Over the Thanksgiving holiday, Melanie and I visited family in Huntsville, AL with the specific goal of going on a nice hike someplace around there. November tends to be a sweet spot for hiking when mosquitoes are dead, air is cool but not cold and many waterfalls are flowing nicely.
Earlier in the year while doing research on the TAT, I ran across a reference to Virgin Falls. A few mouse clicks brought up a couple images and a description of a falls that emerges from a cave, drops 110 feet and disappears into another cave. Cool! Sold.
Usually day hikes like this are easy to set up but in this case it took a little more effort. You see Virgin Falls is not in a state or national park but instead sits in a wilderness area. The best information I got was from the Sparta Chamber of Commerce 931-836-3552. They were able to give me accurate-to-the-week information on how strong the falls were flowing and the conditions on the trail (falls flowing nicely and no flash floods in the creek). This was important to me as the trailhead is a long drive from Huntsville.
We are used to getting up early to run so it wasn’t a problem hitting the road before daybreak. We estimated a four hour drive to get there, six to eight hours of hiking and a four hour drive back. Our big goal was to be off the trail before it got dark which happens early in the fall and earlier in the shadow of hills.
We made it to the parking area in three hours (shaved off an hour and there was even a bridge out that we had to navigate around) and were delighted that it was turning into a pleasant overcast day that would be perfect for hiking. There were only three other cars in the lot so we knew it wouldn’t be busy on the trail. One was an old blue station wagon beater that looked to have been sitting for a while and probably belonged to some overnighters. There was a monster mega truck still tick-ticking as the massive V-8 cooled. That guy had probably just started his hike. A white Prius belonging to a friendly couple rounded out the trio. These folks were sitting on the bumper booting up when we pulled in. They were from Ohio and they talked to us for a few minutes about their experiences on the trail from last Thanksgiving. They had found out about Virgin Falls at the last minute and on a whim and had tried to squeeze in a hike. Unfortunately they hadn’t been able to make it all the way to falls last time, but they assured us that we would have plenty of time that day and besides the hike itself was really nice. After that they wished us well and were on there way while we unloaded our gear.
The trail and the falls are quite obviously carved out of land set aside for tree farming. During the last leg of the drive and brief glimpses on the trail itself you can see stands of identically-sized pine trees. Don’t misunderstand me, most of the area within view while hiking has been left to grow naturally and is quite nice.
The trail starts off relatively flat and wanders along until it reaches the Big Branch of Big Laurel Creek where we had our first little creek crossing. My brother had loaned us his trekking poles, practically forcing them on us, even though I was making the I-just-drank-sour-milk face. Aren’t trekking poles for sissies and grandparents? Just try them. Ok. Well I can say that they were great! It was just a little crossing but what would have been a balancing act turned into a simple stroll. Time and time again, as we went up and down steep terrain, they not only kept us surefooted but made hiking easier.
Most of the hike to the falls had us paralleling Big Laurel Creek which was really cool. At some points the water would slinky down a cascade of rocks. Other times it would drop and spray and still other times it would be knifed in two by some jutting boulder. All around us were big oak trees but I also noticed other species. I really wish I could remember half the things I learned in that elective forestry class I took. My father-in-law, who is a forester, has mentioned to me that this part of America is the most biodiverse of any place in the US and I noted that the website says that there are more than nine species of tree to be seen – let alone bushes, ferns or animals.
Will Melanie and Jason make it to the falls? Will they get rained on? Will they have a run in with a boar? Tune in next week to find out.