“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien

"Everybody dies. Not everybody really lives."

The saddest sound in the world is a man saying, "I wish I'd have done that."

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Cane Creek Canyon Nature Preserve

Just south of Tuscumbia, a large swath of wild streams, box canyons, waterfalls, rock shelters and sandstone bluffs remains nearly as pristine and wild as it did centuries ago. The fact that this remarkable piece of natural beauty is still unspoiled is largely due to an equally remarkable couple.

Jim and Faye Lacefield, retired educators, bought a 40-acre tract of land in 1979 and have gradually added to that original purchase, keeping the land in its natural state, and today their Cane Creek Canyon Nature Preserve encompasses 700 acres. Their foresight has ensured the preservation of a good portion of Cane Creek Canyon, a rare environmental wonder amidst a sea of farms and houses that Jim says shows up on Google Earth “like a deep green ribbon surrounded by brown fields and roads”.

Even more remarkable, the Lacefields have chosen to share this natural wonder. Their land is open to the public, seven days a week, no charge. I asked the couple why they share this haven with others. “Land should not be hoarded by fortunate people who happen to own it,” Faye says. “This is our contribution to the community.” Their goals are for the land to be used for education and recreation, far different goals than many forest landowners, whose primary use is often for timber. Jim says that they are “modeling an alternative to the materialistic view” of land usage. The Lacefields have ensured the land’s permanent protection by signing a conservation easement with The Nature Conservancy of Alabama.

This generous philosophy unlocks an area of incredible Alabama wilderness. The diversity of the Preserve is astounding: 60-foot waterfalls, wetlands, sparkling streams rushing through boulder-strewn notches, sunny glades, sheer canyon walls and towering cliffs overlooking seas of hardwood forests. The canyon itself is steep and deep, in some places as much as 350 feet from the rim to the clear blue-green waters of Cane Creek.

Jim says that the Preserve hosts a large variety of wildflowers, plants and ferns, including the rare French’s Shooting Star, a wildflower that grows only beneath sandstone overhangs and whose only known Alabama population is in the canyon. Even on our visit on a cold December day the lushness of the canyon is evident and we find ourselves hiking through thick patches of mosses, woodland ferns, Allegheny spurge and foamflowers. Beginning in March and through early summer, mountain laurel, trout lily, lady’s slippers, yellow-fringed orchids and other wildflowers bloom and carpet the canyon.

Jim takes us back into a narrow box canyon called Devil’s Hollow that features a huge amphitheater-sized half-circle rock shelter named Yellowwood Falls. It is beautiful. Cold water showers off the sandstone rim above, splashing into a tiny crystalline pool that is ringed with verdant moss and ferns. Research indicates that these rock shelters were occupied more than 10,000 years ago by Paleo-Indian hunters and it’s easy to see why they would have chosen to stay in this magical spot.

A quarter mile or so further the canyon dead ends at Karen’s Falls, yet another picturesque cascade. The water plunges thirty feet, splashing against a thin shelf and falls another ten feet into a narrow rocky stream.

Jim takes us down another trail and we stop in front of a large sandstone outcropping where he relates a very convincing story about sighting a mountain lion atop the boulder two years ago. Given the rugged isolation of the canyon we have no reason to doubt him. Deer abound here and bald eagles have been sighted.

Eleven miles of trails provide access to even the most remote areas of the Preserve. Many of the trails are former logging roads; some are narrow paths that Jim and Faye blazed, so your choices range from easy to moderate to strenuous. Although the terrain is steep and some trails are challenging in places, many of the logging trails have bridges and are relatively flat providing easy access for the elderly and disabled. The trail network allows you take a short jaunt or stitch together day-long multi-mile treks into the deep recesses of the canyon. Thankfully, the trails are clearly marked so it’s easy to find your way. There are several primitive camping sites and a picnic area with a covered day shelter.

Either way, a short jaunt into the woods or an overnight backpack, Cane Creek Canyon is a wonderful taste of one of Alabama’s most unique and unknown natural areas.

Directions to Cane Creek Canyon Nature Preserve:  From. U.S. 72 in Tuscumbia: At the Colbert County Farmers' Co-Op, turn south onto the access road and go down the hill to Frankfort Road. Turn left, go 7.25 miles. After passing Piney Grove Church of Christ on the right, go ¼ mile and turn right on Loop Road (Colbert 41). Go one-tenth of a mile and veer left onto a gravel road. Follow the gravel road past the chicken houses to the Lacefields' Spanish-style house.  The preserve is open daily, sunrise to sunset.  For details, call 256-381-6301
(This article originally appeared in the Huntsville Times)

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