This week, Chet and I are in New Hampshire on a fall vacation. I’ve always wanted to see the New England leaves and this turned out to be a great week for us to do that. However, with all the planning and packing, plus some time spent at the Tennessee Valley Old Time Fiddlers Convention in Athens (an annual tradition for us), we had no time to get out and hike before we left. Don’t worry – we’re making up for lost time up here and will return with hikes to talk about, but in the meantime, here are a few of my favorite fall pictures from hikes closer to home.
The weather in Alabama in September can be maddening. One minute we’re being teased with the promise of crisp fall air, the next we’re back to sweltering heat and humidity. Soon enough, these hot and humid days will be a distant memory, but at the moment every weekend is a guessing game as to exactly which September weather we’ll be getting. At any rate, the last time it was my turn to pick our weekend adventure, it was heading back towards hot and humid, with a real chance of an actual popup shower, so I decided on a kayak trip thinking it would keep us cool. Way back in April of 2016, we’d floated down the first leg of the Limestone County Canoe and Kayak Trail, and I decided this would be the weekend we did the final leg.
This last leg of this trail down the Elk River in Limestone County starts at a boat ramp near Alabama Hwy 99 on Hatchery Road and ends at Sportsman Park on Elk River Mills Road in Athens. We loaded up the truck and headed towards our takeout point in Athens, watching the dark clouds roll west to east over us and passing through at least one rain shower on the way. I was worried that it would be rainy and gloomy our whole time on the river, but it turned out to be a passing shower after all and we had glorious blue skies after that. We dropped my car at Sportsman Park, where there is a huge parking area, boat ramp and dock available at no cost. The drive to the boat ramp at Hatchery Road is only 11 minutes. We’d been there before, when we did our last Elk River float, and found the parking lot to be much the same. It is a very large gravel parking area with a concrete boat ramp leading into the water. This time around we had the added bonus of a welcoming party of sorts. A large blue heron was hanging out right next to the parking area near where a little creek enters the river. My first heron sighting and I hadn’t even left the car!
We made short work of unloading the kayaks and were soon floating out on the river. The Elk is a broad and slow moving river by the time it gets down to this point, which makes for a very different kind of a float trip than what you’d get further upstream. Last time we were out, we had a pretty strong headwind to paddle against. This time around, winds were calm and had we not had a schedule to keep to we probably could have just let the river slowly carry us down the stream. As it was, I had plans in the evening and hoped to get off the river in time to get home and shower first so we helped ourselves along a bit but still, the paddling was pretty easy.
The first landmark was the Alabama Highway 99 bridge just downstream of the boat launch. Beyond the bridge, the river flows slowly between low tree-covered banks. I kept my eyes open, as always, for turtles. One problem with a wide, deep river like this is that it is an awfully long way between the shorelines, so veering from side to side to scope out all the potential turtle-sunning spots becomes pretty exhausting. Chet spotted one that slipped into the water before I could find him. I was worried that would be our only turtle sighting, but I was wrong – we saw several, most of which disappeared before I could get a camera focused on them, but one little guy was pretty bold and hung out long enough for me to coast up on him and snap a picture before he slid off his log. We also spotted several houses with lovely riverside settings. Must be a nice place to live.
Next up were a couple of coves in the river. These seem to be the favorite haunts of wading birds as we saw a couple of snow white egrets standing or wading in the shallows away from the main channel. While floating to watch the egret, Chet suddenly pointed towards the nearby shore, where we saw some type of large hawk – brown and red with yellow feet – perched in a shrub. I took a video, but it’s too far away to really tell much. I tried to float closer, only to have it jump down on the ground where I couldn’t see it any more. After some Google research at home, I’ve decided it was likely either a red tailed hawk or a coopers hawk. I’ve never been so close to such a large bird in the wild!
The next big landmark was the pier at Marbut Bend. Chet and Casey and I had checked out this TVA property back in May and admired the pier from the land. This time, we saw it from the water and it was lovely as ever, though I’m not sure you could really clamber up on the pier from a kayak anyway.
Just past the pier, the river takes a sharp, nearly 90 degree, turn to the left. There is water to the right as well, but that way just leads to another cove. Right at the bend, the land rises up on the right side to form tall tree-covered bluffs. The other side is still flat as a pancake, making the bluffs seem even more dramatic. In this section of the river, the wind picked up and we had to paddle straight into it. The river channel is long and straight, and with the headwind, it felt like we were paddling down a wind tunnel. Here again, we saw some pretty jealousy-inducing homes with large decks and views down to the river. I also spotted turtles along either shore, but with the wind I wasn’t about to waste any energy trying to get close enough for a picture. Straight ahead there was a transmission tower at what looked to be a bend in the river. When we got closer, we saw that it was just covered with birds of all types. I laid back for a few minutes, and watched them soaring overhead and then landing back on the tower. This trip was actually remarkable for all the birds. We saw at least 4 herons, 4 or 5 egrets, plus the hawk, plus all these birds on the tower. I saw more birds than turtles, and that’s a little unusual.
Just past the tower, there was a small island in the center of the channel. We’d had lunch before we hit the river, but I was a little hungry and pretty thirsty, so I was hoping to find a good beach. No such luck. That’s another downside to a broad deep river like this – not many good beaching spots! Just past the island, though, we spotted a place that looked like it would work and headed across the river to it. It turned out to be a spot where a road dead ended at the water just next to where another one of the many unnamed little creeks flowed into the river. We checked out Google maps to figure out where we were, and it looked like we were pretty close to our take out spot so we had a short break and then headed back out on the river.
Here, the river had become really wide – I later measured the main channel at around .3 miles wide at this point. The widest part, counting the large coves, was 1.2 miles wide. It felt more like a lake than a river to me! Indeed, my memories of playing on a lake in my childhood summers all revolve around being pulled around by a motor boat while I skied or tubed along behind, and sure enough, there were folks out pulling tubers behind them. Chet got a nice video. It’s interesting to note that I think we saw not one other kayaker on this whole section. We saw pontoon boats, and I think a motorboat, but we were the only people-powered boats we saw on the river.
Next up were a series of snags in the middle of the river, making me wonder if it was really that shallow or if these were flooded islets. Google maps shows some little islands right around there, so I’m guessing it was the latter. After negotiating our way past the snags, we could see the bridge at Elk River Mills in the distance. Now on our past kayak trips, spotting the takeout point meant you were maybe 10 minutes from landing. Here, we paddled and paddled and the bridge didn’t seem any closer. We watched motorboats speed ahead of us, duck behind some smaller islands off on our left, and finally pop up still some distance from the bridge. I thought we’d be paddling for days! Later I measured the distance and it was 1.3 miles from where I think the snags were to the bridge. No wonder it took so long!
We pulled our kayaks out at the boat ramp and dragged them out of the way. While Chet went off to pick up the pickup truck, I hung around the parking area and checked out the nice little dock, the river views and some of the informational signs about the canoe trail. There’s also a gas station and convenience store at the top of the parking lot, which is a nice change from the usual nothing-for-miles take out points we use.
So that was it – we’d completed all four legs of the Limestone County Canoe and Kayak Trail. The Elk River continues, of course, until it flows into the Tennessee River another 12 miles downstream, but that section didn’t make the cut for the canoe trail for some reason. The Elk is a river of many personalities – small, rocky and windy up near Tim’s Ford Dam, deeper but still narrow near Veto, and finally broad as a large lake near its end. All of it is beautiful, quiet, and chock full of wildlife. Any of it would be a good spot for your next float trip!
We arrived at the parking lot around 9am on a Sunday morning to find that every space was already taken and folks had started parking along the road. This gives you an idea of how popular this place is. Granted, it was a holiday weekend and the weather was perfect, so it may be that more folks than normal had decided to adventure outdoors. Who could blame them? We certainly couldn’t! Despite hiking 4 miles, in the rain, the day before, I could not possibly have been more excited about the hike to come. For you see, we had finally made it to the Virgin Falls State Natural Area in Tennessee. This 1,157-acre natural area near Sparta, Tennessee is named for Virgin Falls – one of the most unique falls I’ve ever come across. But more about the falls later. First, the hike.
