Chillin’ in the desert heat

I don’t often have to travel for my job, but on the rare occasions when I do, I always try to do more than just work and sleep. Recently, I was sent for work out west, and as luck would have it I ended up working Friday and Monday, which meant the weekend was mine to do with as I wished. I wasn’t too ambitious though – summer in the desert southwest is no joke. My main plan for Saturday was to stay in the air conditioning, but after a day of that I was bored enough that I decided to brave the heat and head outdoors. I was only about an hour and a half away from White Sands National Monument in New Mexico, so that seemed like the perfect adventure spot. This unique area inspired locals to recommended preserving it as a national park as early as 1898. That effort, and another one in 1922, failed before Herbert Hoover finally designated the nearly 225 square miles as a national park in 1933.

Off of Route 70 between Las Cruces and Alamogordo, NM, the visitors center is an adobe brick structure built as part of a Works Progress Administration project using materials from the local area. It and several other similar structures nearby were built between 1936 and 1938, and were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1988. Inside, the visitors center has a small museum with interesting and sometimes hands-on displays, a native plant garden, a beautifully filmed park overview movie, and a small gift shop. I took all of it in, and included in my gift-shop stop the buying of sun screen and water (which I stupidly had not stocked up on elsewhere) as well as a plastic “snow saucer” or sled plus a cube of wax for my much anticipated attempt to sled down a sand dune.  You need to make sure you have plenty of water on you, whether you bring it with you or buy bottles at the gift shop. There is no water available in the monument itself, and it can get very very hot there.

There is a $10 per person, or $20 per car entrance fee (payable with cash, check, or credit card), which gets you access to the only road into the park, the 8 mile long Dunes Drive. The Drive in turn provides access to four hiking trails, several picnic areas, an amphitheater and a backcountry campsite. The road is paved for the first five miles, then turns into hard-packed gypsum sand for the last three.

My first stop was the half mile Playa Trail. A “playa,” or beach in Spanish, is a local term for a low lying area that fills with rainwater occasionally. The sandy trail out to this playa, which was dry, led out into the surrounding Chihuahua desert through cactus and scrub. A couple of informational signs talked about the occasional water, the animals attracted there, and descriptions of prehistoric animals they know frequented the area as well. I learned that “Dire wolves,” which I thought was something made up for “Game of Thrones,” are actual animals, and that they lived here between 125,000–9,500 years ago!

Just across the road is the turnoff for the Dune Life Nature Trail, a slightly more ambitious one mile loop through the dunes. As I climbed up a small hill of white sand, leaving the dry brown desert behind me, I spotted a small lizard with a bright blue tail. This was a little striped whiptail, also known as a little blue-tail. He soon skittered off under a yucca and I climbed on up into the dunes. There I was surrounded by nothing but white sand, interrupted by only the occasional plant (or former-plant) with an impossibly blue sky overhead. I had a little bit of trouble being sure exactly where in that all-white landscape the trail actually was, and since I was on my own with not another human in sight I opted to go for caution and just explore as much as I could while still keeping the trail markers in view. I think I actually ended up going part way around the loop, but backwards. I did note some excellent steep dunes, though, and made a mental note to return there for my sledding experiment if I found nothing better deeper into the park. As I walked back to the car, I passed a mother with her young children headed to the dunes, toting sleds, so I guess my idea wasn’t a very original one.

A little ways down the road, there is a .4 mile boardwalk out into the “interdunal” area of the park. This wheelchair, stroller, and walker-accessible elevated boardwalk takes you out over the fragile interdunal landscape, with informational signs all along the way. I walked out and back, but the heat was getting to me a bit, so I didn’t linger long before getting back into the car (and the AC) to drive on to the area labeled on maps as the Heart of the Dunes. This was said to be the best place for finding steep dunes suitable for sledding.  It was around here that the paved road turned to packed sand. At first I was a little worried about driving my rental car there, but the surface is very hard and lots of different kinds of vehicles navigate it just fine. It’s nothing to worry about. I kept driving into a landscape that had fewer and fewer plants – just solid white everywhere I looked. I passed a sign for a picnic area. I couldn’t imaging a picnic out here. My childhood picnics were mostly at Metcalf Bottoms, and beautiful shady picnic area along a creek in the lush and shady Great Smoky Mountains. This sort of looked like Mars. When I found the actual picnic area, the sight of a row of picnic tables set up underneath shiny metal shelters looked to me like something out of the Jetsons. I also found my sledding spot, but I have to confess that my attempts were pretty weak. I tried a couple of times, never really got up much speed, and soon gave it up in favor of the AC in the car.

