Quick Look: Madison County Nature Trail

 

 

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Trail Name: Madison County Nature Trail

Location: Green Mountain, Huntsville

Length:  1.5 mile loop

Rating: Easy

Points of interest:  Covered bridge, a reconstructed log cabin, an outdoor classroom, a chapel, picnic area, picnic pavilion, and Sky Lake

Blog Post: Easy Peasy Hikes: Madison County Nature Trail

Notes:  An easy loop hike for all ages, with little elevation change

GPS Track: none

Mother Nature’s Day Treat: Shakerag Hollow

As you might expect, I’m not really so much of a traditional “Mother’s Day” mother. I mean, sure, when the kids were little we did the whole “breakfast in bed, bouquet of flowers” thing, but these days I prefer to do things a little differently. Knowing me as he does, my husband’s suggestion for a Mother’s Day treat was (of course) a hike – one where instead of bouquets of cut flowers, we might just see Mother Nature’s living bouquets. It sounded perfect.

It was pretty hot for May in Huntsville, so his suggestion was to head for the hills. He picked out a lovely spring flower hike high up on the Cumberland Plateau near Sewanee.  We left the house around 9am and it seemed like in no time we were climbing up to the plateau and heading for the parking lot at the east University Gates. The hike we’d planned was a loop hike consisting of a piece of the Perimeter Trail that goes through Shakerag Hollow, and the secondary Beckwith’s Point  Trail that runs up on the plateau along the top of the hollow. All together it makes a 3.5 mile loop, beginning and ending at the gravel lot just west of the University Gates.

Maybe it was because it was so hot, or maybe it was because I might just look at every “wildflower hike” a lot more critically after the glories of Taylor Hollow, but I wasn’t really anticipating that we’d see many spring flowers. Shakerag Hollow is, however, most notable for its spring flower show, so we set off looking to see what we could find.

I opted to take the Beckwith’s Point Trail first, figuring that it would be the less interesting of the two, and I’d rather not be slogging through the least interesting bit when I was tired and hot at the end of the hike. The start of the trail certainly tried its best to prove me wrong, though. Right away, we dove into the cool deep shade of the trees on paths literally lined with Quaker Ladies. These delicate little spring wildflowers were all along the trail, almost like somebody had planted them as edging. We also spotted lots of mapleleaf viburnum,  a few buttercups, roundleaf ragwort, a dewberry vine in bloom, and masses of deerberry with their sweet little white bell shaped flowers. A little further along, we started seeing tons of pink and white mountain laurel, one display of trumpet honeysuckle, and even a few wood violets sprinkled along the trail.

 

However, this trail had its issues. For one thing, it’s not terribly well marked, honestly. Though it’s a well-defined footpath, there were a couple of spots where a clear sign or even a blaze would have been nice. At one point there were two  well-defined footpaths, one leading towards what might have been a view into the hollow and the other heading on into the woods to the left. It sort of looked like somebody had laid tree limbs lining the trail to indicate we should go left, and it turns out that was correct, but it did make us stop and wonder which way was right. At another point, the trail crosses a gravel jeepway. Since the footpath continued on the other side, it seemed pretty obvious that we should not turn down the gravel path, but again, we did stop to think about it. Another annoyance for me was the road noise. We hadn’t really picked up on the fact that the Beckwith’s Point Trail spends the first mile or so within earshot of Highway 41A. When I’m out on a hike, I would rather listen to the birds, the wind in the trees, or even the silence. Cars, trucks and motorcycles rumbling by is not what I want to be hearing. The slight trail confusions, the lack of any blazes, plus being so close to the road made us wonder if we were hiking the wrong trail entirely. In the end, we were able to pull up a trail map on our phone which clearly showed the trail close to the road. I still didn’t like the noise, but at least I wasn’t as worried about being on the wrong trail.

 

On the positive side again, being up on the edge of the plateau meant we got some great breezes, which were very welcome in the heat.  I also enjoyed the section of the trail that took us along the edge of the golf course – not so much for the golf course (or the fear of getting whacked in the head with a ball), but because that section of trail was cleared enough at the edge that there were some really nice views out over Shakerag Hollow and into the fields on the plains below. We also had a momentary stare-off with a couple of deer that stopped their bounding through the trees to look us over. We did check out Beckwith’s Point, which is a nice rocky outcrop but surprisingly without really spectacular views.

