Bluebell Heaven: Monte Sano Sinks Trail

My favorite flower in all the world is the Virginia Bluebell.  This is a fairly recent discovery for me, actually.  I don’t remember ever even seeing one growing up, though I hiked a lot with my dad in the Great Smoky Mountains. I’ve looked up the range for these flowers, and though it looks like they’re native to my home county, the spots where I’d have been hiking are in a county with no sightings. Maybe that explains it. In any case, I first saw these flowers as an adult and was instantly charmed. Blooming as they do in the early spring, their pink, blue and purple blooms almost seem to glow against the backdrop of brown leaf litter. Magical. I’d only ever seen a clump of just a few flowers growing in the wild – at Short Springs Natural Area near Tullahoma, Tennessee and on the Land Trust of North Alabama’s Matthews Preserve on a members only hike. When my friend and officemate Rachel mentioned to me last year that the Sinks Trail on Monte Sano had the most bluebells she’d ever seen in one spot,  I marked it down on my “to-do” list for this year to get to that trail while the bluebells were in bloom.

Last week, I heard the word – bluebells had been sighted! And it couldn’t have been on a worse weekend. Chet had commitments Saturday morning, Saturday afternoon was stormy and horrible, and Sunday I had a commitment into the early afternoon. That left us a sliver of Sunday afternoon to squeeze in a hike. To make matters worse, I woke up Sunday morning with a horrible backache. By the time I was free and the back had settled down, it was getting a little late to be starting a hike but we started packing up anyway, only to realize that the all-important camera batteries were dead and the backup set was not charged either. We delayed long enough to get a little charge in the batteries, which had us leaving the house after 3:00. On the way, we realized that neither of us had a cent to our names, so we’d have another delay as we had to hunt out an ATM to get some cash for the entry fee for the state park. I was starting to wonder if maybe this hike was just not meant to be, but finally, at nearly 4:00, we made it to the trail head.

This hike starts out at the overlook near the planetarium. There were a few other cars in the lot, but most folks seemed to be just enjoying the view from the overlook. We headed around the gate that closes off the old Bankhead Parkway and started down the paved road. At .2  miles, what I think of as the actual trail – the part on dirt – heads off to the right and down into Mills Hollow. Along the way we spotted our first wildflowers but they were few and far between. The trail turned a little slick and muddy, as well. I still wasn’t convinced this hike was a good idea.

Several switchbacks led us down .2 of a mile to the intersection with the broad Mountain Mist Trail. We crossed and kept on going downhill, though at a gentler grade. We spotted some trillium almost ready to bloom, but still the wildflowers were pretty sparse. A little less than .1 mile from the intersection with Mountain Mist, we came to the intersection with the Logan Point trail, where there was a lovely little tree in bloom. We later decided it was most likely a Mexican plum. Here, the Sinks Trail turns right to continue on down the hollow, while Logan Point Trail goes straight ahead and starts back up to reach Logan’s Point. The Sinks Trail at this point got even muddier, but that made me more hopeful for good wildflowers. We spotted another one of my favorites – spring beauty –  along with a few scattered other violets, hepatica, and bloodroot.

And then finally, off to the left, a patch of bluebells! It was a patch of bright green leaves and tall blue and purple flowers bright against the dull brown forest floor. It measured about 6’X6′. I was so happy! I had Chet take a picture of me next to them.


And then…

Chet suggested we hike on up to the top of the little rise to get to where we could see the sinks themselves. He thought there might be more flowers there. Boy, was he right. I have never in my life seen so many bluebells in one spot! The hillsides were covered uphill and down, both sides of the trail. It was incredible. There isn’t a collective noun for a large group of bluebells (you know, like a “murder of crows”) but I think there needs to be. What should it be? A carpet? A gasp? A peal? A wowza? An epiphany? A joy? Oh I know!  “An eloquence,” after Anne Bronte’s poem “The Bluebell,” which contains this stanza:

There is a silent eloquence
In every wild bluebell
That fills my softened heart with bliss
That words could never tell.

We wandered around the bluebells taking pictures and just soaking in all the beauty for a while, but then reluctantly left that magical place to head back to the truck before sundown. We ended up hiking only about 2.1 miles by our GPS track but by our count we’d seen at least 10 wildflowers, which of course meant ice cream! Chet had the brilliant idea to get (what else) Blue Bell ice cream – dutch chocolate for me and coffee for him. Bluebells and Blue Bell ice cream – a perfect day after all!





Try, Try Again: TVA Honeycomb Trail, Take Two

When my sisters and I were growing up on the farm, we spent a lot of time with our mother.  She was a sharecropper’s daughter, and could work any of us into the ground with no apparent effort on her part.  Along the way, she would dish out servings of motherly wisdom.  Sad to say, I’ve forgotten most of the words, but I remember one phrase she never failed to employ when any of us were frustrated by some task or puzzle:  “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”  She’d trot out that proverb in a sing-song voice to her eye-rolling audience, and we’d grit our teeth and give it another go, until we figured out how to solve the problem.

