Cooler than Cool: Stephens Gap Cave

We’re in the toughest part of the year for our modest little outdoors blog — the blazing hot center of the Alabama summer.  Every week when we plan where we’re going for our next adventure, we take a peek at the weather forecast.  We’ve got a list of hikes and floats we’d like to do, but when we see predicted heat indices over 100 degrees, it’s hard to get motivated to do anything other than lounge around in the air conditioning.   Sometimes that sounds pretty nice, but would make for one heck of a dull blog post.  So instead, we start thinking of ways to be cool outdoors.  And two of the best ways to cool off during the summer are either to get close to a waterfall or to get into a cave.  For our adventure this week, we decided to do both, and paid a visit to Stephens Gap Cave.

Stephens Gap Cave is protected by the Southeastern Cave Conservancy Inc., a nonprofit organization that acquires and protects caves in six states.  SCCi currently has 30 preserves and manages 170 caves.  Faced with decreasing access to recreational caves due to development, habitat threats, and liability fears of landowners, a grassroots group of southeastern caving enthusiasts banded together in 1991 to purchase caves and at least some of the overlying property.  According to their website, SCCi’s mission is “to conserve caves to preserve areas of scenic beauty, provide recreational access and opportunities, protect cultural and biological resources, and support scientific research.”

It’s no secret that North Alabama is a hotbed of spelunking opportunity, and it’s no coincidence that Huntsville is the headquarters of the National Speleological SocietyBut I was still surprised to find that 11 of the 30 SCCi preserves are in north Alabama!  Cave exploration is a very popular hobby in the area.  Ruth and I would not describe ourselves as cave explorers.  She isn’t fond of tightly enclosed spaces.  Back in the day, I enjoyed crawling around in East Tennessee caves, but now I occupy more space than I used to.  Still, we enjoy touring developed caves, such as the ones in Cathedral Caverns State Park and Rickwood Caverns State Park.  After perusing SCCI’s list of preserves, Stephens Gap stood out for one particular reason — it has a walk-in entrance.  We don’t have the gear or the knowledge to rappel into a pit, but we have legs, hiking poles, boots, and a healthy aversion to falling off ledges or into holes.

I’m not going to tell you exactly where Stephens Gap Cave is located, other to say it is in the vicinity of Woodville, Alabama.   There’s a reason for this — because the cave is protected by a conservancy, there are reasonable restrictions placed on visitation.  SCCi preserves require a free permit, which is easily requestable online via the SCCi website.  For some preserves, you can even request the permit for a same-day visit.  Most permit requests are reviewed and granted within 48 hours.  I requested our permit on a Saturday evening for a Sunday visit, and had it approved in about 30 minutes.  I wouldn’t venture to say the SCCi will always be that prompt, but these are some accommodating folks.  They want you to visit their caves, and even better, they want you to come back from their caves with a greater appreciation of these natural wonders.  The permitting process was easy and convenient, and the information that came with the permit about where to park and how to access the cave was extremely helpful.

We arrived at the spacious gravel parking area with the mid-morning sun already beating down on us.  The trailhead was prominently marked, and a narrow single-track trail promptly entered the woods.  The trail was well-maintained, and for about .4 miles it was largely level, passing through a power line cut and proceeding up into a hollow where it crossed and paralleled a dry creekbed.

The trail was easy to follow, with yellow trail markers and occasional yellow ribbons leading the way.  There were also quite a few wildflowers in bloom or identifiable by their leaves, such as brown-eyed Susan, sweet-scented Joe Pye weed, yellow leafcup, white-flowered leafcup, naked flowered tick trefoil, hepatica, St. Johnswort, fleabane, and wild hydrangea, to name a few.

There were a couple of annoyances on the lower part of the walk, however.  We were barely into the woods before the first of approximately one million gnats started buzzing around us.  Two coats of insect repellent didn’t faze them.  But the bigger annoyance was a light rain that appeared out of a clear blue sky.  Regular readers of the blog know I’m no fan of walking in the rain, but the real problem with the rain was the possibility it would make the trail and the cave entrance slippery.  To get the visit permit, you have to read and acknowledge a number of warnings about visiting the cave.  You can’t blame the SCCi for being careful — there are a lot of jackasses out there, and caves seem to attract them.  Still, a phrase about how the “so-called walk-in entrance” could get slick and dangerous when wet stuck in my mind.  All the disclaimers and waivers pretty much carry a subtext of “enjoy your visit, but you are quite likely to die here.”  We had started the hike on a hard-packed earth surface, but as the rain continued a little voice in the back of my head said quietly in an air of resignation, “Ah, so this is how it ends.”

Fortunately, the rain stopped a few minutes later.  The trail continued another .4 miles or so, following the creek and slowly rising up the hollow past walls of rock, until it took an abrupt turn to the right and climbed steeply.  The trail narrows and splits in this section, with the path to the walk-in entrance peeling off to the left, and a path to a pit entrance higher on the mountain continuing straight ahead.

Just a few dozen yards after the trail split, the walk-in entrance to Stephens Gap Cave looms off to the left, with a waterfall dropping through a 143-foot pit entrance to the right.  The combination of the hot air and the water-cooled air created a dramatic mist around both entrances.  The effect is breathtaking.

