Sunday, March 29, 2015

Harvest Square Recreational Preserve: Dry Creek and Senators Trails (Blog Hike #509)

Trails: Dry Creek and Senators Trails
Hike Location: Harvest Square Recreational Preserve
Geographic Location: north of Huntsville, AL (34.84762, -86.70994)
Length: 1.5 miles
Difficulty: 2/10 (Easy)
Last Hiked: March 2015
Overview: A short loop through woods, meadows, and wetlands.
Preserve Information:
Hike Route Map:
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: On the west side of Huntsville, take I-565 to SR 53 (exit 17).  Exit and go north on SR 53.  Drive SR 53 north 10.1 miles to Jeff Road and turn right on Jeff Rd.  There is a Publix grocery store at this intersection.  Drive Jeff Rd. 0.1 miles to Allyson Sadie Blvd. and turn right on Allyson Sadie Blvd.  Allyson Sadie Blvd. dead-ends at the gravel preserve parking lot.

The hike: Established in 1987 as Alabama’s first land trust, the Land Trust of North Alabama manages six nature preserves near the city of Huntsville.  By far the trust’s most famous property is its large Monte Sano Nature Preserve, which protects over 1100 acres on the west face of Monte Sano.  Other Land Trust properties with fine trail systems include Wade Mountain Nature Preserve, Blevins Gap Preserve, and Rainbow Mountain.
Added only in 2009, Harvest Square Recreational Preserve is the Land Trust’s newest property.  The preserve protects 69 flat acres of former farmland 10 miles northwest of Huntsville.  This land is managed as a true nature preserve with the only amenities being a small picnic shelter and a parking lot.  A location within sight of a strip mall and a McDonalds may not be the ideal place for a nature hike, but all things considered this tract of land forms a better hiking destination than you might expect.
Two ponds at the center of the preserve act as magnets for wildlife, and several trails allow hikers to see this wildlife up-close.  The Eagle and Beaverdam Trails explore Terry Pond, the western of the two ponds, but they do not form a loop.  The 0.6 mile Dry Creek Trail explores the woodlands beside its namesake creek, while the 1 mile Senators Trail explores Turner Pond, the eastern of the two ponds, and an area that has recently seen the plow.  Combining the Dry Creek and Senators Trails forms the high-variety 1.5 mile loop described here.
View from trailhead
Start at the rear of the parking area, and cross both of the wooden bridges to reach the small picnic shelter.  The second bridge takes you across dirt-bottomed Dry Creek, which might be dry much of the year but contained a low volume of water when I hiked here.  The Senators Trail leaving left from the picnic shelter will be our return route.  For now, pick up the Dry Creek Trail as it leaves the rear of the picnic shelter.  Metal diamonds nailed to wooden posts mark these trailheads and all trails at Harvest Place.
Dry Creek
The Dry Creek Trail heads into the woods and almost immediately forks.  Because the Dry Creek Trail forms a loop, you could go either way here.  This description will turn left to hike the loop clockwise.  About 300 feet later you reach a spur trail that heads left to a view of Turner Pond, but you will get better views of this nice muddy-bottomed pond later in the hike.
Trail marker
            The trail curves right before Pete’s Trail exits left and the Short Loop exits right.  Continue straight to stay on the Dry Creek Trail as it heads through young forest featuring a large number of sweet gum trees.  A sunny, grassy field is visible through the trees to your left.
At 0.4 miles, you reach the farthest point of the Dry Creek Trail and an intersection with the Senators Trail.  For a short forest hike, you could continue straight on the Dry Creek Trail, but to add length and variety, this hike will turn left to begin the Senators Trail.  For the next 0.8 mile the trail traces the perimeter of the grassy field you saw through the trees earlier.  Unlike the firmly packed dirt treadway of the Dry Creek Trail, the dirt underfoot here has not sustained the compacting force of heavy foot traffic.  Look for animal tracks in the soft dirt for hints as to what has passed this way before you.
Grassy field along Senators Trail
While tracing the south and east sides of the field, the trail passes a couple of wooden benches built by Eagle Scouts.  At the northeast corner of the field, you reach a potentially confusing point.  A path appears to continue north with woods immediately to the right, but that path leads off of trust property.  Instead of heading that direction, look to your left toward Turner Pond to find another wooden post bearing the next Senators Trail marker.
The next segment of the Senators Trail heads west with Turner Pond to your left and the field now on your right.  While I was walking beside the pond, I saw several turtles, a great blue heron, and four white-tailed deer, among other common mammals and songbirds.  Take your time near the pond and see what you can see.
Turner Pond
Because the balance of the trail stays very close to the pond, some muddy areas will be encountered if you hike during times of high water tables.  The worst of the wetness is bridged by a short wooden boardwalk, but I encountered a couple of other semi-submerged areas that were unbridged.  At 1.4 miles, the Senators Trail comes out at the picnic shelter, leaving only a short walk over the two wooden bridges to return to the gravel parking area and complete the hike.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Cathedral Caverns State Park: Yellow and Green Trails (Blog Hike #508)