Those words have been chasing around in my brain ever since we had to bail on our attempt to hike the TVA Honeycomb Trail a couple of weeks ago.  The Honeycomb Trail is a relatively new trail that has been open for a little over a year, running from Guntersville Dam to the Honeycomb Campground just off Highway 431.  We didn’t have very good information about the trail and weren’t sure about its western trailhead, so we made an attempt at an east to west hike.  It didn’t work out as we planned, as we missed a key junction that would have taken us to the dam, so instead we just hiked in a circle.

It wasn’t a total waste, though.  We did some reconnoitering and figured out where the western trailhead was, so when a chance came up to try a long-ish hike we decided to try, try again.  One of Ruth’s co-workers who spends weekends at the campground offered to give us a shuttle back to the dam, so we opted to try our luck hiking west to east instead.

We drove to the north side of the dam and parked at a picnic pavilion by a (still-locked) bathroom.  Come on, TVA!  A brown plastic post is next to a gap in the trees next to the pavilion, and just a few feet afterwards, there’s a dirt road running parallel to the main road.  Turn to the right, and you’ll see another brown plastic post and, more to the point, a white blaze on a tree, and that’s the western trailhead of the Honeycomb Trail.

The trail begins with a climb of about .1 mile on a wide, dirt surface, well-covered in leaves.  Frequent white blazes make it easy to follow this section of the trail as it rises and undulates along a southern flank of Bishop Mountain.  The morning sun was bright as we climbed to the east and leveled out about 150-200 feet higher than the lake, sparkling below us through the trees.  Views aren’t particularly photogenic as a mix of pines and hardwoods to the right of the trail interpose, but you can see glimpses of Lake Guntersville and the dam.

At about .75 miles, the first of many dirt roads/paths takes off to the left.  We followed the white blazes to the right, which quickly led to another fork, with the blazes continuing to the right.  The trail then drops steeply toward the lake, then winds to the left and generally saunters down toward the water.  As we neared the water, we heard an almighty racket coming from the water, and I bushwacked down to the water to discover two Canadian geese were the culprits.  They were too far away to get a good photo.

Along this stretch, we applied our tree ID skills to a couple of unusual trees.  We knew that a toothed leaf clinging to a tree with a smooth, muscled trunk was likely an American hornbeam, and further comparison with a field guide confirmed our guess.  We also ran across an evergreen that resembled a holly tree, but had sharp spines on the twigs.  Probably the most useful thing we learned in our class is the type of details to look for in a tree — leaf arrangement, bark characteristics, what the flowers look like and when they bloom, leaf shape and size, overall size and shape of the canopy, inflorescence types — well, you get the idea.  We took photos and notes, and later identified the tree as a thorny olive.

Once we were down at lake level, the trail made its way along Hambrick Hollow, a long hollow that extends northward between two lobes of the mountain.  This segment of the trail is particularly wide and open, and resembles an old roadbed.  The land to the left of the trail is in private hands, and is marked with various ribbons, red blazes, and signs.  This area has several roads or tracks that descend the mountain down to the water, but if you keep the water to your right and follow the white blazes you’ll stay on the TVA property.

This stretch of the trail was our favorite part of the entire hike.  The waters of Hambrick Hollow alternated from deep green to bright blue, depending on whether you were looking into or out of the hollow.  Red maples on the bank were in bloom, with bunches of scarlet samaras popping against the water.

Eastern hophornbeam

The trail hugs the shore and passes under a power line cut (the same power line cut that we’ll cross at the end of the hike, miles later).  Before the power line cut, we spotted another unusual tree with shaggy, peeling brown bark.  It too had toothed dried leaves clinging to it, but had a different vein pattern and petiole compared to the hornbeam we had seen earlier.  We had a suspicion that it was an Eastern hophornbeam, and our notes and photos later confirmed it.  We’ve been wanting to spot this one in the wild, and it was really instructive to see hornbeam and hophornbeam trees within a quarter-mile of each other.

The Honeycomb Trail continued along the western side of Hambrick Hollow, with a metal bridge spanning a small channel coming in from the left.   As we neared the end of the hollow, the water to the right became shallow, and we started seeing a variety of wildflowers to the left of the trail.  Fire pink made an early appearance, and a bunch of common blue violets set up housekeeping in the bole of a tree, but the real stars of the show were the Sweet Betsy trilliums (trillium cuneatum), just bursting into bloom.  The northern side of the hollow was a trillium glade.  We had to watch our step as they spilled onto the trail.

