Two Americas: Chickamauga National Military Park

When an owl flew up, startled out of a tree by the battle racket, some crows attacked it in flight between the lines. “Moses, what a country!” a soldier exclaimed as he watched. “The very birds are fighting.”

Shelby Foote, The Civil War: a Narrative

I’ve been wanting to make a trip to the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, in Fort Oglethorpe, GA, for quite a while now. Aside from its obvious historical interest, just the Chickamauga battlefield portion of the park boasts nearly 50 miles of hiking trails. On a previous hike, we covered a few miles in the Lookout Mountain portion of the national military park, but Chickamauga’s more gentle terrain suggested that we could put in a nice loop hike and cover some ground without seriously testing our dwindling endurance.

There’s no doubt about it, my friends — these are trying times — besieged in our homes by a pandemic; so politically divided that our nation has ground down to a numb paralysis; feeling powerless against the shoots and roots from the insidious evil only partially ripped from our American soil at places like Chickamauga, Gettysburg, and Chancellorsville. In such times, it felt right to go to a place forever marked by the most extreme expression of two Americas pitted one against the other, as a reminder of what we have overcome.

The park has a great website with suggested hiking trails, and we picked out the 5-mile General Bragg trail, which is a loop made up of several segments of color-coded trails. This hike begins in the lower parking lot of the Visitor’s Center on Lafayette Road. Since this was our first visit, we didn’t really have the lay of the land (sort of like Confederate General James Longstreet, who arrived at the 1863 battle site during the night and found himself in command of the Confederate left, with no first-hand experience of the terrain and only some sketchy maps to go by in planning his attack, which was to start in a few hours). We actually drove south of the Visitor Center to a gravel lot where other trails started, but went back to the Visitor Center and parked in a paved lot south of the building, below another paved lot that was closer to the building. This is the correct starting point, though there was no signage to mark the official start of the trail. There was a worn path heading north through the grass, and it led to a wooden bridge over a creek, with an overpass to our left. The written description of the hike says to take the trail under the overpass, but when we reached the wooden bridge, there was no trail heading in that direction. To quote a historical marker we saw later in the hike, we were “thrown into confusion.”

The best option seemed to be to stick to the trail, heading south to the gravel parking lot. Once there, we looked at cannons and historical plaques detailing the units that manned the Confederate and Union artillery positions. We headed south a little farther, but when we came to an intersection with the Green trail it was obvious we had gone too far. So, like many did during September 19-20, 1863, we made a strategic retreat and crossed Lafayette Road to look at the Florida monument and another monument to an Illinois unit in the field behind. Ruth put on her metaphorical commander’s hat and came up with a battle plan — we would walk north on the shoulder of Lafayette Road to the overpass, and see if there was a trail on the other side. This was a winning strategy, as we spied a narrow track heading east down by the creek, so we walked down the grassy bank to the trail, and quickly found a trail marker that confirmed we had found the Red trail. We weren’t the first ones here to find that the maps and the ground truth didn’t agree.

This first segment of the General Bragg trail is a narrow track in the grassy field, sticking close to the woods and bending south around the edge of the field. The going was a bit soggy along the back edge of the field, as its natural bogginess was exacerbated by mud churned from horse hooves. The trails in the park vary in allowing foot traffic and horseback riding; four of the color-coded trails are hiker-only, and three are for horses and hikers. After passing a junction with the Yellow trail, we left the field and headed south, then east, into the woods. Soon after entering the woods, we crossed a little creek and sharp-eyed Ruth spotted a surprise upstream — a deer in mid-crossing!

All three of us were startled, and the deer began thrashing its way across the creek. The whole thing had sort of a “oh, pardon me, Ma’am!” quality, as if we had caught her in the bath.

The Red trail runs next to Alexander’s Bridge Road at this point, where a row of granite monuments mark the positions of various Georgia infantry units on the second day of the battle. This being a national military park, there are numerous plaques, stone monuments, and cannons scattered about on trails, next to roads, and in fields. Taken individually, they mark where units were located at various key times during the two-day battle. Sadly, the Visitor Center was closed due to the pandemic so we didn’t get a good historical overview of the battle before taking the field ourselves. I’ve since reviewed Shelby Foote’s account of the battle in his extraordinary The Civil War: a Narrative and have a better understanding of what we were looking at. Perhaps we should pause here for a brief overview.

