Quick Look: Cave Mountain Trail

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Trail Name: Cave Mountain Trail

Location: Guntersville, Alabama

Length:  2.0 miles, shorter options on loop trail

Rating: Mostly easy, with a few short steep sections

Points of interest:  Cave, marker tree, view of Guntersville Dam

Blog Post:  Cave Mountain: Under and Over

Notes:  This short loop trail has hilltop views of Lake Guntersville and a walk-in cave.  The cave is safe enough (bring two light sources!) until it narrows down to crawling height — turn around there unless you are an experienced spelunker.

Something Better than in the Middle: Goldsmith-Schiffman Wildlife Sanctuary

Given that we like to spend time outdoors, and we at least dabble in social media, perhaps it was inevitable that we would find a way to participate in the #GoPlayHsv campaign that the City of Huntsville ran for National Parks and Recreation Month.  Throughout the month of July 2018, every day the city spotlit a different recreation activity, facility, or event.  It just so happened that the theme of the day for Saturday, July 28 was the Goldsmith-Schiffman Wildlife Sanctuary, in southeast Huntsville right on the edge of Owens Crossroads.  We’ve never been to the sanctuary, and it looked to have around 3 miles of trails, along with views of the Flint River and freshwater ponds, and maybe, if we were lucky, we might even see some turtles!  When I proposed the trip to Ruth, I knew I had her at “turtles,” since longtime readers of this blog know how she feels about them.

The Sanctuary is over 375 acres of river bottomland with fields, swamps, and sloughs  donated to the City of Huntsville in 2003 by the Goldsmith and Schiffman families.  In the roughly 15 years since then, improvements have been gradually added, though it is still very much a passive recreation site.  The rules are pretty simple:  no pets, no vehicles, no camping, no hunting, and no fishing; but yes hiking, yes biking, yes wildlife observation, and yes wildflower viewing.  There are no permanent facilities in the Sanctuary yet, though there are aspirations for an interpretive center.

Access to the Sanctuary is from one of two gravel parking lots, one off Taylor Road, and the other off U.S. Highway 431, about 1/4 mile south of the Hays Nature Preserve, on the west side of the road.  Since this was the featured theme for #GoPlayHsv for the day, we thought there might be a fair amount of interest, so we opted to head for the  Taylor Road entrance, since it seemed to have more parking.  Actually, both parking areas are fairly spacious, with room for maybe 20 vehicles in each.  Contrary to our expectations, however, we didn’t see another soul the whole time we were there, for about three hours on a Saturday morning.

The Taylor Road entrance has an ADA-compliant port-a-potty in the parking area (as a side note, there are no restroom facilities in the Highway 431 lot), and a gravel road leads the way into the Sanctuary.  A couple of picnic tables and a wildlife observation platform are in a shaded area to the left of the road, and a kiosk has a large map of the preserve and a small container with trail maps (well-stocked, so way to go, City of Huntsville!).  In about .1 mile, gates block vehicles from continuing down the gravel road, but hikers/bikers can easily continue past the gates.

The gravel road continued on to the southeast, but almost immediately after passing the gates we spotted an amazing pink lily in full bloom off the trail to the right.  There were a couple of specimens, which we later identified as resurrection lilies.  We’ve never seen these in the wild, and it’s always a treat to come across such a showy flower, especially in mid-summer when the aster family is dominating the floral landscape.  This hike was off to a promising start!  The gravel road is level and shaded, with a beaver-dammed run to the left of the road  creating pools in which small fish were darting around and snapping at insects.

At about .25 miles from the parking lot, the little run to the left swells into Jobala Pond, a tree-shaded body of still water about 250 feet across, with aquatic plants, submerged logs, and the occasional croaking bullfrog.  At about .3 miles, the sturdy James Long Memorial Bridge crosses the creek that feeds the pond, and a sign and a rustic bench mark this area as Jobala Haven observation point.  It’s a nice place to sit and listen to the frogs and bugs and birds.  It is, however, not in the place that is marked on the trail map, which has the observation point on the other side of the pond.

This is perhaps the time to mention that the trail map, posted on the kiosks and available online, is, shall we say, a bit fanciful.  Luckily, on the map the trails are superimposed on an aerial view of the Sanctuary, which make it easy to use landmarks as navigation aids.  It’s a good thing too, because as a general rule the navigational aids from this point up to the northern edge of the sanctuary are either (1) completely missing, or (2) are often misleading when they do exist.  With a couple of exceptions, everything north and east of Jobala Pond is poorly marked, when it is marked at all.  The ground truth is quite a bit different from the map, and this might be a problem if you’re out in the middle of the Sanctuary when it’s getting dark.

For example, the map suggests that a trail takes off to the left, just past the (actual) Jobala Haven observation point, roughly opposite of the Forest Glen observation point.  It might be the Tall Tupelo trail, or it might be the Primitive trail — either is possible, but this segment of the trail is not identified with a trail name on the map.  It turns out not to  matter much, as there is no signage to suggest a trail junction, and no obvious route.   This was confusing, but while we tried to figure out what was going on we had a quick look at the Forest Glen observation point, which also overlooks one end of a pond.  And out there in the middle of the pond were some slow-moving shapes, just sticking out of the water — turtles!  They were too far away to get a good look, but Ruth pronounced herself pleased at seeing several of her reptilian friends cruising around out in the sun.

After admiring the turtles, we walked east between two copses to look out into a large field.  The trail map suggested that the proposed paved greenway skirted the field to the right (southeast), but no trail exists there.  The Deer Run trail, according to the map, cuts across the field into a treeline on the east side of the field.  The “trail” consisted of a six-foot wide swath of mowed grass.  Though it did head in the correct direction, we thought it looked a little dodgy so we went back to the east side of Jobala Pond and tried to find a marked trail, or a footbed, or ribbons, or anything to suggest where we should go to join up with the Tall Tupelo or Primitive trails.  Finally, we just headed along the treeline on the edge of the field, in the approximate location of the trail marked on the map.  This grass was not recently mowed, and worse, when it had last been mowed the ground was soft, which meant that there were unpredictable ridges hiding under the long grass.  After hiking about .22 miles along the treeline, we came to a gap where we could go left to follow the Primitive trail (if indeed we could find it), or right to swing around the northwest edge of the large field on what the trail map called the Tall Tupelo trail.