At the head of the hollow, we crossed another metal bridge, and turned to the south to exit the east side of Hambrick Hollow.  A wildlife observation (or perhaps hunting) blind rose in the woods on private property to our left.  The trail then crossed under the power lines again, and shortly after that we heard a familiar racket — it was the geese again, who apparently had trailed us into the hollow.  Well, I can’t swear it was the same two geese, but they were certainly not shy.

At about .6 miles from the head of the hollow, a rusting hulk is visible to the left in the woods.  The trail turns to the left and begins to rise away from the river, and then passes the remains of a large truck.  In looking at maps later, it appears that the Honey Cemetery is in this general area, but we didn’t see any signage pointing to it.  Afterwards, the trail climbs sharply up an old roadbed for about .25 miles before drifting to the right and descending about 60 feet in elevation to run toward Honey Bluff.

This portion of the hike is probably in the Honeycomb Creek Small Wild Area, as the private property markings retreat from the edges of the trail.  We stopped for a lunch break before reaching Honey Bluff, and couldn’t help but notice a downy serviceberry in glorious bloom right next to the rock we were using as our picnic bench.  There were also plaintain-leaved pussytoes in the general area.

We continued on to Honey Bluff, reaching it at about the 3-mile mark in the hike.  The trail doesn’t actually hug the edge of the bluff, but there are nice views of the lake off to the right.  The trail then cuts back to the left, away from the lake, and undulates to the east.  Along the way, apparently it exits the small wild area.  There’s no signage, but private property red blazes appear on a tree.  At about 3.6 miles, the trail crosses a creek, the only significant one that we saw on this hike, but the crossing was easy.

The trail winds along to the east, generally level, wide, and well-graded.  At about 5.0 miles, I spotted a potential marker tree about 50 feet off the trail to the left.  Its “nose” had a bearing of about 82 degrees, generally to the east, but this area has been changed so radically as a result of Guntersville Dam that there is no telling what it originally may have marked.  A 1936 map of the area suggests that it could be generally pointing in the direction of the Honeycomb Creek-Tennessee River junction, but that’s just a guess.

At about 5.3 miles, the trail takes a sharp right turn and quickly descends to lake level again.  This initially confused us, as the trail seemed to double back toward the dam, but it was just seeking a good place to make the drop.  From here, the trail follows the shoreline, heading toward a reedy cove we thought was in the general vicinity of the section of the trail we had hiked previously.  We stopped to snap a few photos of rue anemone, one of the classic early spring wildflowers, and walked on toward the cove, known as Pumpkin Hollow, passing a small pond on the right.

The trail reached the grassy cove and turned to the left, working its way inland to skirt the edge.  This area has several tracks and old roads in it, but again we stuck to the white blazes and didn’t have any problems (yet).  The trail continued inland for about .15 miles before crossing a dry drainage, then abruptly climbing on the other edge of the hollow and rising above the lake.  We saw a few wood violets in this area.  We made one more descent to the lake, at a second, smaller reedy cove, before again turning inland and heading northeast.  Somewhere in this stretch of the trail, the white blazes disappeared.  We knew we were close to the junction of where the trail splits to circle around the knob that protrudes into Honeycomb Creek (the loop trail from our previous attempt), so we just stuck to the trail and in about .25 miles we came to the unmarked junction.  To our right, the white-blazed trail headed south and west to form the main part of the loop.  Straight ahead, the white blazes led through the woods back into familiar territory — the muddy clearing, the short patch of woods, the power line cut, and the final descent down into the parking lot at Honeycomb.  (The photo to the right shows the junction from the opposite view — we came up the route on the right of the picture.)  We had tried, tried again, and succeeded in completing the Honeycomb Trail, in a total distance of 7.9 miles, according to our GPS track.

All in all, the Honeycomb Trail is a pleasant walk in the woods, with a few elevation changes as you make a few transitions to view Lake Guntersville from on high and from the shoreline.  The footbed throughout was wide and level, with a natural surface of leaf litter and dirt in sections near the lakeshore.  There were a few places that could have used a light lopping, but overall the trail is in very good shape and is well drained.  It’s a long walk, especially if you don’t have a shuttle vehicle, but even a short section hike is worth your while.  We’d recommend hiking west to east, and if you want a shorter hike that gives you the general flavor without using a shuttle vehicle, start from the west trailhead and walk about 2.75 miles to the old truck in Hambrick Hollow.  Maybe you can find Honey Cemetery.  If not, you know what to do…try, try again.

