“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)

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