2017 Retrospective

It wasn’t always pretty, but we managed it — another year of 52 posts, one every week, chronicling our outdoor adventures in the Tennessee Valley and beyond.  Our social media consultants (I’m serious, we have two of them that we raised ourselves) tell us that we’ve built up an enviable amount of long-form evergreen content.  All the while, I thought we were just walking around, taking pictures, and saying what we did last weekend.  Who knew?

We started this blog in May of 2015, so we’re into our third year now.  It has been gratifying to see how our readership has grown since then.  In our first, partial year of blogging, we had 3,269 views from 1,229 visitors.  In 2016, those number jumped dramatically to 10,444 views from 4,521 visitors.  In 2017 our growth was a little more modest, but still as of this writing you lovely readers viewed 12,101 pages in 2017, with 7,470 visitors over the course of the year.

Looking back on all we did in 2017, it’s no wonder we’re enjoying the holidays by mostly staying indoors!  Here are a few interesting numbers:

  • We posted 48 times on hikes, floats, ziplining, or bike trips.  Sometimes we’d have multiple activities on a single weekend, but we were out and about on the vast majority of weeks during the year.
  • We took a total of 40 hikes during the year, for a total of 157.45 miles.  That’s up a little from last year.
  • Our shortest hike was around .75 miles, on a little amble around the Land Trust of North Alabama’s Chapman Mountain Preserve.  Our longest hike was 7.9 miles, and we covered that distance twice, on the TVA Honeycomb trail and on our hike to Virgin Falls in Tennessee.
  • We had two float trips, both on the Elk River, for a total of 11.6 water miles.  With those two trips, we completed the Limestone County canoe and kayak  trail.
  • After getting our bikes fixed up, we put in two bike rides for a total of 23.3 miles on the Richard Martin trail and a loop out at the Wheeler Wildlife Refuge.
  • Though we didn’t exactly rough it, we had five overnight trips during the year, staying with some friends, in a hotel, in a New England inn, in a rustic mountaintop lodge, and in a treehouse.
  • We visited state parks in Alabama, Tennessee, and New Hampshire.  It was our first trip to seven of those parks, with return visits to five others.
  • Federal properties were also a frequent target of visits, with two trips to national forests, four trips to TVA properties, one to a national park, and one to a national military park.
  • Various nature preserves were also on our list, with trips to the Monte Sano, Chapman, Rainbow Mountain, and Green Mountain preserves of the Land Trust of North Alabama. We also paid visits to one Nature Conservancy property, two nature preserves in the Birmingham area, and one city park in Tennessee.
  • Our most popular blog posts continue to be posts on Indian Tomb Hollow in the Bankhead National Forest (over 1450 views to date) and a float trip on the Paint Rock River (a smidge over 1400 views).  The most-viewed single post of 2017 was on our hike to the Nature Conservancy’s Lost Sink, with a whopping 93 views.
  • We’re not exactly taking the Internet by storm, but we had viewers from 58 countries, with 99% of the views from the U.S.  We had around 20% growth for the year, which is really flattering for our little hyper-local blog.
  • On the advice of our social media consultants, we promoted one of our posts on Facebook and pretty much tripled our number of Facebook followers.  Granted, we had a puny number of Facebook followers to begin with, but now we have nearly 100.  Which means, of course, that every time we post something to Facebook, about two people will see it in their feeds.

As is often the case, the end of the year is a good time to look back on goals that we set at the beginning of the year.  We didn’t really have formal, measurable goals, but our general plan was to do more winter hiking, use our new GoPro camera, to get in a couple of float trips, to do some overnight backpacking trips, and to get in a visit to the Great Smoky Mountains.  We didn’t do too badly — we got in a few cold weather hikes, posted some GoPro videos our on Facebook page, took two float trips, and had a lovely return to LeConte Lodge in the the Smokies.  As for the backpacking…well, these old bones are just too fond of thick mattresses, preferably in enclosed heated spaces.

So now we come to the goals for 2018.  All that activity in 2017 was frankly a bit much for us.  Our experts pointed out that it’s not necessarily the new content that is driving people to our site.  Also, not everyone is a fan of the long-form blog post.  So next year, we’re going to be cutting back on the generation of new content, and will instead leverage some of our evergreen content in smaller, to-the-point posts, with links back to the full post for those who are interested.  Most people aren’t hitting our site and scrolling back 2.5 years to read everything we’ve posted, so it might help to revisit some of those earlier adventures.  We still intend to post more or less weekly, but will add maybe about half the number of long-form posts.

We enjoy taking the trips and writing the blog, but it’s getting pretty challenging to come up with a new destination each week.  There is a finite number of outdoor adventure possibilities in the immediate area, and we were finding that we’d have to travel farther and farther to get to a new place.  With the travel time, we were getting to the point that we’d lose about half our weekend just getting in a hike, and then we’d lose two more weeknights every week putting together the blog post.  There is also the physical wear and tear on our middle-aged bodies to consider, especially as we have other outdoor volunteer obligations, like soccer and trail maintenance.  So 2018 is going to be a year for recharging.  We’ve got a list of places we want to explore, and there will be new content, but we’re going to rest, just a little, on our laurels (or maybe rest on our mountain laurels, as may be the case).

The year in photos













As Advertised: Poplar Springs Section of the Cumberland Trail

According to the calendar, we were in the waning days of autumn.  But it sure didn’t feel like it, with temperatures in the high 20s, and the few leaves that clung to the branches on the mountainside were brown and dry.  It was a good day for a winter hike, and that’s why we were in the Prentice Cooper State Forest just a few miles northwest of Chattanooga.

Ever since our first section hike of the Cumberland Trail, I’ve been keen to get back to notch another few miles on this remarkable footpath.  The Cumberland Trail is a work in progress, a trail corridor stretching the state of Tennessee from south to north, from outside of Chattanooga to the Cumberland Gap.  The plan is to finish the trail in late 2019, with over 300 miles to be open for foot traffic only.

A couple of days before our hike, a snowstorm had rolled a 7-10 split through the southeast, dropping snow north and south of us, but it missed most of the Tennessee Valley.  Fortunately, warmer temperatures had followed to melt away the snow, so we were back in business for a weekend hike, and I looked over the excellent Cumberland Trail website to find a hike that wasn’t too far away, or too long, with good winter views.  The Poplar Springs section fit the bill perfectly — 4.9 miles (one way), just outside Chattanooga, with the possibility of good views of Signal Mountain and the Tennessee River.  We took two vehicles, with the plan of dropping a shuttle at the north end of the section (on Tennessee Highway 27, more ominously known as Suck Creek Road) and starting our hike from the southern end of the section, in the state forest.

The CT website mentions that there is parking at the northern terminus, with room for about 4-5 vehicles.  We found that to be true, but the pulloff is pretty close to a curve and it’s easy to miss.  Also, the road surface is quite a bit higher than the gravel parking surface, and after some alarming underbody scraping Ruth decided to try for a better parking area.  We ended up dropping a car about .3 miles north of the northern terminus, on a nice paved pullout.  There’s a larger parking area about .6 miles south of the northern terminus, so that’s an option if you’re there at a more popular time of year.

After dropping our shuttle, we followed signs to the Prentice Cooper State Forest (it was also sometimes marked as the Prentice Cooper WMA).  Two things to note: (1) Google Maps are completely useless in finding the southern terminus — follow the signs, and take careful note of your mileage and follow the driving directions on the CT site, and (2) because the state forest is also a wildlife management area, there are scheduled hunts that restrict access to the property.  When planning a trip, be sure to check the Prentice Cooper website to make sure the area will be open for hiking.

We arrived at the southern terminus after traveling a short distance down a gravel road that by state forest standards was in excellent shape.  The parking lot is on the right, prominently marked.  This is a very nice trailhead, with parking for several vehicles, a privy, picnic tables, and an information kiosk.  The Poplar Springs section hike begins across the road, with a wooden sign with mileages to various points of interest.

