Red-Blazed Stepchild: Bear Den Point Loop Trail

Ruth and I recently took a hike at Walls of Jericho on a sunny spring day on a weekend, and once we got on the trail, we never met another hiker.

Hang on a minute, you say.  Walls of Jericho is one of the most popular hiking destinations in north Alabama, and surely on a nice spring day there would be a couple hundred hikers on the trail.  There’s gotta be a trick — and indeed there is, and we weren’t even hiking on April 1.  I didn’t say we hiked to the Walls of Jericho.  Instead, we hiked a much-less traveled trail that leaves from the Alabama hikers’ trailhead parking lot for the Walls of Jericho — the Bear Den Point Loop Trail.

The tract of land generally referred to as Walls of Jericho is over 25,000 acres in extreme northern Jackson County, Alabama and Franklin County, Tennessee.  It’s a triumph of public land acquisition, through efforts of the Nature Conservancy and Alabama’s Forever Wild program, along with Federal grants.  The “Walls” themselves are a natural stone amphitheater with various water features, including pools and waterfalls.  We’ve done the hike to the Walls from both the Alabama and the Tennessee trailheads.  We also went back to visit the Mill Creek blowhole on the Tennessee side of the hike to the Walls, so suffice it to say we are big fans of this area.  If you’re new to the area, definitely do the hike to the Walls, from either the Alabama or Tennessee trailheads, but be warned that the climb out of the canyon is quite demanding.  You should allow at least six hours for the hike to the Walls and the return trip, if you’re of average fitness.

We knew from looking at the trail map that this hike wouldn’t go all the way from the top of mountain to the bottom of a canyon.  Instead, it looked like a modest 4.7 mile loop trail that might give a different perspective on this expansive acreage.  So we drove up U.S Highway 72 East toward Scottsboro, then turned north on Alabama 79 and continued for about 25 miles to reach the Alabama hikers’ parking lot.  It’s important to start this hike from the right parking lot — there are four of them associated with Walls of Jericho, and this is the second one on the left as you’re heading north.  Fortunately, it’s well-marked.  The gravel parking lot is large, with room for at least 40 vehicles, and there are porta-potties in one corner, and a kiosk in another, with a sign pointing the way to the trail to the Walls.

The first task at hand was to figure out where the Bear Den Point Loop Trail started.  The trail map seemed to suggest that one part of the loop started across the street from the parking lot, so we ambled over and had a brief look.  There was no trail sign on the roadside, but there is a yellow metal gate blocking an old roadbed.  We walked a few feet up the roadbed, but didn’t see any signage or blazes, so we retreated to the parking lot to have another look.  It turns out that the trailhead is well-marked on the north end of the parking lot, so we decided to travel the loop clockwise.

The first part of the trail, on the west side of Highway 79, is pretty undistinguished.  It’s a nice wide red-blazed path that roughly parallels the road, largely level for about .35 miles until it reaches a T-intersection at which we turned right to descend down the bank and cross the road.  The re-entry point on the eastern side is well-marked, with a sign and red blazes, so after crossing the road we immediately turned left to re-enter the woods.  The trail parallels the highway for about .1 miles before looping back to the southwest and retreating farther into the open hardwood forest.

At this point we were thinking this was a fairly unremarkable walk in the woods.  The trees were mostly oaks and hickories, oddly devoid of any evergreens.  There were practically no wildflowers, though there was one mountain azalea just beginning to bloom.  At about .7 miles into the hike, our opinions began to change as this red-blazed stepchild of a trail began to gradually reveal its charms.  The trail looped back toward the east and began a gradual descent, with exposed rocks of Bear Den Point rising to our right as we worked our way about around the point about 100 feet below its summit.  We began to hear water, and at 1.0 miles we reached a lively little creek, plunging down into Bear Den Hollow.  Stone steps led down to the creek, where we saw some long-spurred violets clinging to the rocks.  Across the creek, water seeped down a rock face, with the sun glinting off the tiny trickles.  Our first sighting of Quaker Ladies (also known as bluets) for this year was at the foot of this seep.

The pretty little creek and the wildflowers finally got the hike off to a proper start.  At this point the trail mostly leveled out, at times continuing along a wide former roadbed.  We crossed two more creeks, both easily managed.   The wildflowers were really on show in this stretch, from the 1.0 mile mark to about 1.7 miles.  Wild geranium bloomed here, as did star chickweed, rue anemone, wild blue phlox, spotted wintergreen (not in bloom at the time of our hike), crinkleroot (also known as broadleaf toothwort), hoary bittercress, and finally sweet Betsy, a trillium that we had spotted earlier on the hike but it wasn’t yet in bloom.  We also enjoyed the calls of wild turkeys, singing to each other across the hollow.  Or, it could have been turkey hunters singing to each other.  We don’t claim to be bird experts.

