The Natchez Trace is arguably the most significant historical road in the South. Beginning as a wildlife track, over time the Trace developed as a series of narrow pathways connecting Chickasaw and Choctaw settlements. In 1801 President Thomas Jefferson observed that the Trace was a vital commercial route for mail between Nashville and Natchez and a return route for Mississippi River boatmen who didn’t want to pole their boats upstream after delivering crops and goods downriver. More to the point, it was also a strategic route for controlling access into the Louisiana Territory, soon to be added to the United States. As such, it was in the national interest to convert this series of paths into an actual navigable road, suitable for wagons, with fords or bridges over the rivers. It would be a big job, and when the U.S. Government has a big job, it turns to the U.S. Army.
From 1801-1802, the Army established a garrison a few miles south of Franklin, TN from which the soldiers would widen the path to eight feet across to accommodate wagons and carriages, with another four feet cleared along the edges on either side. They built small bridges to span some creeks and established ferries when needed. By 1803 the Trace was well enough developed to send troops down to defend the newly-purchased Louisiana Territory, and by 1809 the route was essentially complete all the way to Natchez, roughly 440 miles. This is a remarkable feat, as anyone who has done trail building can attest. In our work for the Land Trust, we typically clear a corridor of about six feet, with a three-foot treadway in the middle, and we route the trail around large trees and between or around large boulders. Our work is mostly done with hand tools, though occasionally some power tools (such as chainsaws) are needed. An average-sized volunteer crew, depending on the terrain, would consider getting a half-mile of new construction a very good morning’s work. The Army (and later, civilian contractors) cut a road more than double that width, cutting through swathes of mature timber with nothing more than axes and draft animals for 440 miles in about 8 years. It was our first national highway.
Today’s Natchez Trace Parkway is a paved road along the original route of the Trace. The Parkway is a unit of the National Park Service, and all along its length there are numerous points of historical and natural interest. We’ve hiked one of them previously, and I had planned a trip to the area as a Christmas gift for Ruth (she’ll be blogging about that later!). Our previous hike, while enjoyable, didn’t actually cover any of the Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail. The National Scenic Trail is made up of five segments, not interconnected, that cover about 60 miles along the original route of the Trace. These are trails that were traveled by Andrew Jackson on his march to New Orleans in the War of 1812, and by Davy Crockett, Meriwether Lewis, Sam Houston, James Audubon, Ulysses Grant, and Jefferson Davis. Our hike would take us on just a very short portion of the second longest segment, enough to get a taste of the Trace, with another non-historic trail to complete a loop hike.
We started our walk on a cloudy morning at the Garrison Creek site, milepost 427.6. Garrison Creek is named for the Army garrison mentioned above, just a few miles outside of Franklin in a still rural portion of Williamson County. The Garrison Creek site is the northern trailhead of the Highland Rim portion of the Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail. This is a well-developed stop along the Parkway, with two large paved parking lots (one for horse trailers), modern restrooms, covered picnic tables, and a water source. The trail begins behind the restrooms.
Almost immediately, there is a trail junction, and we found it a little confusing. The trail map shows a split, with the Old Trace (the National Scenic Trail) taking off to the east, with a trail to a scenic overlook continuing straight ahead. The trail junction sign, however, seemed to suggest that going either way would lead to the Old Trace parking area (the next pullout to the south on the Parkway). Technically that’s correct, since the overlook trail ultimately connects to the National Scenic Trail, but we hadn’t intended to hike to the overlook, instead wanting to maximize our time on the historic portion of the trail. In retrospect it makes sense, but at the time we just kept going straight. It wasn’t a bad choice, as this section of the trail was festooned with spring wildflowers. We had the usual common blue violet and Sweet Betsy trilliums, but there were also substantial stands of yellow woodland violet, sweet white violet, mayapples, and purple phacelia. Foamflower, rue anemone, and American columbo also grew along the trailsides. Sharp-eyed Ruth also spotted a jack in the pulpit, always a welcome sight.