The battle of Chickamauga was the forerunner to the battle for Chattanooga. Confederate troops commanded by General Braxton Bragg held the city in early September 1863, but retreated south on September 9, fearful of being caught between two advancing Union armies, one under the command of William Rosecrans. Bragg’s retreat was strategic though — he planted “deserters” who turned themselves in to the advancing Federal troops, with tales of how Bragg’s army was demoralized and fleeing in disarray. This was a ruse to draw Rosecrans into pursuit, which worked to a degree. However, the Confederate leadership in the western front (yes, this was considered the western front of the Civil War) had a couple of serious problems. Bragg held responsibility for a very large geographic area, and the usual political and military maneuvering resulted in numerous reorganizations of commands, which made for a disjointed command structure. One of Bragg’s two subordinate Lieutenant Generals, Leonidas Polk (who was known as the “Fighting Bishop” because he was, in fact, an Episcopal bishop in Louisiana) detested him. Bragg’s cautious nature, general disorganization on the part of his flag staff, and Rosecran’s own wariness caused a few planned ambushes to fizzle out. However, Rosecrans consolidated his scattered forces, and Bragg’s army headed north for battle, and the two forces met up on opposite sides of Chickamauga Creek. After digging in for the night on September 18, a colossal two day battle started the next day.

Our route took us into the contested spaces around the north end of the battle — the Union left and the Confederate right. Today, the battlefield is heavily wooded. It was even more wooded in 1863. The fighting was savage, contested primarily by infantry and dismounted cavalry.

Fighting deep in the woods, with visibility strictly limited to his immediate vicinity, each man seemed to take the struggle as a highly personal matter between him and the blue or butternut figures he saw dodging into and out of sight, around and behind the clumps of brush and trunks of trees.

Foote

The battle turned on a mistake by Rosecrans on September 20, acting on two incorrect scouting reports that he had a gap in the center of his line. In moving a division to fill the gap, he unwittingly created a real gap, just at the time the Confederates launched an attack at that location, directed by the veteran commander Longstreet. The Union lines broke, and the retreat was underway. Rosecrans retreated ultimately to Chattanooga, escaping annihilation of his army by heroic tactics by his subordinate commanders in covering the retreat. The ever-cautious Bragg also had a good excuse for not pursuing the Federal troops — his own army of roughly 65,000 had over 18,000 casualties. It was a horrific slaughter — ultimately the second bloodiest battle of the war, and the bloodiest on the western front. Each side had around 65,000 troops; combined, over 10,000 men were killed or missing in action, with over 34,000 combined casualties (deaths, missing, injured). Think about that for a minute — 10,000 men killed or presumed killed in two days.

Back to the hike now. After passing the Georgia monuments, we turned northeast on the Green trail, a nice wide corridor passing many monuments and plaques. In about .6 miles, we reached the northern edge of the battlefield and turned east on the Yellow trail. This was our least favorite stretch of the hike, as a good portion of it ran just south of Reed’s Bridge Road, with few if any monuments and no wildflowers to speak of. It was a nice shady level trail, to be fair.

At about .75 miles from the Green/Yellow intersection, the Blue trail merged in from the north and we followed it for about .35 miles to a junction of the Blue, Red, and Yellow trails, marked with a small cairn. By the way, this might seem confusing as you read along, because the park repeats the same blaze colors on several different unconnected trails in the park. The trail map may help clear this up! This leg of the trail was enlivened by a few wildflowers in bloom, including daisies and healall.

At this point, we continued south on the Red trail for a half mile down to Brotherton Road. This leg of our loop had a few points of interest: (1) our standout wildflower of the hike, sundrops; (2) some tarnished Union cannons in a grove with historical plaques describing how they were taken and subsequently recovered; (3) a couple of monuments to Indiana infantry regiments; and (4) an nice healthy anole sunning itself on one of the Hoosier monuments.

After crossing Brotherton Road, we paid a short visit to General Bragg’s headquarters. There’s no actual structure there; just more plaques, a few clumps of false garlic, and a pyramid of cannonballs. We had one nice realization there: northwest Alabama’s own Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler was in action in Chickamauga. We’ve been to his house; now we can say we’ve been to his office.

