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
Length: 1.7 miles
Difficulty: 6/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: March 2015
Overview: A mostly paved but steep loop featuring historic Russell Cave.

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.

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