The trail begins as a nice level path through hardwoods, marked with the Cumberland Trail white blaze.  After a gradual descent, the trail crosses an old road at .3 miles, then levels out briefly before making another gradual descent to reach the first of several points of interest on this hike: a stairway through a narrow crack in a boulder, informally known as a “stone door.”  This would be a “little stone door,” as compared to the Great Stone Door in South Cumberland State Park, but it’s a fun little feature.

The sign at the trailhead said that it was .5 miles to the Indian Rockhouse, and indeed, as soon as you exit the stone door the trail bends sharply to the left and there it is — a magnificent shelter overhang that was once probably a hunting camp for the Cherokee, based on artifacts recovered by archaeologists during excavations.  It’s a nice rockhouse, relatively deep, tall, and long.  Long-suffering Ruth had to put up with my customary slaughtering of The Commodores’ “Brick House,” which I can’t help but sing when I see a particularly nice example:  “It’s a rock…house…it’s mighty mighty, where the natives all hang out.  It’s a rock … house …those rocks are stacked, and that’s a fact, ain’t holding nothing back.”

There’s a trail split at the rockhouse, with the Mullens Cove Loop heading off to the southwest.  A wooden sign directed us to the east toward Poplar Spring, so we continued along the face of the rockhouse, at the foot of a bluffline.  The trail is mostly level at this point, crossing a couple of small wet weather creeks as it gently winds to the east.  It was along this stretch that we had our first occluded views of the Tennessee River, about 700 feet below us to the south.  The morning sun glinted off the waters as the river wound around Elder Mountain, just one big turn upriver of Moccasin Bend.   At 1.4 miles the trail crossed a clearcut for a gas pipeline, which made for a clear view of the river and mountain to the south.

After stepping over another tiny wet weather creek, I started looking for a good place to have a quick lunch.  As it happened, we came around a bend in the trail to find a rock overhang with a natural stone shelf just the right height to serve as a bench.  We had dressed for the weather, but even though we were in the sun we didn’t tarry long, as we would start to feel the cold when we weren’t moving.

As we sat munching our sandwiches, we could hear the faint sound of water nearby and thought perhaps we had another little stream to cross.  But to our delight, just around the next bend in the trail we came across a wet weather waterfall, about a twelve-footer, dropping over a ledge.  The trail guide on the CT website had mentioned we might cross some wet weather creeks, but didn’t mention the possibility of a wet weather waterfall, so this was a pleasant surprise.

The trail continued east, with interesting rock formations to the left and views of the river to the right.  We passed through sparse hardwood copses, mostly bereft of leaves with the exception of sparkleberry bushes and their welcome pop of red against the brown and blue landscape.  There were even a few die-hard late purple asters from time to time, adding another splash of pale color to the trailsides.

At approximately 1.8 miles into the hike, the trail reaches the Suck Creek gorge, with Signal Mountain looming across to the east.  Suck Creek got its name from the rapids at its junction with the Tennessee River, before the river was dammed and the rapids were submerged.  The gorge is impressive — around 800 feet or so deep — with the waters of Suck Creek and Highway 27 undulating along the bottom.  The Cumberland Trail turns north at this point to follow the west side of the gorge.  At 2.2 miles, an interesting rock formation known as chimney rocks  is visible off the right side of the trail.  Three rock pillars have eroded in such a way to form freestanding columns, similar to hoodoos that you would see in the western US.

As we turned into the gorge, we had our last look at the river, rolling on in to Chattanooga.


We continued northward along the edge of the gorge, crossing another couple of small wet weather streams, then turned inland to get to the head of a hollow.  We heard the sound of a much larger creek to our right, and soon we could see Sulphur Branch tumbling along down the hill from us.  We knew from the CT trail description that there was a waterfall near here, and spotted what looked like a small fall below us as we approached a wooden bridge over the creek.  But the trail notes said the waterfall was upstream of the bridge, so we bushwhacked about 100 yards up the creek to find, as advertised, a very nice 20-foot waterfall in full flow.


It took a little scrambling to get to the waterfall, which is hemmed in by a large wall of boulders and tree trunks.  It’s well worth the side trip, though.

After enjoying the waterfall, we retraced our steps back to the bridge, crossed Sulphur Branch, and climbed a set of stone steps up the other side of the hollow.  The trail headed east to again follow the Suck Creek gorge northwards, passing more scenic rock formations along the way and also going through another mini-stone door at 3.2 miles.

After the mini-stone door, the trail bent to the right and in .1 mile arrived at a junction with the Lawson Rock Overlook to the east and a spur trail to the Poplar Springs campsite to the west.  We first checked out the overlook, named for a ranger who family lived in the area, and marveled at the view of the confluence of Signal Mountain, Suck Creek gorge, and the Tennessee River.  I left Ruth to wander on the ledge, which always gives me the heebie-jeebies, and went to check out the campsite.  The narrow and occasionally indistinct trail, marked with faint blue blazes, crossed a jeep road and reached the campsite in around 900 feet.  The campsite is primitive — just a rock fire ring and a few logs to sit on in a level patch of ground.  A sign marks the way to Poplar Springs, the water source for the campsite.

After Lawson Rock Overlook, this section of the Cumberland Trail has pretty much shown all its charms.  The trail begins a long gradual descent from this point, making use of stone steps and one set of wooden stairs as it winds northward along the gorge.  The trail drops into a hollow and crosses a comparatively large feeder stream, at which point a spur trail leads .4 miles to the highway to link with the alternate parking to the south of the section’s terminus.  There’s no bridge, but the creek is easily rock-hopped.  Since we parked north of the terminus, we continued across the creek and continued working our way down toward the highway, now visible below us.  Oddly, this was the one part of the trail, just about .2 miles from the end, where we had the most footing problems.  Ruth had a tumble but emerged unhurt, and I nearly toppled over here too.  I should say that overall the trail is very well engineered, with very few soggy places and many thoughtfully placed stone steps.  Just watch your step as you near the northern end of the trail.

We reached the wooden staircase that marked the end of this section of the Cumberland Trail and climbed on down to Highway 27.  From here, it was just a short .3 miles along the shoulder of the surprisingly busy road up to our shuttle vehicle.  Given a few short detours and this little jaunt at the end of the hike, our GPS track put the total hike distance as 5.4 miles.

We very much enjoyed this hike. We met only two other hikers along the way, so it rates high for solitude (on a cold day, anyway).  If you want to do an out-and-back hike of a portion of this section, we’d suggest starting as we did at the southern terminus and heading to the waterfall at Sulphur Branch, roughly the halfway point of the hike, or turning around at the Lawson Rock Overlook.

All in all, this hike was exactly as advertised — a scenic winter hike with good views, a rock house, and a waterfall.  Actually, it was better than advertised, with our bonus wet weather waterfall, numerous cool rock formations, and stretches of quiet solitude (mostly along the first half of the trail).   Isn’t it great when something exceeds your expectations?

All Poetry: Lookout Mountain Loop

Sunset Rock offered stunning views, all the way to Moccasin Bend to the north and across Lookout Valley to the west, but General Braxton Bragg and General James Longstreet were not enjoying them on the morning of October 28, 1863.  It was a crisp fall day, with the ridges painted scarlet and gold, but the autumn leaves were not the subject at hand.  Instead, it was the Union troops marching into Lookout Valley through Running Water Creek Gap, a few miles to the southwest, across Lookout Creek, that confirmed reports that Fighting Joe Hooker was nearby, and an assault on Confederate positions on Lookout Mountain might be happening sooner than later.  Bragg ordered Longstreet to attack, in an attempt to hold on to Lookout Valley, and the next night the armies clashed at the battle of Wauhatchie at a rail junction in the valley.  The attack was unsuccessful, (due in no small part to the Confederates retreating from some of their positions because they mistook a bunch of spooked Union mules as a cavalry charge), and the Confederates retreated across Lookout Creek and joined up with the lines on the mountain.

The stage was set, and on November 24 12,000 of Fighting Joe’s men attacked the mountain in a thick fog, routed the 2,400 Confederates from their positions and claimed the mountain by midnight.  The battle was known as “the battle above the clouds,” though the entire mountain was swathed in fog throughout, causing Ulysses S. Grant to later comment, “The Battle of Lookout Mountain is one of the romances of the war.  There was no such battle and no action even worthy to be called a battle on Lookout Mountain.  It is all poetry.”

