Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve: Quarry and Overlook Trails (Blog Hike #551)

Trails: Quarry and Overlook Trails
Hike Location: Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve
Geographic Location: east side of Birmingham, AL
Length: 3 miles
Difficulty: 5/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: October 2015
Overview: An out-and-back to a fantastic overlook of downtown Birmingham.
Preserve Information: http://ruffnermountain.org/

Directions to the trailhead: On the east side of Birmingham, take I-59 to Oporto Madrid Blvd. (exit 131).  Exit and go south on Oporto Madrid Blvd.  Drive Oporto Madrid Blvd. 0.7 miles to Rugby Ave. and turn left on Rugby Ave.  (Alternatively, take I-20 to Oporto Madrid Blvd. (exit 132) and go north 1.5 miles to Rugby Ave.)  Drive Rugby Ave. 0.7 miles to 81st Street and turn right on 81st Street81st Street deadends at Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve.  Leave a donation at the preserve entrance and park in the only parking lot.

The hike: Located on the east side of Birmingham between I-59 and I-20, 1225-foot Ruffner Mountain stands as the main guardian of the city’s eastern gates.  During Birmingham’s early days in the late 1800’s, the mountain was more valued for its industrial resources than its scenery.  Numerous iron and limestone mines operated on the mountain, and the ore they produced helped fuel Birmingham’s bountiful steel industry, which earned the city the nickname The Pittsburgh of the South.
            The mines shut down in the late 1950’s, and in 1977 a grassroots community movement formed the Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve.  Today the preserve protects 1038 acres on its namesake mountain, and over 12 miles of trails traverse the preserve.  The only other amenities at the preserve are an amphitheater and a Nature Center.  The preserve’s most famous site is its Hawk’s View Overlook of downtown Birmingham, which is accessible only by trail.  At its core, this hike is an out-and-back to the overlook, but some other options to form semi-loops are described at the end.
Start of the Quarry Trail
            From the front of the Nature Center, pick up the white-blazed Quarry Trail as it ascends Ruffner Mountain on a gradual to moderate grade.  The wide Quarry Trail is the preserve’s main trail in the sense that most of the preserve’s other trails branch off of it.  On point, the Geology Trail quickly exits left just before you pass a small limestone rock outcrop.  The Geology Trail passes several unusual limestone rock outcrops; this one looks like a big mushroom.
Limestone outcrop
            The Quarry Trail levels off before dipping slightly to cross an asphalt road.  This road services the fire tower and communication towers atop the mountain, and a secondary trailhead with an information kiosk lies just beyond the road.  The Hollow Tree Trail then exits left to climb to the ridge crest.  The Hollow Tree and Quarry Trails come back together in 0.3 miles, so the choice is yours.  The ridge crest offers no views, so this description will stay on the easier and more straightforward Quarry Trail.
            At 0.4 miles, the Hollow Tree Trail reenters from the left just before you reach a small saddle where the Ridge and Valley Trail exits left.  The Ridge and Valley Trail is the preserve’s hardest trail: it features more than 1000 feet of elevation change as it repeatedly goes up and down Ruffner Mountain’s ridges and valleys.  This description continues southwest on the Quarry Trail.
            The remainder of the Quarry Trail stays at or near the ridge crest.  Interpretive signs point out the various trees of the forest, which is a mixture of broadleaf deciduous and shortleaf pine trees.  Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve has a local reputation for being dog-friendly.  Indeed, nearly everyone I passed on my Saturday morning hike had at least one dog on leash.  Plan a weekday visit if you want more solitude, but note that the preserve is closed on Mondays.
Hiking the Quarry Trail
            The narrow spur trail to the Jimmie Dell White Overlook soon exits right, but the view is almost completely blocked by trees except in winter.  After the green-blazed Silent Journey Trail exits right, the trail curves left to descend moderately toward a low point in the ridge.  The dark red iron-rich soil for which Birmingham is famous becomes fully apparent under foot here, and near-constant highway noise and train bullhorns remind you that the city is near.
            At 1.2 miles, you reach Gray Fox Gap, which marks the end of the Quarry Trail and a major trail intersection.  The south end of the Silent Journey Trail exits sharply right, while the south end of the Ridge and Valley Trail exits sharply left.  The Overlook and Possum Loop Trails start at the other side of the gap.  To head for the preserve’s main attraction, pick up the Overlook Trail as it climbs moderately out of Gray Fox Gap.  This part of the Overlook Trail is marked with paired red and yellow blazes.
            The trail gains almost 100 feet of elevation to arrive at an overlook called the Cambrian Overlook.  This northwest-facing viewpoint provides a great view of the largest of several abandoned limestone quarries that operated on the mountain.  Vertical mining cuts can be seen in the quarry walls and floor, and the punctuated knobs of north Alabama’s hill country can be seen in the distance to the right.  Past the Cambrian Overlook, angle left and continue climbing toward the big prize.
Old quarry at Cambrian Overlook
            1.5 miles into the hike, you reach the famous west-facing Hawk’s View Overlook.  You can see the entire city of Birmingham from here.  The tall buildings of downtown Birmingham take center stage, while Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport lies to the right.  The long ridges of Birmingham’s south side rise to the left.  This postcard view makes Ruffner Mountain to Birmingham what Georgia’s Stone Mountain is to Atlanta or what Lookout Mountain is to Chattanooga, so spend some time up here and enjoy the view.
Downtown Birmingham, as seen from Hawk's View Overlook
            The Overlook Trail continues a short distance to 1105-foot Sloss Peak, but the peak is wooded and offers no views.  To return to the trailhead, you could retrace your steps along the Quarry Trail or choose the Silent Journey and/or Hollow Tree Trails for a change of scenery but little added distance or difficulty.  The Silent Journey is a nice narrow forest trail, while the Hollow Tree Trail takes you to the communication towers and past a small spring.  You could also tack on the 1.8 mile Possum Loop Trail, which loops around the quarry area and includes a trip to the old quarry entrance. 
For a bigger challenge, try the Ridge and Valley Trail or the Crusher Trail, which features an old iron mine.  Several easy trails stay near the Visitor Center.  For more nice views, a trip along the asphalt road to the restored fire tower might be in order.  Many options are present, so pick whatever option suits your fancy to conclude your day on Ruffner Mountain.

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