Way Leads on to Way: Lonesome Lake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

96the_basin

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

98bike_trail

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

Pass the Buck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Great ragweed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Home Sweet Homestead: Cumberland Mountain State Park

The stars and planets aligned for us recently, as the combination of a holiday weekend and good weather opened up the possibility of some hiking a little farther afield from the Tennessee Valley.  We had been looking for a good opportunity to take an ambitious hike (for us), and Labor Day weekend fit the bill for a trip to middle Tennessee to see some waterfalls up on the Cumberland Plateau.  Ruth will be telling you about that hike on a future post.  This week I’m the warmup act, here to tell you about a little curtain-raiser of a hike we took to get loosened up for the main event.

We loaded up the truck with our hiking gear, an overnight bag, and most important, Casey The Hound, and headed up to Crossville, Tennessee to visit Cumberland Mountain State Park.   We had a big hike planned for Sunday, so I was looking for a nice hike for Saturday afternoon to set the tone.  Cumberland Mountain State Park has over 13 miles of hiking trails, and after perusing the trail map, it looked like a big loop of the Pioneer Short Loop and Pioneer trails was just the ticket.

But first, a word about Cumberland Mountain State Park.   This park has an interesting backstory, as it was established as a recreation area for the Cumberlands Homestead Project.  In 1934 as part of the New Deal, unemployed and impoverished citizens on the Cumberland Plateau were invited to apply for one of 250 homesteads in the 10,000 acres purchased by the Federal government.  The lucky homesteaders, selected through interviews, were granted property, homes, barns, and outbuildings, and were paid for their efforts to improve on their properties and for their work in building and running communal buildings such as stores and schools.  Most repaid the government for their homesteads through sweat equity.  When the program ended in the 1940s, families were given five years to finish paying off their properties, and most did.  Of the 250 homestead houses built, over 200 remain standing in the area.  One is maintained as a museum, along with the administration building and its scenic octagonal tower.  I wish I had done this research before our trip, as we failed to look at any of this and drove straight to the trailhead.  As a result, we didn’t see some of the best known features of the park, such as its well-reputed restaurant and the Bear Trace golf course, and tragically, we didn’t take a good look at its iconic stone bridge/dam, the largest masonry project built anywhere in the U.S. by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Nope, we just blithely turned into the park, off U.S. Highway 127, drove over the bridge, and turned left and left again onto Cabin Drive, where we parked in a large paved lot.  The trailhead for the Pioneer and Pioneer Short Loop trails is in the southeast corner of the parking lot, with a sign and a kiosk marking the start of the trail.  Restrooms are located about 50 yards away to the northeast.

The Pioneer Short Loop and Pioneer trails are intersecting loop trails that skirt the borders of Byrd Lake and Byrd Creek.  The Pioneer Short Loop is 1.8 miles, starting from the parking lot, heading west along the shore of Byrd Lake and a short bit of Byrd Creek, crossing the creek on a suspension bridge, returning east along the other side of the creek and lake, and finishing with a pedestrian bridge over the lake back to the starting point (and boat launch area).  The Pioneer trail is tacked onto the western end of the Pioneer Short Loop, adding 2.55 miles along the banks of Byrd Creek.

Since it’s a loop trail, you can hike it in either direction.  We chose to hike counter-clockwise, heading west along the northern shore of Byrd Lake.  The lake was formed by damming Byrd Creek at that impressive masonry bridge.  The first .35 miles of the trail flank the lakeshore, about 40 yards away with the lake usually visible through the trees.  The natural trail surface is soft underfoot, cushioned by evergreen needles, with only occasional rocks and roots.  For the first .2 miles, park cabins are visible to the right, with short side trails down to the lake.  The trail is marked with white plastic trail markers and white paint blazes.  (If you like the fancy plastic trail markers, I have good news for you — they’re for sale in the park office!)

This first .35 miles of the trail was home to a variety of wildflowers, most of which we’d see in multiple locations along the way.  We spotted smooth aster, downy false foxglove, hearts-a-bustin, and the coral berries of false Solomon’s seal, along with other old favorites such as daisy fleabane, partridgeberry, and spotted wintergreen.

At .35 miles, the trail takes a bend toward the shore, emerging onto a large flat rock that provides a nice unobstructed view of the lake.  From this point, the trail narrows to single track, in one stretch passing through a rhododendron tunnel before opening up again toward the end of the northern leg of the Pioneer Short Loop.  The lake has been gradually narrowing until it has become a wide, slow moving creek.  The partridgeberry is particularly prominent in this segment of the trail, joined occasionally by small stands of downy lobelia.

At .9 miles, the Pioneer Short Loop and Pioneer trails intersect, with the Short Loop turning left and crossing Byrd Creek on a suspension bridge.  Though our route was to take us straight to continue onto the Pioneer trail, we couldn’t resist walking across the bridge and having a look at Byrd Creek.

After recrossing the bridge, we continued past the kiosk onto the green-blazed Pioneer trail.  The northern segment of the Pioneer trail runs 1.05 miles to South Old Mail Road, for the most part staying within sight of ever-narrowing Byrd Creek.  The trail crosses a couple of tributaries, bending briefly away from the main creek.  After the second one, about .3 miles from the suspension bridge, an unmarked side trail takes off to the left to emerge on the northern bank of the creek, to face an impressive rock overhang on the south bank.

IMG_6697

The weather had been a little overcast, as we had timed our hike to barely follow the remnants of Hurricane Harvey as it swept northeastward.  The overcast finally gave way to a light rain as we strolled along the narrow trail.  There was some compensation, though, as we started seeing the distinctive foliage of Indian cucumber root, with its whorled leaves with a pink or red center and dark purple berries at the center of the whorl.  The rhizome is edible, and reportedly tastes like, you guessed it, cucumber.  We didn’t try any, since we don’t forage on public lands.

At 1.05 miles from the suspension bridge, the Pioneer trail briefly emerges from the woods onto South Old Mail Road.  We turned left on the road, crossed the bridge over the creek, and plunged into the woods again on the left side of the road just past a clump of jewelweed.  The trail entrance can be a little difficult to spot, but a green plastic trail marker is visible on a tree.

We were at the return point on our super-loop, now heading back east along the southern bank of Byrd Creek.  The terrain is similar to the north bank, but this was our favorite part of the hike due to several rock overhangs and narrow passages.  This side of the creek is rockier than the north side, but only a few places required paying much attention to footing.  The overhangs were a good place to get a break from the rain, and the trailside boulders turned some segments of the trail into passages.  We identified two more wildflowers in the next half mile:  the showy cardinal flower and the less showy downy rattlesnake plantain.  The downy rattlesnake plantain is another easy-to-spot wildflower, with its distinctive basal evergreen leaves with prominent white veins.

