2018 Retrospective

Ruth and Chet in front of Denny Falls, South Cumberland State Park, TN

Well, here we are at the end of another year, and our little blog is still going strong.  Thank you, dear readers!  In 2018, we made the decision to cut back a little on the blogging, or to be more precise, to cut back on the outings but to still try to post something every week.  Our social media consultants advised us to use some of our “evergreen content,” which we did by posting short “quick look” posts that revisit some of our earlier adventures dating back all the way to 2015.  I thought it was a good strategy, but was a little worried that our viewership stats would suffer if we weren’t generating new content every week.

There’s a reason our social media consultants are thriving in their careers — they were right!  As I write this, we’ve had 20,577 views in 2018, which is a 66% increase over 2017!  It turns out that feeding, clothing, and sheltering our social media consultants had benefits we didn’t even imagine at the time.  Of course, we love our daughters and would have fed, clothed, and sheltered them anyway.

Though we did cut back on our outings, we still managed 23 hikes and one float trip over the course of the year.  We visited some of our old favorites for new hikes (the Sipsey Wilderness, Green Mountain Nature Preserve, Lake Guntersville State Park, South Cumberland State Park) and discovered some new (to us) places to hike that will probably get return visits in the future (Natchez Trace, Franklin State Forest, Red Mountain, to name a few).  We made only the one float trip, but it was on the Paint Rock River.  Our previous Paint Rock River float trip post is our most-viewed post over the life of the blog, so we were really happy when a company started offering rentals and shuttles on this lesser-traveled waterway.

The highlights for the year?  It’s an easy call for Ruth — Taylor Hollow State Natural Area, an astounding spring wildflower Nature Conservancy property north of Nashville.  For me, it would be the collective hikes we took in Oregon, particularly the little two-mile stretch of the iconic Pacific Crest Trail we covered in the Columbia River Gorge.  Here are a few other interesting tidbits from 2018 for Woodlands and Waters.

  • Counting this one, we put up 50 posts for the year.  It’s the first time we’ve not managed to post something every week, but there were extenuating circumstances — a home internet outage for over a week, and cross-country travel.
  • Of those 50 posts, 23 were Quick Looks and 27 were new content.  Our goal was to have an even split of recycled and new content, so yay for us!
  • We had views from 12 countries in 2018, with 97% of the visitors from the U.S.
  • We had 11,680 visitors in 2018, compared to 7,627 in 2017.  That’s a 53% increase in the number of visitors year over year.
  • Our shortest hike of the year was approximately .25 miles, a short ramble in the Huntsville Botanical Garden.  Our longest was approximately 7 miles of walking in Portland, Oregon’s Washington Park and the general area.
  • Our total hiking distance for the year was 75 miles.  That’s about half of what we did last year, and isn’t a surprise given that we’ve cut back on our trips.  Our average hike length was 3.1 miles.
  • Our one float trip was about 4 river miles.
  • Our adventures took place in four states: Alabama, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Oregon.
  • We didn’t have any overnight hikes, but stayed in a CCC-built cabin in Tennessee, a lake house in North Carolina, and three AirBnBs in Oregon.  OK, we weren’t exactly roughing it!
  • We visited three private parks, one county park, one city park, two Land Trust of North Alabama preserves, and one college campus.
  • We visited two state natural areas, one Nature Conservancy property, and one state forest.
  • We hiked in two Oregon state parks, three Tennessee state parks, one Alabama state park, and two national forests.
  • Our most popular new post for 2018 was a post about new trails on the Land Trust’s Green Mountain Preserve, with 306 views to date.  Our most popular for the year was our post from 2015 on kayaking the Paint Rock River, with 1,025 views this year alone.
  • We had some activity in picking up followers on our various social platforms.  We gained 22 new WordPress followers over the year (hello, fellow bloggers!) — about a 25% increase.  We ended the year with 115 Facebook followers, about a 15% growth.  We’ve also got 73 Twitter followers.  Not exactly tearing up the Internet, but not bad for a hyper-local blog.