The walk-in entrance isn’t exactly a paved ramp, and hasn’t been engineered to make it easy to climb down into the cave, but we were able to carefully pick our way through the rocks, using our hiking poles for stability.  Once we got within about 20 feet of the entrance, a welcome wave of cool air greeted us.  Even before we went into the cave, Ruth turned to me and said, “This is worth it,” and I agreed.  While she went on ahead into the walk-in entrance, I made the discovery that I had left some of my photo equipment at work where it was needed for a project, and long and bitter were my curses.  But I broke out the emergency tabletop tripod and made the best of it.

The walk-in entrance descends into the cave at not too steep an angle, though the surface is rocky and increasingly damp as you go farther into the cave.  We didn’t find it too be slick, and the cave is relatively well-lit given its two large entrances.  The sun streamed in through the ceiling entrance, creating shafts of light that constantly shifted as clouds passed overhead.

The walk-in entrance leads down to a ledge that bends away to the right, but also slopes down to the left where a small waterfall erupts from the wall.  Jutting out from the ledge, a pedestal is seemingly spotlit, rising 30 feet from the bottom of the pit.  With the sound of rushing water echoing all around, it’s a magnificent setting worthy of a swords and sorcery film.  Which in fact, it was, as there was a trio of college students shooting a school project on the pedestal while we were there.  I don’t know how the film will turn out, but I give them an A+ for location scouting.

We stayed in the cave about an hour, soaking up the literal and figurative coolness before we reluctantly left Middle Earth and clambered our way back to the surface of the sun and retraced our steps back to the parking area.  We were a soggy mess by the time we got there, but let me tell you, for an hour we were the coolest kids in Alabama.

We’d recommend Stephens Gap Cave for most hikers, with the caveat that you must obtain a permit and avoid visiting after (or during) periods of heavy rain.  We didn’t bring any light sources, but didn’t really need them in the area around the walk-in entrance.  However, if you plan on exploring the cave, you’ll need light sources, helmets, and proper equipment.  The area around the walk-in entrance has dangerous dropoffs of 30 feet or more, and of course the nearby pit entrance is a 143-foot drop.  There have been three fatalities in this cave in the past 17 years, so please be careful!  But if you’ve got good footwear and know your limitations, this is one of the best payoffs you’ll ever get for a hike under one mile.

Water, Water, Everywhere: DeSoto State Park and High Falls Park

This time last year, Alabama was in a drought that by November was being called “the worst drought in memory” by some. Through the end of the summer and into the fall and winter, there just wasn’t much rain falling. Farmers struggled,  reservoirs shrank, wildlife habitats were impacted – all causing ripple effects across the economy and lifestyle of the state. Not to minimize the more serious impacts, but the drought also caused a severe case of “puny” at some of my favorite natural spots – the area waterfalls. The drought seems to be behind us now, as the uncontrollable grass growth in our backyard can attest, so the waterfalls are back! Last weekend Chet and I went west to the Sipsey and took in a couple of waterfalls there. This weekend I wanted more, so we headed east to enjoy two new (to us) waterfalls.

Our buddy Ted was free as well, so the three of us cooked up a plan to leave the house around 8 am and drive to High Falls Park in DeKalb County, take in the falls there for a short while, then drive to DeSoto State Park in time for the Sunday buffet lunch. We’d walk off all those calories with a hike to a couple of falls in DeSoto and then return home by late afternoon. This was a fantastic plan except for one small detail. I neglected to check opening hours for High Falls Park and it turned out we arrived at the entrance to the park only to find a locked gate. It was 9:30 and the park didn’t open until 10. We decided to simply drive on to DeSoto and try to catch High Falls on the way home instead. Only 45 minutes away, we arrived at DeSoto State Park too early for lunch so we started right away on our hike.

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I’d picked out a short but scenic-sounding hike from Johnny Molloy’s book 50 Hikes in Alabama that he called the “West Fork Loop.” Only 1.9 miles long, this loop hike starts and ends at the historic CCC Pavilion in the picnic area. The first challenge is actually to find the beginning of the trail. Molloy’s book describes walking down the paved walkway with the pavilion on your left, but after that it gets a bit vague. A look at our GPS track will show you the way we went, but I’m certain it’s not quite right. What I’d recommend is to walk down the sidewalk until it takes a sharp left towards the pavilion and then keep going straight off the sidewalk and into the grass. You’ll see a sign in the woods on your right for an outdoor classroom. This isn’t it. Keep on going down hill along that treeline though and you’ll find another unmarked trail heading off into the woods. Head down this trail until you see timbers set like stairs going farther downhill at a trail intersection. You don’t want to take those stairs, but instead turn right onto the yellow-blazed DeSoto Scout Trail (DST) and walk a short way until you get to a bridge going over the top of Indian Falls. There seem to be several wildcat trails that will eventually get you to the DST so really, the trick is to find a yellow-blazed trail and then head roughly south until you get to the bridge. Or just follow the sound of the falls. You can hear it clearly from the picnic area.

