Thursday, March 22, 2018

Oak Mountain State Park: Green Trail to Peavine Falls et. al. (Blog Hike #677)

Trails: Green Trail et. al.
Hike Location: Oak Mountain State Park
Geographic Location: Pelham, AL
Length: 5.5 miles
Difficulty: 9/10 (Difficult)
Last Hiked: March 2018
Overview: A figure-eight route, sometimes steep and sometimes rocky, featuring Peavine Falls.

Directions to the trailhead: Just south of Birmingham, take I-65 to SR 119 (exit 246).  Exit, go west on SR 119 for 100 feet to State Park Road, and turn left on State Park Rd.  Drive State Park Rd. 1.9 miles to John Findley Drive (there is a 4-way stop here) and turn left on John Findley Dr.  Enter the park, pay the park entrance fee, and ask for a trail map at the gatehouse.  Drive John Findley Dr. a total of 2.6 miles to Terrace Drive and turn right on Terrace Dr.  Take Terrace Dr. 1.4 miles to the large park office parking lot on the right.  Park here and as close to the road as possible: the hike begins across the road.

The hike: Weighing in at a massive 9940 acres, Oak Mountain State Park is the largest state park in Alabama and the crown jewel of the Alabama State Parks system.  The park dates to 1927 when the Alabama legislature’s State Land Act granted the park 940 acres between Double Oak Mountain and Little Oak Ridge.  Yet a full 8000 of the park’s acres were added in a land transfer from the National Park Service in 1943.  The park’s size and history give the park’s vast natural areas a national park feel even though it is owned by the State of Alabama.
            As you would expect for a major park, Oak Mountain State Park offers nearly every amenity.  On point, the park features campgrounds with 85 developed and 60 primitive campsites, 10 cabins, numerous picnic areas, a championship golf course, two lakes, a swimming beach, a marina that offers pedal boat rental in season, a demonstration farm, and a BMX track.  Due to the park’s amenities and its location only 20 miles south of Birmingham, the park can become very crowded on warm weather weekends.  Thus, I recommend a weekday or winter visit to Oak Mountain State Park.
            Despite the amenities, much of the park can only be accessed by the park’s extensive 60 mile trail system, which includes trails for hikers, horses, and mountain bikers.  The trail system’s most popular destination is Peavine Falls, a very scenic 20-foot waterfall when it has enough water, which it frequently does not because of its location high on Oak Mountain.  The waterfall was in fine form when I came here two days after a nice spring rain.  While there are easier ways to see Peavine Falls than by doing the hike described here (see below), this classic route visits not only the falls but also a mountaintop overlook and the Alabama Wildlife Center, a rehabilitation center for injured wildlife.  Therefore, most experts consider this hike to be one of the best hikes in Alabama.
Start of Green Trail at its lower end
            The sign for the Treetop Nature Trail located directly across the road from the parking lot marks our return route.  To find the start of the Green Trail, the most direct route to Peavine Falls, walk about 100 feet west on Terrace Drive and look for a gravel road on the left.  The first plastic green rectangle is located just up this road on the right.
            A steady, persistent climb now begins, and the single-track dirt Green Trail gains just over 300 feet of elevation in its first 0.5 miles.  As you would expect given this park’s name, the broadleaf forest is dominated by oak trees, although I saw some pecan and sweet gum trees here as well.  Numbered and colored trail markers appear periodically throughout the park’s trail system with numbers 51 through 60 corresponding to the Green Trail.  Information boards say that the markers are posted at 0.5 mile intervals, but my calculations say they are a little closer together.
            At 0.5 miles, you top one of Oak Mountain’s foothills and reach an intersection with the Green-Yellow Ridge Trail, which runs conjointly with the Green Trail for a short distance.  Where the two trails split, signs direct you to turn left to continue toward the falls.  A short but steep descent brings you to a saddle where the Yellow Trail and a mountain bike trail cross our route.  Continue straight to stay on the Green Trail.
Hiking under pine trees
            Next comes a fairly flat section in an area with lots of pine trees.  A soft bed of pine needles covers the trail here.  The flat area quickly ends as the trail descends steeply via a single switchback to cross the Orange Trail in a ravine.  Oak Mountain’s steep narrow ridges keep these ravines very quiet despite their location in metro Birmingham.
            The assault on Oak Mountain’s main ridge now begins, as does the hardest climb of this hike.  The trail gains just under 300 feet of elevation in about 0.2 miles including some rocky and wet sections just under a spring.  As you get near the top of the ridge, views of downtown Birmingham peep over the lower foothill you topped earlier.
Climbing the main ridge
