Not to toot my own horn or anything, but I’m a pretty dedicated blogger. Chet and I have put up a blog post nearly every week for more than four years now. Whether the weekend is a gorgeous one, or a washout; whether we’re in town or on the road; whether we have the whole day or just an hour or so free; no matter what, we try our best to get something posted every Wednesday. Sometimes that means hiking when I don’t really feel like it. Take this post, for example. We knew we’d have a lot of travel over the summer and the fall, for both work and pleasure, and so we knew we had to get in a few “extra” hikes for those times when we weren’t going to be around. We had a freer than normal weekend, so I picked out a new-to-me waterfall hike just an hour south of us.
Several of the online “Best Waterfalls” pages focused on Alabama or North Alabama include Mardis Mill falls on their list. We’d never been there, so we decided that would be our plan for the next day. Unfortunately for me, I woke up in the morning with a back that was a little sore and a bit stiff. I did a few stretches and thought I’d be OK to head on out. Mardis Mill looked like a beautiful waterfall, and there were several other hikes in the area I thought we could tack on if time permitted, so off we went.
The drive to Blountsville, AL took us nearly straight south on Highway 231 for just a bit more than an hour. Online directions and Google Maps took us right to a small gravel patch beside Mardis Mill Road just past where it crosses over Graves Creek. If I remember right, there was room for only a car or two, but the only other people there was a group on motorcycles, so we had plenty of room.
The “hike” is really just following social trails for a few hundred feet (at the most) down to the river. At one point there was a small exposed rock area with a trail off to the right, and another trail heading left. We went left, which led us to the base of the waterfall. Mardis Mill Falls forms when Graves Creek drops about 10 feet over a rock ledge. While it’s not the tallest waterfall in the area, it is very wide and so it has an impressive amount of water flowing over it. It’s a popular spot with the locals (more folks showed up while we were there), and has had problems in the past with trash. Some group has put up signs and installed big red garbage cans to encourage folks to clean up after themselves, and that does seem to be working.
I let Chet do his waterfall photography thing while I checked out the rest of the area. The plunge pool was a nice looking swimming hole, and there was a rope swing strung up on a tree branch, which means it must be reasonably deep. I rock hopped a bit to get different views of the falls, then decided to wander downstream a bit. After leaving the plunge pool, Graves Creek flows over a creek bed of slanting rock, forming small cascades for several hundred feet. A narrow social trail clung to the bank and took me downstream far enough for the creek to slide off the rock and spread out into a slower-moving section.
This was not a difficult trail at all – I’d consider it an “easy-peasy” actually – but by this point, my back was beginning to complain a bit. We took a last look around at the waterfall, then headed back up towards the car. We took a brief detour at that other trail at the exposed rock section, and discovered that it led to the top of the falls. The water there was fairly shallow, so we were able to pick our way out towards the middle of the river to look upstream to the bridge we’d driven over to get here.
We snapped a few photos, then headed up to the car, where my back complained a lot more. I strained to bend enough to take off my boots and change into comfy shoes. It was pretty apparent that there would be no further hiking for me that day. We’d “hiked” maybe a grand total of a quarter of a mile, but I was done. We had plenty of day left, though, so we decided to try a stop at the Blountsville Historic Park on our way home.
The town of Blountsville was originally a community called Bear Meat Cabin, said to be named after local Cherokee Chief Bear Meat. His cabin sat at the junction of a couple of popular trade routes, and a small community grew up around the area. In 1819, when Blount County was formed and in need of a county seat, Bear Meat Cabin was renamed Blountsville. Today, the Blountsville Historical Society maintains a small historical park filled with cabins, a post office, a jail, a barn, and a church – all original buildings from the early to mid 1800s built and used in the local area. They’ve been moved to the historical park using a painstaking process of numbering boards, disassembling, transporting, and then using the numbers to guide the reassembly of these old buildings.
The park had a staff of one onsite – a very nice lady who happily took the two of us plus another couple (who we’d actually run into at Mardis Mill falls earlier) on a guided tour of the buildings. She was a wealth of knowledge about the town’s history and the unique history of each of the buildings. We enjoyed our little tour, which lasted perhaps an hour, but by the end my back was screaming. We made our way home, and I spent the rest of the weekend flat on my back unable to move without pain. This “getting old” thing is no joke!