 

We finally came to another rock outcropping with a pretty impressive drop-off into the hollow below. Just past this, there’s a trail sign pointing straight on to Green’s View, and sharply down and to the right for the return loop taking us through Shakerag Hollow itself. We met another family there coming back from Green’s View. They strongly encouraged us to hike the .1 mile to see it so we opted to do that and then come back to this junction to finish the loop. Green’s View was worth the extra (very minimal) mileage. It can be reached by car as well, and has several benches from which you can sit and enjoy the view.

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After enjoying our lunch on a bench at Green’s View, we retraced our steps back to the Perimeter Trail split and started our descent into Shakerag Hollow. The trail goes down steeply, using some well-placed rocks for stairs to lead down below that rock outcropping we stood on just before lunch.  It’s a drop of a couple hundred feet pretty quickly and it’s marked as “difficult” on some maps of the area, but don’t let that scare you off. The hollow is well worth the hike.

 

Despite having missed peak spring wildflower season, we still found ourselves walking down a lush green trail where we seemed to spot some new flower every few steps: purple phacelia, mountain saxifrage, fire pink, masses of mayapples, a tall white violet we later identified as Canada violet, the flower explosion that is largeleaf waterleaf, a few trillium hanging in there – both toad shade and wake robin varieties, skullcaps,  celandine poppy, foamflower, star chickweed, and my most exciting find from this hike – not one but two large jack-in-the-pulpits! All told, Chet and I identified more than 20 different wildflowers this hike, most of them in the hollow itself, and most of those in that first stretch near Green’s View.

 

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If you’re not into the flowers as much as I am, you’ll still enjoy this trail for the towering tulip poplars, rock formations, the burble of Mud Creek below, and a small waterfall. There are some caves along some of the side trails as well as, someplace, an old mine. It’s a beautiful spot and well worth the steep climb down.

 

I suppose I should be fair and mention that there was one slightly confusing intersection on this trail, too. As we climbed up out of the hollow and back towards the University Gates parking area, we came to a place where the trail seemed to tee into another trail. There was no indication of which way to go, and since we knew that at some point we should be coming to an intersection with the Piney Point trail, we wondered if this was it. If so, we should be heading right because Piney Point would be off to the left. There was a light blue blaze visible to our left, though, and no blaze to our right,  which seemed to indicate we should stay left. Hmmmm. We explored a bit to the right and quickly came to a place where there was a small slit of an opening in the mountainside. It might have been a cave, or maybe even a mine but we didn’t explore it. At any rate, the trail seemed less distinct and unblazed this way, plus it just felt like a wildcat trail to the cave, so we backtracked and took the marked way. In the end, we were right because after a bit more uphill climbing that took us past more bluffline and another pretty little water seep, we came to the well-marked actual intersection with Piney Point Trail. From there it was a short .1 mile back to the parking lot. Our total mileage for the loop was 3.5 miles, as you can see from our GPS track.

I always hate to be negative about a trail without good reason, but really, if I were to do this hike again, I might skip Beckwith’s Point Trail entirely. It’s not that it’s bad, really. I’ve certainly been on much worse (I believe one trail I was on last year I started talking about taking a flamethrower to), but to me a better option would be to park at Green’s View, hike down into Shakerag Hollow until you get to the waterfall and creek crossing, then just turn around. That would get you the most interesting bits of this hike, without all the road noise. However you get to it though, Shakerag Hollow is a can’t miss destination near Sewanee, and one I’m going to try to get to a bit earlier in the season next time.

Quick Look: Bee Ridge Trail #204

 

 

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Trail Name: Bee Ridge Trail #204

Location: Sipsey Wilderness

Length:  2.5 miles, one way

Rating: Moderate

Points of interest: Mostly interesting because it leads to an access trail to East Bee Branch canyon, this is a nice trail through hardwood forest. When the dogwoods are in bloom, it’s a nice springtime hike.

Blog Post: Buckeye, Bird Song, and the Big Tree

Notes: Take East Bee Branch Trail #204A to get to the famous Big Tree and East Bee Branch Falls.

