“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."

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Walls of Jericho, Alabama

For decades, northern Alabama has had an area that, due to its forbidden access, gained an almost legendary reputation among the region’s outdoors types. Stories have been traded among hunters, hikers, and climbers for years about the incredible natural rock formations, waterfalls and rugged hills and valleys hidden within the 20,000 or so acres of the area. Even the name—which some say was given to the area by a circuit riding preacher in the 1800s who was awed by the near-spiritual ambience of the cathedral-like canyon--carries a certain mystique.

This rugged wilderness, alluringly called the Walls of Jericho, which has been in private hands and off limits to the general public for decades, has been a cruel enigma for area outdoors enthusiasts—a place that acquired an almost mystical aura yet one that could only be experienced at the risk of being arrested for trespassing.

Since my move to Alabama over a decade ago, I would occasionally hear old timers talk about the towering cliffs and hidden canyons of the Walls of Jericho, about Hurricane Creek which runs clear and swift through the canyons, and about the two-hundred-year-old trees that supposedly stand by the hundreds. But I could never (legally) verify the stories--the land has been closed to the public since 1977 when then-owner, Texas oil millionaire Harry Lee Carter, died and the land became entangled in various legal and familial tussles.

As a result, like hundreds of others, I could never experience first hand the wonders I kept hearing about. All that changed in 2002 when the property came up for sale and The Nature Conservancy, a national conservation group, snapped it up in partnership with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Division of State Lands. The state of Alabama opened up the 12,000-acre portion that lies in Alabama (about 9000 acres are in Tennessee) to the public and is gradually adding facilities that enhance the outdoor experience.

What a bargain Alabama got. This huge tract of creeks, heavily forested mountainsides and tumbling waterfalls is spectacular. The centerpiece is a huge bowl-shaped 200-foot wide gorge that on a rainy spring day looks like a setting out of “Lord of the Rings”. Verdant beds of leafy ferns and velvety blankets of moss crowd the steep canyon walls and water splashes and cascades out of jagged fissures and onto flat slabs that overhang each other stair-step style. Standing within the confines of this natural amphitheatre, you feel like you are embraced in a cocoon of mist and rock. I’ve never seen anyplace like it anywhere else in Alabama.

Part of the reason for the uniqueness is the part of the state where it is located. Northeast Alabama doesn’t fit the Alabama stereotype of flat red clay cotton fields and white Gulf Coast beaches. Think of the mountains of east Tennessee or the hills of north Georgia and you’ll come closer to the terrain of northeast Alabama. And the Walls of Jericho exemplify this topography. From the moment you leave the spartan gravel parking lot and begin your descent into the arms of the Walls area your day is dominated by steep hills, rocky overhangs, and flowing creeks.

Don’t go expecting to be surrounded by elaborate infrastructure. There are no restrooms and no water. The minimal facilities consist of two parking lots, a few signs, a 2.5 mile hiking trail and an 8.3-mile horseback riding trail; other than that, you’re on your own. The main hiking trail is moderately rugged, descending in a series of switchbacks into the depths of the canyon. You’ll have to hike around gaping sinkholes and fallen trees and across a couple of creeks to reach the canyon floor. Until recently this involved wading across Hurricane Creek but a new footbridge means dry feet now.

You’ll know you’re near the valley floor when you see and hear Hurricane Creek rushing through the preserve. The creek hugs the steep valley wall on one side and opens up to a broad level field on the other. This flat field offers good camping sites and a place to graze your horses. Past the field the hiking trail begins a slow ascent along the bank of the creek and the going gets a little more rugged. The trail is muddy and narrow and in some spots you are treading a foot-wide path with a sheer cliff rising on one side and steeply falling away to a raging creek on the other. Just about the time you’re wondering if this trip was worth the effort, the canyon walls open up and the waterfall at the head of the bowl is sitting below you. No matter what time of year you visit, the Walls are spectacular. Although the lush springtime greenery is hard to beat, in the winter the Walls at the head of the creek are often a glistening display of ice falls, frozen columns, and icy sheets shimmering hundreds of feet up the canyon walls.

If your closet is packed with saddles and reins instead of hiking boots, you’re going to love this ride. There is a horses-only parking area that feeds directly into a designated equestrian trail that descends steadily to the valley floor. The horse trail and the hiking trails cross each other a couple of times but for the most part, the two groups will not be aware of each other’s presence.

The trip in sounds daunting but trust me, you won’t be disappointed, the Walls of Jericho is a real gem.

The Walls of Jericho is located west of Scottsboro, Alabama near the town of Hytop. Take Highway 79 north from Highway 72 for about 20 miles. The parking lots are located on the left.

(This article originally appeared in the Huntsville Times)

Seven Southern Summits

In the world of extreme adventure one achievement stands out: climbing the seven summits. These are the highest points on the seven continents; Denali in North American, Aconcagua in South America, Asia’s Mount Everest, Europe’s Mount Elbrus, Kilimanjaro in Africa, Mount Kosciuszko in Australia, and Vinson Massif in Antarctica. Those adventurers who stand atop these seven can rightfully boast of an enviable feat.