Trails: Yellow and Green Trails
Hike Location: Cathedral Caverns State Park
Geographic Location: southwest of Scottsboro, AL (34.57286, -86.22931)
Length: 2.6 miles
Difficulty: 7/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: March 2015
Overview: A lollipop loop, steep in places, to near the summit of Mount Pisgah.
Hike Route Map:
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: From its intersection with SR 35 in Scottsboro, drive US 72 west 15.8 miles to CR 63; there is a state park sign at this intersection.  Turn left on CR 63.  Drive CR 63 3.5 miles to Cathedral Caverns Road and turn left on Cathedral Caverns Rd.  The trailhead parking is a small gravel lot 1.9 miles ahead on the right.  The parking lot is located less than 500 feet after you pass Cave Road, the road that leads to the actual Cathedral Caverns.

The hike: The limestone bedrock of northeastern Alabama features some of the finest underground plumbing to be found anywhere in the United States, and few places offer better opportunities to see that plumbing than Cathedral Caverns.  Originally known as Bat Cave, the cave was operated as a privately-owned commercial cavern from the 1950’s until the mid 1980’s when it was purchased by the state.  The cave closed to the public for a few years until cave tours resumed in 2000.
            The cave’s current name comes from its gigantic 126-foot wide by 25-foot high main entrance, the one used by guided cave tours.  Depending on how you measure, this entrance may be the largest commercial cave entrance in the world.  The cave is also noteworthy for a large stalagmite named “Goliath,” which at 45 feet tall and 245 feet around is one of the largest stalagmites in the world.  The only downside to Cathedral Caverns is the $17 fee you must pay for the cave tour.
            Fortunately for hikers, hiking at the park is free.  Cathedral Caverns State Park offers 4 above-ground hiking trails that total just over 6 miles in length.  The Blue and Brown Trails offer fairly flat loops around the valley floor, but the park’s best trails are the Yellow and Green Trails, which gain 400 feet of elevation to reach the top of Mount Pisgah.  I ran out of daylight before I could hike all of the trails, so the route described here uses only the Yellow and Green Trails to form a nice hike on Mount Pisgah.
Post marking trailhead
            Start by crossing Cathedral Caverns Road and finding the wooden post painted with multiple color bands that serves as the trailhead.  After only a couple hundred feet of gradual climbing, the 1.2 mile Blue Trail exits left.  Continue straight to follow the Yellow Trail, which at this point runs conjointly with the Green and Brown Trails.
            After crossing a drainage without the aid of a bridge, a little more gradual climbing brings you to a trail junction.  This point begins the loop portion of this hike.  To take the longer but more gradual route up, this description will continue straight to ascend on the Yellow Trail and use the Green Trail coming down from the left as its return route.
Start of the loop
            The slightly rocky Yellow Trail climbs gradually as it angles left around the mountain.  Just past 0.2 miles, the Brown Trail exits to the right, leaving you on only the Yellow Trail.  After a little more nearly level walking, the trail gets rockier, curves left, and ascends more steeply on switchbacks at first and then directly up the hillside.
Climbing on the Yellow Trail
            Just before reaching the top of the ridge, the trail curves right and flattens out.  The ridgetop to the left tempts you for a few hundred feet until, 0.8 miles into the hike, the trail makes a sweeping left turn to pass over the ridgetop and descend a short distance down the west side.  At 1.1 miles, you pass a cluster of sinkholes, evidence of the underground plumbing (cave network) that runs under your feet.
Sinkhole on Mount Pisgah
            A little more gradual climbing brings you to Beech Camp at 1.3 miles.  Located in a small flat area atop the ridge, Beech Camp consists of nothing more than a primitive trail shelter and a fire pit.  Reservations are required to camp here, but the quiet, peaceful surroundings with minimal development for several miles make this a nice camping spot.
Beech Camp
Beech Camp marks the end of the Yellow Trail at its intersection with the Green Trail, which goes left and straight.  The north arm of the Green Trail that heads left provides the shortest route back to the trailhead, but to see the summit of Mount Pisgah, continue straight to begin the south arm of the Green Trail.
            The Green Trail goes on and off an old dirt road as it heads south with the mountain rising to your left.  The orange paint on selected trees up here marks the park boundary, which lies immediately to your right.  At 1.6 miles, the trail curves left and ascends directly up the hillside to reach the summit of Mount Pisgah.  Though Mount Pisgah is the highest point in the park, the flattish summit and dense forest dominated by oak trees prohibit any views.
Summit of Mount Pisgah
            After curving right at the summit, the trail continues its southward course and descends moderately.  Some pine trees make an appearance when you reach the top of a cliff line at 1.9 miles, where the trail curves sharply left.  After a brief level section, you curve right and descend very steeply through a gap in the cliffs.  Bring a hiking staff to use as an extra leg and help maintain your footing here.
Approaching the cliff line from above
            Now below the cliff line, the trail curves left, levels out, then curves left again to ascend somewhat steeply but only for a short distance.  Some more descending (gradual this time) brings you to the intersection with the north arm of the Green Trail at 2.2 miles.  Turn right to descend some switchbacks on somewhat steep and eroded trail.  At 2.5 miles, you reach the end of the Green Trail and close the loop.  Turn right to hike the common entrance trail back to the parking area and complete the hike.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Russell Cave National Monument (Blog Hike #507)

