Quick Look: Natural Well Trail

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Trail Name: Natural Well Trail

Location: Monte Sano State Park

Length: 2.5 miles

Rating: Moderate to Experienced, depending on which route you take

Points of interest: Natural Well (a deep pit cave)

Blog Post: The longest way ’round: Natural Well Loop

Notes: The route from the parking lot on Monte Sano Boulevard goes through a landslide area that can be difficult to navigate. The route from the picnic area in Monte Sano State Park avoids the landslide, but does require an entrance fee to the park and is a much longer hike to get to the Natural Well itself.

GPS Track: GPS Track

Pointless: Logan Point Loop Trail

Despite the pressures of the hectic holiday season, or maybe because of them, Chet and I made sure to carve a bit of time out of our Saturday schedule of events to get out and enjoy the beautiful weather. It was a perfect day for a hike, just cold enough that a good walk would warm us right up and feel great. We did have those holiday pressures though, so I picked out a short and nearby hike for us, the Logan Point Loop Trail in Monte Sano State Park. We’ve passed the signs for this trail several times, but I don’t believe I’ve ever actually walked it so Saturday was the day.  We decided to take our sweet old hound Casey along with us too and soon had dog, packs, and cameras loaded up. We then we realized that neither of us had any actual cash on us. The park has an entrance fee of $5.00 per person so a side-trip to the ATM was in order. Entrance fee in hand, we headed for the park.

The Logan Point trail branches off of the Sinks Trail so we headed for the Sinks trailhead at the overlook near the CCC museum. There, we found a new-to-us sign indicating that parking there is only for those enjoying the view, and specifically not for hikers or bikers. Humph! Rule followers, though, we turned around and drove back to the nearest parking lot, which was at the camp store. From there, we walked  .18 miles back to the trailhead.

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I mark the Sinks Trail as starting from the gate that blocks off Bankhead Parkway just on the other side of the overlook parking lot. A short walk down the paved Bankhead Parkway leads to a Sinks Trail sign that points the way down the mountain. In the winter, there are great views of the farms and neighborhoods to the north. This is the steepest part of the whole hike, as the trail drops about 200 feet in about a quarter of a mile. There are numerous switchbacks, though, so it’s not too difficult. Once through the switchbacks, the trail crosses over the Mountain Mist Trail and continues on at a much gentler grade until it reaches an intersection with the Logan Point Trail.

The Logan Point trail starts by heading up a very short way until it reaches what I’ve been told was once an old wagon roadbed. Here, the Stone Cuts Trail heads to the right, while the Logan Point Trail turns left to follow the roadbed along below Panther Knob. This part of the trail is quiet and fairly level, with the mass of Panther Knob looming above and to the right, while to the left large boulders scatter across the gentle slope. We passed a couple of the old Space Shuttle shaped trail markers. You’ll find these signs tacked to trees all over the trails on Monte Sano and I’ve always been told they are the old “Space Walk” trail signs.  Huntsville Outdoors writer Luke Brisk has done some excellent research and collected evidence that these were perhaps a part of a reroute of the original Space Walk, also called the Discovery Trail. His article posted here is an interesting read and lays out the history and potential future for this trail.

About a third of a mile down Logan Point, we passed an intersection with Panther Knob Trail. The trail had a pink ribbon tied across it, but at more than head height. I couldn’t tell if this was an attempt to block entry to the trail or mark it with a sort of triumphant arch. Since my goal was to hike the Logan Point Trail, though, we passed up this side trip for later. Shortly past the Panther Knob intersection, we reached another sign marking a trail junction. This one was for the Alternate Logan Point trail. It continued on straight more or less along the wagon road, but it was marked as a more difficult trail than the main one. We stuck to the main trail, which cut off from the wagon road and became a narrow track through the woods.

