Cheaha Wilderness is the first of two wilderness areas in Alabama's Talladega National Forest. The wilderness is named after Alabama's highest peak, Cheaha Mountain. The wilderness is located in the southern half of Talladega National Forest, and is shaped as a thin rectangle east of Highway 281. A large trail systems lies across the wilderness and surrounding areas, making it easy to travel through different portions of the wilderness. One of the trails in particular, Chinnabee Silent Trail, starts at Lake Chinnabee in the western end of Talladega National Forest, and meanders a half dozen miles through the area, with the last 2 in the Cheaha Wilderness, before terminating at the Pinhoti Trail. This hike occurred on Saturday, July 26th, 2014. My plan was to hike the entire Chinnabee Silent Trail from west to east, and return the same way.
The terrain across the Talladega National Forest in Alabama consists of hills and low elevation ridges. It's good to take a break from the higher mountains and hard trails, but... I didn't expect a trail where I had to put a 7/10 difficulty. I haven't done that much hiking in Alabama, but I would say that this trail is much harder than for Alabama standards. The first 4 miles are enjoyable though, but if you are doing this hike solely for pleasure and not for challenge, then you probably wouldn't want to proceed onto the last 2 miles. I'll explain why later.
When you arrive at the Lake Chinnabee Recreation Area, make sure to pay your $3 fee. The sign "DID YOU FORGET TO PAY" at the start of the trail was somewhat amusing. The recreation area is named after Lake Chinnabee, a small lake (about 10 acres) on Chinnabee Creek. The parking area is pretty big and was almost full when I arrived. However, most of the people just go swimming; I saw only two groups of hikers the entire hike. The trail starts at the restrooms at the end of the parking area and passes through the abandoned campground. At the end of the campground, the asphalt turns into a rooty path along Chinnabee Creek, and you'll see a trailside kiosk and a sign with mileage information. The trail starts off flat, but shortly comes to a junction with the Skyway Loop Trail at 0.2 miles.I am not sure why it has the part "Loop" in it,but it is an out and back trail that leads to Adams Gap on the Pinhoti Trail. The only reason I see for the name is that it may be named so because there is a 15 mile loop option combining the Chinnabee/Skyway/Pinhoti Trails. I decided to save the loop or the Skyway Trail for another day. To continue following the Chnnabee, take the left fork. Unlike the Skyway Trail which stays at creek level, the Chinnabee ascends somewhat steeply above the creek. The ascent is not long though; the trail comes to a clearing in the trees and ascends to near the canyon rim. From here, there are great views of a bend in Chinnabee Creek known as "Devil's Den". Devil's Den is a short but rugged canyon that the trail was about to enter. After snapping a few photos, I was off. The trail is somewhat rocky as it rounds the bend, and then crosses a footbridge that clings to the rocky cliffs. At 0.5 miles, the trail reaches the heart of Devil's Den. It descends through a jumble of rocks, and then further down a rickety rock staircase. After this, there were a couple side trails that led down to the creek and its rapids. I didn't bother taking them because the overlook areas was stocked with local folks swimming.
After this, the trail ascends again to another footbridge and passes some rock outcrops and overhangs, before finally descending out of Devil's Den and to creek level. This section of the trail is very rocky as it follows the creek, and is also abundant with campsites. There was a small creek crossing of a tributary, although a wooden plank aided. At 0.8 miles, the trail left Chnnabee Creek for good, and began a gradual ascent out of the valley and onto the surrounding hills. At 1 mile, the trees thinned and some views opened up on the right. You can see some low ridgelines in the near range, but on the horizon, you can see a taller ridgeline. While it seems like it will take over a day to get there, that ridgeline is actually the hike's final destination, believe it or not. Following the overlook, the gradual ascent continued, coming to a close at 1.5 miles. After this, the trail crossed a stream bed and climbed to the summit of a hill. The growth here was a lot of shrubs and low lying vegetation, which made the path narrow and somewhat overgrown. On the other side of the hill, a brief descent was followed by an ascent to another hill. On the descent from this hill, the trail crossed a very old and overgrown road at 2.5 miles. Somehow, Google Maps still lists this as a drivable road... After this, the trail crossed another stream bed, and gently ascended to another hill. It reached the summit at 3 miles, and I was greeted by the Cheaha Falls shelter. It is a sturdy structure for overnight hikes and/or Pinhoti Trail thru-hikers. There were some informational maps nailed to the side of the shelter as well. The best views from the hike were also from this shelter. It was not a well-defined overlook, but the threes were far apart here, and the main vegetation was shrubs and other low-lying vegetation. Thus, there were nice views of the Talladega Mountain ridge now closer, the destination of the hike. The sounds of Cheaha Falls were heard below.
