Turn Left: Turkey Creek Nature Preserve

I don’t know if it’s just human nature, or a peculiarly Southern thing, but sometimes I get an inclination to just be contrary.  This usually manifests itself by an urge to do something in opposition to the wisdom of the crowd.  Even though the safe and expected thing is to zig, every now and then I just have to zag.  Maybe it’s a desire to assert my independence from the tribe, even though generally speaking the tribe is a good thing.  In the grand scheme of time, it wasn’t that long ago that our primate ancestors were food for lions and anything else sufficiently fast and cunning, until we figured out that we could band together and use our big brains to figure out a way to compensate for our lack of speed, endurance, and effective teeth and claws.

Though I don’t have any statistics to back me up, I suspect that 95% of the visitors to the Turkey Creek Nature Preserve park their cars in the gravel lot or off the pavement, then climb out and turn right.  It’s a one-way road, so when they head to the right they are making their way to the banks of Turkey Creek.  The crowd is pretty wise, in this case — it’s a nice big, cool creek, with a spectacular natural water slide formed from a cascade in a bend of the creek.

But when Ruth and I visited recently, it was one of my contrary days.  Instead of turning right when we parked, we turned left, away from the creek, and onto the preserve’s trail system.  While Turkey Creek Falls is one of the best known swimming holes in this area, the preserve also offers five developed trails for a total of around 6.3 miles of hiking.  Since this is a hiking blog, not a swimming blog (if you’ve seen me swim, you’ll know why), we thought you might like to read about the trails.

First, a bit of info about the preserve.  It’s in Pinson, Alabama, which is about a 90-minute drive south of Huntsville.  Turkey Creek Nature Preserve is a 466 acre private reserve, formed by a partnership between Forever Wild and the Freshwater Land Trust.  The preserve protects several endangered species, both flora and fauna, in a diverse habitat.  Admission is free, and the preserve is typically open Wednesday-Sunday, and closed on major holidays.  Check their website for hours, as they may change with the seasons, but generally this is a day-use facility.  No overnight camping is allowed.

For our visit, we drove around to the Turkey Creek Falls recreation area and found parking on the side of the road.  There’s a small gravel lot here that will hold around 12 vehicles, but most visitors park along the road.  It’s a popular spot, so you’re best advised to arrive early (especially on a hot day!).  There are some changing rooms and porta-potties at one end of the parking lot.

We had studied the trail map in advance, and I had picked out a route that would cover the three longest trails in the preserve:  the Narrows Ridge trail (3.2 miles), Thompson Trace trail (1.4 miles) and Hanby Hollow trail (0.9 miles).  Narrows Ridge is a figure-eight loop trail, with 2.7 miles (the lower loop) on the west side of the preserve’s main road, and the other 0.5 miles (the upper loop) on the east side.   Upper and lower are somewhat of a misnomer, as the lower loop rises to a higher altitude than the upper loop, which is mostly at creek level.  The plan was to start on the Thompson Trace trail from the parking lot, turn left onto the Narrows Ridge trail, proceed down to the road and hike the upper loop, then re-cross the road and complete the lower loop back to the Thompson Trace intersection.  We’d then hike the entirety of Thompson Trace east to west to its trailhead at the Highlands Recreation area, then take the Hanby Hollow trail  west to east to return to the parking lot, for a total of around 5.5 miles.

The Thompson Trace trail starts from the north end of the parking lot, with a sign pointing to steps in the bank which lead to a kiosk with a trail map and other information.  The trail, blazed blue, rose gently on a well-packed dirt footbed.

 

 

We didn’t expect to see many wildflowers, but this short stretch of trail put on a modest show for us, with examples of hairy skullcap, oakleaf hydrangea, common yellow wood sorrel, and Appalachian loosestrife.

At a little under 0.1 miles, we reached the intersection with the Narrows Ridge trail and turned left at the well-marked junction of Thompson Trace and Narrows Ridge to start our clockwise loop.  In retrospect, I think this hike would work better if you turn right instead and hike the loop counterclockwise, but I’ll explain later.  The red-blazed Narrows Ridge trail was the only one on our hike that was open to cyclists, and as a result it was a little wider than the Thompson Trace and Hanby Hollow trails.  On occasion, it had a few strategically placed humps to give the riders a chance to catch some air.

The trail trended uphill to the north, then wound to the east, then climbed a little more as it turned to the southeast along the end of a ridge (Narrows Ridge, of course) on the north flank of Red Mountain.  The footbed in this area was in turns sandy, hard-packed earth, or loose sandstone pebbles.  Clearly, this is a sandstone ridge.  We had only been on Narrows Ridge for a few minutes before I spotted a rare sight:  a small pawpaw tree bursting with fruit!  I’ve been keen to try pawpaw jelly, as this edible fruit is described as being a mix of mango and banana flavors.  However, this is a nature preserve, so I contented myself with taking a photo and left the fruits for other hikers to enjoy (in ways that don’t involve eating).

At about a half mile into the hike, the trail descends through a couple of switchbacks down to Turkey Creek Road.  The start of the upper loop was about 50 feet to the right, on the other side of the road, with a signpost clearly marking the starting point.  The upper loop is actually quite different from the lower loop, in that most of it lies in the Turkey Creek floodplain.  As a result, most of the trail is level, with only a short and easy climb and descent at the midpoint of the 0.5 mile loop.  The footbed is very wide and lined with sticks and small logs.  The trail passes an off-limits area to the left which looks to be the remains of a building site (including a collapsed shed), then passes some large vine-covered trees.  Technically this is a lollipop loop, with the loop proper beginning at about 0.1 miles.  We hiked the loop clockwise, and found the north side of the loop to be the most interesting, particularly as we neared Turkey Creek.  The trail doesn’t go all the way to the creek, but this stretch had a few interesting wildflowers in bloom, such as Southern chervil and butterweed.  As we left the open area of the floodplain and the trail climbed a little, we noticed several wildflowers past their blooming period — mayapples, trillium, and violets.  This area is probably the best place to see spring wildflowers, so be sure to take this little loop if you’re visiting in the March-April timeframe.

 

After closing the loop, we retraced our steps and crossed the road to resume our hike of the lower loop.  This next half mile was the lowlight of the hike, a long, slow, straight climb along the side of Narrows Ridge, with traffic whizzing by on Narrows Road/Highway 151 to our left.  This is the section of the trail that made us wish we had hiked the Narrows Ridge loop counterclockwise, as this long climb would have been downhill instead.  Still, we’ve had far steeper climbs, and there were a couple of scenic large boulders along the way, with a small stand of bull nettles also catching the eye.

 

Just before the two mile mark into the hike, the Narrows Ridge trail finally heaves itself over the ridgetop and crosses the Thompson Trace trail.  We continued on our way on the Narrows Ridge lower loop, which flattened out on top of the ridge.  The car noise was much abated, and the trail gently wound a mostly level course past occasional stands of downy skullcap.  About a half mile later we came to the first Narrows Ridge-Hanby Hollow trail intersection, and shortly after that stepped over a very small armored creek crossing, one of only three running creeklets that we saw on this hike.

The trail continued north, then turned to the east and over the next 0.3 miles drew closer to Turkey Creek.  Just before a switchback not far from the second Narrows Ridge-Hanby Hollow intersection, we began to hear the sound of rushing water below us — the unmistakable roar of a waterfall!  Seconds later, we got further confirmation, as the water sounds were punctuated with shouts of glee from children.  We couldn’t see Turkey Creek from here, so the mystery and majesty of Turkey Creek Falls would continue to be a deferred pleasure.

At about 3.1 miles into the hike, we finally closed the Narrows Ridge lower loop, returning to the intersection with the Thompson Trace trail.  Finally, it was time to turn onto the blue-blazed trail, which climbed the northeast end of Narrows Ridge gradually at first, then abruptly got down to business and crested the top of the ridge and followed it to the southwest.  Thompson Trace trail is narrower, since it’s a hiker-only trail, but like all trails we sampled today was well-constructed, well-drained, and mostly clear of obstacles.  All trails that we traveled on this hike had at least one tree down, but all were easily stepped over or around.  The bulk of the Thompson Trace trail runs along the top of the ridge, so other than some mild climbs at either end, it’s a pretty easy walk.  The flora was similar to what we had seen earlier, though the ridgetop had more pines mixed in with the hardwoods, so that the footbed was padded with pine needles in many places.  We also saw a few American beautyberry shrubs in bloom in the stretch before the Narrows Ridge-Thompson Trace intersection.

After crossing the Narrows Ridge trail, the Thompson Trace trail continues southwest and turns north to run along the edge of the preserve, near Highway 151.  In about 0.4 miles, the Hanby Hollow trail takes off to the right, but we continued a few more yards to emerge into the Highlands Recreation (picnic) area, which is the western trailhead for the Thompson Trace trail.   Though we didn’t hike it, the paved Highlands trail leaves from the picnic area and proceeds 0.38 miles to a parking area farther east on Turkey Creek Road.

With two of our three planned trails completed, we retraced our steps to the yellow-blazed Hanby Hollow trail, which soon crossed a small creek on a footbridge.  The trail follows the creek bank for a few hundred feet before turning east and crossing the Narrows Ridge trail.  Afterwards, the trail rises gently across the top of the ridge before turning left and beginning a slow descent through a subtle little hollow.  About a half mile after its first intersection with the Narrows Ridge trail, the Hanby Hollow trail again crosses Narrows Ridge, in the area where we had heard the waterfall below us.  This time, we continued down the back side of the ridge toward Turkey Creek.  After a somewhat steep slope, Hanby Hollow trail reaches Turkey Creek Road, where it would normally turn right and parallel the road back to the parking lot.  However, this stretch of the trail was closed, so we just hoofed it up the road back to the car.  The final tally, according to our GPS track, was 5.1 miles.

Finally, it was time to turn right and have a look at the main attraction — Turkey Creek Falls.  It was a warm day, and the creek bank had a good crowd of laid-back folks watching children (and a few adults) soaking in the creek.  We didn’t want to hike in swimwear and neglected to bring suits to change into, so the best we could do was to doff the boots and socks, put on water shoes, and cool our dogs in a small side rivulet.

