust of North Alabama‘s Monte Sano Preserve, but Ruffner Mountain is a different and altogether agreeable type of beast.  It’s a privately-held nature preserve, first organized as a grassroots operation in 1977 to protect the mountain from development.  Over the years it has expanded to its current size, with 14 miles of trails open to the public free of charge from sunup to sundown.  It offers educational programs and a nature center with a wildlife rehabilitation center, supported by a small number of paid staff and volunteers.

01bathroomsThe drive couldn’t have been easier — just peck “1214 81st Street South, Birmingham, AL” into your GPS and you’ll wind your way uphill to the spacious parking lot.  We were there on a Sunday morning and had kind of a limited schedule, so we didn’t check out the nature center.  02covered_pavilionHowever, it’s worth noting that the parking lot is convenient to one end of the nature center, with access to indoor restrooms and a large outdoor covered pavilion.

We headed northeast out of the parking lot to the well-marked trailhead, passing a native wildflower garden on the way.  It was a late in the year for wildflowers, but we enjoyed a stand of late purple asters in the garden as we headed for the gateway to the Quarry trail, one of the main connectors in the trail system.

Late purple aster
Late purple aster

For this hike, we decided to follow the Ruffner Mountain Loop from Johnny Molloy’s 50 Hikes in Alabama.  This particular loop is concentrated in the southwestern section of the preserve, but the network of trails makes it possible to construct loop hikes of various distances with varying levels of difficulty.

Ruffner Mountain is part of the Red Mountain ridge, a huge iron ore seam that helped put the Steel City on the map.  The mountain was extensively mined until the 1950s, with hematite iron ore pulled from several mine shafts and limestone carved from quarries.

Trailhead for Quarry trail
Trailhead for Quarry trail

The first trail in our loop, the white-blazed Quarry trail, leads to the larger of the two quarries on the preserve.  Molloy’s book was published in 2010, and though it’s generally accurate, there have been changes to trails and trail markings since then.  Fortunately, there is an excellent current trail map online, with printed copies available at kiosks in the parking lot and at the Quarry trailhead.  Molloy’s description of the start of the Ruffner Mountain Loop suggests that the first part of the Quarry trail is blazed in several colors, but as of this writing it’s simply marked with white paint blazes.  He also refers to a yellow-blazed Five Mile trail, but there’s no trail with that name now.

07tree_infoThe Quarry trail enters the woods in a gentle incline, with the turnoff to the gray-blazed Geology trail coming up quickly on the left.  We continued to the right, making an easy climb through a hardwood forest on a well-maintained singletrack.  Two features found throughout the hike first presented themselves along this stretch of the trial.  First, we saw informative laminated placards mounted on posts, describing various trees.  68stone_waterbarsSecond, we noticed that in places the trail had waterbars made of rocks stood on end, to help with drainage when the trail was on a slope.  We’ve seen that technique used on the trail up to the Hike Inn  in Georgia.  It’s ingenious, but is a technique usable only on foot-travel-only trails.   And indeed, all the trails at Ruffner are only for foot traffic (though dogs on leads are allowed, and we saw many of them).

At about .15 miles from the trailhead, the trail crosses a maintenance road, where there’s a kiosk and an intersection with the blue-blazed Trillium trail.  We continued on the Quarry trail, almost immediately passing another trail junction with the brick-red-blazed Hollow Tree trail taking off to the left.  10miners_junction_signAfter one more short easy climb, the trail levels out on a ridgetop.  At .4 miles we reached Miner’s Junction, where the other end of the Hollow Tree trail joins up again with the Quarry trail, and the orange-blazed Ridge and Valley trail also takes off to the left.  We stuck with the Quarry trail for another .15 mile, but took a left turn at that point onto the Crusher trail.  Molloy and the trail map indicated that the Crusher trail leads to a former mining site, so we were eager to check that out.

15unknown_structureRuffner Mountain is a wonderful blend of natural history and industrial history.  We wound downhill from the ridgetop and almost immediately came to the remains of a stone structure on the side of the trail.  Was it part of a foundation, or maybe a piling to support a railroad spur?  About .15 mile later, we arrived at a rather cheery trail intersection, marked not only with signs but also with a string of plastic flags.  16trail_junction_raceflagsAs it turned out, the  Crusher Ridge trail run had taken place in the preserve on the previous day, with 5k, 21k, and 42k races, and the junction of the Ridge and Valley trail and the Crusher trail must have been a checkpoint/aid station.  The Crusher trail forms a loop here, so we turned right and headed downhill, taking the loop counter-clockwise.

