Eagle Creek and Deer Skull Falls, Sipsey Wilderness

Regular readers of this blog will know that Ruth and I are always on the lookout for adventures in the Bankhead National Forest.  We’ve hiked quite a few trails in our closest National Forest, and decided that a recent rare dry weekend day would be a good time to try an off-trail jaunt to a couple of waterfalls we’ve never visited in the Sipsey Wilderness portion of the Bankhead.

It’s not difficult to find photos and descriptions of waterfalls in the Bankhead, and after a little research I found an account posted by a geocacher of a trip to Eagle Creek Falls and Deer Skull Falls.  I’d heard of Deer Skull Falls, but didn’t know anything about Eagle Creek Falls, and since it was a relatively short hike to visit them both we decided to try something a little more rugged than our usual fare.

One of my pet peeves about Internet posts about off-trail places in the Bankhead is when people post photos and vague descriptions of how to get somewhere, peppered with various disclaimers to the effect of “this is a wonderful place, but I won’t tell you how to get there yourself because it’s so dangerous and only a very experienced hiker such as myself could possibly get there safely.”  Poppycock!  Yes, there are inherent risks in hiking in general and backcountry hiking in particular, but if you go in with sufficient information, proper equipment, and a tiny bit of common sense you’re generally going to be fine.  Having said that, this off-trail hike is easily manageable for most hikers in decent shape, so don’t let the lack of a groomed trail keep you from visiting these Bankhead treasures.

So what are the must-knows about this hike?  Access is easy, right off Cranal Road (more about that later), but the trail is poorly marked at first, then isn’t marked at all.  In fact, after about 1/3 of a mile there isn’t really a trail to speak of.  Instead, you’ll be navigating alongside a creek for most of this hike, with frequent water crossings over a relatively shallow creek (depending on rainfall, naturally).  Since you’re going to be off-trail most of the time, good footwear is a must.  You’ll need something stable like boots or trail runners, but the key thing is to be able to avoid wet feet (or have a plan for embracing the wet feet and bring water shoes to change into).  The creek crossings are generally pretty easy and at least at the time of our visit in late March, the creeks were rarely more than shin-deep at worst, and usually not more than shoe-top deep.   The total hike is about 3 miles, 1.5 miles point to point, returning the same route.  About 2.3 miles of that distance will be on a creekbank or in the creek itself.

This is a relatively short hike, but be sure to allow plenty of time because your progress will be slower than usual as you will pick your way across the creek dozens of times (not exaggerating).  I also strongly recommend hiking poles or at least a walking stick for stability.  The incline/decline on this hike is minimal, especially after you make your way from Canal Road down into the hollows.  Also, because there is no marked trail, you’d be wise to carry a map and/or GPS, though the navigation is really simple.

So, let’s start hiking!  First, you’ll need to get to the starting point.  We made our usual approach to the Bankhead from the east, taking Highway 36 west through Hartselle until it tees into Highway 33 in Wren (the corner with the Warrior Mountain Trading Post).   After turning south (left) on Highway 33, in about 9.6 miles turn right onto Cranal Road (County Highway 6).  Cranal Road forms most of the southern border of the Sipsey Wilderness.  About 2.4 miles after passing the Sipsey River Recreation Area (last restroom access), FS Road 212 on the left (marked with a sign for Wolfpen Camp) is one potential parking spot to access the trailhead.  The actual starting point for this hike is on the right (north) side of the road about 100 yards farther to the west, where there’s a small dirt pullout into the woods that can accommodate two or three vehicles, so you might be able to park there.

The dirt pullout immediately forks as it enters the woods.  Both forks quickly dead-end.  You’ll want to take the fork to the left (the one perpendicular to Cranal Road).   This is obviously an old dirt road, but it quickly narrows into a track with an easily-discernible footbed.  The trail is not marked as such, but you might spot some orange flagging tied to a small tree, or even spot a faded white paint blaze or two.

The trail heads due north for about 300 feet before turning west and beginning a gradual descent into a hollow.  This section of the trail has a few downed trees, easily crossed or circumvented.  There are signs of a recent fire on the north side of the trail, though I don’t think this is from the Big Tree wildfire of October 2015.  A small rivulet began running just off the left side of the trail as we descended, gradually growing into a streamlet.  After descending 140 feet in elevation in about .4 miles from the trailhead, the trail’s footbed pretty much ceases as the streamlet flows into Eagle Creek, which flows west to east.  Turn right to follow Eagle Creek downstream.  For clarity’s sake, in the following paragraphs when I refer to the left or right bank of the creek, it’s from the perspective of facing downstream.

