Magic Carpet: Taylor Hollow State Natural Area

During the spring, I’m always on the hunt for the very best spring wildflower trails. We have some lovely ones close to Huntsville, but Chet and I have hiked most of them at this point so I’m always on the lookout for a new place to go. One night a few weeks ago, I was half-heartedly typing in Google searches for “wildflower trails near me” or something along those lines, and I came across a reference to a place I’d never heard of: Taylor Hollow. The online trail reviews made it sound like a wildflower heaven on earth so I immediately started trying to figure out where this place was. Surprisingly in this day and age of “online everything,” it’s a little tricky.  By going to the Nature Conservancy website, I discovered that this gem is a 163 acre preserve run by the Nature Conservancy in middle Tennessee. There’s a map with a general area there, but they strongly encourage you to email them for directions, because the place is not marked and is difficult to find. I sent off my email on a Saturday night and got a response the next Monday. After a few emails back and forth to set up some ground rules, I came away with directions to the trailhead, plus permission to blog about their preserve as long as we didn’t give out directions or an address. If you want to go (and I would encourage everybody to do so!) just contact them via email or the phone number listed on the website. Trust me – it’s worth it.

It’s been a pretty rainy stretch recently – I can’t remember the last time we had a totally rain-free weekend – so we waited a bit until we got some cooperation from the weather gods and headed up into Tennessee one rare beautiful clear Sunday morning. It is a bit of a drive from Huntsville, but with directions in hand, we had no trouble finding where we were supposed to park. I was sure that, difficult as this spot was to find, we’d be the only people there, but when we drove up there were a couple of other cars parked already. So far so good, but the next challenge would be finding the trailhead. Actually, I should correct myself there – the next challenge turned out to be getting past the “guard rooster.” This guy came strutting down the gravel drive towards us, fluffy white companion-hen in tow. I was amazed that he was so bold! Farm-boy Chet was immediately a little concerned. He knows roosters, and has tangled with some pretty mean ones in his time growing up on a farm. He recognized this guy as not just bold, but aggressive. Sure enough, as we tried to calmly head up the driveway without riling him up, he tried to block our path, then crowd us off to one side. We got past him without incident, but he followed us all the way up the drive and made me very nervous!

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Guard Rooster and his hen

Once past the rooster, our next task was to find the kiosk that marks the beginning of the actual trail. This did not go terribly smoothly, to be honest. I’m not sure how much I can say without breaking my agreement with the Nature Conservancy, but I think I can say that if you see a lovely old tree-lined roadbed leading up past a barn and a pond, that’s NOT the way to go. That way did lead us to some beautiful wild blue phlox, periwinkle, pennywort, and a stand of shooting stars, though. We figured out we were wrong pretty quickly once we headed towards another farmhouse, and with just a little backtracking we found the right path. It led to a meadow and through the trees on the other side we could see the kiosk.

Up to this point on the correct trail, we hadn’t actually seen many wildflowers. We passed a stand of running cedar, but that was about it. However, under the kiosk sign was a beautiful little stand of Sweet Betsy trilliums, so things were looking up. The trail here is mostly level with just a little gentle up and down as it heads through the trees along a ridge line. The forest on either side is simply covered  with Mayapples. They aren’t the showiest of flowers when they’re in bloom, and these weren’t in bloom yet, but it was still pretty amazing to me to see so many of them spreading up and down the hillside.

We soon spotted a bunch of fineleaf toothwort mixed with cutleaf toothwort, an Allegheny spurge, a couple of star chickweed, some patches of rue anemone, a swath of twinleaf, and a few more stands of  trillium – both the toadshade kind and the wake-robin kind.  At a spot where the trail dipped down across a tiny wet-weather streamlet I spotted one of the flowers we’d most been hoping to see – the blue eyed mary. This little plant is native to an area that goes from Tennessee north into Canada, west as far as Oklahoma, and east into New York. It is so beautiful, but it is now endangered in Tennessee. We felt very lucky to have found a small stand of them!

We kept heading down the trail and started seeing some more patches of phlox, a couple of celandine poppies, and then a big patch of dutchmen’s breeches. I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen them in the wild before, so I was really excited about these! Mixed in with the dutchmen’s breeches there was also a nice stand of squirrel corn, but I’ll be honest – I didn’t even realize until we’d gotten home and looked at the pictures. The leaves and flowers are really similar! Next up were the deep, vivid purple of larkspur and more purple phlox and bent wake robin trillium. Below us, we could see a creekbed lined with green. I wondered if maybe that green could be trout lily, like that patch we’d found when we hiked Cutchenmine Trail recently.