Our route took us back across Brotherton Road, where we then turned northeast on the Blue trail, which we took .3 miles to a junction with the Yellow trail. This junction was the site of Jay’s Mill, where the first shots of the battle proper were fired on September 19. Just over a shallow creek, there’s a field with the woodline to the west and Jay’s Mill Road to the east. There’s a pull-out on the road there, where a historical plaque accompanied by an audio presentation tells the story of the battle’s beginnings. To paraphrase, a Union general, acting on intel that there was an isolated Confederate brigade, sent two Union brigades to capture it. They had the poor luck to blunder into the path of Confederate cavalry wizard (pun intended) Maj. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, who checked their assault until reinforcements arrived. One of the Union commanders, Col. John Croxton, found himself facing four or five brigades instead of the one he expected, and badly outnumbered. Col. Croxton then assured his place in the Smartassery Hall of Fame by sending a dispatch to his commanding general, asking which of the brigades in his front he was supposed to capture. I had to know if such cheekiness was rewarded, and in a way it was. Croxton was wounded in the battle, but survived to occupy northwest Alabama later in the war. He’ll live in infamy in Alabama (at least in some quarters) for seizing Tuscaloosa and burning most of the University of Alabama in April 1865. He survived the war, and was appointed U.S. Minister to Bolivia by President Ulysses Grant, where he died of tuberculosis in 1874.

Our route now took us back to the northwest on a .88 mile section of the Yellow trail. This stretch is also near Reed’s Bridge Road for a good part of its length, and we found it to be akin to hiking in a dry streambed. We arrived at the cairn and turned west on the Red trail, which was really just more of the same, though it did have a few stands of pale blue-eyed grass to liven it up. This segment continued west for about .6 mile, passing one of Polk’s headquarters sites and the site where Confederate Brig. Gen. Benjamin Helm was mortally wounded, one of the three Confederate BGs to lose his life at Chickamauga. He was married to a half-sister of Mary Todd Lincoln. After passing the Helm monument, we emerged from the woods next to the Georgia infantry monuments and retraced our steps to the parking lot. Though the General Bragg loop is described as a five-mile loop, our GPS track logged our hike at about 6.5 miles. Remember, we did have a false start and detoured to look at monuments.

After our excursion, we were hot and tired but had made relatively quick work of the hike, so we had time for a side trip to Naked River Brewing Company for an early dinner, some of their MoonPie Stout, and (for me) a deep-fried chocolate Moon Pie. Altogether, it was probably more calories than the average Civil War soldier had in five days. We think we identified at least ten wildflowers, with showy evening primrose and bull thistle in the mix, along with a few others, so I felt entitled. By the way, NRBC did an excellent job with social distancing.

Maybe it was the beer, or the moon pie, or the successful hike we had just finished, but I was feeling pretty good about how the day had turned out. Then I started looking at the internet, and all the hate and division came roaring back, like the crackling rifle fire at Chickamauga some 156 years ago. I watched rioters attack journalists live on Facebook in Birmingham. I saw peaceful protesters gassed and shot with rubber bullets in our nation’s capital. Generations after Chickamauga, we are once again two Americas.

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address

Come on, America. Bind up the nation’s wounds. Work for a just and lasting peace. That’s how you honor the fallen.

Hiking during a pandemic

The “new normal” for now is mostly inside. I’m in my fourth week of working from home, and let me tell you, between that and the beautiful spring weather, the outdoors is looking mighty good to me right now. I’m not the only one – people are tired of being isolated in their homes, and so it’s only natural that local trails are seeing record numbers.

According to a statement on the website of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources: “Outdoor recreation in Alabama is considered an essential activity in the Order of the State Health Officer that was issued on April 3, 2020. That means outdoors activities such as hunting, fishing, trail use, boating, and paddling can still be enjoyed by all Alabamians as long as groups are kept to less than 10 people and a consistent 6-foot distance between persons can be maintained.”

So, hiking is an approved activity, as long as you do it safely. With the Huntsville area trails seeing such large numbers of folks, here’s what I think “safely” means.

  1. If the parking lot for a trailhead is full, consider that trail closed and move on to another one.
  2. Stay six feet away from everybody on the trail. This means both spacing yourself out along the trail as well as stepping off the trail when passing folks coming from the other direction.
  3. For trails where dogs are allowed, keep them on a leash! I know your little darlings long to run free, but consider that if they don’t mind you and you have to go grab them by the collar, you’re likely to end up getting closer than six feet from somebody. Avoid the issue and just keep ’em on a leash.
  4. Be aware of places other people might have touched, like railings, kiosks, benches. Avoid them if possible.
  5. Carry hand sanitizer and use it if you do end up touching things you maybe shouldn’t have.
  6. Pack your trash out. This one isn’t so much for your safety as it is for the safety of those who have to clean up after you.
  7. Bring your own water. Assume water fountains or other sources are not available.
  8. Assume all bathrooms are closed.

