Sunday, April 5, 2015

Monte Sano State Park: South and North Plateau Loops (Blog Hike #510)

Trails: South and North Plateau Loops
Hike Location: Monte Sano State Park
Geographic Location: east of Huntsville, AL
Length: 5.4 miles
Difficulty: 4/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: March 2015
Overview: A gently rolling loop with good views from Monte Sano.

Directions to the trailhead: In downtown Huntsville, take I-565 to Washington St. (exit 19C).  Exit onto Washington St., then almost immediately turn right on Pratt Ave.  Pratt Ave. becomes first Bankhead Parkway and then Fearn Street as it climbs Monte Sano.  Drive a total of 4.9 miles from I-565 to reach Nolen Street and turn left on Nolen StNolen St. dead-ends at the park entrance.  Pay the small park entrance fee, then angle right where the road to the park office exits left.  The gravel trailhead parking area is less than 500 feet ahead on the right.

The hike: Established in 1938, Monte Sano State Park protects 2140 acres atop its namesake mountain.  Monte Sano is Spanish for “mountain of health,” a name the mountain earned in the 1800’s when Huntsville residents suffering from diphtheria, cholera, yellow fever, and other ailments sojourned here as a retreat.  The area’s fresh air and mineral springs were renowned for their healthful effects on such diseases.
            The depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built many of the park’s structures, the most famous of which is the stone Monte Sano Group Lodge.  The lodge is available for rent but does not accommodate individual guests.  The lodge will be passed on the loop described here, as will a small museum dedicated to the efforts of the CCC.  The park also features 14 cabins, 11 of which were built by the CCC, and a 59-site campground.
            With 20 trails totaling over 22 miles in length, Monte Sano State Park is one of the top hiking destinations in all of Alabama.  Difficult and rocky trails head down the mountain, but the park’s most popular trails are the South and North Plateau Loops that trace the perimeter of the large, relatively flat summit area.  Thus, these loops allow hikers to gain fantastic views for relatively little effort.  The loops can be hiked separately, but they combine nicely to form the longer 5.4 mile loop described here.
Start of South Plateau Loop
            Start on the white-blazed South Plateau Loop, both arms of which begin at the rear of the parking lot where a wooden sign announces “Hiking Trails Begin Here.”  Choose the left option from this point to begin hiking the loop clockwise.  The well-trodden single-track dirt trail curves left with the park’s cabin road visible through the trees on the left.  Because this land has been parkland for so long, the forest up here is a nice mix of maple, oak, tulip poplar, and sweet gum.
            At 0.2 miles, the trail comes very close to the cabin road where the red-blazed Sinks Trail exits left to cross the road.  Stay right to remain on the South Plateau Loop.  Also, ignore several side trails that lead to the Bucca Family Bike Trail, an alternate path that takes a less scenic southbound route to the same destination as our trail.
            After curving right, the trail crosses a gravel cell phone tower access road before curving left to cross the paved cabin access road.  As you can guess, most of the summit area is highly developed, and the development marks the only downside to this hike, in my view.  After crossing the cabin road, the trail dips and curves right as it passes under a power line twice.  The eastern edge of the summit area, which drops off sharply, comes into view on the left.
Hiking along the gravel road
            At 0.8 miles, you need to turn left as the trail begins following a gravel road.  Several trail shelters built by the CCC sit on the edge of the summit area, which is now much closer to your left.  Each of these shelters offers nice views of the surrounding valleys and hills.
CCC trail shelter
            The trail follows the sunny gravel road and power line clearing for 0.3 miles before exiting it to the left.  Watch for the white paint blazes near this turn.  Note that continuing straight on the gravel road would lead to an abandoned fire tower, which also provides nice views.
            The South Plateau Loop continues south along the eastern edge of the summit area until, 1.6 miles into the hike, you reach O’Shaughnessy Point, the southern tip of the summit area.  Some benches here provide nice places to rest, but some red cedar trees partially obstruct the view.  O’Shaughnessy Point also marks a major trail intersection.  The Bucca Family Trail comes in from the right, the yellow-blazed Mountain Mist Trail exits left, and the orange-blazed Warpath Ridge Trail continues straight and heads down the south face of Monte Sano.  The South Plateau Loop makes a sharp right turn to begin heading northwest along the western edge of the summit area.  Again, watch the white blazes to stay on the correct trail.