The trail took a sharp turn to the left and headed down a set of stairs where the trail cuts between boulders. To my left, I saw a little stand of “my” Virginia bluebells that I had to stop and admire, and then, as I got to the bottom of the stairs, I was stunned to realize that all of that green we’d seen from above wasn’t trout lilies after all – it was an absolute carpet of the endangered blue eyed marys! As far as the eye could see, up and down the trail, on both sides of the creek were blue eyed marys. Acres of them! And not just blue eyed mary, but also bent wake-robin, and dwarf larkspur, and Virginia bluebells, and yellow woodland violets, and wild blue phlox, and mayapples, and twinleaf, and dutchmen’s breeches, and wood spurge, and squirrel corn, and … more blooming flowers packed into each square foot than I could have ever imagined.

The trail tees into a path that leads both ways along a creek. We wandered downstream and across the creek, admiring the lush beauty of the forest around us until we got to a road and another stand of shooting stars. We then turned around, retraced our steps back to the tee and went the other way until the trail ends next to a small bluff. It was almost funny how we’d walk along and say, “Oh here’s just some more trillium,” or “hmm more larkspur,” or “oh, back to the bluebells again,” when just 30 minutes earlier we’d been fawning over a single tiny handful of blue eyed mary and marveling over each and every trillium. It was an embarrassment of floral riches.

The only thing that could have made this trail better would have been benches so that you could safely sit someplace and absorb all the beauty. The ground was so covered with flowers, there was no place off the narrow trail where you could step without tromping on something beautiful. Taylor Hollow is the most magical place I think I’ve ever been. It might be a bit out of the way, and it might require a bit more planning to visit, but boy is it worth it.

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Quick Look: Lawson Branch Loop

 

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Trail Name: Lawson Branch Loop

Location: Shoal Creek Preserve, Florence, Al.

Length:  1.8 mile loop

Rating: Beginner

Points of interest: Lawson Branch, Marker Tree, Lawson Branch Falls

Blog Post: Shoal Creek Preserve: A New Favorite Place

Notes: It’s a short loop, so take on Jones Branch Loop while you’re there. It’s only 2.4 miles and has great views of Shoal Creek.

GPS Track: Shoal Creek Preserve

Things are not always what they seem: Cutchenmine Trail

After what seemed like weeks and weeks of rain, this past weekend promised to be a gorgeous one. A little chilly maybe, but rain-free. Chet and I had gone to the Huntsville Botanical Garden on Saturday afternoon and noticed that many of the native wildflowers were starting to bloom, so I started looking around for a wildflower hike. It’s a bit too early to get out and see masses of flowers, but I do love these first very early spring days. The woods are still mostly sleeping and brown which makes the few delicate early spring blooms really stand out. I searched around for recommended wildflower hikes that we’ve not already done a million times, and came up with a surprising one: Cutchenmine Trail in Lake Guntersville State Park. It’s not someplace that immediately came to mind as a wildflower haven, but we haven’t actually ever hiked it, so we decided to check it out.

The Cutchenmine Trail follows an old road bed, supposedly built by a man named Cutchen who wanted a more direct route to get out coal from his mine. Despite the name, the mine itself isn’t a feature you pass on this trail. Still, a hike beside the lake with the promise of wildflowers and some bird spotting – maybe even an eagle! – was enough to make this my choice for the weekend. I’d read online that there was parking at the trailhead, but that it was somewhat limited, so Chet and I parked at the Park Office parking lot just across the bridge over Short Creek. That added a good .4+ miles each way to our overall hike, but for me finding an easy-to-get-in-and-out-of parking spot is worth a little extra walking. For future reference, there are also restrooms attached to the Park Office. Often our hikes don’t start anywhere near restroom facilities so this was noteworthy. Once we got to the trailhead, there was one car parked in a gravel area with room enough for maybe 3 more cars, so I guess I was too pessimistic about my parking options on a Sunday morning.

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The first thing we noticed at the trail head was the overflowing garbage can right next to the trail sign. It was not the best introduction to a trail and I was afraid that we were in for depressing and trashy hike. However, just a few steps past the garbage can, we spotted the first of the wildflowers: common blue violets, slender toothwort, spring beauty, and the leaves of some kind of trillium not yet in bloom. That was a good start!