The best thing to do is to find hikes that are NOT overrun with a million people, so here are three nearby places that might fit that bill.

Goldsmith-Schiffman Wildlife Sanctuary, Huntsville. This small preserve is on the Flint River and has two parking areas – one off of 431 South and the other off Taylor Road. When we visited, it was still fairly new and relatively undeveloped, but there are about three miles of trails in woods, along the river, and through farmland.

White Springs Dike Trail, Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge. This trail is reachable from a small parking area off of Highway 72 on the way from Decatur. When we hiked it, we made it a 13 mile loop by combining with the Eagle’s Nest Trail, but just hike as far as you want, then turn around.

Marbut’s Bend, Elkmont – This short trail is on a TVA property off Buck Island Road. It’s an easy, flat, ADA-accessible 1.1 mile trail with lovely views of the Elk River.

Enjoy Responsibly!

2019 Retrospective

Ruth and Chet at Forest Gully Farm

We’ve done it again — gotten through another year of posts on our little blog.  This was our fourth full year, with our five-year anniversary coming up next spring.  Thank you, dear readers.  We hope we’ve entertained you, and even better, given you some ideas and inspiration for getting out in the great outdoors.

2019 marks an interesting milestone for us.  It’s the first full year in which we’ve had pretty much flat readership, in terms of views and visitors.  As I write this, we’ve had 20,333 views in 2019, which is a few hundred fewer that we had at this time last year.  After growth of over 50% each year for the past few years, perhaps we’ve saturated our market.  We really haven’t put much effort into marketing the blog, so perhaps that’s a goal for us for next year.  The truth is, we’d do the blog anyway, and we’re not generating any income from it (in fact, we pay to avoid showing you ads).  We view it as a public service, and besides it gives us a good excuse to get out and explore!

Chet on a water crossing, Garrison Creek Trail, Natchez Trace.

We actually ramped up our outings this year, with 38 hikes, one float trip, and one zipline trip over the course of the year.  We visited some of our old favorites for new hikes (the Bankhead National Forest, Land Trust of North Alabama preserves, multiple Alabama State Parks, and South Cumberland State Park) and discovered more new (to us) places, like Cane Creek Canyon Nature Preserve, Moss Rock Preserve,  Cahaba River Park, and the Duck River Trail in Cullman) where we are likely to make return visits.  We made a return visit to the Flint River for our one float trip of the year, but used a new outfitter.  After taking a year off from ziplining, we tried out the relatively new course at DeSoto State Park, where Ruth impressed everyone with her Tinkerbell landings.

Fun Times

With all those outings, it’s hard to pick favorites.  Ruth’s favorite is Cane Creek Canyon Nature Preserve, an amazing private reserve in Colbert County, AL.  The owners allow free access on weekends to this paradise of wildflowers, creeks, waterfalls, and mountain views.  Oh, and sometimes there are otters! For me, it would be our short hike on a segment of the Appalachian Trail, in the Roan Highlands bordering North Carolina and Tennessee.  If you ever wonder why anyone would hike the AT, hike this section and your questions will be answered.

Here are a few other interesting tidbits from 2019 for Woodlands and Waters.

  • It was a return to form for us, with 52 posts (counting this one) for the year.  We didn’t miss a week — hooray!
  • Of those 52 posts, 11 were Quick Looks and 41 were new content.  Our goal was to have an even split of recycled and new content, so we far exceeded our goal.
  • We had views from 14 countries in 2019, with 97% of the visitors from the U.S.
  • We had 11,231 visitors in 2019, compared to 11,857 in 2018.  It’s a slight decrease in the number of visitors year over year, but not unexpected since our views were down slightly.
  • Our shortest hike of the year was approximately .2 miles, a quick out-and-back to Mardis Mill Falls.  Our longest was 7 miles of walking on various trails at Cane Creek Nature Preserve.  (Dis)honorable mention goes to a 6.8 mile death march that we did on the North Chickamauga segment of the Cumberland Trail, which nearly got us into serious trouble with heat exhaustion.
  • Our total hiking distance for the year was 115 miles, up from 75 miles last year.  No wonder Ruth needed a new pair of boots!  Our average hike length was 3 miles.
  • Our one float trip was about 4.9 river miles.
  • Our adventures took place in four states and one foreign country: Alabama, Tennessee, North Carolina, New Mexico, and Ireland.
  • We didn’t have any overnight hikes, but stayed in a hobbit house in Tennessee, AirBnBs in Tennessee and Ireland, and hotels.  So we’re hikers, but not campers.  We did have a few fires in the firepit in our back yard, but that doesn’t really count.
  • We visited two private parks, seven county/municipal parks, and three Land Trust of North Alabama preserves.
  • We visited one state natural area, one state forest, and one greenway.
  • We hiked in four Tennessee state parks, three Alabama state parks, and two national forests.
  • We hiked in one national park and on two National Scenic Trails.
  • Our most popular new post for 2019 was a post about new trails on the Land Trust’s Blevins Gap Preserve, with 796 views to date.  This was also our most popular post for the year, followed by our post from 2015 comparing three southeastern hike-in lodges, with 783 views this year alone.
  • We had modest activity in picking up followers on our various social platforms.  We’re up to 73 WordPress followers now (hello, fellow bloggers!).  We ended the year with 140 Facebook followers, about a 22% growth.  We’ve also got 76 Twitter followers.  Considering we didn’t do any marketing, that’s not bad.