Spring Forward: North Oak Mountain State Park Loop

2017 has had some crazy weather. Mostly it’s been warmer than usual, and the poor plants are so confused that some are blooming months ahead of schedule. Now, everybody always jokes about the Alabama weather: “if you don’t like the weather, just wait a minute and it will change;” “welcome to the place where you can get sunburn and frostbite in the same week;”  “Alabama, where it can go from spring to winter in three days,” etc. etc. Still, after a February where we had temperatures in the 70s, I was a little surprised to wake up the morning after we had “sprung forward” to a dusting of snow on the back porch.  Perhaps I should have both checked the weather and considered how losing that hour of sleep would impact things before I picked out our hike for the week, but I hadn’t. I had picked a hike in Oak Mountain State Park, about two hours south of our house, thinking that maybe the flowers that were almost in bloom up here would be further along down there. Even if they weren’t, my thinking was that we might be able to take in some nice views off the ridges of Oak Mountain, so despite the snow (and extra early waking up time) we headed off to the south for our hike, only a little later than I had hoped.

The route I’d picked out was a loop that started and ended at the North Trailhead. There is a large gravel lot across the road from the actual trailhead with plenty of parking and restroom facilities. The kiosk at the start of the trail was full of maps and useful information, and a sign nearby listed the four trails that leave from this trailhead. Our first trail was the Blue Trail, which on park maps is also labeled the South Rim Trail.  I noticed on the trail sign that it also called the “Les Miller Memorial Trail.” You know I just had to look him up when we got home. Here’s what I found out. Les Miller was a founding member of the Vulcan Trail Association (founded 1976). He spent at least 35 years as a park volunteer in Oak Mountain State Park, leading hikes once a month for at least 23 of those years. He not only knew every trail in the park, he also knew the history of the area and shared it readily with any who asked. Sounds like a pretty cool guy!

Back to the hike, though, three of the trails take off to the right of the kiosk, but our trail  headed up the hill to the left past the most detailed signpost I’ve ever seen on a trail. I mean, it covered everything! The first part of this hike was a pretty steep climb up through the oak woods. We gained 200 feet in altitude in the first quarter of a mile. After that, the trail continues to climb but not quite as steeply. We kept our eyes open for trillium, may apple, violets, star chickweed, hepatica, toothwort – any of the plants we’d seen in bloom or almost in bloom recently – but saw not a one. We did pass under a dogwood that was just starting to bloom, but mostly the understory was pretty devoid of color.

Until, about a half a mile in, we spotted the most gorgeous thing! It was a lone azalea in full and glorious bloom off the trail to our right. We just had to go admire it from closer up. This azalea flowers before leaf-out, and without the leaves it was impossible for us to say if it was a mountain or pinxter azalea, but in either case it was stunning. It was almost the only thing in sight that was in bloom – the only exception being a small white-flowered shrub just up the hill that I think might have been a serviceberry in bloom.  I’m afraid my tree ID class did not lead me to that conclusion, though. I was guessing white redbud which I’d just learned is an actual thing last weekend (who knew!?). I’d guessed redbud based on what else was in bloom right now mostly but when I got home and looked at the pictures I’d taken and scoured the field guides it was obviously not a redbud. Serviceberry flowers, leaf arrangement, bark, and growing habit all match pretty well though. Lucky for me, the Huntsville Botanical Garden staff can tell me if I was right. All I have to do is send my pictures and my guess to and ask!

We headed on up the trail, but stopped for lunch not much further along (our “stomach clocks” adjusted quickly to daylight saving time, apparently) at a spot where two large boulders sat just off the trail. It was a pretty spot with views down the hill and a tiny creeklet gushing out from under one of the rocks and trickling down the hill. The trail continued on up, passing one end of the North Red-Blue Connector Trail, before the trail leveled off a bit on what seemed to be an old roadbed. There were nice views down into the valley between the ridges of Double Oak Mountain to our right, and signs pointed off onto side trails that led steeply uphill towards various vista points, but we opted to stay on the trail. Eagles Nest Overlook and King’s Chair Overlook were two of the places we passed up. Each would have added another .6 miles to our hike and we were already going to get back much later than I’d hoped due to a late start. In hindsight, though, I wish we’d taken at least on of them. I hear King’s Chair in particular has really fantastic views.

We continued along the ridge top for about .2 miles, then dropped down into Shackleford Gap and a watery section of trail and then back up to the ridge top again before reaching the South Red-Blue Connector Trail.  The trail continued up and down a bit, over a flatter ridge top section and past the site of a 1951 plane crash. We knew from the maps that this would be our last chance for a view to the southeast, so we did finally take one of the faint side trails leading to a rocky outcrop.

Finally, at about the 3.4 mile mark, we reached the junction with the Orange Connector Trail. The Blue Trail continues on for another 3.3 miles or so to reach Peavine Falls, but we took the Connector to start our loop back to the North Trail Head. In less than a tenth of a mile we passed a side trail to backcountry campsite #3, which looks like a very nice spot to spend a night. Another couple of tenths and we crossed the Red Road, which is a wide gravel bike trail, and then headed back into woods filled with sparkleberry and various types of oaks. In another .3 miles the trail had gently risen up to the junction with the White, or Shackleford Point, Trail.