The southern leg of the Pioneer trail veers away from Byrd Creek three times to cross tributaries on bridges.  The second and third bridges have striking features.  The second bridge is a narrow log bridge with small limbs for the treadway.  It looks like something the three little pigs might have put together, but it’s sturdy enough.  Casey, however, preferred to cross the creek on foot, which is unusual for him since he’s not usually bridge averse.  The next .8 mile, between the second and third tributary crossings, was notable for a small stand of mistflower, a narrow “fat man’s squeeze,” a fairway of the Bear Trace golf course off to the right of the trail, and an odd shingle-covered bridge over the third tributary.

At 1.5 miles from South Old Mail Road, we came to the southern intersection of the Pioneer/Pioneer Short Loop trail, with the suspension bridge off to the left and another kiosk straight ahead.  The trail blazes and markers changed back to white, as we had completed the Pioneer trail and were now closing the southern leg of the Pioneer Short Loop.  Byrd Creek continued its transition into Byrd Lake along this stretch, with several nice views of the water off to the left.

At .9 miles from the suspension bridge, the Pioneer Short Loop trail crosses a small tributary on a plank bridge and the final pedestrian bridge is visible ahead.  We strolled across and made our way past the boat rental area up some steps past the restroom, back to the parking lot.  After a short rest, we followed the sound of music over to the patio near the restaurant, where the Foxfire Newgrass Band was playing 60s and 70s pop songs, bluegrass-style, with some classic bluegrass and spirituals thrown in.  They were great crowd-pleasers, canvassing the audience between songs to find out where we were from and taking a request from a gentleman who was celebrating his birthday.  My favorite moment occurred during a rendition of “Rocky Top,” when a band member interjected a “Roll Tide” between a chorus and a verse.  This was, of course, a nod intended for Ruth and me, though as former Tennessee residents we both internally cringed at the blasphemy of tossing an Alabama cheer into the iconic University of Tennessee song.  (No offense intended, Alabama fans — imagine how you’d feel if someone improvised a line from “Rocky Top” into “Sweet Home Alabama.”)  The lead singer started the next verse, but accidentally started repeating the previous verse.  He stopped singing in confusion while the rest of the band played on, laughing at him.  He recovered nicely, starting the next verse correctly after observing, “That Roll Tide threw me off.”

All in all, it was a very nice 4.4 mile warmup hike.  The terrain is mostly flat and the trail surface is mostly level.  This would be a good trail for beginning trail runners, and the two interlocking loops make it possible to tailor the hike to a shorter 1.8 miles if you just do the Pioneer Short Loop.  The hike took us a little under 3 hours, and we even had enough energy left to catch a show at the Cumberland County Playhouse that evening after checking in with our friends Cindy and Dale, who had graciously offered to house us and dog-sit Casey during our more challenging hike planned for the next day.  Our Labor Day weekend was off to a great start!

Somnis Catalans: Catalan Dreams

Yep, there’s no doubt about it — we’re in the summer doldrums.  With the hot temperatures and work and social demands, we weren’t able to fit an outdoor adventure into our schedules this past weekend.  Once again, we’ll have to ask your indulgence as we present instead a summer re-run of a hike we took at a point in the past.

Usually, we focus on trips in the Tennessee Valley or just outside it, with the hope that our local readers will be inspired to try a hike or a float or zipline in the area.  However, one of the best things about hiking is building memories of an experience, memories that you can relive at times when you’d rather be outside but you’re stuck inside doing something else.  Or you’re feeling the wanderlust, but it’s raining buckets or you’re snowed in or the air outside is hotter than the Devil’s chili peppers.  The great thing about adventure is that you live it more than once — the first time when you experience it, and the other times when you relive it.

This particular walk has been on my mind ever since I heard about the recent terror attacks in Barcelona.  We were lucky enough to visit the Catalan capital in spring of 2012 while our daughter was there on a study abroad program, and we loved every minute of it (well, except for the Barcelona fútbol team losing every match it played while we were in the country).  Megan took us to some of the city’s highlights.  We walked down La Rambla, and drank from the Font de Canaletes, which if tradition is to be believed means that we will return to Barcelona.  We took in the fantastic architecture of Antoni Gaudí, including what is now my favorite structure on Planet Earth, his Sagrada Familia church.  We walked in various districts, admiring the old city, the churches, the beach, the markets, the plazas.  It struck me as a lively, friendly, cheeky city, and reading about the attacks, including a (thankfully, foiled) plot to set off explosives near the Sagrada Familia, left me feeling sad at the loss of life and the cynicism behind such an assault on a lovely city with lovely people.

Megan, smart young woman that she is, knew that as great as Barcelona is, her parents would be pining for a bit of greenery after a while, so she planned a trip to Montserrat while we were there.  Montserrat is a rocky ridge about an hour by train northwest of Barcelona.  The word “Montserrat” (literally, serrated mountain) is variously used to describe the mountain, the abbey, the basilica, and the national park, all in the same general location.  Montserrat is the spiritual heart of Catalonia, with a still-functioning monastery founded in the 10th century.  It’s a spectacular setting, and just getting there is a little bit of an adventure, as you take the train to a station at the foot of the mountain, then either take a cable car or a funicular to the top.  We opted for the funicular (one of the steepest in Europe), and found that the combination of the roughly 4,000 foot altitude, spring temperatures, gusty winds, and low clouds  made for cooler conditions than we had planned for.  After getting a sweatshirt at the gift shop and a warm lunch at the cafeteria, we toured the Basilica.  I’ll spare you all the details of what we saw, but I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.   The Basilica itself is a reconstruction from the end of the 19th century, as the original Gothic building was severely damaged in the Napoleonic Wars.

Having seen the indoor sights, it was time to explore the mountain itself.  There are several walking paths along the mountaintop, and we chose to take a 7 km loop hike to the highest point, Sant Jeroni (St. Jerome).   The trail begins at the top of another funicular, which rises another 600 feet above the monastery.  The trail itself was well marked and easy to follow, consisting at first of a wide, gravel path.  There were three really striking elements to the walk, evident from the very beginning:  (1) views down to the monastery and the plains below; (2) the pink conglomerate that the mountain is formed of (so different from our limestones, sandstones, and shales); and (3) the fantastic rock formations eroded by wind and water to be seen on all sides of the trail.

The trail itself was easy.  Since we started pretty much at the top of the mountain, the trail was largely flat until the approach to Sant Jeroni.  Along the way, twisted, weathered rock formations rose on either side of the trail.

After crossing a small stream on a wooden bridge, we climbed up a steeper, more wooded section of the trail until we reached the simple Sant Jeroni’s chapel.  From here, a paved trail ascended to the highest point of Montserrat, where under optimal circumstances one can see most of Catalonia, from the Pyrenees to Mallorca.  As you can see in the photo below, it wasn’t optimal conditions.  In fact, it was a complete whiteout, with howling winds and an air temperature around 40 degrees Fahrenheit (not counting the wind chill).