            1 mile into the hike, you cross the Red Trail at an intersection that features an information board and a few benches.  A little more climbing brings you to the top of the main ridge, where the trail curves right to begin heading west along the narrow ridge.  The dense wooded forest of the ravines is now replaced by grassy sunny areas along the ridge, and the hiking is surprisingly easy considering how hard the climb to this ridge was.  I saw several monarch butterflies flittering around along this ridge.
Hiking along the main ridge
            At 1.9 miles, you reach an intersection with the Green-White Connector that forms the southern loop of this hike.  Turn left on the Green-White Connector to continue toward Peavine Falls.  The steep and rocky Green-White Connector goes directly down the south face of Oak Mountain, and you should be glad you are descending this trail rather than climbing it.
            Mercifully, in less than 0.1 miles you reach the bottom of the Green-White Connector at its intersection with the White Trail along the north bank of Peavine Creek.  Turn right to head downstream along Peavine Creek.  Because Peavine Creek also forms Peavine Falls, you can gauge how scenic the waterfall will be based on the water volume in the creek.
Hiking along Peavine Creek
            Near 2 miles into the hike, you reach a major intersection where the White and Blue Trails converge.  We will eventually continue straight on the combined White and Blue Trails to continue the southern loop, but to get to Peavine Falls turn left on the Blue Trail and cross Peavine Creek on a rickety footbridge.  Follow signs for the base of Peavine Falls, which will take you uphill on the Blue Trail before descending a very steep and rocky spur trail marked by white diamonds.  Some use of your hands will be necessary to reach the base of the 20-foot spout type waterfall, which features a shallow plunge pool and a very rocky setting.  Find a spot to have a trail snack and enjoy the aquatic entertainment near the midpoint of this hike.
Peavine Falls
            Retrace your steps back to the major intersection, and then turn left to follow the combined Blue/White Trails away from Peavine Creek.  Where the Blue and White Trails split, you can go either way: both trails take you uphill to the Peavine Falls parking lot, which features a vault toilet and a picnic shelter but no potable water.  If all you want to do is see Peavine Falls, you could drive to this parking lot by continuing on Terrace Drive past our trailhead and turning left on gravel Peavine Falls Road, which dead-ends here.
            Angle right across the parking lot to find the upper end of the Green Trail and begin your journey back to the trailhead.  A short moderate climb brings you back to the main ridge crest, which you will follow for more than the next mile.  Just after topping the highest elevation of this hike, a spur trail marked “overlook” exits right.  As advertised, this short spur quickly leads to a partially obstructed south-facing viewpoint located atop a rock outcrop.
View from south-facing overlook
            Continuing east along the main ridge, you close the southern loop at 3.3 miles.  Retrace your steps down the north face of Oak Mountain to reach the intersection with the Yellow Trail at 4.5 miles.  If you are getting tired or running out of daylight, your car sits 0.5 miles ahead on the Green Trail.  To add a little variety and a possible side trip to the Alabama Wildlife Center, turn right on the Yellow Trail.
            The Yellow Trail descends gradually before passing up and over another low but steep ridge.  At 4.8 miles, you reach an intersection with the unblazed Treetop Trail.  Turn right on the Treetop Trail, which climbs gradually to reach the Alabama Wildlife Center in only a few hundred feet.  The Alabama Wildlife Center is Alabama’s oldest and largest wildlife rehabilitation facility, and portions of it are open for public viewing.  Some recovering woodland birds are on display for you to see, and a wildlife window makes for good bird watching.  Water, restrooms, and soda vending are also available here.
Boardwalk on Treetop Nature Trail
            Retrace your steps down the Treetop Trail, and continue straight on the Treetop Trail when you intersect the Yellow Trail.  Soon you learn why this trail is called the Treetop Trail: a high boardwalk passes numerous caged birds (hawks, vultures, and other raptors), birds rehabilitated at the Alabama Wildlife Center that would not survive in the wild.  The boardwalk ends near Terrace Drive across from the parking lot that contains your car, thus marking the end of the hike.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Tannehill Ironworks Historical State Park: Iron Works Loop (Blog Hike #676)

Trail: Iron Works Loop
Hike Location: Tannehill Ironworks Historical State Park
Geographic Location: southwest of Bessemer, AL
Length: 4 miles
Difficulty: 4/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: March 2018
Overview: A rolling lollipop loop on historic roads featuring a reconstructed Civil War-era iron furnace.
Park Information:

Directions to the trailhead: West of Birmingham, take I-20/59 to SR 216 (exit 100).  Exit and go east on SR 216.  In only 0.4 miles, take a soft right on to Tannehill Parkway.  Drive Tannehill Pkwy. 1.8 miles to its end at Eastern Valley Road.  Turn right, then immediately turn left to enter the park.  Pay the park entrance fee and follow signs to the Iron and Steel Museum of Alabama, which is also this park’s Visitor Center.  The hike starts at the museum.