After several hours exploring in 105 degree heat, I decided to nip out to Alamogordo, only 15 miles away, for a bite of “lupper” or whatever you call a meal between lunch and dinner.  I wanted to come back, though, because at 6:30 that night there was going to be a ranger-led “Sunset Stroll.” The entry ticket is actually good for several days, so it makes it easy to come and go however fits your schedule or your heat-tolerance. I’d heard the sunsets at White Sands were stunning and thought this would be a good way to experience it. The “Sunset Stroll” meeting area is well marked on the park maps, and there is also a sign posted near the parking area for it, so finding where to meet up is not a problem. There were about 15 of us when I went. While we waited for a few stragglers, the ranger made an odd suggestion – she recommended that we take off our shoes and just leave them in the car. It turns out that the gypsum-based sand does not hold heat like the normal quartz based sand you find at the beach, so the sand is actually quite cool! Most of us took her up on her suggestion and soon our little group was headed out across the desert, barefoot.


She led us to the top of a nearby dune, where she pointed out the band of white visible in the rock of the surrounding mountains. This is gypsum rock, which is abundant in the San Andreas and Sacramento Mountains that surround the basin containing White Sands. Gypsum dissolves easily in water, and so when it rains, the dissolved mineral is washed down into the Tularosa Basin, which is basically like a giant bathtub with no drain – there is no place for the water to drain out. It collects, temporarily, in the lowest point in the basin, Lake Lucero. There, the water eventually evaporates, leaving behind the minerals, which form large selenite crystals. These crystals are very soft, and so when the wind blows over them, they flake off and tumble together to eventually become the soft white sand we were sitting on.

Next, we climbed down off the dune to a spot where a small hole had been drilled into the packed sand so that we could see how close to the surface the water table is. If I remember right, she said it was only about a meter down. Sure enough, peering into the hole you could see a pool of water at the bottom. This water is actually what holds the sands in place here. Water combined with powdered gypsum forms a hard surface – you’d know it as the same stuff that wallboard is made from. Water close to the surface also provides life-giving moisture for plants to grow, which further binds the sands to this location. After a brief stop at the water hole, we went up another dune to take a closer look at some of those plants. Some plants put out root systems that pull in water and end up forming hard pillars of sand around the roots. When the dunes shift, as they do at varying rates across the dune field, these pillars remain like a pedestal with a plant growing out of the top of it. Some plants simply grow their stems long enough to keep their leaves on the top of the dunes. Yucca does this. Yucca roots are broad and shallow, but as the sand builds up, a yucca plant will grow a longer and longer stem to keep its leaves and flowers above the dune. Yucca plants have been known to have a 30 foot stem. This works great as long as the dune is there, but when it eventually shifts away, the yucca collapses and dies because it can’t support that long stem.

Another survival strategy is to just grow roots long enough to find the water. The cottonwood tree, which is so known for being a water-loving tree that sighting a stand of them is a sure sign of water nearby, surprisingly grows well in White Sands. Because of the high water table, it is able to drive roots down into the water, and just keeps on growing while the sands shift around it. The cottonwood also puts out several plants from the same root system, so what might look like several separate trees could be a single tree, looking like a line of shrubs growing on top of the dunes.

After a stop at a “Mormon Tea” bush, and a talk on various prehistoric animal tracks found in the Monument (but not where we were), it was time for the grand finale – the sunset.

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Though I never did get the hang of sledding on the sand dunes, I still very much enjoyed my few hours at White Sands National Monument. It is a unique and beautiful place, and well worth a visit!

