Turn Left: Turkey Creek Nature Preserve

I don’t know if it’s just human nature, or a peculiarly Southern thing, but sometimes I get an inclination to just be contrary.  This usually manifests itself by an urge to do something in opposition to the wisdom of the crowd.  Even though the safe and expected thing is to zig, every now and then I just have to zag.  Maybe it’s a desire to assert my independence from the tribe, even though generally speaking the tribe is a good thing.  In the grand scheme of time, it wasn’t that long ago that our primate ancestors were food for lions and anything else sufficiently fast and cunning, until we figured out that we could band together and use our big brains to figure out a way to compensate for our lack of speed, endurance, and effective teeth and claws.

Though I don’t have any statistics to back me up, I suspect that 95% of the visitors to the Turkey Creek Nature Preserve park their cars in the gravel lot or off the pavement, then climb out and turn right.  It’s a one-way road, so when they head to the right they are making their way to the banks of Turkey Creek.  The crowd is pretty wise, in this case — it’s a nice big, cool creek, with a spectacular natural water slide formed from a cascade in a bend of the creek.

But when Ruth and I visited recently, it was one of my contrary days.  Instead of turning right when we parked, we turned left, away from the creek, and onto the preserve’s trail system.  While Turkey Creek Falls is one of the best known swimming holes in this area, the preserve also offers five developed trails for a total of around 6.3 miles of hiking.  Since this is a hiking blog, not a swimming blog (if you’ve seen me swim, you’ll know why), we thought you might like to read about the trails.

First, a bit of info about the preserve.  It’s in Pinson, Alabama, which is about a 90-minute drive south of Huntsville.  Turkey Creek Nature Preserve is a 466 acre private reserve, formed by a partnership between Forever Wild and the Freshwater Land Trust.  The preserve protects several endangered species, both flora and fauna, in a diverse habitat.  Admission is free, and the preserve is typically open Wednesday-Sunday, and closed on major holidays.  Check their website for hours, as they may change with the seasons, but generally this is a day-use facility.  No overnight camping is allowed.

For our visit, we drove around to the Turkey Creek Falls recreation area and found parking on the side of the road.  There’s a small gravel lot here that will hold around 12 vehicles, but most visitors park along the road.  It’s a popular spot, so you’re best advised to arrive early (especially on a hot day!).  There are some changing rooms and porta-potties at one end of the parking lot.

We had studied the trail map in advance, and I had picked out a route that would cover the three longest trails in the preserve:  the Narrows Ridge trail (3.2 miles), Thompson Trace trail (1.4 miles) and Hanby Hollow trail (0.9 miles).  Narrows Ridge is a figure-eight loop trail, with 2.7 miles (the lower loop) on the west side of the preserve’s main road, and the other 0.5 miles (the upper loop) on the east side.   Upper and lower are somewhat of a misnomer, as the lower loop rises to a higher altitude than the upper loop, which is mostly at creek level.  The plan was to start on the Thompson Trace trail from the parking lot, turn left onto the Narrows Ridge trail, proceed down to the road and hike the upper loop, then re-cross the road and complete the lower loop back to the Thompson Trace intersection.  We’d then hike the entirety of Thompson Trace east to west to its trailhead at the Highlands Recreation area, then take the Hanby Hollow trail  west to east to return to the parking lot, for a total of around 5.5 miles.

The Thompson Trace trail starts from the north end of the parking lot, with a sign pointing to steps in the bank which lead to a kiosk with a trail map and other information.  The trail, blazed blue, rose gently on a well-packed dirt footbed.

 

 

We didn’t expect to see many wildflowers, but this short stretch of trail put on a modest show for us, with examples of hairy skullcap, oakleaf hydrangea, common yellow wood sorrel, and Appalachian loosestrife.

At a little under 0.1 miles, we reached the intersection with the Narrows Ridge trail and turned left at the well-marked junction of Thompson Trace and Narrows Ridge to start our clockwise loop.  In retrospect, I think this hike would work better if you turn right instead and hike the loop counterclockwise, but I’ll explain later.  The red-blazed Narrows Ridge trail was the only one on our hike that was open to cyclists, and as a result it was a little wider than the Thompson Trace and Hanby Hollow trails.  On occasion, it had a few strategically placed humps to give the riders a chance to catch some air.

The trail trended uphill to the north, then wound to the east, then climbed a little more as it turned to the southeast along the end of a ridge (Narrows Ridge, of course) on the north flank of Red Mountain.  The footbed in this area was in turns sandy, hard-packed earth, or loose sandstone pebbles.  Clearly, this is a sandstone ridge.  We had only been on Narrows Ridge for a few minutes before I spotted a rare sight:  a small pawpaw tree bursting with fruit!  I’ve been keen to try pawpaw jelly, as this edible fruit is described as being a mix of mango and banana flavors.  However, this is a nature preserve, so I contented myself with taking a photo and left the fruits for other hikers to enjoy (in ways that don’t involve eating).