We admired the bridge and the top of the falls, but quickly moved on to the other side of the bridge to the point where you can climb down and explore the base of Indian Falls. There are a couple of stairs at the top, but then you’ll have to drop down about 3 feet to reach a short path that leads past a rock overhang and beyond to the falls. Indian Falls is formed when Laurel Creek drops into a ravine. After a 25 foot drop, the water continues to cascade over boulders below the falls as Laurel Creek heads downhill to join the West Fork of the Little River. It’s a beautiful site and the three of us clambered all over exploring and enjoying and getting just the right pictures. We were only 10 minutes into our hike and already I felt like the whole trip had been worth it!

After we left the falls, our plan was to continue on along the DST. Shortly after the falls, there is a three way intersection with an unblazed trail teeing in from the right, and then what I first thought were two yellow-blazed trails forking right and left. The unmarked trail just led to a cabin. After closer inspection, we decided that of the two “yellow blazed” trails, only the left fork was really yellow. The right fork was blazed in a sort of yellowy-green that I called lemon-lime. Using Molloy’s descriptions we had been expecting a “green blazed Cabin Trail” at around that point so we decided it all matched up well enough and we should take the left fork. As it turns out, the trail map online labels the Cabin Trail blaze color as Lime Green, so I wasn’t so far off!

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Yellow blaze to the left, faint lime green to the right

The DST continues down next to Laurel Creek via some beautifully engineered stone steps until it is level with another smaller unnamed fall, where it turns sharply right and down to end up level with the West Fork of the Little River. From here the trail sticks closely to the river, which flows by sometimes quickly, rattling over small cascades, and sometimes slowly when it broadens and deepens. In one of the slower spots there was a tiny beach, where I took off my boots and waded for a minute next to a bush that turned out to be something called buttonbush, which I don’t think I’ve ever noticed before.

Actually, we saw a lot of wildflowers next to the river — some of them we’ve not ever seen before. If the wildflowers are this good in mid-summer, just imagine how incredible this trail must be in the spring! We saw starry campion, Maryland meadow beauty, healall, Shuttleworth’s ginger, naked flowered tick trefoil, stiff haired sunflower, as well as rhododendron and maybe even a trillium just past blooming.

At around .5 mile from the pavilion, there is a small wooden bridge across Lodge Branch, like Laurel Creek one of the many tributaries feeding the West Fork. We had to push through a small tree that was blocking one end of the bridge, but as soon as we were past the tree, the trail was clear again. However, as much as I loved the wildflowers, the river rapids and the little wading spots, I do have to say that overall this was not an easy trail. It involved a lot of scrambling over rocks and roots, a couple of flooded spots where we got our feet wet, lots of confusing unmarked side trails, and one difficult-to-spot but vital blaze.

At about the .8 mile mark we came to a spot on the trail where there was a large flat rock ahead and just to the left, right on the river bank. I went right over to it, thinking about whether I wanted to wade again, but decided to push on instead. I had to duck under a rhododendron branch that blocked the trail, but then continued on over a trail that was barely visible. It was all rocks and roots, but it did look sort of like a trail. It wasn’t until after I’d picked my way down this track for at least 5 minutes that Ted and Chet called me back telling me I’d missed the trail. We could only tell because we could see a yellow blaze further up the slope. We climbed up the bank to what was obviously the trail and then I backtracked to see where we went wrong. Turns out it was at that rock. My excuse was that I was intent on the idea of wading again. (I don’t know excuse Chet and Ted are going to come up with!) I suppose if I’d been paying more attention there was at least a slim possibility that I might have noticed a yellow blaze nearly obscured by shrubs, above my head and 30 feet or so up the trail to my right. You had to be looking in just the right spot, because the sharp trail turn itself wasn’t marked at all. No wonder we all missed it!

Mistake corrected, we forged on for another roughly tenth of a mile until we came to a sign for the “Gilliam Trailhead” pointing to a trail that went straight up the hill at at least a 45 degree angle. To me it looked for all the world like another wildcat trail, because an “official” trail wouldn’t have been built like that.  Molloy’s book didn’t mention a sign, though, and the maps we had looked at actually showed two different trails at around this mileage that headed straight up hill. I was getting hungry and was motivated not to miss the buffet so I encouraged the “try this one” option. We headed straight up to the ridge, then headed to our right to loop back towards our starting point.

The trail here was a lot easier going, and though it had fewer flowers and wasn’t right on the river it was scenic in its own way. It was blazed in the lemon-lime color so we were sure we were on the same trail we’d seen back at the original split near Indian Falls. If we hadn’t already thought it might be called the “Cabin Trail,” we certainly could have guessed at that name because every so often off on our left we’d pass a cabin. The cabins at DeSoto sure do look nice! They look to be well maintained, and as far as I could tell they are set far enough apart that you might really feel like you’re far out in the woods away from civilization. I’d like to come back sometime and find out if I’m right. Since the Cabin Trail follows a rim of the gorge it drops off steeply on the non-cabin side, with occasional views of the river visible through the trees.

