Saturday, June 29, 2013

Talladega National Forest: Chinnabee Silent Trail to Cheaha Falls (Blog Hike #416)

Trail: Chinnabee Silent Trail
Hike Location: Talladega National Forest, Lake Chinnabee Recreation Area
Geographic Location: south of OxfordAL (33.45895, -85.87330)
Length: 6 miles
Difficulty: 6/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: March 2013
Overview: A scenic out-and-back to interesting Cheaha Falls.
Hike Route Map:
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: In eastern Alabama, take I-20 to US 431 (exit 191).  Exit and go south on US 431.  Take US 431 to SR 281 (Talladega Scenic Byway).  Turn right on the SR 281 access road, then turn left on SR 281 itself.  Take SR 281 south 14 miles to Cheaha Road and turn right on Cheaha Rd.  Take Cheaha Road 3.6 miles to Lake Chinnabee Road and turn left on Lake Chinnabee Rd.  Lake Chinnabee Rd. enters the recreation area 1.4 miles later.  Park in the first parking area on the left.  Picnic tables and vault toilets can be found at this parking area.

The hike: Stretching 6 miles from Lake Chinnabee Recreation Area in the west to a junction with the Pinhoti Trail on Talladega Mountain in the east, the Chinnabee Silent Trail may be the most famous hiking trail in Alabama.  One trip down this path and you will quickly see its appeal.  The aquatic falls and antics of Cheaha Creek make pleasant sights for the eyes and sounds for the ears.
            The trail’s name comes from the fact that it was built over the four-year period of 1973 to 1976 by Boy Scout Troop 29 from the School for the Deaf in nearby Talladega.  Thus, the builders of this trail would never have heard the sounds of Cheaha Creek, one of the main attractions of this hike.  Yet they chose to build it anyway, and an excellent job they did at that.  Throughout this hike you will see their handiwork in railings, waterbars, and stone steps.
            The trail’s centerpiece both in terms of scenery and distance is Cheaha Falls.  The falls can be accessed by hiking the Chinnabee Silent Trail 3 miles east from Lake Chinnabee Recreation Area or by hiking it 1 mile west from Turnipseed Camp parking area along SR 281.  The hike from the camp is shorter, but it misses the best section of Cheaha Creek gorge.  Thus, I chose to hike to the falls from the recreation area.  With a two-car shuttle you could leave one car at each end and shorten the hike to 4 miles while eliminating any retracing of steps.
Western trailhead: Chinnabee Silent Trail
            Begin by walking past the vault toilets and heading out the well-trod trail with Cheaha Creek to your right and the steep hillside to your left.  The waters of Cheaha Creek are so clear that I was able to see small fish swimming around in the creek.  Two trails quickly exit to the right and ford the creek.  The first exiting trail is the Lakeshore Trail that circles Lake Chinnabee, and the second exiting trail is the Skyway Backpack Loop heading for Adams Gap.  The Skyway Backpack Loop is a long and difficult 18 mile loop, one-third of which is the Chinnabee Silent Trail.
            With the preliminary section out of the way, the trail heads into the heart of Cheaha Creek gorge as it climbs at first gradually and then more moderately up the north wall of the gorge.  This section of trail is rather rocky and may be the most difficult part of this hike.  A prescribed burn conducted here in 2011 makes this a very sunny section of trail.           
Climbing on Chinnabee Silent Trail
            At 0.5 miles, you reach a wooden boardwalk that also serves as an overlook platform.  This overlook provides a nice vista of several small waterfalls in Cheaha Creek, which is now some 50 feet below you.  These waterfalls are called Devil’s Den Falls, and they make a nice warm-up for what is to come.
Devil's Den Falls
            Past the overlook, the trail descends back to creek level using some stone steps, some of which are glued together with concrete.  The concrete looks out of place in this rugged, natural setting.  At 0.8 miles, you rock-hop a small tributary of Cheaha Creek.  Some established campsites can be found along the creek here.  I was amazed at how calm Cheaha Creek is at this point compared to the rollicking waterfalls that lie downstream and upstream.
            After a very easy stretch along the creek, the trail joins an old road at 1.1 miles and begins a steady gradual-to-moderate ascent out of the gorge.  Some faded white paint blazes mark the trail here, but for the most part the Chinnabee Silent Trail is well-trodden but unmarked.  1.3 miles into the hike, the trail curves right to leave the old road as the grade eases.           
Chinnabee Silent Trail in a hollow
            For the next 1.7 miles the trail passes through quiet secluded hollow after quiet secluded hollow.  The general trend is uphill, though a few sections head downhill on moderate to steep grades.  At 2.1 miles, you top a ridge that has burned recently before heading into the next hollow.
            3 miles into the hike, you reach wooden Cheaha Falls Trail Shelter, which lies on a ridgetop within earshot of its namesake waterfall.  Some picnic tables in front of the shelter make nice places to sit and have a trail snack while taking in the view through an opening in the trees to the south.  Cheaha Creek Gorge lies directly in front of you, and Talladega Mountain is the large mountain that can be seen in the distance.           
View from Cheaha Falls Trail Shelter
            Past the shelter, continue on the Chinnabee Silent Trail downhill less than 0.1 miles to reach Cheaha Falls.  Unfortunately, there is no easy way to get a clear view of the waterfall: vertical cliffs lie between the trail and the base of the falls.  I was quite satisfied with the partially obstructed views I obtained through the trees, and the sound of Cheaha Falls makes this a memorable spot.  I remind you again that the builders of this trail would never have heard the sounds of this waterfall.
Cheaha Falls
            The Chinnabee Silent Trail continues another 3 miles past this point.  The trail next fords Cheaha Creek above Cheaha Falls, then climbs moderately to reach its crossing of SR 281.  East of SR 281 lies the toughest part of the Chinnabee Silent Trail, a stiff climb up Talladega Mountain to its terminus with the Pinhoti Trail.  The trail does not form a manageable day-loop, so unless you have a car shuttle at some point you will have turn around and retrace your steps to the Lake Chinnabee Recreation Area to complete the hike.

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