First Day Hike: Monte Sano State Park

Chet and I spent New Year’s Eve day driving 8+ hours home from Charlotte, North Carolina, so we were more than ready to get out of the car and stretch our legs when we made it back home to Alabama. Luckily for us, Monte Sano State Park was participating in the National “First Day Hikes” Program, so they had a ranger-guided hike planned for New Year’s Day. We signed up before we even left on our trip.

“First Day Hikes” is a program organized by the National Association of State Park Directors. It started 24 years ago in Milton, Massachusetts, and since 2012, all 50 states have participated in this yearly event. Our own Monte Sano State Park was one of six Alabama State Parks that participated, the others being Cheaha,  DeSoto, Gulf, Lake Guntersville and Oak Mountain.

New Year’s day dawned grey and rainy. We worried that the hike would be cancelled, but as time-to-go neared, it seemed to stop raining and there were no notices that it had been cancelled, so we decided to go for it. As we drove up to the mountain, though, it got foggier and foggier. I was glad that there were no bicyclists on Bankhead Parkway – they would have been really hard to see! We arrived at the hikers parking lot just before the appointed time to find a small group of eleven people, plus head ranger Brian Moore, his wife, and two of their four children. Ranger Brian answered a bunch of questions,  reviewed the recently passed Amendment Two that will protect funding for Alabama’s State Parks (see our blog “Let’s Make it 893”), then started us out into the fog and down the North Plateau Loop trail.

The rain the night before had put a bit of a kink in the plans, as some of the trails in the park were now pretty muddy. Generally speaking, it’s a good idea to stay off of trails when they are muddy – not because of making a mess of your boots and your car, but because it can really cause issues with erosion on the trails. The original plan had been to take us down Fire Tower Trail, but that trail, pretty rutted even in good weather, would have been too much of a mess, so we simply stopped at the intersection for a little history lesson. Ranger Brian pointed out that the trail is a very wide one, and that’s because it was originally the road to the M. J. O’Shaughnessy home. Mr. O’Shaughnessy was one of several New York land developers who came to Huntsville in the 1880s determined to make Huntsville the “Queen City of the South.” They were responsible for the building of the Monte Sano Hotel, a 223 room hotel built in the Queen Anne style as a health resort for the wealthy.  Mr. O’Shaughnessy’s home here was originally the home of Robert Fearn, remodeled in a Queen Anne style like the hotel.  The house burned in 1890 and only some of the foundation stones are still visible. However, Ranger Brian did tell us about something I’ve never noticed before. He said that if you go to O’Shaughnessy Point and look out toward Huntsville, you should be able to see that the landscape is unnaturally flat in some places. These were the hobby farms and orchards associated with the O’Shaughnessy “summer cottage” (as he called his home on the mountain). The larger trees you can see are some of the surviving originals, while the rest of the landscape has been filled in with smaller trees. I’m going to have to schedule a hike on Fire Tower sometime soon to check that out!

We continued on along North Plateau Loop towards the picnic area, passing a fogged in overlook by the lodge, an atmospheric amphitheater, and the top of the falls at McKay Hollow Trail.

From here, we were led through the picnic area up to the large shelter, where the maintenance crew had started up cheery fires in both fireplaces. It was amazing how, even with the open sides of that building, those fires warmed the place right up! This shelter, along with others in the park, can be reserved for the day for a fee, though if they are not reserved they are open for anybody to use – and anyone can use the fireplaces as well.

We enjoyed the warmth and the crackling fires for a little while, but then headed on back out into the damp to finish our hike. We walked up to the road, past the railroad, which is another remnant from the days of Mr. O’Shaughnessy and the Monte Sano Hotel, and into the Japanese Tea Garden. Ranger Brian explained that at one time, there was actually a pretty large Japanese population in Huntsville, thanks to some of the large tech companies in the area. Several decades ago now, the Japanese Tea Garden was built by the community and used during a Japanese Festival that happened every year until 2007.  Sadly as the original creators either passed away or moved out of the area, the garden wasn’t maintained and became pretty overgrown. Recently, though, a group from the community and UAH have started working to restore the area. Led by Kozo Matsuta and horticulturalist Robert Gardner the group is raising funds to repair the roof of the Tea House and replace or repair some of the footbridges. It’s a beautiful spot and I thought the fog gave it even more of an air of mystery.

From the Tea Garden, we headed back down the road to the hikers parking lot and our cars again. It was not a very long hike (1.8 miles) and not on a “new to me” trail, but I really enjoyed the time spent outside again and I especially enjoyed having the insider’s view that comes from a ranger-led hike. I certainly plan to make First Day Hike a part of my New Year’s tradition. Maybe next year you will too?

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