Filling in the Blanks: Alum Cave Trail

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.

 

 

Fly Like an Eagle: Zipline Adventures II

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.

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Water, Water, Everywhere: DeSoto State Park and High Falls Park

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.

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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!

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!

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Yellow blaze to the left, faint lime green to the right

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.

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.

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.

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!

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.

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.

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.

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!

Serendipity – and Llamas: Trillium Gap Trail

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.

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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.

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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.

 

Opposites Attract: Tannehill Ironworks Historical State Park

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

 

 

Checking off the List: Elk River Leg 3

You know how there are those people who just can’t seem to function without some sort of sound filling up every waking minute? You know the type – they keep a radio or TV on at all times – at work, in the car, at home.  I, on the other hand,  am happy with a bit of silence – especially when I’m out in nature someplace. When Chet and I are out on the trail with nobody else around, we don’t feel compelled to talk the whole time. However, we do sometimes spend that time talking about adventures we’d like to take. Maybe we want to hike this same trail in a different season. Or maybe we passed a sign for a state park we’ve not explored. I’ve learned, though, that unless I write it down when I get home, I’ll forget all those brilliant ideas for weekend fun and then draw a blank the next time it’s my turn to pick. So now we have a list.

One of the things on the list was a note that we needed to do a kayak trip “in April or May.”  Kayaking and springtime just seem to go together for me. Spring rains mean that the rivers are high enough that we won’t spend our time dragging ourselves over rocky shallows, and the weather is usually that perfect “not too hot, not too cold.”  So when my turn to come up with our weekend adventure last rolled around, I picked the kayak trip off the list and decided on leg 3 of the Limestone County Canoe and Kayak Trail down the Elk River. In the last couple of years we’ve done leg 1 from Veto, Alabama down to Highway 127, and then leg 2 from Highway 127 to Easter Ferry Road. The third leg goes from Easter Ferry Road down to Hatchery Road, for a 5.6 mile float trip.

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With just the two of us on this adventure, it was easy enough to drive two cars and shuttle ourselves, though Fort Hampton Outfitters would be another choice for those who want someone else to do the shuttling. We drove a vehicle to the Hatchery Road parking lot, which turned out to be a wonderful large level paved lot with a concrete boat ramp. We walked down to the ramp to give things the once-over in case there was anything tricky about how we’d need to get out. It was pretty straightforward, though we did notice that the water was very high.

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We hopped back in the pickup truck and drove back up to the put-in spot at Easter Ferry Road. This lot is not as nice as most of the other ones on we’ve been in on the Trail. The access road down to the lot is steep and deeply rutted and it’s not as roomy as the lot at Veto or Hatchery Road. There is enough space for several cars though and some space to turn around as well. It’s not as nice, but it’s certainly good enough. It has a concrete boat ramp as well. I always like that better than having to scramble over rocks and roots to get in and out of the river, so points for that.

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We quickly got our boats unloaded and were ready to go. Once we got out on the water, we discovered that it was very windy.  It was almost a standoff between the current pushing us downstream and the wind pushing us upstream! We didn’t have to work too hard, though, so I’m guessing the current won out.

 

 

The float itself was pretty uneventful. We passed a big Athens Utilities building of some sort. We had our usual blue heron sighting as one flew ahead of us down the river for a while. We also had another water bird of some sort keep us company for a long time. At first I thought it was a duck of some kind because it did that thing where it sort of ran over the water – flapping its wings so that the water was splashing and making a lot of noise – but never actually took off. We never got close enough to get good pictures, but from a distance it looked to me like the head and beak were thin more like a heron or an egret or something. I wish I knew what it was! We saw no fishing ospreys or swimming raccoons like we had on our last trips, and much to my dismay we only spotted one turtle!

 

 

We also spotted no good places to pull over and beach for lunch. I don’t know if the high water level had anything to do with it; I wondered if maybe there were normally places available but they were just flooded. In any case, this meant no lunch for us since we were both too chicken to attempt to unstrap the cooler mid-river. Knowing my luck, our lunch would have ended up feeding the fishes if I’d tried that. We had checked out this stretch of the river on Google  Maps before the float and noticed that there weren’t even supposed to be little islands along the way until almost to the takeout spot. We had estimated that the trip would take us around 3 to 3.5 hours, just based on our time on the upper stretches. When we came across an island only a couple of hours in, we thought Google Maps had just been wrong. We do joke that Google doesn’t really do that well with bodies of water. Rivers and creeks are often unlabeled, as are other bigger bodies of water. It’s almost as if the thinking is “if a car can’t drive there why bother marking it?” Much to our surprise though, Google got it right this time since the island we came to did end up being the one just before the take out. I guess the current helped us more than we’d thought because it only took us 2 hours to go the 5.6 river miles!

