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.


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