Though it was easier going up here, we did have another spot where we lost the trail.  We followed the path as it led to a cabin, then tried to find the trail on the other side of the clearing. I found another bluff with a small waterfall, but I did not find the trail. Chet found it by backtracking to the last blaze, then keeping an eye out until he spotted a blaze off to the right. Again this one was maybe 50 feet from the trail junction. What is it with the people who mark trails that they think marking a junction is a bad idea!?!? Once back on the marked trail, we continued on another quarter of a mile until we reached Lodge Falls.  So named because they drop over the rim of the gorge close to the DeSoto State Park Lodge, this is a 20 foot waterfall with another set of cascades below as Lodge Branch tumbles over boulders on its way down to the West Fork, passing under that little wooden bridge we’d crossed earlier in the hike. We spent some time here trying to capture the falls on camera, then headed on up the trail past a couple of rock houses and then up to a sign for the Lodge and Restaurant.

At this point, we decided to turn left and head for the restaurant, finishing the hike after a lunch break. The buffet at DeSoto Park Lodge is tasty, generous, and very reasonable. For a little less than $12.00 a person we got drinks plus all we could eat fried chicken, ribs, cream corn, broccoli and cheese, baked potatoes, fried okra, salad, and if we’d been fast enough, peach cobbler. It was all good southern comfort food, prepared well,  and I know I ate way too much! After lunch, the last .3 of a mile back to the pavilion was pretty uneventful. We passed no more waterfalls or rock houses, just a couple more cabins.

We all piled back in Ted’s truck and headed back towards our original stop, High Falls Park. This 20 acre park in rural DeKalb County is not part of the Alabama State Park system, but as best as I can tell is a county park. There is no entrance fee, and the park is open at 10 am. Closing depends on season, but in the summer that’s at 6:00 pm. There is a pavilion with picnic tables and vending machines, and an air conditioned office. The office is where you can sign in, chat with the very friendly older gentleman manning the desk, buy some snacks, or use the restrooms. There are a couple of short trails, but we were there for the falls, so we took the shortest route – down the paved road to the top of the falls. Let me tell you, I was not expecting what I found. Formed when Town Creek roars down into a sheer-sided gorge, High Falls is 300 feet across and 35 feet high.

The top of the falls is a solid rock shelf going back at least as far as it is wide until it gets to a point where there is a nice looking pedestrian bridge. The bridge is built on the pillars of an old covered bridge that was built by the community in the 1920s. The water between the bridge and the falls is very shallow – maybe only knee deep in the deepest spots – so there were all sorts of folks young and old out wading, or sitting, or floating/lying in the middle of the river. At the base of the falls just out from from where the largest volume of water pours over the rim is a natural bridge. Young folks were jumping off the falls in the middle of the river or from this natural bridge. It is a spectacular setting!

Chet waded all the way out to the edge of the falls to take pictures of the falls and the jumpers. Ted and I waded not quite so far out but enjoyed the cool water on our feet after a day of hiking. I climbed up on one end of the natural bridge, but wasn’t confident I was limber enough to attempt climbing out any further. Ted texted our children to tell them what we were doing and that he had dibs on Chet’s truck and my cookbooks if we didn’t make it back.

We didn’t stay more than hour at the falls this trip, but I’ll be back! I did read that the volume of water we saw is not necessarily normal. In the winter, for example, the broader part of the falls can be dry, with only the section near the natural bridge having any water. Still, now that the drought is over and we’re in a fairly rainy summer, this is absolutely a must-visit spot!

Three Within Thirty: Short Hikes to Cool Places in the Bankhead National Forest

We’ve had a lot of rain around here recently, so when it was my turn to pick our hike I thought it would be a good idea to see groundwater at its most photogenic — in the form of a waterfall or two.  And when you think of waterfalls in North Alabama, one place springs to mind immediately — the Bankhead National Forest and its Sipsey Wilderness.  It’s been too long since we’ve been to the Bankhead, which regularly tricks us into ten-mile hikes and tries to kill us on every visit.

But I had a plan for this trip — instead of throwing down a single long hike, I planned three short hikes to places just a little off the beaten path.  All three are well-known to the locals, but we’ve never visited them.  The theme of our trip: three within thirty, or three hikes to cool places no more than thirty minutes from where you parked.

We took our usual route to the Bankhead, following the interstate down to AL-36 in Hartselle, and then followed AL-36 west through Danville until it teed into AL-33.  We took AL-33 into the National Forest and turned right onto Cranal Road, the route to three different trailheads in the Sipsey Wilderness.  However, our destination was Mize Mill Falls, which isn’t reached from one of the official Forest Service trails.  We passed the Sipsey Recreation Area, crossed the bridge over the Sipsey River, and parked on the south side of Cranal Road at the first dirt road, about a half-mile past the bridge.  There’s room for three or four vehicles here on the road shoulder.

The trail starts on the north side of Cranal Road, across from the dirt road.  Since this isn’t an official trail, there is no signage marking the trailhead — only a couple of orange ribbons hanging from trees flanking a narrow passage into the forest.  I had read that this trail was a little dodgy, so it was a pleasant surprise to find it had a well-established footbed, descending about 20 feet and bending to the right.  The trail was narrow and a bit rooty and rocky during the descent, but quickly leveled off and widened as it passed through a shady hemlock grove.  We could hear the sound of rushing water from where we parked the car, and when the trail leveled out Turkey Foot creek was off to the left, with the water now sounding like a gentle roar.

