Catching Up on Monte Sano

Maybe I overdid it a bit this past Saturday. After spending a morning wrestling trees as part of building a new Land Trust of North Alabama trail on Wade Mountain, I went home and demolished the former home of @CaseyTheHound (don’t worry, I built him a new house two weeks ago). All that bending and pulling left me a bit sore for a Sunday hike, but I haven’t hiked in about three weeks so I was keen to get out for a little while.

A few years ago, Ruth and I set a goal of hiking every Land Trust trail in a calendar year, and we actually did it and wrote about it in our first blog post. However, the Land Trust is always adding new trails and new properties (which is one of the things we love about them!), so since 2012 a few new things have happened on the Monte Sano Preserve. This seemed like a good opportunity to throw in a short recovery hike and visit a couple of trails that didn’t exist when we hiked ’em all.

After studying the updated trail map, I sketched out about a two-mile loop that started from the Bankhead parking lot. 01gaslightWe started out on the Alms House trail, winding and descending about .1 mile down this rocky trail until the Gaslight trail took off to the right at a sharp bend of Alms House. This was new trail number one for us — a short connector that runs east-west to connect the Alms House and Toll Gate trails. It wasn’t well marked at the beginning, though the first trail diamond comes into view about 25 yards down the trail.

Before describing the Gaslight trail, I’d like to talk about why new trails get created. You might wonder why anyone would make changes to a perfectly good trail system — to paraphrase Alabama’s own Rep. Alvin Holmes, “What’s wrong with the trails we got? They walk pretty good.” I can think of five reasons: (1) to make a new property accessible for use (the best kind of new trail!); (2) to showcase some outstanding natural or historic feature; (3) to improve navigation in existing trails, by creating more access points to a property, creating connections to existing trails to facilitate loop hikes, or just to simplify the trail map; (4) to fix a problem with a trail, such as unrepairable damage or issues with property lines; and (5) to rename a trail to recognize someone for their philanthropy or service.

02gaslightThe Gaslight trail is an example of #3 above — it’s a utilitarian improvement, a short (.23 miles), largely level trail that happens to connect two of the longer trails in the Monte Sano preserve to create a loop opportunity of about .6 miles — the shortest possible loop you can make out of the Bankhead parking lot. It’s a pleasant short walk along an old roadbed, hacked through a pretty hefty stand of bush honeysuckle. 03gaslight_endThe trail ends at Bankhead Parkway, across from a neighborhood on Gaslight Way.  There’s no parking at this trailhead — just a chain to keep people from taking four-wheelers onto the trail.  The Gaslight trail is an example of connecting the trail system to adjoining neighborhoods, so that residents can just stroll down the street and pop onto the trails without having to travel to one of the parking lots.

04lichen_treeTo continue our loop, we backtracked a few feet and turned southwest on the Toll Gate trail, which winds downhill through less rocky terrain and open woods to intersect with one end of the Old Railroad Bed trail.  14lunaWe continued on just a bit further, paralleling Toll Gate Road, with the aim of reaching the north end of the Watts trail.  But before we got there, we picked up a hiking companion to join us — Miss Luna, who was keen to stretch her little legs and soak up the smells of the forest.   We walked on down to the Watts trailhead, only to find that we actually already have hiked this trail, under another name:  the Toll Creek trail.

So the Watts trail is an example of #5 in my list above — a trail renamed to honor someone (in this case, a family who donated property to the Land Trust).  05watts_signAnd it’s also an example of #3 — merging two short trails (Toll Creek and Alms Creek) to simplify the trail map, as there were various flavors of “Tolls” and “Alms” and “Wagon” and “Creek” mixed up in trail names in the area, and it was easy to get confused when the trails had similar names.  The old signage at the trailhead persists for now, but the trail diamonds have been updated to show the new names, so the navigation is pretty clear once you’re on the trail.  To make matters easier, we were using the CartoTracks app (a freebie for Land Trust members!) to keep us on track, and the new trails and trail names were up to date.

06watts_lunaWith Luna leading the way, we descended down the Watts trail to cross the Fagan Springs trail and continued on down to Fagan Creek.  Not that I’d presume to speak for a dog, but I’d say that the creek was the highlight of the trip for Luna.  08lunaAfter only a brief hesitation, she splashed right across and was eager to explore (and get a cool drink or two).  She wasn’t very cooperative in holding still so I could get a good photo of her in the water, but she did consent to strike a noble pose for me on the creekbank.

By any name, this is a lovely part of the Monte Sano Preserve.  Fagan Creek is always photogenic.  09fagan_creekI don’t know if it went completely dry in the drought, but it had a decent flow on the day of our hike, and was easy to cross.  After crossing the creek, the Watts trail briefly merges with the Wildflower trail to the left, but after crossing a couple of plank bridges the Watts trail again takes off uphill to the right.  The trail junction is a little subtle, but you can spot the trail diamonds easily.

10fagan_creekThe Watts trail terminates at a junction with the Wagon Trail and the Alms House trail.  We decided that we’d maximize our creek views on the way back to the parking lot, so we turned northeast on the Wagon trail and descended back down to the Wildflower trail.  This trail is at its glorious best in the spring, but is really a trail for all seasons, with Fagan Creek flowing quietly to the left.  We gave Luna another chance to splash in the waters before continuing along the trail.  11wildflower_downtreeWe noticed a few trees down in this section, including one that partially blocked the trail, though the damage here was nothing like that on the trails higher on Monte Sano.  The November 29 tornado that did the damage in the Ryland Pike area first touched down on Monte Sano, but thanks to heroic efforts of volunteers, trails in Monte Sano State Park and higher elevation Land Trust trails were quickly made passable.

12wildflower_old_foundationThis part of the Wildflower trail also has a couple of historic points of interest — the remains of an old water tank and just downstream, the foundations of a pump house that supplied water to the tank, which in turn supplied water to the train on the Monte Sano Railroad from 1888-1896.

13drycreekWe took a sharp right turn at Fagan Spring and headed uphill to join the Alms House trail, the last leg of our loop.  Fagan Creek was dry upstream of the spring, as is often the case, but it’s always fun to admire the dry creek bed and imagine what it would be like with a massive water flow.  After crossing the creek, the return trip is an uphill slog in a few sections, with a few switchbacks thrown in.

All in all, it was a relaxing 2.1 mile loop in familiar territory.  It was nice to cross a couple of new trails off the to-do list, but we’ve still got some catching up to do.  And we don’t mind a bit!  Much thought goes into trail systems, and to judge from the Land Trust, trail development is an active, ongoing process to create and improve recreational opportunities on preserved lands.

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