Monday, February 2, 2009

Cave Creek Trail - Pinhoti Trail Loop

About a year ago we visited Cheaha State Park near Delta, Alabama. On the morning of the day that we left (6 January 2008), I decided that I wanted to get in one more hike before we left. I picked out a loop just outside the park--one that went south on the Cave Creek Trail, cut over to the Pinhoti Trail on a connector trail, and then returned north on the Pinhoti Trail. The whole loop is covered on Pinhoti Trail Map 4; I had bought a copy in the park.

The trailhead, just south of the park center on SR 281, would be hard to miss. A Talladega National Forest sign proclaims "Cheaha Trailhead" next to a large, paved parking lot. The trail itself starts under an elaborate stone-and-iron gateway, reminiscent of Amicalola Falls State Park's "Gateway to the Appalachian Trail" stone arch. Of course, neither gate reduces the number of fallen trees on the trail or fills your water bottle, but they're both pretty impressive.

Past the arch, I wanted to be sure that I got on the Cave Creek Trail rather than on the short approach trail to the Pinhoti. From the map it looked like I needed to keep to the left and hope for the best. It turned out to be easy to pick out the correct trail from the signs--including one sign that said it was three miles to the connector trail. I had estimated maybe two-and-a-half miles after looking at the map, and six miles for the entire loop. The loop is actually closer to seven miles and I was half an hour late getting back.

The Cave Creek Trail turned out to have a smooth, well-defined treadway. This was good, because there weren't any blazes marking the trail. Well, there were four orange marks that might have been blazes at one time or another, which isn't much for a three-miles stretch of trail. Somewhat more frequent were wooden signs marked "CAVE CREEK TRAIL." The trail wasn't exactly flat, but the inclines were neither long nor steep. Thirty minutes took me to a sign marking the boundary of the Cheaha Wilderness Area of the Talladega National Forest. Maybe half a mile later, the trail veered to the right while there was a rock outcrop to the left. The outcrop turned out to be worth checking out; it provided a great overlook--really, the only view from the Cave Creek Trail.

Somewhere beyond this you're supposed to cross Cave Creek, but I never saw it. I guess that it is very seasonal. I did see a lot of fire circles, and the trail got a bit wilder. At least one fallen tree needed to be removed from the trail along this stretch. At last I reached the intersection with the connector. To the left, the Cave Creek Trail continued south, but I went to the right, following the red blazes up the ridge and toward the Pinhoti Trail. Maybe a hundred yards took me to the top of the ridge, which was littered with boulders. After that it was a similar distance down the other side of the ridge to the Pinhoti Trail. The connector ended at the Pinhoti Trail, where I turned right to follow the blue blazes north back toward Cheaha State Park. A sign warned me that it was four miles back to the park. Unfortunately, I didn't know if this meant to the park boundary, to park headquarters, or to the Cheaha trailhead.

Something about the topography of the area made this side of the ridge much cooler. Because of this, there was ice along the trail the morning of my hike. Over the ages, similar ice had produced boulder fields. The ice was pretty, but I could have done without the boulder fields. The rugged going was especially discouraging after the relatively smooth Cave Creek Trail. Fortunately, the Pinhoti was only punctuated with boulder fields, not covered with them. If this stretch of Pinhoti was rougher than the Cave Creek Trail, it was also better blazed. There were at least two different shades of blue blazes, white turkey-foot blazes, and metal diamonds printed with the Pinhoti turkey foot. Sometimes two different kinds of blaze would be on the same tree.

There were more views, too. Occasionally you could catch a glimpse through the trees of rocky outcroppings near McDill Point. Which reminds me that there was a lot more uphill and downhill on the Pinhoti than there was on the Cave Creek Trail. The first such climb was up to McDill Point. A side trail at this point led a quarter mile to an overlook, but I was running short on time and forged on. I did pause for views from the main trail, including a few of Cheaha Mountain to the north and Cheaha Lake in the valley. A climb up and over Hernandez Peak followed McDill Point. The best overlooks on the trail came after Hernandez Peak. If you wanted to "cheat" and take a short walk to some great views, you could start at the Cheaha trailhead and head south on the Pinhoti trail till you saw these, then turn around and double back.

Because it was a short distance from here back to the trailhead. I made sure that I turned right onto the approach trail, but there was a sign so it wasn't hard to find. Despite my tardiness, Judi hadn't left for Tallahassee without me and was waiting with the car.

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