A Quick Autumn Hike Along an Extended Road Trip

As much as I love road trips, there’s something about driving several hours and knowing you still have several more to go that makes you want to spend a little less time behind the wheel and a little more time exercising.  Add the incredible mountain views along Interstate 81 in western Virginia, and I soon found myself unable to sit down any longer.  I decided to get off at the next state park for an unexpected autumn hike and soon found myself at Claytor Lake.

Nestled in the Appalachian Foothills, Claytor Lake State Park provides a great afternoon getaway with fun for the whole family.  While not among Virginia’s most unique parks (as the state’s are voted best in the nation), it still offers a little outdoor tranquility for a weekend out.  Hiking, biking, boating, and fishing are all available to visitors, along with a host of other activities.  The Historic Howe house also offers exhibits describing the park’s history and natural features. 

Since I still had several hours of driving left ahead, I decided to just stop in for a quick autumn hike.  The Claytor Lake Trail was closest to the entrance and offered a great view of the lake.  Right from the start of my quick autumn hike, I noticed that the trees seemed unusually bare, with a thick layer of leaves covering the forest floor.  It seemed strange given the time of year, but I would later find possible clues as to why. 

The Start of the Claytor Lake Hiking Trail

The Trailhead for Claytor Lake

I had to pay close attention to the map as I continued hiking, since the thick cover of leaves made navigating the trail difficult.  Unfortunately, the area was mostly wooded and offered limited natural reference points to guide my way.  One of those few that did exist was a rather large open field, the rim of which marked a curve in the trail.  Some of the nearby trees were less bare in this area, allowing me to enjoy a quick break from the mostly gray, barren foliage surrounding me.  Beyond the clearing, I allowed the blue trail markers to lead me on.

Autumn leaves covering a hiking trail

Trail covered by a thick layer of fallen leaves

Continuing ahead, I came across a few surprisingly steep hills.  Every trail in the park received an easy rating on the map, so the change in terrain was rather unexpected.  Soon after, however, I found clues as to why the trees seemed unusually bare; I came across a section of forest that seemed to have suffered significant damage from a possible recent storm.  Most of the trees were without branches, and several (including a rather large one) had toppled over.  The light breeze sounded unusually loud in this area, reminding me of a few past breezy hikes through the desert.  Some nearby trailers confirmed that I was still on track for my quick autumn hike, so I continued along the trail. 

Damaged trees in Claytor State Park

Possible storm damage in Claytor Lake State Park

Shortly thereafter, I began to catch glimpses of Claytor Lake, foothills rising above its bank on the other side.  It was a serene setting despite the numerous trees partially obscuring my view, but the trail soon curved around the back of a hill.  With the lake out of site, I continued up and down more steep hills before seeing a whitetail dove running near the trail.  Sadly, I was unable to pull out my camera in time to capture it. 

A little ways further, I began to catch glimpses of the lake again, this time with a thinning tree line.  The trees soon gave way to a full clearing, one that featured cabins, docks, and, of course, an unobscured view of the lake and foothills.  The lake seemed to stretch on for miles, which I found fitting given that it’s nearly 10 times larger than the park.  My quick autumn hike had yielded some rather impressive views, and I took a moment to enjoy the serenity before rushing back to the car to finish my trip. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Cloudland Canyon: An Autumn Hike into Georgia’s Best Kept Secret

Before heading up north, I decided to take an autumn hike in one of the south’s top obscure attractions: Cloudland Canyon.

Despite the many activities that have made Lookout Mountain famous, most residents in the region seem unaware of the unique canyon it forms in northwestern Georgia.  It features unique rock formations and lush plant life, both offering incredible views during fall.  The park also offers visitors hiking, biking, and back country trails, as well as a variety of accommodations for extended stay.

The entrance to Cloudland Canyon actually rests on top of Lookout Mountain.  Visitors are able to visit a nice park area featuring picnic tables, vending machines, an educational area, and breathtaking views, all without the necessity for a strenuous hike.  I also found this an interesting start for my autumn hike.  At its higher elevation, the park offered more vibrant fall colors than those found in the canyon below.  Various signs offered descriptions of the local plant and animal life.  I was surprised to find that flying squirrels were native to this area, though they are also (and unfortunately) nocturnal.  Overlooks to the north and west offered views of different sections within the canyon and the fall foliage that was beginning to break through the rock formations.  However, it was the canyon floor that was particularly curious.  Looking down, it seemed that only trees lined the bottom.  Yet the sounds of crashing water revealed a clue to the world that would be revealed after descending.