We didn’t hang around at the summit for very long.  Our return route had us retrace our steps back to the little bridge, at which point we took a different branch of the trail to return down the spine of the mountain, with more amazing views.  As an added bonus, there were several showy spring wildflowers in bloom.  Finally, as we neared the end of the trail, a steep (and long) set of stairs returned us to the monastery.

It was a grand day out!  The hike was relatively easy (except for the StairMaster workout at the end) and short, but packed in fascinating scenery, geology, and flora along the way.

It strikes me that this hike began with a visit to a church, where we viewed the Virgin of Montserrat, a venerated statue of one of Catalonia’s two patron saints.  La Moreneta, as the 12th century carving is nicknamed, has been inspiring the faithful to make the pilgrimage to Montserrat for hundreds of years.  About an hour by train to the southeast, the people of Barcelona got up the day after the terrorist attacks, made a new shrine to the victims on the paving stones of La Rambla, and then packed the street in a show of “business as usual.”  You can call it defiance — but I call it faith.

Horton Hears a Cicada: Henry Horton State Park

The first weekend in August was relatively cool, by Alabama blast furnace standards, so it seemed like we might get in a hike.  Our schedule was fairly open, so I pitched a couple of ideas to Ruth for hikes in somewhat nearby state parks.  Neither park was particularly known for its trails, but in the end Ruth was intrigued at the prospect of a hike at Henry Horton State Park, near Chapel Hill, Tennessee.  The clinching argument was that some previous hikers had mentioned in online reviews of the park that they had seen turtles.  Ruth loves her turtles, so we hopped in the car and made the 90-minute drive north in search of terrapins (or tortoises — either will do nicely).

The drive, made mostly up Interstate 65, was uneventful.  The park is about 12 miles to the east of the interstate, but our Google-suggested route skirted Lewisburg, TN before putting us on alternate U.S. Highway 31, which leads into the park.  Henry Horton State Park was built in the 1960s on the farm of a former governor of Tennessee.  Henry Horton was governor from 1927-1933, having succeeded to the position when the previous governor died in office.  The park bearing his name is undergoing a bit of a renaissance, as its facilities had suffered from benign neglect for years, and the park was even closed for a while during the recession.  Its golf course and campground have been recently renovated, and the park also has a popular restaurant and a skeet shooting range, among the other usual park amenities.  The centerpiece of the park is the Duck River, which bisects the park as it flows westward to eventually empty into the Tennessee River.

The park has over 10 miles of hiking trails, most of which are rated as easy.  We opted to put together a 4-5 mile loop on the western side of the park.  Most of the trails at Henry Horton are loops of various distances.  We decided to hike the majority of the Hickory Ridge Loop trail, which is actually two linked loop trails, and then travel a portion of the River trail to return to our starting point.  The River trail is actually an elongated lollipop, with a loop on the western end, so we thought we’d get a taste of at least two different environments.  You’ll definitely want a trail map before hiking here.

We drove through the center of the park, then crossed the Duck and turned left onto River Road and drove to the campground and parked at the camp store.  The campground bathhouse is nearby, in case you need to take care of any business before setting out.  The trail starts to the right of the camp store, where it enters the woods briefly before crossing River Road.

The first little taste of the trail, before we crossed River Road, was promising.  There were a couple of tree identification plaques well-placed before some interesting specimens, such as the honey locust and persimmon trees.    The trail was flat and wide, and was somewhat confusingly marked with yellow paint blazes, orange paint blazes, and orange aluminum trail markers.  The trail map shows this little connector trail, which runs from the store to the parking lot to a point on the loop, in yellow, and the Hickory Ridge Loop trail is marked in orange on the map.  It’s easy to follow, and we were only in the woods for a few yards before we crossed the road into a parking area and another trailhead.  This second trailhead seems more official, because it has a kiosk with a trail map and other useful information.  It is an option to park there instead of in the campground, if there is no parking at the campground.

This eastern section of the Hickory Ridge Loop trail is called the inner loop on trail signage.  The trail is wide and flat, and at about .15 miles from the camp store tees into the inner loop.  Somewhat oddly, a brown directional sign points to the left, implying you must travel clockwise, but it’s a loop so you can go in either direction.  We wanted to get in a few miles and improve our chance of seeing turtles, so we opted to travel the loop counter-clockwise instead.  The trail at this point is blazed with orange paint and orange metal trail markers.

The Hickory Ridge Loop trail’s distinguishing feature is that it passes through a karst landscape.  The underlying land is primarily limestone and other water-soluble rocks which wear away to create sinkholes and caves.  The trail’s surface is packed dirt, with some roots and occasional rocks, and footing was good.  We were there during a short dry spell, and the trail was dry for most of its length (at least the parts we traveled).  Also, don’t let “Hickory Ridge” make you think that you’ll be making any significant climbs or descents.  Hickory Ridge must be a very gradual and subtle ridge indeed, as this trail is basically flat.

After .45 miles, we reached the junction with the Hickory Ridge outer loop.  Since the Hickory Ridge Loop trail is in essence a figure-eight, you can structure hikes of various lengths, from as short as 1.5 miles to around 2.5 miles or slight longer.  We opted to take the outer loop, so we continued straight ahead instead of turning left to continue the inner loop.

The outer loop is also blazed orange, but the paint blazes occur in pairs, one above the other.  The inner loop has single orange blazes.  We noticed that the blazes here are also old school — they are literally gouged into the trees with a machete or axe, then are painted.

This section of the trail is one of the better ones for summer wildflowers.  We spotted Virginia dayflower, low wild petunia, white leafcup, and southern wild senna as the trail continued westward and began to turn to the southwest.  There’s a small spring on this part of the trail, which was damp and muddy at the time of our visit.  Ruth glimpsed a shy frog as it took cover nearby, and we saw the last remnants of a couple of tall bellflowers.

My favorite part of this trail occurs at about one mile into the loop portion, as the trail enters an open area which shows signs of having been cleared at some point in the past.  The abundance of sunlight spurred the growth of several wildflowers here — flowering spurge, narrowleaf vervain, more low wild petunias, white crownbeard, and a few lovely little rose pinks.

The trail is easy to follow through the open area — just follow the shallow ruts until the trail re-enters the woods.  This section of the trail is very close to the park’s western border, near a very active railroad line.  We could hear the muted roar of a nearby lawn mower, but once we were back in the trees the man-made noises took a back seat to the droning of the cicadas.

Wingstem

The trail turns back toward the east, crosses a footbridge over a small (on our hike, dry) creek, and again enters an open area right before the junction of a connector trail leading to the River trail and the continuation of the outer loop, now heading north.  This sunny, dry area has a few prickly pears growing trailside, with some seven-foot wingstems looming nearby.

