In 1940 Huntsville, Alabama was known as the watercress capital of the world. Early the next year, this sleepy town of 13,000 was energized when 35,000 acres southwest of downtown were designated as the site of three chemical munitions plants. Watercress took a back seat to technology during World War II, and the city grew to support its new main industry. After the war ended, demand for munitions predictably declined, and it looked like maybe watercress was going to make a comeback. But in 1950 the Army relocated some German rocket scientists here to work on missiles, and Huntsville was reinvented. About ten years later, NASA came into the picture, and the city could now style itself as the Rocket City. With the end of the Apollo program in the 1970s, it looked like Huntsville would never be the same, but new space programs like the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station, the growth of Army and other defense programs on Redstone Arsenal, and the rise of biotechnology companies once again relaunched Huntsville onto different, but familiar, new trajectories.
The city grew to cover 210 square miles, with a population of over 180,000 people in 2010. That’s just the city proper. Madison County had a population of 66,317 in 1940, and now is estimated to have a population around 357,000. All these people had to live somewhere, so cotton fields were plowed under and replanted with houses, and more houses crept up the sides of the mountains. Leaders in the city of Huntsville became concerned about the loss of green spaces, and formed an ad hoc committee to review the situation, and it recommended the establishment of a land trust. So on June 24, 1987, the Huntsville Land Trust was incorporated, and now known as the Land Trust of North Alabama, it’s celebrating its 30-year anniversary.
Regular readers of this blog know that we are big fans of the Land Trust. We’re members and trail care volunteers, and more to the point, we hike its 62+ miles of trails regularly. Given their history and development, Huntsville and north Alabama are often described as a launch pad for high technology and science. It strikes me that the Land Trust is also a launch pad of a different sort — a starting point for adventure, for growing a love of the outdoors, and for forming an appreciation for the environment and a desire to preserve and protect it.
Can anyone put a number on how many children had their first hike in the woods on a Land Trust property? How many people have filled their lungs with fresh air out on a trail in those 30 years? Who has been inspired by a wildflower, or a gnarled tree, or a babbling creek? Who took to the trails on foot, bike, or horse to train for bigger adventures? Well, we did — last weekend. We recently had an opportunity for a little adventure come up unexpectedly, which Ruth will be blogging about next week, and to prepare ourselves we went to where it all started for the Land Trust: to the Monte Sano Preserve on the west side of Monte Sano Mountain.
We’ll be hiking with a group next weekend, so we joined some members of the group on a practice hike to meet each other and to stretch our legs. We planned a modest little loop, made up of the Toll Gate, High, and Bluff Line trails, that would amount to a smidge over 4 miles. We met up at the Land Trust’s Bankhead Trailhead, and after introductions ten humans, two dogs, and a cockatoo started the loop by leaving the parking lot and heading up the northern section of the Toll Gate trail.
The best thing I can say about the northern section of the Toll Gate trail is that it is a necessary evil. The southern portions, which wind from the Bankhead parking lot down to Toll Gate Road, are tolerable, though the trail parallels Bankhead Parkway for most of its length. The northern section starts out close to the road, but soon turns to the northeast into more quiet territory. Which is nice, because you’ll be able to hear your tendons snap when you stumble on the loose rocks that make up the entire length of the former roadbed as it winds up the mountain. It is, hands down, my least favorite Land Trust trail, and I’ll probably keep whining about it until the Land Trust reroutes the trail completely and lets Satan, I mean Nature, reclaim the old route. If you are using this trail to form part of a loop, I recommend hiking it uphill since you are a little less likely to fall up a mountain. There are a couple of nice things I’ll say about this part of the hike, though: (1) it’s relatively short, about .5 mile, and (2) we saw a few wildflowers along the way, most notably St. John’s wort and gray-headed coneflower.
After slip-sliding up the Toll Gate trail, we turned right onto the High trail and things immediately began looking up. The High trail is a largely level path that runs about 200 feet below the western rim of Monte Sano Mountain for a distance of 1.47 miles. There’s a small quarry that forms a little pond near the Toll Gate-High junction. Once you’re past the quarry, the footbed changes from old roadbed gravel to dirt, and the woods close in around the trail. Butterfly weed and wild potato vine were blooming near the quarry. At about .2 miles from the junction, the trail widened and was more disturbed, due to the damage done by an EF-2 tornado that hit the slopes of the mountain in early December 2016. Volunteers did outstanding work to clear the trails on the preserve and in the state park, and their efforts are much appreciated.
