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!

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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.

Happy Earth Day!

I’m a sucker for “Top 10” lists, aren’t you? On this Earth Day 2017, I was thinking about how lucky we are to live in such a wonderful area. We have rockets, and history, and of course, we have lots and lots of natural beauty. More important, we have lots of folks dedicated to preserving those areas so that we can all enjoy them. Whether it be the Alabama State Park System, the Land Trust of North Alabama, the Nature Conservancy, Alabama’s Forever Wild program, or city and county parks, we are blessed to live in an area that appreciates natural spaces.

Huntsville often makes national “Best Places to live” or “Top 10 Best …” type lists, and often one of the things cited as a reason for making the list is the abundance of outdoor activities available close by:

Just to link a few.

I am, you’ll not be surprised to hear, a bit biased towards the outdoors, so I thought I’d put together an “Earth Day Top 10 Area Hikes” list of my own. Whether you want an easy-peasy stroll, or a longer tramp through the woods, we’ve got you covered.  Happy Earth Day from Woodlands and Waters!

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These are some of our favorites from just the Huntsville area. For ideas a bit further away, check out our complete trail listing page. Now #getoutside and enjoy!

Flying High: Zip Lining at Historic Banning Mills

My husband is just the best – he spoils me rotten! This past Christmas, my present was an April zip line adventure at Historic Banning Mills complete with a stay in a tree house! Having a tree house was a dream of mine as a little girl and I’ve loved every zip line I’ve been on, so I’ve been incredibly excited about this adventure for months. This past weekend, it was finally time.

Historic Banning Mills is a family-owned retreat and adventure center in Whitesburg, Georgia, just west of Atlanta. The Holder family bought the overgrown and neglected land on the “lost gorge” of Snake Creek in 1997. In 1998 they started a bed and breakfast and then built on Mike Holder’s background as a 35-year facilitator for high element team building and mountaineering, including a stint in US Army Rangers, to build the Screaming Eagle Zip Line Canopy Tour. In 2006 they survived a devastating fire in which they lost pretty much everything, but they rebuilt within a year and now are a booming business on 1200 gorgeous and protected acres.

banning_main_office

We had reservations for Saturday night in the tree house, and a 1:00 Eastern zip line slot so we planned on leaving the house early Saturday and driving straight there. It’s a 3 to 3.5 hour drive from the Huntsville. We took I-65 to Birmingham, then I-20 east towards Atlanta to exit 11 in Bremen, Georgia. From there, it’s a bit of winding through rural and small town Georgia, but Google Maps did a fine job of getting us where we needed to go. They recommended that you arrive about 30 minutes before your slot to get yourself checked in. This was good advice. There were a lot of people there checking in at the same time and I think only one staff member at that desk. Even with the line, though, it didn’t take very long to fill out the paperwork and get our wristbands. Then it was a short wait for our guides to come collect us and walk us all up to the safety training area.

Banning Mills is run by the same company as the zip line at Lake Guntersville State Park, so they have the same continuous closed belay system and high ultimate tensile strength cabling, making this a very very safe operation. The guides all seem like very laid-back young kids, but they are all CPR, Wilderness First Responder, and High Rescue Techniques trained. They ran us through the safety briefing, handed out our gear, answered questions, showed us how the belay system worked, demonstrated what to do if you didn’t quite make it all the way to a platform, and then took a group picture and we were off.

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Our group was 11 people, ranging in age from maybe 10 to, well, I’m pretty sure Chet and I were the old farts in our group. However, the other group right behind us included a  woman doing the course by herself — for her 81st birthday present! She explained that every year she does an adventurous thing in celebration of her birthday. Last year was riding elephants. Other years she’s gone up in a hot air balloon, parachuted out of a plane, and gone paragliding. This is who I want to be when I grow up!