We took the connector trail to the south, which for the next .2 miles is neither fish nor fowl, not being part of the Hickory Ridge Loop trail or the River trail.  As a result, it’s blazed in bright blue paint and marked with orange trail markers.  Just before crossing River Road, the trail briefly parallels a stone wall, a remnant of a property line or a reminder that this was once a working farm.

After the connector trail crosses River Road, it winds through an open cedar glade as part of an old roadbed, passing brown-eyed Susans, ox-eye daisies, and common fleabanes, representing the asters, and small red cedars and winged elms.  After .2 miles, the connector trail tees into the loop portion of the River trail, now blazed blue with green aluminum trail markers (it’s marked as green on the trail map).  Again, we opted to hike counter-clockwise around the loop, since it looked like the trail would be at the top of a small bluff when the Duck River would come into view.

The River trail loop made its way southwest through a scrubby forest, passing an old roadbed or trail blocked off by a couple of posts.  After crossing a couple more dry creekbeds on footbridges, we passed the intersection with the Wetlands trail about .2 miles into the River loop.  We skipped the Wetlands trail for this visit because the weather had been so dry lately, and continued on the River loop.

The trail began to gently rise as it entered a slightly more mature forest.  This segment of the trail passes three backcountry campsites.  We detoured into campsite 2, which was pretty swanky for a backcountry site.  It had two fire rings, benches, and a privy.  We didn’t visit the other two sites, but I expect they are pretty similar.

After passing the last campsites, the trail bends to the southeast and descends toward the Duck River.  Just as you begin to glimpse it through the trees, an observation deck rises 20 feet above a wetlands plain.  We climbed to the top and looked over the empty field while eating our lunch and speculating that this would be a good place to spot deer and turkeys.

We didn’t linger long.  There were no benches, and there were no deer or turkeys to be seen (or turtles, as Ruth pointed out).  We returned to the trail, which quickly intersected with the other end of the Wetlands trail, and continued on eastward on the bank of the Duck River.  Our plan was to leave the River trail loop at this point and to continue east on the River trail (the stick portion of the lollipop), but a misleading sign led to us taking a wrong turn.  The sign pointed to a “trail” but didn’t explicitly say that this was the continuation of the River trail loop.  We just saw “trail” and took it, even though we quickly noticed that the trail was turning away from the river.  We saw some hikers close to the riverbank and thought they were on an unofficial trail, so we just went on our merry way.  It was actually a pretty section of trail — shaded and speckled with more yellow senna, rose pink, and some Carolina buckthorn trees with pale red berries.  However, when we closed the loop, .85 miles later near River Road, Ruth figured out what we had done.  There was nothing for it — we could either go on back to Hickory Ridge and finish that loop, or backtrack to finish along the river, as planned.  We had put in a long day of projects the day before, and the prospect of hiking .85 miles (times two!) more than we had planned left us less than pleased.  I decided that we wouldn’t really have a good sense of the park without hiking along its centerpiece river, so we retraced our steps back to the river.   Since the loop and the trail along the river are considered the same trail, both are marked the same.  It might be worth considering making the loop portion of the River trail a separate trail, with different markings.

After returning to the river, we turned northeast and headed upstream.  The trail is on the riverbank, but is usually not that close to the water.  There are plenty of places to get a glimpse of the water, and we tried to find side trails to get closer to the water (and any turtles), but we didn’t have much luck.  However, we got a terrific consolation prize in the form of one of our showiest wildflowers, the Carolina spider lily.  We saw just the one specimen, but it was spectacular!

After walking about .85 miles along the river, we finally spotted a side trail and climbed down to the bank to get a good view of the Duck River.  It was wide and fast-flowing at this particular spot.  We could hear folks splashing upstream just around a bend, where there is a ramp suitable for launching canoes and kayaks.  The park often offers guided and overnight trips on the river, and there’s a concession where you can rent a tube for a lazy float.

From this point, we just continued down the trail until we took a pink-blazed side trail into the campground, where we then just took the road back to the camp store to complete our hike.  All told, we covered 5.0 miles according to our GPS track.  The hike had its highlights and lowlights.  With no waterfalls and no mountain views, Henry Horton State Park is not particularly a hiking destination.  But if you’re there on a golfing trip, or live in the area, it’s well worth spending some time on the trails.  I’m not sure I’d recommend a 90-minute drive from Huntsville when there are better hiking destinations a bit to the east at South Cumberland State Park, but Henry Horton has plenty of charms to recommend it.  We’re already eyeing a return visit for a float trip on the Duck.

But the pressing question, which you are no doubt asking, is, “What about the turtles?”  Despite looking high and low, in karst woodlands and along the river bank, we saw nary a one.  But we did a pretty good job of identifying wildflowers, so we stopped at the Dairy Queen in Lewisburg on the way home.  I had an M&M blizzard.  And Ruth…she had a turtle pecan cluster blizzard!  So she found a turtle, of sorts, after all.

Cooler than Cool: Stephens Gap Cave

We’re in the toughest part of the year for our modest little outdoors blog — the blazing hot center of the Alabama summer.  Every week when we plan where we’re going for our next adventure, we take a peek at the weather forecast.  We’ve got a list of hikes and floats we’d like to do, but when we see predicted heat indices over 100 degrees, it’s hard to get motivated to do anything other than lounge around in the air conditioning.   Sometimes that sounds pretty nice, but would make for one heck of a dull blog post.  So instead, we start thinking of ways to be cool outdoors.  And two of the best ways to cool off during the summer are either to get close to a waterfall or to get into a cave.  For our adventure this week, we decided to do both, and paid a visit to Stephens Gap Cave.

Stephens Gap Cave is protected by the Southeastern Cave Conservancy Inc., a nonprofit organization that acquires and protects caves in six states.  SCCi currently has 30 preserves and manages 170 caves.  Faced with decreasing access to recreational caves due to development, habitat threats, and liability fears of landowners, a grassroots group of southeastern caving enthusiasts banded together in 1991 to purchase caves and at least some of the overlying property.  According to their website, SCCi’s mission is “to conserve caves to preserve areas of scenic beauty, provide recreational access and opportunities, protect cultural and biological resources, and support scientific research.”

It’s no secret that North Alabama is a hotbed of spelunking opportunity, and it’s no coincidence that Huntsville is the headquarters of the National Speleological SocietyBut I was still surprised to find that 11 of the 30 SCCi preserves are in north Alabama!  Cave exploration is a very popular hobby in the area.  Ruth and I would not describe ourselves as cave explorers.  She isn’t fond of tightly enclosed spaces.  Back in the day, I enjoyed crawling around in East Tennessee caves, but now I occupy more space than I used to.  Still, we enjoy touring developed caves, such as the ones in Cathedral Caverns State Park and Rickwood Caverns State Park.  After perusing SCCI’s list of preserves, Stephens Gap stood out for one particular reason — it has a walk-in entrance.  We don’t have the gear or the knowledge to rappel into a pit, but we have legs, hiking poles, boots, and a healthy aversion to falling off ledges or into holes.

