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 plantinfo@hsvbg.org 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!

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