In looking back on our goals for 2018, we had pretty much one plan — to cut back on our posting of new content, and we nailed that.  We hoped to post more or less weekly, with about 50% new content, and we were pretty much on the mark.  For 2019, we’d like to keep to the same general plan – post weekly, with new content about half the time.  We’ve got one trip planned already for April to an interesting nearby destination, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we throw in a few dayhikes in areas that would require us to make an overnight trip.  I’ve retired from my soccer activities, which will free up quite a few Saturdays for hiking (and some lawn maintenance, much to the relief of our long-suffering neighbors).   There are news trails finished, planned or in progress on Land Trust properties and we’ll be paying them a visit.  We keep a running list of ideas, and it’s exciting to think about getting out there in 2019.

So happy holidays, dear readers, and wish us luck in working off all those holiday mince pies and gingerbread houses.  As you can see from the photos above from actual holiday sweets made by in the past two days by Ruth and our multi-talented social media consultants, I’m going to have to put in more than a few miles on the trails.

The year in photos

January

February

March

April

May

June

July

August

September

October

November

December

Learn something new every day: Rock Bluff Trail

If you live in the Huntsville area, you will have been aware that it has rained NON STOP for most of the past few weekends. It’s been a serious blocker to our hiking plans. Sunday was a gray and dreary day, but at least it wasn’t actively raining so we planned a quick hike on the Rock Bluff Trail at Burritt on the Mountain. It was close by and we’d never blogged about it so it seemed like a reasonable idea. I’ll be honest though, I didn’t really expect much more than to stretch my legs a bit and breathe in some fresh air, but it turned into an unexpected learning experience!

This is a less-than-a-mile trail that circles along the rock ledges beneath the Burritt Museum. Getting there is usually pretty easy for us. Our usual route to Burritt is to go up Governor’s Drive to Monte Sano Boulevard, which leads right to the Burritt entrance. However on this day, we got to the Monte Sano Boulevard light only to discover they’d closed the whole intersection for utility work. Back down the mountain and over to the “back way” on Bankhead Parkway we went. We weren’t entirely sure we’d be able to get to Burritt that way either, but we lucked out – the road closed just beyond where we needed to turn up the Burritt driveway.

Crisis averted, we parked in the small parking area off the left side of Burritt Drive. This parking area has space for four cars, but only one spot is not a handicapped space. The reason for that is that this is a rare handicapped-accessible trail. While the entire loop is not paved, all of it out to the main feature is – but we’ll talk about that later. The paved trail starts out just past an set of informative signs. These signs give information about the Land and Water Conservation Fund, pictures of invasive species to be on the lookout for, and the hours and emergency contact information for the park. With that out of the way we headed down the paved, leaf-covered trail.

 

Almost right away, we came to the first of what would turn out to be many nature trail signs. These varied from a simple numbered wooden post (though we failed to pick up any guide to what the numbers meant), to a small tree identification sign, to large metal signs complete with long text descriptions and colored graphics. Most described trees or wildflowers, but some also included geology or history.

 

Soon the trail came to something of an intersection – a path straight ahead led to one of the large metal signs, but an equally well-traveled path headed sharply to the left past a bench and towards another large metal sign. The path ahead turned out to be a spur that just led to the rock formation described by the sign. The main trail is the one that headed left, towards a sign that compared the bark of a persimmon tree to an alligator. The sign was complete with a cast of alligator skin for actual comparison!

 

Next up was a long boardwalk over a boggy section. Uphill was a lovely rock bluff formation. Downhill, several little streams coming out of springs at the base of the bluff burbled down the mountain towards the old Big Cove Turnpike trail, Governor’s Drive, and on down into the valley.  Here, there was a sign about the geology of the area, and a very wet and muddy path up towards a small cave. We followed the request on the sign not to enter the cave and kept on the main trail.

 

Just a little past the cave was my favorite educational sign on the trail – one about the shagbark hickory. Now, we see shagbark hickory often in our hikes in this area. It’s a very common tree, and even better I can actually identify it by just the bark. I’m afraid I’ve lost a lot of my tree-id-ninja skills from my Botanical Garden class, but this tree I remember. So a sign pointing out shagbark hickory you wouldn’t think would be terribly exciting, but this one was because I learned something new. I learned that the word “hickory” came from an Algonquin Indian word – “Powcohicora” which was the name of a soup they made from boiling, then pounding, nuts. The soup could actually be made from several different kinds of nuts, but its association with the hickory nuts must have been a strong one because that’s the one that stuck. I’m a sucker for word-origin stories, so I loved learning this new fact!