From the shelter, there are a couple paths. Take the one that descends directly from the shelter, and watch for faded white blazes. The descent here was somewhat steeper than from the previous hills, although still gentle. The Chinnabee Silent Trail descended more steeply with a few switchbacks as it approached Cheaha Creek, and it reached the creek at 3.2 miles. The trail crosses the creek by a long, narrow rock slab. No wet feet needed. However, there is no way to tell that there is a waterfall nearby. There's no sign ether. I never figured out how to get to the pool below the falls, but to get to the side of the falls, follow the creek downstream. Unless there is very high water, it's easy to stay dry; there's plenty of large boulders. it's about 100 feet downstream to where you see the large pool ahead. Once you reach the last rocks, the waterfall is on the left. It's not high, but it was pretty, especially with the angle. I estimated a 20-30 foot drop. The pool was certainly inviting for swimming, but no one was here besides a pair of hikers. All the swimmers were at the beginning of the hike. The main break of the hike was here. In about 20 minutes, I decided to continue with the hike.
On the other side of Cheaha Creek, the trail ascends gradually to another hill, and then descends to cross a tributary of Cheaha Creek without problems. At 3.5 miles, the trail reaches an FS Road that is a connector between Lake Chinnabee Road and HWY 281. After this, the trail meanders between hills and across another small stream to reach HWY 281 at 3.9 miles. There's a great view of Cheaha Mountain looking up the road. After the road, the trail descends to yet another small creek and reaches the Turnipseed Campground Road at 4 miles. The shape of the road was dilapidated, but there were a few campers there. After this road, the trail descends past a trailside kiosk with information about the Cheaha Wilderness. Shortly afterwards at 4.1 miles, the trail reached the Cheaha Wilderness boundary. After this, the trail changed drastically; if you've come here just for enjoyment, then it's best to turn around at HWY 281 or the Wilderness boundary as latest. On the other hand, if you are here primarily for challenge, then the last 2 miles might be for you. The trail crosses a larger creek right after the Wilderness boundary. In normal water levels, it is rock hoppable. After this, the next mile is slow but steady ascent, and around 4.5 miles, boulder fields started to make an appearance. At 5 miles, you will hear a creek to your left, but you will never cross it; instead the trail turns sharply right.
Just like a winter may have a textbook change from a warm December to a normal January to a cold February, the ascent in the last mile kept getting steeper but very rationally. I bet you could approximate the amount of feet you climb every 0.1 mile by a linear equation. Anyway, starting from the 5-mile mark, the trail started ascending more steeply through constant boulder fields. At 5.5 miles, the trail crossed a drainage, and then the ascent got really steep. There were several places where the trail went straight up with few switchbacks. The steepest was right at the end, where the trail passed some rock walls and over numerous rocks. Finally, at 4.9 miles, the trail suddenly began to level out, and reached the Pinhoti Trail at 4 miles. There is a large sign and a campsite at the junction, but no good views. Just sporadic views through trees. If you continue forward, you'll be on the Odum Scout Trail, which will bring you to the High Falls Trailhead in 4.5 miles. If you turn left onto the Pinhoti, you'll be travelling north towards Cheaha Mountain, while if you turn right, you will be travelling south towards Adams Gap. Turning right would also be the next step, if you were doing a loop with the Skyway Trail, but for this hike, this was the turnaround point. The ascent in the end was certainly manageable, but it was steep! It took me 10 minutes to get down a section it took me 30 minutes to get up.
In summary, this s a very enjoyable (for the most part) top-class Alabama hike. there's everything from views... to rolling hills... to some views... and even a steep section thrown in for good measure. Just know that f you continue past mile 4, it's mainly for challenge, because there's no big attractions over there. And if you are swimming in the area... go on a hike too! Just the out and back to Cheaha Falls is rewarding in its own, and only 6 miles. Put your backpack on and get to work!
R/T Length of Trail: 12 Miles
Duration of Hike: 6 Hours, 20 Minutes
Difficulty Rating: 7 out of 10
Pros: Water features; some views; swimming holes; more than half of the trail is relatively easy and enjoyable; overnight shelter
Cons: $3 fee; heavy crowds in the beginning; rocky and eroded trail in the first part near Chinnabee Creek; very steep and rocky approaching Pinhoti Trail
Best Season(s) to Hike: Winter
Trail Blaze Color(s): Chinnabee Silent Trail - White (none in Cheaha Wilderness)
Beginning Point: Main parking area in Lake Chinnabee Recreation Area
Directions: From Oxford, AL: Follow AL State Route 21 south to McIntosh Road. turn left and follow McIntosh Road for 3.2 miles. Then, turn right onto Kentuck Road. Follow Kentuck Road for 7.5 miles (it will become unpaved shortly). At the T intersection, turn right onto Cheaha Road, and follow it for 1.1 miles. At the sign for Lake Chinnabee Recreation Area, turn left onto Lake Chinnabee Road. Follow this road for 1.4 miles until you see the lake ahead, and the large parking area on the left. Don't forget to pay!
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