Soon, we crossed a bridge that had both a ramp and stairs as the exit on the far end. I’m guessing that the ramp was put in place for bikers as this is a popular beginners mountain bike trail. The ramp slopes oddly toward the water, which might be fun on a bike, but for me, I took the stairs. Across the bridge,  the blue blazed trail heads up a hill and we spotted more wildflowers: star chickweed, rue anemone, a May apple almost in bloom, cut leaf toothwort and more trillium – these with not-quite-yet-open buds. We also spotted quite a bit of red buckeye, which isn’t technically a wildflower, but it was in bloom and we knew what it was so we made note of it as well.

We’d gone less than a quarter of a mile, and had identified 8 flowers already! Readers of this blog may know about our longstanding tradition about wildflower spotting.  The rules are simple: if we identify 10 plants, we earn ourselves an ice cream. We were almost there already!

The trail climbs and falls a bit as it works its way down the south side of King Hollow and back towards the mouth of Short Creek. At the end of the hollow, the trail takes a broad curve left to follow Short Creek upstream. This part of the trail was mostly level, and was cut back enough from the waterline that we had no problems with a boggy trail, even after the never-ending rains of February. This did mean, though, that we were back into the dry winter woods again with fewer wildflowers to catch our eye. Somewhere along here we started noticing that the blue blazes were sometimes orange blazes with a bit of blue daubed over the top, and sometimes they were just straight up orange blazes. No matter – you really can’t make a wrong turn on this trail so don’t let the blaze colors worry you. We came to a spot with large boulders and tumbled rocks. On the lake side, there was a patch of leaves that looked like daffodils not yet in bloom. We decided that it just might have been a homesite of some sort. Just a little ways down the trail we spotted more trillium, these in full bloom, and a sprig of wintergreen. We were up to 9 – surely we’d find one more.

In reading trail descriptions, I’d read that at “about a mile” we’d come to a bridge, so I’m guessing we were at a mile when we came to a lovely curving bridge over a dry creek bed. Just after this bridge, the trail climbs up a hill and then levels out for a stretch before easing back down to water level again. We kept our eyes open for birds, hoping for herons, egrets, or maybe even an eagle but the only thing we saw was a smaller bird of some sort. I’m terrible at bird-spotting – Chet and I joke about how all birds to us are just “blurry splotchets” – so I don’t know what it was, but it definitely wasn’t one of the ones we were looking for.

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Again going on the trail descriptions I’d read, I told Chet that the trail ended at “a dry creek bed.” As we got closer to what felt like the end of the trail, we crossed a small creek that actually had water flowing in it, and then could hear rushing water from a substantial creek ahead. It turned out to be a pretty wide expanse of rushing water – certainly not dry at all! Color me confused. Then I looked at the Guntersville Park map  — the NAME of the creek is “Dry Creek.” It seemed substantial enough that I can’t imagine it ever being dry, but apparently it often is in the summer, hence the name.

We sat and enjoyed a bit of a snack and watched the water tumble over the rocks. Chet kept eyeing a patch of bright green up the bank on the other side of the creek. He’d brought a massive telephoto lens to take bird pictures, so he pulled that out to see if he could figure out what the green patch was. It looked like trout lilies! Here in Huntsville, the only place I know of where trout lilies bloom is on the Land Trust of North Alabama’s Wildflower Trail on Monte Sano.  I’ve never seen them anywhere else, so they seemed like a rare thing to find. With this as motivation, we decided we’d wade across the creek. Now, it was a nice day – I’d even taken off my fleece and was hiking just in a long sleeved top and jeans. However, that water was pretty dang cold. We always seem to do this, Chet and I. Usually we do our winter water crossing in February, so I guess we did a bit better this year by waiting until March, but still – brrrr! We’d not packed water shoes or hiking poles, so we just went barefoot, and improvised with some dead fall sticks we picked up to help steady us in the pretty strong current. We made it without falling or dropping electronics in the water, so I’m calling it a success.

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On the other side we found what was indeed a large swath of trout lilies, interspersed with toadshade trillium, violets, and toothwort. It was actually such a carpet of them that we had a hard time figuring out where to put our feet so that we wouldn’t be crushing some lovely bloom. It was a great way to wrap our 10 wildflowers and earn our ice cream. When I got back home, I did some research and discovered that trout lily is actually fairly common in its range, which goes from Alabama to Ontario, west into Missouri and Oklahoma, and north to Minnesota. Not so rare after all!