Turkey Creek Falls is a powerful cascade in a bend in the creek, with a drop of about five feet on the right side of the creek and a terrific natural water slide along the left side of the creek.  At the end of the slide the creek widens and deepens into a nice swimming hole.

 

And about that water slide…well, I’ll just let the kids tell the story.

 

I’d guess that the preserve is at its busiest during the summer months, when a cooling dip would be most welcome, but the trail system offers year-round beauty without being too challenging.  The various trails make it possible to create hikes of various lengths, and you can choose to stay near the creek or to gain some altitude.  Throw your swimsuit into the pack, come for a visit, and turn left — but make sure you also turn right at some point when you return to your vehicle.  You can trust the crowd on this one.

Cumberland Trail: One Segment Down, Many to Go

Where, you might ask, is Tennessee’s second-largest state park?  Well, it’s just up the road from Chattanooga.  And it’s near Soddy-Daisy.  And it’s not far from Dayton, and just outside of Spring City, Caryville, and La Follette, and the northern edge is at Cumberland Gap.  If you know your Tennessee geography, you might be thinking that’s a very large park indeed, as those cities pretty much span the state from south to north.

And that’s exactly what the Justin P. Wilson Cumberland Trail State Park does.  It’s a linear park, which is a relatively new concept in land preservation.  Linear parks are typically very long and very skinny — just wide enough to protect a trail corridor.  They usually link public lands of various types, with strategic purchases or right-of-way agreements to bridge unconnected parcels, and often interconnect with other trail systems.  A well-known example at the Federal level is the Appalachian Trail, which is actually a unit of the National Parks Service.  As a National Scenic Trail, the AT is administered and cared for by a hodge-podge of federal, state, and local governments and a large number of hiking clubs.

The Cumberland Trail is an ambitious work in progress. When finished, it will be around 300 miles long, running from Chickamauga-Chattanooga National Military Park at Signal Mountain to Cumberland Gap National Historical Park  on the Tennessee/Kentucky border.  At present about 210 miles can be hiked, with the remainder of the trail on state-owned land estimated to be completed in 2019.  The trail is divided into segments of varying lengths, with directions to trailheads and points of interest documented for each section on the excellent Cumberland Trail Conference website.

Ever since I found out about this park, I’ve been keen to hike a segment or two.  A nice long holiday weekend gave us the chance to make the slightly over two-hour drive to our selected segment:  Soddy Creek Gorge South.  Many of the completed segments are fairly long — a few even have overnight camping spots — but we wanted something we could do as a day hike since we needed to be back home that evening.  Soddy Creek Gorge South is a 4.9 mile segment with trailheads relatively close, but it did mean we’d have to have a shuttle vehicle.  Ruth and I drove up separately through light rain to Chattanooga, where we took US Highway 27 north to Soddy-Daisy, then headed up onto the Cumberland Escarpment via the somewhat terrifying Mountain Road (yeah, that’s its name — apparently “Pray You Don’t Meet Anything Bigger On the Way Down Road” was already taken) and Mowbray Pike.  Mountain Road/Mowbray Pike is a narrow, extremely winding road that snakes its way up the escarpment.  We elected to drop a vehicle at the Mowbray Pike trailhead, and to start our hike from the Little Soddy trailhead.

For this segment at least, road signage is clearly not a priority.  Though Google Maps did have both trailheads as navigation points, we sailed right on by the Mowbray Pike parking lot, which is reached by a short, narrow gravel road angling away from the direction of travel (if you’re coming from the south).  There is no sign on the road to direct you to the parking area, so when your GPS says you’re getting close, better strap on your eagle eyes.  After dropping a vehicle in the parking lot (a nice gravel lot with room for several vehicles), we drove north to the Little Soddy trailhead and parked in a small unmarked pullout at the junction of Hotwater Road and Sluder Lane.

This segment of the trail starts as a spur trail about 200 feet north of the parking area on Hotwater Road.  With no fanfare (or signage), the trail enters the woods, where we immediately spotted a kiosk next to a small, unnamed branch off Little Soddy Creek.  We descended a brief rocky and rooty decline, crossed a wooden footbridge, checked out the info on the kiosk, and headed on down the blue-blazed trail.  A word about the blazes — typically in Tennessee state parks, the main trail is blazed white, and spur trails are blazed blue.  That’s not always true in parks with extensive trail systems, though.  In this particular case, the Little Soddy trailhead is not actually on the Cumberland Trail — it’s at the end of a .4 mile spur, so for the first part of our hike we were following the blue blazes.

After the kiosk, the trail levels out and winds through an open understory roughly paralleling the creek.  This is a historic site, as there were many coal mines scattered about the general area.  There aren’t any open mines on this segment — all of the ones that we saw were collapsed.  Small signs marked historic sites, but we didn’t have the brochure available from Cumberland Trail website, so we weren’t ever sure of what we were looking at.  The kiosk at the trailhead has a place to distribute brochures, but it was empty at the time of our visit.  Since we didn’t have the info, and the annoying light rain was continuing, we plowed on ahead instead of taking the yellow-blazed loop toward more historic sites.  This part of the hike was quite nice, as the trail dropped into a hollow and crossed Little Soddy Creek on a footbridge with a mountain laurel blooming next to it.  We spotted a flame azalea, one of our favorite backcountry sights, well off the trail but didn’t bushwhack to get a better look, thinking we’d see more of them (we didn’t).

At .4 mile, we reached the connection to the Cumberland Trail proper.  We turned right to follow the route to the Mowbray Pike trailhead.  A note about trail distances — they  seem to be a bit vague in this section, at least.  According to the trail signage, our total distance from trailhead to trailhead would be 4.6 miles.  The Cumberland Trail Conference website says it’s 4.9 miles, and the Tennessee State Parks website says it’s 4.42 miles.  Our GPS track came out to 5.0 miles, though we did a little off-trail wandering.  That might suggest that the Cumberland Trail Conference website is the most accurate, but we found the mileages to the various points of interest listed on the CTC site didn’t match up with our GPS during the hike.  It might have been weirdness with our GPS, but based on our very limited experience I’d say don’t get too hung up on the mileage, and assume any distance has a plus or minus 10% margin of error.

Once we were on the white-blazed Cumberland Trail, we wound along the coal vein, with Little Soddy Creek to our left for a while.  At times we were on an old roadbed; other times, we were on a narrow footbed.  Very occasionally we saw artifacts from the mining days, such as a coiled length of iron near one of the footbridges.  This section of the trail was relatively low and wet, though the trail is well-engineered and drains nicely, with well-placed stepping stones, stairsteps, and creek armoring.  The abundant water no doubt contributes to a number of wildflowers and ferns in this area, such as running cedar, dwarf crested iris, whorled coreopsis, spotted wintergreen, and bowman’s root just to name a few.

The trail had been inching uphill away from the creek, and at about 1.3 miles made a hairpin turn and begin climbing up the ridge to Clemmons Point.  The change in elevation brought into view the first of several rock formations we’d see along this piece of the hike, though views to the east were largely blocked by the trees.  The drier conditions led to fewer wildflower sightings, though by this time we had recorded over ten wildflowers and earned ourselves our customary post-hike ice cream treat.  We did spot a nice stand of white milkweed in bloom.

The trail undulates a little in this section, dropping from a narrow path along the top of a mine tailing to the bottom of a former strip mine trench.  For the most part, however, the trail stays high and eventually begins passing impressive rock formations on the right.  The trail levels off for the next couple of miles, with rocks to the right and occluded views of the valley to the left.  In this section, at around mile 2.7, the white blazes were sporadically supplemented by fresh-looking bright orange blazes, often above eye-level.  The white metal blazes were no longer in use, but there were still faded white paint blazes from time to time.  It was a little confusing, but we hadn’t passed any obvious trail junctions, and none are shown on the map, so we kept rolling along.

The rain had stopped about the time we reached Clemmons Point, but I was still a little grumpy, complaining that the trail was very nice, but this section didn’t have any unique features.  And right on cue, a little forest denizen popped up on the side of the trail — an Eastern box turtle.  Needless to say, Ruth was delighted!  We snapped a few pictures of our little friend and left her to continue her journey.

The trail continued southwestward, staying level and relatively straight as it passed more impressive rocks, including one that had a sizeable tree growing through a crack.  Several times during the hike we crossed over coal seams, places where small bits of coal were visible on the surface.  It reminded me of our hikes on Ruffner Mountain except of course the surface minerals there are iron ores.

After crossing a small stream at about 3.6 miles, guess what was waiting for us in the center of the trail?  Yep, it was ANOTHER Eastern box turtle!  (I’m certain it was a different one — we’re slow, but we’re not THAT slow).  In all our years of hiking, we have never seen two different land turtles on the same hike.   We paid our respects to the state reptile of Tennessee, and edged past him.

At about mile 4.0, after passing more impressive boulders and bluffs, we noted one bluff with a sizeable overhang that the CTC identifies as a rock house.  We didn’t explore this particular one, but at mile 4.3 a short side trail leads to a small rock house that has been confirmed as a Native American site by an archaeologist.  We detoured briefly to check it out, before continuing to the most interesting section of this segment.

At about 4.4 miles, the trail passes between two large rock formations, in a feature known as the “Little Stone Door.”  This narrow open passage is reminiscent of its namesake, the nearby “Great Stone Door,” which we have previously described.

The clarion call of a waterfall sounded as we walked through the Little Stone Door, and indeed a small waterfall tumbles down from a ledge.  I couldn’t find a good vantage point to photograph the entire drop of Mikel Branch, but bushwhacked down the hill far enough to get a look at the bottom portion of the falls.  It’s possible that the bottom of the fall is outside the park boundary, and as we made our way back uphill we came across one of the higher portions of the cascade, on the back side of one of the large boulders.  Keep an eye out for park boundary markers in this area, but also follow the sound of water to see pretty cascades if you can do so without trespassing.

