Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Exploring Little River Canyon National Preserve in NE Alabama

No matter if we like it or not, or we will acknowledge it or not, weather decides what we do in our lives. Such is the case with our 3 month long planned trip to northern Georgia's Cohutta Wilderness over the Martin Luther King holiday in 2010. Another setback is the crew of about 6 guys, starting dropping like flies as the date got closer. Heavy rains forecast days in advance had me frustrated, especially since I had packed for this trip one week in advance, food and everything! As the long weekend came closer, it became evident that we needed to change plans. Rob, one of my camping buddies and expert guide for the Cohutta Wilderness called me a few days before and said that we need to modify our plans. He said river levels would be so high that we would not get much out of the trip. Since camping and hiking in the Cohutta Wilderness requires so many stream crossings, it became evident that this trip was not meant to be. We tossed around options and finally decided on a new place to explore.......Buck's Pocket Canyon over in Northeast Alabama. If time permitted, we would move on to Little River Canyon National Preserve.

After watching weather radar and listening to forecasts, we decided to drop a day off the planned trip and meet up on Sunday at noon. It just seemed like the best thing to do unless we wanted to spend part of our long weekend hovered under a tarp wishing we had dry firewood. Once we met up at Buck's Pocket, the rain continued to come down. We were impressed with the canyon, but with rain, fog, clouds, and overall "mess" we just could not get the views we wanted. We also decided that Little River Canyon was the place that we really wanted to go to, since anyone that had ever been there raved at how beautiful it was. So that was the ticket.......head for Little River Canyon. The only problem we found in this plan was that The National Park Service allows NO camping within Little River Canyon. What a bummer! We still had to check out this wonderful beauty, so the next best deal was to go on over to Desoto State Park, camp in their primitive camping area and then launch a full blown attack on hiking Little River Canyon Monday morning. We arrived late Sunday afternoon to Desoto State Park's Primitive campground. It is a neat little area that allows you to lock yourself in to the campground. This adds new worlds to security and safety in a public camping area. This is great, and allows for no "riff-raff" to ease in to your campground and steal some goodies and leave quickly. They have to have a physical key to get into the campground. We quickly found out WE were the ONLY ones in the entire campground, therefore leaving us free to pick any site we wanted. To protect us from the now brutal winds that were coming out of the west, we picked a group area behind some pine thickets. You have to remember that this campground is up around 1,300 feet, and so were stuck in clouds, fog, and a mess! I thought I had lost my wallet as well. This tends to add excitement to the afternoon. After making myself absolutely sick with worry, I finally found it laying in the tent. I think the next thing to being naked in the middle of downtown with no clothes on and your friends passing by and seeing you, is to be without your wallet. If my heart were running a marathon, It just ran 10K in 1o minutes.
Night time turned out to be a pretty depressing site for most folks, even for hard core campers. If my buddy Rob had not brought firewood from his home in Chattanooga, we would have been totally miserable. Camping at 1300 feet in a cloud bank (fog) can wear on you. Everything is damp, everything is cold, and nothing but a hot meal could deal a blow to this mess! Ah yes, a hot meal! That did the trick along with a warm campfire. Some warm French Vanilla coffee does wonders as well. How many moments in the wild are warmed from worries with a fire. That fire was worth a million bucks! We sat around talking. Campfires are some of my favorite times, no matter what the condition or the temperature. Sharing stories with camping buddies is hard to beat.
After a good nights sleep listening to all the sounds down in the valley all night long from trains, dog barks, to "back up beep" indicators on commercial vehicles, we were ready to go to Little River Canyon by 10 a.m. A hearty oatmeal breakfast and hot coffee will start the day off good. The sun peaked through the clouds around 10 a.m., yielding a crisp, clean, clear blue sky to greet us all day long. After a short 20 minute drive and our arrival, I was set back right away with such beauty of Little River Canyon Falls as I crossed the bridge on Highway 35 and turned in. Most everyone's first stop is Little River Canyon Falls just off of the highway. This is your first clue that many more wonderful sites are coming your way. The Little River Canyon National Preserve, has only been under the National Park Service since the 1990's. Little River Canyon, is little known to locals of what a treasure it really is. The Little River Canyon is one of the nation's longest rivers that travels on the top of a mountain, then plunges off the Cumberland Plateau at the head of Little River Canyon. The Canyon starts at 1,900 feet up in elevation and drops to around 650 feet. That is a pretty amazing and a fast drop in some 20 miles of the canyon! You can imagine how the current rages with this steep of a drop. The water remains a beautiful green looking color, even after a lot of rain we experienced the day before.