The next landmark on the trail is a power line cut, with an iconic view to the west where you can see the Saturn V rocket at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center off in the distance. All the trails in this vicinity of the preserve cross this power line cut, but the view from the High trail is arguably the best one. As is often the case, wildflowers grow well in the open area under the power lines. We saw hairy ruellia, blackberries, water hemlock, and narrowleaf vervain here.
After crossing the open area, the High trail re-enters the woods, heading roughly south as it crosses some small creeks and passes a side trail to the basin where the guests of the Monte Sano Hotel soaked in the “healing waters” of the Mountain of Health. At about .8 miles from the Toll Gate-High junction, the trail crosses a more substantial creek (easily rock-hopped) that runs down the mountain and joins with the spring-fed Fagan Creek. The trail is at its best in this section — quiet, shady, level, well-drained, with occasional splashes of color from trumpet creeper blossoms. After crossing the creek, the trail bends to the southwest before curving south again to tee into the Bluff Line trail.
We turned right onto Bluff Line to loop back to the Bankhead trailhead. If you want to extend your hike, you could choose to turn left instead and walk about .6 miles to the South Monte Sano Trailhead on Monte Sano Boulevard, or turn left and then take the Waterline trail past Dry Falls down to the Three Caves Trailhead.
In my memory, the Bluff Line trail parallels the High trail, just a little lower on the mountain. Indeed, at first it’s not much of a change from the High trail — nice and shady and level. However, my memory had conveniently skipped the part that you have to lose some altitude to get lower on the mountain, and in the case of the Bluff Line trail, that altitude is lost fairly abruptly, as the trail drops 300 feet over the next .35 miles. The trail doesn’t use many switchbacks, so as a result it’s badly eroded in many places. You’ll need to watch your footing as the trail descends. There was one very nice consolation prize, however, as we came across a couple of small leatherleaf mahonia shrubs in an open area about halfway down the descent. It’s eye-catching in that the leaves look like American holly, but on these particular specimens some of the leaves were bright red or pale yellow. It’s not native to this area — in fact, it’s considered an invasive, but it’s an exotic beauty. Apparently it has very fragrant flowers and showy fruit too. It’s a little tramp!
The Bluff Line trail tees into and briefly overlaps the Wagon trail as it levels out and curves to the northeast. At this point, we began paralleling the High trail, as the footbed smoothed out, with occasional exposed rocks on either side of the trail. We saw yellow leafcup, false Solomon’s seal, and even a couple of old trilliums along this portion of the trail as it worked its way gradually back to the more substantial creek we had crossed earlier in the hike.
As we worked our way back north, the Old Railroad Bed trail became visible to the left, below us. About a half mile after crossing the creek, the Bluff Line trail re-entered the area of tornado damage, more visible at one of the smaller creek crossings. This might give you an idea of what those trail maintenance volunteers were facing! Almost immediately afterwards, we were crossing the power line cut again, a bit lower on the mountain, and a few different wildflowers were growing here, just about 300 feet lower in altitude. We identified Loomis’ mountain mint, tall ironweed, horse nettle, and heal all in bloom here.
I should point out that a couple of the plants that we found in the power line cut are dangerous. Water hemlock and horse nettle are extremely poisonous. All parts of both plants will make you sick if ingested, particularly the root of the water hemlock and the fruit of the horse nettle. The water hemlock is a member of the carrot and parsnip family, so it’s not far-fetched that someone might take the notion to dig one up. The horse nettle berries resemble yellow cherry tomatoes. Like the tomato, the horse nettle is in the nightshade family, but if you snap up enough of these fruits, you’ll be launching yourself right into the afterlife. Keep a close eye on the kids, folks.
After we crossed the power line cut, we were in the last .25 mile of the hike, which looped back to the Bankhead parking lot. Before we reached the parking lot, just past the intersection with the Old Railroad Bed trail, we noticed a new bluebird house off the trail. This reminded me that the Land Trust is more than just a collection of properties. It also has an active environmental education mission and works with partner organizations to produce several programs throughout the year. It’s best known for its Tuesdays on the Trail summer education series for children, but there are other events for all ages, such as guided hikes for members and non-members and workshops on building birdhouses and bat shelters.
Our loop hike came in at 4.1 miles, and was a great little warmup for our upcoming longer hike. With the various Land Trust preserves scattered throughout the county, there’s bound to be just the right hike for you — all at no cost (though donations and membership are welcome!). And the best part is that more land is being saved for our benefit and efforts are underway to open a new preserve by the end of the year.
Thirty years after its founding, the Land Trust of North Alabama is thriving. If you haven’t visited a Land Trust launch pad, that’s the best way you can celebrate this anniversary. We offer our heartfelt thanks to the visionary people who started the Land Trust, and to those who have kept it going and growing over the years.