Once we rejoined the trail, we continued to the west, crossing Mikel Branch on a footbridge before passing through a powerline cut with an impressive view down into Soddy Daisy, with the Tennessee River and the cooling towers of the Sequoyah nuclear power plant visible to the east.  After crossing one last stream and one last coal seam, this segment of the Cumberland Trail heads uphill for its last .2 miles before descending into the parking lot at the Mowbray Pike trailhead.  After picking up our shuttle vehicle, we made our way down to Soddy-Daisy, where we had our ice cream treat at Sonic, then made our way home through several heavy rainstorms.

So, that’s 1 segment down, and 28 to go (of the current sections — there are many more to be added).  Or, if the trail is going to be around 300 miles long, we’ve covered about 1.67% of it.  That’s not really enough to do any generalizing, but we did form a few impressions of this segment.  On the plus side, this segment is very well engineered, with good drainage and reasonably good marking (the orange blazes stopped near the Little Stone Door, and the white metal blazes returned).   We never saw another hiker at any point on this segment, so the solitude rating would be quite high.  There were many scenic rock formations, historic sites, some pretty creeks, and a very good selection of late spring/early summer wildflowers.  And of course, two turtles!

On the minus side, this segment is rather secretive, with no signage on the roads to identify the parking areas.  Also, it’s in need of some general maintenance, as a few sections are overgrown with poison ivy lurking in the narrowest sections, and there are several downed trees.  The trail is still navigable, with stepovers and a few places where you’ll have to skirt the deadfalls, but it would benefit from some attention from a sling blade and a chainsaw.  Changing to orange blazes halfway into the trail, without any description of this in the trail description on the CTC site, is a little unnerving, and almost caused us to do some unnecessary backtracking to make sure we hadn’t missed a trail junction.  This is not meant to nitpick with the fine volunteers who build and maintain this trail — it’s just meant as a heads-up to any of our readers who fancy hiking this segment.

Overall, this was a very enjoyable introduction to the Cumberland Trail, and we’ll certainly be back to do other segments.  We have no illusions of being AT thru-hikers, but maybe the Cumberland Trail would be achievable for us as segment hikers.  Of course, if we get ambitious (and win the lottery), we might just finish the Cumberland Trail and just keep going on the Great Eastern Trail, which is a yet longer trail planned to run from Alabama to western New York State.  The Great Eastern Trail will be around 1,600 miles.  And it looks like the Pinhoti Trail will be part of it, so the seven miles or so that we’ve hiked on the Pinhoti puts us at about 0.4% along the way of completing the Great Eastern Trail.  Well, a guy can dream, can’t he?

 

 

 

 

 

Return to Alum Hollow

Back in April 2016, we published a post about a new property on Green Mountain in Huntsville donated to the Land Trust of North Alabama by the Kuehlthau family.  We had joined a members-only hike to check out the in-progress trail down to the waterfalls and Alum Cave, and noted in our post that we didn’t have enough time to explore the property and we would have to come back.  You can mark that as a promise kept, as we returned just a little over a year later with Casey The Hound to see how this property was faring.

And the answer to our question was:  very well, thank you!  At the time that we visited, only two weeks after the Land Trust had been given access to the property, the only parking was in the grass on the side of Shawdee Road.  The trail had a decent footbed, but was marked with ribbons, and had a creek crossing on an improvised bridge of three narrow trees lashed together.

A year later, the Green Mountain Nature Preserve, as it is now known, is thriving and developing.  The first and most obvious change is that there is now a sign marking the preserve and a gravel driveway leading from the road back to a parking lot that can accommodate around 10 vehicles (with some room for overflow, which was a good thing because the parking lot was full on our Saturday morning visit).

The trailhead now has a kiosk with a trail map and other information, and just beyond it is an interpretive sign describing the historical significance of Alum Cave.  The trail, now marked with Alum Hollow Trail diamonds, stretches out into the woods beyond the parking lot.

The Alum Hollow trail is much as we remembered it — a largely flat, slightly meandering path through open mixed woodlands.  We had only been on it for a short while before we came to another sign of progress — a new trail heading off to the left.  The new trail isn’t open yet, so we honored the request on the sign and left this trail for another day.

Although on our previous visit we didn’t think the Alum Hollow trail had much in the way of flowering plants, this hike timed out better with the flowering seasons for sparkleberry and St. Johnswort.  Sparkleberry was particularly prominent, with its peely/flaky bark.  St. Johnswort was just about to start blooming.  We caught one solitary blossom already open.

At about .3 miles, we came to the junction with the first of two new trails in the preserve, the East Plateau trail.  Though a new directional sign is clearly on the way, it’s easy to make out the pathway heading off to the right, and the established footbed and trail diamonds make it pretty clear that you’re on an official trail.    This route is a pleasant alternative to taking the Alum Hollow trail, as it meanders to the north and crosses a small seep before turning west to roughly parallel Alum Hollow.  It was on this stretch, as we began our turn to the west, that we had our one notable wildlife encounter, with an Eastern American toad.  This was along a damp section of the trail, though the footbed was well drained, and another boggy area after the turn to the west is bridged with cinder block stepping stones.

First stream crossing on Alum Hollow trail

The East Plateau is a mostly level, well-graded trail, slightly narrower that Alum Hollow, but overall we’d rate it as an easy-peasy.  Our GPS track is a little suspect for the East Plateau trail, but I’d say it’s around .5 miles, which makes it slightly longer than sticking to the main Alum Hollow trail.  I actually prefer East Plateau because it’s less traveled, and just as level and scenic as Alum Hollow.  However, taking the East Plateau route bypasses a very pretty stream crossing, as the two seeps on East Plateau join to make a narrow creek that runs south, where it is crossed by the Alum Hollow trail.

After around .5 miles, East Plateau rejoins the Alum Hollow trail, which then descends and crosses a larger creek on a new wooden bridge.  This is a big improvement over the old lashed-together bridge, though the Land Trust has impishly left the old bridge in place in case you want more of an adventure in your crossing.

After crossing the creek, we climbed out of a small hollow and about 100 feet later we came to the second newly-developed trail, the West Plateau trail.  Like it’s counterpart to the east, West Plateau winds through a mixed hardwood/pines forest, mostly level though there are a few short climbs.  West Plateau has a rockier footbed that East Plateau, and it has a couple of points of interest along it’s roughly .4 mile route.  The first is a crossing of what looks like a former dirt road running north/south.  The trail is easily spotted directly across the road, so it’s not difficult to navigate.  The other point of interest is what looks like another possible trail in the making, marked by green ribbons on a persimmon tree.  We didn’t go bushwhacking, but it looks like there might be room to route another trail into the northwest and far western edge of the tract.

The West Plateau trail merges back onto the Alum Hollow trail just as it descends somewhat steeply into another hollow.  The trail forks at this point, with the downhill fork leading to a waterfall, and the level fork continuing to the southeast to reach Alum Cave.  We went to the waterfall first and enjoyed the sight and sound of tumbling water.  Though it’s not marked on the official trail map, you can continue past the waterfall and along a narrow, wet path to reach a second, smaller waterfall with a tiny waterflow.

We retraced our steps and climbed halfway up the hollow, turning to the right to pass under the impressive rockhouses of Alum Cave.  It would be a nice place to take shelter — deep enough to stay out of the rain, sun, and wind, but with the sound of the nearby waterfall and a peaceful view over Alum Cave Hollow.

After a short rest, we returned back to the trailhead, except this time we stuck to the Alum Hollow trail for its entire length.  Casey surprised us on our return creek crossing, as he eschewed the nice new bridge to instead take the rickety narrow lashed bridge.

Although on our previous trip last year we didn’t see many wildflowers, they were in better supply for us on this trip.  East Plateau had several clumps of Two-Flowered Cynthia, and we spotted a few Quaker ladies along Alum Hollow between the East and West Plateau trails.  West Plateau had a few large bluets in bloom.  As usual, most of the flowering activity was near the creeks, as a mock orange was in bloom above the main waterfall and Virginia dayflower was in bloom near Alum Cave.  On the trip back to the parking lot, we also saw some downy serviceberry, smooth creeping bush clover,  Southern ragwort, yellow star grass, and whorled loosestrife (just beginning to bloom).  Hey, that’s ten, plus the sparkleberry and St. Johnswort mentioned earlier  — I’m claiming retroactive ice cream!

The final tally on our hike was 2.2 miles, though I’m a little doubtful about our GPS track on East Plateau — we had some signal dropouts so some of the track is shown as a lot straighter than is actually the case.  I think it’s safe to say that taking the East and West Plateau trails don’t add any significant distance to a hike down to the cave and waterfalls, so they’re worth the detour.  Both trails also have benches on them, as does Alum Hollow, which is yet another improvement made in year since our last visit.

The Green Mountain Nature Preserve is a great example of the progress made possible by generous benefactors, ambitious and visionary Land Trust staff, and dedicated volunteers.  It’s no surprise that this property has become so popular, and as the Ditto Landing to Monte Sano trail system edges closer to reality, this preserve will be a key piece in this hiking corridor.

Around the Bend: A Dog’s Eye View of Marbut Bend

About once a year, we invite a guest blogger to chime in on a favorite hike or outdoor adventure.  Our entry for this week is courtesy of our four-legged friend Casey The Hound, who brings his unique canine perspective and seemingly inexhaustible bladder to every hike.  Well, every hike that we bring him on, anyway.  (It’s a sore point with him — don’t bring it up!)


Hello, dear readers, it is I, Casey The Hound.  As much as I like sleeping on the porch, I’m always up for an adventure, and when I saw the human members of the pack strapping on their boots, I knew it was time to put on the puppy eyes and to gently remind them it has been a while since I’ve been Outside the Fence.  And every now and then, it works!

I could tell something was different about this trip, though.  Usually I just get clipped onto the leash and away we go, but today I was fitted with a harness I had never smelled before.  I used to have a harness we’d use for hiking, but I’ve become a bit of a round hound and it won’t buckle anymore.  This new harness had a looser fit, and it didn’t have a place to connect a leash.  Instead, it had a couple of places to connect a camera!  Not only was I going on a walkabout, I was going to make my debut as a vid-e-dog-ruff-fur.  I think that’s what they called it.