We wandered over to the sound of the water and looked down into a small canyon onto the top of Mize Mill Falls.  Turkey Foot Creek passes through a tight spot here and drops around 20 feet to the canyon floor.  We could tell it was a little beauty, and were eager to get to the bottom for a better look.  We returned to the trail, dodged over/under a few small fallen trees, and reached an apparent end of the trail.  However, the trail takes a sharp left here and heads downhill for another short, rocky stretch before leveling out after descending another 20 feet or so.

The trail again seemed to stop above a cleft between two boulders, but the only way to proceed here is down.  It’s only a drop of about eight feet, with good handholds and footholds, and to make things easier there’s a rope you can grab.  After getting to the bottom, at a lower level on the canyon wall, a small bluff stretches off to the right, with a trail along the bottom.

We could see the creek was just about 15 feet below us, and we had one more descent to make, with the lower reaches of the canyon wall to one side and a drop-off on the other.  The route here is narrow and requires some care to navigate.  We brought hiking poles with us, and we were glad of it.  As I was picking my route to start the final descent, I planted a pole, picked out where to step, and lifted a foot in preparation.  And then….

In all of our hikes, only once have we seen a venomous snake, and that was only after someone pointed it out to us, well off the trail.  This would be our first close encounter, as my next step would have landed squarely on this copperhead.  Fortunately for both of us, I spotted it in time and was able to hop backwards while shouting, “Snake! Snake! Snake!”  There wasn’t really any way around it, so we watched it for a few minutes and snapped some photos and video.  The snake figured out we weren’t prey, and it wasn’t prey either, so it calmly and slowly slithered off to the side to hide under a tree trunk, and I slipped on past and made the last climb down into the bottom of the canyon.  Ruth followed suit, and we crossed the creek on stepping stones, then turned left and walked into the natural bowl filled by the gorgeous Mize Mill Falls.

This is a very photogenic fall, tumbling in two cascades over three drops.  Its setting is stunning, with a large overhang to the left, and a bluff to the right.  There’s a sizeable though shallow plunge pool, which was beautifully dappled by the morning sun.

This little canyon is terrific!  If I had done better research beforehand, I would have known that Turkey Foot Falls is just a little downstream of Mize Mill Falls, and we could have gotten two waterfall visits with very little effort.  In fact, some maps list Mize Mill Falls as “Upper Turkey Foot Falls,” so apparently they are quite close, and there is some disagreement on what this waterfall is called.  It won’t take much convincing to come back for another look at the other waterfall, though.  We ate our lunch here, admired a butterfly that was also enjoying the canyon, and took bunches of photos and some video, then retraced our route to the car.  The copperhead did not put in an appearance on our way out, to our relief.  The total distance on the hike, according to the GPS track, was only about .35 miles round trip.  It took us about 26 minutes to get from the trailhead to the base of the waterfall, though at least 3 minutes were spent freaking out about the snake.  For the record, I’m not afraid of snakes.  I am, however, afraid of stepping on them, especially if they take offense.

Our next destination was on the western edge of the Bankhead.  We headed west on Cranal Road until it teed into County Road 2, also known as Kinlock Road, and turned north.  The road is paved for a little over two miles before turning into a gravel road after a sharp bend.  Shortly after that, “No camping” signs start appearing along the right side of the road, and if you’re there in the summer, you’ll start seeing vehicles parked on the road shoulder.  We found a spot to pull in and continued north, toward a bridge over Hubbard Creek.  However, before getting to the bridge, a set of steps leads off to the right and down the embankment to a trail that parallels Hubbard Creek.  You can hear the sound of rushing water pretty much as soon as you park, because you are at probably the most popular swimming hole in the Bankhead — Kinlock Falls.

We turned right on the trail and headed downstream.   Almost immediately we could see the top of the falls, where the creek is shallow enough for a crossing.  Like most falls, it doesn’t look all that impressive at the top.  We continued downstream and passed a rope swing on our way to the top of the bluff overlooking the falls, then settled in on a nice flat rock outcrop and took in the scene.

And what a scene it was.  Kinlock Falls is a cascade-type waterfall, dropping around 40 feet from top to bottom along a natural water slide.  The drop isn’t too steep, especially on the creek-left side, and while we watched a couple of people rode inner tubes down the waterfall into the very deep plunge pool.  There’s a rope along one side of the waterfall that the tube riders used to climb back up for another trip.

I’ve seen pictures of Kinlock Falls before and didn’t think that much of it. However, it’s much better in person, as you see the scale of it and hear the roar of the water.  Hubbard Creek is quite wide at the bottom of the fall, and deep enough to allow people to use the rope swing or even to jump in from the top of the bluff where we were sitting.  We spoke to one daredevil, who said it was a lot of fun but also pointed out that there are boulders on the bottom of the plunge pool, so you’ll need to pick your landing spot carefully, especially if you’re using the rope swing.  You can see the boulders easily from the top of the bluff.  About 100 yards down from the falls, the creek becomes shallow again, but the area between the shallows and the falls is a glorious swimming hole.

