Friday, October 30, 2015

The Coosa Trail - Intense

Follow the yellow blazes through this loblolly plantation, because the blazes are your guide..  In places like this there was no detectable trail.

"Florida or Bust" - Days 35 and 36

The Coosa Trail was opened just a couple years ago and it's a great addition to the long-distance route between the Florida Trail and the Pinhoti.  But it's not for the feint-at-heart.  This 11-mile off-road route is intense in many ways.

First of all the terrain is severe and rugged.  It runs through a large tract of Wildlife management land on the north shore of Mitchell Lake.  Elevations range only between 350 and 650 feet, but the topography is riddled with steep sided ravines--intense terrain.  And the trail makes no apologies about going right up those steep sides when it's necessary.   There are often switch-backs, but even those are steep.

And the difference between the ridge tops, an example of which is shown above, and the ravines is intense too.  Down in the shadiest of them the trail plunges into rhododendron tunnels reminiscent of the Appalachian Trail in the south and mid-Atlantic.

The intensity of the plant-life includes some of the biggest leaves I've seen on the aptly named big-leaf Magnolia (here shown with size XL shirt number 23, hat and size 12 volt-green Crocs for size comparison).

The intensity of the scenery ranged from barren scrub to almost tundra-like in clear-cut areas where longleaf pine is being restored ...

... to lake-side hardwood forest going through its intense fall color change.

There's even a new shelter beside Lake Mitchell, apparently installed just this summer, with a killer view.

The trail register at the adjacent campsite had only six entries, and two of those were written by people who came in by boat.  The trail is intensely lonely.  My entry was the first one in five months.

And there were places where it was evident that nobody had hiked through since spring.  A full summer's growth was crowding in, untrampled.  The general lack of use made the trail extremely hard to follow in places.  Finding the next blaze required intense concentration.  A couple dozen times I would lose the blazes and have to backtrack or stand at the last blaze in sight and look every which way to find the next one.  The turns were sometimes abrupt and counter-intuitive.

There was one place where I had to forge ahead blindly before I spotted the next blaze buried in the midst of a swale overgrown with blackberry thorns.  Leaving the last blaze behind, there seemed a more obvious route following a semi-cleared fire break, but since I saw no blazes up that route I started looking in other directions until I spotted the dead tree in the brush with the blaze.  Can you see it.

The trail had made two turns - onto the fire break and then off it after a hundred yards, and neither of these turns was marked.  Worst of all for future hikers is that the dead tree that the blaze in the picture above sits on is so rotten that it nearly fell over when I tapped on it.  By spring it will by lying useless on the ground.  Unless the dedicated maintainers from the Alabama Trail Hiking Society can work some magic, hikers are going to get lost.  The GPS Coordinates of the above photo are  32.8747° N, 86.3704° W.

I've made a big commotion about one blaze in order to give it the attention it needs, but that was only one blaze out of what was surely a thousand or more.  I want to repeat that the trail is excellently blazed and ready to hike.  Footpath on steep side-hills has been graded in most places, and there are hiker signs with arrows at road intersections and crossings and significant turns.

The thing this trail needs is some hikers!  A little more trampling and everything will be fine.  And I urge hikers to try it.  The Coosa Trail is well worth the extra time it takes to negotiate.  I averaged 1.3 miles per hour, but I wasn't hurrying--I set aside an entire day to do this eleven miles.  If the intensity gets too extreme, just pause and genuflect before this "Christ the Redeemer (as in Rio de Janeiro)" look-alike, naturally crafted by fire:

A little prayer never hurts, right?

The road walk from West trailhead of the Coosa Trail up to Flagg Mountain has an intensity to its rural beauty as well.  Old Alabama was on display

And if you keep your eyes open as you walk up CC Camp Road, about a mile up from CR16, you can spot the tower on top of Flagg Mountain.

It's there, readily seen by the naked eye, but only for a moment as you pass this spot.  And here's the 40x zoom telephoto shot, taken from the same position to prove it.  The tower is not open to the public yet, so this is the best view you can expect.

But blink and you'll miss it, as you will the next blaze on the Coosa Trail itself.  Be Intense.  Think Intense.  Here is a trail where it pays to have every sensory and mental faculty on "max" - Live Intense!  And enjoy!