23hickory_sign

Soon after the shagbark hickory sign, the Discovery Trail heads off through the woods to the left. We had also passed a “Discovery Trail” sign back at the very beginning of the hike (though I didn’t mention it), and I assumed that it was some sort of loop trail that went farther down the mountain. Looking at maps once I got home, though, I realized that the first “Discovery Trail” is a short trail that connects the trails at Burritt with Trough Springs Trail across Monte Sano Boulevard. This Discovery Trail is another short connector-type trail that leads to the Big Cove Turnpike Trail.

Just past the Discovery Trail junction, we came to a section of trail that appears to have been heavily damaged. It looked for all the world like tornado damage – not just the downed trees, but trees sheared off at the top, too. I don’t remember reading reports of a storm that caused damage in this area this year, but maybe I just wasn’t paying attention. Thankfully, somebody had kindly come out with chain saws to clear the larger trees, so it was no problem to walk through the area.  Above us, we could see the stone chimneys of some of the historic buildings in the paid area of the park.

 

The next notable sight is the main feature of this hike for most folks – the large concrete cross. The 74 foot tall cross has marbleized chips embedded in it to better reflect the light. At one point, it was lit at night by floodlights. That is no longer the case, but it’s a Huntsville landmark nonetheless. After admiring the cross and the impressive honey-locust planted near the base, we headed on up the trail – which at this point is more like a road, as it is surely the access road to maintain the cross. It was very muddy after all the rain.

 

The hike was almost over at this point. We followed the road around until a sign pointed out that the trail turned right. We had another confusing moment here. There was a sign for “Trail” and then just a couple of feet away from that another sign for “Oak Tree Trail.” From the map, I knew that the Oak Tree Trail headed up the bluff to the paid area. The road we had been on continued on towards Burritt Drive, which we could just see up ahead. We decided to try the Oak Tree Trail just to see where it ended up, and walked all the way to Burritt Drive, coming out at a spot just across the road from where we’d parked. Something wasn’t quite right. We retraced our steps, trying to figure out where “Oak Tree Trail” was, only to discover that it split off from the trail right where its sign was. What happens is this: the gravel road goes straight, coming out at a gated gravel road just above the entry gate. After the “Trail” sign, though, it’s no longer Rock Bluff Trail. Rock Bluff Trail turns off the road at the “Trail” sign, and then “Oak Tree Trail” splits immediately off of that and climbs up to the right.

 

All told, we probably hiked less than a mile – though our run of questionable luck that day included the fact that the batteries in the GPS died just steps onto the trail so no GPS track with mileage for us! We avoided the rain and quite enjoyed stretching our legs after being cooped up for far too long. It was an added bonus that this trail included so many educational signs, and I even learned something new!

Briars or Mud: Franklin State Forest

Over the years, we’ve had numerous occasions to make the drive from Huntsville, AL to Kimball, TN, to get to I-24.  Toward the east end of that route, as you near South Pittsburg, the view to the northwest grows ever more mountainous, with a particularly prominent peak looming over the Cornbread City.  I’ve often wondered about the hiking opportunities in the general area, so a little internet research led me to an interest in Franklin State Forest.

Tennessee has 15 state forests, all administered by the Tennessee Department of Agriculture.  These managed forests are the source of timber harvests, but most are also multiple-use areas, with recreational facilities for hiking/horse/OHV trails, hunting, and fishing.  They are often found contiguous to other public lands such as state parks, where they preserve environments and provide corridors for long distance trails such as the Cumberland Trail.  We’ve not actually hiked in any of the Tennessee State Forests, and given its proximity to South Cumberland State Park, we figured that Franklin State Forest would be a good one to start with.

Official information on the state forests can be a bit slim, compared to the slicker websites used by the state parks.  That’s not such a surprise — the state Department of Agriculture doesn’t have tourism as a primary focus.  There’s a skimpy one-page website for Franklin State Forest, with a link to a road use map that also shows hiking trails.  The map does a good job of showing the network of paved and dirt roads and hiking trails, but doesn’t include any trail names.  There’s no description of the trails either, but fortunately the blogosphere has found the place and there are a few accounts of hikes in the forest.  There’s this one from Hiking the Appalachians and Beyond, and another from The Outcasts Hike Again.  Both blogs (check them out, they’re great!) make salient points about hiking in the Franklin State Forest.  The first post is about three years old, and the second is about ten years old, but both are still fairly accurate.

