Chattahoochee National Forest: Big Falls (First Falls), Second Falls, and Third Falls on Canada Creek, Suches, Georgia
Folks who reside in the north Georgia Mountains are familiar with Woody Lake, a picturesque pond next to Route 60 in the community of Suches. What many of the locals are not familiar with, however, is that the stream that drains Woody Lake drops over four notable waterfalls and through a scenic gorge on its way to the Toccoa River. Three of the waterfalls can be accessed from a trailhead at the end of East Canada Creek Road, at a place where shrinking fields and old silos illustrate that a farm once prospered here. While no official trail leads to any of the waterfalls, getting to them presents only a minor navigational challenge along a series of forest roads and narrow paths worn by fellow hikers. This hike occurred on Saturday, January 21st, 2017. My plan was first to hike from the end of East Canada Creek Road downstream along Canada Creek to Second Falls and Big Falls. Then, I would retrace my steps and follow the creek upstream to Third Falls. I would save the hike to Fourth Falls for another day, as that waterfall is most easily reached from a different trailhead.
Pigeon-Crockford Mountain Wildlife Management Area: Blue Hole Trail to Ellison's Cave and Estelle Mines Loop, LaFayette, Georgia
Ellison's Cave is one of the most famous caves in the US, and for good reason: the cave has the deepest unobstructed underground pitch - the Fantastic Pit - in continental US. While navigating through the over 12-mile long cave requires serious training, skills, and lots of caving equipment, the entrance to the cave can simply be viewed from a hiking trail. Ellison's Cave is just one of Pigeon Mountain's many unique highlights. Another such highlight is the Estelle Mines and Tunnels. Iron ore was mined on the northwestern side of the base of Pigeon Mountain and was transported by rail through six tunnels to the former mining town of Estelle. Operations at the site ceased in 1924, and today, all that remains are some ruins of the town of Estelle and the railroad tunnels. While some of the tunnels have caved in, others are intact and can even be walked through. On this hike, you'll visit both Ellison's Cave and the Estelle Mines, each of which would be a worthwhile destination even by itself. This hike occurred on Saturday, January 14th, 2017. My plan was to hike the Blue Hole Trail from Blue Hole past both the dug entrance and historic entrance of Ellison's Cave to the top of Pigeon Mountain. From there, I would hike the Estelle Mines Loop (a combination of Pocket Trail, Estelle Mines Trail, Bluebird Gap Shortcut, and Bluff Trail) clockwise, passing Pocket Falls and all of the Estelle Mines railroad tunnels.
Mark Trail Wilderness: Jacks Knob Trail to Chattahoochee Spring, Appalachian Trail to Red Clay Gap, and Joel Creek Trail to Joel Creek Falls and Gurley Creek Falls, Hiawassee, Georgia
Folks who live in the Atlanta metro area are very familiar with the Chattahoochee River: one of Georgia's largest rivers and a source of drinking water for many. But where does the river begin? In the North Georgia Mountains near Helen and Hiawassee, where a tiny spring gives birth to a rivulet that is the same Chattahoochee River as the one that feeds Lake Lanier and Walter F. George Lake. The Jacks Knob Trail in Chattahoochee National Forest's Mark Trail Wilderness is the shortest route to the source of the Chattahoochee River. The Chattahoochee Spring isn't the only point of interest in the area, however; two nearby creeks drop off the north side of the Tennessee Valley Divide and form large waterfalls on their way into the Hiwassee River valley. This hike occurred on Saturday, January 7th, 2017. My plan was to hike the Jacks Knob Trail from Jacks Gap to Chattahoochee Gap. After seeing the Chattahoochee Spring, I would hike the Appalachian Trail from Chattahoochee Gap to Red Clay Gap. This is where I would pick up an unofficial side trail north into the Joel Creek valley, visiting Joel Creek Falls and Gurley Creek Falls. I would return to Jacks Gap by walking along Route 180.