The very first thing we had to do was walk across a “sky bridge” that led from a pavilion, over the parking lot, and to our first tower. A “sky bridge” is just any one of a number of different ways of walking from point A to point B,  but waaaaayyyy up in the air. More on these later, but this one was a pair of cables strung about 2.5 feet apart, with boards the width of 2x4s attached across them for treads. There were gaps of about 2 feet between the boards, we were probably 15 feet in the air, and the tower-end got pretty steep, but as these things go it wasn’t too bad. Then we climbed up the first tower and headed down our first zip line.

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The whole group made it over, eventually. I didn’t brake well enough and came in pretty fast, as did a few others in the group. The youngest kid in the group started braking too early and didn’t make it all the way to the platform. The guide ended up going out to “rescue” him – which was more embarrassing for the kid than anything. Our group was apparently fast learners, though. I don’t think anybody had any issues for the rest of the tour.

ZipGuide

After the first zip line, Level #1 included  8 more zips that zig-zagged us through the forest about 60 feet above the ground. A group of horseback riders passed under us at one point, which reminded me that Banning Mills offers more than just the zip lines. They have horseback rides, kayaks, a pool, obstacle courses, a climbing wall, a free-fall tower, and hiking trails too. One of our last zip lines our guides introduced as “Sing or Swing.” We had to sing a song as we zipped along, or he’d help us to “swing”.  At this point, we were all seasoned zip liners, and I think we only had one singer!

Chet had signed us up for level #3, aka “Flight Pattern PLUS Zip Line Canopy Tour.” There are four adventure packages you can take and they all build on one another. Level #2 is Level #1 plus stuff. Level #3 is Level #2 plus stuff, Level #4 is Level #3 plus stuff.  There are also several “Add-On” options, including the 3400 foot Flight of the Falcon and the half-mile-long Screaming Eagle. These can only be added on if you’ve already bought the Level #3 or Level #4 package, though.  Basically, this means that if you go to Banning Mills, you’ll always have to start at Level #1 and work up through the levels in order to get to where you can “add on” the longer zips. This is the only thing I didn’t like about the whole experience, honestly. They have a great setup, a beautiful location, really really fun stuff to do, but they’re priced in a way that discourages frequent repeat visits.

Back to the zipping after a water and potty break, Level #2 starts off with us pairing off for a race down parallel zip lines. I raced Chet (of course) and won! I’m not sure I should be happy about that, but he gallantly explained that he got turned around backwards part way down the line, which killed his aerodynamics. I didn’t see that, actually, as he was turned back around by the time he got to the end, but I’m choosing to believe him. After the fun of the zip line racing, though, Level #2 turned into lots and lots of sky bridges. Nine sky bridges, to be exact. We went over some just like our first one, then advanced to the kind where you just had a single cable to walk on, then progressed to the kind with a single cable and a freaking tree in the middle you had to navigate around, ARGH! Of course we were cabled in the whole time and safe as could be, but it was still nerve-wracking, and not helped by the guides playfully asking what kind of music we liked so that they could bounce the bridges to various rhythms. Their favorite was hip hop. Of course. After the sky bridges there was one last zip line that took us across the Snake Creek Gorge, which was beautiful!

 

After another water and potty break, Level #3 started with the 1500 foot Big Daddy zip line, where we were told we’d reach speeds of up to 50 mph. I have no way of knowing if we did, actually, but I can say we went DANG fast. It was a blast! After a short zip back down to ground level and a hike through the woods, we came to the last zip line and my very favorite one, Swoop. This one is a 900 foot long line that takes you right down a length of Snake Creek. It is an absolutely gorgeous setting!

RuthChetSwoop_3
Ruth And Chet at Swoop takeoff

All too soon, the zip line adventures were over. We’d been zipping and sky bridging for about 3 hours. We thought about adding on one of the longer zips, but honestly we were a little tired, plus I was eager to see my tree house, so we skipped it this time. We packed more into this adventure than would fit in a single blog, so the rest of the story will have to wait until next time. Stay tuned, and in the meantime, be sure to check out the links in this blog for videos of our adventures.