Our hike was to a location that’s not terribly well-known, except to maybe a few humans.  We drove from Madison about 45 minutes out to Elkton, Alabama, to a Tennessee Valley Authority property called Marbut Bend.  TVA has all these little pockets of property scattered around the area, and this particular one is a short, easy, ADA-compliant walk of 1.2 miles around a field, down to the Elk River, and over a flooded field on a boardwalk.  It’s a bit out in the sticks, so TVA provides these directions.

Carolina thistle
Cutleaf evening primrose

By the time we got there, I was ready to stretch my legs.  A brown sign marks the entrance to the gravel parking lot, which can accommodate at least eight cars.  There was one vehicle there ahead of us, and I caught a whiff of a lady and a dog about 300 yards away from us.  While the humans fiddled around with cameras and backpacks, I gave the parking lot a thorough sniff and, ahem, took care of some business under this Carolina thistle.  If humans need to take care of any business, they’d better do it back in town — there aren’t any facilities.  Also, note to self — be very careful about doing any kind of business around thistles.  It might have been a better idea to target the cutleaf evening primroses blooming along the guard rail, but they were very pretty.

The view from the parking lot is quite enticing.  On the other side of the guard rail, looking to the south, there was a large patch of yellow wood sorrel in a lush grassy meadow.  Since this is a loop trail, you can either turn east or west to start, and my methodical pack decided to hike clockwise.   The trail to the east starts at a yellow gate, and heads east paralleling Buck Island Drive.  It’s a flat gravel surface, well-maintained, suitable for strollers or wheelchairs.  This is only a hiking trail, so no bikes or horses are allowed.

After about 500 feet (human feet, that is), the trail turns south.  The big grassy field is to the right, and a thin strip of woods is to the left.  The air was sweet with scents of honeysuckle and privet, with small oaks and sycamores shading the edge of the path.  About 450 feet after the turn to the south, a small footpath leads through a gap in the trees to a view of a cove.  This footpath is a natural dirt surface, which felt good on my paws, but could be rough going for a human on wheels.

Venus’ looking glass

We returned to the gravel trail, and soon passed a study-looking bench on the left.  I didn’t really need a break, but the rest of the pack stopped to look around and take a photo of a Venus’ looking glass.  Afterwards, it was back on the trail, which curved right and crossed the field.  It’s a nice field.  You can have a picnic on it.  You can even camp on it, as long as you’re tidy and don’t stay more than 14 days.  You should take your dog there, and maybe bring a frisbee.  I’m too nearsighted to catch a frisbee.  You don’t want to know how many dog treats have bounced off my snout, much to the pack’s amusement.  The only thing this old dog catches is rays, on the back porch.

The trail turns south again, with a line of trees to your right, then splits.  When the trail was originally opened in 2014, the only choice was to turn right, cross through the thin line of trees, and head south again for a brief look at the river.  However, a new option was added in 2016, when a pier was added to give a much better look at the river and its wildlife.  So now, when you come to the split,  continue straight instead of turning right.  After passing through a small patch of woods, the pier stretches straight ahead of you.  It’s glorious — you can walk out and get a great view of the Elk River.  There are a couple of benches, and it’s a great place to look at wildlife and do some fishing.   It’s roughly the halfway point of the hike.

After enjoying a brief rest and getting a good lungful of river air, we walked back down to the pier and turned left to rejoin the trail, which curves gently to the northwest around another grassy field.  The humans looked at the hispid buttercups and butterweed growing at the edge of the woods.  I decided to go in for a closer look.

About .2 miles after leaving the pier, the trail makes a sharp left through another stand of trees, and begins, in this dog’s opinion, the coolest part of the hike.  The next 900 feet or so is an elevated boardwalk over a flooded wetland.  It stretches straight across an expanse of murky green water, full of aquatic plants and dead trees.  This area was originally part of the field, but beavers dug channels from the river and flooded this section.  Now it’s a wetlands teeming with wildlife — fish, raccoons, deer, beavers, and especially birds, such as great blue herons, wood ducks, barred owls, and red-shouldered hawks.  There’s a bench about halfway across where you can sit and take it all in.  Let me tell you, you can smell for miles here!

At the end of the boardwalk, the trail turns east and continues on solid ground skirting the wetlands.  This part of the field is still a bit boggy, and has a good stand of cattails and a few oddly-disguised poles.  Anybody know what’s going on here?  The tops didn’t seem to have nesting platforms on them, but they are obviously fake.  This last little bit of bogland seemed popular with the avian set, as we heard ducks and saw one red-winged blackbird.

After one last short boardwalk, we arrived back at the parking lot, turning east and paralleling the gravel road (behind a guard rail) to complete the loop.  The hike is a super easy one — it’s relatively short, flat, and with a good gravel or wooden footbed throughout.  It has varied points of interest — fields, river, and bogland — and is a great place to spot wildlife.  It’s suitable for all ages, though you might want to keep a close watch on toddlers on the boardwalk since there are no guardrails there.

It was a good hike for an old dog, and I think young dogs would enjoy it too.  Marbut Bend has something for everyone.  Except maybe for cats.  But really, who knows what they are thinking?  I’m back on the porch now, digesting the post-hike celebratory pig’s ear, and thinking it over.  It might look like I’m sleeping in the sun, but don’t be fooled.

Ruffner Redux

We made our first trip to the Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve last fall, and since then it has been on our list for a return visit.  As we sat over breakfast on our recent trip to Historic Banning Mills, we were kicking around ideas for a short hike on our way back to Huntsville. The timing was perfect — we would drive right past Ruffner on our way home, and we knew there were several short trails in an area of the preserve we had not yet explored.  It was time for a Ruffner Redux.

The first order of business when we reached the preserve was to correct an oversight from our previous visit.  Back in November, we were eager to get on the trails since we had a side trip planned for the Cullman Oktoberfest on our way home, so we didn’t take the time to look around the Nature Center.  We stepped inside and had a quick look at the inhabitants, mostly of the living reptilian variety.  They had a gorgeous spotted kingsnake, a menacing looking rattlesnake, a shy corn snake, and a  young copperhead, each in its own habitat behind glass, as well as a box turtle, to Ruth’s delight.  Even better, they had a large tank with several red eared sliders swimming around.  This hike was off to a terrific start, by Ruth’s standards, since she is a well-known fan of turtles.  There was also a lovely taxidermy great horned owl up in a corner and other exhibits.  We stepped out a side door of the Nature Center and walked past some live birds of prey kept in outdoor cages.  The birds aren’t technically on display, and we obeyed the signs asking us to keep our distance from their Resident Animal Ambassadors.

Wild columbine
Field mustard

Our plan for this trip was to hike several trails we had not previously visited, and the first one on our list was the Marian Harnach Nature Trail.  The Nature Trail begins next to the Nature Center, so we wandered through the native wildflower garden in front of the Nature Center on our way.  Of course, the flowers in bloom vary from week to week, but I was most struck by the wild columbine and field mustard.

The Nature Trail starts to the left of the Nature Center, with a dirt path immediately entering the woods and passing an outdoor classroom.  The pink-blazed Nature Trail curves around the back of the Nature Center, and somewhat surprisingly briefly is routed along a decrepit sidewalk extending into the forest.  The sidewalk is actually the remains of a proposed 1920s housing development.

The Nature Trail is a lollipop loop, with the “stem” measuring less than .1 mile to the beginning of the loop.  We chose to hike counterclockwise, and headed to the right onto the loop.  To this point, we hadn’t seen any interpretive signage or anything to identify the plants and natural features, though we recognized several common wildflowers and trees in bloom — wood sorrel, sweet Betsy, red buckeye, rue anemone, fleabane, false garlic, and some particularly pale wild blue phlox, to name a few.

When the loop proper begins, there are a few interpretive signs along the trail, though some are in bad shape.  The trail stays mostly level, passing through stretches of the distinctive “Ruffner red” hematite-tinged soil.  At about .17 miles, we passed the junction with the Geology Trail, which was our next destination, but first we wanted to complete the loop.  It wasn’t all that exciting, to be honest.  The trail was well-maintained, but had only a few signs, mostly aimed at elementary school-aged children, and no tree or wildflower identification aids.  According to the trail map, there’s also an old spring-fed cistern at some point, but we didn’t notice it.  We made our way back around to the beginning of the loop and continued on around for part of a second lap before peeling off onto the Geology Trail.  The Nature Trail is .6 miles, so it’s a nice short walk for the wee ones.

The Geology Trail is a short, gray-blazed route with a few interpretive signs explaining the geologic features of Ruffner Mountain.  The main feature of this .3 mile trail is a large limestone boulder known as Turtle Rock, due to its vaguely tortoise-like shape.  Naturally, Ruth had to climb Turtle Rock.  The Geology Trail terminates into the Quarry Trail, the main route to the southwestern end of the preserve, but our planned route was to take us into the northeastern side, so we were on the Quarry Trail only briefly before turning left on the red-blazed Hollow Tree Trail.  It was a short trek up and over the ridge, passing over a boardwalk in a small wetland area, before teeing into a gravel road.  Along the way, we heard a noise in the leaves to the side of the trail, and discovered a very nonchalant skink posing on a stick with his tasty spider lunch in his jaws.

When we reached the gravel road, we turned left and traveled about .1 miles before a sign pointed us off the road onto the Buckeye Trail.  The purple-blazed trail would be the most difficult of today’s hike, descending around 300 feet in about .6 miles.  The descent is gradual, though, with some switchbacks and level sections along the way.  Shortly after turning onto the trail, a kiosk to the right of the trail gives the details on an American chestnut demonstration plot, on which a number of chestnut seedlings have been established in an effort to bring back this once-mighty tree.  This is just one example of the conservation work evident all over Ruffner, as the preserve participates in efforts to restore threatened native species.  A nearby green anole seemed fully in favor of the idea.

Wild bergamot
Hearts-a-bustin

As we neared the bottom of the ridge, a side trail led to an overlook.  The view wasn’t that impressive, especially compared to the views of the quarry and the city of Birmingham from the southwest side of the preserve, but just as we reached the bottom of the ridge we were treated to a brilliant wild bergamot in bloom, as well as the odd-looking blooms of hearts-a-bustin (or strawberry bush, or wahoo, or several other common names) for this shrub.  By the way, I’m pleased to give a shout out to Mike Gibson, curator of the Huntsville Botanical Garden, for his rapid response to my plea for plant identification help. I knew what Euonymus Americanus looked like in the fall, when the fruit capsule is open, but had no idea that it had such a funky-looking flower.  If  you’re stumped on a plant, drop the Botanical Garden a message at plantinfo@hsvbg.org and they’ll help you out.  You don’t even have to be a member of the Garden (though I’m happy to say I just became a member).