GPS Track: Bee Ridge Trail #204

Boys’ Day Out: Chapman Mountain

Glory be!  We actually had a weekend with two beautiful days of rain-free weather, just in time for our annual visit to the National Cornbread Festival in South Pittsburg, TN.  After enjoying a plate of nine different cornbread samples, touring the newly-opened Lodge factory expansion, and taking in the vendor exhibits, we had made a day of it and still had a Sunday free for a hike.  Sadly, Ruth was feeling a little puny, despite the healing power of cornbread, so Casey the Hound and I decided to have a Boys’ Day Out and let her rest up in some peace and quiet.

The Land Trust of North Alabama has recently announced that their Chapman Mountain nature preserve is now open to the public during daylight hours, with approximately 3 miles of trails developed and ready for hiking, biking, and horseback riding.  Ruth and I have worked on a couple of those trails, and were last there a few weeks ago for the dedication of the property – yet another gift of the Terry family to future generations.  But, when you do trail work you become intimately familiar with a few dozen yards of a trail and not necessarily its entire length, and there were some trails we hadn’t visited at all.  Three miles was a nice manageable distance, so Casey and I decided to stretch our collective six legs and hike all the currently open trails.

The Chapman Mountain Preserve can be slightly tricky to get to, since it’s on the westbound side of U.S. Highway 72 in a stretch where the lanes are divided.  If you’re approaching from the west, you’ll need to take Highway 72 to the light at Moore’s Mill Road and make a U-turn, then stay in the rightmost lane as you climb the hill.  Once the guardrail ends, be on the lookout for a paved driveway leading to a gate, where’s there’s a sign announcing the Preserve.  The paved driveway quickly becomes gravel and drops down the mountain, which means the sign isn’t readily visible from Highway 72.   After you descend down the gravel drive, there’s a large gravel parking area with room for dozens of vehicles, including horse trailers.

The Land Trust has ambitious plans to develop this 371-acre preserve, with seven more miles of trails, a disc golf course, group camping, and the Terry Education Pavilion, which will have running water and restrooms.  The pavilion is still under construction at this time, so at the moment the only restroom facilities are porta-johns.  A kiosk with a trail map and other information is easily visible from the parking lot, and should be your first stop to get oriented.  Or, as an alternative, you can download the trail map in advance from the Land Trust’s website.  Since I was planning to hike all the trails, I spent a little time looking over the options to try to come up with an efficient route to minimize backtracking.  As currently laid out, there are many options for constructing loops of varying lengths, so if you’re not up for hiking three miles at this time, you can piece together a much shorter loop to suit your ambition.

The Chapman Mountain Preserve is kind of shaped like a lopsided bow tie, with one large tract to the northeast and another larger tract higher on the mountain to the southwest.  All of the development so far has been in the northeast section, with two trails lying mostly east of the parking lot, and another four trails to the west.  Casey didn’t seem to have any preference as to where we started, so I decided we’d try the newest trails, the Driskell Trail (a 0.8 mile loop) and the Chasco Trail (a 0.5 mile loop that starts on the southeast edge of the Driskell Trail).  There were a handful of cars in the parking lot when we started, and I noticed a couple of people leading horses from the western trails back to a horse trailer.

Since the Driskell Trail is a loop, you can start anywhere, so I decided to start from the southeast corner of the parking lot.  The Driskell Trail isn’t marked right at the edge of the parking lot, and isn’t necessarily recognizable as a trail.  It’s a wide, mowed, bulldozer road that runs between a stand of tall young pines to the north and Chase Creek to the south, shaded by trees.  In under .1 mile, a signpost on the right (south) points the way to the Chasco Trail, which is also a loop trail.  We turned onto Chasco, and just a few yards from the Driskell/Chasco intersection, the Chasco trail crosses a small creek, which was just a trickle at this particular point and easy to cross.  After crossing the creek, the loop portion of the trail begins.  Casey seemed to show a preference to go left (clockwise), so we headed east and downstream.