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Bluebell Heaven: Monte Sano Sinks Trail

My favorite flower in all the world is the Virginia Bluebell.  This is a fairly recent discovery for me, actually.  I don’t remember ever even seeing one growing up, though I hiked a lot with my dad in the Great Smoky Mountains. I’ve looked up the range for these flowers, and though it looks like they’re native to my home county, the spots where I’d have been hiking are in a county with no sightings. Maybe that explains it. In any case, I first saw these flowers as an adult and was instantly charmed. Blooming as they do in the early spring, their pink, blue and purple blooms almost seem to glow against the backdrop of brown leaf litter. Magical. I’d only ever seen a clump of just a few flowers growing in the wild – at Short Springs Natural Area near Tullahoma, Tennessee and on the Land Trust of North Alabama’s Matthews Preserve on a members only hike. When my friend and officemate Rachel mentioned to me last year that the Sinks Trail on Monte Sano had the most bluebells she’d ever seen in one spot,  I marked it down on my “to-do” list for this year to get to that trail while the bluebells were in bloom.

Last week, I heard the word – bluebells had been sighted! And it couldn’t have been on a worse weekend. Chet had commitments Saturday morning, Saturday afternoon was stormy and horrible, and Sunday I had a commitment into the early afternoon. That left us a sliver of Sunday afternoon to squeeze in a hike. To make matters worse, I woke up Sunday morning with a horrible backache. By the time I was free and the back had settled down, it was getting a little late to be starting a hike but we started packing up anyway, only to realize that the all-important camera batteries were dead and the backup set was not charged either. We delayed long enough to get a little charge in the batteries, which had us leaving the house after 3:00. On the way, we realized that neither of us had a cent to our names, so we’d have another delay as we had to hunt out an ATM to get some cash for the entry fee for the state park. I was starting to wonder if maybe this hike was just not meant to be, but finally, at nearly 4:00, we made it to the trail head.

This hike starts out at the overlook near the planetarium. There were a few other cars in the lot, but most folks seemed to be just enjoying the view from the overlook. We headed around the gate that closes off the old Bankhead Parkway and started down the paved road. At .2  miles, what I think of as the actual trail – the part on dirt – heads off to the right and down into Mills Hollow. Along the way we spotted our first wildflowers but they were few and far between. The trail turned a little slick and muddy, as well. I still wasn’t convinced this hike was a good idea.

Several switchbacks led us down .2 of a mile to the intersection with the broad Mountain Mist Trail. We crossed and kept on going downhill, though at a gentler grade. We spotted some trillium almost ready to bloom, but still the wildflowers were pretty sparse. A little less than .1 mile from the intersection with Mountain Mist, we came to the intersection with the Logan Point trail, where there was a lovely little tree in bloom. We later decided it was most likely a Mexican plum. Here, the Sinks Trail turns right to continue on down the hollow, while Logan Point Trail goes straight ahead and starts back up to reach Logan’s Point. The Sinks Trail at this point got even muddier, but that made me more hopeful for good wildflowers. We spotted another one of my favorites – spring beauty –  along with a few scattered other violets, hepatica, and bloodroot.

And then finally, off to the left, a patch of bluebells! It was a patch of bright green leaves and tall blue and purple flowers bright against the dull brown forest floor. It measured about 6’X6′. I was so happy! I had Chet take a picture of me next to them.

RuthwithBluebells1

And then…

Chet suggested we hike on up to the top of the little rise to get to where we could see the sinks themselves. He thought there might be more flowers there. Boy, was he right. I have never in my life seen so many bluebells in one spot! The hillsides were covered uphill and down, both sides of the trail. It was incredible. There isn’t a collective noun for a large group of bluebells (you know, like a “murder of crows”) but I think there needs to be. What should it be? A carpet? A gasp? A peal? A wowza? An epiphany? A joy? Oh I know!  “An eloquence,” after Anne Bronte’s poem “The Bluebell,” which contains this stanza:

There is a silent eloquence
In every wild bluebell
That fills my softened heart with bliss
That words could never tell.