After a cursory look to the left, where we didn’t spot any indication of a trail, we went right, figuring that according to the map the Tall Tupelo trail seemed to skirt the woods for a while before punching into them for a short distance.  After passing through the gap, Ruth spotted a wooden sign lurking on the edge of the woods, and on further inspection we discovered it said, “Trail,” with an arrow pointing into the woods.  It seemed a bit odd to be directed into the woods at that particular spot, but we followed the arrow and promptly found ourselves in a trackless grove, with no discernible footbed and no trail markings.

After thrashing around for a few minutes, we gave up and re-entered the field, walking along a mowed strip next to the woods.  We passed the alleged junction of the Tall Tupelo trail and a spur trail to the Tall Tupelo observation point, but there was no sign of the spur trail, so we kept moving northwest until we saw another trail sign, this time with a trail name on it.  And finally, peering into the woods, we saw a wide, but not recently maintained, track heading generally north.  Now we were on the trail for sure, and just in time as we knew this trail went through the woods for a short distance before teeing into the Deer Run trail, on the west bank of the Flint River.  The bad news:  it was only a passing fancy, as the wide trail quickly narrowed, then disappeared.  The good news:  there were some orange ribbons marking the intended path, so we went ribbon-to-ribbon for .2 miles until we finally reached the Deer Run trail.  Of course, there was no signage at the intersection, but it was clearly a trail running along the west bank of the Flint.

Now that we were out of the middle of the Sanctuary, the hiking conditions improved markedly.  The Deer Run trail is a wide dirt path at this point, and supposedly there is a Flint River observation point at the intersection of Tall Tupelo and Deer Run.  There was no sign to mark it, but you can easily make your way to the bank for river views.  We turned left (north) and walked a few yards when Ruth felt compelled to take a look at the river, and sure enough, there were two turtles sunning on a log!  I switched to my ridiculous low-budget 400mm fully manual old school telephoto lens and managed to get one usable photo before one turtle got suspicious and slipped into the water.  We’re no turtle experts, and the photo isn’t that sharp, but we think were looking at a yellow-bellied pond slider and a midland smooth softshell.  Certainly, they were different species, just from looking at the shape of the head.  The slider was a cool customer and hung out on the log until we moved on.

We continued north on the Deer Run trail for around .35 miles, crossing a bridge over a feeder creek into the Flint, then passing a wide opening on the west side of the trail that we think is the other end of the Primitive trail (you guessed it: no signage, no trail markings).  Just a few yards afterwards, the trail became a paved greenway and continued on for 100 yards or so to end at the AJ and June Brannum parking area, the northern access point for the Sanctuary.  There’s a kiosk with maps in this parking area too, and a sign marking this end of the trail as the Flint River Greenway.

Our return route was to retrace our steps along the Deer Run trail, continuing past the junction with Tall Tupelo, and winding south until the trail leaves the river and heads inland.  Just as we reached the area where we had seen the turtles, we spotted a large white bird winging down the river.  The Flint River often splits, and the bird settled in an area on the far side of a little island.  Luckily, we could still see it through the trees, and again the telephoto was pressed into service, eventually yielding a photo that makes us think this bird is an immature blue heron.  We had initially thought it was an egret, but the beak and legs are the wrong color.  As always, we’re happy to be corrected by any bird enthusiasts out there.

About .2 miles south of the Tall Tupelo-Deer Run intersection, the Deer Run trail turns away from the river and heads inland, emerging into a small field.  A low wooden sign laconically says “Trail” and points across the field, and we followed a set of tire tracks across it and through a gap between groves.  Just as we entered the northeast edge of the large field we had previously skirted in our quest to find the Tall Tupelo trail, we spotted another sign pointing into the woods on the east side of the field.  The trail map seemed to suggest that the Deer Run trail skirts the woods, then moves into them until intersecting with the Gravel Bar trail, so again we took the signage literally and followed the arrow into the woods.  Again, there was no footbed to guide us, and no ribbons either, so we figured our choice was either to walk in the field (which was not mowed here) or to bushwhack through the woods.  We tried the woods option, and quickly came across what looked like a game trail that ran above the bank of one of the river’s side channels.  This trail eventually worked its way back to the edge of the woods and the field, where we spotted a trail sign crookedly pointing back toward the river.  We took this to be the intersection with the Gravel Bar trail.

Indeed, it was the Gravel Bar trail, which is clearly an old road.  We started above the gullied roadbed for a few yards before the trail descended into the roadbed, which we then just followed to a shallow crossing of the river channel we had seen earlier on the game trail.  There’s a sizeable gravel deposit here, easily crossed at the time of our visit, though it would probably require wading during rainier times.  After crossing the side channel, the trail definitely looks like an old road, and .2 miles from the beginning of the trail, we reached a small rocky beach on a bend of the Flint River.  It was a lovely spot!  The river flowed by with a fairly sizeable current through an S-curve, with a few fallen trees to add to the degree of difficulty for anyone floating this section (which in fact we’ve done, a few years ago).  We lounged on the rocks for a while, which were just a bit too sun-warmed for good basking, and Ruth cooled her feet in the river.  While drying off, she made a new friend — a butterfly which actually took some persuasion to move along when we were ready to resume our hike.

We retraced our route along the Gravel Bar trail, where we got confirmation that we were in the right place when Ruth spotted a green and white printed sign that said “Gravel Bar Trail.”  Of course, it was eight feet up in a tree (sigh).  After returning to the Gravel Bar-Deer Run intersection, which contrary to the trail map is on the edge of the field and not in the woods, we took the only viable option – a mowed strip across the field, which is the segment of the Deer Run trail that we had first looked at just past Jobala Pond.  From there, we just retraced our steps along the gravel road back to the Taylor Road parking area.  Our total mileage for the hike, according to our GPS track, was 4 miles (well, 3.998 if you want to get specific).

This Sanctuary is a terrific resource, and we were a little sad to be the only people there on a Saturday morning.  I’ve been pretty harsh on the discrepancies between the trail map and the ground truth, and the trail signage can be most charitably described as aspirational, but if you confine your hike to either end of the Sanctuary you’ll get an easy, level, shaded walk with water and wildlife views.  We saw quite a few wildflowers in bloom, including monkeyflower, trumpet creeper, creeping water primrose, blue mistflower, and the excellently-named purple-headed sneezeweed, not to mention those extraordinary resurrection lilies.