I don’t think the hundreds of casualties on both sides would find this assessment all that poetic.  Perhaps it wasn’t as impressive as other Civil War battles, but the Union success in the Battle of Lookout Mountain directly led to the Union’s success at Missionary Ridge, the lifting of the siege of Chattanooga, and the clearing of the way for marching into Georgia.

So there’s today’s history lesson, courtesy of an interpretive plaque by the National Park Service and a few pages from Shelby Foote’s excellent The Civil War: A Narrative.  While we knew that we lived within two hours of a significant Civil War battle scene, it wasn’t just the history that drew us to Lookout Mountain for a recent hike.  It was the more than 30 miles of trails on the sides and top of the mountain that piqued my interest, so we picked out a short loop of trails and headed on up to I-24 and Lookout Mountain, just southwest of Chattanooga.

There are several trailheads on the Lookout Mountain Battlefield.  We opted to start our hike at the Cravens House, a historic home which was destroyed in the aftermath of the Battle of Lookout Mountain and then rebuilt on the same site in 1866.  There are two parking lots for Cravens House — the upper one is larger, and right next to the house.  We had heard that parking could be scarce in this lot, especially on weekends, so we tried our luck with the smaller lot just downhill from the house.  The lower lot can hold about eight vehicles, and overlooks a monument to soldiers from Iowa.  By the way, the roads around Cravens House are extremely narrow, so I wouldn’t recommend bringing an RV or camper to this trailhead.  We took a short trail from the lower parking lot uphill to the main parking lot and house.  The house wasn’t open yet, but a ranger was giving a talk on the battle next to some cannons.  We listened in for a bit, and Ruth wandered around a large column commemorating troops from New York and had a look around the grounds.

The trailhead proper begins across the road from the upper parking lot, to the right as you’re facing away from the house.  The Cravens House trail starts to the right of a kiosk, which has a trail map and park information.  There are more monuments on a short trail to the left of the kiosk, but we were on a bit of a schedule so we went to the right and entered the woods on a nice flat trail.  After about .1 mile, we came to a split, with the Cravens House trail heading left and uphill and the Rifle Pits trail coming in on the right fork.  We’d use Rifle Pits to complete our loop later, so we took the left fork and climbed a short stretch with stone and wood waterbars.

After about 50 yards, the trail leveled out and wound its way around to the southwest on a bench below the top of Lookout Mountain.  Though we were there in early November, quite a few autumn leaves persisted on the maples and understory trees to brighten our way on a chilly morning.  The trail was well-maintained, with no blowdowns, but like all of the trails we would travel today, had no blazes or other markings except at trail junctions.  One large distinctive tree had a limb that jutted over the footpath before turning upward.

At about .5 miles from Cravens House, the Cravens House trail tees into the Bluff trail at another kiosk.  At this point you can turn left and travel about another half mile to reach the top of the mountain and Point Park, a fee area with monuments and the iconic view of Moccasin Bend and downtown Chattanooga.  We wanted a longer loop, so we saved Point Park for another day and instead turned right (southwest) onto the Bluff trail.

This was my favorite trail of the day.  The Bluff trail, at least this section, doesn’t run along the top of a bluff.  Instead, it runs along the base of a sandstone bluff pocketed with holes, fissures, and intriguing passages that would (and in fact, did) make excellent defensive positions.  This trail is a little narrower than Cravens House, but has little elevation change in this section.  Each turn seemed to lead to even more picturesque rocks looming to the left, with increasingly higher dropoffs to the right.  Some areas just off the trail are closed due to unstable footing or damage to the plant life.  A set of concrete stairs helps in one tricky transition area, after which the trail winds along even taller bluffs.

At about .6 miles from the Cravens House/Bluff trail intersection, we reached the base of Sunset Rock.  As we neared this observation point, we finally started seeing some views of the Tennessee River and Lookout Valley off to our right.

After taking in the view for a few minutes, we continued along the Bluff trail for another 250 feet or so before a spur trail took off to the left, rising up the bluff on a series of natural rock staircases (well, the rocks had a little help from the CCC).  The views are even better on the top of Sunset Rock, which is what brought Bragg and Longstreet up there in 1863.  We took in views of Moccasin Bend, Wauhatchie Junction, and Running Water Creek Gap.  Ruth indulged in her two favorite high-altitude hobbies — climbing out on a ledge to give me heart palpitations and finding a nice flat basking rock.  Sunset Rock is a popular place.  We saw several other people there, some of whom hiked up the same way we did, and others who parked on nearby West Brow Road.  Some of the rocks have climbing hardware driven into them, as Sunset Rock is one of the better rock climbing sites in the park.


After a quick lunch, we were ready to get down off the heights.  It was noticeably colder on the exposed blufftop and a stiff wind was blowing.  We retraced our route back down to the Bluff trail and continued on about a hundred feet before reaching the Gum Spring trail intersection.  We turned north onto Gum Spring, which is rather steep in this section with loose rocks underfoot.  We were glad to have our hiking poles with us.  The steep portion was pretty short, maybe only around 100 feet, before the trail briefly leveled out and began a more gradual descent of the mountain.  At about .6 miles from the junction we spotted a small rock-lined spring on the side of the trail.  There wasn’t any signage, so I don’t know if this is the eponymous Gum Spring.

Just past the spring, we came to a junction with the Upper Truck trail.  Gum Spring and Upper Truck share the footbed for a short distance here.  We turned right (northeast) on the nice wide, flat trail that was clearly an old road.  In about 50 yards Gum Spring trail split away to the northwest, but we stuck with the Upper Truck trail.  This is easy walking; in fact, it’s easy biking too as we met a handful of them on this section of trail, one of four trails in the park designated as a bike trail.  The trail forks in about .1 mile from the second Gum Spring trail intersection, with the Upper Truck trail continuing to the right and the Guild trail winding away to the left.  We continued on Upper Truck, where one point of interest is reached at about .05 miles from the second Gum Spring/Upper Truck trail intersection: the remains of CCC Camp Demaray.  A trailside historical plaque describes the CCC and this camp, which was in use from 1933-1939.  As always, we’re amazed by the enduring work of these men, who built the majority of the trails in the park.

At about .4 miles from Camp Demaray, the Rifle Pits trail joins in on the right (to the east).  This trail has a short, relatively steep climb at the beginning, then levels and curves back to its intersection with the Cravens House trail in .62 miles.  This trail leads past historic Confederate defensive positions, which to my untrained eye looked more like a bunch of rocks than any actual pits.  There are a couple of signs identifying areas where the Confederates cleared away brush and timber to improve their firing lines, so the pits are probably somewhere between those signs.  This would be a good place for an interpretive plaque.  Toward its eastern end, the Rifle Pits trail skirts the edge of the park, and houses with nice views of the river are visible just off the trail.

After rejoining the Cravens House trail, we closed the loop and returned to the upper parking lot to complete a 3.6 mile hike, according to the GPS track.  We had made pretty good time, so we took the opportunity to take a free tour of the Cravens House, which was manned by a helpful and informative ranger, suffering the cold in an unheated historic home.  The original house was only one story, but when it was rebuilt after the war a second story was added.  The downstairs rooms consist of a sitting room, an entry parlor, and a dining room.  The upstairs rooms were all bedrooms.  The kitchen is a separate stone building, with remnants of running water evident in the sandstone sink by the door.  The house appears to be in good shape, with glorious wraparound porches offering a great view over Moccasin Bend.  There are some interesting decorative pavers under the front porch, but they were most likely made at the Southern Clay Manufacturing Company in Robbins, Tennessee (about 100 miles north) in the late 1880s or later, so they probably don’t date back to the 1866 rebuild.

Though this was a relatively short hike, it crammed in several interesting historical and natural features.  It was a great introduction to the trails on Lookout Mountain, and we’ll definitely be back!  We only covered about 10% of the trail system, so there are plenty of other discoveries waiting for us.