We wandered around the bluebells taking pictures and just soaking in all the beauty for a while, but then reluctantly left that magical place to head back to the truck before sundown. We ended up hiking only about 2.1 miles by our GPS track but by our count we’d seen at least 10 wildflowers, which of course meant ice cream! Chet had the brilliant idea to get (what else) Blue Bell ice cream – dutch chocolate for me and coffee for him. Bluebells and Blue Bell ice cream – a perfect day after all!

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Spring Forward: North Oak Mountain State Park Loop

2017 has had some crazy weather. Mostly it’s been warmer than usual, and the poor plants are so confused that some are blooming months ahead of schedule. Now, everybody always jokes about the Alabama weather: “if you don’t like the weather, just wait a minute and it will change;” “welcome to the place where you can get sunburn and frostbite in the same week;”  “Alabama, where it can go from spring to winter in three days,” etc. etc. Still, after a February where we had temperatures in the 70s, I was a little surprised to wake up the morning after we had “sprung forward” to a dusting of snow on the back porch.  Perhaps I should have both checked the weather and considered how losing that hour of sleep would impact things before I picked out our hike for the week, but I hadn’t. I had picked a hike in Oak Mountain State Park, about two hours south of our house, thinking that maybe the flowers that were almost in bloom up here would be further along down there. Even if they weren’t, my thinking was that we might be able to take in some nice views off the ridges of Oak Mountain, so despite the snow (and extra early waking up time) we headed off to the south for our hike, only a little later than I had hoped.

The route I’d picked out was a loop that started and ended at the North Trailhead. There is a large gravel lot across the road from the actual trailhead with plenty of parking and restroom facilities. The kiosk at the start of the trail was full of maps and useful information, and a sign nearby listed the four trails that leave from this trailhead. Our first trail was the Blue Trail, which on park maps is also labeled the South Rim Trail.  I noticed on the trail sign that it also called the “Les Miller Memorial Trail.” You know I just had to look him up when we got home. Here’s what I found out. Les Miller was a founding member of the Vulcan Trail Association (founded 1976). He spent at least 35 years as a park volunteer in Oak Mountain State Park, leading hikes once a month for at least 23 of those years. He not only knew every trail in the park, he also knew the history of the area and shared it readily with any who asked. Sounds like a pretty cool guy!

Back to the hike, though, three of the trails take off to the right of the kiosk, but our trail  headed up the hill to the left past the most detailed signpost I’ve ever seen on a trail. I mean, it covered everything! The first part of this hike was a pretty steep climb up through the oak woods. We gained 200 feet in altitude in the first quarter of a mile. After that, the trail continues to climb but not quite as steeply. We kept our eyes open for trillium, may apple, violets, star chickweed, hepatica, toothwort – any of the plants we’d seen in bloom or almost in bloom recently – but saw not a one. We did pass under a dogwood that was just starting to bloom, but mostly the understory was pretty devoid of color.

Until, about a half a mile in, we spotted the most gorgeous thing! It was a lone azalea in full and glorious bloom off the trail to our right. We just had to go admire it from closer up. This azalea flowers before leaf-out, and without the leaves it was impossible for us to say if it was a mountain or pinxter azalea, but in either case it was stunning. It was almost the only thing in sight that was in bloom – the only exception being a small white-flowered shrub just up the hill that I think might have been a serviceberry in bloom.  I’m afraid my tree ID class did not lead me to that conclusion, though. I was guessing white redbud which I’d just learned is an actual thing last weekend (who knew!?). I’d guessed redbud based on what else was in bloom right now mostly but when I got home and looked at the pictures I’d taken and scoured the field guides it was obviously not a redbud. Serviceberry flowers, leaf arrangement, bark, and growing habit all match pretty well though. Lucky for me, the Huntsville Botanical Garden staff can tell me if I was right. All I have to do is send my pictures and my guess to plantinfo@hsvbg.org and ask!