Fall Colors on the western wall of Cloudland Canyon

A view of of the western wall of Cloudland Canyon, featuring colorful fall foliage.

From the park at the north end, a trail leads visitors down the side of the canyon.  The descent quickly offers clues to the hidden treasures below.  Unique, ancient rock formations line the path, offering a look at the local geological history and even a few resting spots.  Small streams of water can also be found along the trail.

Cloudland Canyon Trailhead

The trailhead leading down the eastern wall of Cloudland Canyon

As I descended the many staircases and stone paths, I began to see the difference in fall foliage between the higher and lower elevations. There appeared to be a definable line between the end of fall colors and the beginning of thicker, greener flora.  In addition to capturing this line, I also wanted to take more pictures of the stairways so others could know what to expect.  This, however, was a particularly crowded day.  I prefer to respect the privacy of others, and was limited to capturing pictures on the few empty clearings available.

Cloudland Canyon Staircase

One of the many staircases leading to the bottom of Cloudland Canyon

About halfway down, the trail splits to the left or right.  The trail to the right continues my journey to the canyon floor, while the one to the left provides access to the west side of the canyon.  I decided to head over there first and see how the canyon looked from the other side.  Along the way, I soon found that Cloudland Canyon is easily home to some of the rockiest trails I have ever encountered.  This is particularly cumbersome during an autumn hike, as even a thin layer of fallen leaves will easily conceal prominent and sharp rocks.  I had to choose my steps carefully, especially as the path began to narrow.

Cloudland Canyon's rocky terrain

Some of the rocky terrain that comes with a hike through Cloudland Canyon’s Trails

The south side of the canyon actually flattens to some extent, making access to the other side surprisingly easy.  A small wooden bridge completes the link, and I soon found myself on the western wall.  The path became increasingly narrow and steep as I continued my autumn hike into this new area.  I also noticed a significant thinning in the crowds and soon found myself alone on the trail.  As I continued hiking upward, I found some interesting rock formations, including one with small streams of water flowing from above.

Cloudland Canyon rock formation

A rock formation along the western wall of Cloudland Canyon that features small streams of water

The path beyond this formation looked treacherous (and may not have even been a trail at all).  Though I wanted to see the view from the other side, I decided to just drive there later and headed back to the original trail.  I continued along past the split and was soon greeted by a rather large rock outcropping with a stone bench tucked underneath.  Naturally, the bench was crowded with daring hikers, so I continued down the steep stairway.

Jutting boulder at Cloudland Canyon

If you dare, you can relax on a stone bench placed under this massive boulder.

By the time I reached the canyon floor, the trees and shrubbery largely resembled those found during summer.  Tucked underneath the fall leaves, however, was a world that shattered expectations.  A large creek flowed quickly through an abundance of rock formations, and the nearby sounds of falling water promised multiple waterfalls.  And it was all hidden from the higher views by a thick canopy of trees.   There were many new sights to see, as my autumn hike had only just begun.  I was greeted by a sign offering a view of the Cherokee falls to the left or Hemlock falls to the right.  Given the loud shouts of a few (likely) drunken people to the left, I decided to head for Hemlock Falls.

This is actually a park that I have visited once before, and as I neared Hemlock Falls, disappointment began to set in.  The raging river that flowed through this canyon during the summer had trickled down to a creek.  I could easily make out the areas once covered with water that now boasted sharp rocks.  I had a feeling this would hinder the majesty of the waterfalls I had seen earlier this year.  After taking the semi-transparent bridge over Daniel Creek, I descended a path leading around Hemlock Falls, where my suspicions were confirmed: the waterfall was, indeed, significantly smaller.  This, unfortunately, is a downside to any autumn hike, as many tributaries, creeks, and rivers seem to diminish, sometimes completely.

Hemlock Falls in Cloudland Canyon

What’s left of Hemlock Falls in Cloudland Canyon. Sadly, my camera doesn’t do such a great job of taking waterfall shots.