In 2019, our goal was to post weekly, with new content about half the time.  We met or exceeded both goals, with a lot more new content than we expected.  Trips are already planned for an unusual lodging destination west of Huntsville and another trip to the mountains of western North Carolina.  There are still trails we haven’t covered at Cane Creek, and Duck River looks like a good place for a bicycling trip.  We have an idea for a good float trip, and we’re still in striking distance for more hikes in middle Tennessee, especially if we turn them into overnight trips.  There are still new trails finished, planned or in progress on Land Trust properties and we’ll be paying them a visit.  Our running list of ideas still has plenty of items on it, which is kind of surprising nearly five years into this blog.

So happy holidays, dear readers!  I’m finishing up this post stuffed with eight different holiday cheeses, with a big Christmas Day dinner yet to come.  We’re going to have to walk/kayak/cycle/zipline off those calories, and we’ll get started … next year.

The year in photos

January

February

March

April

May

June

July

August

September

October

November

December

2018 Retrospective

Ruth and Chet in front of Denny Falls, South Cumberland State Park, TN

Well, here we are at the end of another year, and our little blog is still going strong.  Thank you, dear readers!  In 2018, we made the decision to cut back a little on the blogging, or to be more precise, to cut back on the outings but to still try to post something every week.  Our social media consultants advised us to use some of our “evergreen content,” which we did by posting short “quick look” posts that revisit some of our earlier adventures dating back all the way to 2015.  I thought it was a good strategy, but was a little worried that our viewership stats would suffer if we weren’t generating new content every week.

There’s a reason our social media consultants are thriving in their careers — they were right!  As I write this, we’ve had 20,577 views in 2018, which is a 66% increase over 2017!  It turns out that feeding, clothing, and sheltering our social media consultants had benefits we didn’t even imagine at the time.  Of course, we love our daughters and would have fed, clothed, and sheltered them anyway.

Though we did cut back on our outings, we still managed 23 hikes and one float trip over the course of the year.  We visited some of our old favorites for new hikes (the Sipsey Wilderness, Green Mountain Nature Preserve, Lake Guntersville State Park, South Cumberland State Park) and discovered some new (to us) places to hike that will probably get return visits in the future (Natchez Trace, Franklin State Forest, Red Mountain, to name a few).  We made only the one float trip, but it was on the Paint Rock River.  Our previous Paint Rock River float trip post is our most-viewed post over the life of the blog, so we were really happy when a company started offering rentals and shuttles on this lesser-traveled waterway.

The highlights for the year?  It’s an easy call for Ruth — Taylor Hollow State Natural Area, an astounding spring wildflower Nature Conservancy property north of Nashville.  For me, it would be the collective hikes we took in Oregon, particularly the little two-mile stretch of the iconic Pacific Crest Trail we covered in the Columbia River Gorge.  Here are a few other interesting tidbits from 2018 for Woodlands and Waters.

