Day hiking in North Alabama: Hidden Hikes around Huntsville
Unsuspected Natural Delights
While most people know Huntsville, Alabama for its rich history of engineering and testing rockets with Wernher Von Braun, NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, or maybe even Antoine Dodson, many don't know what great opportunities there are to see the beauty of nature very close to and even inside the city limits. Whether you're just passing through or you live in the area, there are some great places to visit, that in some cases take less than an hour to bring you into another world. Huntsville is remarkably quite bountiful when it comes to state parks and nature preserves including Joe Wheeler State Park, Monte Sano State Park, Hays Nature Preserve, Keel Mountain Preserve, the Land Trust, and many others. I'm only going to scratch the surface of places you could find in North Alabama, so I'll leave you with just a taste of some of my favorite hikes and you can go off and discover more for yourself!
Monte Sano State Park
Probably the most well known by visitors and locals alike, Monte Sano State Park, just east of Huntsville, offers camping, hiking, picnicking, bike riding, and special events year-round. While there are many trails adorning the top and slopes of Monte Sano, one of my favorite hikes has to be the 'Stone Cuts' trail. Located just to the eastern side of the mountain, just east of the most prominent overlook in the park, Stone Cuts is a 3.0 mile hike round-trip with some slight ups and downs and some large boulders to scale. There are a few places with decent views of the surrounding area, but the highlight is the area from which the trail takes its name - a series of tunnels and walls naturally cut in the limestone rock. These features are attractive for kids, climbers, and spelunkers and you'd never think something like this was so close. Take a lunch and enjoy it perched atop one of the sheer faces or in one of the deep cuts.
For those of you into rappelling or spelunking, the south end of the park offers you the Natural Well along the Natural Well Trail. The Natural Well is a 190' vertical chute naturally carved out of the earth and is quite a sight to stumble upon. The top of the Well is protected by a chain-link fence and a rock wall, but for thrill seekers you can tie off and go rappelling into the hole. As evidenced by the groove that has worn into the stone wall from years of rope being lain across it, many people have been into the hole. You do have to have a permit to actually venture into the Well, so make sure you stop by the park office before you plan to go.
The Land Trust - Three Caves
While there are several state and city owned places to hike, there are also trails and land open to visitors owned by the Huntsville Land Trust. The Land Trust is a member sponsored not-for-profit organization that protects natural and scenic areas in North Alabama. The Trust protects over 6,000 acres of land containing over 65 miles of public trails.
One of the more interesting hikes on Land Trust property is located on Monte Sano, below Monte Sano State Park, nestled up against a quiet residential neighborhood nearing the base of the mountain. While there are at least 3 different ways to get to it, Three Caves is a sight to see. Let me say before I go any further, Three Caves has been posted with no trespassing signs from time to time, so be prepared to make a decision once you get there if it is posted. I'm not sure whether this is due to safety concerns or something else, but just be aware.
With that said, I have been there when it hasn't been posted and it's definitely worth seeing.Three Caves as the name might suggest is not a natural cave system - it's actually an old mining quarry that stopped operating in the 1950s and the name comes from the three entrances that were dug out during mining. The derelict room and pillar mine stretches several hundred yards into darkness with up to 60 foot high limestone ceilings and a small lake of shallow water covering the bottom of one giant room. There are rock lined trails and areas of interest markers along the way constructed during an Eagle Scout project. I highly recommend bringing a flashlight as this will allow for much greater exploration of the 'caves'. Even though not a real cave, Three Caves does have some classic cave features such as stalactites and flowstone, and it even has bats! The last and maybe the best feature during a hot summer day is that the 'caves' stay at about 60 degrees year-round and make for a great cool down in the middle of a trek.
The Walls of Jericho
Located only a short drive to the northeast from Huntsville in Jackson County, Alabama, The Walls of Jericho is a great place for a little more strenuous hike, but a chance to get a little farther away from civilization and the view at the bottom is fantastic. The Walls of Jericho got its name in the 1800's after a traveling minister stumbled upon the cathedral-like walls towering nearly 200 feet above his head. The name has stuck and the Walls have been an increasingly popular destination for Tennessee Valley day hikers in the past decade.
The hike down is fairly easy because it's all downhill! You'll also enjoy the hillside views if you go during late fall or winter when the leaves have thinned. I can't say that you'll be enjoying them too much on the way back up because if you're a local flatlander I suspect you'll be gasping for air rather than looking about. While you won't get the view the rest of the year, there's an abundance of flora and fauna to observe as you make your descent.
Reaching the bottom you'll cross a couple wooden bridges that make good photo opportunities and resting spots before you continue on to the namesake. While the entire hike is beautiful, I believe the most interesting features are found within the Walls. Several waterfalls, both trickling and rumbling, cascade around the area and you can even crawl into the mouth of one stream bubbling out of a crevice in the rock wall. *Having said that, I must warn you to be careful when roaming around at the bottom as flash floods can occur rapidly and without warning even with seemingly little rain.* Other highlights include numerous birds and fish, and if you're lucky you might spot a few salamanders slithering about. The area is also known for its variety of very rare mussels some of which only exist in this location! I would recommend planning for at least 6 hours but more if you want to spend a couple hours at the bottom, especially if you're a photographer as the hike is about 6 miles round trip.
And there you have it, a short but adventurous list of hikes that make for great getaways from civilization. As I mentioned above, there are numerous places in the area to see so I hope you'll go explore some for yourself, whether your a local or your just passing through.