The natural setting is lovely, but this is a much-trafficked (by Bankhead standards) area, so there is a problem with litter along the trail and on top of the bluff.  There are no bathrooms or changing facilities, and no garbage cans either.  Also, getting from the trail down to the top of the bluff necessitates a short scramble downhill, but there are plenty of tree roots to use for leverage and/or footing.  The trail continues on down to the creek level, but will require some more scrambling to get to the water.  We were there on a summer Sunday morning, so there were only about a dozen people swimming and sliding, but by the time we left after lunchtime there were quite a few more cars and trucks and motorcycles parked along the road.  We didn’t bother to take poles on the hike, or to even bring the GPS.  The walk down to our  observation point took about five minutes.

It was time to move on to our third destination for the day, which was only about half a mile north on Kinlock Road.  The name “Kinlock” comes from the former home site of David Hubbard, an early settler.  Hubbard was a prominent politician, serving in the Alabama, U.S., and Confederate States legislatures.  He built a plantation house and a mill in southwest Lawrence County, where the small community of Kinlock grew around the plantation.  This general area of the Bankhead National Forest is known as the Kinlock Spring Historic District,  owing not only to the historical significance of the plantation and mill, but also to the many archaeological sites in the area.  The best known of these sites is the Kinlock Shelter, an enormous rock house used by the Yuchi tribe, and later by the Cherokee.

There’s a small parking area on the left that can hold two or three vehicles, and just past that parking lot is a gated Forest Service road that offers parking for another two or three vehicles.  We took a look at the historic marker for Kinlock, a plaque next to a trail that leaves from the parking area, but before we headed into the woods we walked back up the road to where I had noticed a column partially hidden in the woods.  About 50 yards south of the parking area on the east side of the road, the base of two columns, which I presume are from David Hubbard’s house, are still standing.  The house was built in the 1830s, though eventually Hubbard moved in the 1860s or 1870s, and eventually the house was abandoned.  However, it was in good enough shape that it was used as the headquarters for Civilian Conservation Corps Company 1403 when their camp was established in 1933.  The house burned in 1935, but the camp lasted until 1938, and was then converted to a summer camp for the 4-H Club.  We walked around the site of the camp, where there are still foundation stones visible and four piers for a structure that had some sort of plumbing in it — perhaps a wellhouse?

We returned to the parking area and took the trail that started at the historical marker.  It entered the woods and only a few yards later passed by Kinlock Spring, an important water source for the area.  The spring was still running, with one of the biggest spiders I’ve ever seen standing guard on one of its walls.  Though this is not one of the developed trails, the footbed was mostly level and well-established, and even broad as the trail went west, then north.  At one point the broad and flat trail crossed a bed of sandstone, passing through a grove of young pines.  The showiest wildflower of the day, Curtiss’ milkwort, was in bloom along this stretch.

The trail continued to the north, where at about .2 miles from the trailhead it teed into a gravel Forest Service road.  We turned left and about 300 feet later, the trail re-entered the woods on our right.  There aren’t any blazes and there’s no signage, but the trail is pretty obvious.  It continues mostly level for another 500 feet, at one point splitting left and right.  Stay to the left — we followed the right fork for about 100 yards and it didn’t look like it was going anywhere.

The trail then steeply descends into a hollow.  Footing is a little challenging in a couple of places, though we saw young children handling the descent with relative ease as we were climbing back out later.  The trail passes through a boggy area, and then, through the trees, the massive Kinlock Shelter announces its presence.

Friends, this is a BIG shelter.  It’s around 300 feet wide, up to 70 feet tall, and up to 100 feet deep.  Its overhang is taller and wider than Russell Cave National Monument or Cathedral Caverns, in case you’ve ever been to those sites.  At one end, a cave continues back into the hillside, which we didn’t explore.  It’s old — excavations have found evidence of human activity for thousands of years.  It’s still used as a ceremonial site, and for people who know what they’re looking for, there are ancient petroglyphs still visible carved into the stone.  Sadly, we do not fit into that group, but the sheer size and the orange and green tones of the sandstone make this a beautiful and impressive site.

After taking some time to soak in the atmosphere, we reluctantly saddled up and retraced our route out of the hollow back to the trail, and then back to the gravel road.  We turned left onto the road and decided to just hike it to its intersection with Kinlock Road, just a few feet up the road from the parking area.  The total distance for the hike, according to our GPS track, was about .875 miles, though some of the mileage includes our meandering in the old CCC camp.  It took us about 20 minutes to get from the parking area to the shelter.

The Bankhead National Forest and Sipsey Wilderness have so much to offer, and we enjoyed our short hikes to these three (slightly) hidden treasures.  Though they aren’t reached by official maintained trails, the routes to Mize Mill Falls and Kinlock Shelter were easy to find and mostly easy to follow, though there are no trail markings and they don’t appear on official maps.  Kinlock Falls is the easiest to find — when Kinlock Road becomes a gravel road, just look for parked vehicles on the right side of the road and head for the sound of water.