I’m not going to tell you exactly where Stephens Gap Cave is located, other to say it is in the vicinity of Woodville, Alabama.   There’s a reason for this — because the cave is protected by a conservancy, there are reasonable restrictions placed on visitation.  SCCi preserves require a free permit, which is easily requestable online via the SCCi website.  For some preserves, you can even request the permit for a same-day visit.  Most permit requests are reviewed and granted within 48 hours.  I requested our permit on a Saturday evening for a Sunday visit, and had it approved in about 30 minutes.  I wouldn’t venture to say the SCCi will always be that prompt, but these are some accommodating folks.  They want you to visit their caves, and even better, they want you to come back from their caves with a greater appreciation of these natural wonders.  The permitting process was easy and convenient, and the information that came with the permit about where to park and how to access the cave was extremely helpful.

We arrived at the spacious gravel parking area with the mid-morning sun already beating down on us.  The trailhead was prominently marked, and a narrow single-track trail promptly entered the woods.  The trail was well-maintained, and for about .4 miles it was largely level, passing through a power line cut and proceeding up into a hollow where it crossed and paralleled a dry creekbed.

The trail was easy to follow, with yellow trail markers and occasional yellow ribbons leading the way.  There were also quite a few wildflowers in bloom or identifiable by their leaves, such as brown-eyed Susan, sweet-scented Joe Pye weed, yellow leafcup, white-flowered leafcup, naked flowered tick trefoil, hepatica, St. Johnswort, fleabane, and wild hydrangea, to name a few.

There were a couple of annoyances on the lower part of the walk, however.  We were barely into the woods before the first of approximately one million gnats started buzzing around us.  Two coats of insect repellent didn’t faze them.  But the bigger annoyance was a light rain that appeared out of a clear blue sky.  Regular readers of the blog know I’m no fan of walking in the rain, but the real problem with the rain was the possibility it would make the trail and the cave entrance slippery.  To get the visit permit, you have to read and acknowledge a number of warnings about visiting the cave.  You can’t blame the SCCi for being careful — there are a lot of jackasses out there, and caves seem to attract them.  Still, a phrase about how the “so-called walk-in entrance” could get slick and dangerous when wet stuck in my mind.  All the disclaimers and waivers pretty much carry a subtext of “enjoy your visit, but you are quite likely to die here.”  We had started the hike on a hard-packed earth surface, but as the rain continued a little voice in the back of my head said quietly in an air of resignation, “Ah, so this is how it ends.”

Fortunately, the rain stopped a few minutes later.  The trail continued another .4 miles or so, following the creek and slowly rising up the hollow past walls of rock, until it took an abrupt turn to the right and climbed steeply.  The trail narrows and splits in this section, with the path to the walk-in entrance peeling off to the left, and a path to a pit entrance higher on the mountain continuing straight ahead.

Just a few dozen yards after the trail split, the walk-in entrance to Stephens Gap Cave looms off to the left, with a waterfall dropping through a 143-foot pit entrance to the right.  The combination of the hot air and the water-cooled air created a dramatic mist around both entrances.  The effect is breathtaking.

The walk-in entrance isn’t exactly a paved ramp, and hasn’t been engineered to make it easy to climb down into the cave, but we were able to carefully pick our way through the rocks, using our hiking poles for stability.  Once we got within about 20 feet of the entrance, a welcome wave of cool air greeted us.  Even before we went into the cave, Ruth turned to me and said, “This is worth it,” and I agreed.  While she went on ahead into the walk-in entrance, I made the discovery that I had left some of my photo equipment at work where it was needed for a project, and long and bitter were my curses.  But I broke out the emergency tabletop tripod and made the best of it.

The walk-in entrance descends into the cave at not too steep an angle, though the surface is rocky and increasingly damp as you go farther into the cave.  We didn’t find it too be slick, and the cave is relatively well-lit given its two large entrances.  The sun streamed in through the ceiling entrance, creating shafts of light that constantly shifted as clouds passed overhead.

The walk-in entrance leads down to a ledge that bends away to the right, but also slopes down to the left where a small waterfall erupts from the wall.  Jutting out from the ledge, a pedestal is seemingly spotlit, rising 30 feet from the bottom of the pit.  With the sound of rushing water echoing all around, it’s a magnificent setting worthy of a swords and sorcery film.  Which in fact, it was, as there was a trio of college students shooting a school project on the pedestal while we were there.  I don’t know how the film will turn out, but I give them an A+ for location scouting.

We stayed in the cave about an hour, soaking up the literal and figurative coolness before we reluctantly left Middle Earth and clambered our way back to the surface of the sun and retraced our steps back to the parking area.  We were a soggy mess by the time we got there, but let me tell you, for an hour we were the coolest kids in Alabama.

We’d recommend Stephens Gap Cave for most hikers, with the caveat that you must obtain a permit and avoid visiting after (or during) periods of heavy rain.  We didn’t bring any light sources, but didn’t really need them in the area around the walk-in entrance.  However, if you plan on exploring the cave, you’ll need light sources, helmets, and proper equipment.  The area around the walk-in entrance has dangerous dropoffs of 30 feet or more, and of course the nearby pit entrance is a 143-foot drop.  There have been three fatalities in this cave in the past 17 years, so please be careful!  But if you’ve got good footwear and know your limitations, this is one of the best payoffs you’ll ever get for a hike under one mile.

Three Within Thirty: Short Hikes to Cool Places in the Bankhead National Forest

We’ve had a lot of rain around here recently, so when it was my turn to pick our hike I thought it would be a good idea to see groundwater at its most photogenic — in the form of a waterfall or two.  And when you think of waterfalls in North Alabama, one place springs to mind immediately — the Bankhead National Forest and its Sipsey Wilderness.  It’s been too long since we’ve been to the Bankhead, which regularly tricks us into ten-mile hikes and tries to kill us on every visit.

But I had a plan for this trip — instead of throwing down a single long hike, I planned three short hikes to places just a little off the beaten path.  All three are well-known to the locals, but we’ve never visited them.  The theme of our trip: three within thirty, or three hikes to cool places no more than thirty minutes from where you parked.

We took our usual route to the Bankhead, following the interstate down to AL-36 in Hartselle, and then followed AL-36 west through Danville until it teed into AL-33.  We took AL-33 into the National Forest and turned right onto Cranal Road, the route to three different trailheads in the Sipsey Wilderness.  However, our destination was Mize Mill Falls, which isn’t reached from one of the official Forest Service trails.  We passed the Sipsey Recreation Area, crossed the bridge over the Sipsey River, and parked on the south side of Cranal Road at the first dirt road, about a half-mile past the bridge.  There’s room for three or four vehicles here on the road shoulder.