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We beached on the boat ramp and pulled the kayaks out of the river, then Chet hung out in the parking lot while I did the run up to Easter Ferry to switch over to the kayak-carrying pickup truck. When I got back he told me that there must be a farm nearby because he was serenaded with lots of roosters crowing almost the whole time I was gone. Soon we had the kayaks loaded up, and started on the short trek home. Despite the lack of turtles and lunch spots, I really enjoyed my time out on the Elk again. We have one more leg to go to complete the entire trail. Maybe that would make a good fall trip. I’ll have to add it to the list.

 

Hidden Spaces: Neverseen Falls

This week’s blog is going to be a bit of a different one. I’m not going to tell you exactly where we were, much less publish the GPS track that you can pull up and look at. I know, I know – this is a “hiking blog” – isn’t that sort of the point of such a thing? Well sure, usually, but we live in an area with such an embarrassment of natural riches that not even the efforts of the Land Trust of North Alabama, Monte Sano State Park, and the many county and city parks can possibly build trails to all the beautiful spots there are here.

They sure do try, though. By my very unofficial back-of-the-envelope count, there are more than 100 miles of trails just in the Huntsville area. With so many trails to pick from, why would you ever go off trail in the first place? Good question.  I tend to be a rule-follower and “Stay on Marked Trails Please” is a sign you see at most trail heads. From my time trail building for the Land Trust of North Alabama, I’ve learned a lot about the work that goes in to laying out the path for a trail – work that happens long before anyone picks up a lopper, McLeod, Pulaski or chainsaw. Careful thought goes into routing the footbed in a way that minimizes the chance for erosion. Those short cuts straight down a mountainside that folks sometimes make aren’t just quick routes for impatient humans, they are also quick routes for water during storms. Water that’s rushing down a mountainside isn’t soaking into the soil and water that isn’t soaking into the soil isn’t there after the rain is over for the plants that need it. Also, having a defined path that everybody follows means keeping all those human footsteps landing on roughly the same spots. This minimizes the  area that is affected by the soil compaction that happens when we heavy humans tromp on the ground. Compacted soil isn’t soil that can soak up water which again means thirsty plants. There’s also the little matter of safety. Keeping to a defined and maintained trail is going to mean less chance of getting yourself hurt. Not a guarantee, mind you – my worst hiking injury was on a beautiful level footpath – but scrambling over rocks and pushing through underbrush is just asking for trouble.

All of this is to say that we don’t make the decision to go off trail lightly, but sometimes we just can’t help ourselves. We’d heard about a waterfall (and you know how we love our waterfalls) and we really wanted to find it. All I’ll say about its location is that it is close enough that we could squeeze in a trip there in between rain storms on a Sunday afternoon. It’s also not a total secret. I’m sure lots of folks know about this place, and our pictures will probably give it away to those already in the know. There’s a difference between telling people a place exists and drawing a map right to it, though, so that’s the approach I’m going to take.

As we set out on the trail it was not quite raining, but it was spitting at us a little bit. The forecast had been for 80% chance of rain and we were sure we’d be soaked through.  Soon though we were under the trees and didn’t feel another drop of rain for most of the hike. It did, however, make for a sometimes pretty muddy trail.

This first part of the hike was covering old ground for us, but it didn’t take long to get to the point where we thought we were supposed to turn away from the trail and head straight up a rocky creek bed. There was no trail along the creek bank. We pretty much just rock-hopped and scrambled up the creek. It was a little steep, the rocks were sometimes slippery, and we had to clamber over a few downed trees but we made it.


Our goal was a bluff which had a bit of water dripping over the edge. This wasn’t a roaring waterfall like those you can find in the Sipsey Wilderness or South Cumberland State Park, but it’s a beautiful setting – quiet except for the water dripping, lush and green all around contrasting with the browns and reds of the rocks. I loved the dimpled rocks under the drip line of the fall. I wonder how many years of dripping water it took to make those?

Such a lovely spot, isn’t it? And just think – things like this are all around us just waiting to be discovered, as long as they’re not paved over first. Good thing we have folks like the Land Trust to preserve them for us!