After about .2 miles of descent, we caught our first glimpse of the eponymous crusher, sitting at the bottom of a hollow with a small creek running past it.  There’s a shortcut down into the hollow, but it’s badly eroded and steep, and if you’re patient and stick with the trail, it winds down into the hollow and takes you right to the crusher.  This was also another checkpoint for the trail run.

The crusher is pretty impressive.  It’s the only remaining piece of machinery in what was one of the five mines in operation on Ruffner Mountain.   We climbed all around it, marveling at its sheer size and bulk, imagining the enormous clatter it must have made as it crushed iron ore into smaller, more easily refined chunks for the nearby Sloss Furnaces.  You can still see some stone pilings that once supported rail spurs that carried carts of ore to the crusher.

12quarry_trail_footbedAfter visiting the ruins for a bit, we continued uphill on the Crusher trail to complete the loop and turned right on the Ridge and Valley trail, climbing the final 500 feet or so to rejoin the Quarry trail at Miner’s Junction.  Our little detour had taken us north of our original departure from the trail, so we retraced our steps to the south, passing a spur trail to the Jimmie Dell White overlook and continuing past the first intersection with the green-blazed Silent Journey trail to the right.  36iron_soilThis section of the trail was particularly noteworthy for its rust-red footbed, the obvious indication of the iron seam that led to the mountain’s development.  The Quarry trail then passes a spur trail with a kiosk off to the right, which describes an effort to restore longleaf pines to the mountain.  They were once plentiful, and there’s a small grove here trying to become re-established.

At 1.2 miles, we reached the Gray Fox Gap intersection, where five trails intersect.  This is the end of the Quarry trail, and the trail to the west is blazed red and yellow for a short distance.  41quarryThe trail soon splits, with the yellow-blazed Possum Loop trail descending to the right to access the floor of a large former quarry.  The red-blazed Overlook trail is the left fork, which we took.  The Overlook trail stuck with the gradually climbing ridgetop, passing the Cambrian Overlook, a view into the massive quarry that supplied much of the stoneworks used in constructing the foundations and pilings used for mine buildings and rail spurs.

At 1.4 miles, we came to the Hawk’s View overlook, a scenic vista with the Steel City’s downtown visible off to the west.  We sat for a bit and drank in the views, as well as taking time for a snack.

59bridge_over_spring
Spring on Ridge and Valley Trail

56ridge_valley_footbedWe opted not to continue the Overlook trail to the top of Sloss Peak, but instead retraced our steps back toward Gray Fox Gap.  The Overlook trail forks just past the southern end of the Possum Loop trail, and we chose the right fork to come out at Gray Fox Gap.  We concurred with Molloy’s suggestion to take the orange-blazed Ridge and Valley trail, a less-traveled pathway that winds up and down over rib ridges.  Ridge and Valley starts as a narrow trail, but soon joins an old road bed (probably an old railroad bed, actually) until it leaves the roadbed at a spring and continues south to access a parking area near some ballfields.  Ridge and Valley turns sharply north here and proceeds to wind its way up and down for most of its 1.7 miles.  Near the northeastern end, it crossed the Crusher trail (at the cheery flag intersection), and we were once again on familiar ground, as this was the route we had taken earlier to return to the Quarry trail after visiting the ore crusher.

Instead of just reversing our course on the Quarry trail back to the parking lot, we followed Molloy’s suggestion and took the brick-red blazed Hollow Tree trail from Miner’s Junction, traveling roughly .15 miles up a gradual incline to a cell phone tower.  62radio_towerThe Hollow Tree trail has the quirky distinction of being named for something that’s no longer on the trail, as the large hollow tree for which it was named was deemed too dangerous and was removed in 2002.  64buckeyeThough we didn’t see the hollow tree, we did see two things of note at the cell phone tower: (1) a group of very pleasant young ladies who were following the racecourse to remove flags and checkpoints (so, alas, dear readers, there will most likely be no cheery flag intersection for you), and (2) an actual buckeye growing on a tiny tree.  We’ve seen buckeye trees in bloom before, but haven’t actually seen one with ripe buckeyes.  This area is at the extreme southern edge of the range for the American buckeye.