Little River Canyon Preserve offers something for everyone. If you don't even care to get out of your car, you can drive the outside rim of the canyon and enjoy some scenery like you have never seen before. If you get out of your car at each overlook, you will be treated to stunning views of the canyon. If you do this, take binoculars! If you care to do as Rob and I did and go down in to the canyon, you will leave with views that you will never forget the rest of your life. The best place to go down into the canyon as we did, is at Eberhart Point. This is a very old site that was once the site of a sky chair lift that for a fee, would take you down into the canyon. It was privately owned. Remains of the old site are still down there and can be seen in the pictures I have taken of the trip. There are still concrete pillars and old concrete picnic tables left over from these bygone days. It must have been a neat spot in it's time. I don't know, but one would only surmise by the name that Mr. Eberhart ran the sky lift and picnic area in it's time. GETTING down to this neat place is where the stamina comes in. From the high point of Eberhart Point where you park your car, to the bottom of the canyon is about a 400 foot drop in elevation. The old winding road going down to the bottom of the once sky lift location winds down at approximately a 45-50 degree slope. There are park benches every 300 feet. There is a reason for this! It is a under a quarter of a mile to the bottom of the canyon, but it will feel like 2 miles to the top when you decide to walk out! The river bottom greets you with old building and ground remains from the old chair lift. The walls of an old stone building, which looks like pre-1940's is there as well as picnic tables that look like out of the 1940-1950s. There is a non official trail that leads along the river going south into the canyon. THIS is the trail you want to take. When you look around, you are suddenly stunned and a little confused. THIS scenery does not look like Alabama! This looks like the cliffs in Northern New Mexico, or the hills of Northern Virginia. This place does not even resemble the normal terrain of Georgia, Alabama, or Tennessee. It is like a mini Grand Canyon in some ways. Taking this trail I mentioned going downstream will take you along the roaring sounds of the raging river, as well as yield breathtaking views along the way. If you have the time, go up to the north of the canyon from the picnic ground as well upstream. You will eventually come to Brooks Branch which runs in to Little River. When you get to this point, look up and see the mighty tall Crow Point towering way above you. If you look closely, you will see a small point or two of people at the top looking down at you! That's exactly what they look like, small points! This view is shown on the blog, showing the intersection of Brooks Branch on the left, coming into Little River and Crow's Point towering in the middle. About an hour or two walking downstream from where we descended into the canyon, we came upon a tree with either a snake carved in it, or a map of the flow of Little River. It appeared to be very old carved into a birch tree. Is it Indian? Is it fairly recent?....Who knows. Toward the close of the day, Rob and I came up out of the canyon, climbing slow and steady up that LONG incline trail towards the truck. When we arrived, we found that the kayakers whose boats were on top of their vehicles parked up with us, had apparently taken the kayaks and descended down in the canyon to do some true whitewater kayaking. I don't whitewater kayak, only long boat kayaking on the river or on lakes. From some of the current that I saw, it would appear that the odds of death boating in some places would be around 70%. I would have loved to have watched them kayak this raging river. Rob and I closed the day out by going by and stopping at High Grace Falls, believed to be the tallest waterfall in Alabama. As we were leaving, Rob and I realized that this Canyon goes some 20 miles. We had only been about 10 miles down it. We barely even scratched the surface! Maybe another day. I certainly hope so. My only complaint is that the Park Service allows absolutely NO camping whatsoever. I don't really understand that but we go with the rules. Rob and I talked about the wonderful possibilities if you could camp in the canyon. A base camp set up on the stream, and nothing but beauty to explore for days. Maybe one day the Park Service will open this up for camping. But in the meantime, this place has something for everyone. From the casual person who wants to see nature and never get out of their car, to the person who wants to stop at each scenic overlook and take in the beauty, to the hard core hiker who wants a challenge and to be rewarded with some of the most scenic beauty in Alabama. Put Little River Canyon on the calendar if you are passing by that way. I can guarantee you that you will not regret it!

For more pictures and video shot down in the canyon during the trip, go to http://gallery.me.com/ambervas
Click on the Photo album titled "Buck's Pocket-Little River Canyon". It has short movie clips contained in it as well.