For those of us who don’t have superhuman endurance and can’t afford $60,000 and six months off of work for a trip up Everest, we must set our sights a little lower. Like bagging the seven southern summits, the highest points in the states of Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, and Tennessee.

Granted, bagging these peaks doesn’t have the same glamour as climbing the real seven summits, but at least you can say you got off the couch and did it. And that’s how I found myself standing atop the highest point in Florida. At least I think it was, according to the map; the hump I was standing on didn’t look much higher than the surrounding countryside. A church steeple off in the distance looked suspiciously taller. Nevertheless, Britton Hill, at 345 feet the lowest high point in the United States, was our first victory in our seven southern summits trek.

I figured attacking these peaks (OK, hills) would be a fun adventure and I enlisted the services of my daughter, Sara, to act as my porter and Sherpa. We quickly discovered that finding the summits was considerably harder than climbing them. Thank heavens for Mapquest because these are not commanding mountains you can see from miles away. Britton Hill, for example, requires some studying to discern that yes, it is higher than the rest of Florida. We climbed up it anyway--or I should say strolled up it, a 500 foot saunter from a nearby parking lot. An inauspicious debut for what we envisioned as a challenging and strenuous quest.

But we figured that we would face some real struggles as we attempted the other states’ peaks. So we headed for our next conquest, Mississippi’s Woodall Mountain. At least it had the word “mountain” in its name. Located just outside of Iuka, barely across the Alabama border, Woodall Mountain is hidden off of a country road. A small sign declaring the mountain as Mississippi’s highest peak points to a gravel road that leads right up to the 806-foot summit. We opened the car door and practically stepped on the US Geological Survey high point marker. The view of the surrounding countryside (you can supposedly see three states from the top) was hidden by a thick stand of trees and radio antennas. We could sight down a cleared power line and barely make out a few fields off in the distance. Oh well, this was still just a warm up, we had some real mountains ahead of us.

Off to Mt. Cheaha, Alabama’s rooftop. This was more like it. Situated in the middle of the Talladega National Forest, Mt. Cheaha is a commanding presence as you drive up to it. At 2,407 feet, it was our highest point yet. Alas, again we were able to drive right up to an attractive stone building that dominates the top. Our only exertion consisted of climbing the steps to the building’s tower to take in the breathtaking view of some of Alabama’s prettiest country. We spent the night in the State Park Lodge where we had a filling meal at the lodge restaurant and finished the day rubbing sore bellies instead of sore feet.

Up at dawn to conquer Brasstown Bald in Georgia. This crag in the Smokies promised to be our first real challenge and we could see it looming in the distance as we approached it. At 4,784 feet, it was the first peak that could legitimately lay claim to being called a “mountain”. We fought disappointment as the road wound towards the top and we feared that this would be another drive up. Fortunately, we came to a parking lot below the summit. For once, we could actually trek up a mountain instead of driving. We would be real mountain climbers, forging a rugged route to the top. Of course, this meant that while we hiked the half-mile trail to the top we had to ignore the shuttle bus that was chugging elderly vacationers and toddlers to the top from the parking lot. But hey, at least we hiked it. And it was worth it, a moderate climb up the mountainside through rhododendron thickets to the summit lodge. The view was tremendous.

Atop the "summit" of Sassafras Mountain
Next summit: Sassafras Mountain, South Carolina, 3,560 feet of grueling, punishing uphill slog. Or not. After burning gas up and down the backloads of Pickens County, with the humped back of Sassafras taunting us through the trees, we finally stumbled on the hidden road sign to the summit in the tiny village of Rocky Bottoms. Once again, a winding and rough road led to the summit which was cloaked in thick stands of sassafrass trees, blocking any view. My visions of achieving hard fought victories in the rugged mountains of the southern Appalachians were rapidly evaporating.

Our quest continued at Tennessee’s Clingmans Dome, the second highest mountain on our list at 6,643 feet. We had heard enough about this popular destination that we knew what to expect: a paved half-mile trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that curves gently to the top where a commanding flying saucer shaped observation platform provides visitors with an above-the-trees view of most of the Smokies. We joined couples pushing strollers, people leading dogs on leashes, and one man with a decided limp in the leisurely amble to the top. The last bit of machismo drained from my body.

The grand finale was Mount Mitchell, North Carolina, the highest point east of the Mississippi at 6,684 feet. This was actually the prettiest peak of the seven. A short trail leads to a stone observation tower and the grave of Dr. Elisha Mitchell, who lost his life on the peak. The trail is about a quarter mile long but we took an alternate route which was a little longer and meandered through a thick conifer forest.

The bottom line: the southern summits trek is a soft adventure, to put it mildly. It’s not disappointing though. You’ll drive through some of the south’s most scenic areas including the Smokies and at least three national forests, stay at lodges and hotels at some of the best state parks and tourist towns. In short, a terrific road trip with plenty of nearby attractions and challenging hiking trails should you want to toughen up your adventure. Most of all, you’ll have an attention-grabbing accomplishment to casually mention back at the office. Just leave out the part about the drive ups.

(This article originally appeared in the Huntsville Times)