So for once the Bankhead didn’t trick us into any ten-mile hikes, though as usual it did try to kill us. Well, not really — as Ruth pointed out, it just reminded us that it could kill us if it wanted to.  It’s tough love from Mother Nature, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Serendipity – and Llamas: Trillium Gap Trail

At the beginning of this year as we looked over our hikes from last year, we realized a horrible truth. We had not once managed to get up to our beloved Smoky Mountains for a hike of any sort! We were determined to correct that oversight this year, but to be honest, had made absolutely no concrete plans. We have a list of hikes we’d like to do, and sure enough “Smokies hike” is on there, but that’s about as far as we’d gotten. Then something wonderful happened. A co-worker of mine sent me an email asking if Chet and I had plans for June 29-July 2. It turns out that they were part of a lucky group that had recurring reservations at LeConte Lodge for the Friday before July 4th. I should explain – it used to be that the lodge would let folks set up recurring reservations for the same date every year. In 1998 the rules changed and they no longer accept new recurring reservations. If you already had one set up, though, you were allowed to keep it for 20 years, which makes next year the last year for this group. In any case, my co-worker and his wife were not going to be able to make the hike this year due to injury and offered their two spots to us. We thought about it for about a nanosecond before we jumped at the chance.

We drove up after work Thursday night so that we could meet the group for breakfast early Friday morning. Breakfast was where we coordinated who’d be in what cabin and got an idea about what trails folks were going to take. We had a lot of folks hiking up Alum Cave Trail, a family going up Rainbow Falls Trail, a group running up Boulevard Trail, and another couple taking Brushy Mountain Trail until it joined up with Trillium Gap Trail. Chet and I had thought about Brushy Mountain, but in the end chose to start at the Grotto Falls parking lot and hike up Trillium Gap Trail. This meant we had somebody in the group on every open trail (Bullhead Trail is closed for the season due to fire damage from the 17,000 acre fire that burned into Gatlinburg in November 2016).  It turned out three other folks in our group wanted to hike up from Grotto Falls as well, so after a quick group picture, the five of us hopped in a car and headed to the trailhead.

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Trillium Gap Trail is the one the llamas use to get supplies up to the lodge on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. To be honest, since we were hiking on a Friday that’s a lot of the reason I picked it. I love llamas! Sure enough we parked just a few spots down from the llama trailer. They’d beaten us to the trail, probably by a long time, so we saw no sign of them in the parking lot. It’s a nice trailhead. There’s plenty of parking and even a building that looked like it might be a restroom. The trail headed out of the far end of the parking lot and with that we were on the trail and heading up.

 

The first part of the trail was pretty rooty, but not difficult footing. I was impressed once again by the sense of age that I get on these trails. The trees seem bigger and more ancient, the trails like footpaths that have been used since prehistory. I don’t know – maybe it’s all in my head, but it just feels different in the Smokies in a way that I can’t quite explain. My favorite thing about hiking in the Smokies at this time of year, though,  is all the rhododendrons and mountain laurel. Nine species of rhododendron (or rhododendron family) shrubs bloom in the park, and from May into July the mountains are just covered in blooms. On the lower part of the trail, we saw lots of rosebay rhododendron, as well as black cohosh and wild hydrangea.

 

The trail winds through eastern hemlock groves and crosses several little streams before the feature that makes Trillium Gap Trail one of the most popular trails in the park comes into view. Grotto Falls, at 1.3 miles from the trailhead, is formed when Roaring Fork drops 30 feet over the falls. The trail actually goes behind the falls, which is always fun. It would have been more fun if it hadn’t started raining, though. It always rains on us when we hike in the Smokies so we were prepared with raincoats and pack covers, but we were hoping to get at least a few miles of rain-free hiking in. It was not to be. The rain started at the falls, and kept up pretty much the whole way up. It made for a very misty hike with no views down into the valleys. Chet was able to get a few good shots of the falls in before we raincoated-up and started slogging our way up the trail.

 

The trail after the falls is steeper and rockier. It was raining pretty hard at first so sometimes it felt a little like we were walking up a creek. That was just how the salamanders like it, I guess, because we saw several clinging onto rocks and scampering along the trail. There was one small creek crossing, and then at the 2.9 mile mark we arrived at Trillium Gap. This is a gap or pass between Mount LeConte and Brushy Mountain and in fact there is a short spur trail that leads to Brushy Mountain where there normally are great views up to LeConte and even as far as Sevierville. This day was so misty and rainy that we debated whether we wanted to check it out or not. As we sat on a wet log eating trail mix and discussing our options, a couple come down the spur trail. When we asked if there was any view, they said they could see LeConte peeking through the clouds a bit. Just after they said that, though, the skies opened up again so we decided to skip it and just keep heading up to the lodge. My “raincoat” was more of a windbreaker apparently, since it seemed to keep very little of me dry, and my boots either aren’t waterproof or have lost their waterproofing because my feet were damp too. I was ready to get off the trail and into something dry!