If you don’t take the trail map too literally, and make sure you’re there in broad daylight, you can have a fine ramble through several different habitats.  When the paved greenway is completed, the interpretive center is in place, and the natural surface trails are better developed and marked, this urban sanctuary will be a real showplace for the city.


Quick Look: Ziplining at Lake Guntersville State Park

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Trail Name: Screaming Eagle (zipline canopy tours)

Location: Guntersville, Alabama

Length:  Two options – (1) 10 zips and 4 adventure bridges; (2) 7 additional zips and more sky bridges

Rating: Easy, but there are age and weight limits

Points of interest:  canopy tour, forest and unsurpassed lake views, 2100 ft long zipline, increasingly alarming sky bridges

Blog Posts: Fly Like an Eagle: Zipline Adventures II

Notes:  Super fun zipline adventure in Lake Guntersville State Park is a great way to cool off.  With two options, you can spend around two hours on the first 10 zips and adventure bridges, or add another 90 minutes or so to do the longer and higher zips.  Reservations are highly recommended, and please pay close attention to the weight/age/medical limits and advice on what to bring and wear (restrictions on shoes are especially important).  See the link below for details.

Screaming Eagle website:  Screaming Eagle Aerial Adventure

Scary Nice: Ghost House Trail, Big Ridge State Park

When planning our little mini-vacation up in East Tennessee, we were looking to stay in a state park that would offer hiking possibilities, with other short nearby hikes we could throw in before heading back on Sunday afternoon.  Ruth covered our first destination, Norris Lake State Park, in last week’s post.  In this second installment of our three-part series, I’ll tell you about a short hike we took on our way back home.

Tennessee is crazy about state parks.  We have 22 state parks in Alabama, not counting the three historical state parks such as Tannehill Ironworks and two other former state parks being operated by local governments.  Tennessee crams 56 into a smaller state (though to be fair, they have 1/3 more people).  Some of Tennessee’s parks are really small and specialized, but there are 37 that offer some sort of overnight accommodations.  They are often relatively close to each other, and that’s the case around Norris Lake State Park, with Cove Lake State Park and Big Ridge State Park both within 30 miles of our home base for the weekend.  In fact, they are sister parks, born around the same time by TVA as recreation demonstration areas when Norris Reservoir was created in the 1930s.  Neither Cove Lake nor Big Ridge was actually on our way home, but after looking over trail descriptions for both parks, one trail jumped out at me.  In fact, it jumped out and said “Boo!”

Big Ridge State Park is about 15 miles from Norris Lake State Park, but with rural roads that make the travel time about 25 minutes.  Big Ridge has over 15 miles of hiking trails in its nearly 3,700 acres.   The Ghost House trail forms a 1.2 mile loop over easy to moderate terrain, but with a name like that, you know there’s a story behind this trail.  In fact, there are a few ghost stories associated with this trail, and the park in general.  The trail features a cemetery and the location of a reputedly haunted house.  Given that it was a nice sunny summer morning, we figured we’d be safe from any supernatural shenanigans if we took a quick pass around the loop.

After stopping by the park office and picking up a trail map, we drove past the cabins along the southern edge of this arm of Norris Lake and headed toward the Norton Gristmill for a pre-hike visit.   This particular building is a reproduction of the 1825 mill, which was in operation until the early 1930s.  TVA purchased the property and took down the mill when building Norris Dam, but in 1968 the mill was reconstructed on its original site, using some of the original mill machinery and the millstones.  It’s not an operational mill, but it looks like it could grind up some cornmeal if the raceway were operational.  There’s a legend that a man hanged his daughter there on suspicion of her being a witch.  We didn’t see any ghosts there, but we did see a group of men posing on the steps of the mill after our hike.  They looked like a wedding party, and indeed there was a wedding planned for the CCC-built historic assembly hall in the park.  It was a warm day, and with their jackets doffed and matching white shirts and black pants it looked like they were there for a hootenanny.

The parking area for the Lake Trail and Ghost House trail is just past the mill, on the right.  The paved road is gated here, but the gravel parking area can hold eight or so vehicles.  The trails don’t actually start from the parking area.  Instead, we walked past the gate and continued along the paved road for a little over .1 miles to reach the trailhead for the Lake Trail.  This little stretch of road was right along a little cove, and we were entertained by a lively little goldfinch darting among the branches of a fallen tree.

A kiosk on the other side of the Lake Trail sign has a trail map and park info.  Almost immediately, a wooden bridge crosses a narrow creek, and the trail skirts the edge of the lake for .1 miles to the junction of the Lake and Ghost House trails.  Well, it was sort of a junction — as you can see on the sign, it looks like we were to turn right on a spur trail that was 0.0 miles long.  I’m not quite sure I see the point of that sign, but OK.  Maybe it was a warning that we were entering the Other Dimension.

Both the Lake Trail and the Ghost House trail are well marked with the plastic trail markers we’ve seen used in other Tennessee state parks.  Each trail marker is color-coded to match the trail map, and is customized with the park’s name — pretty sharp.  Maybe you get nice things like that when your legislature funds your parks.  I noticed some painted yellow blazes along the Ghost House trail too, which probably pre-date the newer marking system.

After traveling 0.0 miles (actually, about 50 yards) we came to the “real” Lake-Ghost House intersection and turned away from the lake and into the woods.  The trail was mostly level, maybe slanting slightly uphill, and was nicely shady.  It was a warm morning, though, and we needed to generate some breeze by moving along quickly.  The trail runs along a low ridgetop, with some portions flanked by running cedar ferns.

At .4 miles, we came upon one of the ghostly highlights of the hike — the Norton Cemetery.  The cemetery has marked graves from 1907-1929, and I’d guess there are about a dozen markers ranged around the small clearing in the woods.  The cemetery is the final resting place for Maston Hutcheson and his wife Martha, among others.  Harm Norton is one of three Nortons buried here, and there’s a sad little rock with just the name “Ibby” carved on it.  The grave of Maston Hutcheson is sunken, which no doubt has inspired some of the tales that his spirit wanders the park.