The Franklin State Forest was acquired in 1936 from a coal company (coal and iron ore mining was a big thing in this area, before even better deposits were found in Birmingham).  The 7,737-acre tract is heavily forested, almost exclusively by hardwoods, and straddles state highway 156 about half an hour’s drive north of South Pittsburg (or, you can travel south from Sewanee, TN if you prefer — the distance from Huntsville is about the same).  The Forest is situated on the Cumberland Plateau, with most trails and roads offering views into mountain coves.  By combining roads and trails, it’s possible to put together loop hikes of various distances.

I decided we’d try a 4.4 mile loop in the northern end of the Forest.  One factor in that decision was the location of the Ranger station, straddling the Franklin-Marion County line on highway 156.  It’s an easily located landmark, with a trailhead right across the road.  There’s a sign marking the State Forest at the Ranger station, and a conglomeration of separate buildings and garages, including a cabin, but there’s no signage directing you to any particular place for parking or info.  There is a kiosk in front of the cabin, and we followed another truck past it into a large field to the south of the cabin where a handful of horse and OHV trailers were parked.  We didn’t observe any restrooms there, or a ranger, but we parked, donned our blaze vests (hunting is allowed in many state forests), and checked out the kiosk.  It had a copy of trail map from the website and a few pages of regulations for the use of state forests.

We knew from the trail map there was a trail starting on the other side of the road from the kiosk, and we found the trailhead with relative ease.  There was no signage marking this as a trailhead, other than the letter “A” affixed to a tree, and white blazes visible in the distance.   I’ve seen references to this trail being called the “Fern Trail,” but I’ve not seen this notated in signage.   The single track enters the woods, and heads southeast through a well-blazed corridor, with mostly paint blazes and the occasional white plastic strip mounted to a tree.  There was a downed tree, easily skirted, and a little creek eased in on the left as we walked along the trail.  I had had some reservations about the trails being well-marked, but they turned out to be unfounded.  Throughout our hike, the footbed was always easy to follow, and frequent blazes were fresh and easily visible.

The first .35 miles were typical for a late fall hike around here — mostly bare trees, with leaves covering the footbed and concealing the occasional loose rock. There wasn’t much elevation change.  This stretch of the trail had a few small wooden signposts at the base of some trees, perhaps a remnant of some signage for a nature trail.  We came to our first trail junction at .35 miles, and the single biggest navigational shortcoming of hiking in the Forest became evident.  Our little creek had widened, and our trail effectively teed into one of the unpaved roads.  A plastic arrow at the base (huh?) of a tree directed us to a trail junction marked as “B,” in a sign on a tree.  OK, we had gone from A to B, but our trail map didn’t include any of these markers, so we couldn’t align “B” with a particular point on the map.  This is something the Outcasts had railed upon at some length in their post 10 years ago, but to their credit they had somehow laid their hands on a different trail map with the junctions marked.  Here’s a link to their photo of that map.  It’s pretty low-res, but it’s the only map I’ve found of its type.  On the GPS track of our hike, we’ve marked waypoints for the “lettered” intersections that we traversed.

So there we were at “B” – wish I could tell you it was the intersection of the Fern Trail and the “XYZ” trail, but apparently trail names are for the unimaginative.  We had to make a water crossing here.  We were hiking the day after a heavy rain, and the creek was shallow but relatively wide here.  The good news is that there was a wooden walkway over the creek.  The bad news was that the second half of it was submerged.  The water was only a few inches deep, so we kept our boots on and made a (mostly) dry crossing.

The next .3 miles of the hike were along an unpaved road.  It was easy walking, except that this section of the trail is also used by horses, and some had been by earlier that morning.  What with the heavy rain of the night before, the trail was often muddy, particularly when it narrowed.  Our choices, as Ruth pointed out, were mud or briars, which seemed to line just about every trail we traveled that day.  The blazes along this stretch were white, though there were some occasional black ones as well, and one rogue blue blaze.  At the end of this segment, another larger creek flowed north to south, with two crossings evident, and the white blazed trail continuing along the creek without crossing.  This was intersection “C,” and the creek is Sweden Creek, or a tributary of it, depending on which map you consult (the Forest’s trail map doesn’t show bodies of water at all).  We were properly confused at this point.  We thought we knew where we were, but not certain.  The trail on the far side of the creek was also blazed white.  Finally, I had the brainstorm of checking Google maps, and bless them! they had all of the trails marked on the map.  Our little current location dot finally helped us correlate where “C” was on the map, and we were in business.