At this point, the next .25 miles of the hike is a series of creek crossings as the banks narrow on one side, then the other.  It’s not difficult to find a route, and it’s easier (and more scenic) to walk along the creek banks than to try to find a way higher up the slope.  At .65 miles from the trailhead, a feeder creek flows into Eagle Creek from the west, and a large flat area on the right bank of Eagle Creek is an obvious camping area, with a fire ring.  We continued on past the camping area on the right bank, and about 350 feet downstream we reached our first waterfall, Eagle Creek Falls.

From photos I had seen I knew this was a cascade-type fall, so I didn’t expect much.  But the photos don’t do it justice!  Eagle Creek roars over an approximately 20-foot drop, about 30 feet wide, with a shallow jade green plunge pool at the bottom.  The trail descends the left side of the falls (from the perspective of facing the falls), with a couple of big stepdowns to manage.  Once at the bottom of the falls, there’s plenty of room to wander and admire, and we spent several pleasant minutes there resting and taking photos.

 

 

We continued down the right bank of the creek after Eagle Creek Falls (the left bank quickly becomes too steep to navigate), following the creek as it wound past overhangs and the ever-pleasing interplay of mosses and shadows.   Another waterfall drops down from a small fold on the right bank about 450 feet downstream of Eagle Creek Falls, though we didn’t explore this particular one.  Instead, we kept zig-zagging from bank to bank, heading downstream.

Now we must pause for a moment while I ruminate on a matter of comparative physiology.  I’ve always maintained that the female of our species has a more highly-evolved brain, and I proffer my own wife as an example.  There she was, about 50 yards ahead of me, just starting to navigate a tricky crossing of Eagle Creek – evaluating options, looking downstream to plan her next several moves.  She was probably also processing many other things in the background unrelated to the business at hand — who can say what happens in the highly-evolved brain during a moment of zen?  I, on the other hand, was putting my primate brain to a more basic task, which means as usual I was the one who saw the snake she must have just stepped over or past.  “I’m thinking that it might be better to head upstream, then cross on those rocks over there, because the right bank looks like it’s flattening out.  We’ll make better progress there,” she called out, pointing the way.  “Snake!” I croaked, no doubt baring my teeth in an apish grimace.  “Where?” she cried, seeing that I had left out a vital piece of information.  “Up here, by me,” I hooted.  It was a lovely little brown water snake, I think — definitely non-venomous, and not in the least bit threatened or in any hurry to get out of my way.  It was about three feet long, and well camouflaged against most non-monkey brains.  I bring this up because this is at least the fourth time I’ve seen a snake after (or as) Ruth walked past or over it, oblivious.  I detoured around little beauty, and we both went our merry way.

About .25 miles from Eagle Creek Falls, we could hear another waterfall plunging down a canyon cleft on the left side of the creek.  This one seemed worth checking out, so we detoured just a few feet to admire what is probably a seasonal fall that drops around 40 feet or so as a feeder creek empties into the canyon.

 

After resuming our trek down Eagle Creek, we came to a point where it looked as if the creek flowed into a cliff face.  It actually just makes an abrupt bend to the right, flowing at shoe-top height over a broad, flat shelf.  As we pondered whether we should make another crossing here, we met a group of hikers on their way out and watched them just plod across the creek with no worries about getting wet feet.  Inspired by their example, and frankly a little fed up after all the creek crossings, I suggested that since we had brought water shoes we might as well put them to use.  Off came the boots, and we put on the Keens and just strolled down Eagle Creek.  Yes, it was a little cold at first but much better than our usual January or February Sipsey creek crossing.

The creek was a little deeper here, with one or two tiny dropoffs of about a foot, but still we were making good progress with good footing.  The creek is mostly flowing over a series of flat shelves here, so you could probably do this barefoot if need be.  About .25 miles past the abrupt bend, or .6 miles from Eagle Creek Falls, Little Ugly Creek flows in from the west.  Eagle Creek and Little Ugly Creek merge at this point, continuing east to soon drain into the Sipsey Fork.  Our next waterfall lies upstream on Little Ugly Creek, so we turned left (west).  Though there are no formal trail markers at this junction, there’s an unmistakable marker of a rock stuck through a split in a sapling on the left bank of Eagle Creek.    There is also a faint orange paint blaze on a larger tree nearby.

