We made our first trip to the Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve last fall, and since then it has been on our list for a return visit. As we sat over breakfast on our recent trip to Historic Banning Mills, we were kicking around ideas for a short hike on our way back to Huntsville. The timing was perfect — we would drive right past Ruffner on our way home, and we knew there were several short trails in an area of the preserve we had not yet explored. It was time for a Ruffner Redux.
The first order of business when we reached the preserve was to correct an oversight from our previous visit. Back in November, we were eager to get on the trails since we had a side trip planned for the Cullman Oktoberfest on our way home, so we didn’t take the time to look around the Nature Center. We stepped inside and had a quick look at the inhabitants, mostly of the living reptilian variety. They had a gorgeous spotted kingsnake, a menacing looking rattlesnake, a shy corn snake, and a young copperhead, each in its own habitat behind glass, as well as a box turtle, to Ruth’s delight. Even better, they had a large tank with several red eared sliders swimming around. This hike was off to a terrific start, by Ruth’s standards, since she is a well-known fan of turtles. There was also a lovely taxidermy great horned owl up in a corner and other exhibits. We stepped out a side door of the Nature Center and walked past some live birds of prey kept in outdoor cages. The birds aren’t technically on display, and we obeyed the signs asking us to keep our distance from their Resident Animal Ambassadors.
Our plan for this trip was to hike several trails we had not previously visited, and the first one on our list was the Marian Harnach Nature Trail. The Nature Trail begins next to the Nature Center, so we wandered through the native wildflower garden in front of the Nature Center on our way. Of course, the flowers in bloom vary from week to week, but I was most struck by the wild columbine and field mustard.
The Nature Trail starts to the left of the Nature Center, with a dirt path immediately entering the woods and passing an outdoor classroom. The pink-blazed Nature Trail curves around the back of the Nature Center, and somewhat surprisingly briefly is routed along a decrepit sidewalk extending into the forest. The sidewalk is actually the remains of a proposed 1920s housing development.
The Nature Trail is a lollipop loop, with the “stem” measuring less than .1 mile to the beginning of the loop. We chose to hike counterclockwise, and headed to the right onto the loop. To this point, we hadn’t seen any interpretive signage or anything to identify the plants and natural features, though we recognized several common wildflowers and trees in bloom — wood sorrel, sweet Betsy, red buckeye, rue anemone, fleabane, false garlic, and some particularly pale wild blue phlox, to name a few.
When the loop proper begins, there are a few interpretive signs along the trail, though some are in bad shape. The trail stays mostly level, passing through stretches of the distinctive “Ruffner red” hematite-tinged soil. At about .17 miles, we passed the junction with the Geology Trail, which was our next destination, but first we wanted to complete the loop. It wasn’t all that exciting, to be honest. The trail was well-maintained, but had only a few signs, mostly aimed at elementary school-aged children, and no tree or wildflower identification aids. According to the trail map, there’s also an old spring-fed cistern at some point, but we didn’t notice it. We made our way back around to the beginning of the loop and continued on around for part of a second lap before peeling off onto the Geology Trail. The Nature Trail is .6 miles, so it’s a nice short walk for the wee ones.
The Geology Trail is a short, gray-blazed route with a few interpretive signs explaining the geologic features of Ruffner Mountain. The main feature of this .3 mile trail is a large limestone boulder known as Turtle Rock, due to its vaguely tortoise-like shape. Naturally, Ruth had to climb Turtle Rock. The Geology Trail terminates into the Quarry Trail, the main route to the southwestern end of the preserve, but our planned route was to take us into the northeastern side, so we were on the Quarry Trail only briefly before turning left on the red-blazed Hollow Tree Trail. It was a short trek up and over the ridge, passing over a boardwalk in a small wetland area, before teeing into a gravel road. Along the way, we heard a noise in the leaves to the side of the trail, and discovered a very nonchalant skink posing on a stick with his tasty spider lunch in his jaws.
