Calling the Bluff

This is a blog post about a blog post I was going to write.  That post would have been a lot better than this one will turn out, but expectations have a way of being better than actual experience.

This was the plan:  the Land Trust of North Alabama has been working on a major, nine-month project to rehabilitate the Bluff Line trail in their Monte Sano Preserve.  As described in their blog post, the Bluff Line trail has been around for over 30 years, and wasn’t originally designed to be a trail.  It was an access road, and over the years has suffered quite a bit of wear and tear, to the point that major sections of its 2.57 miles were badly eroded.  Thanks to a grant from the National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF), Land Trust staff and trail care volunteers received training on sustainable trail building practices, and over the past few months many trail maintenance sessions have been devoted to rerouting and improving the trail.

Recently, the Land Trust had a ribbon-cutting for the improved Bluff Line trail.  They did say there was still some work to be done, but perhaps I jumped to the conclusion that the trail was pretty close to finished, with just a few mop-up efforts remaining.  Since I’ve worked on a couple of those segments, I thought it would be a good idea to check out the entire length of the trail to celebrate the new and improved version.  So Ruth and I headed up the mountain this past weekend to check it out.

The Bluff Line trail winds generally north-south almost through the center of the Land Trust’s Monte Sano Preserve.  The north trailhead is at the Bankhead parking lot, and the south is at the South Monte Sano Trailhead on Monte Sano Boulevard just past the entrance to the Burritt Museum.  The Bankhead Parking lot is much larger, so we decided to hike north to south, and along the way Ruth had the brilliant idea of hiking the rerouted trail south, then turning around at the south trailhead and returning via the “old” Bluff Line trail, so we could fully appreciate the scope of the changes.

Technically, the Bluff Line trail doesn’t start in the Bankhead parking lot.  The official start of the trail is from the northwest corner of the parking lot, where after just a few feet of the Toll Gate trail, we reached the junction with Bluff Line.  Well, at least we think we did.  Though the trail is well marked, within about 100 yards the trail has its first reroute, with yellow ribbons leading the way to a new route off to the left, away from the wide, flat trail.  As we reached the foot of a small bluff, the trail continued eastward, though if you look back to the west, there are yellow ribbons leading back to the Toll Gate trail.  That stretch wasn’t developed, but seemed to suggest that there will be two intersections, feet apart from each other.  This actually matches the current trail map, though the ground truth at this point is that there is only one developed intersection.

We continued on the reroute to the east, passing close to the bluffs on an uneven, rocky footbed before rejoining the original trail for a short stretch.  At about .1 mile, the trail appears to fork, with one beribboned route continuing east, and the other turning downhill and south.  We took the south fork, and quickly reached the Old Railroad Bed trail, where a newly-erected signpost told us we had descended down the Bluff Line trail.  But what was the other trail at the fork?  Apparently it’s Bluff Line too, and near as I can figure, the fork we took is (or will be) a connector trail.  Or maybe one of the two reroutes will be abandoned?  We weren’t sure where we were and continued along the “old” Bluff Line  and crossed the power line cut before spotting one of the new Bluff Line bridges uphill of us.  We backtracked to the connector trail and this time took the other fork to continue on “new” Bluff Line, passing some very nice bluffs before crossing the power line cut higher on the mountain before coming to the first of two very nice new bridges.

At the east end of the bridge, another rough trail plunged downhill to the old Bluff Line, very sketchily flagged.  I think this cut, and another like it later, are actually temporary trails cut so the Land Trust could move an excavator to the bridge sites.  Having been burned by a fork already, we stuck to the main reroute, now bending south past some very nice bluff bases with occasional naturally stacked rocks.  This is the reroute at its finest — good narrow footbed with attractive rock lining in stretches to support the footbed and keep people on the trail.

The flagging changes color around here, switching to red, and throughout the rest of our hike the flagging occasionally changed color.  In most cases I don’t think the color changes are significant — they just indicate different trailblazing sessions by Land Trust staff.  The trail eventually rejoins the old footbed for a while before crossing a second new bridge, then turns abruptly uphill on a reroute before again rejoining the old footbed in the vicinity of the one-mile marker.

I had heard on one of my trail building sessions that the Bluff Line/Wagon trail intersection was going to be rerouted, and as we neared it a profusion of flags fluttered in the trees.  At the current intersection, flagging continues southwest.  We continued on what we think will be the Bluff Line reroute to the west before reaching a flagged fork.  At this point, clearly no trail work beyond flagging has been done.  I traced one flagged route until it intersected with the Wagon trail, then we backtracked up the other fork until it emerged on the “old” Bluff Line.  This is the worst part of the current Bluff Line trail — very heavily eroded down a channel with rocky ledges.  We spotted another reroute flagged in blue through a thicket, but at this point we had had enough.  Clearly, major portions of the reroute, around the 1.5 mile marker, are only notional at present.  At this point, we turned around in disgust, since it was evident that the new, improved Bluff Line is very far from complete and we weren’t keen on bushwhacking through the as-yet unfinished (well, let’s be honest — unstarted) portions.

Since we were already grumpy, we thought we’d stick with our plan of hiking out on the old trail, and it helped put things in perspective.  The stretch from the Bluff Line/Wagon intersection running northwest/southeast to the High trail is simply ghastly.  If you feel that you have too many teeth and would like to have some randomly extracted, by all means try to bike this section.  Though the reroutes aren’t finished yet (and more desperately need to be added), from what we saw this will be a huge improvement.  While some sections of the old footbed are good, many others are cupped, with lots of exposed loose rocks, very reminiscent of the execrable northern section of the Toll Gate trail.

This post may come across as negative, but it’s not meant to be a slam on the Land Trust or the trail volunteers (we passed some hard at work, in fact).  This trail is going to be really great when it’s done, but right now it’s like one of those projects where you have to make things much worse before you can make them better.  The new sections of the trail are only marked with ribbons, and the trail diamonds are only on the old route of the trail.  Some apparent reroutes are probably only temporary.  Trail intersections are not well marked, and large portions of reroutes are only marked with flagging with no actual trail development (particularly in the southernmost mile of the trail).  The trail map, both the interactive Avenza Maps app and the version on the Land Trust website, shows the old route (as it should), but as a result doesn’t really match the ground truth.  The problem, as I see it, is with the expectation the Land Trust created with their ribbon cutting.  A lot of great work has been done, and that deserves celebration, but we feel that the hiking community needs to be aware that much work remains to be done, and if you don’t have a good general knowledge of the trail layout in that area you might get lost if you follow flagging and get disoriented long enough to get stuck off trail in the dark.

So I didn’t quite write the celebratory post I had hoped to, but I’ve seen enough to know that I will be writing that post in the future.  You can help bring that future closer by volunteering with the Land Trust.  I’m pretty sure that I’ll be out there moving rocks and digging out stumps as a penance for this post.

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