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.
The 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. However, 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.
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.
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.
The 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. Second, 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. After 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.
Ruffner 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. As 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.
After 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. This 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. The 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.
We 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. The 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. Though 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.