Florida Caverns State Park: Beech-Magnolia Trail, Floodplain Trail, and Tunnel Cave, Marianna, Florida
Florida Caverns State Park might be Florida's most famous state park, as it is the only state park with a show tour cave. Nestled in some of Florida's taller hills near the Chipola River, the park has a lot to offer in terms of outdoor recreation besides a public cave tour. The park is home to two trail systems: a smaller nature trail system east of the Chipola River and a longer trail system west of the river, and most people who visit the park to be guided through the cave are not aware of the beauty that awaits a short distance away on the park's trails. Along the short nature trail system, you will pass several limestone bluffs with great views of the Chipola River floodplain, and you will even hike through Tunnel Cave on Florida's only trail that passes through a cave. This hike occurred on Monday, January 2nd, 2017. My plan was to hike counter-clockwise the outermost loop in Florida Caverns State Park's nature trail system, by first hiking the Beech-Magnolia Trail, followed by the Floodplain Trail and Tunnel Cave.
Florida Trail: Thompson House Trailhead to Cathedral of Palms and Shepherd Spring, St. Marks, Florida
St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge is one of the most beautiful natural areas in Florida. Nearly 50 miles of the Florida Trail pass through the refuge, which has a mixture of wetlands, pine flatwoods, palm hammocks, creeks, and even springs and salt water views. Shepherd Spring is one of the major points of interest in St. Marks NWR, and the nearby Cathedral of Palms - a large patch of old growth cabbage palm forest - is a very unique sight. This hike on the Florida Trail visits both of these features using the long way through a variety of ecosystems east of Wakulla Beach Road. This hike occurred on Saturday, December 31st, 2016. My plan was to hike the Florida Trail from the Thompson House Trailhead near US 98 to Shepherd Spring, passing through the Cathedral of Palms. My return route would include much of the same trail, but to make a difference, I would use two high water routes on my way back.
With a size of over 200,000 acres, Tate's Hell State Forest is one of Florida's largest state forests. Its only official hiking trail is the High Bluff Coastal Trail, which traverses pine flatwoods and ancient sand dunes near the Forgotten Coast. In fact, one of the sand dunes is tall enough to provide an elevated view toward the southern end of the forest, where the Gulf of Mexico is just a thin blue sliver. In addition, black bears are common in Tate's Hell State Forest and neighboring Apalachicola National Forest, and on this hike, it is possible to spot this elusive creature or find evidence of its activity. This hike occurred on Monday, December 26th, 2016. My plan was to hike the High Bluff Coastal Loop in a clockwise direction. Along the way, I would take a short side trail to an elevated view of the surrounding terrain and the Gulf of Mexico in the distance.
The Cimarron segment of the Florida Trail runs through the northern edge of the Eglin Air Force Base, in the vicinity of the Yellow River. While at the moment, this trail segment is not part of the official route of the Florida Trail - due to the lack of a bridge across the Yellow River - it is still maintained by the Florida Trail Association and often hiked. The Cimarron Trail passes through several miles of pine flatwoods and other upland ecosystems before dropping down into a Yellow River floodplain swamp, where there are multiple views of the river, a variety of sloughs to see, and a potential swamp slog depending on recent rainfall. This hike occurred on Saturday, December 24th, 2016. My plan was to hike the Cimarron Trail out and back from Highway 85 to the terminus of the trail at the Yellow River.
The Tray Mountain Wilderness is perhaps the least-explored wilderness area in Georgia. The focal point of the wilderness is Tray Mountain, which is one of the highest mountains in Georgia, and the section of the Appalachian Trail that passes over Tray Mountain. South and east of Tray Mountain, however, lies a remote area that has largely been unexplored: the Left Fork Soquee River watershed, which is home to numerous waterfalls. On the south side of the watershed stands Chimney Mountain, a lower peak that has several cliffs with great views but is overshadowed by the taller Tray Mountain only a few miles away. The hike to Chimney Mountain follows an unofficial trail that leads to a panoramic vista that faces Mount Yonah and the Georgia Piedmont. This hike occurred on Saturday, December 10th, 2016. My plan was to hike the unofficial path to Chimney Mountain out and back.