The White Trail immediately started the climb up to the highest point in the park, Shackleford Point. The point itself is marked with no less than three geodetic survey benchmarks, all cemented into rock. Past the Point, we came across early saxifrage peeking out from between some rocks, and then the rocky trail narrowed to a knife edge. At a little less than a mile, we came to a place marked as Indian Lookout, but which was right about where trail signs had said Cove Top Cliff should be. Official park maps didn’t have either name listed so I don’t know what’s going on there. Whatever the place is called, it did have very nice views out to the southeast.

After traversing a bit more of the rocky spine of Shackleford Point, we started down off the northwestern slope of the mountain and towards an intersection with the Yellow, or Foothills, Trail.  As we came down off the heights we could hear the rush of a creek close by, and after the White Trail joined the Yellow Trail for a few hundred feet, we finally saw another pop of color in the woods. It was a pair of Red Buckeyes just coming into bloom. Just past the buckeyes, the combined White and Yellow Trail leads down alongside a pretty little cascade and then to a bridge that takes you across the larger, louder creek and to the Maggie’s Glen kiosk. It’s a lovely area, but we had hoped for spring wildflowers. We were disappointed on that account. The Yellow Trail leaves out of the Glen in one direction, while the White Trail leaves out the opposite side, alongside the creek.

The last 1.16 miles of the White Trail are an easy, level walk though sections of the trail on this day were very flooded. It actually looked like the trail had at one time been right next to the creek, but then had been moved away a bit. The trail was still often one big mud puddle though. After going along the creek for about a quarter of a mile the trail takes a sharp right to continue as the White Trail, while going straight ahead takes you to the cabin area. We kept on the White Trail, walking through piney woods and over multiple little streams.  We could hear a bit of road noise and started to see cars through the trees and soon came to the junction with the other end of the Yellow Trail that had led from Maggie’s Glen. We joined the Yellow trail for a few hundred feet, then came to the big Red Road again, with the starting kiosk and parking lot in sight.

Our final mileage was 6.8 miles. We saw very few spring flowers on this “Spring Forward” hike, but that first azalea was worth the trip all on its own!  Oak Mountain is an absolutely beautiful spot. We’ll be planning more trips down there soon!

Honey, I Shrunk the Trail

About 18 months ago we first caught wind of a new trail being developed by TVA in a Small Wild Area near Guntersville Dam.  We’ve since heard the trail has been completed, or at least mostly completed, and we’ve been waiting for a good weekend to try it out.  It’s a relatively long trail, with length estimates from 7.5 to 9.3 miles, so we needed a good block of time for the attempt.  We had even scouted out the trailheads on a previous trip in the area, so when a free Saturday with decent weather came along, it was time to strike!

The trail is known as the Honeycomb Trail because the eastern trailhead is in the Honeycomb community of Marshall County.  The trailhead is  just outside of TVA’s Honeycomb Campground and the trail runs along Honeycomb Creek, or what used to be Honeycomb Creek — the construction of Guntersville Dam in the late 1930s flooded the tiny creek, to the point that it’s pretty much indistinguishable from the Tennessee River at this point.  The western trailhead is reputed to be somewhere near the parking area of the north side of Guntersville Dam — we didn’t find it on our previous brief reconnoiter, so we decided to drop a shuttle vehicle at the dam, then drove to Honeycomb Campground to hike east to west.

We weren’t able to find an online trail map, but from looking at a map of the general area, it seemed pretty simple.  The trail would pretty much follow the shoreline of  Guntersville Lake, working its way southwest to the dam.  We figured there would be some meandering, but as long as we kept the lake on our left, we couldn’t get lost.

We parked in the gravel parking lot just outside the day use area for Honeycomb Campground.  There’s space for about four or five vehicles, just on the right before you come to the guard station.  A white-blazed trail departed from a corner of the parking lot, with a sign listing the rules and a kiosk with nothing in it but cobwebs.  The paucity of signage was a little off-putting, since TVA trails are usually better documented, but the trail is still somewhat under development.

The trail ascended on a good dirt footbed about .15 miles before coming to a power line cut.  Up to this point the trail was well blazed, but once we entered the open area there wasn’t any obvious route marked.  However, we quickly spotted a track skirting the open area on the left of the power line cut, and it was obviously cut back and maintained, so we followed it, dodging the blackberry canes that jutted out into the trail.  This stretch was not blazed at all, and when it opened into a clearing with piles of mulch, we were concerned that perhaps we should have explored the power line cut a little more.  A dirt road exited the clearing to the southeast, but Ruth scouted ahead and spotted white blazes ahead and to the left, in our original direction of travel.