 

From the gap, Brushy Mountain trail leads straight ahead for 5.5 miles to the trailhead at Porters Creek. Trillium Gap Trail makes a sharp right turn at the gap and heads uphill steeply towards the peak of Mount LeConte, 3.6 miles away. Trillium is not the steepest trail to LeConte – Alum Cave is steeper – but I will say that particularly after the gap it climbs pretty relentlessly uphill with only a few level sections. This section was rocky again, and we saw tall meadow rue, small purple fringed orchid, mountain laurel, wood sorrel, catawba rhododendron, and umbrella leaf.

 

My least favorite things were the erosion control steps (or whatever they’re called). There were many of these, and I found them hard to climb up. My knees and thighs were sore the next day and I’m blaming these evil things! We started passing people headed down from the lodge, which got my hopes up that we were getting close. Towards the top the trail does have a couple of almost level sections, the last of which cuts through a stand of balsam firs. Finally, finally, we came to a sign about “No Horses Beyond this Point,” then a bridge, then staff cabins or outbuildings, and then on the left – the llamas!

 

They were penned behind the dining hall, munching on leftover pancakes from breakfast, while being saddled up for the trip back down the mountain. We admired them for a few minutes before we went on to find our cabin to drop our packs, change out of wet socks and boots, and then head straight to the dining hall for the all you can drink hot chocolate that comes along with your room. Next order of business was a trip up to the office to officially check in and buy our “only available if you hike to the top” 2017 LeConte T-shirt. This year’s design is a nice one! Warmed a bit by hot chocolate and now with a dry shirt to put on, my next activity was a good nap.

 

We were staying in one of the three bedroom lodges. These buildings have a large porch with rocking chairs, a common room with a small table and a couple of chairs, and three small bedrooms. There is no electricity or running water in the cabins or lodges, though kerosene lanterns and propane heaters are provided. There are flush toilets in a separate building, and you get a bucket at check in to go collect hot water from a spigot if you want to take a sponge bath.  I believe each bedroom has a double bunk bed in it, similar to the beds in the individual cabins. We claimed the top bunk, not knowing anything about our roommates. We knew the couple we were staying with had planned on leaving Huntsville in the early morning and driving straight to the trailhead. These are the folks who planned on hiking up Brushy Mountain, which is a 9.1 mile hike. We’d been told they are super hikers, but still we figured after a long drive and a long hike the last thing they’d want is to have to climb up to the top bunk. As it turned out, they ran into a two hour traffic snarl in Chattanooga caused by a wreck so they changed plans and hiked up Trillium Gap Trail instead since it was “only” 6.7 miles. They arrived in time for dinner though, which is the important thing. If you’re not checked in by 6:00, you’re out of luck!

I’m pretty sure that the dinner served at the Mount LeConte Lodge hasn’t changed in decades, but it is delicious. We had potato soup, some sort of roast and gravy, mashed potatoes, green beans, stewed apples, a peach half, and chocolate chip cookies. Water, hot chocolate and coffee come with the meal, though you can also order wine with dinner for a flat rate of $11, which gets you as many refills as you’d like of red, white, or rose wines.  They also can accommodate vegetarian and gluten free guests, though those meals must be requested a week in advance. Dinner is served family style so when Chet and I have been up here before we were seated at a table with people we’d never met. This time, because we were such a large group, we ended up sitting with folks in our group, though since we were “fill ins” we really didn’t know them either. This year, we got a bit of entertainment at dinner. A young woman got up and played us something classical on a violin. I didn’t hear the introduction so I don’t know what that was all about, but it was very well done and everybody seemed to enjoy it.

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After dinner, we went back to the cabin for a bit, then heard there were deer wandering among the cabins so we went to find them. Deer have gotten much bolder in the years since I’ve been here. It’s apparently not uncommon to see them wandering among the cabins, totally unfazed by all the humans. After that, most of us headed up to the office, which is the hangout area. There is a large propane heater surrounded by rocking chairs, several tables, and stacks of games and puzzles to keep us entertained. Some folks worked on a puzzle, one group played monopoly, another group was trying to teach a couple of people Euchre, and the rest of us just hung out and chatted. We met a guy who has a YouTube channel about hiking. He and a buddy were on a several day hiking trip, carting some pretty impressive video equipment along with them. We met another couple of guys who had hiked 19 miles that day to get to Mount LeConte from Clingman’s Dome. Needless to say these were some fit young guys – at least one of whom was a Marine. I felt a bit like a wimp for only hiking 6.7 and doing it pretty slowly at that! There was much discussion about whether it made any sense at all to hike up to Cliff Tops for the sunset. The mountain top was shrouded in clouds so we opted to skip it. A little while after official sunset, though,  the clouds  parted and we got a bit of sunset after all! We all streamed out onto the deck to look at the sky, and then someone noticed that the nightly Dollywood fireworks were starting up. It was a bit strange to be looking down on fireworks!

 

Soon enough folks were starting to wind down and we headed off to bed. It had been a rain soaked hike on a day with few views and no spectacular sunset but still, the magic of LeConte meant that I went to bed a happy woman. I was back in “my” mountains and even better, I got to see llamas! It was a great day.