The trail starts on the north side of Cranal Road, across from the dirt road.  Since this isn’t an official trail, there is no signage marking the trailhead — only a couple of orange ribbons hanging from trees flanking a narrow passage into the forest.  I had read that this trail was a little dodgy, so it was a pleasant surprise to find it had a well-established footbed, descending about 20 feet and bending to the right.  The trail was narrow and a bit rooty and rocky during the descent, but quickly leveled off and widened as it passed through a shady hemlock grove.  We could hear the sound of rushing water from where we parked the car, and when the trail leveled out Turkey Foot creek was off to the left, with the water now sounding like a gentle roar.

We wandered over to the sound of the water and looked down into a small canyon onto the top of Mize Mill Falls.  Turkey Foot Creek passes through a tight spot here and drops around 20 feet to the canyon floor.  We could tell it was a little beauty, and were eager to get to the bottom for a better look.  We returned to the trail, dodged over/under a few small fallen trees, and reached an apparent end of the trail.  However, the trail takes a sharp left here and heads downhill for another short, rocky stretch before leveling out after descending another 20 feet or so.

The trail again seemed to stop above a cleft between two boulders, but the only way to proceed here is down.  It’s only a drop of about eight feet, with good handholds and footholds, and to make things easier there’s a rope you can grab.  After getting to the bottom, at a lower level on the canyon wall, a small bluff stretches off to the right, with a trail along the bottom.

We could see the creek was just about 15 feet below us, and we had one more descent to make, with the lower reaches of the canyon wall to one side and a drop-off on the other.  The route here is narrow and requires some care to navigate.  We brought hiking poles with us, and we were glad of it.  As I was picking my route to start the final descent, I planted a pole, picked out where to step, and lifted a foot in preparation.  And then….

In all of our hikes, only once have we seen a venomous snake, and that was only after someone pointed it out to us, well off the trail.  This would be our first close encounter, as my next step would have landed squarely on this copperhead.  Fortunately for both of us, I spotted it in time and was able to hop backwards while shouting, “Snake! Snake! Snake!”  There wasn’t really any way around it, so we watched it for a few minutes and snapped some photos and video.  The snake figured out we weren’t prey, and it wasn’t prey either, so it calmly and slowly slithered off to the side to hide under a tree trunk, and I slipped on past and made the last climb down into the bottom of the canyon.  Ruth followed suit, and we crossed the creek on stepping stones, then turned left and walked into the natural bowl filled by the gorgeous Mize Mill Falls.

This is a very photogenic fall, tumbling in two cascades over three drops.  Its setting is stunning, with a large overhang to the left, and a bluff to the right.  There’s a sizeable though shallow plunge pool, which was beautifully dappled by the morning sun.

This little canyon is terrific!  If I had done better research beforehand, I would have known that Turkey Foot Falls is just a little downstream of Mize Mill Falls, and we could have gotten two waterfall visits with very little effort.  In fact, some maps list Mize Mill Falls as “Upper Turkey Foot Falls,” so apparently they are quite close, and there is some disagreement on what this waterfall is called.  It won’t take much convincing to come back for another look at the other waterfall, though.  We ate our lunch here, admired a butterfly that was also enjoying the canyon, and took bunches of photos and some video, then retraced our route to the car.  The copperhead did not put in an appearance on our way out, to our relief.  The total distance on the hike, according to the GPS track, was only about .35 miles round trip.  It took us about 26 minutes to get from the trailhead to the base of the waterfall, though at least 3 minutes were spent freaking out about the snake.  For the record, I’m not afraid of snakes.  I am, however, afraid of stepping on them, especially if they take offense.

Our next destination was on the western edge of the Bankhead.  We headed west on Cranal Road until it teed into County Road 2, also known as Kinlock Road, and turned north.  The road is paved for a little over two miles before turning into a gravel road after a sharp bend.  Shortly after that, “No camping” signs start appearing along the right side of the road, and if you’re there in the summer, you’ll start seeing vehicles parked on the road shoulder.  We found a spot to pull in and continued north, toward a bridge over Hubbard Creek.  However, before getting to the bridge, a set of steps leads off to the right and down the embankment to a trail that parallels Hubbard Creek.  You can hear the sound of rushing water pretty much as soon as you park, because you are at probably the most popular swimming hole in the Bankhead — Kinlock Falls.

We turned right on the trail and headed downstream.   Almost immediately we could see the top of the falls, where the creek is shallow enough for a crossing.  Like most falls, it doesn’t look all that impressive at the top.  We continued downstream and passed a rope swing on our way to the top of the bluff overlooking the falls, then settled in on a nice flat rock outcrop and took in the scene.

And what a scene it was.  Kinlock Falls is a cascade-type waterfall, dropping around 40 feet from top to bottom along a natural water slide.  The drop isn’t too steep, especially on the creek-left side, and while we watched a couple of people rode inner tubes down the waterfall into the very deep plunge pool.  There’s a rope along one side of the waterfall that the tube riders used to climb back up for another trip.

I’ve seen pictures of Kinlock Falls before and didn’t think that much of it. However, it’s much better in person, as you see the scale of it and hear the roar of the water.  Hubbard Creek is quite wide at the bottom of the fall, and deep enough to allow people to use the rope swing or even to jump in from the top of the bluff where we were sitting.  We spoke to one daredevil, who said it was a lot of fun but also pointed out that there are boulders on the bottom of the plunge pool, so you’ll need to pick your landing spot carefully, especially if you’re using the rope swing.  You can see the boulders easily from the top of the bluff.  About 100 yards down from the falls, the creek becomes shallow again, but the area between the shallows and the falls is a glorious swimming hole.

The natural setting is lovely, but this is a much-trafficked (by Bankhead standards) area, so there is a problem with litter along the trail and on top of the bluff.  There are no bathrooms or changing facilities, and no garbage cans either.  Also, getting from the trail down to the top of the bluff necessitates a short scramble downhill, but there are plenty of tree roots to use for leverage and/or footing.  The trail continues on down to the creek level, but will require some more scrambling to get to the water.  We were there on a summer Sunday morning, so there were only about a dozen people swimming and sliding, but by the time we left after lunchtime there were quite a few more cars and trucks and motorcycles parked along the road.  We didn’t bother to take poles on the hike, or to even bring the GPS.  The walk down to our  observation point took about five minutes.

It was time to move on to our third destination for the day, which was only about half a mile north on Kinlock Road.  The name “Kinlock” comes from the former home site of David Hubbard, an early settler.  Hubbard was a prominent politician, serving in the Alabama, U.S., and Confederate States legislatures.  He built a plantation house and a mill in southwest Lawrence County, where the small community of Kinlock grew around the plantation.  This general area of the Bankhead National Forest is known as the Kinlock Spring Historic District,  owing not only to the historical significance of the plantation and mill, but also to the many archaeological sites in the area.  The best known of these sites is the Kinlock Shelter, an enormous rock house used by the Yuchi tribe, and later by the Cherokee.