The trail bent southward, re-entering the forest.  It climbed briefly, then stayed mostly level as it traversed a lobe of Bishop Mountain, bending back to the west before turning south again and entering a somewhat soggy clearing.  The route is a little unclear here, but if you continue south across the clearing you’ll come to a wide trail that resembles an old roadbed, with white blazes easily spotted to the southwest.  This particular stretch of the trail, about .8 miles into the hike, was really nice, through an open hardwood forest with plenty of early wildflowers blooming or about to bloom.  We spotted trillium (not yet blooming), false garlic, mayapple, and common blue violet in this stretch.

Not quite .1 mile from the soggy clearing, the route splits, with white blazes peeling off to the left and the old roadbed continuing straight.  We followed the blazes, which continued southwest toward the lake, which we spotted through the trees.   However, the trail continued south past a little cove and then slowly began to work its way back to the east.  I was too absorbed in snapping photos of the lake and navigating a rocky stretch of the trail to pay much attention to where we were heading, but Ruth soon called a halt.  She had noticed the lake was now on our right, which meant we were heading east.  We stopped to ponder this, looking at maps on our phones and confirming via the sun’s location that we were indeed not heading west toward our shuttle vehicle.  I sputtered about how it wasn’t possible — we hadn’t passed a junction leading to the west, and we hadn’t left the marked trail (there were plenty of white blazes).  Nonetheless, it was true.  Ruth surmised that we were on a loop that would wind back toward the Honeycomb Campground, and she was absolutely right.  We walked on around the point, bending back to the north, then to the northwest as the campground came into view below us.

This was an unexpected and unwelcome development.  Given that we weren’t certain where we had missed the turn, weren’t certain about the distance to the dam, and had already put about 90 minutes into the hike, we reluctantly had to accept that we couldn’t risk an attempt to complete the hike as planned, assuming we could even find the route.  At this point, the only option was to complete the loop to see where it rejoined our route, and to retrace the most likely section of the route to see where we had missed the turn to the west.  We followed the loop on around to the west, and found that it joined up at the old roadbed just south of the soggy clearing.  It will make more sense if you look at the GPS track.

Though it was too late to attempt to complete the hike, we decided to find the route for a future attempt.  We hiked the section from the soggy clearing along the roadbed to where the trail split from the roadbed.  We wondered if we were supposed to continue on straight, but immediately spotted a TVA boundary sign at the split, so we didn’t continue on the roadbed to avoid the possibility of crossing onto private property.  We knew the trail had to take off to the west somewhere in this segment, but we looked carefully and never saw any blazes or footpaths heading west.

Since we had never actually seen any signage that identified the trail we were on, we considered the possibility that we had lost the trail somewhere along the power line cut, so we backtracked and hiked the power line cut, but to no avail.  We then returned to the car, checking the stretch from the parking lot to the power line cut in case we had missed a turn there.   It was all to no avail.  It was as if the trail had been shrunk to only include a loop of approximately 3 miles.

Before heading back to the dam, we decided to check the campground office to see if they had a map of the trail.  It turns out they did!  It’s not complete, but it shows that indeed there is a loop portion to the trail, and that it should continue off to the west, following the lake shoreline back in the direction of the dam.  Even if we had picked up the map prior to our walk, I’m not sure we would have completed the hike to the dam since we were always on the trail but never saw the place where we were supposed to turn.

Bemused, we drove back to the parking lot on the north side of the dam and took a little more time to see if we could spot the western trailhead.  It was pretty easy to find — a trail heads into the woods from the picnic shelter next to the parking lot, and intercepts a wide cleared area (maybe an ATV road?).  Turn right (east), and the white-blazed trail is easily spotted about 30 yards away, heading north into the woods.  Humph.  Next time, we’ll start from the west trailhead!

Though it wasn’t the hike we planned, it was a nice walk anyway.  With all our backtracking, we put in around 4.6 miles on a cool day, and enjoyed some pretty views and wildflowers.  When TVA finishes work on the trail, including some interpretive signage (the area is rich in natural and archaeological features) and better marking of the trail junctions, and maybe a complete trail map in the kiosk, and blazing on all sections, it has great potential to be a “honey” of a hike.  But for now, beware its sting.


Windmills and Waterfalls: Cummins Falls

I should have known. When Chet and I were thinking about where to go last weekend for our outdoor adventure, the promise of beautiful weather made me a bit dreamy. Quixotic in the “unrealistic or impractical” sense of the word, perhaps. I have been wanting to go to Cummins Falls for some time now. It seems to always appear on those “Top 10 Waterfalls” lists that you can find on the web and it’s one of the few we haven’t already been to. Yes, it’s a three hour drive from Huntsville, and yes, we had tree ID class at the Botanical Garden on Sunday making Saturday our only option, and yes, I had already signed up for my first ever Pure Barre class at 8:15 on Saturday morning, but surely we could still manage it, right? We made a hotel reservation in Cookeville, Tennessee for Saturday night, planned to leave as soon as I limped home from the Pure Barre class, and started looking for cool restaurants and brewpubs in the area for our post-hike meal. It would be sort of a mini-vacation!