A plank bridge crossed a small creek, and the blue-blazed trail began to climb along a fold between two hills. The climb was a little steep but manageable, and was punctuated by occasional sightings of the very photogenic wood violet. At .45 miles from the start, we reached the overlook, with nice views into John Hunter and Sulphur Spring hollows.
Having reached the overlook, the trail leveled out along the ridgetop, with lush views of mayapples, phlox, and various violets. At .68 miles from the start of the hike, we reached the junction of the overlook and Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail. A left turn would return us to the Garrison Creek parking lot, but we wanted a longer hike so we turned right, onto the storied ground itself.
This section of the NTNST, like many, is a ridgetop walk, with little significant elevation change. The trail is wide, though certainly not as wide as it was when the Trace was an active road. The Trace fell out of use as a road in the 1830s, with the advent of newer roads and the invention of the steamboat, so the forest has had quite a while to reclaim the corridor. We continued along the white-blazed trail as the skies threatened rain. Large stands of mayapples and violets flanked the trail, along with a occasional remnants of a wire fence, long since absorbed into the trees to which it was once attached. The footbed was alternately leafy and rocky, which served as a reminder that even when this was a road it would still be a very jolt-filled ride in a wagon. We enjoyed the quiet, though at one point it was broken by a murder of crows driven from their roost by our presence.
All too soon, at 1.44 miles from the trailhead, we reached the intersection with the Garrison Creek Loop trail. We had to decide whether we wanted to continue on for another .25 mile to the Old Trace parking lot, where we would turn around, or just go ahead and start the return loop back to the trailhead. Given the iffy weather, we decided that our roughly .8 mile on the NTNST would have to do, so we turned onto the Garrison Creek Loop trail and began descending the ridge. This section of the trail had some wildflower treats for us, as Ruth quickly spotted pennywort, and star chickweed, I noticed long-spurred violet growing on a bank, and we both saw (who can miss it?) the lovely dwarf crested iris.
The white-blazed trail had been slowly descending the ridge, with the Parkway coming into view through the trees to the left. The trail then bottomed out at a tunnel running under the Parkway, with a variety of wildflowers growing in the disturbed area next to the road. Field mustard was the dominant plant, but Jacob’s ladder, early buttercup, birds-eye speedwell, daisy fleabane, phlox, and white clover were all mixed in.
We anticipated that the tunnel would make things easy for us, but that wasn’t the case. It started off well enough, but at the far end water had collected to form a puddle deep enough to go over our boots. There wasn’t a way to skirt the puddle either, so we just retraced our steps, climbed the bank, and crossed over the road to resume our hike on the other side.
The trail climbed briefly, then descended to the banks of Garrison Creek. We were wondering where it was! It turns out that our first acquaintance was a bit of a challenge, as the trail headed right toward the creek, past a dilapidated footbridge over a tiny feeder stream. There had once been a substantial wooden bridge here, to judge by the remains, but it has been presumably swept away by a flood, so continuing the hike meant we’d have to make a creek crossing. The old bridge location was fairly wide and looked to have about knee-high water at the deepest point, so we took a side trail upstream and found a shallower crossing. We were able to cross on steppingstones, with the help of hiking poles for balance. We managed to cross and keep our feet dry (well, mostly dry in my case).
From here, the trail follows the creek, heading downstream along a narrow track past even more wildflowers. Winter cress and pale violets were in bloom, along with the occasional daffodil. There were a couple of tricky crossings over feeder creeks, with one navigated over a skinny branch and another requiring a short climb up a muddy bank.