The round trip to the falls is listed as anywhere from 8.4 to 9 miles round trip, assuming no side trips are taken. Every write-up about the trail also makes it a point to describe it as strenuous. Honestly, it’s mostly the constant uphill coming back that’s difficult, but I’d agree that it’s a tough trail. We made it (obviously) but I will confess that there was a point on the way back when I still had a couple of miles to go to the trailhead where Chet’s joking suggesting of just rigging up my hammock tent and staying put for the night sounded like a pretty danged good idea.
It doesn’t start out strenuous, though. The first 1.35 miles is really pretty easy hiking. The trail is soft underfoot and mainly level as it traces through the forest. At .25 miles there is an intersection with the Upland Trail that leads to Martha’s Pretty Point. I was concerned about my ability to complete just the minimal 8.4 miles to the falls and back, so we didn’t take this alternate route. Looking at things later, though, this side trip might have only added a bit more than 1/2 mile. From what I’ve read online it is worth it for the view from the point. Past the Upland Trail junction, the trail continues into a fairly open forest with a heavy undergrowth of massive green ferns. Footbridges cross over a creek which was not flowing much when we were there, but still damp enough to encourage wildflowers to grow. Brilliant red Cardinal flowers love the damp and practically glowed in the subdued light. We also spotted a bright red mushroom and a stand of pinesap, a plant I’ve never seen before. About a mile in the trees around us closed in and became a thicket of sparkleberry, creating tree tunnels for us to slip through.
At 1.25 miles the trail crosses Big Branch Creek without the aid of a footbridge. Some of the write-ups describe this as a rock hop water crossing, but when we were there there wasn’t any water to speak of. Just .1 mile along the trail from the crossing we came to the top of Big Branch Falls, a 15 foot cascade down into a rocky bowl. It had very little water dripping over when we were there, but the setting is still beautiful with a large rock shelter looking down into the bowl from the other side.
Past the cascade, the trail headed more steeply downhill towards Big Laurel Creek where a cable handhold is strung to help you get across. Though Big Laurel Creek had a nice water flow, it wasn’t particularly high and the cable wasn’t really required. There is a large camping area with several campsites on a rise just on the other side of the crossing, but the trail leads left and along the creek. Just .15 miles down the trail, the Upland Trail from Martha’s Pretty Point loops back in to join the main trail.
The trail continues to follow Big Laurel Creek as it tumbles through boulder sized rocks in a rugged creek bed. The trail follows along a rock shelf above the creek, at one point passing beneath a large rock bluff. It was mostly downhill, often requiring us to pick our way through rocks. We stopped a couple of times and climbed down to creek level to enjoy particularly pretty cascades. My favorite I dubbed Glassy Pool. From above the water looked like it was frozen. A film of foamy bubbles covered the surface. At the upstream edge of the pool, water cascaded down, but seemed not to disturb the bubbles at all. A little farther along we stopped again for photos of another cascade and pool. Honestly, there were so many beautiful spots we could have stopped every few feet!
At 2.35 miles we finally reached Big Laurel Falls. The approach to the falls is from above as the trail is level with the creek before it takes a 40 foot dive over a limestone lip. The trail then descends steeply – very steeply – over rocks and an indistinct path to get to a clearing in front of the falls. The water from the falls hits the rocks at the base, and then flows backwards and down into the cave that opens up behind the falls. I traced the water as best I could until it disappeared through a jumble of rocks at the back of the large opening. I could hear it rushing down, but couldn’t see where it went. The cave itself is wide, deep and tall, with ceiling heights of 80 feet in some spots. Big Laurel Falls is an “also ran” on this trail, but honestly, it rivals many of the other falls we’ve been to. If this was the only fall on this trail, it would be more than worth the trip.
We ate some of our lunch ( I massively overpacked for some reason), and then headed on towards the final goal. This next section of the hike Chet called his favorite – I think because at that point he was tired of climbing down rocks and over boulders, and this piece of the trail was relatively level as it followed a rock shelf above Caney Creek. We had turned away from the dry creekbed below Big Laurel Falls. The wildflowers here were different from down by the creekbed – naked flowered tick trefoil, devil’s grandmother, downy false foxglove.
At 3.5 miles we came to the junction with the Virgin Falls Loop. We had the option of going right to get to Virgin Falls via Sheep Cave Junction, but we went left since it looked like the more direct route to the falls. Here the trail heads towards rock bluffs that, were there not trees in the way, might provide views down to the Caney Fork River. We could certainly hear the rushing of water coming from someplace nearby. Soon we came to a steep rocky ridge. This might have been the steepest section of the whole hike, but it was mercifully short. At the bottom, there is an intersection with a spur trail that would take you out to the Caney Fork River and a campsite leading off to the left. Virgin Falls is to the right, less than a quarter of a mile away. At one point, there are obvious remains of a road, complete with bollards blocking it off and a post with a bit of barbed wire still trailing from it. The trail itself leads on up the hill – almost looking like it’s traveling along the roadbed.
At 4.3 miles we arrived at Virgin Falls itself. It is an impressive sight. Water roars over a cliff and drops 110 feet into a sink. Side trails take you down to the bottom, or up to the top of the falls. Chet braved the trip to the bottom of the falls with the cameras hoping to get some good shots, while I (and my aching back) strung up my hammock tent and relaxed for a bit. Chet reports that it felt like there were 60 mph winds and spray coming off of the falls at the bottom. The water totally disappears after it hits the bottom – there is no creek leading out of the bowl. It made it difficult to get good pictures, and explains how we both totally missed the fact that there are massive caves at the base of the falls. I Googled a bit once we were home and discovered pictures of people standing in the caves with a good 6 feet of clearance above their heads. Of course, those pictures were taken during a drought when the volume of water rushing over the falls didn’t totally block what was behind them. I did bestir myself from the hammock to explore a path towards the top of the falls, though. I’d seen another group had found a way to get to a rocky outcrop just to the left of the falls. It looked cool, so I scrambled around until I got in the same general area. I discovered a large level clearing with a campsite on that side and a path to the very top of the falls. Chet and I admired the view from the top. Too bad we didn’t think to explore upstream. A mere 60 feet or so from the point it drops over the cliff, the unnamed creek that forms the falls flows out of a cave, making it the only waterfall I know of the flows out of one cave, and then disappears back into another.
It was getting late and we knew we had a long slog back to the car, so we left the falls about 2:00 and retraced our steps. It certainly felt like it was all uphill. My near-breaking point was at the campsite above the cable crossing, where I did seriously consider stringing my hammock back up and telling Chet to just come collect me in the morning. But we made it out, and in only 8 hours. I must get in better shape because not only do I want to come back, I want to see all of it – Martha’s Pretty Point, Sheep Cave, maybe even the campsite at Caney Creek. And I definitely want to see the cave at the source of the falls!
Almost exactly a year ago, Chet and I took our bikes over to Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge for an adventure. We had a great time, up until the point where Chet’s front tire had a complete blowout, leaving him walking with almost 2 miles left to go to get back to the truck. Honestly, my bike wasn’t in much better shape but at least I didn’t have a flat so I biked to the truck (praying the whole time my frayed tire wouldn’t give out) and hustled back to pick up Chet and his wounded machine. We returned to the house and hung the bikes up in the garage – all the while telling ourselves we’d take them both to the bike shop for a full tuneup and new tires soon. Months went by and those bikes were still hanging in the garage. Winter passed, then spring, then most of the summer, but finally we managed to bestir ourselves and took them in for some much needed TLC. This past Saturday, they were ready. And even more miraculously, we remembered to pick them up. Ok, so we didn’t really remember until 15 minutes before the shop closed, but we roared up just before the doors locked and the good folks at Madison Cycles graciously stayed open long enough for us to retrieve our now shiny and newly refurbished bikes.
Knowing the bikes should be ready, I’d already planned our weekend adventure around having them. Sunday morning, we packed up a lunch, some water, and Chet’s camera, threw the bikes in the back of the truck and headed to Piney Chapel Road in Athens, Alabama. This is the location of the southern end of the Richard Martin Trail, a rails-to-trails project that has taken an abandoned rail line and turned it into a multi-use trail for hikers, bikers, joggers, and horseback riders. We’d explored the northern end of it before, riding from Veto, Alabama down to Elkmont, but now was the perfect time to check out the rest of the trail.