Let’s talk ghost stories for a moment.  The most-circulated stories about this area seem to be the tale of the death of Maston’s daughter Mary, who succumbed to tuberculosis.  Some versions of the story say that neighbors on the way to the house came across a phantom dog, and other versions say that they heard her cries coming from the bedroom after her death.  Supposedly, some park visitors have heard the ghost dog panting in the woods.   I should note that Mary is not buried in the Norton cemetery, since she likely died in the 1840s or 1850s, and the Norton cemetery is not that old.   Local legend has it that Maston wanders the woods.  Another oft-repeated tale about the cemetery is that in some photographs of the cemetery, silhouettes of the occupants can be seen by their graves.

None of our pictures showed anything ghostly, and the only thing panting in the woods was two hikers starting to feel the heat and humidity.  We ran into one dead thing right outside the cemetery as we resumed our hike:  a pine tree down across the trail, which we easily skirted.  Just .1 mile from the cemetery, we reached the intersection with the Big Valley trail.  Big Valley is one of the longer and more difficult trails in the park, and crosses Pinnacle Ridge, descends into Dark Valley, and rises to the top of the park’s namesake Big Ridge.  Sadly, we didn’t have time to visit this area of the park, but we did travel the .05 miles to the site of the “ghost house.”

A sign at the ghost house site explains that this is the site of Maston Hutcheson’s grandson’s house, which is apparently one of the houses in the area that was reputedly haunted.  There’s not much to see now — a hole that was once a root cellar,  a cistern, and a well casing are all that remain of the house.  Apparently the Hutcheson family home was nearby.

We resumed our loop, noticing that the western side the trail seemed to be less traveled.  The footbed was narrower, as we had left the former wagon road along the ridgetop.  A small creek ran next to the trail, and occasionally the trail crossed it on short wooden bridges.  One such bridge had the “ghosts” of two former bridges on either side — a footlog and the wreckage of a small wooden bridge.  This part of the trail was once farmed, though the woods have reclaimed the fields.  With the nearby creek, this is a good area for wildflowers earlier in the spring.  We didn’t see any wildflowers, but this is the one section of the trail that had raspberries on it.

The trail undulates a little on the western side of the loop, descending down one side of the ridge, leveling out along the creek, and then climbing once to gain some elevation before dropping back down along the creek.  We saw our only notable wildflower in bloom just before arriving back at the Ghost House-Lake trail intersection — a lone smooth phlox in a sunny patch beside the trail.

After returning to the Lake trail junction, we just retraced our steps back to the car.  The total distance was 1.5 miles according to our GPS track.

Despite its scary name and reputation, we found the Ghost House trail to be a pleasant, easy walk in the woods with a couple of interesting historic sites along the way.  Of course, we hiked it in broad daylight!  It might be a different story on a night hike, and the park offers guided hikes in October that probably crank up the scariness.  And if you’re there at any time, in the back country and off trail, you just might see a middle-aged man in gray work pants and a red flannel shirt.  Better look quickly, because he vanishes right before your eyes – or so the rangers say.

Red Mountain Rising

Picture this:  a large group of enthusiastic people in a room ringed with whiteboards.  “Trails, of course,” someone says, and everyone nods.  “Not just for walking — good ones for bikes too,” adds someone else.  “Then we’ll need some kind of maintenance stations for the bikes,” chimes in another.   Yeah, that’s good.  “But the history of this property — surely that has to be part of it,” says another voice.   We’re going to need interpretive signage.  “Oh yeah, and we have to weave in history and nature education too, maybe in outdoor classrooms,” says another.  “And what about people with mobility issues, and those with sensory challenges,” pipes up another voice.  Heads nod.  “And what about something on the either extreme — ropes courses, zip lines, climbing towers — that could drive the active recreation crowd through the gates,” shouts an enthusiast.  People cheer!  Outdoor art!  And what about a dog park!  The whiteboards are getting clogged with ideas.

I don’t know if that’s how it really went down in the early planning years for Red Mountain Park in Birmingham, but this 1,500-acre urban park is a brimming mixture of topography, geology, philanthropy, biology, archaeology, adventure, and opportunity.  Red Mountain looms large literally, separating Jones Valley and Shades Valley on the west-central side of Birmingham, and figuratively too, with its seams of red hematite iron ore forming one of the pillars of the city’s iron industry.  With its ready access to iron ore, limestone, and coal, Birmingham was the foundry of the South, prior to the Civil War up until the Depression, when mining activity wound down rapidly.  There was a brief renaissance in the local iron and steel industry during World War Two, but the last producing iron mine in the area closed in 1971.

US Steel was the last owner of the mine complex on Red Mountain.  The last mine on present park property closed in 1962, and the property laid untouched for the next forty years.  In 2005 the Freshwater Land Trust started raising money with the intention of buying the property and preserving it as a park, and US Steel sold the land at a $9.5 million discount, and then threw in another million to help develop the property.  With funding from Jefferson County, the Federal Government, and grants, the property was purchased in 2007 and the first tours of the property began in 2008.  As parks go, it’s quite young.  It’s not technically a state park, though it is run by a state agency, the Red Mountain Greenway and Recreational Area Commission.  Naturally, this being Alabama, it means that the park receives no state funding.

Yet gloriously, it’s free.  The park is primarily funded by its members, who contribute voluntarily to the non-profit organization which runs the park’s day to day operations, and receive invites to special events and discounts on park adventures.  There are a few donation collection boxes here and there for the casual visitor, but with grants and fees generated from event rentals, corporate retreats, and adventure courses anyone can enjoy the 15 miles of developed trails and visit the overlooks and historic mine sites without paying an entrance fee.

With hiking, history, and zip lines, Red Mountain Park has been on our radar for quite a while, and we found a big enough gap in a rainy weekend to pop down to the Magic City for a visit.  We wouldn’t have time for an extended visit, so I suggested just a small sampler of what the park had to offer — a short loop hike past the Adventure Area, past a couple of mines, and a quick trip to a treehouse.  Here’s a pro tip for any fellow travelers coming from the north — Google Maps plotted a course that had us exit I-65 at Exit 258, where we wound through neighborhoods and an industrial park without seeing any signage whatsoever for Red Mountain Park until we saw the sign for the parking lot.  The directions to the park entrance at 2011 Frankfurt Drive were accurate, but if you go on down to Exit 255 and go west on Lakeshore Parkway, signage is plentiful.  Either route will get you there, though.

