Tuesday, April 21, 2015

DeSoto State Park: Lost Falls and Laurel Falls Trails (Blog Hike #512)

Trails: Lost Falls and Laurel Falls Trails
Hike Location: DeSoto State Park
Geographic Location: northeast of Fort Payne, AL
Length: 2.9 miles
Difficulty: 6/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: March 2015
Overview: An occasionally rocky creekside loop passing three nice waterfalls.

Directions to the trailhead: In northeast Alabama, take I-59 to SR 35 (exit 218).  Exit and go east on SR 35.  Drive SR 35 4.6 miles to CR 89, driving through Fort Payne and climbing Lookout Mountain in the process.  Turn left on CR 89.  Drive CR 89 north 5.5 miles to the paved roadside parking area for Talmadge Boardwalk on the left.  There is room for about 10 cars here, and additional parking is available just up the road at the campground store if the trailhead lot fills up.

The hike: For my general comments on DeSoto State Park, see my hike to Lodge and Indian Falls.  The hike described here is generally regarded as DeSoto State Park’s best hike.  Though only of moderate length and difficulty, this route passes three nice waterfalls on Laurel Creek: Azalea Cascade, Lost Falls, and Laurel Falls.  As with all of DeSoto’s waterfalls, these three waterfalls lie high in Lookout Mountain’s watershed, so you need to plan a hike just after a good rain if you want to see them flowing.  All three waterfalls were in excellent form during my mid-March visit.
Trailhead: Talmadge Butler Boardwalk Trail
            Start on the wooden Talmadge Butler Boardwalk Trail as it leaves the parking area and enters the woods, heading toward Laurel Creek.  This 1000-foot boardwalk was constructed in 1997 to give park visitors bound to a wheelchair access to one of the park’s attractions.  At 0.1 miles, steps heading down and to the right lead to a red-blazed trail that will be our return route.  For now, stick to the boardwalk for its entire length.
            At 0.2 miles, the boardwalk ends at Azalea Cascade.  Though only about 4 feet high, this cascade-type waterfall has an unusual appearance: water cascades around a large boulder sitting in the left side of the creekbed.  Also, because all three of this hike’s waterfalls lie in the same creek, Azalea Cascade is a good early indicator of the water flow.  If this waterfall is dry, then the other two will be as well, and you should save this hike for a day with higher water tables.
Azalea Cascade
            After stepping off the end of the boardwalk, you climb briefly on eroded trail over wooden waterbars to intersect the blue-blazed Lost Falls Trail, which goes right and left.  Turn right to begin heading upstream toward the other two waterfalls.  The trail becomes slightly rocky and rooty as an eight-foot tall cliff line appears uphill to the left.
            At 0.3 miles, the red-blazed Azalea Cascade Trail exits right to cross the creek on a wooden bridge.  Angle left to continue the gradual climb on the Lost Falls Trail.  This climb reaches the low cliff line you saw earlier, and the trail will follow these cliffs for several hundred feet.  An abundance of mountain laurel grows in the ravine to your right.
Hiking below the cliffs
            After ascending through the cliffs, the trail enters a shrubby area of young forest that contrasts with the mature forest of the ravine.  Sweet gum and maple trees are most numerous in the shallow soil up here.  At 0.6 miles, you pass Laurel Falls in the ravine to your right.  The waterfall is hard to see from this trail, but you will get a good look at it on your return route.
            Back on the higher ground, the trail passes through a glade where the treadway becomes bare rock.  Watch for the trail’s blue blazes to keep heading in the right direction.  Just over 1 mile into the hike, Laurel Creek comes in sight again as you approach Lost Falls.  Ironically, although this trail is called the Lost Falls Trail, your best view of Lost Falls will also be had on our return route, the Laurel Falls Trail.
            Now above Lost Falls, the trail comes close to Laurel Creek.  You may be tempted to wade across here, but continuing upstream a few hundred feet through dense undergrowth will bring you to a wooden footbridge that is the trail’s official crossing.  Now on the north side of the creek, the last few hundred feet of the Lost Falls Trail passes through another rocky glade.  This glade is right along the creek, so some wet areas and some pine trees mix in among the rocks.
Rocky glade beside creek
            At 1.5 miles, the Lost Falls Trail ends at a junction with the orange-blazed Laurel Falls Trail, which goes straight and right.  Continuing straight would take you to another trailhead deeper in DeSoto State Park, so you want to turn right to begin your return route on the Laurel Falls Trail.  The Laurel Falls Trail immediately leaves the glade and reenters the woods to begin its gradual to moderate descent back downstream.
            1.7 miles into the hike, the trail seems to fork with both options blazed orange.  The left option by-passes Lost Falls, so you will want to take the right option, which quickly arrives at the waterfall.  Water drops about 6 feet over two ledges into a plunge pool that is large relative to the size of the waterfall.  The cliffs around the waterfall form a nice natural amphitheater, and some rocks beside the trail make nice places to sit, rest, and enjoy the waterfall.
Lost Falls
            Past Lost Falls, the Laurel Falls Trail continues its eastward downstream journey with minor ups and downs.  Scenery alternates between woodland with tall broadleaf trees and rocky glade with short stunted trees.  After crossing a small unnamed stream on bare rock, the orange and silver blazed Campground Trail exits left to head for the park’s campground.  Stay right to remain on the Laurel Falls Trail.
            At 2.4 miles, the short spur trail to the base of Laurel Falls exits right.  This intersection is marked by a rock engraved with the words “Laurel Falls,” but the engraving faces the opposite direction from which you are traveling.  A short slightly steep descent brings you to the base of Laurel FallsLaurel Falls is a 5 foot high ledge-type waterfall; water falls in a single drop onto boulders and then trickles into a small plunge pool.  Mountain laurel frames the falls, hence the name.
Laurel Falls
            Back on the main trail, another 0.2 miles of eastward hiking brings you to a large rock outcrop suitable for scrambling.  Where a wooden sign directs you to turn left for the campground, turn right to remain on the Laurel Falls Trail.
Needle Eye Rock
The boardwalk you started on comes into view on the right as the trail descends steeply to reach a major trail intersection.  Turning right leads to the boardwalk, while continuing straight intersects CR 89 but not at the parking area that contains your car.  Before turning right to go back to the boardwalk, turn left and climb briefly over wooden waterbars to reach Needle Eye Rock, an unusual shaped rock opening that sits among a cluster of large limestone boulders.  After viewing Needle Eye Rock, retrace your steps to the boardwalk to close the loop, then turn left to return to the parking area and complete the hike.


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