One more thing:  Ulysses S. Grant, here’s some poetry for you.

Oh, green be the laurels that grow,
Oh, sweet be the wild-buds that blow,
In the dells of the mountain where the brave are lying low.

William Dean Howells, “The Battle of Lookout Mountain”

Right Here in River City

If you’re a fan of classic musicals, when someone mentions River City your mind might go straight to The Music Man and its song “(Ya Got) Trouble.”  Luckily, though I have a superficial knowledge of some musicals, I wouldn’t call myself a fan.  So when I hear someone mention the River City, naturally I think of Decatur, Alabama.   To be fair, Wikipedia lists 38 U.S. cities with that nickname, but our destination this past weekend was just to our west over the Tennessee River.

Ruth and I don’t actually visit Decatur often, and we didn’t know much about the city and its charms, so we decided to remedy this by exploring a part of the city on foot.  We had a window of opportunity on a Sunday morning for a quick visit, so I did some online exploring first and found a great resource on the City of Decatur’s website.  Their mobile site has links to two free walking tour apps that you can download, then use to navigate to points of interest in the River City’s two historic districts.  We chose the Old Decatur tour.

We arrived in Decatur just toward the end of the church rush but were still able to nab a parking place on Church Street within 100 feet of the tour’s starting point at the corner of Church and Bank Streets.  I fired up the app, cranked up the volume, and got oriented in the proper direction while an introduction to the city’s history played.  We learned that Decatur is a relatively old city, settled in 1817 as Rhodes Ferry and then incorporated in 1820 as Decatur, named for the naval hero Stephen Decatur, who had recently been killed in a duel.  It’s important to know this, as the historic district signs use a profile of a naval commodore, which could be mistaken as a man in a deerstalker cap, or maybe a headless shrugging ghost.

The city became a transportation hub, with its access to the Tennessee River and the arrival of the railroad in 1836.  The city changed hands several times during the Civil War, and ultimately most of it was burned or dismantled by 1864.  The city began rebuilding, though it was ravaged by yellow fever outbreaks in 1877 and 1888.  According to the tour, by 1886, the city had recovered to the point that 640 railroad cars passed through the city every day — almost as many as the number that pass through Athens per hour during the Storytelling Festival.  (Sorry, it’s an in-joke — the Athens Storytelling Festival, which we highly recommend, is plagued by seemingly-nonstop trains that interrupt the tellers.  It has become a game for the tellers, who find clever ways to incorporate the locomotive horns into their tales.)

Many houses from the Victorian era remain — in fact, the historic district is one of the largest collections of Victorian homes in Alabama.  The first stop on our tour, however, is for commercial buildings on Bank Street, built during the Reconstruction period.  The brick buildings on the left side are a mixed bag of vacant storefronts, antique stores, and professional services like a photography studio and a medical office.  One store has a pretty cool display of old lamps and other collectibles in the windows.  But perhaps the most interesting feature is in the middle of the street, which has a strip of brick pavement and sections of rail from the trolleys that used to run between Decatur and its erstwhile sister city, New Albany.

Continuing down Bank Street, the next tour stop is Simp McGhee’s.  It’s a restaurant named after a colorful character in Decatur history, housed in a building on the National Register of Historic Places.  No particular date is given for the building, but it is associated with a saloon run by the 1880s riverboat captain, who owned several businesses in town, including a brothel.   This block also has one of the Civil War history interpretive signs that describe the battle for Decatur and the garrison of 1,800 Federal troops stationed there in 1864-65.

Two blocks southwest on the corner of Bank and Cherry Streets, the old Hargrove & Murdock grocery building, built in 1897, is still in use as a commercial building.    For many years it was a downtown grocery, though it was the site of a brothel in earlier days.  I don’t know if this was the brothel that Simp McGhee is associated with, or whether it was a competitor.  Anyway, the building has handsome original arched windows on the front and interesting round windows on the south side.

The tour continues a couple of blocks down Cherry Street, leaving the arts and entertainment district and entering a residential area.  We were struck by contrasting sights on either side of the street — a somewhat passive/aggressive sign on a fence to the right, and on the other side, a bottle tree.  Bottle trees are a distinctive Southern garden decoration.  According to folklore, the bottles trap night-roaming evil spirits, and cobalt blue bottles are particularly effective.  I don’t know what goes on in that stretch of Cherry Street, but I suggest keeping a wide berth at night!

Though the tour is now in a neighborhood, the next stop is actually at another commercial building.  The John T. Banks Building, erected in 1887, was built by a druggist and it became the temporary Morgan County courthouse when the county seat was moved from Somerville.  It has since been used as a hospital and store, then later as a rooming house and apartment building, before its current use as office space.  It looks a little out of place next to the Victorian homes in the neighborhood.

This might be a good time to comment on the general vibe of the historic district.  There’s an eclectic mix of architectural styles in roughly a 5-by-6 block area.  Most of the houses are in great shape, though as is often the case in historic districts, there were a few in need of some TLC.  For the most part, these are family homes, with porches and lawn decorations.  People live here.  It’s a neighborhood, not a museum, with an organic, unplanned feel.

One of the stateliest homes on the tour is Shadowlawn, built around 1874 by one of the town’s doctors.  So named because of the massive willow oaks, it’s a classic beauty on the corner of Line and Cherry Streets.  It’s an interesting contrast to two more modest homes on the other side of the street, also tour stops.  The Leadingham House was a cottage for two maiden sisters, and next door’s Collier House is a Queen Anne built by the town clerk, who married another of the Leadingham sisters.

The next stop on the tour is a bit of a surprise — a small park on the south side of Shadowlawn.  Frazier Park is a quiet space with a traditional Japanese garden on one end, with water features and a more classical plaza on the other end.  It’s not necessarily historic, but it’s a nice place to take a break.

The next stop on the tour is the Judge Seybourn Lynne home on Ferry Street.  The home isn’t one of the older ones in the district — it was built in 1925 — but is historic by association with Judge Lynne, a federal judge who served nearly 30 years on a court that heard several important civil rights cases.  His views on civil rights evolved over time, as he was the dissenter on a three-judge panel that ordered the integration of the Montgomery bus lines, but he wrote the opinion that integrated the University of Alabama and later issued rulings to integrate jails and Birmingham’s most prestigious cemetery.

My favorite house on the tour is on Ferry Street.  The Williamson House, built in 1903, is a Victorian beauty with sweeping porches, leaded glass, and other architectural details, on a wooded corner lot.  In fact, that corner is Victorian heaven, as just across Walnut Street you’ll find the J.T. Jones House, built in 1899.  It’s another confection, in the Queen Anne style, with terrific woodwork on the facade.

I’m not going to post a photo of every house on the tour — you’ll just have to see them all for yourself.  However, it’s not a historic district if it doesn’t have a hitching post.  This one is from the Wert-Martin House, originally built in 1886, and much remodeled afterwards.  Note the curb here — it’s made of slabs of hewn stone, not cast concrete.

I really like that this tour highlights a variety of architectural styles.  The International Art Deco style of the house known as Fort Nash is quite a contrast to the wooden frame houses found elsewhere in the neighborhood.  Designed in 1939 by the head of the Architecture Department at Auburn, the exterior is composed of solid limestone walls and glass blocks.  It seems a bit industrial compared to other homes in the area, and I imagine there had to be a bit of pearl-clutching when it was first put up.  The tour narration says the house has a shuffleboard court and a full soda fountain, so it gets cool points for that, I guess.

The tour next continues down Line Street, past the Harris House with its peculiar lozenge-shaped windows, arriving at the Second Empire-style Moseley House.  Built in 1887 by one of the town’s largest property owners, the house has a distinctive mansard roof and very appealing detailing on the front porch.