There are three large gravel parking lots at the entrance, with many people parking on the shoulder of Frankfurt Drive (quite unnecessarily).  The park entrance is unassuming — just through a metal gate in a wooden fence, where a shipping container sits underneath the trees.  The shipping container is the Welcome Station, and is staffed.  This is where you check in if you’ve signed up for any of the park’s adventure courses.  You can also get information, water, and park merchandise there.

The entrance has two very interesting features, just past the Welcome Station.  On the right, there’s an artifact donation box.  That’s the first time I’ve seen one in a park, and it’s a reminder that this park is a very large industrial archaeology site, with mining operations active here since 1863.  Of course, my archaeologist daughter would chide me if I didn’t remind you that context is key in archaeology, and removing an artifact from its original location is to be avoided whenever possible.  A donation box is better than having your artifact walk out of the park in someone’s pocket, though.  The other interesting feature is on the left — a bike repair station.  There are four of these scattered in the park to service riders, with tire pumps and tools available, and very nicely designed to integrate the park’s logo.  Clever idea!

The wide gravel path (technically the Eureka Mines trail) passes a pair of porta-potties, which I mention only to point out that there aren’t any permanent restrooms in the park yet.  Just a few feet beyond, a .11 mile trail takes off to the right to Remy’s Dog Park, a six-acre off-leash park with areas for large dogs, small dogs, and special needs dogs.  We may need to check that out on a future trip — I’m curious about what you’d find in a special needs dog park.

Most of the trails we traveled on this particular visit were broad, largely flat, and graveled to some degree.  Trails are numbered and color-coded, with manufactured wood signposts and printed graphics at some junctions, and plain wooden posts labeled with permanent marker at others (obviously a work in progress).  After crossing the L&N trail, we passed a picnic area off to the right with a whimsical pair of oversized industrial-flavored spectacles up on a mound.  A little farther up the trail we passed one of the three hammock areas in the park.  These are sets of posts with hooks in them, suitable for quickly hanging your hammock for a nice rest in the shade.  It was pretty warm and humid on the day of our visit, so there were no takers at the time.

In .55 miles we reached the intersection with the BMRR South trail, the main southwest to northeast trail on the southern edge of the park.  This is also the general location of the Adventure Area, where another shipping container is the staging area for the various fee-based activities.  There’s a rope and cable obstacles course, a zip line tour, a climbing tower, and a mega-zip line (a 1,000-foot zip, starting 80 feet above the ground).  Rates are pretty reasonable, but all such adventures must be booked 24 hours in advance.  You can book online from Red Mountain Park’s website, or via telephone.

We took the #13 Mine trail past the Adventure Area, which had the added bonus of taking us past part of the high ropes course and underneath one of the zip lines.  Ruth thought that one of the cable obstacles resembled flying turtles when seen from below.  She sure does love her turtles!  We paused for a bit to watch  some zip liners make their way across the trail.  We will definitely have to come back and try out the course ourselves.  The part we saw seemed a little less intimidating that the courses at Lake Guntersville State Park or at Historic Banning Mills, but we only saw a small portion of the course.

Only .14 miles from the Adventure Area, we arrived at Mine #13.  The mines themselves are sealed, in case you were thinking of doing some underground exploring.  Mine #13 was active 1873-1933, and is the oldest of the five mines in the park.  Little of the machinery remains — some rusted pipes here and there, and a sealed smaller entrance off to the side of the main entrance.  Historical interpretive signage would be nice here, but as an alternative you can download the free TravelStorys app for your own self-guided tour.  Another pro tip — download the app before you get to the park.  There is cell phone coverage in the park, but you’ll want to pull down this tour in advance so you can enjoy the scenery instead of staring at your phone.

After a quick lunch at the picnic table by the mine, we retraced our steps back to the Ike Maston trail and headed northeast to visit Mine #14.  The Ike Maston trail is another main southwest-northeast artery through the park, and unlike some of the other trails this is a narrower, natural surface trail with some elevation change.  We soon teed into the #14 Mine trail, which betrayed its origins as a rail spur with its wide corridor and gentle slope up to the mine.  This was one of better stretches for early summer wildflowers, such as black-eyed Susan and St. Andrew’s cross.  Mine #14 was active from 1895-1941.  Both mines had slopes cleared, extending uphill from their entrances, and you can glimpse remnants of the structure that supported the winches and cables that pulled the ore cars uphill for processing and loading onto trains.

Our next destination was the mountaintop itself, which we reached in about .2 miles with a couple of moderate climbs, nothing that would qualify as particularly steep.  We teed into the Ishkooda trail, where we had the option of heading .75 miles east to Grace’s Gap, where the first iron ore discovery was made in the Birmingham area, or heading west toward Riley’s Roost, one of three treehouses in the park.  We opted not to add the 1.5 mile out-and-back to Grace’s Gap, and instead strolled along the wide ridgetop trail.  Though it’s not called out specifically on the trail map, the ruins of the Mine #14 bathhouse are off to the left about .17 miles after making the turn onto the Ishkooda trail, in the same area as Riley’s Roost.  The concrete foundation of the bathhouse is largely intact, albeit with a tree or two growing out of it, and the TravelStory for that site was particularly interesting, pointing out the pains taken at the mine to battle diseases that typically ravaged mining camps.  The superstructure of the building is gone, but you can climb some steps to reach the floor level of the bathhouse, where floor drains and the remains of some ceramic tiles are still in place.  The bathhouse was far more interesting than the treehouse, which was just a small unroofed platform around a tree trunk.

We resumed our walk westward on the Ishkooda trail, which was now flanked with various building ruins and foundations.  There weren’t any identifying signs by the ruins, but later we found a kiosk with a terrific labeled photo of the site in the late 1940s, from which we gathered we had passed the ruins of the compressor house and the #13 tipple.  We continued on to the TCI Connector trail, which marks the end of the Ishkooda trail and the beginning of the Skyhy Ridge Walk trail, and took a moment to study the historical photo on a kiosk and listen to the TravelStory about the maintenance shop (which now houses a picnic area inside its ruins).

To complete our loop, we headed south on the TCI Connector trail, which led us past the beginning of the zip line course and the Kaul adventure tower before teeing into the BMRR South trail.  We turned west to extend our hike a little bit on this wide, pleasant rail-to-trail, passing the entrance to the Butler Snow Sensory Trail, designed for low-vision/low-hearing/developmentally different children and adults.  We eventually turned left onto the L&N trail, passing an outdoor classroom, and retraced our steps back toward the Eureka Mines trail and the park entrance.  All told, we covered about 3.25 miles.

