When planning a hike, there are so many factors to keep in mind. One of the biggest is time constraints — how long will it take you to get to the trailhead? How long will it take you to complete the hike? A separate, but related, factor is how long is your planned hike? Just because you have the time doesn’t mean you have the fitness to take on a long and/or challenging trail. Travel and weather constraints can also affect your choice for a hike. Can you safely get to the trail entry and exit points? Will you need to bring a shuttle vehicle (which eats into your hiking time)? And finally, what would you like to see? Are you in the mood for long-distance views, waterfalls, creeks, odd landmarks, or cultural/historic features?
These are the questions we ask each other every week. On our latest hike, we had some pretty severe constraints on time, distance, and travel. This was the weekend of the first “snowstorm” of 2017, the one that closed all the schools around here. To be fair, there was snow north of us in Tennessee, and south of us in the Birmingham area, but our little slice of heaven got only a few grudging flakes. We were treated with some bone-chilling cold, though, when the wind chill kicks in. Given that road conditions could be iffy north or south of us, we couldn’t invest the time in a long trip to a trailhead, we weren’t in tip-top shape, and the arctic winds were howling, we wanted something close to home, with good roads in and out, and not particularly long or grueling. After some brain-racking, I came up with the Tom Bevill Trail at Lake Guntersville State Park, because it hit the sweet spot.
The drive down to Guntersville was uneventful, with not a speck of snow or ice on the roadway. We took our usual route down Alabama 431 into downtown Guntersville, turning left on Highway 227 to make the drive to the park. We knew from previous trips that the Bevill trailhead is not actually in the main part of the park. After you cross an arm of Lake Guntersville, a park office, picnic area, and boat ramp are on the south side of Highway 227. We parked at the eastern end of the parking area.
Lake Guntersville State Park is well-known for its bald eagles in January, so we were slightly hopeful of seeing one. When we got out of the truck, though, there was an enormous ruckus right in front of us. A large flock of birds were wheeling over an arm of the lake, occasionally dipping into the water. Ruth and I are not birders, so I’m afraid I have no idea what they were. They did disturb one heron, who glumly “gronked” its way beneath the flock, no doubt looking for some peace and quiet. I’ve put a video over on the Woodlands and Waters Facebook page to give you some sense of it.
The Tom Bevill trailhead is across the road, marked with a wooden sign and orange blazes on trees and the occasional rock. Tom Bevill, in case you didn’t know, was a 15-term U.S. Congressman from north Alabama, and his name is on a lot of buildings. This is a loop trail, technically a lollipop where you hike up the “stick” until you reach the loop. The path from the road to the loop is a sharp ascent (120 feet in altitude over .1 mile). It’s fairly obvious when you reach the loop, though there is no explicit signage, so we decided we’d hike the loop headed clockwise (turning left, or west).
The trail at this point becomes level or gently rolling along the southwest face of Ellenburg Mountain. The Bevill trail is a relatively easy trail that encircles the mountain, mostly at an altitude well below its summit. Parts of the trail are quite wide and are clearly old roadbed, though the trail narrows to single track in a few sections. The surface is dirt (well, actually it was well-carpeted with leaves) with relatively few rocky or rooty sections.
After walking west for a few minutes, we could see some partially obscured views of one of the southern arms of the lake. Cameras don’t really do the view justice, though this part of the trail is really not high enough on the mountain to give great views to the south. At about a mile into the hike, we neared the western edge of the loop, and a couple of switchbacks turned us away from lake views to gain some height. The trail then turned north, and about .25 miles later we reached the highest altitude of the hike, about 1000 feet, with better views of the main part of the lake and Buck Island.
It’s probably no coincidence that this portion of trail showed a fair amount of damage from the April 2011 tornado that did so much damage to the park, particularly in the camping area. Lots of trees were felled on this portion of trail, but that’s old news as the trail has long since been cleaned up and is easily passable now. Thanks, trail maintainers, for what had to have been a huge job! There was no shortage of trailside logs, so we stopped for lunch here.
We continued on around the northern portion of Ellenburg Mountain. At about .2 miles from our lunch spot, views to the north were of the main section of the park, as opposed to lake views. As this was the northern aspect of the mountain, it was a bit shadier and cooler here. We stepped on more frost heaves underneath the leaves. This portion of the trail had nice level clearings off to the left in a few places. We didn’t explore them, but the mountain supposedly has old home sites on it.
At about 2.25 miles into the hike, we came to a junction with the Cave Trail, the Spring Trail, and a connector to the Terrell Trail. The Cave Trail leads back to the northwest before bending back north and arriving at a small cave. The Spring Trail, blazed light blue, shares the footbed with the Bevill trail, so for a while the trail is marked with orange and blue blazes. The connector to the Terrell Trail leads downhill to cross a closed park road to connect with trails on Graveyard Hill. There’s a trail map at the intersection, with your current location marked with a star, so you can’t get lost.
We turned right here, to continue the Bevill/Spring trail, and very quickly came to what may have been the spring. It was dry, but when flowing it would be very scenic, emerging from below a tree and draining down a small creek toward the road. A short distance later, the trail forked, with Bevill turning to the right, and an old roadbed heading to the left back toward the road. This was apparently one end of the Spring Trail, as the blue blazes ceased when we turned to the south. There was a bit of a climb here on a nice wide portion of the trail, and we soon came upon a portion of foundation or an old wall, with a battered small wooden sign merely with the number 10 on it.
I should mention that this trail was a project of the Young Adult Conservation Corps (YACC) in the 1980s. The YACC was a federal government program funded from 1977-1982, modeled on the Civilian Conservation Corps. The YACC built the trail as an interpretive trail, and it’s listed as the “Tom Bevill Interpretive Trail” in many sources. Like many interpretive trails, there would have been items of interest marked with numbered signs, with an accompanying pamphlet to describe (interpret) the significance of what you were looking at. I think the pamphlets are long gone, and I know the signs are — we only saw #9 and #10 remaining on the trail. Anybody out there looking for a cool service project?
The trail at this point turns southeast and scales the tail end of a knob on the eastern side of the mountain before mostly leveling out and trending downhill. We wound along with a bluff looming above us to the right, before the trail gently descended to the junction with the lollipop stick. Though our paper trail map implied that the trail splits before scaling the knob, the ground truth is that there is only one blazed trail, for a total of 3.6 miles for the entire loop hike.
We probably didn’t catch this trail at its finest. The leaves were down and brown, the creeks were dry, and the views are partially obscured. I’d love to see a spur trail that goes up to the northwest summit of the mountain, maybe even with an observation platform to make the most of that stunning view. And given the mountain’s natural and historic features, it would be great to provide some context for the user along the way. The park has quite rightly had higher priorities, especially since April 2011, but I hope it’s a target for some TLC in the future. The park administration has shown great tenacity and creativity in making Lake Guntersville a showcase park, and it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if they have plans for the Bev. Come on, a cool nickname — that’s a good start!