Our hike back was just retracing our steps and was uneventful. We still saw no birds, but passed quite a few hikers – I counted 13 including one large family that had all ages from babe in arms to grandparents out enjoying the weather.

At home, I was determined to see if I could find any evidence of the mine. Google maps was no help – it doesn’t even show the Park Office or the trailhead, much less any indication of an old mine. I tried to find it on a US topo map site that had maps of the area as far back as 1936. No luck. Then we hit paydirt. Chet found an old survey map of the area online, which clearly shows that the land we’d been hiking on was once owned by a family named “Critcher.” FW Critcher and Mrs. H Critcher are marked as landowners of property just north of Dry Creek on a map of Marshall County from 1909. A little more googling turned up an obituary for a Col. James Critcher. Col. Critcher died in 1893 in his home “near Martling” (which is a community in the area), having lived in Marshall County since 1836. It mentions that though he was a state representative – at least for a time also in the Senate – he also devoted his time to farming and, most notably for my purposes, to “opening coal veins on lands belonging to him and to his neighbors.” One more search turned up the fact that his wife’s name was Harriet – perhaps the Mrs. H. Critcher on the survey map from 1909. Is it possible that “Cutchenmine Trail” is misnamed? To me, it seems more likely that the mine was Col. Critcher’s, and the road and subsequent trail should have borne his name as well.

So there you have it. We’d found a trashy trail that turned out to be a treasure of wildflowers, that used blue blazes except for when they were orange, that was prime viewing for eagles but netted us no sightings of any birds, that ended in a dry creek that was anything but dry, that had a large stand of rare flowers that might not be so rare, and that might in the end be a trail named after a Mr. Cutchen who was really perhaps a Critcher. As Plato said (through Phaedrus) “things are not always what they seem; the first appearance deceives many.” Usually that quote is used as a warning or an admonishment not to judge a book by its cover, but in this case for the most part it’s more like an assurance of things being better than you might expect!

Quick Look: Caney Creek Falls

 

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Trail Name: Caney Creek Falls Trail

Location: Bankhead National Forest

Length:  1.7 miles, one way

Rating: Beginner

Points of interest: Caney Creek Falls

Blog Post: Plan B

Notes: Easy, short trail to a beautiful waterfall. There is a second lower fall downstream as well.

GPS Track: No track for this one

Hiking the Domain: Bridal Veil Falls

It seems like it has rained for ages. Every single weekend for the last several, anyway, it’s been rainy, grey and cold — all the things I like least about winter in Alabama.  I am, however, a hopeless optimist and I always look on the bright side of things. With lots of rain, comes great waterfalls! When we got a break in the weather one recent Sunday, my first thought was, “Boy, I’ll bet the waterfalls are really awesome now!” The search was on for a waterfall hike within 2 hours drive of Huntsville that we haven’t already been to.

We kicked around a couple of ideas, but in the end we decided on a hike near Sewanee, Tennessee.  For years, I’ve heard people talk about how beautiful it is in and around Sewanee, but I’ve never actually been there. It is most famous as the home of Sewanee: The University of the South, a small liberal arts university with an enrollment of about 1800. Now, I don’t usually think of hiking on a college campus, but Sewanee is unique. The school sits perched high on the Cumberland Plateau with valley views down below. There are 13,000 acres of land associated with Sewanee, which they call the Domain. 11,800 acres of that land is left as natural habitat, and is a resource used for hands-on learning at the university. Non-university folks, though, are welcome to come enjoy the Domain as well.

The hike I’d picked was one to Bridal Veil Falls. I had a bit of trouble figuring out where we should park until I came across some helpful soul’s trail review that suggested we drive to Lake Cheston Pavilion and take advantage of the ample parking there. Spur trails from there would get us where we needed to be. This plan would add a little more than 1/2 mile to the hike, but that wasn’t enough to worry about so off we went.

We did make a wrong turn and ended up near Lake Cheston, but not near the pavilion at first, but that little navigational error was soon fixed. Just like the online reviewer said, there’s plenty of parking near the pavilion, and a clearly marked trail, blazed white, leads out of the parking lot toward the trailhead we wanted.