Here's a map of this wonderfully intense hike - including, as always, links to many more photos:

The Coosa Trail at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in Alabama

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Finished the Pinhoti Trail

"Florida or Bust" - Days 32, 33, and 34

Big milestone!  I've now hiked the Pinhoti Trail end-to-end, all 335 miles of it.

It went by too fast.

It was so much fun that I want more.

If that's not endorsement enough, let me spell it out:  The Pinhoti is first class hiker trail.  I highly recommend it as an extension of the Appalachian Trail, whether it is formally named part of the AT or not.  I recommend that hikers who have the time, particularly early in the season, start their AT trek in, say, early February by hiking the Pinhoti.  Consider it a warm-up.  By the time you hit the AT in mid-late March, you'll be a seasoned veteran and already in shape.  You'll have a distinct advantage over those nobo newbies and thru-hiker wannabes.

But the Pinhoti is more than a preamble or a warm-up for the AT.  It has a distinct personality of its own.  It's far less traveled.  It would be a shame to see it trampled the way the Georgia AT is.  It has those quirky turkey track blazes, and it passes through some different ecosystems--particularly the distinctive, fire-dependent longleaf pine savanna.  It's an Appalachian experience that the AT doesn't provide.

On my completion day I hiked just five miles--the newly opened trail around Flagg Mountain.  The land for this piece of trail was just purchased in 2011 by the State of Alabama through its 'Forever Wild' program.  But the local hiker enthusiasts of the Alabama Hiking Trail Society have been a busy bunch.  The trail is already up and running and open for business.  The southern terminus trailhead has that big sign and a bigger pavilion, the edge of which can be seen in the photo above, and they've already established a primitive campsite and built a cute little shelter that sleeps two comfortably.

The shelter register only dates back to May 2015.  There were just six pages of entries. 

The entry before mine mentions hanging up an antlered deer skull over the door.  They didn't mention the resident insect patrol, but he was on duty on the rainy day that I stopped in.

Also along this five miles of trail I passed through a grove of Piedmont Rhododendron--first time I've been aware of this species, though I might have missed it because it's easy to mistake for the much more common Mountain Laurel.

There was a short section of fine old rock work--this bit of trail must have been an old CCC trail.

And I finally saw some real turkey tracks.  Mind you, I saw dozens of wild turkeys, but it's been bone dry and tracks left in dust don't 'take' well and generally don't last long.

I continued playing with shirts and hats.  You've already seen the message on Shirt number twenty-one up top.  Here's my message on Shirts number eighteen and nineteen.

Eighteen was on display on Rebecca Mountain where the trail follows the last of the linear ridges.  But on the following day the road walk down to Weogufka (north side of Flagg Mountain) found me walking beside a line of low hills, visible behind the shirt.

The road walk also took me past a friendly horse, a disrespected witch, a diminutive yellow flower, a viney brilliant red one, and the first of the Great Eastern Trail yellow blazes that I've seen.

So that was a bit of a picture show.  I take lots of photos and generally post only a selected few here.  The best of the rest of the crop can be seen by following the links on the map below.  EveryTrail, don't fail me now!

Pinhoti Trail - Bulls Gap to southern Terminus at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking near Birmingham, Alabama

Walking the technicolor woods

"Florida or Bust" - Days 30 and 31

The cool weather of last week has triggered fall color change here in east central Alabama, and the woods were ablaze.  It's a special time to be hiking--a color display so vivid that sometimes startles you when you round a bend on a dry hillside ...

... or pass by a quiet lake.

The majority of this section followed ridges, though, and there was one grueling rocky section a couple miles long that is so tough that the Pinhoti 100 endurance trail run (to be held November 7th this year) opts out and follows the dirt road, FS 600, that parallels the trail through nearly all of the two sections covered in this report (sections four and five).

The weather continued dry and mild.  There were some excellent viewpoints at rocky outcrops, and at this particular one I felt closer to the puffy clouds than to the ground.

I notice that the mountains are dwindling away.  Most of them are just long, straight hills now, and the few 'lumps' don't scrape the clouds like they would in the Smoky's.  The southern terminus of the Pinhoti Trail is getting close.  In this shot from a power line clearing, looking SSW, I think the distant mound, just below the lowest power line, is Flagg Mountain, the actual site of the southern end of the trail.