The parking area at this southern end is a roomy gravel lot with room for 10 or more pickup trucks and trailers. The area also featured a very nice picnic pavilion in a lovely grassy setting, and a new cinder block building housing restrooms. We didn’t hang around to check out the amenities, though, but instead crossed tiny Delaney Road to get a start on the trail itself.
Technically, the trail starts at the corner of Delaney and Piney Chapel roads. Crossing over from the parking lot puts you a few yards north of the intersection so, being a bit of a nerdy engineer type, I insisted on walking a few yards back towards Piney Chapel Road so we could start at the official “Mile 0” sign. From there, I was interested to find that you could still actually see the rail line, complete with rails and railroad ties, just across the street, heading south. Of course it makes sense – this was a working rail line until 1986 and before the Civil War the track was a part of the Decatur-Nashville railroad, one of the first rail lines in the area. The Richard Martin Trail has just reclaimed the 10 mile stretch between Veto and this intersection in Athens. We took a few pictures, enjoyed the morning glory and Carolina buckthorn blooming by the trail, then headed down the inviting gravel path.
One nice thing about a rails-to-trails project is that the railroads have very nicely already graded the entire thing for the benefit of the trains that used to rumble down the tracks. These trails are generally well-engineered, wide and gently graded pathways making them ideal for bikes, in my humble opinion. While there is some rise and fall in the terrain, none of it is very steep, making for easy rides. The first stretch of the Richard Martin trail is practically level. The wide path plunges almost immediately into a lovely deeply shaded wooded area surrounded at first by grassy glades interspersed with large oaks. We had the path to ourselves, at least at first, and enjoyed the cooling effect of the air rushing past us. At the .6 mile mark, we came to our first bridge across Swan Creek. It’s in a little bit of a rough condition, with plywood patches here and there across the deck. It was solid enough otherwise, though, so we just continued on across it. Soon after, at 1.25 miles, we came to a prettier covered bridge also crossing Swan Creek or maybe one of its tributaries. Here we stopped again for pictures and noticed a stand of Florida blue lettuce, and some beautiful cardinal flowers along the water, with an added bonus of an absolute carpet of jewelweed in bloom in the foreground. Chet also spotted a mysterious plant with a large cluster of berries. We puzzled over it and took pictures, but couldn’t come up with an ID on the trail. Once home, we figured it out … and felt a little silly. It was a devil’s walking stick. I’ve never seen one when it had berries before and totally missed the dead-giveaway spines running up the trunk! My tree ID ninja skills are rusty!
We continued on through the trees, glimpsing fields and farmland occasionally to either side. Every half mile, there is a small wooden sign posted with the mileage from the Mile 0 marker where we’d started. This sure made it easy for me to figure out how far we’d gone so that I could remember where on the trail we saw things! At about 1.5 miles, we came to our first road crossing at Huber Road. This is a small road and lightly traveled, at least on Sunday mornings, so we had no trouble crossing it. The trail heads back into the woods on the other side for another half mile or so before coming out to an open area alongside Railroad Lane. Less than a tenth of a mile away was our second road crossing, this time at the slightly larger Hays Mill Road. On the other side of the road, there is a large information sign about the Rails to Trails project with rules and hours – as if this was an official trailhead of some sort. There’s no parking here, though, really so I found it kind of odd. Maybe the trail stopped here at one point?
Past the sign we entered maybe my favorite stretch of the trail, a section that runs right alongside Swan Creek at a spot where the creek broadens and slows down to form a bayou. The water is still and algae covered and floods a glade of trees so that the trunks reflect and shimmer in the water. It’s dark in the shade of the trees, and quiet. At least until I stepped close to the bank, which startled frogs hiding there so that they squeaked and jumped in the water. I’ve never heard a frog squeak before, but that sure is what it sounded like! I kept a sharp eye out for turtles, but sadly, saw none. We rested on a nicely built bench placed there courtesy of BSA Troop 235, had some water, and enjoyed the quiet until the bugs convinced us to move along.
The next mile and a half was uneventful as we flew past trees and fields along the gravel path. Soon, though the landscape changed a bit to include some small hills around us as we approached the historic site of the Battle of Sulphur Creek Trestle. This Civil War battle, a part of the longer Battle of Athens, happened September 25, 1864, when Confederate troops led by Nathan Bedford Forrest set out to destroy the strategic trestle at Sulphur Creek. By noon that day, the Union force surrendered. It’s not clear to me if the actual trestle survived that battle, but I can tell you that there is no sign of it now. You can see Sulphur Creek far below on either side of the pathway, but instead of a wooden trestle, the path goes along a pretty solid-looking earthworks. On the other side of the creek, the land rises up a bit again, then slopes back down towards Elkmont, about a mile away. Close to Elkmont we started noticing some extra wooden sign posts. Not the mile markers – we still had those – but these were posts with smaller numbers carved into wood. We saw “13,” “15,” and “16” if I remember right.
We pulled up to downtown Elkmont right at 11:00 – lunch time! The church on the corner had a full parking lot, but otherwise Elkmont was practically deserted except for the two of us and another family setting out on bikes down the trail towards Veto. We snagged a prime spot at a concrete picnic table, ate our sandwiches, then wandered the quaint one block downtown and took a few pictures before heading back. It was too early for any of the businesses near the Depot to be open. Before we left, we looked around the parking lot at the Depot to see if we could find any kind of flyers for the mystery marker posts. We found what looked to have once been a pamphlet box, but the box itself was long gone – maybe knocked off by vandals. I guess we’ll never know what those posts are marking!
The return trip took us back through the same sights, but we did spot some things on the trip back that we’d missed on the way out. Just after the bayou and before the crossing at Hays Mill Road, Chet spotted some old railroad ties and a broken cement marker with the letter “W” incised into the concrete. Later research revealed that this may have been an old “Whistle Post”- a sign placed by the tracks so that engineers would know when to sound the whistle on the train. I’ve included a picture of the broken post below. What do you folks think?
We crossed back over Hays Mill Road, noting that coming from this direction it might not be obvious where the actual trail is. Stick to the faint gravel path to the right of the paved Railroad Lane. Farther along, I stopped to admire the cardinal flowers I’d missed on the way out, while Chet admired a muscadine vine with actual muscadine grapes. He’s often talked about how muscadine vine is something we see everywhere, but he’s never seen an actual grape in the wild. Well, he can’t say that any more!
All in all this was a very pleasant 11 mile bike ride. It was August in Alabama, but the shady path was cool, and the air rushing past as we whizzed along on our newly refurbished bikes was even cooler. Now I’ll be on the lookout for some more bicycling adventure spots. Any suggestions?
Some weeks, life just does not cooperate with my need to hike. Whether it is weather, work, injury, or out of town travel I don’t always get a hike in every weekend, which does make it awkward to figure out what to fill this blog space with. Luckily for me, Chet and I have learned to “bank” a hike or two here and there for just such occasions. This week’s blog installment is going to be a look back at our trip to LeConte Lodge in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park earlier this summer. We blogged about our hike up, but left our faithful readers hanging by not blogging about the trip down. Don’t worry – we aren’t still stranded up there, nor did we have access to alien technology to teleport down or anything. We actually did walk down; we just banked that hike to tell you about later, and “later” is now.
After a surprisingly restful night, we woke up just in time to dress and make it down to the dining hall for breakfast. I’m pretty sure the breakfast menu at LeConte hasn’t changed in decades, but it always hits the spot. They serve pancakes, bacon, grits, biscuits, scrambled eggs, and Tang. Tang! I honestly don’t know anyplace else that serves Tang, do you? Our group posed for a group photo, figured out who was hiking what trail, coordinated rides back into Gatlinburg, and then split up to start packing and heading out. The morning was foggy and a bit damp, but it wasn’t actively raining. Chet and I had decided to hike down via Alum Cave Trail so we took the stairs leading up the hill from the dining hall towards the trail, and met a deer boldly taking the stairs in the other direction. She (he?) stepped off into the high grass pretty quickly though and we continued on our way.