Despite my disappointment, I still veered off of the trail (and broke an important safety rule) to get a closer view of what was left of the waterfall.  I had to climb down a steep embankment, relying on the gnarly roots of a nearby tree for support.  At the bottom, I found large stones jutting out of the water, providing convenient access from nearly any angle.  I was able to get surprisingly close, inhibited only by slippery rocks and the threat of getting soaked in the midst of cool temperatures.

Back on the path, the Waterfall trail connects with Sittons Gulch to the north.  This trail offers autumn hikers a view of a much smaller waterfall that forms from the rock infested pool of Hemlock Falls.  Unfortunately, this once vibrant waterfall had diminished to barely a trickle.  It left little hope as I continued on my way to Sittons Gulch falls, which was also significantly reduced.  However, by the time I reached this waterfall, a familiar occurrence began to take shape.  Despite the Weather Channel’s promise of no rain, I began to feel light drops while observing what remained of the nearby falls.  It served as a disappointing reminder of my last shortened autumn hike at Fort Mountain, but I still persisted on my way to see Cherokee falls before ending my autumn hike.

Cherokee Falls in Cloudland Canyon

What’s left of Cherokee Falls with fall foliage across the top.

When I reached the intersection between the two falls and the main trail, the shouting at Cherokee Falls seemed to have ceased.  This was confirmed as I made my way around the mountainside and through a wooded area, though my anticipation for disappointment was not disappointed.  Cherokee falls, despite its height, was still reduced to a trickle, though the fall foliage just above still made for a serene setting.  Unfortunately, the precipitation became heavier, leading me to once again end an autumn hike early.  By the time I finished my ascent to the top, the weather had given way to a full-blown rain storm.  Fortunately, the thick forest canopy shielded me from most of the rain heading up, so I wasn’t too wet by the time I returned to my car.

Cloudland Canyon rainstorm

Rain sweeping through Cloudland Canyon, cutting my autumn hike short.

Comparative shots of the waterfalls can be found in the gallery.

A Humble Start to an Autumn Adventure

It seems that I’ll be spending some time down south during the beginning of fall, so for my first autumn hike, I decided to visit a humble spot within the North Georgia Mountains: James H. Sloppy Floyd State Park. Situated at the base of Taylor Ridge, Floyd Park is a unique spot that truly offers something for everyone.  The park was named in honor of a state politician that served just over two decades.

After driving into the park’s boundaries via a road of the same name, James H. Sloppy Floyd State Park immediately offers excellent lakeside views, complete with lush vegetation and camping spots.  The mountain peaks of Taylor Ridge rise just above, creating a unique picturesque setting.  Fishing is available to license holders in a variety of locations, including a walking bridge that stretches across one of the lakes.  Kayak and pedal boat rentals are also available, though they appeared to be out of season.

Taylor Ridge rising over a nearby lake

Of course, I came here to enjoy an autumn hike, so the park’s trails are my destination.  It features four in all: two easy trails circling around the lakes, a moderate trail that takes visitors past the marble mine and up to the summit of Taylor Ridge, and a rigorous trail that also scales the nearby mountain.  Each of the more challenging trails also connect with the Pinhoti National Recreation Trail.  After reviewing the map, I noticed that the upper lake trail crosses over the north lake before connecting with the Marble trail, so I decided to set this as my course. Despite visiting in mid-October, it still felt more like a summer hike that autumn.  Green, luscious trees and foliage surrounded me, and the local high reached into the lower 80s.  Still, the air was relatively dry (given Georgia’s infamously high levels of humidity), and patches of autumn colors could be seen breaking through the landscape.

A patch of autumn foliage within a still mostly green forest

I began my hike by setting out on a walking bridge that crossed the upper lake.  A few parents were teaching their children how to fish, and the available catches seemed plentiful for the catch  After  crossing over the Upper Lake, the trailed passed by a scenic picnic area before shifting into the woods.  Shortly after entering the forest, I noticed a side trail cutting to the left.  Since the map had identified this as the connector to the marble mine trail, I decided to take it. Not long after, I came across an intersection with another trail.  I didn’t remember seeing this on the map, so I reached to pull it out and confirm my route- only to realize that I had left it in my car.  Not the most ideal of circumstances, but I was feeling adventurous, and didn’t really feel like going back to my car anyway.  So, I pressed on.

