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.

 

Turn Left: Turkey Creek Nature Preserve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

Cumberland Trail: One Segment Down, Many to Go

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Return to Alum Hollow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First stream crossing on Alum Hollow trail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Carolina thistle
Cutleaf evening primrose

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

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

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

Venus’ looking glass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ruffner Redux

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

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

Wild columbine
Field mustard

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wild bergamot
Hearts-a-bustin

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

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

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

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

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

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