The hike: Founded only in 1871 during the post-Civil War Reconstruction era, the City of Birmingham’s industrial heritage has earned it the nickname “The Pittsburgh of the South.”  Named for the major industrial center in England, all three major ingredients required for making 1800’s-style iron are found near the city: iron ore, wood, and lime.  As a result, the city experienced rapid growth from 1881 through 1920, and Alabama continued to be the industrial heart of the south throughout the 20th century.
            The area’s industrial potential was noticed before Birmingham even existed, and one early successful attempt to exploit its resources was the Tannehill Ironworks.  The Tannehill iron furnace was built in 1830 by Pennsylvania furnaceman Daniel Tillman, who was attracted to the area by its rich brown iron ore that he called the best ore he had ever seen.  The furnace produced iron for more than 30 years until it was destroyed by Union forces in the very last days of the Civil War.
            Today the reconstructed iron furnace, several related historical buildings, and the Iron & Steel Museum of Alabama are preserved within 1500-acre Tannehill Ironworks Historical State Park, which was established in 1969.  The museum features many artifacts from Alabama’s 19th century iron industry and some other interesting exhibits including one about the CSS Alabama, a Civil War merchant raider.  The park features surprisingly many amenities for an historical park including a campground with 195 developed sites and 100 primitive sites.  7 cabins, a pioneer farm, a miniature train, the Tannehill Event Center, a country church and schoolhouse both dating to the early 1900’s, a gazebo, and a playground round out the amenities.
            In terms of trails, the park features trails for horses, mountain bikes, and hikers.  While all but the horse trails are open to hikers, the newer mountain bike trails were built by mountain bikers for mountain bikers, so the best hiking option is the older Iron Works Loop described here.  The Iron Works Loop follows two-track old dirt roads for its entire distance while passing the reconstructed furnace and a slave cemetery, the park’s main historical sites.
Exiting the museum
            The first objective is to reach the reconstructed furnace, which might be harder than you would expect given that it is the centerpiece of the park.  After walking out the front door of the museum, turn right (south) and descend a set of concrete steps with iron railings.  Next cross a side stream on a wooden footbridge beside a concrete vehicle ford.  Ignore the playground to the right (I made the mistake of heading that way when I hiked here) and take either of the two-track trails going left with the park cabins on your left and the hillside rising to your right.
            After reaching the bank of Mud Creek and curving to the right, you reach the reconstructed iron furnace at 0.25 miles.  At a height of roughly 30 feet, the stone and wood structure’s size is quite impressive.  A large sign identifies the structure as the Roupes Valley Ironworks, one of the historical names by which this furnace was called.  Some interpretive signs describe how the furnace worked, but the elevated walkway that accesses the upper levels is gated shut.
Reconstructed iron furnace
            After investigating the furnace, angle left to cross Mud Creek on an iron/wood footbridge.  Immediately after crossing the creek, you reach a major trail intersection that forms the loop portion of this hike.  The Iron Works Loop is marked with signs bearing brown arrows, and you want to follow the wide two-track trail that goes right to hike the loop counterclockwise.  A sign calls this track the Iron Road: iron used to be hauled along this road from the furnace to a railroad terminal 18 miles away in Montevallo.  Ignore a single-track mountain bike trail marked with red arrows that also starts here.
            The trail climbs gradually to top a creekside bluff before curving left to head away from the creek.  The forest at Tannehill consists of a wide variety of pine and broadleaf trees, the largest of which are beech and tulip poplar.  At 0.8 miles, you descend to cross a small side stream on stepping stones.
Crossing a small stream
            The next mile is a rolling eastbound course through more of the same scenery and forest.  Quiet and solitude abound here.  At 1.8 miles, a side trail marked only by a wooden post exits left to head for the slave cemetery.  A brief detour uphill on narrow eroded trail brings you to the cemetery.  The fenced-in cemetery contains mostly small uninscribed rocks as headstones, and it is a solemn reminder of slave life in the antebellum south.
Slave cemetery
            Back on the main trail, in less than 500 feet you reach an intersection where both options are marked with brown arrows.  The option going right deadends in a short distance, so you need to turn left to continue the Iron Works Loop.  The old iron road is now left in favor of an old stagecoach road, but the going remains on wide two-track trail.  A second trail to the slave cemetery soon exits left.
            Next comes the only significant elevation change on this hike, as the trail climbs up and over a narrow ridge.  The ridge is only about 200 feet above the surrounding terrain, so the climb is not too arduous.  Ignore unmarked trails that exit right and all mountain bike trails, which are marked with arrows of colors other than brown.
Topping the ridge
            At 2.8 miles, you reach another intersection with both options marked with brown arrows.  The option going straight leads to the horse trailhead, so you want to turn left to begin the final leg back to the restored furnace.  This section of trail is known as the Slave Quarter Trail, and it features some small signs that help you identify some of the trees in this forest.  A gently rolling course takes you past the park’s fishing pond and amphitheater before closing the loop at the east bank of Mud Creek.  Pass the restored furnace a second time as you retrace your steps to the museum and complete the hike.