The trail is very well marked in this section, though you do have to pay attention as it sometimes follows an old road bed, and other times it narrows to a footpath.  As the trail turned to the south to skirt the eastern edge of Bear Den Point, the woods were particularly sunny and open.  Given that we were lower than the point itself, this didn’t make for good long-distance views, even though we were there before the spring leafout.  There were a couple more small seasonal creeks to cross, and a couple more wildflowers (wood vetch and false garlic) bloomed on this section of the trail.  There was also a luna moth lying on the trail that cooperated with some close-range photography.  Or, it might have been dead.  Either way, it was cooperative.

At about 2.1 miles, the trail begins to descend (about 200 feet in elevation over .5 miles), and at 2.6 miles the trail crosses a very visible former roadbed that once led from Bear Den Point to the top of Pruitt Ridge.  It’s tempting to turn onto this road, but a red blaze and a yellow directional angle beckon from straight ahead, so we crossed the road and continued on into the woods.  We had rounded Bear Den Point, and the trail turned to the northwest and continued largely level through the woods.  Again, the woods were very open in this section, though we did pass through a couple of cedar thickets.  The western side of the point seemed to get less sunshine, as we saw fewer flowers in bloom.  There were a few more seasonal creeks flowing, all easily crossed, with one particularly nice spring-fed creek starting on the right of the trail and disappearing into a natural culvert underneath the trail.  We spotted wood sorrel in bloom here.  One short stretch of trail had rock piles to the right.  We couldn’t make out an obvious foundation or the outlines of rock walls, but those stones were clearly intentionally placed there.  Given that the general area was level and near a creek, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was an old homestead.  We also saw one solitary early buttercup in bloom in the general area.

Though the trail is generally well-marked throughout, there are a few sections where you’ll need to pay close attention.  The trail will be trundling along a nice wide roadbed, then will sometimes depart into the woods with little warning.  The footbed is not terribly distinct in some places on the western side of the point, so pay attention!  If you discover that you aren’t seeing any blazes, backtrack to the last blaze that you saw and look carefully for the footbed.  We never felt that we were off the trail (well, we did once, but more about that later), but be careful about turning onto roadbeds that aren’t blazed in the first 50 yards or so.

At about 3.9 miles, shortly after one slightly confusing trail split, we came upon two creeks flowing down from the north and merging just below the trail crossing.  It was a lovely spot to rest and admire the dancing waters.  Upstream from the trail crossing, a little cascade flowed through the rocks to feed the creek.  Squaw root was in bloom here and nearby, farther along the trail.  We rested a bit and explored up- and downstream, snapping photos and guzzling water, for it had turned into a warm day.

It was a good thing that we stopped to recharge, because after this the trail has to recover some altitude.  The climb is a little steep — about 220 feet in altitude over .3 miles.  There are some stone steps to help with some of the steeper parts, but the trail tended to head doggedly uphill as opposed to using switchbacks to gain height.

Along the way, we once again crossed a small stream, and this time we heard a more insistent sound of rushing water off the left side of the trail.  We could just spot the top of a small waterfall, so we bushwhacked downhill to check it out.  Well, I bushwhacked, while Ruth found an easier route down a dry creekbed.  We met up at a little seven-foot waterfall, unnamed since it’s fed by an intermittent stream.  Though it was no giant, it threw off quite a welcome cooling spray.  It was at this point that our GPS receiver’s batteries gave up the ghost, so our GPS track is incomplete for this hike.  We estimate that the 4.7 mile distance listed on the trail map for the hike is accurate.

When we resumed the hike, we backtracked up the dry creek bed but somehow didn’t emerge onto the trail.  We split up to look for red blazes, and Ruth was the lucky winner.  We ended up on opposite sides of a narrow pocket, which I slowly descended to rejoin my partner.  It wasn’t a total goose chase, however — I did run into another blooming azalea along the way.

After a little more climbing, on a much more gradual incline, we reached the top of the point and could hear cars going by on Highway 79.  Minutes later the parking lot was in sight.  As we neared the road on the opposite side of the parking lot, a wooden sign pointing to the parking lot came into view.  From the sign we could see the yellow gate, so our instinct on where to start the hike had been correct.  Had we gone a little farther past the gate, we would have spotted the sign and the first red blaze.

Overall, this was a very enjoyable hike.  It’s not nearly as heavily traveled as the trails to the Walls, and as a result it’s not as well maintained.  There were several blowdowns we had to navigate, but the terrain and relative openness of the forest floor made this an easy task.  It has some very nice creeks and small cascades and waterfalls, though many of them will probably not be flowing in drier parts of the year.  We had hoped we might see Virginia bluebells (we had seen a report of bluebells on the trail to the Walls), but had no luck in that regard.  But, we did see 15 wildflowers on our hike, which was more than enough to qualify for some celebratory ice cream!

If you’ve done the Walls of Jericho and you’re looking for more hikes in the general area, check out Bear Den Point Loop.  Though it doesn’t have the showy payoff that you’ll find at the Walls, it offers solitude, a less physically demanding hike than the trek to the Walls, wildflowers, and at least one reliable creek.  Spring is probably the best season for a visit, though the hardwoods could bring a nice dash of fall color.

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