This part of the trail wound through the trees along the very gentle slope under Panther Knob. I got the impression that this trail might be mainly used for mountain bikers, since we came across a few features that could only be explained as fun stuff for bikers to jump over. It took nothing away from hikers though, so that’s not a complaint. We wound through the woods, climbed over a bike feature or two, and soon spotted a sign off through the trees indicating that the property was closed during hunting season. From experience, we knew that this was probably one end of the Flat Rock Connector trail, which crosses over private property. The owner is fine with that, only asking that during hunting season folks stay off that trail. Having walked part of his property before in our ill-fated Flat Rock Trail hike, I can certainly understand why.  There were tree stands all over!  To reach the actual intersection with the Flat Rock Connector, we’d have had to have taken the Alternate part of the trail, but the two Logan Point trails are close together here as we were about to the place where the Alternate trail connects back up with the main one.

We continued on the main trail, crossing over several wooden bridges and finally passing a faded sign that indicated that no horses were allowed on the trail. That actually marked a return to the Monte Sano park property, as part of the Logan Point Trail – both the main and the alternate – are not technically on park property.  Here the trail starts climbing up a bit until it comes to the intersection with Keith Trail. At this point, Logan Point Trail turns sharply uphill to get to the ridge line and the intersection with Stone Cuts Trail. At the intersection a sign says that the shortest way back to the trailhead and picnic area, etc., is to the left, which would take you through the actual Stone Cuts, but we needed to get back to where we’d parked the car so we turned right.

To our right, impressive rock formations lined the trail. After hiking only a short way, we came to the sign for the other end of the Panther Knob Trail. We decided to go ahead and hike up to the top just to see what the views might be.  At the top, the trail was blocked by a giant tree that had fallen across the trail. We opted not to go any farther, but used the tree as a bench and enjoyed the views from the top. You could see east towards Ryland or Moontown and also west towards the park and some of the neighborhoods off Highway 72 near Chapman Mountain. After a nice little break, we headed back down to continue closing the loop.

The rest of the hike was pretty uneventful. We soon came to the intersection with Logan Point Trail where we’d turned left onto the wagon road at the beginning of our hike. From there we were just retracing our steps.

So there you have it – a trail with no grand vistas that also manages to miss the points of interest in the area. It does not go up onto Panther Knob, turns away from the Stone Cuts, and misses Super Cuts entirely. Though I titled this post “pointless,” that sounds harsher than I mean it to be  – I just couldn’t resist the play on words.  It’s a nice trail with a mostly gentle grade and if you do want to throw in a bit of excitement, turn left and head into Stone Cuts, or take the trail up to the top of Panther Knob like we did. At any rate, Casey the Hound seemed to enjoy his day out!

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Chapman Mountain: A Family Legacy

In 1932, Bob Terry’s grandfather bought a chunk of land that took in a large part of of the east side of Chapman Mountain. At the time, the rugged land was considered to be “out in the country,” and had in the past been home to at least one known moonshine still. Mr. Terry planned to develop it into a housing development with homes down in the flat and all up the mountainside. For reasons that included difficulty in getting water to the site, this development was never built. The Terrys did farm a bit of cotton on the level parts at the base of the mountain, but for the most part the land remained pretty much untouched.

Bob Terry’s father did not follow his father’s footsteps into land development or agriculture. He was a gifted linguist who spoke 9 languages and taught foreign language at the University of Georgia for many years. His passion was education, as is demonstrated by the fact that he made sure that every one of his 11 grandchildren could get a college education.

When it was Bob Terry’s turn to pick a vocation, he picked forestry – “because I didn’t have to learn any languages,”  This self-deprecating humor is typical Bob Terry, but it’s obvious he has a passion, too: a passion for land preservation. The Harvest Square Preserve in western Madison County is on land donated by the Terry family, and Bob Terry himself has come to many a trail maintenance work day at Land Trust properties all over Madison County to lend a hand (and put to shame those decades younger who can’t keep up with his pace!)

On Dec. 3, 2017 the lives and passions of three generations of the Terry family came together at the groundbreaking for the Terry Educational Pavilion at Chapman Mountain. On land originally owned by his grandfather, now the Land Trust of North Alabama’s newest nature preserve, Bob Terry helped to ceremonially break ground for a 1,920 square foot pavilion that will be used host an expanded science and environmental education program. The pavilion will include running water for bathrooms (they’ve obviously solved the problem of getting water to the site) and solar-powered electricity. It will be the gathering point for classes, and the starting point for group camping experiences and hikes on the planned 10 miles of multi-use trails winding through the property.