View from O'Shaughnessy Point
            The next 1.6 miles are my favorite part of this hike.  The trail stays close enough to the western edge of the summit area to provide near constant partially obstructed views through the trees to the left, and this part of the park is not nearly as developed as the rest of the summit area.  Enjoy the nice views and the solitude.
            At 1.8 miles, the difficult McKay Hollow Trail exits to the left.  The rocky McKay Hollow Trail, which goes partway down the mountain, reunites with this hike at the 3.6 mile mark, so you could choose that route if you want more difficulty and fewer views.  This trail description will keep to the high ground and stay on the South Plateau Loop.
            2.2 miles into the hike, the trail briefly joins the red-blazed Fire Tower Trail to cross a small creek, which flows under the trail through a pipe.  The Fire Tower Trail offers another alternative to the South Plateau Trail, but it stays further from the summit rim than our route.  At 2.4 miles, the short Bog Trail exits right.  True to its name, the Bog Trail leads to an outdoor classroom located next to a small wetland.
Hiking along the western edge of summit area
            The trail curves right, passes the final CCC trail shelter, and crosses several small streams on nice wooden footbridges.  3.2 miles into the hike, you reach another intersection with the Fire Tower Trail.  If you only want to hike the South Plateau Loop, then you should continue straight and close the loop in another 0.3 miles.  To also hike the North Plateau Loop and thus get the full summit tour, turn left and hike the Fire Tower Trail 0.1 miles to its intersection with the blue-blazed North Plateau Loop, which goes left and right.  Turn left to begin hiking clockwise around the North Plateau Loop.
            The North Plateau Loop dips to cross another small stream on another nice wooden footbridge.  There is a pretty waterfall just downstream from the bridge, but be careful where you step: there is also a vertical cliff just downstream from the bridge.  After rising slightly to enter a mown-grass area, the trail passes behind the stone CCC-built Monte Sano Lodge mentioned in the introduction.  You can take a few minutes to admire the structure’s fine construction, but please respect the privacy of the lodge guests.
            At 3.6 miles, you reach a picnic shelter and the first truly spectacular viewpoint on this hike.  This overlook faces south down the length of steep, wooded McKay Hollow to the base of Monte Sano.  Only a few roads and buildings in the distance give signs of the modern world.  The McKay Hollow Trail also rejoins our route from the left at this point.  The picnic shelter provides a nice place to sit, rest, and enjoy the view.
Looking south into McKay Hollow
            The trail curves right to head north and exit the overlook area.  You pass near the park’s disc golf course, then you cross the park entrance road right beside the fee booth and reenter the forest on the other side.  Immediately after crossing the road, the Fire Tower Trail comes in from the right.  Continue straight to remain on the North Plateau Loop.
            Unfortunately, the remainder of this hike stays in sight of development.  The campground comes into view on the right as a paved road, a closed portion of Bankhead Parkway, comes into view downhill to the left.  The uppermost portion of Bankhead Parkway was the original road into the park, but it sees only foot and bike traffic these days.  4.2 miles into the hike, the rocky Cold Springs Trail exits left.
Sidehill trail on North Plateau Loop
            The hike now heads east on nicely constructed sidehill trail that lies less than 20 feet below the crest of the summit area.  At 4.7 miles, the trail curves right as the park’s dome-shaped observatory comes into view on the right.  The old Bankhead Parkway remains in view downhill to the left.
            Just shy of 5 miles, you reach the original park entrance, the small CCC Museum, and this hike’s second fantastic overlook.  This viewpoint faces northeast and overlooks the rural and lightly developed areas northeast of Huntsville.  The high knob in the foreground is Panther Knob, which is also located within the park boundaries, and lower surrounding hills unfold in the distance.  This overlook is accessible by car, so you may or may not be alone here depending on the season.
Panther Knob and view northeast
            The trail leaves the south side of the overlook area before curving right at the gated end of the park’s cabin road.  After dipping through a shallow ravine, you pass a picnic shelter and a park maintenance area.  The park’s campground store lies about 500 feet to the right of this point.  A short distance through an open wooded area brings you to the main park road.  The trail returns to the trailhead parking area immediately after crossing the road, thus marking the end of the hike.

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