It was along this stretch, shortly before the second feeder creek crossing, that I had my best wildflower spot of the day — a rare time that I remembered that wild ginger was in bloom. Though wild ginger is common, its bloom is not very noticeable and is usually hidden in leaf litter. After reaching a mudpit, then crossing another feeder creek on a steppingstone, we finally reached what we feared was coming — another unbridged crossing of Garrison Creek. This time, there weren’t any shallower options, so we bowed to inevitability and shed the boots and socks to ford the creek. It wasn’t bad — the water was only mid-shin high, and not terribly cold (compared to our usual standard, the creeks of the Bankhead National Forest in February).
After crossing the creek, we were in the home stretch. The footbed led to a meadow under a bridge, and beyond the wildflower-filled meadow was the lower parking lot at Garrison Creek. Once we reached the bridge, the footbed just vanished, though trail maps suggest that you’re supposed to turn left and follow the creek on around to the parking lot, where there’s a trailhead sign. We just struck out across the meadow, though we did later check out the picnic area over by the horse trailer parking. Looks like a nice place for a picnic, with the creek nearby, and a few picnic tables and grills.
From the parking lot, we retraced our route back to the bathrooms. According to the GPS track we had covered about 3.4 miles. We stopped for a post-hike snack and had a very nice chat with a couple of young men from Austria who had pedaled the length of the Trace. They were only about 17 miles from the end of their journey, which goes to show that paved or unpaved the Natchez Trace still calls to adventurers. Thanks, soldiers and civilian contractors of 1801-1809 (and later) — a grateful nation still remembers.
We often joke about how any hike in the Bankhead turns out to be a ten mile hike, no matter how short the hike we planned. Or that the Bankhead is “trying to kill us.” Neither of these is strictly true, of course, but we do seem to have a bit of a curse where the place is concerned. Last time we hiked there, we didn’t hike ten miles, and had no near-death experiences. In fact, we considered it a great success….until I got home and started looking around for additional information on the area and found out we’d “done a 180.” This is our term for when you are presented with two choices and inevitably pick exactly the wrong one. We’d gone to Wiggins Hollow and wandered off trail for a mile or so, enjoying the beauty of the area. However, at one point, we’d turned left when, you guessed it, we should have turned right. Turning right in this instance would have eventually taken us to Wiggins Hollow Cave #2. Other than the stunning array of wildflowers, this cave just might be the highlight of the area. And of course we missed it the first time out.
This past weekend there was at least a window of decent weather on Saturday, so I decided I wanted a chance at redemption. I was determined to find this cave! Armed with a newly-purchased better GPS we headed off to try our luck.
The drive in was uneventful – we’d been there only a month ago after all so we knew right where it was. The road was still more than I’d want to try in a family sedan, but our beat up old pickup truck made it just fine. We parked the same place we had last time, and soon were on our way hiking down the road. It wasn’t long, though, before we saw an unexpected sight – another truck coming up the road! We had a nice chat with a family out enjoying the area, commiserated about the state of the road (they’d driven all the way to the end and in hindsight would have parked where we did), got tips from them about what wildflowers to look out for, talked about other great wildflower trails in the area, and discovered we had some friends in common! It was a nice chat.
Almost immediately after we started our hike again, we started seeing the wildflowers. Blooming dogwood trees and redbud were sprinkled through the forest. Quaker ladies lined the roadside, and we spotted dwarf crested iris and two kinds of violets, Sweet Betsy and twisted trilliums, phlox and early buttercup in fields of mayapples. If you count the not blooming but still identifiable wintergreen, we’d seen ten different wildflowers before we even got down to the real wildflower areas!
At the still very rutted turnaround at the end of the road, we again bore right to head down the old roadbed we’d found last time. We continued to spot lots and lots of wildflowers – false garlic, violet wood sorrel, and rue anemone along with more of the trilliums, mayapples and phlox – ending up with a big patch of yellow violets right before the road/path dipped down to the creek.