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On groundbreaking day, a good crowd gathered to listen as Land Trust executive director Marie Bostick outlined plans for the project and then introduced three speakers. Bob Terry spoke about the history of the property and his family, then representatives from Vulcan Materials and Toyota Manufacturing spoke about their long involvement with and support for the Land Trust that led them to this project. Then we all climbed up towards the pavilion site to watch as the three tossed the ceremonial first shovelful of dirt.

After the dirt tossing, land steward Lori Pence led a group of around 35 on a short loop hike on the property. We started at the pavilion site and went north on the Moonshine Trail. Bob Terry verified that there had indeed been a moonshine still on this land, though he was quick to point out that the still pre-dated his family’s ownership of the land.  A heavy fall of leaves and little previous foot traffic made for a bit of an indistinct footbed, but trail diamonds plus red ribbons tied to the trees marked out the path. The trail cuts through land covered in tall, straight pine trees. Chet asked Mr. Terry if the family had planted the trees to sell for pulp, but apparently they just all grew up naturally after they stopped farming on the land.

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Soon we reached the intersection with the Terry Trail – named of course for the Terry family. This is a 1.1 mile trail that loops through most of the lower section of the property. Most of that 1.1 miles are to the right of this intersection, but on this day we turned left to head back to the south. This section of the Terry Trail  was very level and for a short time followed alongside an old rock wall. Later I was told that the rock wall used to extend all the way across what is now Highway 72. We also passed the rusted and bullet-riddled hulks of a pickup truck and a Chevrolet Monte Carlo. Given that we were headed towards the “Moonshine Trail,” there was lots of joking about whether this was evidence of moonshiners outrunning the revenuers, but seeing as the Monte Carlo wasn’t even in production until 1970 (thank you Wikipedia!) I’m sure that wasn’t the case.

When the Terry Trail intersected again with the Moonshine Trail, we turned right to head up to the spring. I’ve actually been to the spring before, on an earlier Land Trust members hike on Chapman Mountain. It’s a lovely site and at that time there was water flowing over the rock ledge and down to form a bubbling little creek. This time, the spring was nearly dry, with just a slightly damp patch on the downhill side of the rock ledge indicating where the water might normally flow. Still, it’s a pretty location, and Lori told us that in the fall when the leaves turned, the hillside was ablaze with yellow. After admiring the spring and taking a group picture, we headed back to the parking lot.

Our GPS failed to pick up our track for this hike, but it was a short one – maybe .75 mile. The whole of the Moonshine Trail is .5 miles, and the section of the Terry Trail we hiked looked to be about half of that distance. There are currently 3 miles of trails roughed in on the preserve, but there are big plans for more trails, including many that will be multi-use hike and bike trails. In fact, Sorba (Southern Off Road Bicycling Association) of Huntsville has a received an IMBA (International Mountain Bicycling Association) “Dig In” grant to fund a Master Trails plan at Chapman Mountain. The goal is to have 10 miles of trails on the property.

These are exciting plans, but you might be wondering what you can do at Chapman Mountain today.  The answer to that is “it depends.” The Land Trust intends to open the property to the public in February 2018, when it will be open from dawn to dusk like the rest of their properties. However, there are two ways to explore the property even before it’s open to the public – become a Land Trust member, and/or sign up for a Chapman Mountain Trail Care day. Becoming a member is easy – you can do it online – and it gets you benefits like free access to a Carto Maps app, discounted tickets to Land Trust events, discounts from partners, and most important for this discussion, invitations to free member only hikes. I heard from the Land Trust staff at the groundbreaking that they’ll be having several member only hikes on the property between now and the official opening. If hands-on trail building is more your style, you could join me and Chet in volunteering to become a part of the awesome Trail Care Crew. Though I haven’t seen a schedule, I would think there’s a good chance that trail building work is going to be happening at Chapman Mountain sometime before the public opening – maybe we’ll see you there! More information on becoming a member or volunteering can be found on the Land Trust website. Go check it out!