There’s a small parking area on the left that can hold two or three vehicles, and just past that parking lot is a gated Forest Service road that offers parking for another two or three vehicles.  We took a look at the historic marker for Kinlock, a plaque next to a trail that leaves from the parking area, but before we headed into the woods we walked back up the road to where I had noticed a column partially hidden in the woods.  About 50 yards south of the parking area on the east side of the road, the base of two columns, which I presume are from David Hubbard’s house, are still standing.  The house was built in the 1830s, though eventually Hubbard moved in the 1860s or 1870s, and eventually the house was abandoned.  However, it was in good enough shape that it was used as the headquarters for Civilian Conservation Corps Company 1403 when their camp was established in 1933.  The house burned in 1935, but the camp lasted until 1938, and was then converted to a summer camp for the 4-H Club.  We walked around the site of the camp, where there are still foundation stones visible and four piers for a structure that had some sort of plumbing in it — perhaps a wellhouse?

We returned to the parking area and took the trail that started at the historical marker.  It entered the woods and only a few yards later passed by Kinlock Spring, an important water source for the area.  The spring was still running, with one of the biggest spiders I’ve ever seen standing guard on one of its walls.  Though this is not one of the developed trails, the footbed was mostly level and well-established, and even broad as the trail went west, then north.  At one point the broad and flat trail crossed a bed of sandstone, passing through a grove of young pines.  The showiest wildflower of the day, Curtiss’ milkwort, was in bloom along this stretch.

The trail continued to the north, where at about .2 miles from the trailhead it teed into a gravel Forest Service road.  We turned left and about 300 feet later, the trail re-entered the woods on our right.  There aren’t any blazes and there’s no signage, but the trail is pretty obvious.  It continues mostly level for another 500 feet, at one point splitting left and right.  Stay to the left — we followed the right fork for about 100 yards and it didn’t look like it was going anywhere.

The trail then steeply descends into a hollow.  Footing is a little challenging in a couple of places, though we saw young children handling the descent with relative ease as we were climbing back out later.  The trail passes through a boggy area, and then, through the trees, the massive Kinlock Shelter announces its presence.

Friends, this is a BIG shelter.  It’s around 300 feet wide, up to 70 feet tall, and up to 100 feet deep.  Its overhang is taller and wider than Russell Cave National Monument or Cathedral Caverns, in case you’ve ever been to those sites.  At one end, a cave continues back into the hillside, which we didn’t explore.  It’s old — excavations have found evidence of human activity for thousands of years.  It’s still used as a ceremonial site, and for people who know what they’re looking for, there are ancient petroglyphs still visible carved into the stone.  Sadly, we do not fit into that group, but the sheer size and the orange and green tones of the sandstone make this a beautiful and impressive site.

After taking some time to soak in the atmosphere, we reluctantly saddled up and retraced our route out of the hollow back to the trail, and then back to the gravel road.  We turned left onto the road and decided to just hike it to its intersection with Kinlock Road, just a few feet up the road from the parking area.  The total distance for the hike, according to our GPS track, was about .875 miles, though some of the mileage includes our meandering in the old CCC camp.  It took us about 20 minutes to get from the parking area to the shelter.

The Bankhead National Forest and Sipsey Wilderness have so much to offer, and we enjoyed our short hikes to these three (slightly) hidden treasures.  Though they aren’t reached by official maintained trails, the routes to Mize Mill Falls and Kinlock Shelter were easy to find and mostly easy to follow, though there are no trail markings and they don’t appear on official maps.  Kinlock Falls is the easiest to find — when Kinlock Road becomes a gravel road, just look for parked vehicles on the right side of the road and head for the sound of water.

So for once the Bankhead didn’t trick us into any ten-mile hikes, though as usual it did try to kill us. Well, not really — as Ruth pointed out, it just reminded us that it could kill us if it wanted to.  It’s tough love from Mother Nature, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Launch Pad: Thanks for Thirty Inspiring Years, Land Trust of North Alabama

In 1940 Huntsville, Alabama was known as the watercress capital of the world.  Early the next year, this sleepy town of 13,000 was energized when 35,000 acres southwest of downtown were designated as the site of three chemical munitions plants.  Watercress took a back seat to technology during World War II, and the city grew to support its new main industry.  After the war ended, demand for munitions predictably declined, and it looked like maybe watercress was going to make a comeback.  But in 1950 the Army relocated some German rocket scientists here to work on missiles, and Huntsville was reinvented.  About ten years later, NASA came into the picture, and the city could now style itself as the Rocket City.  With the end of the Apollo program in the 1970s, it looked like Huntsville would never be the same, but new space programs like the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station, the growth of Army and other defense programs on Redstone Arsenal, and the rise of biotechnology companies once again relaunched Huntsville onto different, but familiar, new trajectories.

The city grew to cover 210 square miles, with a population of over 180,000 people in 2010.  That’s just the city proper.  Madison County had a population of 66,317 in 1940, and now is estimated to have a population around 357,000.  All these people had to live somewhere, so cotton fields were plowed under and replanted with houses, and more houses crept up the sides of the mountains.  Leaders in the city of Huntsville became concerned about the loss of green spaces, and formed an ad hoc committee to review the situation, and it recommended the establishment of a land trust.  So on June 24, 1987, the Huntsville Land Trust was incorporated, and now known as the Land Trust of North Alabama, it’s celebrating its 30-year anniversary.

landtrustlogoRegular readers of this blog know that we are big fans of the Land Trust.  We’re members and trail care volunteers, and more to the point, we hike its 62+ miles of trails regularly.  Given their history and development, Huntsville and north Alabama are often described as a launch pad for high technology and science.  It strikes me that the Land Trust is also a launch pad of a different sort — a starting point for adventure, for growing a love of the outdoors, and for forming an appreciation for the environment and a desire to preserve and protect it.

Can anyone put a number on how many children had their first hike in the woods on a Land Trust property?  How many people have filled their lungs with fresh air out on a trail in those 30 years?  Who has been inspired by a wildflower, or a gnarled tree, or a babbling creek?  Who took to the trails on foot, bike, or horse to train for bigger adventures?   Well, we did — last weekend.  We recently had an opportunity for a little adventure come up unexpectedly, which Ruth will be blogging about next week, and to prepare ourselves we went to where it all started for the Land Trust:  to the Monte Sano Preserve on the west side of Monte Sano Mountain.