We splashed our way upstream on Little Ugly Creek, for which I’ll make the obligatory comment about how the creek isn’t ugly at all.  Though not as wide as Eagle Creek at this point, it is deeper in some spots, so we took a more amphibious route.  After about .1 mile, we came to Deer Skull Falls.

Deer Skull Falls is actually two waterfalls. To the left, Little Ugly Creek drops over a shelf maybe about 10 feet tall, plunging into a deep blue pool.  To the right, an unnamed feeder creek cascades from high above, with a final plunge of about 15-20 feet into a shallow pool.  The two waterfalls are separated by a rock outcropping which would lead one to believe that the two falls have the same water source, but that’s not the case.  Both falls have striking red-orange patches in the rock face, which I’ve seen described as iron-rich mineral deposits.

 

It’s pretty amazing to see two such different, photogenic waterfalls in a 1.5 mile walk from the road.  It was a little too cool to pop into the Little Ugly Creek-sourced Deer Skull Fall’s plunge pool, but I bet it would be a superior swimming hole. I’ve read accounts of people continuing upstream on Little Ugly Creek to find rock shelters and possibly even remains of stills, but there isn’t an obvious trail and we didn’t have time for further explorations.  We met a couple at the falls who had bushwhacked their way from the Johnson Cemetery on Trail 202, so that is an option for getting to Deer Skull Falls, though you’ll have to thrash your way up and down some steep slopes.  We retraced our steps down Little Ugly Creek, keeping to the banks this time, and turned upstream on Eagle Creek to make our return.

There is one tricky bit of navigation to handle as you retrace your route.  Unfortunately, our GPS had conked out so we couldn’t confidently retrace our route back to the hollow we followed on our way in.  We knew we’d just need to look for a hollow with a creek flowing into Eagle Creek from the east, after we had passed Eagle Creek Falls and the camping area.  The first such little hollow had a creek, but didn’t seem to have a reliable footbed.  I scouted about 100 feet up the hollow and actually spotted a faded orange blaze on a tree, but it didn’t seem right.  We continued upstream on Eagle Creek, and within a couple of minutes came to some creek crossings that we recognized, and the next hollow had a faint footbed that eventually led us back uphill to the trailhead.

So we had quite the little adventure — a moderate hike, with little elevation change, and two gorgeous waterfalls (not counting a couple more seasonal falls), all off the beaten path.  It was another glorious day in the Sipsey, which never disappoints.

The Power of Three: Trillium Walk at the Huntsville Botanical Garden

For some people, it’s not spring until they have seen their first bluebird.  For others, spring hasn’t sprung until you don’t have to cover up your daffodils to protect them from frost.  For me, the sure sign of spring is the sight of a trillium in bloom.

We’ve mentioned a few times that Ruth is quite fond of bluebells, and we really enjoy our spring walks and the wildflowers that dot the trailsides.  They have become old friends to us — from the showy phloxes, shooting stars, and trout lilies to even the humble unwanted grape hyacinth — but the wildflower that always catches our attention has three leaves, and if in bloom, three sepals and three petals.  Around here, we have a pretty good representation of the trillium genus, with Sweet Betsy, twisted trillium, and lemon trillium growing in profusion on many local trails.  On our visits to the Smokies, we’ve also enjoyed large-flowered trillium, the glorious painted trillium, and my personal favorite, the diminutive charmer known as Catesby’s trillium.

Various maladies, work schedules, social engagements, and uncooperative weather have kept us off the trails these last few weeks, so I was rarin’ to go when I had a small window of time to attend a plant ID walk of the trillium collection at the Huntsville Botanical Garden.  Ruth and I have been to the Garden several times this spring, and we always make a beeline for the Holmes Trillium Garden to see what’s in bloom.  The plant ID walk was free with admission to the garden, and I knew that the guide for this particular walk would be a special treat — none other than Mr. Harold Holmes, the person responsible for starting the trillium collection at the HBG.

I joined a small group in the Visitor’s Center and Harold struck up a conversation with me, asking me what I knew about trilliums.  I knew three things about trilliums, I said, and after telling him those three things I found out that one of them was wrong!  So I knew I was going to learn a lot, which was great news.

