Chet 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.
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?
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.