When we reached the bottom of the ridge, we walked a few feet on the bed of the historic Birmingham Mineral Rail Line, before turning left onto the dirt road also known as the Pipeline Trail.  We were only on the trail for about .15 miles before turning right onto the Wetlands Trail.  The Wetlands Trail is a short lollipop loop around a pond.   The trail crossed grassland and passed a pavilion on the right, but our plan to take the boardwalk around the pond was thwarted by a “trail closed” sign.  Apparently the boardwalk was in need of repairs.  This would be a good time to put in a pitch for Ruffner membership.  The preserve is free, but depends on membership, gifts, and grants to support its facilities, staff, and trails.

Since we couldn’t finish the Wetlands Trail, we continued on past the pond to the brick-red-blazed Sandstone Ridge Trail.  This .3 mile lollipop loop climbed briefly, then passed below and then above some scenic weathered sandstone outcroppings.  This was a pleasant, easy walk, with the added bonus of having lyreleaf sage in bloom along with several other wildflowers.

After finishing the loop of Sandstone Ridge, we retraced our route back to the Pipeline Trail.  Though there are about another 2.5 miles of trails off to the northeast, we didn’t have time on this trip for a visit.  The 600-foot climb back up the Buckeye Trail loomed ahead of us instead, but it wasn’t really all that bad.  We backtracked all the way to the Quarry Trail, which we then took back toward the parking lot before turning onto our last trail of the day, the blue-blazed Trillium Trail.

The Trillium Trail won the prize for our favorite trail of the day, as it gently wound through the woods and past a plethora of wildflowers.  There were plenty of trilliums, of course, but the only ones in bloom at the time were sweet Betsy (trillium cuneatum).  However, I spotted the elusive Jack-in-the-pulpit almost immediately after turning onto the trail.  We were also amazed at the numerous showy wild hyacinths and one small patch of perfoliate bellwort.  Ruffner in general was a riot of wildflowers — we saw the ones mentioned above, as well as vetch, white clover, Solomon’s seal, spiderwort, southern chervil, wood violet, and blackberry, to name a few.

I’m not entirely sure we traveled all of the Trillium Trail, but at one point we were within sight of the Nature Center so we went ahead and called it a day.  We had put in a 3.9 mile hike as a way to break up our trip from Georgia, and got to explore a side of Ruffner that was new to us. Though iron ore and quarry stone were the main products of this mountain back in its mining days, what remains is one carefully polished multifaceted gem.

Red-Blazed Stepchild: Bear Den Point Loop Trail

Ruth and I recently took a hike at Walls of Jericho on a sunny spring day on a weekend, and once we got on the trail, we never met another hiker.

Hang on a minute, you say.  Walls of Jericho is one of the most popular hiking destinations in north Alabama, and surely on a nice spring day there would be a couple hundred hikers on the trail.  There’s gotta be a trick — and indeed there is, and we weren’t even hiking on April 1.  I didn’t say we hiked to the Walls of Jericho.  Instead, we hiked a much-less traveled trail that leaves from the Alabama hikers’ trailhead parking lot for the Walls of Jericho — the Bear Den Point Loop Trail.

The tract of land generally referred to as Walls of Jericho is over 25,000 acres in extreme northern Jackson County, Alabama and Franklin County, Tennessee.  It’s a triumph of public land acquisition, through efforts of the Nature Conservancy and Alabama’s Forever Wild program, along with Federal grants.  The “Walls” themselves are a natural stone amphitheater with various water features, including pools and waterfalls.  We’ve done the hike to the Walls from both the Alabama and the Tennessee trailheads.  We also went back to visit the Mill Creek blowhole on the Tennessee side of the hike to the Walls, so suffice it to say we are big fans of this area.  If you’re new to the area, definitely do the hike to the Walls, from either the Alabama or Tennessee trailheads, but be warned that the climb out of the canyon is quite demanding.  You should allow at least six hours for the hike to the Walls and the return trip, if you’re of average fitness.

We knew from looking at the trail map that this hike wouldn’t go all the way from the top of mountain to the bottom of a canyon.  Instead, it looked like a modest 4.7 mile loop trail that might give a different perspective on this expansive acreage.  So we drove up U.S Highway 72 East toward Scottsboro, then turned north on Alabama 79 and continued for about 25 miles to reach the Alabama hikers’ parking lot.  It’s important to start this hike from the right parking lot — there are four of them associated with Walls of Jericho, and this is the second one on the left as you’re heading north.  Fortunately, it’s well-marked.  The gravel parking lot is large, with room for at least 40 vehicles, and there are porta-potties in one corner, and a kiosk in another, with a sign pointing the way to the trail to the Walls.

The first task at hand was to figure out where the Bear Den Point Loop Trail started.  The trail map seemed to suggest that one part of the loop started across the street from the parking lot, so we ambled over and had a brief look.  There was no trail sign on the roadside, but there is a yellow metal gate blocking an old roadbed.  We walked a few feet up the roadbed, but didn’t see any signage or blazes, so we retreated to the parking lot to have another look.  It turns out that the trailhead is well-marked on the north end of the parking lot, so we decided to travel the loop clockwise.

The first part of the trail, on the west side of Highway 79, is pretty undistinguished.  It’s a nice wide red-blazed path that roughly parallels the road, largely level for about .35 miles until it reaches a T-intersection at which we turned right to descend down the bank and cross the road.  The re-entry point on the eastern side is well-marked, with a sign and red blazes, so after crossing the road we immediately turned left to re-enter the woods.  The trail parallels the highway for about .1 miles before looping back to the southwest and retreating farther into the open hardwood forest.

At this point we were thinking this was a fairly unremarkable walk in the woods.  The trees were mostly oaks and hickories, oddly devoid of any evergreens.  There were practically no wildflowers, though there was one mountain azalea just beginning to bloom.  At about .7 miles into the hike, our opinions began to change as this red-blazed stepchild of a trail began to gradually reveal its charms.  The trail looped back toward the east and began a gradual descent, with exposed rocks of Bear Den Point rising to our right as we worked our way about around the point about 100 feet below its summit.  We began to hear water, and at 1.0 miles we reached a lively little creek, plunging down into Bear Den Hollow.  Stone steps led down to the creek, where we saw some long-spurred violets clinging to the rocks.  Across the creek, water seeped down a rock face, with the sun glinting off the tiny trickles.  Our first sighting of Quaker Ladies (also known as bluets) for this year was at the foot of this seep.

The pretty little creek and the wildflowers finally got the hike off to a proper start.  At this point the trail mostly leveled out, at times continuing along a wide former roadbed.  We crossed two more creeks, both easily managed.   The wildflowers were really on show in this stretch, from the 1.0 mile mark to about 1.7 miles.  Wild geranium bloomed here, as did star chickweed, rue anemone, wild blue phlox, spotted wintergreen (not in bloom at the time of our hike), crinkleroot (also known as broadleaf toothwort), hoary bittercress, and finally sweet Betsy, a trillium that we had spotted earlier on the hike but it wasn’t yet in bloom.  We also enjoyed the calls of wild turkeys, singing to each other across the hollow.  Or, it could have been turkey hunters singing to each other.  We don’t claim to be bird experts.

The trail is very well marked in this section, though you do have to pay attention as it sometimes follows an old road bed, and other times it narrows to a footpath.  As the trail turned to the south to skirt the eastern edge of Bear Den Point, the woods were particularly sunny and open.  Given that we were lower than the point itself, this didn’t make for good long-distance views, even though we were there before the spring leafout.  There were a couple more small seasonal creeks to cross, and a couple more wildflowers (wood vetch and false garlic) bloomed on this section of the trail.  There was also a luna moth lying on the trail that cooperated with some close-range photography.  Or, it might have been dead.  Either way, it was cooperative.

At about 2.1 miles, the trail begins to descend (about 200 feet in elevation over .5 miles), and at 2.6 miles the trail crosses a very visible former roadbed that once led from Bear Den Point to the top of Pruitt Ridge.  It’s tempting to turn onto this road, but a red blaze and a yellow directional angle beckon from straight ahead, so we crossed the road and continued on into the woods.  We had rounded Bear Den Point, and the trail turned to the northwest and continued largely level through the woods.  Again, the woods were very open in this section, though we did pass through a couple of cedar thickets.  The western side of the point seemed to get less sunshine, as we saw fewer flowers in bloom.  There were a few more seasonal creeks flowing, all easily crossed, with one particularly nice spring-fed creek starting on the right of the trail and disappearing into a natural culvert underneath the trail.  We spotted wood sorrel in bloom here.  One short stretch of trail had rock piles to the right.  We couldn’t make out an obvious foundation or the outlines of rock walls, but those stones were clearly intentionally placed there.  Given that the general area was level and near a creek, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was an old homestead.  We also saw one solitary early buttercup in bloom in the general area.

Though the trail is generally well-marked throughout, there are a few sections where you’ll need to pay close attention.  The trail will be trundling along a nice wide roadbed, then will sometimes depart into the woods with little warning.  The footbed is not terribly distinct in some places on the western side of the point, so pay attention!  If you discover that you aren’t seeing any blazes, backtrack to the last blaze that you saw and look carefully for the footbed.  We never felt that we were off the trail (well, we did once, but more about that later), but be careful about turning onto roadbeds that aren’t blazed in the first 50 yards or so.

At about 3.9 miles, shortly after one slightly confusing trail split, we came upon two creeks flowing down from the north and merging just below the trail crossing.  It was a lovely spot to rest and admire the dancing waters.  Upstream from the trail crossing, a little cascade flowed through the rocks to feed the creek.  Squaw root was in bloom here and nearby, farther along the trail.  We rested a bit and explored up- and downstream, snapping photos and guzzling water, for it had turned into a warm day.