  • Counting this one, we put up 50 posts for the year.  It’s the first time we’ve not managed to post something every week, but there were extenuating circumstances — a home internet outage for over a week, and cross-country travel.
  • Of those 50 posts, 23 were Quick Looks and 27 were new content.  Our goal was to have an even split of recycled and new content, so yay for us!
  • We had views from 12 countries in 2018, with 97% of the visitors from the U.S.
  • We had 11,680 visitors in 2018, compared to 7,627 in 2017.  That’s a 53% increase in the number of visitors year over year.
  • Our shortest hike of the year was approximately .25 miles, a short ramble in the Huntsville Botanical Garden.  Our longest was approximately 7 miles of walking in Portland, Oregon’s Washington Park and the general area.
  • Our total hiking distance for the year was 75 miles.  That’s about half of what we did last year, and isn’t a surprise given that we’ve cut back on our trips.  Our average hike length was 3.1 miles.
  • Our one float trip was about 4 river miles.
  • Our adventures took place in four states: Alabama, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Oregon.
  • We didn’t have any overnight hikes, but stayed in a CCC-built cabin in Tennessee, a lake house in North Carolina, and three AirBnBs in Oregon.  OK, we weren’t exactly roughing it!
  • We visited three private parks, one county park, one city park, two Land Trust of North Alabama preserves, and one college campus.
  • We visited two state natural areas, one Nature Conservancy property, and one state forest.
  • We hiked in two Oregon state parks, three Tennessee state parks, one Alabama state park, and two national forests.
  • Our most popular new post for 2018 was a post about new trails on the Land Trust’s Green Mountain Preserve, with 306 views to date.  Our most popular for the year was our post from 2015 on kayaking the Paint Rock River, with 1,025 views this year alone.
  • We had some activity in picking up followers on our various social platforms.  We gained 22 new WordPress followers over the year (hello, fellow bloggers!) — about a 25% increase.  We ended the year with 115 Facebook followers, about a 15% growth.  We’ve also got 73 Twitter followers.  Not exactly tearing up the Internet, but not bad for a hyper-local blog.

In looking back on our goals for 2018, we had pretty much one plan — to cut back on our posting of new content, and we nailed that.  We hoped to post more or less weekly, with about 50% new content, and we were pretty much on the mark.  For 2019, we’d like to keep to the same general plan – post weekly, with new content about half the time.  We’ve got one trip planned already for April to an interesting nearby destination, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we throw in a few dayhikes in areas that would require us to make an overnight trip.  I’ve retired from my soccer activities, which will free up quite a few Saturdays for hiking (and some lawn maintenance, much to the relief of our long-suffering neighbors).   There are news trails finished, planned or in progress on Land Trust properties and we’ll be paying them a visit.  We keep a running list of ideas, and it’s exciting to think about getting out there in 2019.

So happy holidays, dear readers, and wish us luck in working off all those holiday mince pies and gingerbread houses.  As you can see from the photos above from actual holiday sweets made by in the past two days by Ruth and our multi-talented social media consultants, I’m going to have to put in more than a few miles on the trails.

The year in photos

January

February

March

April

May

June

July

August

September

October

November

December

2017 Retrospective

It wasn’t always pretty, but we managed it — another year of 52 posts, one every week, chronicling our outdoor adventures in the Tennessee Valley and beyond.  Our social media consultants (I’m serious, we have two of them that we raised ourselves) tell us that we’ve built up an enviable amount of long-form evergreen content.  All the while, I thought we were just walking around, taking pictures, and saying what we did last weekend.  Who knew?

We started this blog in May of 2015, so we’re into our third year now.  It has been gratifying to see how our readership has grown since then.  In our first, partial year of blogging, we had 3,269 views from 1,229 visitors.  In 2016, those number jumped dramatically to 10,444 views from 4,521 visitors.  In 2017 our growth was a little more modest, but still as of this writing you lovely readers viewed 12,101 pages in 2017, with 7,470 visitors over the course of the year.

Looking back on all we did in 2017, it’s no wonder we’re enjoying the holidays by mostly staying indoors!  Here are a few interesting numbers:

  • We posted 48 times on hikes, floats, ziplining, or bike trips.  Sometimes we’d have multiple activities on a single weekend, but we were out and about on the vast majority of weeks during the year.
  • We took a total of 40 hikes during the year, for a total of 157.45 miles.  That’s up a little from last year.
  • Our shortest hike was around .75 miles, on a little amble around the Land Trust of North Alabama’s Chapman Mountain Preserve.  Our longest hike was 7.9 miles, and we covered that distance twice, on the TVA Honeycomb trail and on our hike to Virgin Falls in Tennessee.
  • We had two float trips, both on the Elk River, for a total of 11.6 water miles.  With those two trips, we completed the Limestone County canoe and kayak  trail.
  • After getting our bikes fixed up, we put in two bike rides for a total of 23.3 miles on the Richard Martin trail and a loop out at the Wheeler Wildlife Refuge.
  • Though we didn’t exactly rough it, we had five overnight trips during the year, staying with some friends, in a hotel, in a New England inn, in a rustic mountaintop lodge, and in a treehouse.
  • We visited state parks in Alabama, Tennessee, and New Hampshire.  It was our first trip to seven of those parks, with return visits to five others.
  • Federal properties were also a frequent target of visits, with two trips to national forests, four trips to TVA properties, one to a national park, and one to a national military park.
  • Various nature preserves were also on our list, with trips to the Monte Sano, Chapman, Rainbow Mountain, and Green Mountain preserves of the Land Trust of North Alabama. We also paid visits to one Nature Conservancy property, two nature preserves in the Birmingham area, and one city park in Tennessee.
  • Our most popular blog posts continue to be posts on Indian Tomb Hollow in the Bankhead National Forest (over 1450 views to date) and a float trip on the Paint Rock River (a smidge over 1400 views).  The most-viewed single post of 2017 was on our hike to the Nature Conservancy’s Lost Sink, with a whopping 93 views.
  • We’re not exactly taking the Internet by storm, but we had viewers from 58 countries, with 99% of the views from the U.S.  We had around 20% growth for the year, which is really flattering for our little hyper-local blog.
  • On the advice of our social media consultants, we promoted one of our posts on Facebook and pretty much tripled our number of Facebook followers.  Granted, we had a puny number of Facebook followers to begin with, but now we have nearly 100.  Which means, of course, that every time we post something to Facebook, about two people will see it in their feeds.

As is often the case, the end of the year is a good time to look back on goals that we set at the beginning of the year.  We didn’t really have formal, measurable goals, but our general plan was to do more winter hiking, use our new GoPro camera, to get in a couple of float trips, to do some overnight backpacking trips, and to get in a visit to the Great Smoky Mountains.  We didn’t do too badly — we got in a few cold weather hikes, posted some GoPro videos our on Facebook page, took two float trips, and had a lovely return to LeConte Lodge in the the Smokies.  As for the backpacking…well, these old bones are just too fond of thick mattresses, preferably in enclosed heated spaces.

So now we come to the goals for 2018.  All that activity in 2017 was frankly a bit much for us.  Our experts pointed out that it’s not necessarily the new content that is driving people to our site.  Also, not everyone is a fan of the long-form blog post.  So next year, we’re going to be cutting back on the generation of new content, and will instead leverage some of our evergreen content in smaller, to-the-point posts, with links back to the full post for those who are interested.  Most people aren’t hitting our site and scrolling back 2.5 years to read everything we’ve posted, so it might help to revisit some of those earlier adventures.  We still intend to post more or less weekly, but will add maybe about half the number of long-form posts.

We enjoy taking the trips and writing the blog, but it’s getting pretty challenging to come up with a new destination each week.  There is a finite number of outdoor adventure possibilities in the immediate area, and we were finding that we’d have to travel farther and farther to get to a new place.  With the travel time, we were getting to the point that we’d lose about half our weekend just getting in a hike, and then we’d lose two more weeknights every week putting together the blog post.  There is also the physical wear and tear on our middle-aged bodies to consider, especially as we have other outdoor volunteer obligations, like soccer and trail maintenance.  So 2018 is going to be a year for recharging.  We’ve got a list of places we want to explore, and there will be new content, but we’re going to rest, just a little, on our laurels (or maybe rest on our mountain laurels, as may be the case).

The year in photos

January

February

March

April

May

June

July

August

September

October

November

December

Leaf Peepers: Fall leaves from past hikes

This week, Chet and I are in New Hampshire on a fall vacation. I’ve always wanted to see the New England leaves and this turned out to be a great week for us to do that. However, with all the planning and packing, plus some time spent at the Tennessee Valley Old Time Fiddlers Convention in Athens (an annual tradition for us), we had no time to get out and hike before we left. Don’t worry – we’re making up for lost time up here and will return with hikes to talk about, but in the meantime, here are a few of my favorite fall pictures from hikes closer to home.

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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!

2016 Retrospective

Well, we did it — when I press the Publish button, it will be our 52nd post of 2016.  We went a full year of posting weekly trail descriptions, gear reviews, commentary, stories of bicycle and float trips, and tales of outdoor adventures out of our usual routine.  Ruth and I started this blog in May of 2015, so this is our first full year of putting up new content every week.  To be honest, not counting outdoor recreation and visits with family, 2016 has been one of those years to endure instead of enjoy.  But instead of listing all the bad things that happened this past year, I’d rather look back on all the fun we had, summarized in a few statistics below.