From Poison to Pancakes: DeSoto Plant ID Hike

I hope there’s a statute of limitations for attempted murder, because I’m about to confess, and implicate my sister.  The intended victim was my other sister, the baby sibling of our family.  We were elementary school-aged kids, probably around 9-10 years old, and our younger sister had annoyed us (probably unintentionally) in some way.   I had heard that the berries of the poke (or poke sallet) plant were poisonous, so we tricked our younger sister into eating one, then gleefully told her she was going to die.  This had the expected result of throwing her into a tearful panic, but ultimately had an unexpected consequence.  Our intended victim was unharmed, but her flight and bawling accusation to our mother resulted in we would-be poisoners making a trip to the lilac bush to each select a switch, which was then heartily applied to our backsides.  I learned my lesson — to this day, I won’t have a lilac bush on my property.

So you can imagine my unease when Robert Wilson, our guide on a recent plant ID hike at DeSoto State Park, popped a poke berry in his mouth while leading our tour.  He explained that yes, poke berries are poisonous, as are the mature leaves, stems, and roots of the pokeweed plant, but some herbal medicine practitioners say that a berry a day is a good anti-inflammatory.  Robert mentioned that a recent study indicated you would have to eat “pounds” of berries to receive a fatal dose.  He was also very careful to say that people should do their own research, because opinions vary about how much, if any, can be eaten safely.  By the way, Robert was apparently unharmed.

I’ve mentioned in other posts that DeSoto State Park does a terrific job of providing programs for its guests.  I decided to drive up one morning while Ruth was out of town to attend a free plant ID hike.  Robert Wilson is a concessionaire for the park, and provides various guided walks and outdoors skills workshops, some for a modest fee.  Robert is an interesting guy — he runs Seven Pines Survival, LLC, a company which provides outdoor education, bushcraft, and survival skills programs for DeSoto, Floyd State Park in Georgia, and the Jackson State University Field School in the Little River Canyon.

Our hike started at the Country Store in DeSoto, and a group of around 20 people of all ages (including babies in knapsacks) and 5 or so dogs of various sizes assembled.  Robert introduced himself, told us the hike would be a short one and laid out the general plan.  Our route started on the Red trail behind the store, where we then got on the boardwalk to Azalea Cascades, then took a branch of the Orange trail to the campground, and finished the loop with the Gold trail back to the store.  I didn’t bring the GPS, but I’d say the loop was around 1 mile, over mostly easy terrain.  Robert guessed it would take about 1.5 hours, and he hoped to identify 20-40 plants along the way, but thought with the large size of the group he’d probably identify about 30 or so.

Well, he was an overachiever, as it turns out.  I noted every plant he pointed out, and had 42 on my list at the end of the hike.  Some were old familiar favorites, such as false Solomon’s seal, American holly, white oak, mountain laurel, Joe Pye weed, persimmon, and prickly pear.


Others were new to me: puttyroot, sweet birch, usnea, cross vine, and pineapple weed.  Still others were known to me by a different name: squaw vine (aka partridgeberry) and winter huckleberry (aka sparkleberry).


Robert is known as the “Traveling Herbalist,” and this added a unique dimension to the hike, as most of the plants he pointed out are used in herbal medicine.  He has special permission from the park to help the guests experience the plants in a multi-sensory way — that is, we looked at, touched, smelled, and even tasted a few specimens along the way.  It was fun to smell the aromatic oils in dog fennel (aka summer cedar), pineapple weed (crushed leaves smell like pineapple), and sweet birch (smells like root beer).  We tasted sourwood leaves (guess how they tasted?) and sweet birch, which despite its root beer smell is actually minty when tasted.  Old-timers often used sweet birch as a natural toothbrush.


Robert also had a seemingly-endless supply of information about plant ID tips and backcountry uses.  Dog fennel, for instance, makes a pretty good bug repellent if reapplied every couple of hours.  Pine tar can help relieve the itch from poison ivy.  Sweetshrub flowers, when crushed, smell like strawberries.  When Virginia pines die, the sap migrates to the core of the tree, where this wood makes superior fire starters.  Usnea is not only a good antibiotic; it also serves as an indicator of air quality (the longer the strands, the better the air).

