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.

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