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Roadside Respite: Little Cedar Mountain

These days, when I have to travel by car long distances I have a tendency to just get in and drive single-mindedly as long as I can stand it. I’m sure part of that is my nerdy engineer tendencies that drive me to find the quickest and most efficient way to get from point A to point B. Walking or driving, I’ll analyze the route, looking for obstacles to avoid and shortcuts to take. Just ask my kids sometime about my patented power walk through a crowded airport.

Still, you’d think that as much as I enjoy the outdoors I’d heed all those road trip advice articles which tell you to stop frequently to stretch your legs. That’s certainly how we did it when I was growing up. My mom always packed a picnic in the car for any long trip. We’d drive awhile, then find a nice spot someplace for a picnic lunch or dinner. This worked out because my parents also didn’t enjoy driving on highways. They preferred to patch together a route using little country roads, which often had little lay-bys with picnic tables tucked into a wooded area along the way. Now, it sounds a bit idyllic. Then, of course, I chafed at the time it took to get anyplace. I didn’t enjoy the journey – I just wanted to get to the destination.

All of this came to mind this past weekend when we decided to check out Little Cedar Mountain Trail in Tennessee. I was looking for someplace new but relatively close by  that would give us 4-6 miles of hiking. Little Cedar Mountain fit the bill perfectly. Only about an hour and a half from Huntsville, this trail is in the 320 acre Little Cedar Mountain Small Wild Area managed by TVA.  It is a 3 mile lollypop loop trail that promised views of Nickajack Lake. There’s also an optional 1 mile connector trail that goes past a unique ridgetop wetland pond. To get there, we took US 72 east up to I-24, then went east on I-24 for two exits. At the bottom of the exit ramp, we turned right and found the entrance to the parking area almost immediately to the left. (Well OK, we actually turned left off the ramp, drove about 5 minutes in the wrong direction, turned around and then found the parking lot, but do as I say, not as I did… ).

The parking area is right next to the interstate – kind of like those lay-bys on the country roads of my youth. There is space for about 6 cars, a nice kiosk with a good trail map and information about the wildlife to be found on the trail, and a couple of bear-proof trash cans. There are no restroom facilities. As we stood there listening to the roar of the semis passing just over our heads I was thinking this might not have been a great plan after all. Hiking along listening to traffic is not really what I yearn to do when I’m wanting to get away from it all. Nonetheless, we set out on the trail which takes off from the east end of the parking area. It immediately crosses a footbridge over a small stream and then heads away from the interstate and into the woods. It was amazing how quickly the noise from the interstate faded! We followed along the creek for a short ways then turned away from it and through the woods. I saw my first wildflower in this stretch – a daisy fleabane. At the .3 mile mark, the trail splits. Left would take you towards the lake. Right takes you along the back side and then up to the top of Little Cedar Mountain. It’s a loop so either way will work, but we opted to go right first. Maybe it’s that Puritan delayed-gratification thing, but I figured the views of the lake would be the highlight of the trail so I wanted to save the best for last.

The “back side” doesn’t disappoint, though. It starts off as a level, sometimes wide, soft footbed through the trees. We saw lots of wildflowers in this section: Mayapples, purple phacelia, hairy skullcap, and the star of the day – Indian Pink. There were tons of these vivid red and yellow flowers! After a bit, the trail starts to climb. There were a couple of downed trees to climb over or under, and a few that required making our own path through the brush to get around, but none of it was terribly difficult. Higher up we saw trumpet honeysuckle in bloom, St. Johns Wort almost in bloom, and trillium just after the blooms had dropped.

At almost exactly the 1 mile mark, the connector trail (also called the Pond Trail) splits off to the left. We passed this up for now and continued on up to the top of the ridge. Soon we were at the top and could start to see bits of the lake in the distance. At about 1.5 miles, we came to a fantastic lake overview, then the trail turned and headed along the top of the ridge, with lake views the whole way off to our right.  After a short stretch we came to the other end of the connector trail, but once again passed it up to continue on the loop. We spotted false garlic, squaw root, and fire pink on this side of the mountain.