From the cell phone tower, the Hollow Tree trail actually merges with a service road to the tower for a short distance before a sign directs you to take a left turn and plunge back into the woods.  After a short descent, it’s the end of the line for the Hollow Tree trail, back at the kiosk on the Quarry trail, and from there we just retraced our steps back to the parking lot to complete a 4.5 mile loop.

Hiking on the Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve was an excellent introduction to the charms of hiking in Birmingham.  The trails are well-maintained, with educational displays, fascinating artifacts from Ruffner’s mining days, a variety of natural features, and a terrific view of the city.  We didn’t even cover half of the trail mileage available, and we didn’t visit the Nature Center, so it’s safe to say that we’ll be back for another visit to one of the charms of the Magic City.

Southwestern Double Dip

When the kids were very young, Chet had a job where he had to travel a lot. He was on the road every other week. I, on the other hand, have really very rarely had to travel for work. But this year, I ended up flying out the Sunday before Halloween (no trick-or-treat for me, sadly) for a two week stint in El Paso, Texas. When Chet was traveling so much it was hard because we had young kids at home. Those days are long behind us, but now we have our pseudo-child – the blog – to worry about. I’d be in Texas for “my” blog week – what would I blog about?

I needn’t have worried. El Paso is home to Franklin Mountain State Park, the nation’s largest urban park. Its nearly 25,000 acres are entirely within the city limits, and there are trails galore to explore. I did promise Chet I wouldn’t hike alone so I had to talk one of my co-workers into going on an adventure with me, but I was able to do that so Sunday morning we set off to see what hiking in the southwest was like.

I had done a bit of research the night before and decided that my best bet was to drive to the Tom Mays Unit area of the park, on the west side of the mountains. There are several trails in that area, all of them relatively short, so we’d have plenty to choose from and maybe some variety. The drive there is easy – take I10 East to the exit for the Transmountain Pass, then look for signs on the left into the Tom Mays Unit. I should note that there is a $5 per person day use fee for this area. I quickly found parking and we checked out the kiosk information to pick a trail. The signs said the Cottonwood Spring trail was a “must see,” so that’s the one we picked.  This is a .8 mile trail that leads back up into a canyon and then ascends steeply to a small spring which sustains several cottonwood trees.  The landscape in this area is very different from what I’m used to back home, of course. El Paso is located in the Chihuahuan Desert so it is very dry and mostly brown. Where there weren’t rocks, the ground was covered with scrub dotted with cactus.

The trail is rocky, but initially wide and fairly easy to navigate. About a quarter of a mile up, we saw what looked like a small door in the side of a rock wall. It was padlocked and set in concrete. I googled around later and discovered that this is the entrance to a small cave, which the park keeps locked except for when they occasionally give a guided tour. About another quarter of a mile up, the Cottonwood Spring trail takes off steeply and sharply to the right, while the Mundy’s Gap trail continues more or less straight ahead. The last .3 mile of this trail is much more difficult than the earlier part since it is much steeper and pretty much just a scree field.  There was little to no dirt – just lots and lots and lots of fist-sized wobbly rocks. It made for a difficult and tiring climb. We had a good excuse to stop and catch our breath though when we came across an old metal trough and water tank. I have no idea what they were used for, but I do know that on the other side of the mountains there were old tin mines. Wonder if it’s related? We were close to the end though – the cottonwood trees were clearly visible up ahead.

The climb up to them was steep, with the slope broken up a bit by steps made from logs. At the trees, there are a couple of benches to rest on, which I took advantage of. I have to confess that I had a bit of trouble figuring out where the spring actually was. I kept looking near the trees. My hiking companion discovered the spring, such as it was, up the slope just a bit. My favorite part of the hike, though, was taking a short side trail above the spring that led to a big rock outcropping. It wasn’t exactly mountain-goat worthy, but the views were spectacular.

For the trip back, we opted to take a slightly different route. The Agave Loop trail is a 1.3 mile trail that intersects with the Cottonwood Spring trail close to the Mundy’s Gap split, then takes a much gentler path around and down to join with it again close to the kiosk at the bottom. Here the footbed is packed dirt, which is just so much nicer to walk on than rocks! An added bonus to this route is that it passes by a favorite launching spot for a local paragliding club. We were lucky to pass through just when a guy was about to take off, so we stopped to watch the take off, then kept an eye on him gliding and wheeling through the air as we continued on down the trail.