As is often the case in the Rocket City, Harold was a retired missile guy who was looking for a hobby.  His wife said she wanted him to plant some native trilliums around the house, and he did some research and found the topic to be so fascinating that he built an amazing trillium garden at his house.  Actually, he didn’t volunteer that much about his own personal garden, but I’ve heard about it from some of the “grubbers” — volunteers at the HBG.  Anyway, he approached the HBG about starting a trillium collection in 2006.  He explained what he had in mind, and mentioned that it might take a while to get a good collection started, since it can take 7-10 years for a trillium to mature enough to bloom.  The HBG management eyed him warily and asked him what would happen to the collection if he didn’t live that long.  That’s a flinty bunch, those garden managers!  Luckily for all of us, Harold is still applying his scientific skills to the study of the genus, and the HBG has the nation’s most extensive collection of eastern North American trilliums.  Yep — we’re number one!

Twisted toadshade (Trillium stamineum)

I could use the cliche and say that Harold has forgotten more than I’ll ever know about trilliums, but that’s not true — I don’t think he’s forgotten anything.  We walked down to the Mathews Nature Trail trillium collection as Harold told us that there are two main types of trilliums — toadshades (subgenus Phyllanthereum), which have mottled leaves and flowers that do not grow on stalks; and wake-robins (subgenus Trillium), which do not have mottled leaves, and have flowers that grow on stalks.  The most common ones I’ve seen on the trails in north Alabama are the trillium cuneatum (Sweet Betsy) and trillium stamineum (twisted trillium).

Harold pointed out several specimens in bloom, and told us that the collection that is known as the Holmes Trillium Garden is actually made up of several smaller collections.  Some are memorial gifts to the Garden, some are donated by other trillium enthusiasts, and some are special purpose collections used for research.  A few of them are candidates to be declared as new species, or are rare.  At the time of my visit, more of the toadshades were in bloom, such as the lemon, reclining, and Louisiana toadshades.  Toadshades vary quite a bit, from flower color (Louisiana is bi-colored, for example) to leafstalk height (reclining grows just barely above the ground), to leaf shape (lance-leaf has pointier leaves).  Most toadshade leaves are mottled and fade after pollination, but not so for the splotch-leaf toadshade.  And for some species, the flower odor is a telling characteristic — either pleasantly fragrant (Sweet Betsy) or pungently fetid (stinking toadshade).  Odors are very fleeting, though, and can usually only be detected during pollination (just a few days) and on warm days.  And though trilliums generally follow the rules, Nature is chaotic — some trilliums can actually have more than three leaves, and a few species break the mottled leaves/no flower stalk pattern.

This was much more than a plant ID walk, though.  Harold told us about his research in propagation of trilliums, growing them from seeds or by manipulating the rhizome to encourage growth.  He has in some cases gotten plants to flower in about half the usual time.  He had placed a few posters along the walk to show some of this process, and had a tub full of 3-year-old “babies,” showing their characteristic three leaves but years away from blooming.  It turns out that what I had thought was the entire trillium collection was only one part, as there are many more trillium beds toward the back of the garden, north of the Bush Azalea Trail.  These research collections are the site of science in action, as various propagation techniques are trialled here.  Trilliums are also raised in the Garden’s greenhouses, for scientific research, for display, and more than a few for the Garden’s annual plant sale (coming up April 13-15, with an early-bird day on April 12 for Garden members).

I learned so much in two hours!  Harold’s self-deprecating sense of humor, personified in the “Trillaholic” cap he was wearing, kept things entertaining, and it was a privilege to listen to someone so enthusiastic and knowledgeable.  I know a lot more than three things about trilliums now — such as they can live 50-70 years, deer love to eat them, and ants are crazy about trillium seeds.

Bent wake-robin (Trillium flexipes)

And as it turned out, it was my lucky day.  Harold had potted two bent wake-robins as door prizes, and thanks to my sharing a birth month with him, I was a lucky winner!  After getting some tips on how to transplant it (I mean seriously — when a trillaholic gives you a specimen from the nation’s best trillium collection, you’d better not go home and bungle it), I brought my prize home and promptly planted it on a north-facing slope, near some azaleas (Harold tends to pop trilliums near azaleas in the Garden).

So word to the wise — the first two weeks of April tend to be the peak time for seeing trilliums in Garden.  Let’s hope for good weather!

 

Quick Look: Short Springs Natural Area

 

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Trail Name: Machine Falls Trail

Location: Short Springs State Natural Area, Tullahoma, Tennessee

Length:  roughly 1.6 miles to Machine Falls, loop

Rating: Beginner

Points of interest: Machine Falls, wildflower glades

Blog Post: Sweet Spring: Short Springs Natural Area

Notes: Easy, short trail to a beautiful waterfall tucked into a ravine filled with spring wildflowers.  Others trails in the same natural area lead to smaller waterfalls and more wildflowers.  The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation calls Short Springs “one of the very best spring wildflower locations in the state,” and for good reason!