The tour winds up its look at the residential district with a jaunt down Lafayette Street.  Three more eclectic choices are highlighted.  The first is two side-by-side Sears kit homes, built in 1910.  Though the exteriors are slightly different, you can see both were built from the same plan.  We spoke with the friendly owner of one of the houses, who told us that one of the houses has a largely unmodified exterior, with a reconfigured interior, and the other has had external changes but has a mostly unchanged interior.  Across the street is a remarkable willow oak with an trunk reminiscent of columns I’ve seen in medieval cathedrals.  The second notable home is the Gibson House, another Victorian charmer from 1901, beautifully restored. The third remarkable house is comparatively plain, but the Todd House is one of only four surviving antebellum structures in Decatur.  Built in 1836, it has been renovated a few times, but the front door and sidelights are original.

The tour emerges from the residential district onto Church Street, where the next stop is the Carnegie Visual Arts Center.  This building was erected in 1904 as a Carnegie Library, one of 2,500+ built by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.  This specimen is typical of the exterior design, and served in its original purpose until the library outgrew the building.

The tour nears its end as it progresses northwest up Church Street, with a one-block jog over to Canal Street for a look at the First United Methodist Church.  This building dates to 1899, though the congregation dates back to 1835 and is the oldest church in Decatur.  The church features three large stained glass windows, protected by another (later) layer of glass on the exterior.

We followed Lafayette up to Church Street, passing this street mural, before turning northeast to close the loop on the tour.  The Old State Bank is one of the last stops, and is another of the pre-Civil War buildings on the tour.  It was built in 1833 as a branch of the Alabama State Bank.  Though it had an impressive building, it wasn’t very successful as a bank, closing in 1842.  A local physician converted the building into his home, and it was converted into a hospital during the war.  Since then, the building has had several uses, and now houses a museum that’s open on weekdays.  Damage from cannonballs and rifle balls is still visible on the bank’s stone facade.  A small building at the rear was originally the kitchen associated with the house/hospital, and now is used for public restrooms.  Though it’s not strictly in the historic district, one other home is listed on the tour.  The Dancy-Polk House, on the other side of Railroad Street next to the depot, is the third remaining antebellum structure in Decatur, dating to 1829.  This Federal-style home also served as a hotel and as the Federal headquarters during the war.  We didn’t go over for a closer look, as the house is currently being renovated.

We had a very pleasant stroll in the Old Decatur Historic District.  There’s very little elevation change, and all walking is on sidewalks.  We didn’t bring the GPS with us, but I’d estimate the walking distance as a little under 1.5 miles.  It took us about 90 minutes of leisurely strolling to complete the tour.  The tour app was easy to download and use, with good directions from site to site.  I wouldn’t have minded a little more architectural commentary, but I wouldn’t want to cause any trouble, especially in River City.


A Slender Tinkling Fall: Arethusa Falls

As you can probably tell from our last couple of posts, we had a wonderful time on our recent vacation in New Hampshire.  We had a hike up to a glacial lake, traveled a small piece of the Appalachian Trail, had our first visit to an Appalachian Mountain Club hut, and admired two waterfalls and a cascading creek, all in our first hike.  Our second hike was to a couple of mountain peaks, to get a view of fall foliage in the White Mountains.  We had a small window of opportunity to get in a third hike, and after consulting the excellent Northeasthikes.com website, we decided on a hike to Arethusa Falls, New Hampshire’s tallest waterfall.

We had actually packed a lot into our vacation, aside from the hikes.  On our first full day, we visited Robert Frost’s home in Franconia.  I’ve always been a big fan of Frost and gained a little appreciation of his world by visiting his farm.  Sharp-eyed readers might have noticed that my two blog post titles from this trip are drawn from Frost poems.  On this hike, the one we knew would be our last on this trip, I couldn’t help but think of some lines from “Birches.”

It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
Fortunately, the hike to Arethusa Falls was nothing like a pathless wood.  It’s a popular destination, and given that we had an afternoon appointment with a local history museum in Franconia, we got a quick start from the inn and headed out into the frosty morning to make the drive to Crawford Notch.  And what a treat, as this mountain pass is narrower than the Franconia Notch we had previously traveled, and was ablaze with color.  Tall cliffs on Mt. Webster and Mt. Willard towered over both sides of the road (U.S. Highway 302) through the notch.
We reached the large gravel parking lot just off Highway 302 about 8:45, and we were just the third car to park there.  There are actually two trails that depart from this lower parking lot — the splendidly named Frankenstein Cliff trail on the northern edge of the lot, and the Arethusa Falls trail, which leaves the lot to the west.  We hadn’t done a lot of research, so we made a rookie mistake by parking in the lower lot.  If you’re hiking to Arethusa Falls, you can continue on up the road to an upper parking area and save yourself about .15 miles of walking to the actual trailhead.  On the plus side, the walk up the road to the upper parking lot had great foliage views.  There was a cheeky chipmunk (is there any other kind?) that jumped on a stump to chatter at us as we walked by.

The trail proper begins at the top of the second parking lot, on the other side of a railroad track.  A second kiosk there has another trail map and more information, including a thermometer which showed that we were hitting the trail at a balmy 38 degrees F.  But our luck with the weather was holding strong, as it was a sunny day with calm winds.
The trail begins next to a house but it quickly entered a wood full of red, yellow, and orange leaves above and underfoot.  The blue-blazed trail continued, mostly level, for about .1 miles to where the trail split, with the Arethusa Falls trail continuing to the right, and the yellow-blazed Bemis Brook trail starting on the left.  We knew that there were more waterfalls to be seen on the Bemis Brook trail, so we decided to go left and get a gander at a couple of warm-up waterfalls.

After passing a dedication plaque, the Bemis Brook trail, unsurprisingly, headed straight for Bemis Brook and began heading upstream.  Shortly afterwards, we came to a quiet pool, signposted as Fawn Pool.  It’s a small pool, about 20 feet across and maybe a little over a foot deep.   Someone had left a leaf arrangement for fellow hikers to enjoy.  The creekbed leading into the pool is a wide, sloping shelf and we couldn’t resist just walking up the creekbed to the first waterfall on this trail.
And here I must pause to voice my opinion on a hot controversy about this trail.  The easternmost waterfall on the Bemis Brook trail is marked with a sign as “Bemis Falls.”  This makes perfect sense, since we’re on Bemis Brook, but if you look at the photos of this waterfall you’ll note that the setting of its lower tier is distinctly round — like a coliseum.  Not to jump ahead, but the westernmost waterfall on this trail is marked with a sign as “Coliseum Falls.”  You’ll see momentarily that this second multi-tiered cascade, while lovely, doesn’t evoke any image of a famous Roman ruin.  Some folks have stated that they think the signs are switched, and it makes sense to me.  Sadly, the USGS topo maps and Crawford Notch State Park maps are silent on the issue, as neither waterfall is marked on the maps, though a map on the kiosk in the lower parking lot identifies the easternmost waterfall as Bemis Falls.  Though this map and the sign say otherwise, I’m going to side with the New Hampshire State Parks blog and call the first waterfall Coliseum Falls, and the second one Bemis Falls.

Enough controversy:  let’s have a look at Coliseum Falls.

After taking a few minutes to admire the waterfall, we continued upstream, back on the trail, which became narrower, rockier, and more rooty as it began climbing the ridge.  At about .4 miles, we reached the multi-tiered second waterfall, which I’m calling Bemis Falls.  Bemis Brook tumbles down a series of drops, ranging from about eight feet down to less than a foot, with little pools after every cascade.

After reaching Bemis Falls, the trail no longer continues upstream.  Instead, it turns abruptly uphill and climbs steeply to rejoin the Arethusa Falls trail.  The climb is no nonsense; in fact, you could easily mistake the trail for an old rockslide, but blazes and a directional arrow about halfway up attest that yes, you are on the trail.

We turned left onto the Arethusa Falls trail to resume our trek to the big waterfall.  The mostly level trail we had last seen half a mile ago wasn’t level any more, gaining altitude on a rocky stretch before leveling out and widening a little.   We came to the first of two bridges, which was the worse for wear, having had a tree fall on it in the last few months.  The trail detours upstream a few dozen feet, where the stream is easily crossed at a point at which it is about a foot wide.