Alum Cave Trail is the steepest trail to Mount LeConte, but it is also the shortest which makes it one of the most popular and therefore heavily traveled trails to the summit. Starting from the top, though, we didn’t share the trail with anybody for the first mile or so. The actual start of the trail on Mount LeConte is a few hundred feet from the lodge, where it intersects with the Rainbow Falls Trail. We hiked from the lodge to this trail intersection quickly, then turned left onto Alum Cave Trail proper after stopping to note the surprisingly informational “Trail Closed” signs put up to explain the two year Rainbow Falls Trail rehabilitation project. The trail was very foggy and the views off the mountain were pretty much non-existent here, but we enjoyed this pretty stretch, where Frasier firs were putting out bright green new growth all around us. Soon, though, we left the forest and came to the steep rock face below Cliff Tops. This area is rocky and in the fog and damp I was glad there were steel cables strung along the rocks to hang on to.
The trail then goes in and out of forest and across some old landslides. Many of the trees in this section are the dead Frasier firs – killed off by a combination of balsam woolly adelgid and acid rain. However, all was not fog and dead trees – we also saw blackberry vines in bloom, mountain saxifrage, and banks of deep purple catawba rhododendron lining the rocky, foggy path.
About a mile into the hike, we actually started seeing hints that the rain, fog, and clouds might lift. Here we found blooming mountain laurel, and a beautiful example of a pin cherry, with its distinctive shiny reddish-brown bark and orangish horizontal stripes.
The sun actually came out in force, and we started meeting folks heading up to the top. We’d been hiking with the views to our left, but after crossing the saddle that links Mount LeConte to Peregrine Peak, the views were on our right. I knew we were close to Little Duck Hawk Ridge. This sharp ridge was once the primary path to the peak of Mount LeConte. That pathway is no longer open to the public, in part because there is a protected nest of duck hawks (or peregrine falcons) on the ridge. It’s also very rugged and surely pretty dangerous. The Park Service would much prefer the tourists take the better maintained Alum Cave Trail. There are actually two Duck Hawk ridges – Big Duck Hawk Ridge is farther up the hollow formed by Trout Branch – closer to Mount LeConte. We reached it first hiking downhill. Little Duck Hawk Ridge is better known. It’s where the falcons nest and it’s the site of the “Eye of the Needle,” a nature-made hole punched right through the top of the knife-edged ridge. Big and Little Duck Hawk Ridge flow down from Peregrine Peak almost directly below Alum Cave Bluffs. Alum Cave is not a cave at all, but a deeply overhanging bluff with a uniquely dry and dusty soil covering the base. Though rich in minerals, scientists say there is actually no “alum” here but it is still a fascinating spot. It’s an arid desert in the middle of one of the wettest places around. The Cherokee claim their great chief Yanugunski discovered the bluffs while tracking a bear. Later, Dr. John Mingus headed up a group of early settlers who formed the Epsom Salts Manufacturing Company, hoping to exploit the minerals found here. During the Civil War, the Confederates supposedly built a small stockade called Fort Harry in the area, believing that the minerals in the bluff were a vital resource. No trace of that fort remains now, but what you will find is lots of people enjoying the scenery and very friendly chipmunks scurrying close by over the rocks. After walking along the base of the bluff, a long set of stairs leads down the rest of the way towards Inspiration Point.
Inspiration Point is the spot where the trail turns sharply back on itself to head north. To one side is a rocky outcrop that has beautiful views of Little Duck Hawk Ridge and Mount LeConte. When my dad and I hiked Alum Cave when I was young, Inspiration Point was our traditional lunch spot. I took a photo of myself here in his memory. The sun was really out for good by this point and the trail changed character, too. It became broader and less steep, but was still flanked by rhododendron. We also saw galax and a stunning bee balm. About a mile down the trail from the bluff, we came to Arch Rock. This iconic landmark is a narrow passage through a sloping rock, formed by water seeping into fractured rock, freezing, fracturing the rock more, then thawing. Over time many cycles of this formed a jagged passageway.
I always think of Arch Rock as being almost the end of the Alum Cave Trail when heading down, but I’m always wrong. There’s another 1.4 miles to the trailhead from here, but the character of the trail is much different. It is a broad and more gently graded trail that runs along next to the beautiful Alum Cave Creek. Rosebay rhododendron blooms in abundance here. Views of this creek are what I think of when I describe the typical Smoky Mountain creeks that I love so much. The 1.4 miles flew by, and soon we were at the trailhead, where our ride to Gatlinburg awaited. We got a bit of everything on this hike: fog, rain, and solitude at the top, and sunshine and fellow hikers at the bottom. In between we saw some beautiful flowers and, eventually, took in some stunning views. It’s one of my favorite hikes in the Smokies.
After the heat, humidity and general misery of the last few weeks, it was wonderful to have a weekend with milder temperatures, low humidity, and blue skies. It was a weekend where being outside was going to be a pleasure, not a sweaty sticky trial. As I looked over our list of outdoor adventure ideas , the one that sounded best to me for such weather was a return to Guntersville State Park to try out Level II of their Screaming Eagle Zipline. We’d done Level I way back in July of 2016 but always intended to come back once they got Level II up and running, and this was the perfect weekend to go swooping through the air above Lake Guntersville again. Decision made, I hopped on the website and booked us on to the 10 am Level II group for the following morning. We paid online in advance and got an email confirmation so we were good to go.
Just as a recap, Guntersville State Park has partnered with Historic Banning Mills, a zipline canopy tour specialist outfit out of Georgia, to provide zipline adventures in the state park. This includes the use of their patented closed belay system which keeps you safely clipped in at all times while on the course. I really like this feature because there is absolutely zero chance you will ever accidentally fall off the course. That’s very comforting when you are waaaayyy up high in the air on a teeny tiny platform, but more on that later. Chet and I have actually checked out Historic Banning Mills, too, so I can vouch for the fact that the equipment used is identical.
We arrived at the park just a little late, but the staff kindly checked us in anyway and ran us down to meet our group, who were just finishing up their training overview. We had a smaller group this time than we did last time, which had made the training go quicker. They quickly reviewed the safety rules with us, and we proved to them that we knew how to get on and off the belay system and we were good to go. There were three guys who looked to be in their twenties, me & Chet, and our guides Matt and Ashley. Just like their parent outfit, the levels at Guntersville State Park have to be run consecutively so even though we’d already run through Level I last time, we had to repeat Level I in order to reach the start of Level II. This was fine with me, though, because it meant more zipping! Level I has 10 zip lines and 4 suspension bridges. The longest line on the first level is 400 feet, and at the highest you are 80 feet off the ground. Level II includes the first 8 ziplines and 3 suspension bridges from level I, then adds on another 7 ziplines and 4 suspension bridges. I’m not going to go into details about level I (check our our previous blog – if you’re interested) – we’ll just pick up at the start of Level II. Level II starts out with a long zip across a fold in the land nearly above the campground area. Zipping down this longer line, with a clear view of the lake to my left was exhilarating! Most of the lines on Level II are long – several are over 2000 feet long. This first one wasn’t the longest but it was a great introduction to what was to come.
After landing from that first zipline, we came off the belay system and hiked a short way to our next tower. The trail took us through an overlook area with beautiful views down towards the campground and the lake beyond, but the guides promised stunning views ahead, so we didn’t linger long. Next we climbed a tower and headed across a suspension bridge. These bridges consist of a set of parallel cables at foot level, with 2x4s spaced a foot or two apart strung between them. Above that there are two more parallel cables around shoulder height, then a single cable high overhead for your belay system connection. The first time we did Level I last year was the first time I’d ever had to do something like that and I have to confess it sort of terrified me. Knowing you’re safely clipped in is one thing. Looking down through gaps in the bridge to see the ground is 80 feet below is a whole other thing. This time, Chet and I were seasoned zippers and this type of suspension bridge didn’t phase us at all. After another set of two short zips, we came to the second suspension bridge on this level. This one was so steep that we just climbed it more like a ladder, which actually made it pretty easy. Finally, though, we came to my least favorite kind of suspension bridge, “seasoned” or not. It was one of the “tightrope” kinds. These have the same single cable overhead for the belay system, and the two shoulder level (ish) cables to grip onto for dear life, but the base is a single cable that you have to balance your feet on somehow to get yourself across, all the while going uphill because the other end is on a higher platform. These are the ones that can make my old broken ankle injury decide to make itself known. I don’t know why – something about the strain of balancing without having my whole foot flat on something I think – but I made it through this one with only a minor ankle twinge. Check out this video for a peek at what it’s like.