The trail headed down, sometimes pretty steeply, through boulder fields until we reached the lakeside. There was this perfect boulder right at the edge of the lake that was calling my name, so we took a little side trail over to it and rested there for a bit. Whenever I see a large, slightly sloping boulder in a sunny spot I just have to use it for basking – lying down and just soaking up the sun. This was the most perfect basking rock I’ve ever found! It was comfortable, warm and sunny and yet still a bit shaded by trees, and I had the sound of waves lapping on the lake right next to me. All this and we spotted a large bird flying to and from a giant nest on an island just across from us. We watched it for a while hoping Chet could get a good enough photo with his telephoto lens to help us identify it. Eagle? Osprey? It was big, and the nest was huge. The wings looked coppery to me and it might have had a white or at least lighter colored head. Once we got home and zoomed in on the pictures, we decided it was an osprey.

After reluctantly leaving my basking rock, we headed on up the trail which looked like it might have been an old roadbed at one time. There was a stone wall along the trail here from when this area was a farm – before Nickajack Dam flooded the area. The trail soon turned up hill and climbed back over a lower end of Little Cedar Mountain to get us back to the lollypop junction. This section had dramatic rock boulders and even more interestingly, is one of only two areas in the world where a flower called John Beck’s leafcup grows. Sadly, it blooms June – October so we were too early for flowers and didn’t know to look for its leaves. Maybe next time.

At the lollypop junction, we had a decision to make. Did we want to call it a day or do another loop to check out the connector trail? We’d have to retrace our steps quite a bit and figured we’d have to put in another 3 miles to complete the connector and get back to the car. It was only 2:15 and we figured we had plenty of time before it got dark, so we went for it. Besides I’d only spotted 9 wildflowers that I could identify on the trail, and if I could just find 1 more I’d get ice cream!

We opted to go counter-clockwise again, mainly because we felt that way was a little less steep. The plan was to hike to the connector, walk the length of it, then turn around and retrace that part too instead of taking the steeper route back down to the lake. Since we’d already hiked a good bit of this, there was a lot less stopping to admire things so we made really good time. I have to say, though, the connector trail was a bit of a disappointment. It was nice enough I suppose and maybe when the dogwoods are in bloom it would be prettier, but it was basically an easy trail through the woods. There were no views of the lake until it connected up with the main trail, and the pond, while biologically interesting, I suppose, was not very scenic. Maybe I was just tired, but it looked like a glorified mud puddle to me. Luckily, the advertised 1 mile trail length was a bit off, at least according to our GPS which had it at .7 mile. We finished the connector, admired a good sized sinkhole right before the end, then turned around and booked it back to the car.

Despite seeing cars in the parking lot, we’d had the trail entirely to ourselves most of the day. We passed maybe ten people total, so while this place isn’t totally unknown it’s not crowded either, but Chet and I enjoy getting out and finding these lesser known places. We ended up hiking 6.7 miles, but for travelers wanting a shorter break, I’d recommend taking a left at the lollypop junction and heading straight for the lake.

Little Cedar Mountain might not be a traditional hikers’ destination, but having found it, I’m now inspired to look for other roadside hikes. This summer I’ll be driving from Alabama to Washington DC, and you’d better believe I’m going to look for opportunities like this one to take a break from the road, stretch my legs, and enjoy what nature has to offer.

 

 

Swiss Family Wright: Tree House Adventures at Historic Banning Mills

Normally, Chet and I post here about a hike we’ve taken, or a float trip, or once or twice about a zip line adventure. The subtitle of our blog is, after all, “Outdoor Adventures in the Tennessee Valley and Beyond.” Emphasis on the outdoor adventures part. Occasionally, though, the place we stay is just as much a part of the adventure as whatever it was we were doing outside. Mount LeConte Lodge, Hike Inn, Charit Creek Lodge and the yurt in Cloudland Canyon were all unique places to stay and we talked about the lodging as well as the trails in those blogs. Our stay at Historic Banning Mills is in the same category, though totally unique in its own right.

After a long afternoon of ziplining fun, it was finally time to check in to our room. They have a number of room options. There is a lodge with rooms like you’d get in a hotel, and a few cabins that I’m sure are lovely, but my wonderful, adventurous husband had booked us in to one of their Tree House Rooms. These are not the tree houses some of you lucky people may have had in your backyards – an open platform or at best a shack made of plywood. Nope, these tree houses are large sturdy rooms with all the modern comforts. They were furnished with a comfy king size bed and a table and chairs. There was electricity so we had lights, a TV, a DVR, a microwave, a mini refrigerator and a Keurig. There was plumbing so we had our own bathroom with shower and also a jetted jacuzzi tub. There was even a gas fireplace, though it was too warm for us to want to try it out. To get to the tree house, you have to walk across a swinging bridge but after all the sky bridges we’d gone across that day, that was a piece of cake. Once inside, except for occasional bit of swaying (which was worst for some reason in the bathroom) it really did sort of feel like any other nice hotel room. The house itself is basically a structure on top of what looks to be, um, more a a ‘”former tree” than an actual living leafy tree. Still, we were high off the ground, and the views off our private back deck were lovely. We looked down on the top of a blooming dogwood tree, had a view of the creek and a couple of the zip line platforms, and had a pair of acrobatic squirrels to entertain us as they scampered up the guy wires of the tree house next to us to lounge on their empty deck.