After crossing a second, intact bridge, we climbed a series of log steps before reaching the turnoff to Arethusa Falls.   At this point, a spur trail leads .2 miles to Arethusa Falls, and the trail continues to the north and west, continuing its climb of Frankenstein Cliffs.

Our climb along the ridge had taken us away from Bemis Brook, but the spur trail loses some of that altitude gain and heads back down towards the brook.  In about .1 mile we began to hear the sound of falling water, and at .2 miles on the spur trail we reached the bottom of Arethusa Falls.  This waterfall, approximately 176 feet tall, wasn’t particularly powerful on the day of our visit, and it tends to cling to the cliff instead of making a free plunge.  Its height and setting are impressive, and I’ve seen other photos of it with four times the flow, so perhaps we didn’t catch it at its best.   For comparison, Alabama’s tallest waterfall is Grace’s High Falls, in Little River Canyon, at 133 feet.

After enjoying the waterfall for a little while, we retraced our steps up the spur trail and returned to the parking lot via the Arethusa Falls trail. It’s worth noting that the portion of the trail we had skipped on the way up by taking the Bemis Brook trail was a fairly lengthy descent down a moderately rocky footbed.  If you want to see all three waterfalls, as we did, I’d definitely recommend taking the Bemis Brook trail on the way up, just to get the elevation gain over with quickly (unless the steep climb from Bemis Falls up to the Arethusa Falls trail is too intimidating).  I have to say it looked worse than it actually was.

We arrived back at the lower parking lot at about 11:45, taking three hours to hike a total of 3.2 miles according to the GPS track.  There were quite a few more cars in the parking lot when we returned, and I have to say of our three hikes, this one seemed to have the most foot traffic.  Given that it’s relatively short and not terribly strenous, with a three waterfall payoff, it’s easy to see why this hike is so popular.

As much as we enjoy our treks in the hills and hollows around here, it was a nice change of scenery to hike in New Hampshire, and we’ll definitely be back in the future to do more walking in the northeast.  It whetted our appetite to hike in other parts of the country too, with the Pacific Northwest currently sitting at number one on our wish list.  It’s a big wide world out there, and there are wonders around every bend.


Way Leads on to Way: Lonesome Lake

We needed a vacation.  Sure, we travel all around the Tennessee Valley and take all-too-short trips to visit our family out of state, but it has been over four years since Ruth and I took a week off for a grand adventure with just the two of us.  Neither of us have experienced a New England autumn, so we’ve been planning for months to go up north to peep at the leaves.  After some consideration, we chose Franconia, New Hampshire as our base of operations.  It’s in the White Mountains in the northern part of the state, so we knew we’d get mountain scenery.  Ruth also has ancestral connections with the town stretching back to 1773.  There were plenty of hiking options too, with a national forest and several state parks nearby.

After taking a day to settle in, we headed a few minutes south to Franconia Notch State Park, where I had mapped out an approximately 6-mile loop hike.  Franconia Notch is a gap in the Franconia Range of the White Mountains, through which I-93 winds.  It was a treat to be on an interstate that has exits to campgrounds — not exits leading to roads to campgrounds, but exits that lead to the parking lots for campgrounds.  Our first trail, the Lonesome Lake trail, leaves from the Lafayette Place campground, on the west side of the interstate.  This is a popular place for hikers, as several trails begin here, including hikes on the east side of the interstate (there’s a tunnel leading to the other side).  We were hiking on a Tuesday morning and had no trouble finding parking near the trailhead.  As a side note, we passed that exit on a Saturday morning, and people were parking about a mile away from the campground, on the shoulder of the interstate.

The yellow-blazed Lonesome Lake trail wasted no time in putting on a show.  Immediately after leaving the trailhead from the parking lot, the trail crosses the Pemigewasset River on a wooden bridge.  A deep blue sky was reflected in the quiet waters, with puffy white clouds drifting about.  It was a cool day with no rain in the forecast, and we quickly warmed up as we headed up the mountain.  After a short walk through a flat stretch of woods with a carpet of fallen birch and maple leaves, we crossed a campground road and the Pemi trail and shortly after that reached another more elaborate trailhead sign.  I’m not sure what is officially the trailhead, but after passing this sign we entered the woods for good and began gaining elevation.

As the trail began to gain the roughly 1,000 feet in elevation over the next mile or so, it began to reveal its charms, such as a wooden stairsteps and rocky waterbars, a tree straddling a rock, and a tiny footbridge.  But it also showed its teeth, as a portion of the first .4 miles up to the junction with the Hi-Cannon trail was a wide but rocky channel.

Despite the rugged terrain, this is a superbly engineered trail, with several impressive rock staircases to handle some of the switchback turns, and occasional footlogs over the rare muddy patches.  Though the grade was relatively steep, there were a few switchbacks to make the climb reasonable.  It must be said that long stretches of the trail require stepping from rock to rock, so keeping an eye on our footing was a priority.  That said, it took us a smidge over an hour to make the climb to the edge of Lonesome Lake.

Lonesome Lake is a glacial lake around 12 acres in size, with an average depth of 4-8 feet.  It sits in a basin, with Cannon Mountain and the Cannon Balls (two smaller peaks on the same range) providing runoff to fill the lake.  A nice couple snapped a photo of us on the eastern shore of the lake. Trails loop around the lake, so we headed northwest to take the loop counterclockwise. It’s a longer distance to get to the opposite side of the lake, but we had heard that it had great views of Cannon Mountain and a marshy area.

Going counterclockwise, the trail runs .8 miles through a marsh, nearly always on elevated footlogs.  It was here that I saw the only wildflower in bloom, a bedraggled New England aster, but we also spotted black chokeberry and a tree we didn’t know festooned with bright red berries.  We later found out this is the mountain ash tree, which isn’t really an ash (it’s actually in the rose family).

The views of the marsh and the lake and the mountain were as promised.  We zigzagged along the north and western sides of Lonesome Lake, eventually reaching a dock where we stopped for a quick lunch.  Afterwards, we took the spur trail to the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Lonesome Lake Hut.  This is our first visit to an AMC hut, and this one was really impressive, with two bunkhouses that can sleep 48 people and a dining hall that serves up tasty hot meals (they had turkey soup and pot roast on the menu, as well as a selection of baked goods).  It has bathrooms accessible to day hikers.  We were catching them near the end of the fully staffed season, though the hut stays open year round.  The main building has solar-powered electricity and a wood stove for heating, and the entire complex is off the grid.  We had a chat with one of the croo (they spell it that way), who noticed Ruth’s LeConte Lodge shirt and mentioned that one of his AMC comrades at a nearby hut is the winter caretaker at LeConte.

After a brief break at the hut, we continued on around the lake until we reached the intersection with the Cascade Brook trail.  Cascade Brook spills from Lonesome Lake and makes its way down the mountain to join the Pemigewasset River about two miles south of Lafayette Place.  The Cascade Brook trail is also a section of the Appalachian Trail, so we were going to get to hike about 1.3 miles of the AT in the White Mountains.  We noticed kind of an odd wooden marker on a tree at the trail junction, but also spotted the familiar white blazes disappearing into the woods next to the brook.

If you Google “most difficult sections of the Appalachian Trail,” guess what comes up as number one on a lot of lists?  Yep, it’s the White Mountains.  This particular little piece isn’t one of the worst miles in the White Mountains, but it had some typical features:  narrow, rooty pathways; trail sections that were literally creekbeds; and sections that were just rocky channels — and most of it steeply uphill or downhill.  Maintaining the AT is a challenge, what with all the foot traffic, but it seems the AMC has hit upon a sustainable approach in Whites:  reduce wear on the trail by removing all the dirt and replacing it with granite boulders.  It was a tough descent for about half a mile, though views of the brook, the occasional footlog, the smell of the balsams, and the glorious leaves made it more bearable.

Between .5 and .8 miles from the lake, the trail leveled out a bit and ran closer to the brook, which had small cascade after cascade.  We passed occasional mossy boulders tossed down from heights and stands of bunchberry in its fall foliage.  On this stretch we met a hiker coming up from below, who warned us that the Basin Cascade trail, which we were planning on taking, was badly overgrown and scarcely marked, and that she had thrashed her way uphill and was relieved to come upon the Cascade Brook trail.  This was sobering news, as it would add almost two miles to take an alternate route, but we pressed on.