We headed on up the trail, but stopped for lunch not much further along (our “stomach clocks” adjusted quickly to daylight saving time, apparently) at a spot where two large boulders sat just off the trail. It was a pretty spot with views down the hill and a tiny creeklet gushing out from under one of the rocks and trickling down the hill. The trail continued on up, passing one end of the North Red-Blue Connector Trail, before the trail leveled off a bit on what seemed to be an old roadbed. There were nice views down into the valley between the ridges of Double Oak Mountain to our right, and signs pointed off onto side trails that led steeply uphill towards various vista points, but we opted to stay on the trail. Eagles Nest Overlook and King’s Chair Overlook were two of the places we passed up. Each would have added another .6 miles to our hike and we were already going to get back much later than I’d hoped due to a late start. In hindsight, though, I wish we’d taken at least on of them. I hear King’s Chair in particular has really fantastic views.

We continued along the ridge top for about .2 miles, then dropped down into Shackleford Gap and a watery section of trail and then back up to the ridge top again before reaching the South Red-Blue Connector Trail.  The trail continued up and down a bit, over a flatter ridge top section and past the site of a 1951 plane crash. We knew from the maps that this would be our last chance for a view to the southeast, so we did finally take one of the faint side trails leading to a rocky outcrop.

Finally, at about the 3.4 mile mark, we reached the junction with the Orange Connector Trail. The Blue Trail continues on for another 3.3 miles or so to reach Peavine Falls, but we took the Connector to start our loop back to the North Trail Head. In less than a tenth of a mile we passed a side trail to backcountry campsite #3, which looks like a very nice spot to spend a night. Another couple of tenths and we crossed the Red Road, which is a wide gravel bike trail, and then headed back into woods filled with sparkleberry and various types of oaks. In another .3 miles the trail had gently risen up to the junction with the White, or Shackleford Point, Trail.

The White Trail immediately started the climb up to the highest point in the park, Shackleford Point. The point itself is marked with no less than three geodetic survey benchmarks, all cemented into rock. Past the Point, we came across early saxifrage peeking out from between some rocks, and then the rocky trail narrowed to a knife edge. At a little less than a mile, we came to a place marked as Indian Lookout, but which was right about where trail signs had said Cove Top Cliff should be. Official park maps didn’t have either name listed so I don’t know what’s going on there. Whatever the place is called, it did have very nice views out to the southeast.

After traversing a bit more of the rocky spine of Shackleford Point, we started down off the northwestern slope of the mountain and towards an intersection with the Yellow, or Foothills, Trail.  As we came down off the heights we could hear the rush of a creek close by, and after the White Trail joined the Yellow Trail for a few hundred feet, we finally saw another pop of color in the woods. It was a pair of Red Buckeyes just coming into bloom. Just past the buckeyes, the combined White and Yellow Trail leads down alongside a pretty little cascade and then to a bridge that takes you across the larger, louder creek and to the Maggie’s Glen kiosk. It’s a lovely area, but we had hoped for spring wildflowers. We were disappointed on that account. The Yellow Trail leaves out of the Glen in one direction, while the White Trail leaves out the opposite side, alongside the creek.

The last 1.16 miles of the White Trail are an easy, level walk though sections of the trail on this day were very flooded. It actually looked like the trail had at one time been right next to the creek, but then had been moved away a bit. The trail was still often one big mud puddle though. After going along the creek for about a quarter of a mile the trail takes a sharp right to continue as the White Trail, while going straight ahead takes you to the cabin area. We kept on the White Trail, walking through piney woods and over multiple little streams.  We could hear a bit of road noise and started to see cars through the trees and soon came to the junction with the other end of the Yellow Trail that had led from Maggie’s Glen. We joined the Yellow trail for a few hundred feet, then came to the big Red Road again, with the starting kiosk and parking lot in sight.

Our final mileage was 6.8 miles. We saw very few spring flowers on this “Spring Forward” hike, but that first azalea was worth the trip all on its own!  Oak Mountain is an absolutely beautiful spot. We’ll be planning more trips down there soon!