It was a good thing that we stopped to recharge, because after this the trail has to recover some altitude.  The climb is a little steep — about 220 feet in altitude over .3 miles.  There are some stone steps to help with some of the steeper parts, but the trail tended to head doggedly uphill as opposed to using switchbacks to gain height.

Along the way, we once again crossed a small stream, and this time we heard a more insistent sound of rushing water off the left side of the trail.  We could just spot the top of a small waterfall, so we bushwhacked downhill to check it out.  Well, I bushwhacked, while Ruth found an easier route down a dry creekbed.  We met up at a little seven-foot waterfall, unnamed since it’s fed by an intermittent stream.  Though it was no giant, it threw off quite a welcome cooling spray.  It was at this point that our GPS receiver’s batteries gave up the ghost, so our GPS track is incomplete for this hike.  We estimate that the 4.7 mile distance listed on the trail map for the hike is accurate.

When we resumed the hike, we backtracked up the dry creek bed but somehow didn’t emerge onto the trail.  We split up to look for red blazes, and Ruth was the lucky winner.  We ended up on opposite sides of a narrow pocket, which I slowly descended to rejoin my partner.  It wasn’t a total goose chase, however — I did run into another blooming azalea along the way.

After a little more climbing, on a much more gradual incline, we reached the top of the point and could hear cars going by on Highway 79.  Minutes later the parking lot was in sight.  As we neared the road on the opposite side of the parking lot, a wooden sign pointing to the parking lot came into view.  From the sign we could see the yellow gate, so our instinct on where to start the hike had been correct.  Had we gone a little farther past the gate, we would have spotted the sign and the first red blaze.

Overall, this was a very enjoyable hike.  It’s not nearly as heavily traveled as the trails to the Walls, and as a result it’s not as well maintained.  There were several blowdowns we had to navigate, but the terrain and relative openness of the forest floor made this an easy task.  It has some very nice creeks and small cascades and waterfalls, though many of them will probably not be flowing in drier parts of the year.  We had hoped we might see Virginia bluebells (we had seen a report of bluebells on the trail to the Walls), but had no luck in that regard.  But, we did see 15 wildflowers on our hike, which was more than enough to qualify for some celebratory ice cream!

If you’ve done the Walls of Jericho and you’re looking for more hikes in the general area, check out Bear Den Point Loop.  Though it doesn’t have the showy payoff that you’ll find at the Walls, it offers solitude, a less physically demanding hike than the trek to the Walls, wildflowers, and at least one reliable creek.  Spring is probably the best season for a visit, though the hardwoods could bring a nice dash of fall color.

Try, Try Again: TVA Honeycomb Trail, Take Two

When my sisters and I were growing up on the farm, we spent a lot of time with our mother.  She was a sharecropper’s daughter, and could work any of us into the ground with no apparent effort on her part.  Along the way, she would dish out servings of motherly wisdom.  Sad to say, I’ve forgotten most of the words, but I remember one phrase she never failed to employ when any of us were frustrated by some task or puzzle:  “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”  She’d trot out that proverb in a sing-song voice to her eye-rolling audience, and we’d grit our teeth and give it another go, until we figured out how to solve the problem.

Those words have been chasing around in my brain ever since we had to bail on our attempt to hike the TVA Honeycomb Trail a couple of weeks ago.  The Honeycomb Trail is a relatively new trail that has been open for a little over a year, running from Guntersville Dam to the Honeycomb Campground just off Highway 431.  We didn’t have very good information about the trail and weren’t sure about its western trailhead, so we made an attempt at an east to west hike.  It didn’t work out as we planned, as we missed a key junction that would have taken us to the dam, so instead we just hiked in a circle.

It wasn’t a total waste, though.  We did some reconnoitering and figured out where the western trailhead was, so when a chance came up to try a long-ish hike we decided to try, try again.  One of Ruth’s co-workers who spends weekends at the campground offered to give us a shuttle back to the dam, so we opted to try our luck hiking west to east instead.

We drove to the north side of the dam and parked at a picnic pavilion by a (still-locked) bathroom.  Come on, TVA!  A brown plastic post is next to a gap in the trees next to the pavilion, and just a few feet afterwards, there’s a dirt road running parallel to the main road.  Turn to the right, and you’ll see another brown plastic post and, more to the point, a white blaze on a tree, and that’s the western trailhead of the Honeycomb Trail.

The trail begins with a climb of about .1 mile on a wide, dirt surface, well-covered in leaves.  Frequent white blazes make it easy to follow this section of the trail as it rises and undulates along a southern flank of Bishop Mountain.  The morning sun was bright as we climbed to the east and leveled out about 150-200 feet higher than the lake, sparkling below us through the trees.  Views aren’t particularly photogenic as a mix of pines and hardwoods to the right of the trail interpose, but you can see glimpses of Lake Guntersville and the dam.

At about .75 miles, the first of many dirt roads/paths takes off to the left.  We followed the white blazes to the right, which quickly led to another fork, with the blazes continuing to the right.  The trail then drops steeply toward the lake, then winds to the left and generally saunters down toward the water.  As we neared the water, we heard an almighty racket coming from the water, and I bushwacked down to the water to discover two Canadian geese were the culprits.  They were too far away to get a good photo.

Along this stretch, we applied our tree ID skills to a couple of unusual trees.  We knew that a toothed leaf clinging to a tree with a smooth, muscled trunk was likely an American hornbeam, and further comparison with a field guide confirmed our guess.  We also ran across an evergreen that resembled a holly tree, but had sharp spines on the twigs.  Probably the most useful thing we learned in our class is the type of details to look for in a tree — leaf arrangement, bark characteristics, what the flowers look like and when they bloom, leaf shape and size, overall size and shape of the canopy, inflorescence types — well, you get the idea.  We took photos and notes, and later identified the tree as a thorny olive.

Once we were down at lake level, the trail made its way along Hambrick Hollow, a long hollow that extends northward between two lobes of the mountain.  This segment of the trail is particularly wide and open, and resembles an old roadbed.  The land to the left of the trail is in private hands, and is marked with various ribbons, red blazes, and signs.  This area has several roads or tracks that descend the mountain down to the water, but if you keep the water to your right and follow the white blazes you’ll stay on the TVA property.

This stretch of the trail was our favorite part of the entire hike.  The waters of Hambrick Hollow alternated from deep green to bright blue, depending on whether you were looking into or out of the hollow.  Red maples on the bank were in bloom, with bunches of scarlet samaras popping against the water.

Eastern hophornbeam

The trail hugs the shore and passes under a power line cut (the same power line cut that we’ll cross at the end of the hike, miles later).  Before the power line cut, we spotted another unusual tree with shaggy, peeling brown bark.  It too had toothed dried leaves clinging to it, but had a different vein pattern and petiole compared to the hornbeam we had seen earlier.  We had a suspicion that it was an Eastern hophornbeam, and our notes and photos later confirmed it.  We’ve been wanting to spot this one in the wild, and it was really instructive to see hornbeam and hophornbeam trees within a quarter-mile of each other.

The Honeycomb Trail continued along the western side of Hambrick Hollow, with a metal bridge spanning a small channel coming in from the left.   As we neared the end of the hollow, the water to the right became shallow, and we started seeing a variety of wildflowers to the left of the trail.  Fire pink made an early appearance, and a bunch of common blue violets set up housekeeping in the bole of a tree, but the real stars of the show were the Sweet Betsy trilliums (trillium cuneatum), just bursting into bloom.  The northern side of the hollow was a trillium glade.  We had to watch our step as they spilled onto the trail.

At the head of the hollow, we crossed another metal bridge, and turned to the south to exit the east side of Hambrick Hollow.  A wildlife observation (or perhaps hunting) blind rose in the woods on private property to our left.  The trail then crossed under the power lines again, and shortly after that we heard a familiar racket — it was the geese again, who apparently had trailed us into the hollow.  Well, I can’t swear it was the same two geese, but they were certainly not shy.

At about .6 miles from the head of the hollow, a rusting hulk is visible to the left in the woods.  The trail turns to the left and begins to rise away from the river, and then passes the remains of a large truck.  In looking at maps later, it appears that the Honey Cemetery is in this general area, but we didn’t see any signage pointing to it.  Afterwards, the trail climbs sharply up an old roadbed for about .25 miles before drifting to the right and descending about 60 feet in elevation to run toward Honey Bluff.

This portion of the hike is probably in the Honeycomb Creek Small Wild Area, as the private property markings retreat from the edges of the trail.  We stopped for a lunch break before reaching Honey Bluff, and couldn’t help but notice a downy serviceberry in glorious bloom right next to the rock we were using as our picnic bench.  There were also plaintain-leaved pussytoes in the general area.

We continued on to Honey Bluff, reaching it at about the 3-mile mark in the hike.  The trail doesn’t actually hug the edge of the bluff, but there are nice views of the lake off to the right.  The trail then cuts back to the left, away from the lake, and undulates to the east.  Along the way, apparently it exits the small wild area.  There’s no signage, but private property red blazes appear on a tree.  At about 3.6 miles, the trail crosses a creek, the only significant one that we saw on this hike, but the crossing was easy.

The trail winds along to the east, generally level, wide, and well-graded.  At about 5.0 miles, I spotted a potential marker tree about 50 feet off the trail to the left.  Its “nose” had a bearing of about 82 degrees, generally to the east, but this area has been changed so radically as a result of Guntersville Dam that there is no telling what it originally may have marked.  A 1936 map of the area suggests that it could be generally pointing in the direction of the Honeycomb Creek-Tennessee River junction, but that’s just a guess.

At about 5.3 miles, the trail takes a sharp right turn and quickly descends to lake level again.  This initially confused us, as the trail seemed to double back toward the dam, but it was just seeking a good place to make the drop.  From here, the trail follows the shoreline, heading toward a reedy cove we thought was in the general vicinity of the section of the trail we had hiked previously.  We stopped to snap a few photos of rue anemone, one of the classic early spring wildflowers, and walked on toward the cove, known as Pumpkin Hollow, passing a small pond on the right.