The trail starts well enough, nice and level, with the creek to the left and wildflowers such as false solomon’s seal growing in the dappled shade.  To the experienced eye, though, there were some telltale signs of a young trail – saplings cut off knee and waist-high to be dug out later on a trail maintenance workday, navigation ribbons still in the trees, and a soggy unimproved water crossing where a drainage presumably from the highway flows into the creek.  There are signs of hard-won progress where this trail was carved out of a thicket of bush honeysuckle, and having visited this preserve before any trail work had started, I can tell you large portions of it were barely passable.  After about .18 miles the trail stopped in a thicket, with an indistinct manway continuing to the east.  Casey and I gave it a try, but clearly the trail wasn’t finished or even marked, so we backtracked to the last clear part of the trail to reconsider.  I spotted ribbons through the trees to the right of the trail, so we bushwhacked about 40 yards to reach the trail, where we were able to turn right and continue the loop back to the west.  It looks like the loop is not yet completely open.  We continued on around clockwise, with traffic whizzing by up the hill from us, on a nice wide path.  Unfortunately, at about .3 miles our progress was delayed by a large tree across the trail, far too big to clamber over easily, and with no established detours.  We picked our way through the rootball’s crater, but it would be impassable for a horse unless it was a show jumper.

After clearing the tree, we continued on down the Chasco Trail, which is at its best along this stretch.  The footpath is level and well-groomed, winding past a few boulders on its way back to the beginning of the loop.  We turned left, re-crossed the creek, and turned right to continue on the Driskell Trail.  Calling it a trail is somewhat charitable at this time.  I don’t think I saw a trail diamond after the Driskell/Chasco intersection, and the trail (or perhaps what I think is the trail) continues as a bulldozer road back to the eastern edge of the copse of pines, where all traces of a footpath end in an overgrown grassy meadow.  The horse riders had preceded me, so I followed their tracks on around until I spotted yellow ribbons hanging from trees so I followed them westward back toward the parking lot.  The ribbons eventually led to the right, away from the road, but I only spotted them by detouring around another fallen tree.  On the plus side, the butterweed continued to grow ubiquitously on the road, along with a few striking stands of crimson clover.  The trail, such as it is, just becomes a multi-tracked mess in this northwestern section of the loop, finally crossing the Moonshine Trail and resolving back into a more easily identifiable track as it bends south and then east back toward the parking lot.  We returned to the kiosk to start our next loop, which would cover four trails, with higher expectations.

Before I describe the next four trails, I’d like to say in defense of the Land Trust that the Chasco and Driskell Trails are not finished, and I remember being told that by one of the Land Stewards a few months ago.  Clearly, these two trails are still works in progress, and they aren’t yet up to the usual Land Trust trail standards.  The Land Stewards and volunteers have been working their tails off developing new trails on other preserves, including a trail on a relatively new property in Blevins Gap.  I’m only mentioning the current state of these two trails as a public service, to let you know what you’ll find if you attempt to hike these trails (which are shown as open on the preserve’s trail map) at this time.  Chasco is just one or two work sessions away from being fine.  Driskell, though, is nowhere near ready for prime time, and my recommendation is to stay away for now.

I knew that the trails leaving the west side of the parking lot were in much better shape, so I set off on the Moonshine Trail in better spirits.  The Moonshine Trail runs generally north-south, so I decided to make a loop of the southern end of the trail, the Whole Planet Trail (with a side trip onto the Amphitheater Trail), and the Terry Trail.  We headed south on the Moonshine Trail, marked with traditional diamonds and a hand-made sign by Mr. Bob Terry himself.   Before we reached the junction with the Terry Trail, the Moonshine Trail was blocked by yet another large fallen tree, which had pulled down a couple of others with it.  The terrain didn’t really lend itself to a detour, so the hound and I contorted ourselves over and under the various tree trunks.  I notice that the hoofprints ended at the fallen tree, which explains the horse riders coming back off that trail at the time we started our hike.

Once we got back on the trail, it was smooth sailing.  The Moonshine Trail is, at the moment, the showcase trail on this preserve.  It winds upstream along the creek through a more wildflower-friendly glade, with red buckeyes in bloom and several patches of trilliums (not in bloom at the time).  After passing the junction with the Whole Planet Trail, we continued on until the trail ended at a spring, which is the source of the creek we had been hiking along.  Indeed, this is the source of Chase Creek.  The area is kind of boggy when the spring is running, and the water flows from two locations.  Casey and I stopped for drinks and a snack, enjoying the sound of running water.  There aren’t any signs of a still in the area, though Bob Terry once told me there had been a still there at the time his grandfather purchased the property.  Grandpa Terry did not carry on the tradition.