At about a half mile into the hike, the trail descends through a couple of switchbacks down to Turkey Creek Road.  The start of the upper loop was about 50 feet to the right, on the other side of the road, with a signpost clearly marking the starting point.  The upper loop is actually quite different from the lower loop, in that most of it lies in the Turkey Creek floodplain.  As a result, most of the trail is level, with only a short and easy climb and descent at the midpoint of the 0.5 mile loop.  The footbed is very wide and lined with sticks and small logs.  The trail passes an off-limits area to the left which looks to be the remains of a building site (including a collapsed shed), then passes some large vine-covered trees.  Technically this is a lollipop loop, with the loop proper beginning at about 0.1 miles.  We hiked the loop clockwise, and found the north side of the loop to be the most interesting, particularly as we neared Turkey Creek.  The trail doesn’t go all the way to the creek, but this stretch had a few interesting wildflowers in bloom, such as Southern chervil and butterweed.  As we left the open area of the floodplain and the trail climbed a little, we noticed several wildflowers past their blooming period — mayapples, trillium, and violets.  This area is probably the best place to see spring wildflowers, so be sure to take this little loop if you’re visiting in the March-April timeframe.

 

After closing the loop, we retraced our steps and crossed the road to resume our hike of the lower loop.  This next half mile was the lowlight of the hike, a long, slow, straight climb along the side of Narrows Ridge, with traffic whizzing by on Narrows Road/Highway 151 to our left.  This is the section of the trail that made us wish we had hiked the Narrows Ridge loop counterclockwise, as this long climb would have been downhill instead.  Still, we’ve had far steeper climbs, and there were a couple of scenic large boulders along the way, with a small stand of bull nettles also catching the eye.

 

Just before the two mile mark into the hike, the Narrows Ridge trail finally heaves itself over the ridgetop and crosses the Thompson Trace trail.  We continued on our way on the Narrows Ridge lower loop, which flattened out on top of the ridge.  The car noise was much abated, and the trail gently wound a mostly level course past occasional stands of downy skullcap.  About a half mile later we came to the first Narrows Ridge-Hanby Hollow trail intersection, and shortly after that stepped over a very small armored creek crossing, one of only three running creeklets that we saw on this hike.

The trail continued north, then turned to the east and over the next 0.3 miles drew closer to Turkey Creek.  Just before a switchback not far from the second Narrows Ridge-Hanby Hollow intersection, we began to hear the sound of rushing water below us — the unmistakable roar of a waterfall!  Seconds later, we got further confirmation, as the water sounds were punctuated with shouts of glee from children.  We couldn’t see Turkey Creek from here, so the mystery and majesty of Turkey Creek Falls would continue to be a deferred pleasure.

At about 3.1 miles into the hike, we finally closed the Narrows Ridge lower loop, returning to the intersection with the Thompson Trace trail.  Finally, it was time to turn onto the blue-blazed trail, which climbed the northeast end of Narrows Ridge gradually at first, then abruptly got down to business and crested the top of the ridge and followed it to the southwest.  Thompson Trace trail is narrower, since it’s a hiker-only trail, but like all trails we sampled today was well-constructed, well-drained, and mostly clear of obstacles.  All trails that we traveled on this hike had at least one tree down, but all were easily stepped over or around.  The bulk of the Thompson Trace trail runs along the top of the ridge, so other than some mild climbs at either end, it’s a pretty easy walk.  The flora was similar to what we had seen earlier, though the ridgetop had more pines mixed in with the hardwoods, so that the footbed was padded with pine needles in many places.  We also saw a few American beautyberry shrubs in bloom in the stretch before the Narrows Ridge-Thompson Trace intersection.

After crossing the Narrows Ridge trail, the Thompson Trace trail continues southwest and turns north to run along the edge of the preserve, near Highway 151.  In about 0.4 miles, the Hanby Hollow trail takes off to the right, but we continued a few more yards to emerge into the Highlands Recreation (picnic) area, which is the western trailhead for the Thompson Trace trail.   Though we didn’t hike it, the paved Highlands trail leaves from the picnic area and proceeds 0.38 miles to a parking area farther east on Turkey Creek Road.

With two of our three planned trails completed, we retraced our steps to the yellow-blazed Hanby Hollow trail, which soon crossed a small creek on a footbridge.  The trail follows the creek bank for a few hundred feet before turning east and crossing the Narrows Ridge trail.  Afterwards, the trail rises gently across the top of the ridge before turning left and beginning a slow descent through a subtle little hollow.  About a half mile after its first intersection with the Narrows Ridge trail, the Hanby Hollow trail again crosses Narrows Ridge, in the area where we had heard the waterfall below us.  This time, we continued down the back side of the ridge toward Turkey Creek.  After a somewhat steep slope, Hanby Hollow trail reaches Turkey Creek Road, where it would normally turn right and parallel the road back to the parking lot.  However, this stretch of the trail was closed, so we just hoofed it up the road back to the car.  The final tally, according to our GPS track, was 5.1 miles.

Finally, it was time to turn right and have a look at the main attraction — Turkey Creek Falls.  It was a warm day, and the creek bank had a good crowd of laid-back folks watching children (and a few adults) soaking in the creek.  We didn’t want to hike in swimwear and neglected to bring suits to change into, so the best we could do was to doff the boots and socks, put on water shoes, and cool our dogs in a small side rivulet.

Turkey Creek Falls is a powerful cascade in a bend in the creek, with a drop of about five feet on the right side of the creek and a terrific natural water slide along the left side of the creek.  At the end of the slide the creek widens and deepens into a nice swimming hole.

 

And about that water slide…well, I’ll just let the kids tell the story.

 

I’d guess that the preserve is at its busiest during the summer months, when a cooling dip would be most welcome, but the trail system offers year-round beauty without being too challenging.  The various trails make it possible to create hikes of various lengths, and you can choose to stay near the creek or to gain some altitude.  Throw your swimsuit into the pack, come for a visit, and turn left — but make sure you also turn right at some point when you return to your vehicle.  You can trust the crowd on this one.

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