After some down time in the tree house, it was time for dinner. Banning Mills does not run a public restaurant, but they do provide free breakfast to all overnight guests. You can also make a reservation for dinner onsite, though that  is extra. We decided we wanted to try a local restaurant, though.  There are choices fairly nearby in Carrollton but Chet has a co-worker who lives in Villa Rica and recommended Gabe’s Downtown, a Cajun place with a delicious sounding menu. It’s about a 25 minute drive from Banning Mills. When we arrived we found the restaurant was packed and had a 30 minute waiting list. We put our names on the list, gave them our phone number, and then went across the street to Uncorked On Main. Chet had seen this place when he was looking around for dinner options. It sounded like a bottle shop and since we always like to pick up local beers from places we visit we decided to check it out. It turned out to be more of a bar/meeting space with a brand new restaurant attached. We saw a few bottles of wine, but no displays of beer like we are used to at our local bottle shops like Wish You Were Beer or OTBX. They did, however, have a bar and we had 30 minutes to kill so…. There were “only” 6 taps (we’re so spoiled!) but a Reformation Brewery porter called Stark sounded good so I ordered it. The very personable older gentleman behind the bar told me I had to try something not on their menu board – a mix of the Stark with a Reformation Belgian ale called Cadence. He told me it was actually a mistake that somebody made, but then discovered that it tasted really good together. He called it the R&R. He was right. It did taste really good together! We hadn’t gotten more than 2 sips into our beers, though, when Gabe’s called to tell us our seat was ready. That was a short 30 minutes! While they wouldn’t hold a table long enough for us to finish our beer without guzzling it, they did kindly agree to just moving the folks behind us on the list up one slot. Sure enough, about the time we finished our beer, Gabe’s called again to tell us the next table was ready. What service!

Beer

Gabe’s is a small restaurant in what looks to be an historic building in old downtown Villa Rica. It has exposed brick walls, old wooden floors, and the big shop windows in the front like the old businesses on the courthouse square in Huntsville have. There are 15 tables of various sizes and a bar tucked along one wall. The service was efficient, friendly, and quick and the food was delicious! We split an order of loaded fried green tomatoes and I had an order of shrimp and grits. My only complaint is that it was too much food! It was impossible to eat it all, no matter how delicious it was. I didn’t even have room for dessert. Stuffed but happy, we headed on back to Banning Mills to sleep off the food coma.

The next morning, we went down to the buffet breakfast, which offered eggs, bacon, biscuits and gravy, fruit, yogurts, and scones along with coffee and a selection of juices. After breakfast, we checked out a very small history museum in the basement, and then took advantage of our access to the resort to explore some of the nature trails on the property. Historic Banning Mills is not a public park and access to the trails is limited to folks who have paid for a zip line adventure or who are staying overnight. While there is a trail map, no distances are marked on it, and trails are mostly just labeled “Hiking Trail” or “Horse and Hiking Trail.” Nevertheless we felt like we could find our way well enough from the maps and the signs and started exploring. We were most interested in checking out the mill ruins marked on the map, so we headed towards Snake Creek and followed the signs. We saw ruins of a dam, ruins of a small mill, ruins of larger paper mill, and finally, an abandoned, but still standing, red brick mill building. This mill was built in the 1830s as a textile mill and supplied Confederate uniforms during the Civil War. A couple we met on the trail told us that they’d heard General Sherman wanted to destroy it, but that it was so well hidden that he never found it and that’s why it is the only mill still standing along the creek. I haven’t been able to find any evidence that that is anything more than a tall tale though.

In any case, it was a lovely day, and we enjoyed our short walk. Early spring wildflowers were blooming along the creek, and the sky was blue overhead. The adventurers were overhead, too, as sky bridges, swinging bridges, and zip lines criss-cross the gorge. It was fun watching them zip along, especially after having done some of that ourselves the day before.