Trails: Ethnobotanical and Chief Toochester Trails
Hike Location: Russell Cave National Monument
Geographic Location: northwest of Bridgeport, AL (34.97856, -85.80977)
Length: 1.6 miles
Difficulty: 6/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: March 2015
Overview: A mostly paved but steep loop featuring historic Russell Cave.
Hike Route Map:
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: 4.2 miles south of the Tennessee state line, take US 72 to CR 75; there is a sign for Russell Cave National Monument at this intersection.  Turn west on CR 75.  Drive CR 75 1 mile to CR 98 and turn right on CR 98, as directed by another monument sign.  Drive CR 98 3.7 miles to the monument entrance on the left.  Turn left to enter the monument, and park in the only parking lot, the one near the Visitor Center.

The hike: Consisting of only 311 hilly acres in rural northeast Alabama, tiny Russell Cave National Monument is a showcase of human and natural history.  The human history started over 10,000 years ago at the dusk of the Stone Age.  Paleolithic people used the large rock overhang and cave opening as a seasonal home while hunting mastodons and other large game.  Archaeologists have unearthed some of the earliest North American artifacts (spearheads and fishhooks) at Russell Cave’s entrance.
            Later hunter-gatherer tribes used the cave for shelter, leaving pottery shards that prove their presence.  The first man of European descent to live here was Colonel Thomas Russell, a Revolutionary War veteran who moved here from South Carolina in 1813.  The land transferred ownership several more times until it was purchased by the National Geographic Society in 1956.  The national monument was created by Presidential declaration in 1961.
            Although the National Park Service does not give cave tours, Russell Cave remains a popular destination today.  The cave represents an opening into the vast network of underground plumbing that exists within the limestone bedrock of northeast Alabama.  The monument is also a destination on the North Alabama Birding Trail, and over 150 species of birds have been recorded in the park.
            The only way to see the natural and historic attractions the monument has to offer is to hike some of its trails.  The main trail is the 1.2 mile Ethnobotanical Trail that, though paved with asphalt, remains steep for most of its length as it climbs Montague Mountain, which houses Russell Cave.  This hike combines the Ethnobotanical Trail with a lesser-used dirt trail and a trip to the cave itself to give a grand tour of the monument.
Trailhead behind Visitor Center
            From the Visitor Center, walk out the back door and pick up the boardwalk that leads to the cave.  This “boardwalk” is actually made of a grey plastic synthetic substance.  The asphalt trail that exits right is the start of the Ethnobotanical Trail, and we will come back to it in a few minutes.  For now, follow the boardwalk all the way to the cave.
            As you approach the cave, two entrances appear.  The large entrance on the left is used by Dry Creek, the water of which rushes from the above ground into the underground.  The boardwalk uses the right entrance and makes a short loop around some exhibits.  If you come late in the evening, you may see some bats flying in or out of the cave.  Unfortunately, the bat colony at Russell Cave has been diagnosed with white-nose syndrome, a deadly disease that is spreading rapidly across the United States’ bat population.