 

Breaking the rules: Galaxy of Lights

I have a hard and fast rule about Christmas. There will be no Christmas decorations put up, no Christmas music played, no Christmas-y activities at all –  until after Thanksgiving day.  It seems somehow disrespectful of the day set aside for giving thanks to rush past it to the next holiday. However, I do make one exception, and that is dog walking night through the Galaxy of Lights at the Huntsville Botanical Garden. For those that might be unfamiliar with this Huntsville holiday tradition, the Galaxy of Lights is a 2.5 mile trail of lighted holiday displays that winds through the Botanical Garden. Between November 24 and Dec. 31, you can drive through displays from 5:30 – 9:00 pm.  Driving through the displays is nice, especially when it is really cold outside, and you can listen to your own holiday music if you want. Cars move pretty slowly through the displays so there’s plenty of time to enjoy each one. However, as you might expect, we’re not really the driving types, so for folks like us there are walking nights starting November 16. From 5:30 to 8:00 pm on these nights, no cars are allowed on the trail so that you can walk through without dodging cars and choking on exhaust. Even better, there are two specially set aside dog walking nights for those of us who also want to bring along our furry babies. The downside to the walking and dog nights, though, is that they are only available up until the drive-through nights start. In other words, if I want to enjoy the Galaxy of Lights while walking with my pup, I’m gonna have to break my rule about “no Christmas-y activities before Thanksgiving.”  In my defense, the Galaxy of Lights isn’t purely a Christmas display. It’s a display of all sorts of scenes – most of them seasonal in some way, but there are also flowers, bees, prancing deer, snowmen, and even dinosaurs. So – not just a Christmas activity – which means I’m not really breaking my rule, right?

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On the last dog walk night for the season, November 20, Chet and Casey and I met up after work and headed out to start our adventure. I have to be honest with you, this is such a popular event that I always dread this part. Traffic backs up more than a mile from the entrance as everybody and their brother (and their pups) seem to converge on the Botanical Garden at about the same time.  If you’ve never been before, you might make the rookie mistake of heading for the normal Garden main entrance. Don’t do it. For the Galaxy of Lights, all cars are routed in via Phantom Road, which is a road off  Bob Wallace near I-565. There is a large “Enter Here” sign that is pretty unmistakable. That and the massive line of cars should tip you off about where to go. Once you creep the mile or so into the Garden itself, they have an army of helpful volunteers directing you to open parking spots. In all the years I’ve been going to this event, I’ve never not been able to find a parking space. Some years I was farther away than others, but they always seem to find a way to get everybody safely parked. This year, they had arranged for access to some of the parking around the new Louis P. Morris Elementary School, which probably helped a lot. We parked in this area this year and were soon walking over towards the pavilion to buy our tickets. And now’s the time to mention another tip – if at all possible, buy your tickets in advance. We did not, and as we walked over towards the pavilion we saw a line of humans and their dogs stretching away into the distance on our left. It was the line for tickets. My heart sank and I cursed myself for not thinking ahead, but a helpful volunteer pointed out that we could also just run down the hill to the main Guest Center and buy our tickets there. From the looks of the line, that would save us some time, so we headed that way. The Guest Center itself was a bit of a zoo, with people lining up for tickets at the main desk while folks who had finished the walk were weaving their way through the crowds in the lobby to get to the exit, but I was fairly quickly pointed to a cash-only register in the gift shop and soon had tickets in hand. Then it was back up to the entrance, where the line actually seemed to have gone down by quite a bit. I was thinking we hadn’t maybe saved much time after all with our jaunt down to the guest center when another kind volunteer pointed us to the “pre-purchased tickets” entrance which saved us from any line at all, and with that we were through the gate, had our “members only” hot chocolate and cookie tickets, and were on our way.