Next up was I think my favorite zip line of the whole course, though it was the one I messed up on the most. Up to this point, I’d been doing pretty well at following the directions the guides gave us about when to brake and that sort of thing. The group decided I was “the best” at all the landings. Until this one, anyway, where I totally blew it. This zip is the longest on Level II at 2100 feet, but it has an uphill section at the end – probably on purpose to bleed off some of the speed you pick up and make stopping possible. The guides told us to do the “Miley Cyrus Wrecking Ball” move and lay back as far as we could while tucking our legs up as close to our chest as we could. Apparently, I’m not very good at this maneuver (I’m sure Miley is relieved). I was not nearly as tucked as I should have been, and then I got turned sideways and had trouble pivoting myself back around without untucking even more. In the end, I slowed and stopped way short of the end of the zip line. Not to worry, the guides are prepared for this and have a pulley and line that they sling out to you so that they can drag you on in. This works well, usually. I saw it working well later on with some of the other zippers. Unfortunately, my brain did not actually catch on that the zipline had started going uphill, so when I stopped I guess I was thinking I would stay where I was. I didn’t grab on to the cable, and next thing I knew I was absolutely flying back up the zipline in the wrong direction! It was very disorienting. I eventually grabbed on to the cable to stop myself, but then had to haul myself hand over hand back uphill in the right direction in order to get close to the pulley. It was exhausting. You know, Chet and I love watching a TV show called American Ninja Warrior, where these absolutely incredible physical specimens – male and female – accomplish seemingly impossible feats of strength and balance. While I know I’d fall and fail in an instant on most of the obstacles those guys face, if I’d seen a contestant having to rest – twice! – while pulling themselves up a simple cable, I’m sure I would have scoffed at them and said something like “even I could do better than that.” Yeah right. Not so much, apparently. At any rate, I made it back to the pulley and the very kind Ashley pulled me on in the rest of the way. Check out this video to see Chet’s experience on this one.
This one was a ground landing, so I threaded myself off the belay system and made my way to a pavilion where we sat and had some water and took a bit of a rest. Soon, though, we were ready to go ahead up the next tower, which was a 250 foot giant. It is a beautifully made spiral staircase around what look to be two telephone poles stacked on top of each other. Since we were on the top of a ridge at this point, the views from the top were truly stunning. We had 360 degree views, most of which were lake. Gorgeous. The next zip line was another long one – probably in the 2000 foot range someplace – and I think was the one where we actually went the fastest. The guides told us that we could hit 55 mph and though I have no way of knowing if they were right, it did feel fast!
This was another one that required the “wrecking ball” configuration with a ground landing at the end, but this one I did better on. I didn’t make it the whole way, but I was closer, and didn’t stupidly go backwards, so that’s progress. Chet, however, fell a little short on his attempt, and I have his permission to include this video so that you can see the mechanics of rescuing somebody when this happens.
Next up was a short hike to our next tower, where we had another set of suspension bridges – a regular one and another tightrope one (yuck), then we zipped back across the valley towards the tall tower again. We had to hike a short ways from the landing zone to the tower, and again we took advantage of there being cold water available to stay hydrated. After a pretty brief rest, it was back up the tower again, this time taking off on a slightly different cable, but from the same platform. Once again – fabulous views! This was my final long zip and I think I finally managed to put it all together for a pretty reasonable landing. I don’t think they had to drag me in at all!
We had another short hike to a shorter tower, one short but fun zip, and a final zip named “Lil Sweet” where we had to brake the whole (short) way down to land on a big rock. After that, we hiked a short ways back to the equipment shack and our adventure was over. Before we went, I was wondering if Phase II would be worth the return trip. After experiencing it, I can tell you that my answer is “YES!”. The additional ziplines are much longer and faster than the first phase, so it’s a different experience, and the views can’t be beat.
This time last year, Alabama was in a drought that by November was being called “the worst drought in memory” by some. Through the end of the summer and into the fall and winter, there just wasn’t much rain falling. Farmers struggled, reservoirs shrank, wildlife habitats were impacted – all causing ripple effects across the economy and lifestyle of the state. Not to minimize the more serious impacts, but the drought also caused a severe case of “puny” at some of my favorite natural spots – the area waterfalls. The drought seems to be behind us now, as the uncontrollable grass growth in our backyard can attest, so the waterfalls are back! Last weekend Chet and I went west to the Sipsey and took in a couple of waterfalls there. This weekend I wanted more, so we headed east to enjoy two new (to us) waterfalls.
Our buddy Ted was free as well, so the three of us cooked up a plan to leave the house around 8 am and drive to High Falls Park in DeKalb County, take in the falls there for a short while, then drive to DeSoto State Park in time for the Sunday buffet lunch. We’d walk off all those calories with a hike to a couple of falls in DeSoto and then return home by late afternoon. This was a fantastic plan except for one small detail. I neglected to check opening hours for High Falls Park and it turned out we arrived at the entrance to the park only to find a locked gate. It was 9:30 and the park didn’t open until 10. We decided to simply drive on to DeSoto and try to catch High Falls on the way home instead. Only 45 minutes away, we arrived at DeSoto State Park too early for lunch so we started right away on our hike.
I’d picked out a short but scenic-sounding hike from Johnny Molloy’s book 50 Hikes in Alabama that he called the “West Fork Loop.” Only 1.9 miles long, this loop hike starts and ends at the historic CCC Pavilion in the picnic area. The first challenge is actually to find the beginning of the trail. Molloy’s book describes walking down the paved walkway with the pavilion on your left, but after that it gets a bit vague. A look at our GPS track will show you the way we went, but I’m certain it’s not quite right. What I’d recommend is to walk down the sidewalk until it takes a sharp left towards the pavilion and then keep going straight off the sidewalk and into the grass. You’ll see a sign in the woods on your right for an outdoor classroom. This isn’t it. Keep on going down hill along that treeline though and you’ll find another unmarked trail heading off into the woods. Head down this trail until you see timbers set like stairs going farther downhill at a trail intersection. You don’t want to take those stairs, but instead turn right onto the yellow-blazed DeSoto Scout Trail (DST) and walk a short way until you get to a bridge going over the top of Indian Falls. There seem to be several wildcat trails that will eventually get you to the DST so really, the trick is to find a yellow-blazed trail and then head roughly south until you get to the bridge. Or just follow the sound of the falls. You can hear it clearly from the picnic area.
We admired the bridge and the top of the falls, but quickly moved on to the other side of the bridge to the point where you can climb down and explore the base of Indian Falls. There are a couple of stairs at the top, but then you’ll have to drop down about 3 feet to reach a short path that leads past a rock overhang and beyond to the falls. Indian Falls is formed when Laurel Creek drops into a ravine. After a 25 foot drop, the water continues to cascade over boulders below the falls as Laurel Creek heads downhill to join the West Fork of the Little River. It’s a beautiful site and the three of us clambered all over exploring and enjoying and getting just the right pictures. We were only 10 minutes into our hike and already I felt like the whole trip had been worth it!
Step down towards Indian Falls
Rock house with Indian Falls
Ted and Chet at Indian Falls
After we left the falls, our plan was to continue on along the DST. Shortly after the falls, there is a three way intersection with an unblazed trail teeing in from the right, and then what I first thought were two yellow-blazed trails forking right and left. The unmarked trail just led to a cabin. After closer inspection, we decided that of the two “yellow blazed” trails, only the left fork was really yellow. The right fork was blazed in a sort of yellowy-green that I called lemon-lime. Using Molloy’s descriptions we had been expecting a “green blazed Cabin Trail” at around that point so we decided it all matched up well enough and we should take the left fork. As it turns out, the trail map online labels the Cabin Trail blaze color as Lime Green, so I wasn’t so far off!