Some of his tips could be real lifesavers.  For instance, in one area he noted cross vines on one side of the trail and yellow jessamine on the other.  Both are vines that have opposite leaves, usually in pairs, and the flowers are similar, but cross vine is harmless and makes a good tea, while jessamine is poisonous.  A good differentiator is the base of the leaves — in cross vines, the leaf base is heart shaped, but in jessamine it just tapers into the vine.


But my favorite tip was a culinary curiosity.  You can take the fresh blossoms of redbud trees and make a simple syrup with a subtle floral flavor in a lovely shade of pink.  However, when you pour the syrup over pancakes, they will turn (a little) green!  Redbud syrup is in fact a pH indicator, and turns green in alkaline conditions.

I had hoped to learn a few interesting tidbits and pick up a few plant ID tips, and this hike exceeded my expectations.  I highly recommend keeping an eye open for future events at the park, which you can do on their various social media pages or by signing up for their newsletter at the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources email updates page.  This site is a great way to opt in for information from many state parks and ADCNR activities.



Hidden in Plain Sight: Pisgah Gorge

In our frequent travels to Atlanta or North Carolina to visit family, Chet and I have often taken the route through Scottsboro and then over Sand Mountain through Mentone to Adairsville, Georgia to hit I-75. In all the years we’ve made this trip, I had no idea that only 15 minutes off our route hides the beauty that is Pisgah Gorge. Pisgah Gorge, located near the town of Pisgah, Alabama, was formed by the waters of Little Bryant Creek and Bryant Creek, which flow off Sand Mountain to join together and become Jones Creek in Jackson County. These creeks drop over 1000 feet in just a couple of miles and ultimately drain into the mighty Tennessee River. Three waterfalls, two at least 100 feet tall, drop the water of Little Bryant Creek down until it meets Bryant Creek, which marks the start of the Gorge.  More compact than the better-known Little River Canyon just down the road, the magic of water-carved rock here has formed a gorge with a very similar feel.

This past Saturday, in search of a waterfall hike after all our recent rain, I came across a mention of “Pisgah Gorge Falls” on some website list of waterfalls in North Alabama. Reading up on it, and realizing that it was only a bit more than an hour away made it a done deal that this would be our hike for the weekend. The first challenge was figuring out how to get to it. Access to the trails that will get you views of the falls is through the Pisgah Civitan Park, sometimes called the Pisgah Gorge Civitan Park. In 1967, the Pisgah Civitan Club purchased land on the edge of the gorge, where they built a park, a pavilion, and some hiking trails. Not being owned  by a national, state, or even county park, this place has a very “only the locals know about it” feel. There was enough information online to know that we were looking for the Pisgah Civitan Park, though, and that will get you where you need to be. There are no signs that say anything about “Pisgah Gorge Falls” or waterfalls of any sort, but once in the town of Pisgah there are signs for “Pisgah Gorge Civitan Park,” which helps. The parking area at the park is a tiny gravel patch with room for about three cars. When we pulled up, there was one car already there, and as we were fussing about, getting the GPS started, dealing with Casey-The-Hound, putting on backpacks, etc., the owner of that car came walking up. He gave us the disappointing news that despite all the rain, there really was only a trickle of water at the falls. He also said that the trails were very overgrown. We were already there, though, so we figured we’d check it out anyway. As we were chatting, another guy pulled up in a Jeep and asked about the falls and the hike. Apparently, somebody has been doing a bit of marketing over at North Alabama Tourism. They both had copies of a brochure called “Magical Waterfalls of North Alabama,” which includes Pisgah Gorge Falls in its list of 14 must-visit waterfalls. Dude in the Jeep heard that the trails were overgrown and decided to try another day.


We said our farewells and headed through the gate that blocked vehicle traffic past the parking lot. Just past the gate there is a small kiosk with a hand-drawn map. Despite being a bit low tech, it was clear enough to give us the idea of where we needed to go, so off we went. For the first couple of tenths of a mile, the trail is really a gravel access road that leads past overgrown ballfields and a pretty rustic pavilion. Close to the edge of the gorge, though, there is a much more modern pavilion with a raised stage area next to it.