GPS Track: Short Springs

The Devil’s Advocate: Devil’s Backbone State Natural Area

Finally, a weekend day that wasn’t cold and/or rainy!  I had been thinking about a road trip up into Tennessee to check out a hike along the Natchez Trace, and opportunity was knocking.  I won’t say that Spring has sprung, but looked like it would be a nice day for a ramble.

The Natchez Trace, in case you don’t know, is a fabled route that links Nashville and Natchez, Mississippi.  It was originally a game trail used by prehistoric animals,  expanded by native Americans and later emigrants and explorers to run over 440 miles. Thomas Jefferson wanted to develop the trail into a road to link the eastern U.S. with what was then the frontier, and between 1801-1809 the trail became a wagon road. Today, the route is roughly recreated by the Natchez Trace Parkway, which is a unit of the National Park Service.  Parts of the original Trace are still visible along the route — you can even hike portions of it.

Like the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Natchez Trace Parkway links many historic and natural sites.  The Parkway is paved, usually two lanes winding through lovely scenery, with pulloffs every few miles for picnics, hiking, camping, and sightseeing.  It’s uncommercialized — though there are some campgrounds along the Trace run by the NPS, there are no hotels, stores, gas stations, or restaurants, though many such establishments have grown up not far from the Parkway.

There are hiking opportunities all up and down the Trace, though many of them are short jaunts into the woods, just enough to give you a break from the car.  One notable exception is the Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail, a series of trail segments totaling around 60 miles along various segments of the Trace.  Most of those miles are in Mississippi, so I was looking for a hike a little closer to home.

Like many public lands corridors, the Trace takes advantage of nearby parks, wilderness management areas, and other types of preserves to magnify the wilderness effect.  One such parcel, the Devil’s Backbone State Natural Area, is just off the Trace, about a two-hour drive northwest from Huntsville.  I thought we might show some sympathy for the Devil and check out the roughly 3-mile lollipop loop hike.

We had no difficulty finding the turnoff to the parking area on the west side of the Trace near mile marker 394, as all such features are well-marked.  The paved parking area has room for about 10 vehicles, and we arrived just as a lady and her dog exited the trail, soon to leave us as the only car in the parking lot (at that time).  There are no restroom facilities at the trailhead.  The trailhead proper is easy to spot, with a kiosk, the usual empty map holder, and various rules and notices posted.

The trail starts out as a wide and level path into a hardwood forest.  The white-blazed footbed curved gently along a ridgetop before making a short dip across a fold in the landscape.  When we were about .25 miles from the parking lot, the woods were quiet enough that we couldn’t hear any road noise.  We walked quietly along the natural dirt surface, with brown leaves on either side of the trail, green moss along the footbed in places, and bare branches of oaks and hickories stretching overhead.

After .46 miles, we arrived at the loop portion of the lollipop trail.  After checking out our copy of the trail map (downloaded from the State Natural Area website), we decided to hike the loop in a clockwise direction, so we turned left and wound more or less west.  One topic of conversation along this stretch of the trail concerned the tract’s odd name — the Devil’s Backbone.  Yes, we were on a ridgetop, but it didn’t really undulate all that much, and there weren’t any exposed rocks that might suggest vertebrae.  Other nearby ridges were higher, so this one didn’t really stick out above the general landscape.  The trail itself was very docile — fairly flat, well-drained, well-blazed, well-maintained, with no confusing side trails.  What the Devil?

Another topic of conversation along this stretch was the bumper crop of acorns underfoot.  They were everywhere!  The State Natural Area website describes this parcel as a high-quality example of a Western Highland Rim forest community with eight distinct community types.  Seven of those types include oak trees, with white oaks, northern red oaks, southern red oaks, black oaks, scarlet oaks, and chestnut oaks all represented.  Some of the acorns had been split open, and the nutmeats on many were strikingly pink and yellow.  Some research has led me to the conclusion that the pink color is a reaction to exposure to air, and isn’t indicative of a particular type of acorn.  These were some big suckers, though, and there were quite a few chestnut oak leaves in the general vicinity.