Now, some of you may already remember that I am NOT a morning person, so having to get up early enough to make an 8:15 class across town was risking a bad start to my morning, but as it turned out I enjoyed my class (though it was really hard ). I drove straight home, packed up the car with luggage, hiking stuff and my hubby and off we went. Google Maps routed us up I-65, then across on I-840 to I-40 East towards Cookeville. It wasn’t the most interesting route, though the I-840 piece was new road to us, so Chet spent the time looking up info on the Cookeville brew scene. Our best choice sounded like Red Silo brewery for local brews, at least until we realized they were having a special “Winter Warmer” social event Saturday night that was already sold out. Bummer. But just down the street, Chet found Father Tom’s Pub, which advertised a good selection of regional brews plus a pub-y sort of menu. Sounded like just what we wanted to have after a hike, so we were all set!

As we made the final few turns to get to Cummins State Park proper, we passed a guy running. Running folk aren’t that uncommon of course, but folks running out on little windy country roads are sort of uncommon, so we commented on him. Shortly after that, we passed another runner, and then another. Sure enough, when we pulled into the parking lot at the park, we realized that it was ground zero for a set of road races. What a zoo! There were cars everyplace, people wandering about, long lines at the women’s restroom (of course), and a big white tent set up where they were announcing the winners in the different categories. Sorry, guys we passed – you must have been the stragglers. I worried that the trails would be mobbed, too, but either the race route wasn’t actually on the trails we’d be hiking, or the runners were already off them. This was good news for me, anyway. One of the things I enjoy about hiking is the peace and solitude I can find out in the woods, so sharing the trail with hordes of people can make me a little grumpy.

Cummins Falls State Park is a 211 acre park created only 5 years ago when Tennessee Parks and Greenway Foundation acquired the land from the Cummins family. John Cummins acquired the land in 1825 and built two mills in the area. The land stayed in the Cummins family for more than 180 years. Though private property up until 2011, this spot has long been a popular hiking and swimming area in the summer. There are three marked trails in the park, each about a half mile long, plus a short connector trail and the route to the base of the falls. We planned to hike all but one of these. We set off through the woods on the Falls Overlook Trail, a nice broad trail with a soft dirt footbed. This trail is only .45 miles long and leads, as you may have guessed, to a place where in theory you can see the top of the falls. I say in theory because in reality, there is exactly one spot, which is in the point of a small triangle shaped area, where you can actually see the falls. We took a look, snapped some really terrible pictures (the light was just wrong) and then moved out of the way so the group behind us could see the falls. We actually planned to wait for them to move on so we could try to get some better pictures, but time was short and these folks were taking selfies and taking pictures of each other taking selfies and taking group shots with various combinations of people – you get the idea. We moved on.

From the overlook, we took what’s marked on our maps as the Blackburn Fork River Trail, but on the park signage was labeled the Downstream Trail. This trail leads along the top of the bluff, with the Blackburn Fork River a good 80 feet or more below. As far as trail went, this was my favorite part of the hike. It was quiet, soft underfoot, and wound through soaring trees. It made my soul quiet.

Just a little short of half a mile, the trail drops down off the bluff by way of a couple of switchbacks and ends up at the river. Here there were more people and the trail was less distinct. From the trail above, the water level looked pretty high and we knew from the trail map that the way to the falls would include wading in the river. Our moods took a nose dive and after several grumpy comments from Chet, I even suggested we just cut our losses and head back. He sniped something about how he’d  driven three hours to get here and wasn’t going to give up now and I fumed in silence behind him as we pushed on along the narrow sliver of trail. We passed a pretty little seep trickling down the rocks, and then noticed a really beautiful cascade on the other side of the river. That lifted my mood a bit. Finally, we came to an set of large rock slabs and then the canyon wall closed in just beyond it so that there was no place for a trail anymore on our side of the river. There was a large group of teenagers led by a couple of guys all hanging out near the rocks and scrambling up the steep slope to the rocks above. I chatted with them a bit and found out they were a gymnastics and cheer group from Maryland down doing a tour of some sort in Tennessee. They seemed like nice folks.