It might seem odd that two folks who have been publishing an outdoor adventure blog since 2015, and who have been hiking in the Tennessee Valley for years before that, have not been using the AllTrails app. Recently I decided it was worth a few bucks to get AllTrails Pro, and while noodling around on my phone I discovered a nearly 20-mile loop trail just over an hour south of my house. The Duck River Trail is east of Cullman, Alabama, roughly halfway between East Point and Holly Pond in rural Cullman county, and it’s a terrific destination for hikers, anglers, birdwatchers, and mountain bikers.
There was a lot of confusion among the AllTrails users who wrote reviews of the trail, though that’s not surprising given the evolving nature of the project. The trail system is a relatively new project that grew out of a necessity — the need for an additional water source for the Cullman area. The solution was to build a dam on the Duck River (not to be confused with the Duck River in middle Tennessee). Alabama’s Duck River runs for 19 miles in north central Alabama, and is a tributary of the Mulberry Fork of the Black Warrior River. The dam was completed in 2015, but the first trail segments were completed in 2014, with construction continuing ever since, so AllTrails reviews reflect the state of the trail at the time the reviewer hiked or biked it. It appears from recent articles that there are around 21 miles of trail completed, completely circling the Duck River Reservoir.
So when we visited, we weren’t quite sure what we’d find. The segment we hiked, however, greatly exceeded our expectations. This place is a hidden treasure! From some internet and AllTrails research, I determined that there are multiple access points to the trail, with two being in the vicinity of the dam, and two others on County Road 1651 — one on the west side of the reservoir, and one on the east (County Road 1651 does not cross the lake — more about that later). I had picked out a roughly 4.5 mile segment from the east side of the dam up to the east County Road 1651 trailhead, and we took a shuttle vehicle so we could hike more of the loop instead of having to backtrack. It turns out this was a good approach, as the trailhead on the east side of the dam, off County Road 1650, is the unofficial starting point of the trail, since all trail mileage is calculated from this trailhead, heading north. Getting there can be slightly confusing. From the US 278/County Road 1651 intersection, head north on 1651 and take the first left onto County Road 1650. In about half a mile, you’ll come to a Five Points sort of intersection, with County Road 1647 crossing 1650, and a gravel road straight ahead, marked by a sign for a boat launch. Take this gravel road and wind past the dam to arrive at a huge gravel parking lot, with restrooms and a kiosk in the northeast corner. The gravel road continues around to the reservoir and a very nice boat ramp.
We parked near the kiosk, which has the trail rules and a large map of the trail. The trail is only open during daylight hours, with no camping allowed. The trail is only for hiking and mountain biking — no horses, OHVs, or dirt bikes are allowed. The trail starts next to the kiosk.
After a few yards, the trail quickly finds the shade, under typical scrubland trees and shrubs. The footbed is wide and level side to side, with gentle undulations for this first portion. We were very surprised to find the first 500 feet or so contained a plethora of late summer wildflowers: beefsteak plant, slender yellow wood sorrel, Pennsylvania smartweed, creeping cucumber, late flowering thoroughwort, horse nettle, prickly mallow, and small white morning glory, just to name a few. Ten foot high shoots of showy water primrose, bursting with yellow blossoms, rose between the trail and the lake.
We had not expected such a botanical bounty, so our progress was slow for the first few steps. But we were well on our way to earning our traditional ice cream for identifying ten wildflowers, especially when you added in familiar ones such as pokeweed. The segment we hiked, and presumably all of the trail, follows along the lakeshore, with views of the reservoir frequently appearing in gaps through the trees. In about .2 miles the trail passes close to a house, but the footbed is easily distinguishable, sticking close to the lake. As we skirted past the house, we passed a stand of Asiatic dayflower in bloom, always a pleasant sight.
Just past the house we came to the first of many creek crossings. I won’t dwell on these, other than to say there were about a dozen in our 4.3 mile hike, and all were bridged by flat stones, or in one case by a small wooden footbridge. The creeks were mostly dry on the day of our hike, but it doesn’t look like any crossing would pose a challenge during wet weather.
We followed the trail northward through immature woods, usually privet, hackberry, or young tulip poplars, with more lake views and a sighting of rabbit tobacco. At about .9 miles we came to a power line cut, and quickly upon re-entering the shade we found the Mile 1 milepost.