The trail reached the grassy cove and turned to the left, working its way inland to skirt the edge.  This area has several tracks and old roads in it, but again we stuck to the white blazes and didn’t have any problems (yet).  The trail continued inland for about .15 miles before crossing a dry drainage, then abruptly climbing on the other edge of the hollow and rising above the lake.  We saw a few wood violets in this area.  We made one more descent to the lake, at a second, smaller reedy cove, before again turning inland and heading northeast.  Somewhere in this stretch of the trail, the white blazes disappeared.  We knew we were close to the junction of where the trail splits to circle around the knob that protrudes into Honeycomb Creek (the loop trail from our previous attempt), so we just stuck to the trail and in about .25 miles we came to the unmarked junction.  To our right, the white-blazed trail headed south and west to form the main part of the loop.  Straight ahead, the white blazes led through the woods back into familiar territory — the muddy clearing, the short patch of woods, the power line cut, and the final descent down into the parking lot at Honeycomb.  (The photo to the right shows the junction from the opposite view — we came up the route on the right of the picture.)  We had tried, tried again, and succeeded in completing the Honeycomb Trail, in a total distance of 7.9 miles, according to our GPS track.

All in all, the Honeycomb Trail is a pleasant walk in the woods, with a few elevation changes as you make a few transitions to view Lake Guntersville from on high and from the shoreline.  The footbed throughout was wide and level, with a natural surface of leaf litter and dirt in sections near the lakeshore.  There were a few places that could have used a light lopping, but overall the trail is in very good shape and is well drained.  It’s a long walk, especially if you don’t have a shuttle vehicle, but even a short section hike is worth your while.  We’d recommend hiking west to east, and if you want a shorter hike that gives you the general flavor without using a shuttle vehicle, start from the west trailhead and walk about 2.75 miles to the old truck in Hambrick Hollow.  Maybe you can find Honey Cemetery.  If not, you know what to do…try, try again.

Honey, I Shrunk the Trail

About 18 months ago we first caught wind of a new trail being developed by TVA in a Small Wild Area near Guntersville Dam.  We’ve since heard the trail has been completed, or at least mostly completed, and we’ve been waiting for a good weekend to try it out.  It’s a relatively long trail, with length estimates from 7.5 to 9.3 miles, so we needed a good block of time for the attempt.  We had even scouted out the trailheads on a previous trip in the area, so when a free Saturday with decent weather came along, it was time to strike!

The trail is known as the Honeycomb Trail because the eastern trailhead is in the Honeycomb community of Marshall County.  The trailhead is  just outside of TVA’s Honeycomb Campground and the trail runs along Honeycomb Creek, or what used to be Honeycomb Creek — the construction of Guntersville Dam in the late 1930s flooded the tiny creek, to the point that it’s pretty much indistinguishable from the Tennessee River at this point.  The western trailhead is reputed to be somewhere near the parking area of the north side of Guntersville Dam — we didn’t find it on our previous brief reconnoiter, so we decided to drop a shuttle vehicle at the dam, then drove to Honeycomb Campground to hike east to west.

We weren’t able to find an online trail map, but from looking at a map of the general area, it seemed pretty simple.  The trail would pretty much follow the shoreline of  Guntersville Lake, working its way southwest to the dam.  We figured there would be some meandering, but as long as we kept the lake on our left, we couldn’t get lost.

We parked in the gravel parking lot just outside the day use area for Honeycomb Campground.  There’s space for about four or five vehicles, just on the right before you come to the guard station.  A white-blazed trail departed from a corner of the parking lot, with a sign listing the rules and a kiosk with nothing in it but cobwebs.  The paucity of signage was a little off-putting, since TVA trails are usually better documented, but the trail is still somewhat under development.

The trail ascended on a good dirt footbed about .15 miles before coming to a power line cut.  Up to this point the trail was well blazed, but once we entered the open area there wasn’t any obvious route marked.  However, we quickly spotted a track skirting the open area on the left of the power line cut, and it was obviously cut back and maintained, so we followed it, dodging the blackberry canes that jutted out into the trail.  This stretch was not blazed at all, and when it opened into a clearing with piles of mulch, we were concerned that perhaps we should have explored the power line cut a little more.  A dirt road exited the clearing to the southeast, but Ruth scouted ahead and spotted white blazes ahead and to the left, in our original direction of travel.

The trail bent southward, re-entering the forest.  It climbed briefly, then stayed mostly level as it traversed a lobe of Bishop Mountain, bending back to the west before turning south again and entering a somewhat soggy clearing.  The route is a little unclear here, but if you continue south across the clearing you’ll come to a wide trail that resembles an old roadbed, with white blazes easily spotted to the southwest.  This particular stretch of the trail, about .8 miles into the hike, was really nice, through an open hardwood forest with plenty of early wildflowers blooming or about to bloom.  We spotted trillium (not yet blooming), false garlic, mayapple, and common blue violet in this stretch.

Not quite .1 mile from the soggy clearing, the route splits, with white blazes peeling off to the left and the old roadbed continuing straight.  We followed the blazes, which continued southwest toward the lake, which we spotted through the trees.   However, the trail continued south past a little cove and then slowly began to work its way back to the east.  I was too absorbed in snapping photos of the lake and navigating a rocky stretch of the trail to pay much attention to where we were heading, but Ruth soon called a halt.  She had noticed the lake was now on our right, which meant we were heading east.  We stopped to ponder this, looking at maps on our phones and confirming via the sun’s location that we were indeed not heading west toward our shuttle vehicle.  I sputtered about how it wasn’t possible — we hadn’t passed a junction leading to the west, and we hadn’t left the marked trail (there were plenty of white blazes).  Nonetheless, it was true.  Ruth surmised that we were on a loop that would wind back toward the Honeycomb Campground, and she was absolutely right.  We walked on around the point, bending back to the north, then to the northwest as the campground came into view below us.

This was an unexpected and unwelcome development.  Given that we weren’t certain where we had missed the turn, weren’t certain about the distance to the dam, and had already put about 90 minutes into the hike, we reluctantly had to accept that we couldn’t risk an attempt to complete the hike as planned, assuming we could even find the route.  At this point, the only option was to complete the loop to see where it rejoined our route, and to retrace the most likely section of the route to see where we had missed the turn to the west.  We followed the loop on around to the west, and found that it joined up at the old roadbed just south of the soggy clearing.  It will make more sense if you look at the GPS track.

Though it was too late to attempt to complete the hike, we decided to find the route for a future attempt.  We hiked the section from the soggy clearing along the roadbed to where the trail split from the roadbed.  We wondered if we were supposed to continue on straight, but immediately spotted a TVA boundary sign at the split, so we didn’t continue on the roadbed to avoid the possibility of crossing onto private property.  We knew the trail had to take off to the west somewhere in this segment, but we looked carefully and never saw any blazes or footpaths heading west.

Since we had never actually seen any signage that identified the trail we were on, we considered the possibility that we had lost the trail somewhere along the power line cut, so we backtracked and hiked the power line cut, but to no avail.  We then returned to the car, checking the stretch from the parking lot to the power line cut in case we had missed a turn there.   It was all to no avail.  It was as if the trail had been shrunk to only include a loop of approximately 3 miles.

Before heading back to the dam, we decided to check the campground office to see if they had a map of the trail.  It turns out they did!  It’s not complete, but it shows that indeed there is a loop portion to the trail, and that it should continue off to the west, following the lake shoreline back in the direction of the dam.  Even if we had picked up the map prior to our walk, I’m not sure we would have completed the hike to the dam since we were always on the trail but never saw the place where we were supposed to turn.

Bemused, we drove back to the parking lot on the north side of the dam and took a little more time to see if we could spot the western trailhead.  It was pretty easy to find — a trail heads into the woods from the picnic shelter next to the parking lot, and intercepts a wide cleared area (maybe an ATV road?).  Turn right (east), and the white-blazed trail is easily spotted about 30 yards away, heading north into the woods.  Humph.  Next time, we’ll start from the west trailhead!

Though it wasn’t the hike we planned, it was a nice walk anyway.  With all our backtracking, we put in around 4.6 miles on a cool day, and enjoyed some pretty views and wildflowers.  When TVA finishes work on the trail, including some interpretive signage (the area is rich in natural and archaeological features) and better marking of the trail junctions, and maybe a complete trail map in the kiosk, and blazing on all sections, it has great potential to be a “honey” of a hike.  But for now, beware its sting.

 

The Wild Frontier: David Crockett State Park

Davy, Davy Crockett! King of the wild frontier

David Crockett
David Crockett (source: Library of Congress)

I was just a little too young to catch the first big wave of Crockettmania when it crested in 1955. Walt Disney had taken the notion to produce a series of television programs on American heroes, and the frontiersman from Tennessee was his first subject. A miniseries of five hour-long episodes, Davy Crockett hit the highlights of David Crockett’s life, with the first three covering his early days as an “Indian fighter,” through his terms as a Tennessee and U.S. Congressman, and finally his death at the Alamo. They proved to be wildly popular, and later in the year, chronology and history be damned, episodes 4 and 5 were released as prequels with fanciful and fictional meetings between Crockett and legendary river boatman Mike Fink and non-historical river pirates. The first three episodes were edited together into a theatrical release, which was also wildly popular in the U.S. and Europe, and the last two episodes were also knitted together into a film. Disney repeated the TV episodes, now in color, in the 1960s when they switched networks to NBC.

It was a pop culture juggernaut. Consider this: the theme song, originally performed by The Wellingtons, made the Billboard magazine charts. With four different artists. AT THE SAME TIME. It was a number one record for Bill Hayes, with series star Fess Parker and Tennessee Ernie Ford also chalking up top ten hits, and Mac Wiseman also charted with a country version. When the films were released in Europe in 1956, Hayes and Ford also had top ten hits in the UK, and a French version by Annie Cordy made it to number one. As for The Wellingtons, though they didn’t make the charts with the Ballad of Davy Crockett, a few years later they sang another theme song that you may have heard of. It starts off, “Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip….” Yep, Gilligan’s Island.

Davy Crockett, the TV series and movies, were huge in terms of marketing and product tie-ins. Coonskin caps were all the rage, and Walt Disney literally made millions on the merchandise. He plowed much of it into paying for Disneyland, which opened in 1955, and The Mouse was roaring. Flush with success, Disney tried to replicate the Crockett success with miniseries on other larger-than-life folk heroes such as Elfego Baca and John Slaughter. You are not alone … I never heard of them either. No one quite took off like our hero in buckskins.