All in all, it was a very pleasant introduction to Red Mountain, which merits at least two more visits to take in the adventure courses and the trails and sights on the southwestern end of the park.   And who knows what this idea factory of a park will look like on our return?  From signs posted in the park, you can tell that they are already filling up the whiteboards again:  more trails!  Picnic pavilions!  New formal entrance!  Event facility!  Farmer’s market!

Quick Look: Cathedral Caverns State Park



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Trail Name: Various trails, Cathedral Caverns State Park

Location: Grant, Alabama

Length:  Interlocking 3.8 mile loop

Rating: Easy to moderate

Points of interest:  Rocky bluffs, caves and sinkholes, creek, and of course, Cathedral Caverns, a great place to cool off on a hot day

Blog Post: Cathedral Caverns State Park

Notes:  Figure-8 loop hike for all ages, with a couple of steep climbs

GPS Track: Cathedral Caverns State Park

Lake Glenville’s High Falls: Or, How I Tried to Kill My Family (Again)

For many years, we’ve met up with my side of the family for a little mini-vacation, usually over a holiday weekend.  As the kids have grown and the adults’ tolerance for sleeping on the ground has dissipated, we’ve been transitioning from camping to staying in vacation rentals (mountain cabins, beach house, that sort of thing).  The cast of characters fluctuates over the years, depending on prior obligations and the availability of friends/girlfriends/boyfriends.  This year’s edition occurred over the Memorial Day weekend, during which a bunch of us drove to Lake Glenville in western North Carolina to stay in a lake house.

Knowing that we’d be on a lake, Ruth and I loaded up the kayaks on the truck for the roughly 5.5 hour drive.  The house was great — well supplied, plenty of sleeping spaces, and a killer view of the northern end of Lake Glenville. Over the years, certain family traditions have built up for these vacations — card and board games, usually some shopping and touring of local towns, maybe some adventure (jet skis, whitewater rafting, that sort of thing), a beer sampling night for the adults, and crazy Chet and Ruth pick out a nearby hike. My family loves me and tolerates our outdoors addiction, and any able-bodied members of the clan turn out for the stroll (as I call it), or the forced march (as my family calls it).

With a subtropical storm wallowing around down in the Gulf of Mexico, we had to time our outdoor plans.  It just happened that the best time for a hike was Saturday morning.  I had done some research on the excellent Ashevilletrails.com site, and knew we were in a target-rich environment for short hikes to waterfalls.  It turns out one of our best options was about 5 minutes away by paddle, and 20 minutes by car on the winding mountain roads.  Lake Glenville is a man-made lake created by damming the west fork of the Tuckaseegee River, and is also fed by/feeds into many creeks.  The west fork of the Tuckaseegee flows over a spillway in the north end of the lake and winds its way generally northeast to join the main Tuckaseegee River.  Along the way, it plummets 150 feet in a two-drop waterfall that can be pretty spectacular when there’s a lot of water.

We drove around to the large gravel parking lot and set off down the .7 mile High Falls trail from the kiosk to the bottom of the gorge.  At first the trail was just a wide gravel road, bending down below the road and behind the dam, passing a few stands of Deptford pink along the way.  At .15 miles, the gravel road ended, and the trail entered the shady woods.  This trail drops 500 feet in .7 miles, and quickly got down to serious business with a wide wooden stairway.  The descent became more gradual for a little while, with our first sightings of large stands of purple-flowering raspberry in the sunnier patches of the trail.

This is a relatively new trail, built in 2013 mostly from materials onsite, and it’s quite an engineered trail, with several flights of stone staircases, increasing in steepness as they near the bottom of the gorge.  At .4 miles a nice boardwalk spans a soggy portion of the trail, with the roar of the river off to the right.  The trail was fairly busy, with small groups coming up from the bottom and others passing us on the way down.  We were traveling carefully, as our group consisted of me (slow in the best of circumstances), Ruth (broken leg survivor), my sister (a bit cautious), my brother-in-law (bad knees), my niece (carrying a baby), my grand-nephew (the aforementioned baby), and my nephew (carrying the requisite 60-pound baby bag).  The narrow stone staircases do not have rails, and at one point my sister stepped to the side of a staircase thinking the footing would be better.  That would be a hard no, and resulted in a jarring fall that skinned up her arm and made her question her choice of white shorts for the hike.  But we pressed on.

The longest, steepest descent began at .5 miles, and at .6 miles we reached a vantage point for the top of the waterfall, which was absolutely roaring.  The rocks were slicker here, given the general dampness from the falls, so at this point the sensible members of the family decided to enjoy the view, then return to the top.  Needless to say, Ruth and I went on down the last .1 mile to the bottom of the waterfall, where we crept out on some rocks near the base to admire the furious water and to be blasted by a steady stream of spray, which felt pretty good on this warm, humid morning.

After a good soak, we were ready to make our way back up the trail, and slowly climbed out of the gorge without further incident.  It was a tough climb, rather to our surprise, but we made it back to the parking lot without incident.  My family had long since returned to the house.  We later found out that my niece, nephew, and baby Emmitt made the return journey just fine, while us oldsters were still complaining of achy joints two days later.  Naturally, that means we need to do more hiking!

One note about High Falls:  the amount of water in the falls varies widely.  On certain days Duke Energy releases water from the lake to create a terrific whitewater run on the west fork below the falls.  I don’t think this was one of those planned release days — there had just been so much rain lately that there was a lot of water.  Compare my photos above to the one in this photo from Ashevilletrails.com, and you’ll see what I mean.  And one other thing — this relatively short, steep trail that was so taxing on us, is actually meant for kayakers to carry their watercraft down to the base of the falls to put in for the whitewater run.  That’s pretty impressive — but I bet there aren’t many of them carrying a kayak AND a baby.


