Horton Hears a Cicada: Henry Horton State Park

The first weekend in August was relatively cool, by Alabama blast furnace standards, so it seemed like we might get in a hike.  Our schedule was fairly open, so I pitched a couple of ideas to Ruth for hikes in somewhat nearby state parks.  Neither park was particularly known for its trails, but in the end Ruth was intrigued at the prospect of a hike at Henry Horton State Park, near Chapel Hill, Tennessee.  The clinching argument was that some previous hikers had mentioned in online reviews of the park that they had seen turtles.  Ruth loves her turtles, so we hopped in the car and made the 90-minute drive north in search of terrapins (or tortoises — either will do nicely).

The drive, made mostly up Interstate 65, was uneventful.  The park is about 12 miles to the east of the interstate, but our Google-suggested route skirted Lewisburg, TN before putting us on alternate U.S. Highway 31, which leads into the park.  Henry Horton State Park was built in the 1960s on the farm of a former governor of Tennessee.  Henry Horton was governor from 1927-1933, having succeeded to the position when the previous governor died in office.  The park bearing his name is undergoing a bit of a renaissance, as its facilities had suffered from benign neglect for years, and the park was even closed for a while during the recession.  Its golf course and campground have been recently renovated, and the park also has a popular restaurant and a skeet shooting range, among the other usual park amenities.  The centerpiece of the park is the Duck River, which bisects the park as it flows westward to eventually empty into the Tennessee River.

The park has over 10 miles of hiking trails, most of which are rated as easy.  We opted to put together a 4-5 mile loop on the western side of the park.  Most of the trails at Henry Horton are loops of various distances.  We decided to hike the majority of the Hickory Ridge Loop trail, which is actually two linked loop trails, and then travel a portion of the River trail to return to our starting point.  The River trail is actually an elongated lollipop, with a loop on the western end, so we thought we’d get a taste of at least two different environments.  You’ll definitely want a trail map before hiking here.

We drove through the center of the park, then crossed the Duck and turned left onto River Road and drove to the campground and parked at the camp store.  The campground bathhouse is nearby, in case you need to take care of any business before setting out.  The trail starts to the right of the camp store, where it enters the woods briefly before crossing River Road.

The first little taste of the trail, before we crossed River Road, was promising.  There were a couple of tree identification plaques well-placed before some interesting specimens, such as the honey locust and persimmon trees.    The trail was flat and wide, and was somewhat confusingly marked with yellow paint blazes, orange paint blazes, and orange aluminum trail markers.  The trail map shows this little connector trail, which runs from the store to the parking lot to a point on the loop, in yellow, and the Hickory Ridge Loop trail is marked in orange on the map.  It’s easy to follow, and we were only in the woods for a few yards before we crossed the road into a parking area and another trailhead.  This second trailhead seems more official, because it has a kiosk with a trail map and other useful information.  It is an option to park there instead of in the campground, if there is no parking at the campground.

This eastern section of the Hickory Ridge Loop trail is called the inner loop on trail signage.  The trail is wide and flat, and at about .15 miles from the camp store tees into the inner loop.  Somewhat oddly, a brown directional sign points to the left, implying you must travel clockwise, but it’s a loop so you can go in either direction.  We wanted to get in a few miles and improve our chance of seeing turtles, so we opted to travel the loop counter-clockwise instead.  The trail at this point is blazed with orange paint and orange metal trail markers.

The Hickory Ridge Loop trail’s distinguishing feature is that it passes through a karst landscape.  The underlying land is primarily limestone and other water-soluble rocks which wear away to create sinkholes and caves.  The trail’s surface is packed dirt, with some roots and occasional rocks, and footing was good.  We were there during a short dry spell, and the trail was dry for most of its length (at least the parts we traveled).  Also, don’t let “Hickory Ridge” make you think that you’ll be making any significant climbs or descents.  Hickory Ridge must be a very gradual and subtle ridge indeed, as this trail is basically flat.

After .45 miles, we reached the junction with the Hickory Ridge outer loop.  Since the Hickory Ridge Loop trail is in essence a figure-eight, you can structure hikes of various lengths, from as short as 1.5 miles to around 2.5 miles or slight longer.  We opted to take the outer loop, so we continued straight ahead instead of turning left to continue the inner loop.

The outer loop is also blazed orange, but the paint blazes occur in pairs, one above the other.  The inner loop has single orange blazes.  We noticed that the blazes here are also old school — they are literally gouged into the trees with a machete or axe, then are painted.

This section of the trail is one of the better ones for summer wildflowers.  We spotted Virginia dayflower, low wild petunia, white leafcup, and southern wild senna as the trail continued westward and began to turn to the southwest.  There’s a small spring on this part of the trail, which was damp and muddy at the time of our visit.  Ruth glimpsed a shy frog as it took cover nearby, and we saw the last remnants of a couple of tall bellflowers.

My favorite part of this trail occurs at about one mile into the loop portion, as the trail enters an open area which shows signs of having been cleared at some point in the past.  The abundance of sunlight spurred the growth of several wildflowers here — flowering spurge, narrowleaf vervain, more low wild petunias, white crownbeard, and a few lovely little rose pinks.

The trail is easy to follow through the open area — just follow the shallow ruts until the trail re-enters the woods.  This section of the trail is very close to the park’s western border, near a very active railroad line.  We could hear the muted roar of a nearby lawn mower, but once we were back in the trees the man-made noises took a back seat to the droning of the cicadas.