Back at the lake when we first turned onto the Cascade Brook trail, there was a warning about a bridge being out.  We came to the brook crossing, which required some rock hopping, but it was very manageable.  It didn’t hurt that the view downstream was none too shabby!

After the crossing, the trail splits, with the blue-blazed Basin Cascade trail heading left and the AT/Cascade Brook trail heading right.  The first few blazes on Basin Cascade had been chipped away by natural damage or miscreants, but we were able to follow the trail until we saw better defined blazes.  We think this may be what confused the hiker we had met earlier, because we found the trail fairly easy to follow.  Almost immediately, we heard the sound of rushing water, and followed the trail into a small ravine to view Rocky Glen Falls.  It’s a three-tiered waterfall, but the best views are of the lower tier.  The total drop is 37 feet.

After the waterfall, the trail continues along Cascade Brook, with some steep and rooty sections.  There were more hardwoods at this elevation, and the maples and birches framed the many cascades.  There’s another brook crossing shortly after Rocky Glen Falls, but again with a little rock hopping it’s not that difficult.  A wooden sign on the other side of the brook points to the trail, which is again a rocky footbed as it parallels the creek to the north.

Half a mile from Rocky Glen Falls, another waterfall comes into view.  Kinsman Falls is a narrow 22-footer where the brook drops through a narrow channel into a plunge pool.

This little brook just keeps on giving.  After Kinsman Falls, the slope of the brook increases dramatically and the water slides rapidly down the mountain in a series of near-plunges.  It would make a terrific water slide, except that you’d probably reach escape velocity by the time you reached the bottom!

About half a mile from Kinsman Falls, the Basin Cascade trail tees into the Pemi trail.  We turned north, following the Pemi trail signs, and came to a confusing jumble of paved and gravel trails.  A natural feature known as The Basin is found here.  The Pemi River splits just upstream, and one channel flows into a deeply eroded pothole.  It’s a pretty cool little pool — it even  has its own exit on the interstate, with a parking lot and pit toilets.


Though the Pemi trail had a trail sign near The Basin, we thrashed around and couldn’t find the actual trail.  The Pemi trail runs northward along the west side of the Pemi River, but since we couldn’t find it we did the next best thing and hiked two miles up the paved multi-use trail on the east side of the river.  The relatively long distance and struggles with the rocky footbeds had taken a toll on Ruth, so we were happy to walk something a lot less challenging back to Lafayette Place.


The GPS track said this was a 6.5 mile loop, and it took us 6.5 hours.  The going was pretty slow, even on the downhill sections, but we also took some long breaks at the hut and the waterfalls.  This was a challenging hike for us, but it exceeded all expectations.  What a great start to hiking in New Hampshire!

Pass the Buck

It’s a bad sign when you’re on a hike and your wife starts talking about flamethrowers.

But let’s begin when the idea seemed like a good one.  We had a fairly busy weekend planned and didn’t have a lot of time for a hike (or more accurately, we hadn’t planned enough in advance to pull off a last-minute camping trip).  I was perusing our list of possible future blog posts and the perfect solution presented itself — a short hike on the TVA Buck Island Small Wild Area down in Guntersville.

Small Wild Areas are pockets of land managed by TVA for recreation.  They are usually pockets of land in the general vicinity of a dam that, in TVA’s words, “are sites with exceptional natural, scenic or aesthetic qualities that are suitable for low-impact public use.”  We’ve visited a few of them, and generally they offer some very nice short hikes with interesting features and/or scenic views.

Buck Island Small Wild Area is easily accessed from AL Highway 431.  We headed south out of Huntsville and turned left onto Buck Island Road just after passing the Guntersville Municipal Airport.  Buck Island Road splits at the entrance to the Gunter’s Landing community.  We turned north and followed the road around the edge of the airport until it terminated at a gravel cul-de-sac with a gate at the far end.  There’s room to park several vehicles here, though we were the only ones there on a Saturday afternoon.

There were a couple of signs spelling out the rules for the Small Wild Area, though it was only identified as TVA managed land.  Apparently you can hunt on the property and can camp there for up to 14 consecutive days.  There’s no developed campsite there or any facilities, but judging from the bullet holes in the signs, apparently hunters are making use of the property.  I guess there must have been some big game standing in front of the sign at some point, since one of the rules is that unauthorized target shooting is not allowed.

The trailhead is not explicitly marked.  Beyond the gate, an unpaved stretch of Buck Island Road was the closest thing we could see to a trail, so we headed off into the woods.  We knew from the trail map that this was a lollipop loop, though the TVA website is a bit ambiguous about the trail length — 1.6 or 2.2 miles, take your pick.

Though we were on a wide level roadbed, it was fairly overgrown at this point.  Since this property is unsullied by any attempt to actually mark a trail, we were left to our own devices to figure out exactly where to go.  About 500 feet down the trail, a gap to the left suggested a possible route, but we knew from the map this was much too early to begin the loop, so we continued down the road past patches of goldenrod, long-bristled smartweed, mistflower, daisy fleabane, jewelweed, and panicled tick trefoil.  A boggy area off to the right seemed interesting, but there were no good views of it.

At about .15 miles another opening appears to the right, flanked by a couple of cedar posts set in concrete.  This spur only goes back around 100 yards, with an improvised firepit and some nearby logs which suggests that this might be meant as a primitive campsite.  At about .4 miles, there’s an obstructed view of the lake, which sad to say, is the best view you’ll get on this hike.  At least there were a few partridge peas to brighten the way.

At about .5 miles into the hike, we saw our first suggestion that we were actually on something that was meant to be a developed trail — a metal sign identifying a sugar maple next to the overgrown road.  I guess some game sapsuckers must have perched on the sign, judging by the bullet holes that riddled it — after all, unauthorized target shooting is prohibited.

We passed a TVA boundary sign which we think actually marks the edge of the Small Wild Area, not an actual boundary between TVA and private land.  This can be confusing, since Small Wild Areas typically exist inside a larger TVA parcel.  We noticed a couple more openings off to the left which could have been where the loop rejoins the trail, but in the absence of any trail marking (seriously!  TVA couldn’t afford a gallon of paint to blaze some trees?) we continued on down the road.  We knew that by bearing right we’d eventually come to a point where the trail would bend to the left and go uphill, and at .7 miles we came to a split where the road continued straight and slightly downhill, with a wide path heading steeply uphill to the left.

The trail climbed steeply for a little less than .2 miles to the top of a hill, where the path was completely blocked by waist-high vegetation for about 30 yards.  We pushed on through to the apparent summit, where a black walnut was identified by another metal sign, but there was no view of the lake from this overlook.  There was a spur trail that may have gone to an overlook, to be fair, but it wasn’t marked and honestly, we were beginning to get a bit impatient to get off this train wreck of a trail.  It didn’t help that after we reached the summit the trail simply disappeared, with no obvious footbed leading down the north side of the hill.  We thrashed around a little, following a manway that offered a passage through the woods, skirting a dry creek bed on the way down, until we emerged onto an old road bed.  We considered options and turned left (south) and quickly got reinforcement in the form of another tree ID sign, this time on a reclining white ash.  Since that was as much navigational aid as we could expect, we continued south and rejoined the stem of the lollipop at about 1.45 miles.

We retraced our steps westward toward the parking lot, while Ruth talked about how a flamethrower would really improve this trail, especially after she noticed the tick trefoil seeds adhering to her.  We returned to the car without any wildfires breaking out, finishing up at 2.2 miles according to the GPS track.

With some rerouting, navigational aids, and maintenance, this could be a nice easy trail with a nice variety of habitats.  Given the trail’s current condition, our recommendation is that you pass the Buck (Island Trail) and head instead to the TVA Honeycomb Trail or the Cave Mountain trails, both of which are in the general area of Guntersville Dam.