  • We put our boots on the ground — to the tune of 141.45 miles over the course of the year.  That’s actually down a little bit from our 2015 numbers, but one of our goals for 2016 was to do more non-hiking adventures.
  • We went hiking on 33 different days.  Some of those days included multiple hikes.
  • Our shortest hike of the year was 1.1 miles (on a greenway) and the longest was 11.5 miles (in the Bankhead National Forest, of course).
  • One specific goal was to do more float trips, and we managed that, with three kayak trips in 2016 — two on the Elk River, and one on Terrapin Creek.  We logged 17.2 water miles this year.
  • We also had two bicycle trips, one on the Richard Martin trail, and the other on the Wheeler Wildlife Refuge.
  • Another goal was to cast a wider net geographically, which we did by hiking in five states (AL, GA, TN, TX, and NM) and one U.S. Territory (Puerto Rico).
  • We had two overnight stays during the year — two nights in a cabin, and two nights in a yurt.  I think there may be some tent (or hammock) camping in our plans for 2017!
  • State parks are great!  We visited five state parks in Alabama (Monte Sano, Lake Guntersville, Cathedral Caverns, Buck’s Pocket, and Cheaha), two in Tennessee (South Cumberland and Tim’s Ford), one in Georgia (Cloudland Canyon), and Ruth visited one in Texas (Franklin Mountain).
  • Federal lands were also well-represented, with several trips to TVA properties, U.S. Forest Service properties (El Yunque, Talladega, and Bankhead National Forests), and a National Wildlife Refuge.
  • Smaller properties have their charms too, as we made trips to three private reserves, City of Huntsville greenways, a couple of Wilderness Management Areas, and various Land Trust of North Alabama preserves.
  • We really stepped it up on non-hiking experiences this year, with zip lining, jet skiing, and scuba diving trips.
  • Our modest little blog has performed well this year — 10,329 views as of this writing, from 4,454 visitors.  The U.S. accounted for nearly all the views, but we had visitors from 58 other countries.  Some of them might not have been bots.  Last year’s numbers were 3,269 views from 1,229 visitors, but remember the blog was only up for about 8 months in 2015.
  • To judge from our most popular posts (of all time), you want us to kayak up and down the Paint Rock River looking for marker trees.  Well, OK then.

So what will 2017 hold?  Well, Santa Claus was generous to us both this year, with some cool weather gear that will encourage us to get in some winter hiking.  Another gift will add a new dimension to the blog — a GoPro camera — so be watching our Facebook page for video content once we figure out how to use the contraption.  And we have one adventure already booked for April which promises to be a lot of fun!  We’ve been eyeing a couple of float trips in the general area, there are still a few trails we haven’t done in the Bankhead, we’re overdue for an overnight backpacking trip, and I really hope we can squeeze in a weekend in our beloved Smoky Mountains, which we didn’t visit this year.  And new trails are calling….

The year in photos

January

February

March

April

May

June

July

August

September

October

November

December

Letter to Santa

It’s 4  days before Christmas and in our house we’ve been bustling around  decorating, shopping, baking, and wrapping. We’re almost ready though – are you?

My family has given me lots of grief this year because I haven’t given them a Christmas list. I just can’t think of a thing I’m dying to see under the Christmas tree this year. However I can think of plenty of things that won’t fit under a tree!  I doubt it will make my family any happier with me, but here’s my letter to Santa for this year:

Dear Santa,

This year I have been … well mostly nice I think. I don’t know if I did enough to be off the naughty list, but if so, I’d like the following things for Christmas:

new trails to hike – long or short, steep or level, I’m not picky! I do realize that this gift will also require the gift of trail maintainers to keep those trails passable, as well as maybe even a few generous souls to donate more land to places like the Land Trust so new places can be preserved. See what you can do.

 

rivers and waterfalls – and the rains to keep them flowing!

adventure companions – both two and four legged

basking rocks and stunning views

wildflowers – of all sorts (but especially my favorite bluebells)

Wild creatures – especially turtles!

A few more, er, non-traditional outdoor adventures would be fun too.

 

So that’s my list. Hopefully it’s not too much to ask. Merry Christmas to you and safe travels, Santa!