As we walked along we noticed a sound from up ahead and off the trail to the left.  Looking back on it now, maybe it was the Devil leading me astray, using a sound that was similar to a flock of wild turkeys.  I decided to go cross-country to see if I could get a glimpse, and fought my way through a countless clumps of brambles.  I had no luck with the turkeys, or whatever it was, and got lost on my way back to trail.  Ruth had heard me thrashing around nearby and left the trail to find me, so we both ended up off the trail and separated.  Fortunately, we had our cell phones with us and were in a pocket of cell coverage, and we quickly linked up and used the GPS track to route ourselves back on the trail.  Ruth put a virtual leash on me at that point, so no more off-trail adventures for me.  Get thee behind me, Devil!

At about one mile from the beginning of the loop, a signpost pointed to the left, routing us downhill instead of continuing along the ridgetop.  At this point the trail descended about 160 feet over .2 miles into a hollow, with a feeder creek at the bottom.  We stopped to enjoy the creek, admire a nearly hollow beech, and have a snack, then started looking for a crossing.

I knew from other trail reports that this part of the trail could be confusing, and it lived up to its reputation.  There wasn’t an obvious crossing point near the hollow beech, and the footbed headed upstream, so we started off in that direction.  I quickly spotted some blazes that had been painted over on some trees, which suggested a trail reroute, so we backtracked and started looking for another route.  That idea proved fruitless, so we returned to the obvious footbed and soon found some white blazes interspersed with painted-over blazes.  It’s as if the trail builders did a reroute at some point, then decided to go back to the original route.  Anyway, I’ll make it easy for you — just follow the one obvious footbed and ignore the painted-over blazes, and you’ll head upstream to a plank bridge over the creek, which has narrowed and split into two channels at this point.  After the first crossing, the trail turns back downstream and shortly afterwards crosses the other channel on another plank bridge.  The hollow beech is literally within view just a few feet from this second bridge, on the other side of the creek.

What goes down must go up, so the trail now rises steeply to regain the ridgetop, climbing 140 feet in .2 miles.  From here, the hike is pretty much a carbon copy of the southwestern side of the loop, except that it’s only about .7 miles back to the beginning point of the loop.  From there, it was an easy trek back to the parking lot, which now had a couple more cars in it.  All in all, this was a pleasant ridgetop/hollow hike, though it didn’t really offer any long-range views or outstanding natural features.  Our overall distance, according to the GPS track, was 3.3 miles, though our off-trail wanderings probably added about .1 or .2 miles to the actual length of the trail.

Early saxifrage

We had planned one other stop on our trip.  Since we had had so much rain lately, it was a good bet that waterfalls would be putting on a good show.  Jackson Falls is one of those pull-out sites on the Trace, around mile marker 404, so we headed north for about 10 miles and took the exit for the falls.  The ramp wound down and under the Parkway, leading to a large paved parking area with restrooms and a couple of picnic tables.  A large wooden sign directs you to the points of interest — Jackson Falls to the right, and a Duck River overlook to the left.  We joined a small but steady stream of folks heading down the paved trail to the waterfall, at one point passing an overachieving clump of early saxifrage growing on a rock face.

The descent is short, 900 feet, with concrete steps in one section.  Small cascades tumble off the rock face to the right, at one point flowing over the trail (bear that in mind in case you’re planning a trip when it’s icy outside).  The waterfall is a real beauty — a two-stage waterfall, with a slide at the top leveling out before a plunge.  It’s not easy to get to a good vantage point for either part of the waterfall, though the trail continues, unpaved, downstream to a point where you can get a good luck at the plunge and plunge pool.  This is one of the most popular stopping places in this section of the Parkway, and indeed there were a few of us politely jostling for position to get photos and video.

The geology of the fall is rather interesting.  Jackson Branch used to run parallel to the Duck River, but over time floods and erosion wore down the bluff separating the branch and the river.  Eventually, the river carved out enough of the bluff that it partially collapsed and the branch abandoned its original watercourse and instead emptied into the Duck River.

After enjoying the falls, which as you’ve probably guessed are named after Andrew Jackson, we headed up the trail and decided to check out the short (.3 mile) trail to the Duck River overlook.  Sorry, I can’t advocate for this trail — it’s steep and offers no clear view of the Duck River, and ultimately it just leads to the next pullout on the Parkway.  My knees wish they had that .6 mile back.

Though the drive from Huntsville is a little long, there are plenty of interesting sites along the Natchez Trace, and I suspect we’ll be back to hike at least a few more interesting areas.  In researching for this post, I ran across a very enlightening bit of information.  It turns out that the local people who used the Trace, back when it first became a road, called it “the Devil’s Backbone” due to its “remoteness, rough conditions, and the often encountered highwaymen” (see the Wikipedia page linked earlier in this post).  What do you know — the Devil really IS in the details!