The legend of David Crockett looms large in these parts. Crockett was born in what is now east Tennessee in 1786, and gradually made his way westward, living for a time in modern-day Lincoln County in Tennessee, where his hunting grounds included the Walls of Jericho. In 1817 Crockett moved to 600-plus acres in Lawrence County, Tennessee, and established a grist mill, distillery, and other businesses until they were washed away in a flood in 1821. To commemorate that period of his life, during which he started his career in elected office, David Crockett State Park was created in 1959. We had noticed signs for the park on our trips to Nashville, and weather and schedule aligned recently so that could finally visit and pay our respects.

thumb_img_4685_1024We drove up after putting in a morning of trail maintenance on the perpetually-in-development Fleming Trail at the Wade Mountain Preserve. The drive to Lawrenceburg took around 90 minutes, much of it on US highways. We made a quick stop at the park office to pick up a free trail map. There are about 8.5 miles of hiking trails in the park, plus a 2.9 mile paved bike trail. After perusing our options, we fabricated a loop of sorts using two of the longer trails: the Trail of Tears Retracement Trail (2.5 miles) and the Shoal Creek Trail (1.4 miles).

03trailheadThe parking lot for the Trail of Tears Retracement Trail is just up the road past the park office, with a gravel parking lot off to the left just after you pass a ranger’s residence. The parking lot can accommodate five vehicles comfortably, with additional parking nearby at a picnic shelter. The trail leaves from the northwest corner of the parking lot, where two large interpretive displays set the scene. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 forced all Native tribes to abandon their native homes in the Southeast to make the arduous journey to the Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma. In 1838 660 Cherokee left from Fort Cass in present-day Charleston, TN, on a 700-mile trek to Evansville, Arkansas. The trip took around three months, and 23 members of the tribe died along the way. This trail covers part of the actual route they traveled.

04footbedThis trail is a portion of the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail. The Trail of Tears isn’t a single track from Point A to Point B. Various routes traversed nine states, including one route that passed through Huntsville (a portion of which is preserved in the Land Trust of North Alabama‘s Blevins Gap Preserve). This stretch in David Crockett State Park starts out as a level dirt surface on a ridgetop though a hardwood grove next to the park road. 05origsegment_signThis trail generally follows the historic route, and at times literally follows in the footsteps of the Cherokee for several segments, always marked at their beginning and end. I couldn’t help but think about how my boots were on the same ground as those deerskin moccasins were 179 years ago, and how my journey was for fun and that I would sleep in my bed at home that night, while every step the Cherokee took carried them farther from home into an uncertain future.

At .25 miles the blue-blazed Trail of Tears Retracement Trail crosses the purple-blazed Overlook Trail. 09homesiteThe first of four interpretive signs along the trail is located near here, depicting the journey through the town of Lawrenceburg. The Trail of Tears retreats away from the park road during this segment, passing some picnic shelters and through a patch of daffodils that probably mark an old home site with some foundation stones still in place. 11bench_cowviewJust before the trail bends back toward the road, a side trail leads to a bench where you can sit and contemplate the view to the west (a big cow pasture). Sharp-eyed Ruth also spotted a winged elm to the left of the bench — those tree ID courses are paying off!

13trail_by_roadThe trail now clings to the side of the road, with the aforementioned cow pasture off to the left behind a line of what we think are mockernut hickories. That fence has been there a while, as we noticed one tree that had completely enclosed the strands of barbed wire that were long-ago tacked to it. Two more interpretive signs describe the food sources for the Cherokee and David Crockett’s opposition to the Indian Removal Act. The Ballad of Davy Crockett, not exactly a paragon of historical accuracy, alludes to his position in the full version of the song:

He give his word an’ he give his hand
That his Injun friends could keep their land
An’ the rest of his life he took the stand
That justice was due every redskin band
Davy, Davy Crockett, holdin’ his promise dear!

15removal_interp_signCrockett, in his plain-spoken way, was more direct in his assessment, writing, “I believed [the Indian Removal Act] was a wicked, unjust measure, and that I should go against it, let the cost to myself be what it might.” This principled stand cost him his post in 1830, as his re-election bid was defeated, though he was later returned to the US House of Representatives for a second term. He died in 1836 in the Battle of the Alamo, and was spared the indignity of seeing the Cherokee marched across his former property in pursuit of the wicked, unjust measure.

17archery_rangeAfter the trail passes Campground 2, off to the right on the other side of the road, signs are attached to trees warning that an archery range is nearby. Now that’s a motivation to stay on the trail! The range didn’t have any archers when we walked by, but several backstops were set up and ready for action. The trail continues paralleling the road, passing through a stand of shortleaf pines, before taking a turn to the left, just before the park road bends to the right and splits to form a loop. The trail continues into the woods at this point, but instead of a dirt track it’s now a gravel road. After passing a group campsite with a portajohn, fire rings, and an ample supply of stacked firewood, the trail crosses a powerline cut, then re-enters the woods for about 100 yards before it ends at a fence, overlooking the cow pasture (and a hunting blind) again to the west. A final interpretive sign puts it into perspective — from this point, the Cherokee still had two more months of walking, through late fall and early winter, to reach their final destination. Our little afternoon stroll was 2.5 miles, and only took us a couple of hours.

As a hiking experience, the Trail of Tears Retracement Trail is an easy walk on a mostly level, well-tended earth surface. Its scenic quality is fairly low, though, since its entire length is next to a busy park road. The views aren’t great, but there are points of interest along the way. The real value of this trail is in its historic significance and as a reminder of an injustice perpetrated by the greedy and intolerant.

Our second trail was selected to be a change of scenery.  The Shoal Creek Trail is a creekside walk that begins at a parking lot in the north end of the park.  We retraced our route along the gravel road portion of the Trail of Tears Retracement Trail until we reached the paved park road, then walked down the road toward the park’s restaurant and swimming pool.  The restaurant overlooks Lake Lindsey, a large fishing lake formed by a levee.  After passing the levee, we continued on the road until we reached the Crockett Museum and bird aviaries.  The museum has a replica gristmill, and is built on a tributary of Shoal Creek in the general area of Crockett’s original buildings.  The museum was closed — it’s only open from Memorial Day through Labor Day — but there were several cages with very cool birds of prey.  We joined quite a few folks in admiring the red-shouldered hawk, barred owl, red-tailed hawk, barn owls, and great horned owl.

33crockett_fallsWe continued a little farther down the park road, crossing over a covered bridge (a modern replica) on the way to the parking lot for Crockett Falls.  Shoal Creek is about 40 feet wide at this point, and is also pretty shallow.  The creek tumbles over a small shelf to form a waterfall about two feet tall.  Frankly, it’s a little underwhelming compared to the Cumberland Plateau and Bankhead National Forest waterfalls we usually visit, but like its namesake, Crockett Falls has its own homely charm.

The northern trailhead of the green-blazed Shoal Creek Trail begins in the southwest corner of the parking lot for the falls, and it’s paved for the first 50 yards or so.  Then a set of steep steps climbs a hill to a picnic shelter and views of Shoal Creek.  The paved bike trail and the Fitness Trail intersect the Shoal Creek Trail in the vicinity of the picnic shelter.  We followed the green blazes along the hillside overlooking the creek, where the trail was mostly level until it steeply descended the hill and hugged the west bank of Shoal Creek.  The creek flowed merrily along to the south, still around 40 feet wide and relatively shallow.  The trail map said that we might see evidence in this stretch of old CCC-era roadbeds and remnants of brick buildings that once made up a mill, but other than one pile of stones that seemed out of place we didn’t notice any historical features.

47tributaryThe trail continued southward, crossing small tributaries along the way.  The first one we came to had a nice plank bridge.  The next one, which coincided with the intersection of a connector trail to the west, was crossed via stepping stones.  51trib_crossingBy the time we got to the third one, it was as if the trailbuilders had just said “the hell with it” and threw down some sticks to walk across.  There are four connector trails, marked with double green blazes and a white blaze at the intersections, that climb a small ridge to join up with the Overlook Trail (or the park road) along this part of the trail, so you can bail at various locations to form shorter loops.  We decided to walk the length of the trail all the way to Campground 1.  50footbedThe trail  follows the creek almost to its end, before it turns away from the creek and ascends the ridge via a stairway.  Once you’ve climbed the ridge, the campground comes into view, and the blazes eventually end at the southern trailhead for the Shoal Creek Trail, at the edge of one of the campground roads.  We walked up the campground road back to the main park road, then turned right and walked about 0.15 miles to return to the parking lot for the Trail of Tears Retracement Trail.  Accounting for our road walking and a little bit of backtracking, we had put in a 5.4 mile hike for the day.

24restaurantWe came off the trail around dinnertime, and drove down to the Crockett’s Mill Restaurant.  As we approached the restaurant, we spotted two deer standing by the side of the road.  They eyed us and the other cars warily, and one dashed across to safety while the other held its ground.  We finished the drive to the restaurant, changed into clean clothes (we were a bit filthy from the trail maintenance earlier in the day), and I enjoyed dinner from the buffet while Ruth ordered off the menu.  As we paid the check afterwards, I noticed a small pile of coonskin caps for sale in the restaurant lobby.  I was briefly tempted, but settled on a patch instead for the backpack.  As we drove out of the now-darkened park, Ruth noticed a raccoon scampering away from us along the side of the road.  You could certainly understand why raccoons would be skittish in this particular park!  (Though I suspect a related species, Procyon polyesteris, was hunted to make the coonskin caps for sale in the restaurant.  By the way, if you search Amazon for coonskin caps, a surprising number of listings claim to have real raccoon tails.  No wonder the little guy we saw was so motivated to get away!)

We enjoyed our day at David Crockett State Park, though I speculate that David Crockett would have had mixed feelings about The Legend of Davy Crockett.  It’s a boastful song full of sentiment and exaggeration, which might have amused him, but he would have taken exception to being called a king of anything.  He was born an American to a Revolutionary War veteran, and never served a king.  But I think he would have liked the bit about the wild frontier.