The DST continues down next to Laurel Creek via some beautifully engineered stone steps until it is level with another smaller unnamed fall, where it turns sharply right and down to end up level with the West Fork of the Little River. From here the trail sticks closely to the river, which flows by sometimes quickly, rattling over small cascades, and sometimes slowly when it broadens and deepens. In one of the slower spots there was a tiny beach, where I took off my boots and waded for a minute next to a bush that turned out to be something called buttonbush, which I don’t think I’ve ever noticed before.
Trail down to West Fork
West Fork view
West Fork view
Actually, we saw a lot of wildflowers next to the river — some of them we’ve not ever seen before. If the wildflowers are this good in mid-summer, just imagine how incredible this trail must be in the spring! We saw starry campion, Maryland meadow beauty, healall, Shuttleworth’s ginger, naked flowered tick trefoil, stiff haired sunflower, as well as rhododendron and maybe even a trillium just past blooming.
Maryland meadow beauty
stiff haired sunflower
naked flowered tick trefoil
At around .5 mile from the pavilion, there is a small wooden bridge across Lodge Branch, like Laurel Creek one of the many tributaries feeding the West Fork. We had to push through a small tree that was blocking one end of the bridge, but as soon as we were past the tree, the trail was clear again. However, as much as I loved the wildflowers, the river rapids and the little wading spots, I do have to say that overall this was not an easy trail. It involved a lot of scrambling over rocks and roots, a couple of flooded spots where we got our feet wet, lots of confusing unmarked side trails, and one difficult-to-spot but vital blaze.
Lodge Creek bridge
even rockier trail
At about the .8 mile mark we came to a spot on the trail where there was a large flat rock ahead and just to the left, right on the river bank. I went right over to it, thinking about whether I wanted to wade again, but decided to push on instead. I had to duck under a rhododendron branch that blocked the trail, but then continued on over a trail that was barely visible. It was all rocks and roots, but it did look sort of like a trail. It wasn’t until after I’d picked my way down this track for at least 5 minutes that Ted and Chet called me back telling me I’d missed the trail. We could only tell because we could see a yellow blaze further up the slope. We climbed up the bank to what was obviously the trail and then I backtracked to see where we went wrong. Turns out it was at that rock. My excuse was that I was intent on the idea of wading again. (I don’t know excuse Chet and Ted are going to come up with!) I suppose if I’d been paying more attention there was at least a slim possibility that I might have noticed a yellow blaze nearly obscured by shrubs, above my head and 30 feet or so up the trail to my right. You had to be looking in just the right spot, because the sharp trail turn itself wasn’t marked at all. No wonder we all missed it!
find the trail (and Ruth)
trail away from creek
Mistake corrected, we forged on for another roughly tenth of a mile until we came to a sign for the “Gilliam Trailhead” pointing to a trail that went straight up the hill at at least a 45 degree angle. To me it looked for all the world like another wildcat trail, because an “official” trail wouldn’t have been built like that. Molloy’s book didn’t mention a sign, though, and the maps we had looked at actually showed two different trails at around this mileage that headed straight up hill. I was getting hungry and was motivated not to miss the buffet so I encouraged the “try this one” option. We headed straight up to the ridge, then headed to our right to loop back towards our starting point.
Rock gap above West Fork
Hiking around the boulders
Boulders in West Fork
Gilliam Trailhead sign
The trail here was a lot easier going, and though it had fewer flowers and wasn’t right on the river it was scenic in its own way. It was blazed in the lemon-lime color so we were sure we were on the same trail we’d seen back at the original split near Indian Falls. If we hadn’t already thought it might be called the “Cabin Trail,” we certainly could have guessed at that name because every so often off on our left we’d pass a cabin. The cabins at DeSoto sure do look nice! They look to be well maintained, and as far as I could tell they are set far enough apart that you might really feel like you’re far out in the woods away from civilization. I’d like to come back sometime and find out if I’m right. Since the Cabin Trail follows a rim of the gorge it drops off steeply on the non-cabin side, with occasional views of the river visible through the trees.
Though it was easier going up here, we did have another spot where we lost the trail. We followed the path as it led to a cabin, then tried to find the trail on the other side of the clearing. I found another bluff with a small waterfall, but I did not find the trail. Chet found it by backtracking to the last blaze, then keeping an eye out until he spotted a blaze off to the right. Again this one was maybe 50 feet from the trail junction. What is it with the people who mark trails that they think marking a junction is a bad idea!?!? Once back on the marked trail, we continued on another quarter of a mile until we reached Lodge Falls. So named because they drop over the rim of the gorge close to the DeSoto State Park Lodge, this is a 20 foot waterfall with another set of cascades below as Lodge Branch tumbles over boulders on its way down to the West Fork, passing under that little wooden bridge we’d crossed earlier in the hike. We spent some time here trying to capture the falls on camera, then headed on up the trail past a couple of rock houses and then up to a sign for the Lodge and Restaurant.
My extra falls
Chet photographing Lodge Falls
Ted and Ruth at Lodge Falls
At this point, we decided to turn left and head for the restaurant, finishing the hike after a lunch break. The buffet at DeSoto Park Lodge is tasty, generous, and very reasonable. For a little less than $12.00 a person we got drinks plus all we could eat fried chicken, ribs, cream corn, broccoli and cheese, baked potatoes, fried okra, salad, and if we’d been fast enough, peach cobbler. It was all good southern comfort food, prepared well, and I know I ate way too much! After lunch, the last .3 of a mile back to the pavilion was pretty uneventful. We passed no more waterfalls or rock houses, just a couple more cabins.
We all piled back in Ted’s truck and headed back towards our original stop, High Falls Park. This 20 acre park in rural DeKalb County is not part of the Alabama State Park system, but as best as I can tell is a county park. There is no entrance fee, and the park is open at 10 am. Closing depends on season, but in the summer that’s at 6:00 pm. There is a pavilion with picnic tables and vending machines, and an air conditioned office. The office is where you can sign in, chat with the very friendly older gentleman manning the desk, buy some snacks, or use the restrooms. There are a couple of short trails, but we were there for the falls, so we took the shortest route – down the paved road to the top of the falls. Let me tell you, I was not expecting what I found. Formed when Town Creek roars down into a sheer-sided gorge, High Falls is 300 feet across and 35 feet high.
The top of the falls is a solid rock shelf going back at least as far as it is wide until it gets to a point where there is a nice looking pedestrian bridge. The bridge is built on the pillars of an old covered bridge that was built by the community in the 1920s. The water between the bridge and the falls is very shallow – maybe only knee deep in the deepest spots – so there were all sorts of folks young and old out wading, or sitting, or floating/lying in the middle of the river. At the base of the falls just out from from where the largest volume of water pours over the rim is a natural bridge. Young folks were jumping off the falls in the middle of the river or from this natural bridge. It is a spectacular setting!
Chet waded all the way out to the edge of the falls to take pictures of the falls and the jumpers. Ted and I waded not quite so far out but enjoyed the cool water on our feet after a day of hiking. I climbed up on one end of the natural bridge, but wasn’t confident I was limber enough to attempt climbing out any further. Ted texted our children to tell them what we were doing and that he had dibs on Chet’s truck and my cookbooks if we didn’t make it back.
Chet wades to the edge
Jumpers and spectators
Ruth on the natural bridge
High Falls opposite side view
We didn’t stay more than hour at the falls this trip, but I’ll be back! I did read that the volume of water we saw is not necessarily normal. In the winter, for example, the broader part of the falls can be dry, with only the section near the natural bridge having any water. Still, now that the drought is over and we’re in a fairly rainy summer, this is absolutely a must-visit spot!