Entrance to Russell Cave
            After viewing the cave, retrace your steps to the beginning of the Ethnobotanical Trail, and turn left to leave the boardwalk and begin the asphalt trail.  The trail immediately begins climbing and quickly comes to an overlook for a large sinkhole.  Sinkholes form when the roof of an underground cave collapses due to erosion.  Thus, sinkholes constitute above-ground evidence of what lies underground.  This sinkhole is deep enough that it penetrates the underground water tables, and thus water can be seen in the bottom of the sink.
            The trail continues climbing past the sinkhole and, 0.35 miles into the hike, forks to form its loop.  The climb is easier if you turn left here and use the right trail as the return route, and this trail description will do exactly that.  The trail heads south as a large number of limestone outcrops appear all around the pavement.  At 0.5 miles, the dirt Nature Trail comes in from the right.  The Nature Trail gives a shorter option for people who do not want to do any significant climbing, but conditioned hikers will continue straight to hike the full loop.
            At 0.6 miles, you pass the first of nine oak benches (5 going up, 4 coming down) that have been built along this trail by the Volunteers from Sand Mountain.  The climb up Montague Mountain begins in earnest just past this first bench.  With its seemingly endless number of switchbacks, this trail is an engineering marvel: it winds its way around rock outcrop after rock outcrop, heading upward all the way.  Concrete “planks” carry you over small streams.  Large trees include oak and tulip poplar.
Asphalt trail and bridge
            0.9 miles into the hike, the trail reaches its highest elevation, which is roughly 400 feet higher than the Visitor Center.  This point seems to be an arbitrary point on the hillside, for Montague Mountain rises another 600 feet to your left.  Also, although you have gained significant elevation, no clear views emerge.
Rock outcrops on Montague Mountain
            The route down is just as interesting as the route up but slightly steeper.  Some squirrels and chipmunks scurried around the leaf cover as I approached, but I did not see any unusual wildlife or birds.  At 1.3 miles, the other end of the short Nature Trail exits right, and at 1.4 miles you reach the unsigned start of the Chief Toochester Trail, which exits left as the pavement switches back to the right.  Both the paved Ethnobotanical Trail and the lesser-used dirt Chief Toochester Trail head back to the parking lot, so the choice is yours.  For a little more adventure and to get off the pavement, this description will turn left to begin the Chief Toochester Trail.
            The Chief Toochester Trail is the monument’s newest trail, and it starts by following a two-track dirt path that appears to be an old road.  The trail is named for a Cherokee Indian Chief who once owned this land as an Indian Reservation.  Just shy of 1.5 miles, you pass a rectangular concrete structure that appears to be part of the park’s utilities.
            When you reach another dirt road, you need to turn right and head downhill on a moderate, slightly eroded grade.  At the bottom of the hill, turn right again to begin following a power line clearing.  Neither of these turns are marked, and some blazes would really make this trail easier to navigate.  As the park entrance road comes into sight, a final left turn and brief descent will return you to the parking lot to complete the hike.