The trail turns back toward the east, crosses a footbridge over a small (on our hike, dry) creek, and again enters an open area right before the junction of a connector trail leading to the River trail and the continuation of the outer loop, now heading north.  This sunny, dry area has a few prickly pears growing trailside, with some seven-foot wingstems looming nearby.

We took the connector trail to the south, which for the next .2 miles is neither fish nor fowl, not being part of the Hickory Ridge Loop trail or the River trail.  As a result, it’s blazed in bright blue paint and marked with orange trail markers.  Just before crossing River Road, the trail briefly parallels a stone wall, a remnant of a property line or a reminder that this was once a working farm.

After the connector trail crosses River Road, it winds through an open cedar glade as part of an old roadbed, passing brown-eyed Susans, ox-eye daisies, and common fleabanes, representing the asters, and small red cedars and winged elms.  After .2 miles, the connector trail tees into the loop portion of the River trail, now blazed blue with green aluminum trail markers (it’s marked as green on the trail map).  Again, we opted to hike counter-clockwise around the loop, since it looked like the trail would be at the top of a small bluff when the Duck River would come into view.

The River trail loop made its way southwest through a scrubby forest, passing an old roadbed or trail blocked off by a couple of posts.  After crossing a couple more dry creekbeds on footbridges, we passed the intersection with the Wetlands trail about .2 miles into the River loop.  We skipped the Wetlands trail for this visit because the weather had been so dry lately, and continued on the River loop.

The trail began to gently rise as it entered a slightly more mature forest.  This segment of the trail passes three backcountry campsites.  We detoured into campsite 2, which was pretty swanky for a backcountry site.  It had two fire rings, benches, and a privy.  We didn’t visit the other two sites, but I expect they are pretty similar.

After passing the last campsites, the trail bends to the southeast and descends toward the Duck River.  Just as you begin to glimpse it through the trees, an observation deck rises 20 feet above a wetlands plain.  We climbed to the top and looked over the empty field while eating our lunch and speculating that this would be a good place to spot deer and turkeys.

We didn’t linger long.  There were no benches, and there were no deer or turkeys to be seen (or turtles, as Ruth pointed out).  We returned to the trail, which quickly intersected with the other end of the Wetlands trail, and continued on eastward on the bank of the Duck River.  Our plan was to leave the River trail loop at this point and to continue east on the River trail (the stick portion of the lollipop), but a misleading sign led to us taking a wrong turn.  The sign pointed to a “trail” but didn’t explicitly say that this was the continuation of the River trail loop.  We just saw “trail” and took it, even though we quickly noticed that the trail was turning away from the river.  We saw some hikers close to the riverbank and thought they were on an unofficial trail, so we just went on our merry way.  It was actually a pretty section of trail — shaded and speckled with more yellow senna, rose pink, and some Carolina buckthorn trees with pale red berries.  However, when we closed the loop, .85 miles later near River Road, Ruth figured out what we had done.  There was nothing for it — we could either go on back to Hickory Ridge and finish that loop, or backtrack to finish along the river, as planned.  We had put in a long day of projects the day before, and the prospect of hiking .85 miles (times two!) more than we had planned left us less than pleased.  I decided that we wouldn’t really have a good sense of the park without hiking along its centerpiece river, so we retraced our steps back to the river.   Since the loop and the trail along the river are considered the same trail, both are marked the same.  It might be worth considering making the loop portion of the River trail a separate trail, with different markings.

After returning to the river, we turned northeast and headed upstream.  The trail is on the riverbank, but is usually not that close to the water.  There are plenty of places to get a glimpse of the water, and we tried to find side trails to get closer to the water (and any turtles), but we didn’t have much luck.  However, we got a terrific consolation prize in the form of one of our showiest wildflowers, the Carolina spider lily.  We saw just the one specimen, but it was spectacular!

After walking about .85 miles along the river, we finally spotted a side trail and climbed down to the bank to get a good view of the Duck River.  It was wide and fast-flowing at this particular spot.  We could hear folks splashing upstream just around a bend, where there is a ramp suitable for launching canoes and kayaks.  The park often offers guided and overnight trips on the river, and there’s a concession where you can rent a tube for a lazy float.

From this point, we just continued down the trail until we took a pink-blazed side trail into the campground, where we then just took the road back to the camp store to complete our hike.  All told, we covered 5.0 miles according to our GPS track.  The hike had its highlights and lowlights.  With no waterfalls and no mountain views, Henry Horton State Park is not particularly a hiking destination.  But if you’re there on a golfing trip, or live in the area, it’s well worth spending some time on the trails.  I’m not sure I’d recommend a 90-minute drive from Huntsville when there are better hiking destinations a bit to the east at South Cumberland State Park, but Henry Horton has plenty of charms to recommend it.  We’re already eyeing a return visit for a float trip on the Duck.

But the pressing question, which you are no doubt asking, is, “What about the turtles?”  Despite looking high and low, in karst woodlands and along the river bank, we saw nary a one.  But we did a pretty good job of identifying wildflowers, so we stopped at the Dairy Queen in Lewisburg on the way home.  I had an M&M blizzard.  And Ruth…she had a turtle pecan cluster blizzard!  So she found a turtle, of sorts, after all.

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