The creek was still beautiful here – a limestone rock shelf lined one side of a bend in the creek where the banks are covered with flowers. This was where we spotted several bunches of trillium flexipes, AKA nodding wakerobin or bent trillium. While not rare, Alabama is at the very southern end of this beautiful white flower’s range, so we don’t often see them blooming in the wild. Intermixed with the flexipes, we also found perfoliate bellwort, rue anemone, and blue and yellow violets. Not too far away, the stand of bluebells that were just tiny buds last time we were here were in full bloom this time around.
Now finally, we were at the point where we’d gone left last time. This time, we continued on right instead. The trail we’d been on did actually continue for a little ways before fading away into game trails. Along the way we saw white baneberry, red buckeye and butterweed in bloom, and stepped over more twisted trillium than I could count. In my searching online I had found GPS coordinates for the cave, so I set the new Garmin to “Find” and we took off through the woods. The easier route would have been to simply follow along the creek, but our way mostly worked. We had some issues with deciphering the new GPS screens and went off track a tiny bit, but soon we sorted it out and were pretty confident that we were heading the right way.
Soon we heard rushing water ahead and made our way toward the sound. It was coming from a jumble of rocks which contained a small cave opening. Through the opening we could see the small stream tumbling into the dark, and wonderful cold air flowed out to cool us. Above the opening was a small metal disk about two or three inches in diameter. After washing off the accumulated grime, we discovered it was some sort of US Forest Service marker. Sadly, a search online when I got home did not turn up any information on it.
After enjoying the cool for a few minutes, we headed on towards the waypoint that marked the cave. Our path took us through more forest, with a creek on one side and a hill on the other. A dry streambed seemed to lead in roughly the direction we wanted to go, so we followed it for a while. It’s a bit of a guessing game when you’re following a GPS waypoint. The compass will show you where you should go, but it’s “as the crow flies.” You have to look at the land and make some educated guesses about when to make a beeline and when to take a longer route around. After following the dry streambed for a little bit, the GPS started pointing us straight up some rocks, so we decided to follow the creek instead, hoping it would curve back the “right” way soon. It turns out we guessed correctly, because we ended up in the junction of two hollows, with the GPS pointing us straight up one of them. From here, we could hear water again, and sure enough after a short scramble up the hollow, we came upon Wiggins Hollow Cave.
This cave was formed when the roof of a cavern collapsed, taking the small stream that flowed down the hollow with it. The water streams over the collapsed rocks and disappears into the dark. I assume that it ends up flowing out again in the creek at the foot of the hollow. We sat and enjoyed the waterfall for a bit, but not being cavers we didn’t try to explore the cave itself.
On the way back, we opted to follow the creek instead of worrying with the GPS and that worked out just fine. We came across some more wildflowers – a couple of trout lily were still hanging in there, as were some hepatica, star chickweed, and a few large stands of bluebells. I was surprised to find a patch of wood betony along the path near our original “turn to the right” spot. We stopped at the limestone shelf for a bit so that Chet could take some “glamour” shots of the wildflowers there, and I took off my boots and soaked my feet in the very cold creek water while I waited. By this point, I was hot and it felt good to cool off.
After the photo session, it was an easy walk back up the forest road to the rutted gravel road, and then a steady uphill climb to where we had parked the truck. The new GPS seemed to work just fine, though it says we only hiked 3.76 miles. (We had the old one with us and tracking as well, just to compare, and it gave us credit for 4 miles.) So there you have it. We’ve tried “off trailing” it several times in the Bankhead, usually with not-very-good results. There was the time we tried to find Hurricane Creek Falls, or the time we tried to find Coal Creek Falls, This time, though, we went off trail and actually found the feature we were looking for with not a whole lot of trouble! Redemption!