On our way back to town, we planned to stop at Natural Bridge and Ghost Creek Falls, an outstanding property on Cottonville Road in Marshall County.  The 32-acre property is privately owned for now, but the owners have given the Land Trust of North Alabama the first shot at purchasing this tract with a natural bridge, caves, and waterfalls.  We’ve never been to this site, but our visit this time was a perfunctory one as a wedding was either about to get started or had recently finished.  We didn’t want to be wedding crashers, so we drove by close enough to snap a rather unsatisfactory photo that doesn’t really give you a good idea of how cool this place is, then headed on our way.  The Land Trust has to raise the money by the end of the year, or else the property will be offered for sale on the open market.   You should check it out next time you’re in the area, or even better, pass a few bucks to the Land Trust to help preserve this property for the public.



Rolling on the River: Cycling Around Buckeye Pond on the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge

You could say that bicycling is in my blood.  In case you’ve ever wondered, yes, I am actually distantly related to aeronautical pioneers Orville and Wilbur Wright.  At least that’s what my grandfather, the family genealogist, claimed.  Before they were tinkering with flying machines, they ran their own bike sales and repair shop, and even had their own line of bicycles.

As a kid I rode my bike all the time, mostly around the farm and up and down the gravel road that ran past it.  Like just about every boy my age, I learned my limits the hard way — by being launched by unseen potholes into brief terrifying moments of being unintentionally airborne, or by having my body grated by blacktop roads unforgiving of miscalculations on the variables of speed, momentum, road width, and the radius of a curve.  But the occasional bruise and/or skinned body part was an acceptable price for the freedom of having my own wheels and the opportunities that came with them.  At the time I thought nothing of it, but as an adult now I marvel that my parents casually accepted my blithe announcements that I’d be out working on my six 25-mile rides for my bicycling merit badge, and I’d be home for dinner.  I think I was 14 at the time.  And I never missed dinner, and I still have the merit badge.

As an adult, I rarely get a chance to pull the bike down off the rack in the garage, but I enjoy it when I do.  Our recent nice ride on the Richard Martin Trail whetted my appetite for a return to the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge.  The Wheeler is a great place to hike and bike, and especially a great place to birdwatch.  There are several miles of gravel roads, mostly flat or with gentle grades, on the reserve with very little vehicular traffic to dodge.  I picked out a 12-mile loop on the northern side of the Tennessee River between Redstone Arsenal and Decatur and we set off in the morning.

Our starting/ending point would be a gravel parking area off Jolly B Road (spelled as “Jolley B” on some maps).  To get there, turn south on County Line Road, and just before it ends turn left onto Jolly B Road.  Jolly B starts as a paved road, but soon splits with one fork going left into the Refuge, the other fork going right to a farm, and both forks turning into a gravel road.  Once you get onto the Refuge, travel with care (actually, travel with care the length of Jolly B — the paved portion has a sharp curve).  The gravel roads on the Refuge have some pretty substantial potholes in them.  You can get any vehicle with normal clearance down to the parking area, so there’s no need for four-wheel drive, but if you try to do the Dukes of Hazzard stuff on the Refuge roads, you’ll soon find out what it costs to replace an axle.  I don’t know how Jolly B Road gets its name, but I think it might stand for “Jolly Breakdown Road.”  After the road turns to gravel, the parking area is on the right, with one gravel road taking off to the west and Jolly B continuing to the south.

Great ragweed

Our ride started from the parking area along that road to the west, identified on maps as HGH Road.  There are no road signs anywhere on this part of the Refuge, so it’s a good idea to bring a map with you.  We stopped to admire the stands of great ragweed and snow squarestem growing at the edge of the parking area, with muscadines twining up into the trees, then we set off along the straight, flat doubletrack of HGH Road.  My best efforts at Internet research have failed to ferret out why this road (and another we’ll ride on later, JTT Road) are only known by initials.  My guess is they are named for the initials of landowners at the time the land was purchased by TVA in the mid-1930s.  Or perhaps they are the initials of former Refuge supervisors.  Can anyone shed any light on this, dear readers?

HGH Road continues west for 1.5 miles, pretty much straight and level, under the shade of the trees.   There was a good supply of our typical late summer wildflowers on the roadsides with asters and jewelweed being easy to spot as we rolled along.  HGH Road takes a curve to the north, with a closed gate to the southwest marking a possible route to return to Jolly B Road.  We turned north, next to a harvested cornfield.  This stretch opens up, running between fields with a thin strip of woods to the west screening Buckeye Pond.  This was one of the few downhill stretches on our ride.

We continued winding north and west as the road curved gently back into the woods.  We saw stands of lovely mistflower here, and noticed our old friend the Devil’s walking stick in several locations, with its profuse crown of berries.  About 2.9 miles from the parking area, HGH clears the top of Buckeye Pond and forks, with the right fork leaving the Refuge toward a house on New Hope Road.  We took the left fork and headed south, skirting the western edge of the pond.

The west side of Buckeye Pond is pretty similar to the east side.  HGH Road continues to the south, with very little grade change.  At about 4 miles from the parking area, HGH Road tees into John Gordon Road, running east-west.  Remember what I said earlier about bringing a map?  Well, I should have taken my own advice.  We turned east on a dirt road, toward Buckeye Pond, and it was a serendipitous choice since it took us to the pond itself.  Though HGH Road winds completely around the pond, there’s always a barrier of woods blocking the view of the water from the road.  Our side road quickly led to a huge open field, with the northern reaches of Buckeye Pond straight ahead.  As we rode toward the pond, a gorgeous great egret took wing, curving over the field to disappear into the distant woods.  The road was completely spanned by a large and deep puddle, but we were able to find a track to get around the obstacle and continue to the southwest until our road, now a grassy track, stopped completely in a thicket.  Clearly this wasn’t our planned route, so we backtracked to the field and headed back toward John Gordon Road.

As we returned to the field, we saw a large bird take off to our left, loudly gronk-ing as it flew south away from us.  It was a familiar sight — Brad the grumpy Great Blue Heron!  We always seem to run into him when we go to the Wheeler, and he was in his usual fowl (ha!) mood.  He offered to fly down and peck another hole in my bicycle tire, but I declined his kind offer.

After retracing our route to John Gordon Road, we rode west for about .15 miles before re-entering the Refuge by turning left onto JTT Road, which climbed a small hill to reach an intersection at the top.  To the east, a gated track led back toward the southern end of Buckeye Pond.  The more obvious route is to the west, so we took JTT Road until it teed into Rockhouse Road (heading north outside of the Refuge) and Rockhouse Bottoms Road (heading south toward the river).  We headed for the river, reaching it in about .25 miles, and pulled the bikes over to have a bit of lunch while perched on some rocks on the bank.  I had picked up a muscadine on the road earlier in the ride, so I had it for dessert.

After lunch, we headed east on Rockhouse Bottoms Road along the north bank of the Tennessee River.  Since we were on river bottomland, the level road was flanked by the river on one side and planted crops (maybe soybeans?) on the other.  I noticed quite a lot of fragments of mussel and aquatic snail shells in the tilled earth.

Rockhouse Bottoms Road was relatively busy.  It has unpaved access to the river in a few places, so it’s a popular place for launching small boats, and we saw at least one angler on the riverbank.   We met a couple of cars making their way slowly down the road.  Since it is more heavily traveled than the other Refuge roads we had ridden on our trip, it’s not surprising that it is much more potholed.   The potholes are easily dodged, but you’ll need to pay attention, which is difficult when there are such lovely river views.

The ride along Rockhouse Bottoms Road is a little over 4 miles, with a few stands of yam leaf clematis growing on the roadside as your near the northward turn back onto Jolly B Road.  After rejoining Jolly B and turning left (north) to close the loop, it’s only about .9 miles back to the parking area.  On the way north, there are a couple of places where you can get a good look at Blackwell Swamp if you’re so inclined.

All in all, it was a triumphant return to the Wheeler.  The bikes were in fine fettle, the weather was clear and warm, there were several showy late summer wildflowers in bloom, and the ride itself was good exercise without being too tiring.  We covered 12.3 miles according to the GPS track, and best of all, we were home in plenty of time for dinner.