Spilling the Beans: Palisades Park

Psst — wanna know a secret? Of course you do. Especially if it’s one of Blount County, Alabama’s best-kept secrets, so lean in close now:  Palisades Park is a hidden gem with much to offer.

Lest you think I’m talking out of turn, the park’s own website calls it one of the county’s best kept secrets.  Nestled on the top of Ebell Mountain near Oneonta, Palisades Park is about 90 minutes south of Huntsville, just a couple of turns off U.S. Highway 231.  The park was founded in 1973, and packs a lot of features in its 100 acres.

We arrived on a weekend morning, as a warming trend after a cold snap finally enticed us back outdoors.  It felt great to be outside again and on an adventure!  On the way in, we were greeted by none other than The Grinch, who was caught in broad daylight pulling lights off a Christmas tree.  I’m a big fan of the Grinch, but I should explain that he’s not a permanent fixture at the park entrance.  The park has a drive through Christmas lights display, which apparently was in the process of being taken down at the time of our visit.

After a quick visit with a friendly park employee in the office, we were on our way to explore the network of nine trails that spans the northwest section of the park, now armed with interpretive handouts for the nature trail and the “Trail of Trees.”  The trail system is relatively small — only 1.84 miles in total length, consisting of the Rocky Trail which loops around a roughly trapezoidal tract, and various short trails which connect various points on the Rocky Trail to parking lots. Since the trails were relatively short, we decided we’d try to hike them all, which would require a little bit of backtracking and road walking.

We started our hike in the northeast corner of the park, on the Old Road Trail.  Like all of the trails in the park, it was well-marked, wide, and well-tended, with a footbed of dirt and a little landscaping gravel for drainage.  This little trail was only .09 miles long, so in no time we had reached its junction with the eastern end of the Rocky Trail and turned left to head westward.  Though the trails here (and elsewhere in the park) are not blazed, intersections are marked by wooden signposts and the trails are easy to follow.

We closed our first loop of the day by turning left onto the Rockledge Trail, which climbs slightly to the south to return to the main park road just a few yards away from the Old Road Trail’s starting point.  There are actually two junctions between the Rocky and Rockledge Trails, with the second (westmost) junction seeming a little more traveled.  The Rockledge Trail is also .09 miles long, and unlike other trails in the park had a fair amount of leaf litter on the trail (the staff must rake or use leaf blowers on the other trails).  We didn’t see an obvious rock ledge on the trail, except for some exposed sandstone on the southern end.

It was pretty close to our customary lunchtime, so we walked about 80 yards down the main park road to a picnic area where we opted to sit in a swing chair while we polished off a light lunch.  The picnic area was shady, with a cute little playhouse and a picnic table presumably made of local sandstone.

Our next trail was my favorite, the Trail of Trees.  The trail was created in 2010 by the Blount County Council of Garden Clubs, and features 21 labeled trees (according to the brochure, available for free in the park office).  We always like an opportunity to practice our Tree ID Ninja skills!  We’ve been to a few of these types of trails now, enough to compare their pros and cons.  One thing they all have had in common is that they seem to have been a project that was begun with great enthusiasm, but over time the interpretive signage/brochures get out of sync as the forest evolves.  This particular trail is no exception, but to its credit it usually clearly marks which tree is being discussed by the interpretive signage.   There were maybe four trees ostensibly on the trail that didn’t have numbers on them, and we didn’t see examples of the trees in the vicinity of the signs, which makes me think the trees might have fallen or been removed.  I think I need more tree ID practice, though — out of 17 or so trees with numbers, I only correctly identified 6 down to the species, though I did get 6 more at least down to the correct genus (“some type of oak,” for example).  Remember, this was in the winter, with few or no leaves to go by, but clearly I need to brush up on my elms and small understory trees, such as hawthorns.

The Trail of Trees runs north .16 miles from the main park road back to the Rocky Trail.  We walked about 250 feet west to the junction with the next trail, the Bird’s Foot Trail.  This trail runs south, then bends east to end in a parking area after .18 miles.  The Bird’s Foot Trail is one of three trails that comprise the self guiding nature trail.  Fourteen markers on the Bird’s Foot, Rocky, and Dogwood trails identify selected plants typical of the foothills of the southern Appalachians, keyed to another free brochure available in the park office.   The nature trail markers are only numbered posts, so you’ll need the brochure, which not only identifies the plants but also provides interesting facts about them.  Trees described in the nature trail brochure are also usually marked with a number, like the ones used on the Trail of Trees, but the numbering system is unique to each trail.  For instance, shortleaf pine is number 5 on the Trail of Trees, but number 10 on the nature trail.  If you’re looking at the wrong brochure, you could get confused.   There was some overlap with items on the Trail of Trees, so Ruth got to work on her Tree ID Ninja skills too!