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First up, Casey the Hound had to sniff (and pee on) every.single.luminary along the path. I’m pretty sure that as far as he’s concerned these luminaries are the whole reason for coming. He could not possibly care less about all the lights, though he does enjoy greeting every other dog there as well as reveling in the occasional scritch behind the ears from some appreciative dog lover outside of his family.

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For the humans with him, though, the reason to come is for the light displays. Each of the nearly 200 displays is sponsored, often by a business, but sometimes by a family or individual. Some are big, and some are small.  Most are animated, a few are not. There’s really something for almost everybody. I’m not going to detail every one of them here, but I did want to highlight a few of my favorites, or at least a few that we got decent pictures of. Apparently taking pictures in the dark is not one of my skills.

After passing under a set of suspended snowflakes, the path winds past several displays and then passes two spots of interest – the place where Santa hangs out for the younger set, and the “spirited coffee” stall right next to it. (Draw your own conclusions about that juxtaposition.)  Just past here, we came to a very popular light display – “Sweet Home Alabama,” and just after that was one of my favorites – the “Cinderella’s Castle” tableaux. The “North Pole” Elf also caught my eye.

Next up was the icicle forest. We moved off to one side to get a picture and I heard several groups in a row come by and say “Oh this is my very favorite one!” It is beautiful and while I’m sure it’s nice to drive through, I think it’s even more fun to walk through – particularly if the snow blower towards the middle is going. Kids especially get a kick out of walking through the fake snow. Past the icicle forest we came to dinosaur-land, then some lovely (but not really seasonal) flower, peacock, and bee displays, and a beautiful menorah.

At about the half way point along the trail, there is a tent set up where you can buy hot chocolate, cookies, or brownies. As a garden member one of our perks is that we get a ticket for a free hot chocolate and a cookie. For just a couple of dollars I upgraded us to a brownie (they were delicious) and we settled on a nearby bench to enjoy our snack. There are also several picnic tables set up here, so finding a spot to sit for a minute is not hard. On really cold nights, the outdoor heaters they have running are probably much appreciated. It’s a nice spot to take a little break.

Just past the hot chocolate stand is another one of my favorites – the student art display. While I could not find anything recent about the rules, I know that at one time the Garden hosted a student art contest. Students would submit seasonally themed drawings, some of which would be chosen for display during the Galaxy of Lights, with their names, school, and teacher identified. I don’t know if that’s how they still do it, but however it’s done, I’m always impressed by what these young kids have produced!

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In the home stretch now, we passed a large nativity scene, the Huntsville Depot in lights, and another of my favorites, Old Man Winter.

We finished up by going through a forest of sparkly green trees and then followed the path around Little Smith Lake back to the Guest Center. As we made our way back across the parking lots to our car, we stopped to chat with one of the volunteers who told us that this was a record breaking night. They’d had 1700 dogs come through that night (not to mention the humans that came with them). She said that is almost twice what they saw last year!

Walking nights are over for this year, but you can still drive through the displays most nights starting November 24.  There area  couple of nights that are closed due to fun runs so be sure to double check the calendar before you go, but there’s still plenty of time to get out and enjoy this Huntsville holiday tradition, and maybe next year, you can join with me in breaking the rules and experiencing this delightful tradition on foot.

 

Backyard Treasure: Rainbow Mountain Trails

You know how it is – it’s the places in your own backyard that you somehow never seem to find the time to visit. If it weren’t for having family in from out of town, many Huntsville area folks might never have made the time to go visit the Space and Rocket Center, or Constitution Hall Village, or any of the other fantastic tourist sights in our area. We’re not here for just a few days after all, and there’s always next weekend.

I’ve been guilty of this myself, even when it comes to trails. Chet and I live in Madison and the Land Trust of North Alabama’s Rainbow Mountain Preserve is practically in our back yard, but I realized that we’ve only blogged about it once! I was on my own last weekend (Chet was otherwise engaged both days refereeing about a zillion soccer games for AYSO), so Casey The Hound and I decided we’d just explore the “backyard” preserve.