Just past the pavilion, a short paved path leads to an obviously newly built amphitheater overlooking the gorge. We bypassed the views off the amphitheater, though, and turned left on a dirt footpath that headed along the edge of the gorge towards what we hoped was the “first overlook” marked on the map. As it turns out, it’s not so much an “overlook” as a way to get right to the top of the first falls. In only about 300 feet, the trail turns towards the edge of the gorge and then drops somewhat steeply down to reach the top of the falls. We were surprised to find a man-made concrete dam here, with two large culverts that would have allowed water (if there had been any) to drain from behind the dam, over a small shelf, and then over the falls into the canyon below. The Civitan Park website calls this “the old mill dam,” so I’m assuming at one point there was a mill of some sort here. The falls themselves, though, are entirely natural and surely existed long before somebody tried to put a dam there to harness some power. The creek just upstream of the falls is a beautiful green grotto, with steep canyon walls along one side and a rock shelf for a creekbed. The view over the falls and towards the bluff where the amphitheater sits is quite nice, though difficult to capture on camera.

Having explored the small area pretty thoroughly, we headed on back to check out the amphitheater. Completed by volunteer labor in 2010, this very nice structure would have amazing views of the waterfall, when the water is running. Next, we walked down to the left of the amphitheater on a path set up with railroad ties for stairs down to the chain link fence for an even better view of the falls. Here’s where I think we made the same mistake that our buddy back at the parking lot had made. There is what looks like a very overgrown, but distinct trail leading off along the very edge of the gorge. It goes in the direction that we knew the next overlook should be, so we started down that way, fighting through briars and getting Casey-the-Hound’s leash caught on bushes. However, we soon decided that surely the nice clear trail we’d seen above the amphitheater that seemed to parallel this one would be a better choice. We backtracked, climbed back up the railroad ties and started down the nicely maintained trail we’d spotted earlier. My guess is that the guy in the parking lot made the same mistake we did. Hopefully, he didn’t give up at this point, because the best parts of this park were yet to come.

The nice trail continues gently on to the west for only another couple of tenths before we came to a small wooden footbridge. From reading online, I knew that the small trail taking off to the left of the bridge was one we wanted to take. This trail is really only a “trail” for a short ways before turning into a bit of a rock scramble, but what it leads you to is one of my two favorite places on this hike – the top of the second waterfall. The trail comes out on a large rock shelf, which the day we were there had very little water flowing anywhere. We could hear the rush of water under our feet, though, as the water flowed through cracks and crannies in the rock toward the lip of the falls. Upstream was all rock walls and rock-shelf creekbed. Downstream was a dizzying view farther down into the gorge, with a plunge pool below and towering rock bluffs straight ahead. Off to the left I saw a rock pillar of some sort that looked interesting, but was too obscured by trees to really figure out what I was looking at. From reading online later, I think what I was seeing was a piece of the Pisgah Gorge Arch. Off to the right, Chet (for once the braver of the two of us when it comes to heights) clambered down to a rock shelf for a picture of the falls. It was my turn to be terrified that he would slip and fall to his death on rocks 100 feet below. As it turned out, my reading on the Arch indicates that if you want to get down to the bottom of the falls, and then on to the Arch, that is actually the way to go. The pictures from this blog post make it almost seem worth it. Almost.

We scrambled back up to the trail, which turned out to be a very difficult thing for a dog with short little legs to do. He made it back up without having to be carried, but the rest of the hike we did at his now very glacial pace.The next highlight was an overlook that was just up the trail. Back at the top of the second falls, we looked out on a towering rock bluff. Our trail led us to the top of that bluff. It did provide a great view back to the second falls.

From there, we consulted Chet’s AllTrails app to figure out if the trail actually continued or not. The map published online by the park makes it look like this overlook might be the last one, but the trail clearly continued. The AllTrails app showed the trail continuing on, though, so we kept on going. The trail headed uphill a bit, past a stretch where you could see a road just off to the right, then wound through some rhododendron and pine trees before coming to a spot where the trail seemed to fork. The left fork led into a downed tree that had been carefully chainsawed to provide a path. The right fork looked like the more official path. We continued to the right, only to find that very shortly we came to a “Private Property – No Trespassing” sign. The trail continued on, but we did not. We turned around and decided to try that left fork instead. I’m so glad we did.  A short trail led through a bit of brush to the edge of the gorge and then turned right and onto a rocky outcropping with by far the best view of the whole day. There, stretched in front of us, was the Pisgah Gorge – a dip in the land framed by rocky bluffs with rolling hills receding into the distance. It was absolutely gorgeous.