At the beginning of this year as we looked over our hikes from last year, we realized a horrible truth. We had not once managed to get up to our beloved Smoky Mountains for a hike of any sort! We were determined to correct that oversight this year, but to be honest, had made absolutely no concrete plans. We have a list of hikes we’d like to do, and sure enough “Smokies hike” is on there, but that’s about as far as we’d gotten. Then something wonderful happened. A co-worker of mine sent me an email asking if Chet and I had plans for June 29-July 2. It turns out that they were part of a lucky group that had recurring reservations at LeConte Lodge for the Friday before July 4th. I should explain – it used to be that the lodge would let folks set up recurring reservations for the same date every year. In 1998 the rules changed and they no longer accept new recurring reservations. If you already had one set up, though, you were allowed to keep it for 20 years, which makes next year the last year for this group. In any case, my co-worker and his wife were not going to be able to make the hike this year due to injury and offered their two spots to us. We thought about it for about a nanosecond before we jumped at the chance.
We drove up after work Thursday night so that we could meet the group for breakfast early Friday morning. Breakfast was where we coordinated who’d be in what cabin and got an idea about what trails folks were going to take. We had a lot of folks hiking up Alum Cave Trail, a family going up Rainbow Falls Trail, a group running up Boulevard Trail, and another couple taking Brushy Mountain Trail until it joined up with Trillium Gap Trail. Chet and I had thought about Brushy Mountain, but in the end chose to start at the Grotto Falls parking lot and hike up Trillium Gap Trail. This meant we had somebody in the group on every open trail (Bullhead Trail is closed for the season due to fire damage from the 17,000 acre fire that burned into Gatlinburg in November 2016). It turned out three other folks in our group wanted to hike up from Grotto Falls as well, so after a quick group picture, the five of us hopped in a car and headed to the trailhead.
Trillium Gap Trail is the one the llamas use to get supplies up to the lodge on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. To be honest, since we were hiking on a Friday that’s a lot of the reason I picked it. I love llamas! Sure enough we parked just a few spots down from the llama trailer. They’d beaten us to the trail, probably by a long time, so we saw no sign of them in the parking lot. It’s a nice trailhead. There’s plenty of parking and even a building that looked like it might be a restroom. The trail headed out of the far end of the parking lot and with that we were on the trail and heading up.
The first part of the trail was pretty rooty, but not difficult footing. I was impressed once again by the sense of age that I get on these trails. The trees seem bigger and more ancient, the trails like footpaths that have been used since prehistory. I don’t know – maybe it’s all in my head, but it just feels different in the Smokies in a way that I can’t quite explain. My favorite thing about hiking in the Smokies at this time of year, though, is all the rhododendrons and mountain laurel. Nine species of rhododendron (or rhododendron family) shrubs bloom in the park, and from May into July the mountains are just covered in blooms. On the lower part of the trail, we saw lots of rosebay rhododendron, as well as black cohosh and wild hydrangea.
The trail winds through eastern hemlock groves and crosses several little streams before the feature that makes Trillium Gap Trail one of the most popular trails in the park comes into view. Grotto Falls, at 1.3 miles from the trailhead, is formed when Roaring Fork drops 30 feet over the falls. The trail actually goes behind the falls, which is always fun. It would have been more fun if it hadn’t started raining, though. It always rains on us when we hike in the Smokies so we were prepared with raincoats and pack covers, but we were hoping to get at least a few miles of rain-free hiking in. It was not to be. The rain started at the falls, and kept up pretty much the whole way up. It made for a very misty hike with no views down into the valleys. Chet was able to get a few good shots of the falls in before we raincoated-up and started slogging our way up the trail.
The trail after the falls is steeper and rockier. It was raining pretty hard at first so sometimes it felt a little like we were walking up a creek. That was just how the salamanders like it, I guess, because we saw several clinging onto rocks and scampering along the trail. There was one small creek crossing, and then at the 2.9 mile mark we arrived at Trillium Gap. This is a gap or pass between Mount LeConte and Brushy Mountain and in fact there is a short spur trail that leads to Brushy Mountain where there normally are great views up to LeConte and even as far as Sevierville. This day was so misty and rainy that we debated whether we wanted to check it out or not. As we sat on a wet log eating trail mix and discussing our options, a couple come down the spur trail. When we asked if there was any view, they said they could see LeConte peeking through the clouds a bit. Just after they said that, though, the skies opened up again so we decided to skip it and just keep heading up to the lodge. My “raincoat” was more of a windbreaker apparently, since it seemed to keep very little of me dry, and my boots either aren’t waterproof or have lost their waterproofing because my feet were damp too. I was ready to get off the trail and into something dry!
From the gap, Brushy Mountain trail leads straight ahead for 5.5 miles to the trailhead at Porters Creek. Trillium Gap Trail makes a sharp right turn at the gap and heads uphill steeply towards the peak of Mount LeConte, 3.6 miles away. Trillium is not the steepest trail to LeConte – Alum Cave is steeper – but I will say that particularly after the gap it climbs pretty relentlessly uphill with only a few level sections. This section was rocky again, and we saw tall meadow rue, small purple fringed orchid, mountain laurel, wood sorrel, catawba rhododendron, and umbrella leaf.
My least favorite things were the erosion control steps (or whatever they’re called). There were many of these, and I found them hard to climb up. My knees and thighs were sore the next day and I’m blaming these evil things! We started passing people headed down from the lodge, which got my hopes up that we were getting close. Towards the top the trail does have a couple of almost level sections, the last of which cuts through a stand of balsam firs. Finally, finally, we came to a sign about “No Horses Beyond this Point,” then a bridge, then staff cabins or outbuildings, and then on the left – the llamas!
They were penned behind the dining hall, munching on leftover pancakes from breakfast, while being saddled up for the trip back down the mountain. We admired them for a few minutes before we went on to find our cabin to drop our packs, change out of wet socks and boots, and then head straight to the dining hall for the all you can drink hot chocolate that comes along with your room. Next order of business was a trip up to the office to officially check in and buy our “only available if you hike to the top” 2017 LeConte T-shirt. This year’s design is a nice one! Warmed a bit by hot chocolate and now with a dry shirt to put on, my next activity was a good nap.
We were staying in one of the three bedroom lodges. These buildings have a large porch with rocking chairs, a common room with a small table and a couple of chairs, and three small bedrooms. There is no electricity or running water in the cabins or lodges, though kerosene lanterns and propane heaters are provided. There are flush toilets in a separate building, and you get a bucket at check in to go collect hot water from a spigot if you want to take a sponge bath. I believe each bedroom has a double bunk bed in it, similar to the beds in the individual cabins. We claimed the top bunk, not knowing anything about our roommates. We knew the couple we were staying with had planned on leaving Huntsville in the early morning and driving straight to the trailhead. These are the folks who planned on hiking up Brushy Mountain, which is a 9.1 mile hike. We’d been told they are super hikers, but still we figured after a long drive and a long hike the last thing they’d want is to have to climb up to the top bunk. As it turned out, they ran into a two hour traffic snarl in Chattanooga caused by a wreck so they changed plans and hiked up Trillium Gap Trail instead since it was “only” 6.7 miles. They arrived in time for dinner though, which is the important thing. If you’re not checked in by 6:00, you’re out of luck!
I’m pretty sure that the dinner served at the Mount LeConte Lodge hasn’t changed in decades, but it is delicious. We had potato soup, some sort of roast and gravy, mashed potatoes, green beans, stewed apples, a peach half, and chocolate chip cookies. Water, hot chocolate and coffee come with the meal, though you can also order wine with dinner for a flat rate of $11, which gets you as many refills as you’d like of red, white, or rose wines. They also can accommodate vegetarian and gluten free guests, though those meals must be requested a week in advance. Dinner is served family style so when Chet and I have been up here before we were seated at a table with people we’d never met. This time, because we were such a large group, we ended up sitting with folks in our group, though since we were “fill ins” we really didn’t know them either. This year, we got a bit of entertainment at dinner. A young woman got up and played us something classical on a violin. I didn’t hear the introduction so I don’t know what that was all about, but it was very well done and everybody seemed to enjoy it.