Now that we knew where we were, we had to cross Sweden Creek.  (By the way, “Sweden Creek” is the official name of the creek, but this is a corruption of a settler’s family name, “Sweeten” — oddly enough, Sweden Creek drains into Sweeten Cove.)  There are two crossings close to each other at intersection “C,” but both required some slightly ambitious rock hopping.  We went downstream about 30 yards and found a narrower, easier crossing.  The next .3 miles were much nicer hiking, as we were now on a horse-free path that turned south and climbed slightly as it approached the rim of Main Cove.  Based on other blog posts and information we discovered later in the hike, it’s safe to say we were on the North Rim trail at this point.  Our next intersection skipped a few letters, as now “X” marked the spot where another trail merged in from the north.  A blue blazed spur trail from this clearing leads to a small rock outcrop with a hint of the views to come.

The next .85 miles are the highlight of the North Rim trail, as the footpath parallels the bluffline with views into Main Cove.  At first the views are occluded, but as the trail approaches some relatively rare pine groves at about .65 miles from “X,” there are two blue-blazed short spur trails to the edge of the bluff, where the views to the south and southeast are quite spectacular.  There are a couple of easy creek crossings in this segment, easily managed by rock hopping.

After the soaring views, the trail turns north away from the bluffline and tees into a blue blazed road at intersection “Y.”  The blue blazed road continues to the northeast, where it apparently ends at Collins Falls.  We didn’t know that at the time, and turned west instead to complete our loop.  We almost immediately met two folks on horses, with two friendly accompanying dogs, and exchanged pleasantries.  Those were the only people we saw on our hike, not counting the kids zooming around on OHVs in the parking area.  The trail passed a sizeable pond and recrossed a creek or two as it meandered generally westward toward Sweden Creek.  There was an obvious trail split in about .2 miles,  but we stuck to the left at the fork and after about .65 miles we stayed to the left at another intersection.  About half a mile after that intersection, we were back at intersection “C” by Sweden Creek.

At this point we could either retrace our steps back to the trailhead, or we could tack on a little more mileage.  We were feeling pretty good, it was a beautiful day, so we decided to turn our hike into a figure-8 loop, with Sweden Creek being the middle point.  We turned south at “C” and continued along the North Rim trail.  We knew that Sweden Cove falls was in the general area, and hoped that by following Sweden Creek downstream a bit we’d get a look at the falls.  The trail was narrow and muddy, churned up by horses, and though we could hear rushing water below us the trail began to loop away from the cove without there being any obvious route down the steep bank to our left.  We came to the remains of a signpost next to an abandoned trail, and thought aha! here was a manway down to the falls.  It turned out be badly overgrown (not quite a rhododendron hell, but at least a rhododendron heck) and after bushwhacking a little we clambered out onto an outcrop where we could see Sweden Cove falls very far below us.  Our pictures from there were horrible so I’m not going to post them, but apparently it’s a 25-foot fall.  We didn’t see an easy way down to the fall, so we retraced our route back to the trail.

The trail meandered generally westward, at one point crossing a creek on an actual footbridge before coming to intersection “D” about half a mile from intersection “C.”  For the first and only time on this hike, there were trail signs, informing us that we had been hiking on the North Rim trail, that the West Rim trail apparently begins here, and the Sweden Cove trail leads .9 miles to the Ranger station.  Well done, Eagle Scout J. Davis!

Our last segment was on the blue blazed Sweden Cove trail, an old roadbed that climbed generally to the northwest before teeing into another trail in about .2 miles that had a few of the blank placard-type signs we had seen at the base of some trees at the beginning of our hike.  We stayed left at the intersection so we wouldn’t end up back at the “A” trailhead, and instead emerged on highway 156 between Lake Road and the Ranger station, both of which were easily visible.  This trailhead didn’t have any signage.  From here it was an easy walk along the road shoulder back to the parking area, about .6 miles from “D.”

All in all, Franklin State Forest was a pleasant surprise.  There are three or four other short loop hikes that we’re considering as future excursions, so we’ll be back!  Now that we’ve somewhat cracked the code of the trail map and the intersections, we’ll be a little more confident.  This is one place where you should definitely do your homework before setting out, but as long as you know which side of highway 156 you’re on, just head east or west (as appropriate) until you find the highway and you won’t get lost.  Of course, you might be miles from where you parked.