We got back to the kiosk while it was still morning, so there was plenty of hiking time left in the day. I had picked this hike, so the only fair thing to do was to let my co-worker pick the next one. He had done some research the night before, too,  and wanted to drive up to the Dripping Springs Natural Area near Las Cruces, New Mexico.  Only about 30 minutes up I10 from where we were, Las Cruces was a good place to go find some lunch too, so off we went. We ended up driving around the quaint and historic town plaza of Mesilla before we stumbled on our lunch spot – Paisano Cafe just down the road in Las Cruces. This isn’t a food blog, but I wanted to give them a shout out – their food was delicious! After lunch, we found our way to University Drive, which turns into Dripping Springs Drive east of Las Cruces. This road leads straight to the visitor center so it couldn’t be easier to find, though after crossing onto public lands, the road is a little rough in spots. It looked like recent rains had washed a lot of dirt and rocks onto the roadway in some lower spots so I had to ease my rental Camry over the ruts a bit.

As best as I can make out, Dripping Springs Recreational Area is managed by the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management as a part of the recently declared Organ Mountains – Desert Peaks National Monument. This is one of our newer national monuments, having been established on May 21, 2014.  Dripping Springs Recreational area itself is a smaller area, with a staffed visitors center, about 4 miles of easy trails, restrooms, and picnic areas. We paid our $5 per car parking fee, then headed out on the Dripping Springs trail. This is a 1.5 mile trail (one way) that leads up what used to be a stagecoach road to the namesake springs.  Being an old road, the trail is wide and has a gentle grade. We were surprised at the landscape. We were expecting mountains and rocks again, or at least scrub and cactus, but this was more like a grassy meadow, at least until the trail dipped back into the canyon closer to the springs.

Just as the trail starts to head back into the canyon, there is a set of small wooden buildings. A plaque explained that these were the livery for “Van Patton’s Mountain Camp,” a resort built near the springs in the late 1870s by Colonel Eugene Van Patton. A stage coach would take guests 17 miles from Las Cruces to the front of the hotel, then return to the livery.

A quarter mile up the trail, we came to a split with the trail to Dripping Springs leading to the right. The spring itself springs out of a rock outcropping above the canyon floor. There are the remains of a retaining wall that captured water from the spring into a small pool, but the pool is filled in now. Up the hill from the spring are more old buildings – these from Boyd’s Sanitorium. When Eugene Van Patton went bankrupt in 1917, Dr. Nathan Boyd bought the land. His wife had just contracted tuberculosis so he set the place up as a sanitorium.

Our final stop was a swing past the remains of the Van Patton Mountain Camp buildings. This was once a large hotel with two stories, 14 rooms, dining and recreational facilities, beautiful landscaping, and a bandstand.  What remains is just the shells of buildings in a stunning setting.

We had been warned in the visitor center that it gets very dark out here at night and that we should make every effort to be back in our car heading out of the Natural Area no later than 5. It was getting to be past 4 so we cut our explorations short and headed back the way we had come. We made it back to the car in plenty of time and started our drive back to El Paso. As we headed out, though, I had to stop and take one last picture of the Organ Mountains, so named because the vertical rocks look a bit like a pipe organ. The scenery out here really is stunning, and I’m so glad I got the chance to explore a bit!

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Let’s Make It 893

Rickwood Caverns State Park

In just under a week, Alabamians will join the rest of the nation in going to the polls to fill national, statewide, and local offices.  At the presidential level, it’s fair to say it has been a bitter and divisive election, and I’d guess that more than a few people will be glad to see it end, regardless of which candidate wins the office.  There’s a lot of election fatigue out there.

Cheaha State Park

Here in Alabama, in every statewide election we have the opportunity to extend a world record: our dubious achievement of being governed under the world’s longest constitution.  Its 892 amendments make it the most amended constitution in the world.  It’s 12 times longer than the average state constitution, largely due to this state’s aversion to home rule and local autonomy.  In next week’s election, there are 14 more statewide amendments on the ballot.  At the risk of fatiguing you just a little more, Ruth and I ask you to indulge us in just a little bit of campaigning for one of them.