As I drove up to the parking area on Stoneway Trail, I could see that I was not the only one with this idea. The place was packed! There’s a parking lot on the left right next to the kiosk and the pavilion, but there was not a spot empty there. In fact, there were cars parked along the curb and in some spots that I’m pretty sure weren’t entirely official. There’s a second lot up the hill that holds a handful of cars, but that one was almost full as well. Luckily, I’d driven my little Honda Fit and could squeeze in along an edge.

Rainbow Mountain Preserve isn’t very big, but it does have a large pavilion and a nice shady playground, as well as 3 miles of trails. There is also a “Dog Waste Station,” which was a good thing because I’d totally run off and forgotten the poop bags for Sir Hound. I don’t know what it is, but for some reason being out in the “wild” really has an effect on his, erm, digestive system. It’s like he stores it up for days! At any rate, I was able to stock up a bit before we headed out, so that was nice.

I wasn’t terribly ambitious honestly – I’ve been fighting a bit of a cold and didn’t want to push things too much – so I’d picked out a short loop hike that would stretch all 6 of our legs a bit and take in some of the premier features of the Preserve. We started out walking through the playground and heading out on the east end on Rainbow Mountain Loop. With all the cars parked in the lot, I was sure the playground would be overrun with kids, but it was virtually empty. Everybody, it seems, was there to hike. The trail here is almost sandy and strewn with large rocks. It heads down, sometimes a bit steeply, losing almost 100 feet in elevation in the first .12 miles. We passed a trail that might have been one end of Jake’s Trail (I didn’t see a marker for it though) and continued on down until we got to the intersection with Spring Trail, which takes off to the right.

Only a few steps down the Spring Trail, the Wild Trail takes off to the right. Now though we haven’t blogged about this Preserve much, I have hiked almost all the trails at some point. All of them are attractive for one reason or another: Rainbow Mountain Loop is the granddaddy – the first trail here, I’m pretty sure; Ja Moo Ko has a cool name; Spring Trail has a pretty  little creek as well as (obviously) a spring; Jake’s Trail is named for a dog. Wild Trail has none of those attractions, and so I’ve often skipped it, always planning to come back to it another time. This weekend was “another time” and so down the Wild Trail we went.The trail is less popular than the other trails I think, and seems less well-traveled. It’s narrower and crowded in a bit by the forest understory, but not at all overgrown. While I passed many groups of people and dogs on the other trails I hiked this day, I passed not a soul on the Wild Trail. Casey and I really did have it all to ourselves. The trail is pretty level at first, and then turns uphill to regain some of the elevation lost at the start of the hike before coming, after only about .1 miles, to a T intersection. Here I had the option of going right to make a much shorter loop, or going left to make a longer one. I chose left because I wanted my loop to include both Baby Balance Rock and Balance Rock. The shorter loop would have put me out onto Rainbow Mountain Loop past where I’d see Baby Balance Rock.

After another quarter of a mile, I came to the junction with Rainbow Mountain Loop and turned right to get to the balance rocks. This is one of my favorite pieces of trail in the Preserve. I love that the trail goes over large rock slabs that have been cracked into giant stepping stones. I love that the views to the west include the neighborhoods below. I love the rock bluffs that the trail wanders above, below or through at various points. And I especially love the balance rocks.

Originally, there was just one Balance Rock named on the maps, but now the latest Land Trust maps also mark Baby Balance Rock. These rock formations look a little like upside down pyramids made of Legos. It is a pillar of rock, layered horizontally, and much much smaller at the bottom than it is at the top. It is a product of erosion of softer sandstone layers with harder layers above. They’ve managed to stay upright for years, but eventually Mother Nature will have her way, and the pillars will come tumbling down.

Casey and I explored the rocks around Baby Balance Rock and admired the views to the west. The bluffs just below we’d visited  (and blogged about ) on a Land Trust guided hike led by Redstone Arsenal archaeologist Ben Hoksbergen a couple of years ago, so I knew they contained several small rock shelters once used by area Native Americans for occasional shelter. We didn’t explore them all this time around, though, but continued on through the rock formations to get to Balance Rock.

