Thursday, April 23, 2015

Chattahoochee National Forest: Sosebee Cove Trail (Blog Hike #513)

Trail: Sosebee Cove Trail
Hike Location: Chattahoochee National Forest
Geographic Location: south of Blairsville, GA
Length: 0.4 miles
Difficulty: 2/10 (Easy)
Last Hiked: April 2015
Overview: A short lasso-shaped loop through an area of high botanical diversity.

Directions to the trailhead: From Blairsville, drive south on US 19/129 9.8 miles to SR 180 and turn right on SR 180.  Drive SR 180 west 3 miles to the signed, paved, roadside parking area on the right for Sosebee Cove.

The hike: Tucked in a tight ravine on the north face of Slaughter Mountain, tiny Sosebee Cove is a treasure of botanical diversity.  The cove’s large trees create the feel of an old growth forest even though all of this area was logged in the early 1900’s.  A wide array of wildflowers and other shade-tolerant plants add to the cove’s interest.
The cove used to contain several hiking trails, but a recent trail reconfiguration left only the single lasso-shaped loop described here.  While certainly not a hiking destination in its own right, Sosebee Cove makes a nice little add on if you come to hike at one of this area’s many premier hiking destinations, which include Vogel State Park, Lake Winfield Scott, Blood Mountain, or Raven Cliff Falls.  I very much enjoyed my short tour through this interesting cove.
Trailhead at Sosebee Cove
From the roadside parking area, descend a short but steep set of wooden steps.  At the base of the steps, you used to have the option of going left and right, but the trail going right is now blocked by a wooden fence.  Thus, you need to turn left and descend gradually on the somewhat narrow trail, which is marked with lime-green rectangular paint blazes.
300 feet later, you pass a large yellow buckeye tree on the right.  The trail curves right as it continues to descend with SR 180 now nearly 20 feet above you to the left.  Just past 0.1 miles, the trail splits to form its loop.  For no particular reason, I chose to turn sharply right and use the trail going straight as my return route, thus hiking the loop counterclockwise.
Descending past large yellow buckeye
The trail continues descending and crosses the cove’s creek on a short wooden footbridge.  At 0.2 miles, you reach the trail’s large wooden dedication sign.  The sign informs you that this trail was built in 1958 as a memorial to Arthur Woody, an early ranger of Chattahoochee National Forest who surveyed large tracts of land including Sosebee Cove.
Bloodroot in bloom
The trail switches back at the sign and descends to its lowest point where it crosses the cove’s creek again, this time without the aid of a bridge.  When I hiked here in early April, large patches of bloodroot were already in bloom, and the trillium looked like they were ready to bloom any day.  Now climbing, another gradual switchback closes the loop, and a short uphill walk brings you back to the parking area to complete the hike.


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.


Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge: Flint Creek Trail (Blog Hike #511)

Trail: Flint Creek Trail
Hike Location: Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge
Geographic Location: east of Decatur, AL
Length: 1.5 miles
Difficulty: 1/10 (Easy)
Last Hiked: March 2015
Overview: A flat double loop through river bottomland habitat.

Directions to the trailhead: In northern Alabama, take I-65 to SR 67 (exit 334).  Exit and go west on SR 67.  Drive SR 67 west 2.8 miles to the refuge’s Flint Creek entrance on the right; this entrance is located just past the refuge Visitor Center.  Park in the only parking lot at Flint Creek.

The hike: Established in 1938 by a declaration from President Roosevelt, Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge protects 35,000 lowland acres near northern Alabama’s Tennessee River.  The refuge is named for Major General Joseph Wheeler, a Confederate cavalry general, elected member of the United States House of Representatives from Alabama, and American army leader during the Spanish-American War.  Fishing and birding are the most popular activities at the refuge, which is a hub of the North Alabama Birding Trail.  The best bird watching months at the refuge are early January for waterfowls and April for spring songbird migration. 
Five trails give hikers access to the refuge, but three of those trails are 1 mile or less in length.  One of the refuge’s longer trails is the Flint Creek Trail described here.  The trail’s location across SR 67 from the refuge’s Visitor Center makes access easy, and the flat terrain ensures a leisurely hike.
Trailhead: Flint Creek Trail
Start at the front of the parking area where the signed Flint Creek Trail heads across the first of two long wooden bridges.  This bridge crosses a wide inlet of Flint Creek about 4 miles south of its mouth at the Tennessee River.  Notice the cypress trees that grow in the inundated areas along this inlet.
Cypress trees along inlet
On the other side of the bridge, the trail passes through a short section of broadleaf forest before crossing another wooden bridge over another inlet, this one shorter than the first.  After crossing the second bridge, the trail splits to form the first of its two loops.  Turn left to hike the first loop clockwise.  All intersections are unmarked, and trail is unblazed for its entire length.  Nevertheless, the path is well-trodden and easy to follow.
The trail heads north back toward Flint Creek and away from busy SR 67.  The noise from the nearby highway marks the only downside to this hike, and it probably also scares away some wildlife.  I did this hike on a mid-afternoon in March, one of the worst times of the year for wildlife viewing here, and all I saw were some common woodland creatures and a pair of titmouses.
The wide creek appears through the brush on the left as you need to negotiate a couple of seasonal wet areas.  At 0.3 miles, you pass an unusual shaped poplar tree on the left.  The trunk seems to lie on the ground for about 10 feet while spawning several branches that are their own trees.
Unusual shaped tree
At 0.4 miles, the first loop ends at an intersection where the main trail goes right and left.  Turning right would take you directly back to the trailhead, but this hike turns left to head for the second loop.  Note that a small pavilion lies straight ahead at this junction.
700 feet later, the trail splits to form its second loop.  Tired of hearing the road noise, I again turned left to hike the loop clockwise.  A few more seasonal wet areas need to be negotiated, and a couple of benches provide opportunities to sit quietly and watch for wildlife.
Wet area on trail
0.8 miles into the hike, you reach the bank of a third Flint Creek inlet as the trail curves right.  A wet woodland appears on the right as lettered posts mark points of interest.  Unfortunately, I could not find a trail guide to interpret the posts.
Wet woodland
At 1.2 miles, you close the second loop.  Continue straight to head back to the first loop, then continue straight again when you intersect the first loop.  A little more flat walking brings you back to the two entrance bridges, which in turn bring you back to the parking area to complete the hike.


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.