When we reached the gravel road, we turned left and traveled about .1 miles before a sign pointed us off the road onto the Buckeye Trail. The purple-blazed trail would be the most difficult of today’s hike, descending around 300 feet in about .6 miles. The descent is gradual, though, with some switchbacks and level sections along the way. Shortly after turning onto the trail, a kiosk to the right of the trail gives the details on an American chestnut demonstration plot, on which a number of chestnut seedlings have been established in an effort to bring back this once-mighty tree. This is just one example of the conservation work evident all over Ruffner, as the preserve participates in efforts to restore threatened native species. A nearby green anole seemed fully in favor of the idea.
As we neared the bottom of the ridge, a side trail led to an overlook. The view wasn’t that impressive, especially compared to the views of the quarry and the city of Birmingham from the southwest side of the preserve, but just as we reached the bottom of the ridge we were treated to a brilliant wild bergamot in bloom, as well as the odd-looking blooms of hearts-a-bustin (or strawberry bush, or wahoo, or several other common names) for this shrub. By the way, I’m pleased to give a shout out to Mike Gibson, curator of the Huntsville Botanical Garden, for his rapid response to my plea for plant identification help. I knew what Euonymus Americanus looked like in the fall, when the fruit capsule is open, but had no idea that it had such a funky-looking flower. If you’re stumped on a plant, drop the Botanical Garden a message at firstname.lastname@example.org and they’ll help you out. You don’t even have to be a member of the Garden (though I’m happy to say I just became a member).
When we reached the bottom of the ridge, we walked a few feet on the bed of the historic Birmingham Mineral Rail Line, before turning left onto the dirt road also known as the Pipeline Trail. We were only on the trail for about .15 miles before turning right onto the Wetlands Trail. The Wetlands Trail is a short lollipop loop around a pond. The trail crossed grassland and passed a pavilion on the right, but our plan to take the boardwalk around the pond was thwarted by a “trail closed” sign. Apparently the boardwalk was in need of repairs. This would be a good time to put in a pitch for Ruffner membership. The preserve is free, but depends on membership, gifts, and grants to support its facilities, staff, and trails.
Since we couldn’t finish the Wetlands Trail, we continued on past the pond to the brick-red-blazed Sandstone Ridge Trail. This .3 mile lollipop loop climbed briefly, then passed below and then above some scenic weathered sandstone outcroppings. This was a pleasant, easy walk, with the added bonus of having lyreleaf sage in bloom along with several other wildflowers.
After finishing the loop of Sandstone Ridge, we retraced our route back to the Pipeline Trail. Though there are about another 2.5 miles of trails off to the northeast, we didn’t have time on this trip for a visit. The 600-foot climb back up the Buckeye Trail loomed ahead of us instead, but it wasn’t really all that bad. We backtracked all the way to the Quarry Trail, which we then took back toward the parking lot before turning onto our last trail of the day, the blue-blazed Trillium Trail.
The Trillium Trail won the prize for our favorite trail of the day, as it gently wound through the woods and past a plethora of wildflowers. There were plenty of trilliums, of course, but the only ones in bloom at the time were sweet Betsy (trillium cuneatum). However, I spotted the elusive Jack-in-the-pulpit almost immediately after turning onto the trail. We were also amazed at the numerous showy wild hyacinths and one small patch of perfoliate bellwort. Ruffner in general was a riot of wildflowers — we saw the ones mentioned above, as well as vetch, white clover, Solomon’s seal, spiderwort, southern chervil, wood violet, and blackberry, to name a few.
I’m not entirely sure we traveled all of the Trillium Trail, but at one point we were within sight of the Nature Center so we went ahead and called it a day. We had put in a 3.9 mile hike as a way to break up our trip from Georgia, and got to explore a side of Ruffner that was new to us. Though iron ore and quarry stone were the main products of this mountain back in its mining days, what remains is one carefully polished multifaceted gem.