After Balance Rock, Casey and I headed back to close our loop. We could have gone straight to the car by the water tower, but I opted to head down Jake’s Trail to finish up at the playground again. All told, we only hiked .9 miles in our mighty mountain trek. It wasn’t very far, but we had a good time, met lots of other dogs (and people), saw some  fall colors in the trees, and gave some love to a neglected backyard trail. A good day!

 

Boa Viagem: Sugarloaf Trail

When I was six years old, my mom and I moved back to the United States from Brazil. My dad was staying a few more months to finish up his contract with USAID (United States Agency for International Development), but for a lot of reasons – the timing of the school year and my grandmother’s failing health primarily – Mom and I came back early. I don’t remember very much about that trip back honestly. I don’t remember the goodbyes to the people I’d lived around as long as I could remember or anything about the plane ride itself. But what I do remember, at least a little bit, is being on a cable car and looking out to see only granite and ocean. Later on, of course, I figured out that we’d made a stop in Rio on the way home and I’d been on the famous cable car up to the top of the Pão de Açúcar, or Sugarloaf Mountain. This granite monolith stands at the mouth of Guanabara Bay with views up the bay, over the city, and out to the Atlantic Ocean. It was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2012. The cable car system was built in 1912, and has been rebuilt several times since, but based on the dates I was probably riding in one of the original wooden cars. I don’t remember much else about it – I have no memory of being on top of the mountain or even of coming back down – but those views made an indelible impression on me.

It just occurred to me that maybe this early experience explains why I always want to climb. I want to climb up on the top of the tallest rock, or out to the edge of the bluff, or (when I was little anyway) up to the highest tree branches. But maybe that’s just pop psychology. In any case, one of the things I most wanted to do during our trip to New England in early October was to be someplace where I could get that view – the iconic “fall in New England” one from on high with rolling ridges painted scarlet, orange, and vivid yellow stretching out as far as the eye could see. We’d seen glimpses of that on some of our drives, but seeing from the car is not exactly what I was looking for.  Chet found us a hike that sounded promising – a 3.2 mile round trip that climbed to around 2500 feet plus up to two peaks and offered excellent 360 views. The trail name? The Sugarloaf Trail – so named because the peaks are called North Sugarloaf and Middle Sugarloaf, We just had to check it out.

This being a shorter hike, we took our time in the morning. No alarm was set, and we took the time to order off the menu at breakfast instead of rushing through the buffet. After a filling breakfast of pumpkin pancakes (for me anyway), we made our way to the White Mountain National Forest near the town of Bethlehem, NH and up Zealand Road to the Sugarloaf trailhead. The trailhead parking was easy to find. There was a reasonably large gravel lot with a kiosk off on the right side of the road. We parked near the north end of the lot close to what looked to be the obvious trailhead. It didn’t actually say “Sugarloaf Trail” and it was marked as a cross country ski trail, but it was yellow blazed, as we’d expected, and headed in roughly the right direction. Off we went. Until we ended up, just a short way down the trail, in the campground. We’d obviously gone wrong, but squinting at the picture of the trail map on Chet’s camera wasn’t getting us anywhere. Back we went to the parking lot where we reviewed the trail map at the kiosk more carefully. The map was a bit cluttered, but it did look like the trail was on the other side of the Zealand River so I walked down the road and across the bridge and found … the actual trailhead. Clearly marked as such, too. Sigh.

 

Now that we’d actually found the trail, it was a very nice one. For the first .2 miles it is joined with the Trestle Trail and follows along beside the Zealand River on a nice well-traveled footbed. We were already seeing more colorful trees than we had on our last hike – I think it was just that there were fewer spruce here – and the river was a nice backdrop. At the junction, the Sugarloaf Trail takes off sharply uphill on a very rocky section, before leveling out and coming to what looked to be an old road crossing.