After enjoying the views for a bit, though, it was time to head on back. We mostly retraced our steps, at least until we got to one final fork near the amphitheater. We’d passed this going out, and looked back to see the “nice” pavilion through the trees. This is simply a bit of a shortcut to get back to the pavilion. At this point, poor Casey-The-Hound was about done in. He was walking, slowly, and every once in a while he’d jog a step or three, but mostly he was just slogging along. I’m afraid our furry boy just may not be able to join us on our hikes any more. This was not a terribly difficult hike, but it about did him in. All told, we hiked about 1.6 miles according to our GPS track.  Most of the hike was very easy walking and even though the waterfalls were a bit of a disappointment, this place more than made up for it with stunning gorge views. I think this is actually a three season kind of place. The views in the winter must be even more fantastic than they were this trip, the gorge draped in autumn-hued trees sounds lovely, and I’ll bet spring is the best time for the waterfalls. Now that I’ve learned about this hidden beauty, you can bet I’ll be back!


Curtain Raiser: Blue and Orange Trails at DeSoto State Park

Ruth posted last week on our trip to DeSoto State Park in Fort Payne, AL, where we tried out the relatively new zipline.  Since we had a relatively open schedule on that day, we actually made a full day of our visit to the park, tossing off a short loop hike, visiting the park’s CCC Museum, and making a quick dash up to DeSoto Falls.  Though ziplining was the main event, we thought a short loop hike would be a nice curtain raiser.

DeSoto State Park sits in a scenic 3,502 acres on top of Lookout Mountain, with 25 miles of hiking and mountain biking trails.  We tend to visit every couple of years, usually in the summer or fall, and have hiked many, but not all of the trails.  This CCC-built park has much to offer, with wildflowers and waterfalls featured on several trails.  Though the drought map for Alabama showed that DeKalb County was abnormally dry at the time of our latest visit, we chose an easy loop hike located near the park’s country store because it featured two small waterfalls.

Most of the trails at DeSoto are named for the color of their blazes.  We picked up a free trail map at the country store and signed up for the 4 pm zipline tour, then made our way back to the small paved parking area at the Boardwalk Trailhead.  One of the more popular trails, the Red trail to Azalea Cascade, is a nice ADA-accessible elevated boardwalk that’s suitable for all hikers.  We wanted something a tiny bit more challenging, so we headed to the south end of the parking area and quickly found the trailhead for the Blue trail.  The trail barely entered the woods and immediately forked.  The left fork was blazed blue, so we followed it as it paralleled the park entrance road briefly before crossing a wooden bridge and finally turning west to enter the woods for good.

On the Saturday we visited, the park was really hopping and we could hear and occasionally see people on the Red trail, which at this point parallels the Blue trail to the north.  This stretch of the trail is relatively flat, with a few gentle inclines.  I got the impression that this trail is not as heavily used as others, as it had a few downed trees (easily maneuvered around or over).  There is a creek to the north (the one we had crossed on the bridge at the start), but there was very little water flowing.  I didn’t find the Blue trail to be particularly interesting, though to be fair we caught it on a hot mid-summer day.  About the first .4 of the eastern end was probably the most scenic piece, with large mossy boulders on one side of the trail and occasional splashes of color from wildflowers and mosses.

Though the trail map seemed to suggest that Laurel Falls and Lost Falls might be accessible from the Blue trail, there aren’t marked turnoffs to the waterfalls from this trail.  There are social trails, but we blazed right past the one leading to Laurel Falls at what would probably be about .5 miles from the eastern trailhead.  At about 1.1 miles, we could hear people off the trail down near the creek, so we took a social trail to arrive at Lost Falls.  From the paltry flow of the creek and the abnormally dry conditions, we had low expectations for Lost Falls, and it met them by being dry.  At best, it’s a small waterfall, about 10 feet tall with not much flow.  Still, it has a nice setting.  The photo on the left is from this hike, and the one on the right is from a hike we did in October 2012, to show the falls in a more flattering light.