When I wasn't otherwise occupied by the fall color or the fine weather and views, I was up to my antics with my collection of shirts again, dreaming up labels or slogans.  On Day 30 I wore my best 'pre-made' hiking shirt, shown as the headline photo up top.  Here's what it says on the back:

On Day 31 I was wearing shirt number seventeen, trying to be invisible.  But when I tried to adjust hat number seventeen, my shadow gave me away.

Note that the tree I used as a model for shirt number sixteen has two Pinhoti markers nailed to it.  Some trees don't seem to mind having metal tags, others try to eat them alive.

At the end of the day of rocky trail (between Porter's Gap and Adam's Gap) I felt spent and exhausted after hiking fifteen miles.  The next day, on thesection between Bull's Gap and Porter's Gap, there is some of the best cut trail I've seen anywhere.

It was patiently and neatly built, four to six feet wide, level, smooth, and gently sloped with more than ample switch-backs to ease the climbs.  I hiked eighteen miles that day and actually felt invigorated when I finished.  I wanted to hike more.

Well, there is more, of course, so watch this space.

Below is a map of the two hikes with links to all the photos I though were worth the pixels they're filling.

Pinhoti Trail, sections 4 and 5 at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in Alabama

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Cheaha Wilderness - Crown Jewel of the AL Pinhoti Trail

"Florida or Bust" - Day 29

The Cheaha Wilderness encompasses a high rocky ridge just to the south of Alabama's Highest point.  The Pinhoti Trail travels its length. 

Passing beneath this whimsical arch at the north end, the hiker with enough stamina to do it all on a day as clear as this will be richly rewarded.  I counted ten rocky outcrops with excellent vista points like the one shown above.  Here's just one more example, looking south to the vista point shown above:

The hiker who is fortunate enough to wander these woods in late October gets the added benefit of the fall color change.  The red maple 'Acer rubrum', is a notable star performer all across the eastern US.  Here one little tree shows much of this species' magnificent color palate.  I've never seen this before--such diverse coloration on a single tree.

Many of the trees were just beginning to change color.  As seen from the vista points, the predominant color is still green.  But there was one notable exception.  The sourwood, 'Oxydendrum arboretum,' stood out with its pale pink-red to blazing deep red.

Also seen today was this little lichen and moss 'Garden on a Log'.  It's not all about grand vistas.  Sometimes the tiniest scenes paint the prettiest picture.

And lastly, when I turned over a rock, look who showed up.  A red salamander 'Pseudotriton ruber'.

This guy was five inches long and is one of the most primitive species - it has no lungs or gills.  It breathes only through its skin.

This was a memorable day for me--so much to see.  I only hiked this eleven mile section but that was plenty - the time and miles melted away like sweet butter.

Below is a map of the route, with links to photos from every vista, more leaf color photos, etc.

Pinhoti Trail - The Cheaha Wilderness at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in Alabama

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

A fall ramble, hiking at its best

Reflections on the autumn woods.

"Florida or Bust" - Days 27 and 28

There's nothing quite like the early fall for being in an Appalachian forest.  There's a riot of new colors but the canopy still feels alive.  In a few weeks branches will be bare and the woods will have gone into hibernation.  There are still fall flowers.  Next to witch hazel, the Bottle Gentian is among the latest to bloom.

The autumn sky is as blue as it gets.

Humidity and temperature are down, but it's still warm enough to hike in shorts and a t-shirt.  Leaves have started to fall, adding another sensory input--the crunch of fresh dry leaves.  On this footbridge the new accumulation was apparent.  There are so few hikers on the Pinhoti trail that they hadn't been trampled or swept away.

Maybe the only down-side is that all the sunny dry weather has stolen the thunder from some of the waterfalls.  This cascade showed me nothing but its potential.

On the other hand, it makes rock-hopping even the biggest streams a cinch.

These are days to treasure.  The Pinhoti Trail has been good to me.  Thank's 'Turkey Track'!

Turkey oak leaf with the metal 'turkey track' trail marker and the standard blue blaze of the Alabama Pinhoti Trail.

Next I will pass through this magic portal and into Cheaha Wilderness.  Cheaha is Creek-Indian for 'High Place' and this will be some of the last hiking I do above 2000 feet as I make my way toward Florida.  All the more reason to keep all senses alert.  Stay tuned.

Below is a map of the two day autumn ramble with links to more photos:

Pinhoti Trail - FS 518 to Cheaha Trailhead at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in Alabama