Quick Look: Madison County Nature Trail



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Trail Name: Madison County Nature Trail

Location: Green Mountain, Huntsville

Length:  1.5 mile loop

Rating: Easy

Points of interest:  Covered bridge, a reconstructed log cabin, an outdoor classroom, a chapel, picnic area, picnic pavilion, and Sky Lake

Blog Post: Easy Peasy Hikes: Madison County Nature Trail

Notes:  An easy loop hike for all ages, with little elevation change

GPS Track: none

Boys’ Day Out: Chapman Mountain

Glory be!  We actually had a weekend with two beautiful days of rain-free weather, just in time for our annual visit to the National Cornbread Festival in South Pittsburg, TN.  After enjoying a plate of nine different cornbread samples, touring the newly-opened Lodge factory expansion, and taking in the vendor exhibits, we had made a day of it and still had a Sunday free for a hike.  Sadly, Ruth was feeling a little puny, despite the healing power of cornbread, so Casey the Hound and I decided to have a Boys’ Day Out and let her rest up in some peace and quiet.

The Land Trust of North Alabama has recently announced that their Chapman Mountain nature preserve is now open to the public during daylight hours, with approximately 3 miles of trails developed and ready for hiking, biking, and horseback riding.  Ruth and I have worked on a couple of those trails, and were last there a few weeks ago for the dedication of the property – yet another gift of the Terry family to future generations.  But, when you do trail work you become intimately familiar with a few dozen yards of a trail and not necessarily its entire length, and there were some trails we hadn’t visited at all.  Three miles was a nice manageable distance, so Casey and I decided to stretch our collective six legs and hike all the currently open trails.

The Chapman Mountain Preserve can be slightly tricky to get to, since it’s on the westbound side of U.S. Highway 72 in a stretch where the lanes are divided.  If you’re approaching from the west, you’ll need to take Highway 72 to the light at Moore’s Mill Road and make a U-turn, then stay in the rightmost lane as you climb the hill.  Once the guardrail ends, be on the lookout for a paved driveway leading to a gate, where’s there’s a sign announcing the Preserve.  The paved driveway quickly becomes gravel and drops down the mountain, which means the sign isn’t readily visible from Highway 72.   After you descend down the gravel drive, there’s a large gravel parking area with room for dozens of vehicles, including horse trailers.

The Land Trust has ambitious plans to develop this 371-acre preserve, with seven more miles of trails, a disc golf course, group camping, and the Terry Education Pavilion, which will have running water and restrooms.  The pavilion is still under construction at this time, so at the moment the only restroom facilities are porta-johns.  A kiosk with a trail map and other information is easily visible from the parking lot, and should be your first stop to get oriented.  Or, as an alternative, you can download the trail map in advance from the Land Trust’s website.  Since I was planning to hike all the trails, I spent a little time looking over the options to try to come up with an efficient route to minimize backtracking.  As currently laid out, there are many options for constructing loops of varying lengths, so if you’re not up for hiking three miles at this time, you can piece together a much shorter loop to suit your ambition.

The Chapman Mountain Preserve is kind of shaped like a lopsided bow tie, with one large tract to the northeast and another larger tract higher on the mountain to the southwest.  All of the development so far has been in the northeast section, with two trails lying mostly east of the parking lot, and another four trails to the west.  Casey didn’t seem to have any preference as to where we started, so I decided we’d try the newest trails, the Driskell Trail (a 0.8 mile loop) and the Chasco Trail (a 0.5 mile loop that starts on the southeast edge of the Driskell Trail).  There were a handful of cars in the parking lot when we started, and I noticed a couple of people leading horses from the western trails back to a horse trailer.

Since the Driskell Trail is a loop, you can start anywhere, so I decided to start from the southeast corner of the parking lot.  The Driskell Trail isn’t marked right at the edge of the parking lot, and isn’t necessarily recognizable as a trail.  It’s a wide, mowed, bulldozer road that runs between a stand of tall young pines to the north and Chase Creek to the south, shaded by trees.  In under .1 mile, a signpost on the right (south) points the way to the Chasco Trail, which is also a loop trail.  We turned onto Chasco, and just a few yards from the Driskell/Chasco intersection, the Chasco trail crosses a small creek, which was just a trickle at this particular point and easy to cross.  After crossing the creek, the loop portion of the trail begins.  Casey seemed to show a preference to go left (clockwise), so we headed east and downstream.

The trail starts well enough, nice and level, with the creek to the left and wildflowers such as false solomon’s seal growing in the dappled shade.  To the experienced eye, though, there were some telltale signs of a young trail – saplings cut off knee and waist-high to be dug out later on a trail maintenance workday, navigation ribbons still in the trees, and a soggy unimproved water crossing where a drainage presumably from the highway flows into the creek.  There are signs of hard-won progress where this trail was carved out of a thicket of bush honeysuckle, and having visited this preserve before any trail work had started, I can tell you large portions of it were barely passable.  After about .18 miles the trail stopped in a thicket, with an indistinct manway continuing to the east.  Casey and I gave it a try, but clearly the trail wasn’t finished or even marked, so we backtracked to the last clear part of the trail to reconsider.  I spotted ribbons through the trees to the right of the trail, so we bushwhacked about 40 yards to reach the trail, where we were able to turn right and continue the loop back to the west.  It looks like the loop is not yet completely open.  We continued on around clockwise, with traffic whizzing by up the hill from us, on a nice wide path.  Unfortunately, at about .3 miles our progress was delayed by a large tree across the trail, far too big to clamber over easily, and with no established detours.  We picked our way through the rootball’s crater, but it would be impassable for a horse unless it was a show jumper.

After clearing the tree, we continued on down the Chasco Trail, which is at its best along this stretch.  The footpath is level and well-groomed, winding past a few boulders on its way back to the beginning of the loop.  We turned left, re-crossed the creek, and turned right to continue on the Driskell Trail.  Calling it a trail is somewhat charitable at this time.  I don’t think I saw a trail diamond after the Driskell/Chasco intersection, and the trail (or perhaps what I think is the trail) continues as a bulldozer road back to the eastern edge of the copse of pines, where all traces of a footpath end in an overgrown grassy meadow.  The horse riders had preceded me, so I followed their tracks on around until I spotted yellow ribbons hanging from trees so I followed them westward back toward the parking lot.  The ribbons eventually led to the right, away from the road, but I only spotted them by detouring around another fallen tree.  On the plus side, the butterweed continued to grow ubiquitously on the road, along with a few striking stands of crimson clover.  The trail, such as it is, just becomes a multi-tracked mess in this northwestern section of the loop, finally crossing the Moonshine Trail and resolving back into a more easily identifiable track as it bends south and then east back toward the parking lot.  We returned to the kiosk to start our next loop, which would cover four trails, with higher expectations.