After spending a few minutes at Lost Falls for a quick lunch, we backtracked to the Blue Trail and continued westward.  The trail at this point is mostly flat, passing through open woods before turning north and crossing the creek again.  The Blue trail passes through a pine grove, widening to the point that the blazes move to the rocky footbed instead of the trees.  The Blue reaches its western terminus here, joining the Orange trail at about 1.4 miles.  The intersection is extremely well marked, with signage on trees and on the rocks.

We turned right (eastward) on the Orange trail to complete our loop.  The Orange trail has clearly been the recipient of more love than the Blue trail, with striking woodburned signs for navigation and mileage.  The Orange trail is also wider and appears to be more traveled, with no downed trees.  We passed the turnoff to Lost Falls at about .1 mile from the Blue/Orange intersection but kept on going, knowing that the fall would look pretty much the same from the other direction.

The Orange trail occasionally had stretches where the footbed was exposed rock, and in the segment between Lost Falls and the Orange/Silver connector trail we passed clumps of reindeer lichen before reaching another pine grove, where we found our wildflower superstar of the day, the lovely pale pink Maryland meadow beauty.

At mile 2.2, we reached our next waypoint, the well-marked turnoff from the Orange trail down to Laurel Falls.  Since this waterfall was downstream from Lost Falls on the same creek, we didn’t expect to find any water flowing, and for the most part that was true.  There was one tiny stream of water flowing on one end of the waterfall, which is maybe about 6-8 tall.

As the Orange trail continued eastward, it forks at about 2.4 miles with the left fork heading toward the improved campground.  We continued along the right fork, also blazed orange, passing an intersection with the Red trail and at one point passing a striking natural stone “bench” embedded in a tree trunk about a foot off the ground.  As the trail nears its eastern terminus, boulders and rock shelves begin to appear on the northern side.  At about 2.7 miles, the Orange trail passes under the zipline course and skirts two very large boulders before ending at one side of the country store.  From the store it was only about a 500 foot walk down to the parking area to close the loop.  Our GPS track said we had covered about 2.88 miles on the loop.

We had made quick work of our little curtain raiser — in fact, we had knocked it off in about two hours, which meant we had hours before our scheduled zipline tour.  We attempted to move onto an earlier tour, but they were fully booked.  We had some time to kill, and I’ve been wanting to check out the boat shack at DeSoto Falls, where you can rent kayaks and paddle upstream for a couple of miles.  So we made the short drive north out of the park, following the signs to DeSoto Falls.  I was determined to see a waterfall today, and Ruth had never been to this waterfall, so we made the short walk from the parking loop down to the 104-foot falls.  The West Fork of the Little River had not dried up, so we had a nice view from the top of the falls.  There are actually three drops at the top of the falls, as the water flows over a old hydroelectric dam built in 1925 to provide the first hydroelectric power in the state of Alabama, then down a 20-foot cascade, and then finally down the 104-foot plunge.

I think the better view of most waterfalls is actually from the base, but there’s no trail leading from the parking area to the base of DeSoto Falls.  Apparently, there is a trail accessed from an unmarked parking area on the road to the waterfall which leads to the bottom, as we saw several people swimming in what would be an amazing swimming hole.  After admiring the falls and wondering at the idiots who cross the safety railing to get closeup photos, we checked out the boat ramp (easy, free access to the river), enjoyed some ice cream from the boat shack, and enjoyed some downtime on a picnic table under a shady tree.  It was a good way to recharge for the ziplining, though we did budget enough time to check out the CCC Museum by the park’s old entrance and the Nature Center at the country store — both sites well worth a visit.

In summary, it was another fine visit to a park with much to offer — and we didn’t even check out the flint knapping demonstration that was going on next to the country store.  The park has a very active set of programs, from guided hikes to campfire talks to outdoor survival skills, and has pretty much something to offer to everyone.