After we completed the Bird’s Foot Trail, we backtracked to the Well Trail, a .09 mile trail which curves west from the Bird’s Foot Trail to a road that leads to a picnic pavilion back in the woods away from the central area of the park.  The Well Trail is named for an abandoned water source, to judge from the dilapidated state of the wellhead, and is the only trail in the park that doesn’t connect to the Rocky Trail.

The picnic pavilion and its parking area is the nexus for two trails — the Dogwood Trail heading north and south to link the northern and southern extents of the Rocky Trail, and the Pine Trail, which runs to the west to tee into (you guessed it) the Rocky Trail.  The picnic pavilion has restrooms, though they were locked at the time of our visit.

From the pavilion, we took the northern leg of the Dogwood Trail to its junction with the Rocky Trail in .11 miles, then turned west to head to the northwest corner of the park, passing several markers for items on the nature trail.  In about .08 miles we reached the western end of the Pine Trail and traveled its .1 miles back to the pavilion.  From there, we took the southern leg of the Dogwood Trail another .1 miles to tee into the Rocky Trail for the last time, turning east to return to the central area of the park.  Though we didn’t cover every segment of the Rocky Trail, we covered all of the other eight trails and more than half of the Rocky Trail.  According to our GPS track, we covered 2.3 miles in our wanderings.  All in all, the trails are pretty similar in terms of topography (remember, the entire park is only 100 acres), and most of the items of interest in the park are in its central area, away from the trails.

Speaking of items of interest, we took a few minutes to look over some of the park’s other features.  It has a small collection of relocated historic structures, including the Daniel Murphree cabin (c. 1817), the Blackwood-Hudson cabin (c. 1890), a late 19th-century barn, and the old Compton School (c. 1904).  The cabins and school were not open, but you can tour the interior of the barn.  The park’s Facebook page suggests it may be possible to see the interiors of the cabins and school, with prior notice and subject to park staff availability.

The park also has several other amenities, such as an amphitheater, playgrounds, gazebos, a meditation chapel, a quilter’s cottage, picnic pavilions, and three rentable lodges with kitchen and meeting facilities.  The park is also a popular location for weddings — in fact, there was one planned for later in the day that we visited.

I mentioned, didn’t I, that Palisades Park is on top of Ebell Mountain?  I’ve saved the park’s most outstanding feature for last — its blufftop views to the southeast.  There’s about a 500-foot difference in elevation between the mountaintop and the valley below.  The park is also known as a great climbing location, with about half a mile of bluffline with 60-foot cliffs for rappelling and at least 25 recommended climbing routes, with climbing grades ranging from 5.4 (easy) to 5.12b (very difficult).  A permit is required, and is available for a reasonable fee from the park office.  An official trail leads to the bottom of the bluffline, though we didn’t try it out.  The nice gent in the park office told us that plans are in the works to open the fire tower on the south end of the bluffline, which will add a really spectacular view of five counties from its summit.

All in all, Palisades Park has something for nearly everyone — mountaintop views, rock climbing, historic buildings, picnic areas, playgrounds, and a flexible network of easy hiking trails that can be combined to form loops of various lengths.  And you can’t beat the price — it’s free, though donations are requested.

On our way back, we couldn’t resist one detour.  Blount County is well-known for its covered bridges, and one of the best was just a couple of miles away from the park.  We made a slight detour to visit the Horton Mill covered bridge, a 220-foot bridge over the Calvert Prong of the Little Warrior River.  Built in 1934, this bridge is still in operation, soaring 70 feet above the water, which according to Wikipedia makes it the highest covered bridge over any US waterway.  After snapping a few photos, Ruth gulped and drove us across, and of course it was rock steady.

So maybe we’re not that good at keeping secrets — at least, not at keeping secrets about great places to enjoy the great outdoors.  For that, I make no apologies!

2017 Retrospective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The year in photos

January

February

March

April

May

June

July

August

September

October

November

December

As Advertised: Poplar Springs Section of the Cumberland Trail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

45river_signalmtn

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

58falls_on_sulphur_creek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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