Before I describe the next four trails, I’d like to say in defense of the Land Trust that the Chasco and Driskell Trails are not finished, and I remember being told that by one of the Land Stewards a few months ago.  Clearly, these two trails are still works in progress, and they aren’t yet up to the usual Land Trust trail standards.  The Land Stewards and volunteers have been working their tails off developing new trails on other preserves, including a trail on a relatively new property in Blevins Gap.  I’m only mentioning the current state of these two trails as a public service, to let you know what you’ll find if you attempt to hike these trails (which are shown as open on the preserve’s trail map) at this time.  Chasco is just one or two work sessions away from being fine.  Driskell, though, is nowhere near ready for prime time, and my recommendation is to stay away for now.

I knew that the trails leaving the west side of the parking lot were in much better shape, so I set off on the Moonshine Trail in better spirits.  The Moonshine Trail runs generally north-south, so I decided to make a loop of the southern end of the trail, the Whole Planet Trail (with a side trip onto the Amphitheater Trail), and the Terry Trail.  We headed south on the Moonshine Trail, marked with traditional diamonds and a hand-made sign by Mr. Bob Terry himself.   Before we reached the junction with the Terry Trail, the Moonshine Trail was blocked by yet another large fallen tree, which had pulled down a couple of others with it.  The terrain didn’t really lend itself to a detour, so the hound and I contorted ourselves over and under the various tree trunks.  I notice that the hoofprints ended at the fallen tree, which explains the horse riders coming back off that trail at the time we started our hike.

Once we got back on the trail, it was smooth sailing.  The Moonshine Trail is, at the moment, the showcase trail on this preserve.  It winds upstream along the creek through a more wildflower-friendly glade, with red buckeyes in bloom and several patches of trilliums (not in bloom at the time).  After passing the junction with the Whole Planet Trail, we continued on until the trail ended at a spring, which is the source of the creek we had been hiking along.  Indeed, this is the source of Chase Creek.  The area is kind of boggy when the spring is running, and the water flows from two locations.  Casey and I stopped for drinks and a snack, enjoying the sound of running water.  There aren’t any signs of a still in the area, though Bob Terry once told me there had been a still there at the time his grandfather purchased the property.  Grandpa Terry did not carry on the tradition.

After a short rest we retraced our route to the Whole Planet Trail, which climbs about 120 feet in its .3 miles. This trail, named for a Land Trust corporate partner with a very similar sounding business name (think groceries), is also quite enjoyable, despite its generally uphill climb.  It’s not particularly steep, and is well-constructed with a sturdy treadway and good drainage.  Mayapples are abundant on this trail, as are trillium and squaw root.

About 500 feet from the southern end of the Whole Planet Trail, the Amphitheater Trail takes off more or less in a straight line to the southwest.  This .1 mile trail trends just slightly uphill, ending abruptly at a small clearing that overlooks the spring on the Moonshine Trail.  Or, so I surmise — it’s not really visible when the trees are in leaf.  This trail isn’t worth the detour, except perhaps in the winter.

The hound and I resumed our journey on the Whole Planet Trail, continuing to its end at a chain link fence that protects a small tract on the property that’s not part of the preserve.  We turned right and followed the fence uphill to the start of the Terry Trail.  This trail follows, and occasionally deviates from, an old road bed that runs more or less level for about half of its 1.1 mile length.  As the trail heads north and away from the highway, the road noise dissipates, replaced by birdsong.  The trail has numerous patches of mayapples and more trillium.  We had just missed the dogwood flowering season, but dogwood petals frequently appeared underfoot.  It looks like the windstorm that claimed trees lower down the mountain did some damage here, with one fallen tree forming an impromptu arch over the trail.  Another tree blocks the trail, but is easily navigated around in the open woods.

The Terry Trail reaches the northern edge of the preserve in about .3 miles, at which point it bends to the southeast and begins a leisurely descent down this lobe of Chapman Mountain.   Along the way, there’s a short stretch where the trail’s edge is lined with small rocks, and a fallen log has been partially cut through to enable passage.  Shortly afterwards, the trail briefly goes through a boggy area before drying out and passing a couple of mossy boulder fields, one of which sported a health stand of purple phacelia.  Just past the second boulder of collection, I spotted a solitary Jack in the pulpit clinging to the edge of the trail.  The Terry Trail shows signs of being a wildflower rockstar!

The trail flattened out as it neared the parking lot and its first junction with the Moonshine Trail.  We continued along the Terry Trail  until it teed into the Moonshine Trail, a bit south of the parking lot.  This stretch has a small  stand of wild comfrey, with its lush basal leaves and delicate flowers on an incongruously gangly flower stalk (a “forked inflorescence” to use the term from my wildflower book).

To finish up all trail sections, we turned left on the Moonshine Trail and headed north.  Once we fought our way through that stupid fallen tree again, we took the Moonshine Trail north past the parking lot, passing the remains of an old truck, an old rock wall,  and an old car along the way.  After crossing the Driskell Trail twice and passing the Terry Educational Pavilion, we came to the northern end of the Moonshine Trail and closed our final loop.  The portion of the Moonshine Trail between its two intersections with the Driskell Trail is somewhat overgrown and slightly difficult to follow.  Since the parking lot is pretty much in sight you can’t get lost, but it seems to me a re-think of the trail layout in that area would be a good idea.  It just seems kind of fussy, although if you’re not being a purist and trying to walk every trail, you’ll eventually end up at the parking lot or at a trail junction with the Terry Trail or the Moonshine Trail.  All that remained was to finish the hike to the parking lot, which we did by taking the Driskell Trail back to the kiosk (which was kind of dumb – backtracking on Moonshine would have been a little shorter).

So in the end, we ended up walking about 3.7 miles to cover the 3.1 miles of unique trail in the preserve so far.  The GPS track will give you a general idea of the terrain and route.  The thing to remember about the Chapman Mountain Preserve is that it is a work in progress, and it’s going to be a work in progress for years.  At this time, the standout trails are the Moonshine, Whole Planet, and Terry Trails.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the Land Trust has cleared some of the fallen trees by the time this post goes live, but for now I suggest sticking to the trails on the west side of the parking lot.  Casey and I enjoyed our boys’ day out, though the bushwhacking took its toll — both of the boys came home and took a nap afterwards!