Ruth and I were born just a little too late to catch the heyday of The Lone Ranger, but we were around in time to catch the occasional reruns on afternoon TV. Riding to the rescue with his faithful companion Tonto, our masked hero would swoop in to save the day. The fine folks of the Land Trust of North Alabama don’t tend to wear masks or ride mighty steeds like the Lone Ranger’s Silver (at least not on trail maintenance workdays), but they also save the day by swooping in to preserve land for the enjoyment of all. The Lone Ranger’s trademark was a silver bullet, left behind as a silent confirmation that he had been the mysterious benefactor. The Land Trust also leaves tokens behind, in the form of trail diamonds to mark the way for those who follow. The time had come for us to hit the dusty trail — well, the alternately leafy and stony trail — to check out some of those trail diamonds, on relatively recently added trails on the Land Trust’s Green Mountain Nature Preserve.
Since its initial opening in 2016, the Land Trust has continued to add new trails or connect into existing trails that link into surrounding neighborhoods. Last fall, we tried some of the relatively new trails, and thought it would be a good idea to time a visit to the remaining unexplored trails during wildflower season. From looking at the trail map, I plotted out an approximately 3.5 mile loop to check out the Ranger, Stone Fly, and Oak Bluff trails.
We began our hike where most folks do, in the parking lot on South Shawdee Road, at the Alum Hollow trailhead. There were only a few cars in the parking lot of this very popular preserve, but we knew that would change as the day progressed. To reach the east trailhead of the Ranger Trail, we traveled down the Alum Hollow Trail for about 0.35 miles, where a signpost pointed to the Ranger Trail, which quickly descended into Alum Hollow to the southwest. Along the way, we spotted three wildflowers — common blue violet, plantainleaf pussytoes, and Virginia spiderwort. On a more worrying note, we also passed a few obviously dying pine trees, marked with blue and white tape. The Land Trust has blogged about a problem with pine beetles on their Chapman Mountain preserve — is this what’s going on here too?
The Ranger Trail descends to a bench on the mountain along relatively steep switchbacks, with a very steep descent for the last few yards. Poles are recommended for the last part of this trail, and also for its western end where it recovers some of the lost altitude. There is more than adequate compensation, though, as the eastern end of the trail flattens out among a boulder wildflower garden with purple phacelia growing on top of mounds of sandstone. This is one of the best displays I’ve seen of this wildflower. This rocky area is known as the Three Sisters, named for three large boulders. There are narrow passages between some of the boulders, though the trail is not routed through them.
The Ranger Trail flattens out when it reaches the Three Sisters, and intersects with the Three Sisters Loop trail. This general area is a wildflower garden, with more purple phacelia, hairy phlox, golden ragwort and jack in the pulpit all within a few yards of each other.
The Ranger Trail sets off on a winding route generally to the west. The route is rocky here, with orange ribbons and trail diamonds leading the way in places where there is not enough dirt to establish a footbed. This stretch of trail has a few stands of perfoliate bellwort, and the sweet Betsy trillium that we had seen throughout the hike so far was finally in full bloom next to a creek crossing at about 0.65 miles. The unnamed creek is easily crossed on a narrow bridge of poles lashed together — it’s springy but solid enough. We stopped by this pretty little creek to enjoy its cascades while we ate our lunch. Violet wood sorrel was blooming here, though the blossoms were clamped up tight because it was a cool day.
The trail turns to briefly follow the creek before rising to top a little knoll with occluded views. The trail then continues to wind generally westward, trending uphill. We noticed some wood vetch and false Solomon’s seal as the trail turned to the north, with Alum Cave now in view uphill and the sound of a waterfall flowing just ahead to the left. However, the most obvious point of interest is a mangled Ford Ranger, the trail’s namesake, just off the trail. Somewhat perversely, the trail isn’t actually routed near the wreck, but it’s an easy side trip. Instead, the trail climbs steeply up through rocks to meet the Alum Hollow Trail, where you can turn left to go to the waterfall or right to check out Alum Cave. Wild geranium was blooming here.
The Land Trust’s trail map seems to suggest that the west end of the Ranger Trail is at the junction of the Oak Bluff and Alum Hollow trails, where the waterfall/cave split occurs. The reality is somewhat different, as the trail to the waterfall is not marked with trail diamonds. The path is obvious, though, and we paused to briefly admire the waterfall, then continued on around past it to the southwest to a second smaller waterfall. There’s an eye-high stand of Virginia spiderwort between the two waterfalls.