Chet and I contemplated our options. There was a nice gravel sandbar and space for a possible pathway along the other side of the river if we could get over there. The river looked pretty deep right at the rocks, deeper than our hiking poles anyway, and the current looked too strong just upstream of them.  We decided to go back downstream a little way to see if we could find a shallower spot. We found one just upstream from that pretty cascade we’d seen and decided to go for it. We’d come prepared. We had river shoes and good hiking poles and knew how to cross a river in February (it’s a thing with us, I guess) so in we went. It was cold, but honestly not as cold as I remember the Sipsey being. It was deeper than I was hoping for – a couple of spots it was over my knees – but doable. We both made it across and then started on the least favorite part of this hike, the rock scramble. There wasn’t really a trail per se over there. There were pathways of sorts through the river-jumbled rocks and boulders, but that was as good as it got. We scrambled and scraped knees and toes and gutted our way through it for a short ways, and then could see that the river curved away from us, with a lovely looking dirt trail on the inside curve. We just had to get over to it. Another river crossing. Sigh.

We made this one as well, though it seemed deeper and longer and trickier somehow. The nice dirt path led around the curve and then there were the falls. Finally! It was worth the effort. Cummins Falls is the eighth largest waterfall in volume of water in Tennessee and drops 75 feet from the edge of the canyon to the river below. It’s pretty impressive.

We spent quite a bit of time at the falls taking pictures and just enjoying the view of the canyon and the rushing river. I found a mystery tree and tried to figure out what it was. I failed, but I was getting too cold to sit and read the field guide and besides, the park closed at 4:30 so we needed to head on back. We crossed the river again (just as hard the second time), scrambled over those darned rocks again (just as “fun” as the first time), and then crossed the river one final time (seemed so easy after the others!) and retraced our steps down the canyon to the bottom of the switchbacks. We passed a couple and their dog who asked whether the place to wade across was marked. I told them it was not. I bit my tongue and didn’t mention to them that I thought Ugg boots were a poor footwear choice for wading across a river. I also didn’t mention, but maybe should have, that the park closed in 30 minutes and it had taken us 45 just to go one way from the falls to the point where we met. Hopefully they were asking because they were planning a return trip.

We headed back up the switchbacks and were surprised to notice some early spring wildflowers! We spotted hepatica, star chickweed, and toothwort blooming along a steep bank next to the trail. This spot will be beautiful when the flowers are out in force. Once we reached the top again, we took the short connector trail past some of the biggest beech trees I can remember seeing and back to the Falls Overlook Trail only .1 mile from the trailhead. The total mileage for our hike was 3.5 miles.

We stepped off the trail at exactly 4:30. There was a group of rangers taking down the tent from the running event or maybe cleaning up the parking lot. They didn’t seem at all bothered about the 4:30 closing time so maybe that is more of a suggestion that a hard and fast rule. In any case, we hopped in the car and drove on to our hotel in Cookeville to change into dinner and beer clothes. We asked at the desk for recommendations and Father Tom’s was highly recommended, so we set off excited for our evening plans — only to have them dashed. Father Tom’s had a sign in the window indicating that they had some sort of kitchen equipment issue and weren’t serving food. Foiled! We were so hungry! But the desk clerk had mentioned that there were two really good restaurants in the same area that also served local beer so we set off to find them. The first place we found was a Cajun place that had been recommended. I wasn’t sure I was in the mood for Cajun, but I was cold and hungry so only about a block after we passed it, red beans and rice started sounding like the perfect dinner so we headed back.  Yeah, us and every other person in Cookeville, apparently. We weren’t thinking about the fact that it was the Saturday before Mardi Gras. We had a 25 minute wait, during which we had to stand in about a 3 foot by 10 foot area with at least 12 other people, but we waited it out, got our table and asked about their beer selections. It was abysmal – Bud Light and IPAs for the most part – so we decided to eat there, but get our beer at Father Tom’s after. Dinner was good and Father Tom’s was a cool little spot. It’s in an old building and has a lot of charm. I had a very peppery Father’s Hot Chocolate porter by Red Silo and Chet had a delicious Gotta Get Up to Get Down milk stout by Wiseacre Brewing. It was a nice end to the day.

A definition of the phrase “tilting at windmills” is “a vain effort against adversaries real or imagined.” Aching muscles, sold out breweries, crowds in the park, an impassable trail, broken down kitchen equipment, overcrowded restaurants with bad beer selections – all of these were “adversaries” that day. But as Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, said: “To be prepared is half the victory.” On this day, half our victory was coming prepared to wade across that river. The other half was not letting the small stuff get us down. Aching muscles mean it was a good workout, we met some nice folks on the trail and still had the falls all to ourselves, our dinner was warm and filling, and we did have a fine beery nightcap at Father Tom’s after all.

IMPORTANT UPDATE, May 14, 2020:  At this time, Tennessee State Parks has required a permit to visit the gorge at Cummins Falls (including Cummins Falls), and will turn away visitors without a permit.  Details can be found at the park’s website.