 

Beyond the road crossing, the trail heads back into the trees. It’s fairly level through here, but at least on this day it was a bit muddy. There were a couple of boardwalks, but other places had large rocks we could hop across to keep our boots more or less dry. Past the mud, we started climbing up. The trail was carpeted with red maple leaves, and we passed several large boulder formations, including one that looked like it would be fun to climb through – if you didn’t have a pack on anyway. After the split boulder we continued climbing up, now more steeply but with occasional stone stairs to help us along.

 

At .9 miles we reached the saddle between the two peaks and had to pick which way we wanted to go. We’d heard that the middle peak had the better views, so we decided to start with that one. Just in case my back flared up and limited us to just the one, we wanted to make sure to make it to the best one! The middle peak was to the left. At first the trail goes along the relatively level ridgeline. Though this part of the trail was more spruce forest and moss than vivid fall leaves, in some ways this was my favorite part of the trail. I just love the smell of balsam, the feel of soft evergreen needles underfoot, and the intense green of the moss brightening the shade from the trees.

 

Soon the trail climbed over a giant boulder we dubbed “stepstone rock” for the steps carved out of one edge, and soon after that we began to head down. Wait! Down isn’t the right direction! True, but in this case we had to go down in order to curve around and start heading steeply up. And I do mean steeply! This part had sections that weren’t quite rock-climbing, but I did have to use both hands and feet to get up some of the rocks. One reviewer of this trail advised that you not try it if it was wet. I’d agree with that. Finally, a steeply inclined set of stairs (some folks had called in a ladder but it did have treads) came into view, and we knew we were near the top. I climbed up the “ladder,” then over a deeply shaded trail section webbed with roots to come out in a small clearing. I could see a path straight ahead and beyond, breathtaking views, so I dropped my pack on a rock and took off through the gap in the bushes.

 

Oh, what a view. We were on a set of large granite shelves surrounded by the White Mountains. To the northeast we could see the Presidential Mountain Range including Mount Washington and its cog railway. To the southwest were the Twin Mountains, with Mount Lafayette and Franconia Notch beyond. Due south was Mount Hale. Due north and a little lower down we could see the granite shelves of North Sugarloaf Mountain. In between were acres and acres of colorful fall leaves. I took loads of pictures, but honestly I don’t think the camera adequately captured how stunning it all was. You’re going to have to go look for yourselves! We soaked in the beauty for quite awhile as we ate our lunch and I did a bit of rock basking. We couldn’t stay forever, though – we had another peak to visit!

 

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We retraced our steps back to the junction in the saddle and this time took the other trail towards North Sugarloaf. This trail almost immediately turns into a rockier scramble down, around, and then again steeply back up towards the peak. At times this was even more of a scramble than the middle peak, though this side seemed more rooty than rocky. At the top we went a bit left towards the opening in the trees and past a big boulder at the entrance to a clearing.

 

Past the boulder, we first went right to a small shelf with views of the Rosebrook Range. After Middle Sugarloaf this shelf is smaller and the views are not quite as panoramic, but to be fair they are just as gorgeous. We had thought we would be able to see Middle Sugarloaf from here, and didn’t really get the view we expected, so we tried another trail out of the initial clearing. This one led through a stretch of undulating trail through evergreens with that vivid green moss on either side. Lovely.  At the end of this short trail, we found another view point but it was a much more limited view and we still didn’t really have the view of Middle that we expected. I’m not entirely convinced we didn’t miss something on this peak, but that’s a good excuse to come back again.

 

It was time to head back down.  Our total mileage for this trail (including our little meandering there at the beginning) was 3.9 miles, as you can see from our GPS track. Though it has some steep sections, it’s very doable and short enough that you can hike it and have plenty of time to enjoy the views in just a few hours. Maybe it wasn’t my Brazilian Sugarloaf, but this New Hampshire version has its own charms.  No cable car takes you to the top, so you have to work a bit more, but the views were just as stunning. This time, though, instead of granite and waves, it will be granite and vivid fall leaves  that I’ll remember.

 

Leaf Peepers: Fall leaves from past hikes

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.

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That’s a Wrap: Limestone County Canoe and Kayak Trail

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!

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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!