I hadn’t thought about how much colder it might be up on top of the Plateau, but there was a light dusting of snow on the ground and though I was well bundled up, I was pretty dang cold! Still we enjoyed this little .3 mile stretch.  There are small signs all along the path identifying trees, and just a short way in we even found what just might be a marker tree. Soon we came to a small sturdy footbridge that crossed a little creek, then came to the road.

From the map I knew that we should go left along the road for a short way before we’d pick up the rest of the trail. Sure enough, I looked left as we hit the road and immediately saw the trail sign just down the way. The next stretch is only .1 miles and soon you intersect with the Perimeter Trail. This trail runs 20 miles along the edge of the plateau around the perimeter of the Domain, with views down into the valley below. We planned to explore a bit more of it later, but first we turned right, crossed a footbridge and immediately turned left at the sign for Bridal Veil Falls.

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The first little section was a bit steep and rocky, though maybe it seemed steeper to me because it was really icy. Ever since the great broken ankle incident of 2013 I worry about footing a bit when I’m out hiking. Ice on the rocks made me a little nervous, but that’s probably just me. We passed down a little ravine lined with icicle-draped bluffs, then the trail leveled off. The short .7 mile down to the falls was mostly level, with a couple of steeper sections just to keep you on your toes. Much of the trail runs along the base of a bluff, and we passed giant boulders that were strewn down the hillside.

Soon we came to a sign to the falls. Bridal Veil Falls Trail continues in a loop back up to the top of the plateau, but we wanted to head to the main attraction, so we cut to the left and started downhill. Just a short way down the trail, we saw an interesting table-top rock off to the right. It sort of reminded me of Balance Rock on Rainbow Mountain in Madison, but on a much smaller scale. The trail does not lead to it, so we admired it from afar and continued on down towards the falls. The trail curves down and around and leads you directly to the base of the falls. Well, sort of. This is one of those falls that comes out of the mountain, tumbles 27 feet over rocks and bluffs, then  drops another 25 feet before disappearing into the bottom of a sinkhole. The trail takes you to ground level – pre-drop-into-the sinkhole. It is a lovely little waterfall and we spent some time taking pictures and exploring the area.

Next we retraced our steps back up to the Perimeter trail. We’d hiked less than 2 miles at this point, which just wasn’t enough for us, so I’d planned a short jaunt along the Perimeter Trail too. At the junction with Perimeter, we turned right and headed towards what we’ve heard is one of the best views along the Perimeter Trail – Morgan’s Steep. This viewpoint is only .2 miles from the Bridal Veil Falls Trail junction and does have beautiful views down into the valley. We admired the views, checked out the kiosk and the big rock with “Morgan’s Steep” carved in it, then headed on down the trail. Well, I say trail, but first you have to go down a set of steep and, at the time, very icy steps to get down to the trail again. We had no problems, though I’m kind of glad nobody else was around right then as I picked my way slowly down those steps like I was 1000 years old or something. Still, better safe than sorry and we made it down with no broken bones so there’s that.

This section of trail is just gorgeous. It follows along the base of a bluff, passing under rock shelves, next to little waterfalls, and along a gorgeous little stream. We admired the overhangs and tried to dodge the falling icicles – mostly successfully. At the waterfall, the trail heads up a ravine, crosses a footbridge and turns back along the ravine again. There was another very icy little patch on a fairly narrow section of trail on the other side of the ravine, but we had no problems and were soon climbing the 1930’s era CCC-built rock steps up the hillside. Down the hill to the right, we could see a really nice bridge that looked like it was still in the process of being built. I called it the “Bridge to nowhere” because I couldn’t quite figure out what trail would lead to it.  We hiked on along a very narrow section of trail until we came to the next famous part of this trail – Proctor’s Hall. This stone tunnel is incribed with names from 100 years ago. Or at least, that’s what we hear. I’ll be honest – mountain goat though I usually am, I couldn’t figure out how to get up to the actual tunnel without dying. Part of my problem was my recurring hip issue that limits my pain-free range of motion. It was acting up again, and scrambling up a pretty sheer rock just wasn’t going to happen that day.

We turned around and retraced our steps, stopping at that lovely little cascade and waterfall to take some pictures. Our total mileage for the day was 3.8 miles, as you can see on the GPS track we captured.

I’m still a little bummed that we failed to get up to Proctor’s Hall. After the fact, I read online that the climb looks worse than it is, and that a 70 year old grandma had done it just recently. I’m not sure what that says about me, but I’m thinking I’m going to have to plan another trip to Sewanee to give it another try.

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