The .64 miles of the Ranger Trail were straightforward and well-marked. However, the second part of our planned hike, on the Oak Bluff and Stone Fly trails, was a little confusing, due to the trail map not matching the ground truth. The map seemed to imply that the trail continued to the south after passing the second waterfall. As you face the second waterfall, there is a narrow, unmarked trail that runs along an exposed rock face. We went this way for about .1 miles before deciding this was not correct, as the trail was not marked in any way and had several uncleared obstacles. We backtracked to the second waterfall, where Ruth remembered on a previous hike clambering up the left side of the waterfall to reach a trail. We tried this also unmarked route, passing a small stand of wild stonecrop on the way, and after a short climb we reached the top of the plateau and teed into a trail labeled as the Stone Fly Trail. This was a little surprising, as we expected to end up on the Oak Bluff trail, but we turned left and walked along the bluffline for about 100 yards before intersecting with the actual Oak Bluff trail. As you can see by the sign, this is not a Land Trust trail. Nonetheless, we turned left and took the level trail to the south, enjoying occasional distant views of the Tennessee river. Since this trail ultimately leads into a neighborhood, we walked about .3 miles and then turned around. We returned to the Oak Bluff trail sign and continued straight, ultimately going about 100 yards until the trail ended at private property. We then went back to the Stone Fly trail and turned left, to retrace our steps to where we had first climbed above the waterfall. Ultimately, unless you’re just connecting into the Oak Bluff neighborhood, there’s no real point to this trail. I wouldn’t be surprised if it gets removed from the Land Trust trail map.
So now that we were reliably on the the Stone Fly trail, we followed it north and crossed a small creek (actually, the creek that feeds the second waterfall). Shortly after this, we reached a marked trail, the Stone Fly Connector, that isn’t on the trail map. This looks like it was a social trail that the Land Trust formalized, since it’s a short cut back to the Alum Hollow Trail. We stuck with the Stone Fly and continued north, past a couple of water crossings and along a sharp bend to the east. There are private property signs at the bend, but if you stick to the trail you’ll stay on preserve property. This last .1 mile of the Stone Fly Trail has a couple of houses visible to the north. There’s one final water crossing here (this trail crosses the same creek five times), and it’s the widest one, but still only about three feet wide and easily managed. The Stone Fly Trail then tees into the West Plateau Trail. which we took eastward to return to the Alum Hollow Trail. We continued back to the parking lot, crossing a larger creek with an old pole bridge and a relatively new plank bridge. I had to go old school and take the pole bridge. Our only other notable events on the return trip were a sighting of Quaker ladies near the plank bridge, and a nice memorial bench with a view over the hollow.
All in all, it was a very nice ramble of about 3.45 miles according to our GPS track. If you just stick to the Ranger and Stone Fly trails, you’d have around a three-mile loop. In retrospect, I would recommend taking the Ranger Trail east to west as we did, then returning briefly on the Alum Hollow Trail just past the trail split with the cave to one side and the waterfall to the other. If you start the climb back toward the parking lot, you’ll quickly come to the Stone Fly Connector Trail, which you can then take to join up with the Stone Fly trail. That way, you don’t have to climb up the side of the second waterfall.
So kemosabe, if you’re looking for a lone Ranger, and the best wildflower trail on the Green Mountain Nature Preserve (we saw at least 15 in or nearly in bloom), take the Ranger Trail. It’s more challenging than the Alum Hollow Trail, but will also take you to the waterfalls and Alum Cave. The Stone Fly trail is another alternative for adding a little mileage to your hike, and is a pleasant, level walk through the woods. And if you happen to catch a few notes of the William Tell Overture along the way, or the thundering hoofbeats of the great horse Silver, that’s just a bonus.