Oak Mountain State Park

Amendment Two is proposed to protect funding for Alabama state parks by preventing the Legislature from using park revenues to shore up other parts of the state’s budget.  As we’ve pointed out before, Alabama taxpayers don’t fund their state parks.  About 80-90% of the budget for running Alabama’s state parks comes from their users through various fees and charges. The rest of the money comes from earmarked portions of use and cigarette taxes.  In recent years, the state has taken $15 million in funds earned by the parks, intended for their operation and maintenance, to meet rising expenses in the general fund that have not been offset by revenue such as taxes.  At first, such transfers depleted park reserves but didn’t affect park operations, but as the transfers continued, the situation deteriorated to the point that it wasn’t possible to keep all the parks open.  Five parks were closed in 2015, though fortunately four of them have re-opened under agreements with local governments.

DeSoto State Park

Amendment Two has two main provisions.  The first, and most significant, states that money raised by the parks for their operation can only be used for that purpose.  It shuts the door on transfers to other state departments.   The parks, if left alone, are practically self-funding and this amendment will keep it that way.  It won’t raise taxes and it won’t raise fees.  Instead, it gives the Alabama State Parks Division the freedom to perform long-term planning to maintain and improve their facilities.  In the current situation, though it’s possible to forecast park revenues to a certain extent, the parks don’t know how much of the money they raise will be available, so they can’t budget accordingly.  In Amendment Two there are limits put in place, so that if the parks actually raise more than $50 million in revenues (a far cry from their current numbers), the amount of money provided by taxes will be pro-rated.  For instance, if the parks raise $55 million in user fees and charges, $5 million less will be coming their way through the earmarked use and cigarette taxes.

Cathedral Caverns State Park

The second provision has been a source of confusion and has led to much misinformation being spread about its intent.  It calls for an amendment to an existing amendment (ugh, this constitution!) that will allow all of the parks to contract with non-state entities to operate hotels, golf courses, and restaurants in the parks.  This has been decried as privatization of the parks.  The truth is that many of the parks already have such arrangements in place, usually to the benefit of the state since those concessionaires pay the state for the privilege of running those facilities.  This language is necessary because an earlier amendment that funded a bond issue to improve some of the parks stipulated that outside entities could not run facilities in those parks.  The result is that years later, those facilities can only be run by the state, even when outside companies can run them more cost-efficiently and pass the savings along to the state.  And if there isn’t enough money to run those facilities, such as golf courses, the state is forced to close them instead of partnering with private enterprise to keep them open.

Monte Sano State Park

Of course, what you see on the ballot isn’t the full text of the proposed legislation, and our Legislators have an evil genius for sneaking in favors for their cronies in the fine print.  The Huntsville Outdoors blog has an excellent look into the history of this bill and its possible pitfalls.  Though there is some language in the bill that has led to skepticism, bear in mind that this bill wasn’t developed in a vacuum, and that the State Parks Division is in favor of the bill.  Conservation Alabama has an explanation of the intent behind this language, and Greg Lein, the director of Alabama State Parks, has also addressed these concerns in an article on al.com.  I know it’s second nature in Alabama to assume that the government is always trying to pull a fast one (with some justification!), but this amendment looks like a golden opportunity to stabilize parks funding and a way to restore some levels of service.

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Lake Guntersville State Park

Some people have said that they always vote against every proposed amendment as a protest vote against the convoluted Alabama constitution.  How’s that working out for you?  If you want to cast a protest vote, ask candidates for your state legislature where they stand on calling a constitutional convention to fix the problem, and depending on their answers, vote accordingly.  Even better, when you have your ballot in hand, spare a moment to think of all the Alabama senators who voted in 2015 to eliminate the Forever Wild Land Trust, in direct opposition to the will of the people who re-authorized the program in 2012 by a 3-1 margin (if your senator isn’t Cam Ward, he or she voted in favor of this travesty).  Though this bill was withdrawn in the face of opposition, there are a lot of senators who would be the better target of a protest vote.

Buck’s Pocket State Park

Approving Amendment Two will secure the future of funding for Alabama’s state parks and prevent the need for hare-brained schemes to keep the parks open.  We’ve traveled to state parks in Tennessee and Georgia many times over the past couple of years, and though Alabama has every bit the natural beauty (and more biodiversity), our facilities and amenities are badly lagging behind those of our neighbors.  Amendment Two can help us realize the potential of our parks.

So as you head to the polls on November 8, spare a thought for our state parks and approve this modest proposal in Amendment Two.  After all, if 892 amendments are good, 893 amendments must be better, right?