Just past the milepost we left the trees, passing a common mullein along the way, to walk a few yards in the grass before turning onto a paved path. Though the sidewalk seemed a little out of place, it makes perfect sense because it led along a causeway that crossed Henderson Branch, past a pier to a small paved parking area with room for about five vehicles. This ADA-compliant pier and the pathway to it is a great little accessible fishing spot for mobility-challenged folks. Access to the parking area is off County 1651.
The trail continues west of the parking area, just up the driveway with a well-marked entrance. This section of the trail alternates between copses and small fields, largely overgrown off the trail. The soil is sandy here, and passionflower was in bloom and attracting at least one gulf fritillary butterfly.
Now on the north bank of Henderson Branch, the trail re-enters the woods, at one point offering a look at the dam in the distance. We passed the 2-mile post, spotting some beautyberry nearby and a funky-looking mushroom.
The next mile was slightly more undulating, but it was easy walking on the well-maintained and engineered trail. Shortly after passing the milepost, Ruth suddenly shouted “Snake!” and made a little leap farther down the trail. It’s a long-standing joke of ours that Ruth is snake-blind. I’ve personally seen her step right over three snakes without noticing them, but this time she was on her game. A two-foot-long black snake was coiled on the edge of the trail, seemingly caught in some plastic netting. It looked like it was dead, but I used the boy’s scientific method to determine its condition (poke it – gently – with a stick). After a couple of gentle prods, the snake lifted its head and fixed me with an annoyed reptilian gaze, unhappy about being roused from its nap. I recognized it as a little black rat snake (aka chicken snake for any of my fellow country folks), a harmless nonvenomous pal who keeps the rodent population in check, and we left it to resume its slumber.
We continued our woodsy walk, with the somewhat unusual opportunity to be halfway through a hike and being able to spot our starting point across the lake. We passed some downy lobelia and more interesting mushrooms before arriving at milepost 3. Along our route so far, we had surprised a couple of herons, which glided silently away from us over the water. Somewhat comically, when Ruth reached the milepost she sang out, “Mile 3,” and apparently startled a nearby heron, who beat a hasty retreat, all the while uttering a series of aggrieved “gronks.”
The next mile of the trail was more of the same — shady walking, much appreciated on a hot day, with lake views to one side and occasional creek crossings (again, all dry). The main feature of Mile 3 to Mile 4 is a couple of power line cuts that extend across the lake. The trail crosses under the lines a couple of times, the second time under some particularly high voltage lines, the ones where you can hear the electricity crackling overhead. As usual, the power line cuts were a hotbed of wildflowers, with woolly croton being added to our list for the day.
We soon reached milepost 4, and across the lake we could see the western end of Highway 1651 sloping into the water. Along this last little stretch we passed some oakleaf hydrangea and Shuttleworth’s ginger before all too soon the trail crossed a couple of old roads then exited the woods at the eastern terminus of Highway 1651. Our shuttle vehicle was parked there (there’s room for several cars), and while Ruth was unlocking the car I took a brief detour to check out the cleanest vault toilet I have ever seen. There was a hand-sized rustic sphinx moth hanging out on the outside, which made the place even better!
While I was marveling at the vault toilet, Ruth had struck up a conversation with a lady and gentleman who had just driven up to the parking area. It turns out they had grown up next to the lake, and the man told us that when they finished the dam, it was right before the calamitous flooding rains we had in north Alabama around Christmastime in 2015. The combination of the rain and the flowing river caused the reservoir to fill so quickly the workmen didn’t have time to tear up Highway 1651 as planned. It’s still there, under the lake waters, which may explain why Google Maps tries to show the highway as sort of crossing the lake (it ends about halfway across on the map).
So we really enjoyed the little segment of the Duck River Trail that we hiked. It ended up being about a 4.3 mile hike, according to our GPS (which we didn’t think to turn on until we were exactly one mile into the walk). This recreation area is ripe for return visits, as it appears that the entire loop is open for hiking. We might try an 8-mile segment as a bike ride. Or hike clockwise from the dam along the western edge of the reservoir. Or pack up the kayaks and paddle upstream. I’m not sure which option we’ll choose, but I’m certain that we’ll be back!
Trail Name: Collins Gulf Trail
Location: Collins West Trailhead, South Cumberland State Park, TN
Length: 0.6 miles from trailhead to Suter Falls
Rating: Moderate, with some steep sections and uneven rocky footbed in one stretch
Points of interest: Suter Falls
Blog Post: He’s a Suter: Collins Gulf Trail