After dinner, we went back to the cabin for a bit, then heard there were deer wandering among the cabins so we went to find them. Deer have gotten much bolder in the years since I’ve been here. It’s apparently not uncommon to see them wandering among the cabins, totally unfazed by all the humans. After that, most of us headed up to the office, which is the hangout area. There is a large propane heater surrounded by rocking chairs, several tables, and stacks of games and puzzles to keep us entertained. Some folks worked on a puzzle, one group played monopoly, another group was trying to teach a couple of people Euchre, and the rest of us just hung out and chatted. We met a guy who has a YouTube channel about hiking. He and a buddy were on a several day hiking trip, carting some pretty impressive video equipment along with them. We met another couple of guys who had hiked 19 miles that day to get to Mount LeConte from Clingman’s Dome. Needless to say these were some fit young guys – at least one of whom was a Marine. I felt a bit like a wimp for only hiking 6.7 and doing it pretty slowly at that! There was much discussion about whether it made any sense at all to hike up to Cliff Tops for the sunset. The mountain top was shrouded in clouds so we opted to skip it. A little while after official sunset, though, the clouds parted and we got a bit of sunset after all! We all streamed out onto the deck to look at the sky, and then someone noticed that the nightly Dollywood fireworks were starting up. It was a bit strange to be looking down on fireworks!
Soon enough folks were starting to wind down and we headed off to bed. It had been a rain soaked hike on a day with few views and no spectacular sunset but still, the magic of LeConte meant that I went to bed a happy woman. I was back in “my” mountains and even better, I got to see llamas! It was a great day.
Our latest adventure was a study in opposites. I was looking for someplace that had a few easy trails (my hip flexor was acting up again) but also maybe some other interesting sights to see. Usually this means a trail with an historic cabin on it or maybe a beautiful waterfall. What I picked, though, was Tannehill Ironworks Historical State Park. About 2 hours southwest of Huntsville, not far off I-20 between Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, this park is more than 1500 acres of land spread across three counties. It has hiking trails, biking trails, and horse trails winding through trees and alongside creeks. But if you think this is your basic nature preserve, you’d be wrong.
After driving down the mile-long entry road and paying a $5 a person entry fee at the gate, we parked and reviewed a map to plot out what we wanted to do first. This part of the park is all about recreation. This is where you’ll find the 195 improved RV campsites, bathhouses, a camp store, and a large and shady picnic area. It was all very 2017-familiar. Just on the other side of the picnic area, though, was something labeled Craft Cabins. We headed that way and immediately shifted from 2017 to the 1800s.
The Craft Cabins are log homes from the 1800s that have been moved to the park and set up along a re-creation of an 1840s plank road. The plank roads were an improvement over rutted dirt roads and were built to spur development. On summer weekends, each of the cabins along the road hosts a different local artisan. This weekend there was an engraver, a potter, a quilter, and my favorite, the seamstress and her husband the antique sewing machine repairman. This couple dressed in period dress and were eager to tell us all about fashions in the late 1800s as well as the technology represented by the hand-cranked Singer sewing machines. I leafed through the fashion magazines of the day and learned about slatted bonnets, shawls, veils, parasols, glasses, petticoats, and crinolines.
Next up, we moved from cozy cabins to the industrial revolution. Birmingham was founded in 1871 and became the primary industrial center of the South due in no small part to its many iron and steel furnaces. This quiet and still rural spot 30 miles to the southwest, though, is really where all that industry got its start and this park, managed by the Alabama Historic Ironworks Commission, was created in 1969 as part of an effort to preserve that history. In 1830, Daniel Hillman built a bloomery forge on the banks of the creek here. A bloomery forge was an early type of forge in use since the beginning of the iron age. It was usually small and could be run by one or two people. Not many examples of this type of forge survive, but the foundations of this one were uncovered by a recent archaeological dig. Though Mr. Hillman died only two years after he built his forge, the site was rich in ore and was in a prime location so a larger and more modern set of three blast furnaces was built on almost the exact same spot starting in 1859. These furnaces were used to supply pig iron to the Confederacy during the Civil War. On March 31, 1865, the furnaces were destroyed by the Union Army, but the advances made here are what gave the post-Civil-War Birmingham steel industry its start.
After checking out the outsides of furnace, the blower house, the water gate, and one more antique cabin, it was time for the actual hike part of our trip so we shifted again, this time from machines and industry to creeks and trees. We crossed the creek just past the furnaces intending to take a trail called the Slave Quarters Trail. First though, a word about the trails in this park, or rather the trail maps. There seem to be two different trail maps available online. The one we used is the one we got to from the “Activities” page on the website. It looks like a hand-drawn map with about 7 trails listed. We later found out that there is another trail map available from the “Forms and Links” page which is totally different. The trail names used on the first map aren’t always used on the second one. The first one has at least some mileages, while the second one has none. Really, what’s needed is a combination of the two, plus the mileage information from REI’s Hiking Project page for Tannehill. There are many more trails here than I’d realized, which of course means we’ll have to make a return trip!
But back to the trail. Slave Quarters Trail leads along an old roadbed, which a sign informed us had connected to the Montevallo Stage Coach Road. Being a roadbed, it was very level and easy to walk along. We saw no slave quarters or any other buildings along the route. My favorite thing about this trail though was that they have put in tree ID plaques along the way. Chet and I tried out our Tree ID Ninja skills by not looking at the plaque before we’d at least tried to identify the tree. We did … ok. I missed a few that I’m mad about, but got many others.
After a .7 mile amble through the woods, the trail intersects with the Old Buckville Stage Road Trail. Turning right would have led us a mile down the road to an old slave cemetery, but in the interest of time we turned left, and almost immediately passed under a large metal arch that proclaimed we were on the “Shirley Real Trail.” The only information I could find on this is that the trail is named for “two leaders in the conservation movement in Alabama” and is supposed to eventually have butterfly and wildflower gardens. Just past this sign another road leads off to the right to another large metal archway that is the entrance to the Boy Scout camp Camp Jack Wright. We continued on looking for the grist mill or the pioneer farm but instead we made another shift.
This time, we moved from quiet idyllic nature to a bustling shopping area. We had wandered into the part of the park where they were holding their monthly Trade Days. From March through November on the third weekend of the month 350+ vendors set up stalls at Tannehill for your shopping pleasure. While we weren’t really there to shop, we did walk among the stalls a bit, and we were delighted to find a food vendor selling roasted corn – a huge favorite of Chet’s.
After enjoying the corn, we got our bearings again and found our way to the Grist Mill. We checked out the dam, the millrace and the outside of the mill (it wasn’t open) before heading up a paved path towards what we hoped was the pioneer farm. This area is described as a collection of 19th and 20th century farm buildings and I had in mind something like the Mountain Farm at Oconaluftee Visitor’s Center or Cades Cove in the Smoky Mountains. What I found was not quite like that though. There was a working blacksmith shop complete with working blacksmith which was cool, but otherwise it was just a bunch of old farm buildings used for storage, none of which were opened. It was pretty disappointing.
We wavered a bit about whether to go back towards Trade Day to find the advertised creamery (ice cream on a summer day is just the best, isn’t it?), but decided instead to look for the train. They have a miniature railway that provides rides from the trade day area to the main camping area for $1. We could have walked the mile back to car, but I couldn’t resist the fun of a kiddie train so we found the “station” and waited for our ride. Soon we were onboard and enjoying a nice cool breeze as we rode down the track. As a bonus, when we got off in the main campground the train conductor told everybody to visit the creamery, which it turns out was NOT back in the Trade Day area, but was just across the street where the Tannehill Sweet Shoppe used to be. If that wasn’t a sign that we should get ice cream, I don’t know what it was. I had mint chocolate chip, while Chet enjoyed a salted caramel. MMMMmmm.
The final stop of the day was the Country Store, which doubles as the campsite registration and camp store. We were hoping to find corn meal from the grist mill, but they didn’t have any that day. Most days the grist mill is actually open and staffed with a man who grinds meal, but since it was closed today they didn’t have any meal to sell. I hate that we missed both the open and working mill and the chance to buy the corn meal!
In the end, we’d walked a respectable 3.5 miles, according to our Garmin track, but I feel like we barely scratched the surface of what this park has to offer. Tannehill Ironworks State Park has a little bit of everything – present and past, industry and recreation, ironworks and trees. Certainly in this case, opposites do attract.