After a short rest we retraced our route to the Whole Planet Trail, which climbs about 120 feet in its .3 miles. This trail, named for a Land Trust corporate partner with a very similar sounding business name (think groceries), is also quite enjoyable, despite its generally uphill climb.  It’s not particularly steep, and is well-constructed with a sturdy treadway and good drainage.  Mayapples are abundant on this trail, as are trillium and squaw root.

About 500 feet from the southern end of the Whole Planet Trail, the Amphitheater Trail takes off more or less in a straight line to the southwest.  This .1 mile trail trends just slightly uphill, ending abruptly at a small clearing that overlooks the spring on the Moonshine Trail.  Or, so I surmise — it’s not really visible when the trees are in leaf.  This trail isn’t worth the detour, except perhaps in the winter.

The hound and I resumed our journey on the Whole Planet Trail, continuing to its end at a chain link fence that protects a small tract on the property that’s not part of the preserve.  We turned right and followed the fence uphill to the start of the Terry Trail.  This trail follows, and occasionally deviates from, an old road bed that runs more or less level for about half of its 1.1 mile length.  As the trail heads north and away from the highway, the road noise dissipates, replaced by birdsong.  The trail has numerous patches of mayapples and more trillium.  We had just missed the dogwood flowering season, but dogwood petals frequently appeared underfoot.  It looks like the windstorm that claimed trees lower down the mountain did some damage here, with one fallen tree forming an impromptu arch over the trail.  Another tree blocks the trail, but is easily navigated around in the open woods.

The Terry Trail reaches the northern edge of the preserve in about .3 miles, at which point it bends to the southeast and begins a leisurely descent down this lobe of Chapman Mountain.   Along the way, there’s a short stretch where the trail’s edge is lined with small rocks, and a fallen log has been partially cut through to enable passage.  Shortly afterwards, the trail briefly goes through a boggy area before drying out and passing a couple of mossy boulder fields, one of which sported a health stand of purple phacelia.  Just past the second boulder of collection, I spotted a solitary Jack in the pulpit clinging to the edge of the trail.  The Terry Trail shows signs of being a wildflower rockstar!

The trail flattened out as it neared the parking lot and its first junction with the Moonshine Trail.  We continued along the Terry Trail  until it teed into the Moonshine Trail, a bit south of the parking lot.  This stretch has a small  stand of wild comfrey, with its lush basal leaves and delicate flowers on an incongruously gangly flower stalk (a “forked inflorescence” to use the term from my wildflower book).

To finish up all trail sections, we turned left on the Moonshine Trail and headed north.  Once we fought our way through that stupid fallen tree again, we took the Moonshine Trail north past the parking lot, passing the remains of an old truck, an old rock wall,  and an old car along the way.  After crossing the Driskell Trail twice and passing the Terry Educational Pavilion, we came to the northern end of the Moonshine Trail and closed our final loop.  The portion of the Moonshine Trail between its two intersections with the Driskell Trail is somewhat overgrown and slightly difficult to follow.  Since the parking lot is pretty much in sight you can’t get lost, but it seems to me a re-think of the trail layout in that area would be a good idea.  It just seems kind of fussy, although if you’re not being a purist and trying to walk every trail, you’ll eventually end up at the parking lot or at a trail junction with the Terry Trail or the Moonshine Trail.  All that remained was to finish the hike to the parking lot, which we did by taking the Driskell Trail back to the kiosk (which was kind of dumb – backtracking on Moonshine would have been a little shorter).

So in the end, we ended up walking about 3.7 miles to cover the 3.1 miles of unique trail in the preserve so far.  The GPS track will give you a general idea of the terrain and route.  The thing to remember about the Chapman Mountain Preserve is that it is a work in progress, and it’s going to be a work in progress for years.  At this time, the standout trails are the Moonshine, Whole Planet, and Terry Trails.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the Land Trust has cleared some of the fallen trees by the time this post goes live, but for now I suggest sticking to the trails on the west side of the parking lot.  Casey and I enjoyed our boys’ day out, though the bushwhacking took its toll — both of the boys came home and took a nap afterwards!