We’ll be hiking with a group next weekend, so we joined some members of the group on a practice hike to meet each other and to stretch our legs.  We planned a modest little loop, made up of the Toll Gate, High, and Bluff Line trails, that would amount to a smidge over 4 miles.  We met up at the Land Trust’s Bankhead Trailhead, and after introductions ten humans, two dogs, and a cockatoo started the loop by leaving the parking lot and heading up the northern section of the Toll Gate trail.

Gray-headed coneflower

The best thing I can say about the northern section of the Toll Gate trail is that it is a necessary evil.  The southern portions, which wind from the Bankhead parking lot down to Toll Gate Road, are tolerable, though the trail parallels Bankhead Parkway for most of its length.  The northern section starts out close to the road, but soon turns to the northeast into more quiet territory.  Which is nice, because you’ll be able to hear your tendons snap when you stumble on the loose rocks that make up the entire length of the former roadbed as it winds up the mountain.  It is, hands down, my least favorite Land Trust trail, and I’ll probably keep whining about it until the Land Trust reroutes the trail completely and lets Satan, I mean Nature, reclaim the old route.  If you are using this trail to form part of a loop, I recommend hiking it uphill since you are a little less likely to fall up a mountain.  There are a couple of nice things I’ll say about this part of the hike, though: (1) it’s relatively short, about .5 mile, and (2) we saw a few wildflowers along the way, most notably St. John’s wort and gray-headed coneflower.

Wild potato vine

After slip-sliding up the Toll Gate trail, we turned right onto the High trail and things immediately began looking up.  The High trail is a largely level path that runs about 200 feet below the western rim of Monte Sano Mountain for a distance of 1.47 miles.  There’s a small quarry that forms a little pond near the Toll Gate-High junction.  Once you’re past the quarry, the footbed changes from old roadbed gravel to dirt, and the woods close in around the trail.  Butterfly weed and wild potato vine were blooming near the quarry.  At about .2 miles from the junction, the trail widened and was more disturbed, due to the damage done by an EF-2 tornado that hit the slopes of the mountain in early December 2016.  Volunteers did outstanding work to clear the trails on the preserve and in the state park, and their efforts are much appreciated.

The next landmark on the trail is a power line cut, with an iconic view to the west where you can see the Saturn V rocket at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center off in the distance.  All the trails in this vicinity of the preserve cross this power line cut, but the view from the High trail is arguably the best one.  As is often the case, wildflowers grow well in the open area under the power lines.  We saw hairy ruellia, blackberries, water hemlock, and narrowleaf vervain here.

After crossing the open area, the High trail re-enters the woods, heading roughly south as it crosses some small creeks and passes a side trail to the basin where the guests of the Monte Sano Hotel soaked in the “healing waters” of the Mountain of Health.  At about .8 miles from the Toll Gate-High junction, the trail crosses a more substantial creek (easily rock-hopped) that runs down the mountain and joins with the spring-fed Fagan Creek.  The trail is at its best in this section — quiet, shady, level, well-drained, with occasional splashes of color from trumpet creeper blossoms.  After crossing the creek, the trail bends to the southwest before curving south again to tee into the Bluff Line trail.

We turned right onto Bluff Line to loop back to the Bankhead trailhead.  If you want to extend your hike, you could choose to turn left instead and walk about .6 miles to the South Monte Sano Trailhead on Monte Sano Boulevard, or turn left and then take the Waterline trail past Dry Falls down to the Three Caves Trailhead.

In my memory, the Bluff Line trail parallels the High trail, just a little lower on the mountain.  Indeed, at first it’s not much of a change from the High trail — nice and shady and level.  However, my memory had conveniently skipped the part that you have to lose some altitude to get lower on the mountain, and in the case of the Bluff Line trail, that altitude is lost fairly abruptly, as the trail drops 300 feet over the next .35 miles.  The trail doesn’t use many switchbacks, so as a result it’s badly eroded in many places.  You’ll need to watch your footing as the trail descends.  There was one very nice consolation prize, however, as we came across a couple of small leatherleaf mahonia shrubs in an open area about halfway down the descent.  It’s eye-catching in that the leaves look like American holly, but on these particular specimens some of the leaves were bright red or pale yellow.  It’s not native to this area — in fact, it’s considered an invasive, but it’s an exotic beauty.  Apparently it has very fragrant flowers and showy fruit too.  It’s a little tramp!

The Bluff Line trail tees into and briefly overlaps the Wagon trail as it levels out and curves to the northeast.  At this point, we began paralleling the High trail, as the footbed smoothed out, with occasional exposed rocks on either side of the trail.  We saw yellow leafcup, false Solomon’s seal, and even a couple of old trilliums along this portion of the trail as it worked its way gradually back to the more substantial creek we had crossed earlier in the hike.

As we worked our way back north, the Old Railroad Bed trail became visible to the left, below us.  About a half mile after crossing the creek, the Bluff Line trail re-entered the area of tornado damage, more visible at one of the smaller creek crossings.  This might give you an idea of what those trail maintenance volunteers were facing!  Almost immediately afterwards, we were crossing the power line cut again, a bit lower on the mountain, and a few different wildflowers were growing here, just about 300 feet lower in altitude.  We identified Loomis’ mountain mint, tall ironweed, horse nettle, and heal all in bloom here.

I should point out that a couple of the plants that we found in the power line cut are dangerous.  Water hemlock and horse nettle are extremely poisonous.  All parts of both plants will make you sick if ingested, particularly the root of the water hemlock and the fruit of the horse nettle.  The water hemlock is a member of the carrot and parsnip family, so it’s not far-fetched that someone might take the notion to dig one up.  The horse nettle berries resemble yellow cherry tomatoes.  Like the tomato, the horse nettle is in the nightshade family, but if you snap up enough of these fruits, you’ll be launching yourself right into the afterlife.  Keep a close eye on the kids, folks.

After we crossed the power line cut, we were in the last .25 mile of the hike, which looped back to the Bankhead parking lot.  Before we reached the parking lot, just past the intersection with the Old Railroad Bed trail, we noticed a new bluebird house off the trail.  This reminded me that the Land Trust is more than just a collection of properties.  It also has an active environmental education mission and works with partner organizations to produce several programs throughout the year.  It’s best known for its Tuesdays on the Trail summer education series for children, but there are other events for all ages, such as guided hikes for members and non-members and workshops on building birdhouses and bat shelters.

Our loop hike came in at 4.1 miles, and was a great little warmup for our upcoming longer hike.  With the various Land Trust preserves scattered throughout the county, there’s bound to be just the right hike for you — all at no cost (though donations and membership are welcome!).  And the best part is that more land is being saved for our benefit and efforts are underway to open a new preserve by the end of the year.

Thirty years after its founding, the Land Trust of North Alabama is thriving.  If you haven’t visited a Land Trust launch pad, that’s the best way you can celebrate this anniversary.  We offer our heartfelt thanks to the visionary people who started the Land Trust, and to those who have kept it going and growing over the years.