Lula Lake Land Trust & Cloudland Canyon State Park: Cloudland Connector Trail from Nick-a-Jack Road to High Point, Chattanooga Valley, Georgia
Lookout Mountain is a long linear mountain ridge that stretches roughly from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Gadsden, Alabama. Much of the ridge has a relatively constant elevation, and the highest point on Lookout Mountain is in Walker County, Georgia. Simply and appropriately named "High Point", this rise on Lookout Mountain is home to a row of sheer cliffs that provide breathtaking views east and south into Chattanooga Valley and towards Pigeon Mountain and Taylors Ridge. Thanks to the recent acquisition of various tracts of land atop Lookout Mountain by the Lula Lake Land Trust, access to High Point has now been secured, and the 14-mile Cloudland Connector Trail provides the perfect approach into the area. This hike occurred on Saturday, December 3rd, 2016. My plan was to hike the Cloudland Connector Trail from Nick-a-Jack Road to the High Point gated service road. From there, I would follow the closed road and then a short path to the summit of High Point and an excellent vista. I would return the same way.
In the Valley and Ridge Province of northwest Georgia, Rocky Face Mountain is the home of a battle from the Civil War: the Battle of Dalton in 1864. Near the north end of Rocky Face Mountain is the grave of George W. Disney, a Confederate soldier who was killed during the battle, and whose grave was discovered by a group of boy scouts in 1912. Today, the George W. Disney Trail, in memory of the fallen soldier, is a short but steep trail (that is actually referred to as the steepest short trail in the state) that leads past the grave and to a pair of rock outcrops with beautiful views into the heart of the "Valley and Ridge". This hike occurred on Saturday, December 3rd, 2016. My plan was to hike the George W. Disney Trail out and back to the vistas at the north end of Rocky Face Mountain. I would also explore the Rocky Face Mountain Ridge southward for any continuations of the trail.
Known as the tallest waterfall in Virginia, Crabtree Falls is a series of slides and waterfalls on Crabtree Creek, dropping approximately 1000 feet cumulatively. A hiking trail, equipped with well-constructed switchbacks and steps, provides easy access to all of the various drops of Crabtree Falls, each one unique in its own way. As a bonus, the large rock face at the top of the falls provides a great view into the Tye River Gorge. Just make sure to do this hike on a day when the crowds would likely be thinner than they were on my visit. This hike occurred on Sunday, November 27th, 2016. My plan was to hike the Crabtree Falls Trail out and back from VA 56 to the top of Crabtree Falls. This hike was the seventh and final of seven hikes that I did during a four-day Thanksgiving trip to the mountains of western Virginia.
The Roaring Run gorge in Virginia's Blue Ridge sports several slides and cascades, in addition to 35-foot Roaring Run Falls. Several short nature trails provide easy access to this pristine location. The area also has an interesting history, as iron ore was mined a long time ago here. Today, all that remains of the area's past is the historic Roaring Run Furnace, which can be observed along this short loop hike in the vicinity of Roaring Run. This hike occurred on Saturday, November 26th, 2016. My plan was to hike the Roaring Run Falls Loop clockwise, by first following the Streamside Trail and then returning along the Woodland Trail, after hiking the side trail to Roaring Run Falls. This hike was the sixth of seven hikes that I did during a four-day Thanksgiving trip to the mountains of western Virginia.
Virginia's "Triple Crown" hike involves a strenuous overnight backpack to three of the area's most famed vistas: McAfee Knob, Dragons Tooth, and Tinker Cliffs. All of these vistas are known for their sweeping long-range panoramas. While getting to all three of these overlooks in one hike requires serious skills and gear, hiking to any one of the three involves just a simple day hike. Out of the three, Dragons Tooth - as well as the hike to it - might be the most unusual. Dragons Tooth is a unique rock formation that towers like a spire at the southwest end of Cove Mountain. Those who are brave and skilled enough to climb to the top will be awarded with a stunning panorama that encompasses much of Catawba Valley. The hike to Dragons Tooth is no picnic either; this short stretch of the AT - dubbed as the most rugged stretch of the long-distance footpath south of Maine - involves a tricky and time-consuming rock scramble. This hike occurred on Saturday, November 26th, 2016. My plan was to hike the Dragons Tooth Trail to Lost Spectacles Gap, from where I would hike to Dragons Tooth out and back along the Appalachian Trail. After that, I would loop my return route by following the AT northeast to the Boy Scout Trail, concluding the hike along the Boy Scout Trail. This hike was the fifth of seven hikes that I did during a four-day Thanksgiving trip to the mountains of western Virginia.
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