The semi-rugged trail leading to marble mine

Marble Mine Trail is classified as moderate, and it’s easy to see why.  The path is anything but flat, and can become somewhat rugged at times.  Still, I found that by stepping carefully and looking to the trail ahead, I could easily avoid the most strenuous terrain by sticking to the side.  The surrounding woods still seemed like more of a summer than autumn hike (minus the humidity), but the change was becoming evident.  I actually found more fall colors scattered across the ground than I did in the trees and brush.

One aspect of hiking I have learned is that distance seems much more varied within a thick forest landscape than walking in the city or even a flat, paved path (especially when you forget to bring the map).  I was eager to see the geological wonder that is the marble mine’s reflecting pool (only .7 miles according to the last sign), but my trek seemed to be taking much longer than that.  I began to consider searching for an online map with my Android phone despite limited, slow service, when a rather creepy looking dark area suddenly appeared on the path ahead.  The sun’s sun’s light was illuminating my surroundings quite well despite the thick branches above, yet this particular area appeared dark as night.

The darkness of the marble mine ahead

I inched closer until I heard the sound of falling water.  I picked up the pace a little faster and discovered that my autumn hike had finally led me to the very geological structure that made this park famous: the Marble Mine Reflecting Pool.  I found it a rather unique site for the trail I had traversed so far.  A thin waterfall cascades over the top of the cave and lands gently into the small pool of water below.  Behind that, a wooden walkway leads deeper inside. I tried snapping a few photos of the cave, but the sun just happened to be in the perfect spot to ruin my chance.  You can see the result below.

Marble Mine in James H. Sloppy Floyd State Park

Once inside, I found some interesting geological formations reminiscent of a beginner rock climber’s dreams come true.  The rocky walls were rather jagged, leading up to a surprisingly smooth ceiling.  Small streams of water leaked in various areas across the top, falling in seemingly random spots below.  It reminded me of the Tonto Natural Bridge in Arizona, except much smaller.

After following the pathway to the left, it ended just before a cave that appeared to go much deeper into Taylor Ridge.  Unfortunately, exploring it would have required climbing some rather slippery rocks and moving past the barricade set by park rangers.  Despite my love for adventure, I wasn’t interested in taking any unnecessary risks, rather it be personal injury or arrest.

A deeper tunnel leading into the marble mine

The rocky walls of the marble mine

Marble Mine Waterfall in James H. Sloppy Floyd State Park

After visiting the marble mine, I decided to scale the nearby mountain.  A trail to my right led the way, soon leading me up a steep hill before cutting back to the left and up Taylor Ridge.  I’ve often been told that autumn leaves begin turning at higher elevations, and I was curious if there was any real difference between the base and summit.  When trekking the mountain trial, I did notice that it, as expected, becomes a bit more strenuous, as there are more steep inclines.  As I climbed the first of many steep hills, I suddenly heard a gunshot from my right.  I was startled, but then remembered that it was hunting season in the nearby Chattahoochee Forest Wildlife Management area.  I still thought the shot was fairly loud given the foothills separating me from the hunters (and any stray bullets), but continued to press on without concern.  A few more shots echoed through the forest, and then silence as I continued higher up the mountain.

As is often the case when hiking through a heavily forested area, I found it difficult to tell how high I was climbing as the trail led upward.  The ascent didn’t seem too drastic until a small clearing to my left revealed the mountainous valley below.  Indeed, I had already climbed quite a distance.  I could see mountains surrounding a large area below, including the park where my autumn hike began.  Of course, I was only able to catch glimpses, as the thick foliage blocked most of my view.

Unfortunately, my camera was able to capture even less of the limited view.  I suppose it’s true that no camera will ever be able to match the human eye’s ability to capture the true majesty of an awesome outdoor view (or perhaps I just need a new camera).  I did, however, at least manage to capture this shot.

View of a North Georgia mountain valley from Taylor Ridge

As I neared the summit, I came across some unique plant life, the leaves of which were offering a glimpse of the autumn season.

Partially changed autumn leaves

A plan featuring autumn colors and berries

Other than these small plants though, the foliage at this higher altitude still reflected the mostly summer-time colors of those below.

After reaching the summit, I was glad to see that I had finally connected with the famous Pinhoti Trail, a 335 mile hike highlighting some of the southeast’s finest mountainous regions.  It provides an excellent opportunity for adventurers to practice their long-distance hiking know-how for the Appalachian Trail (which it also connects with).  It stretches from North Georgia to Flagg mountain in Alabama, the southern-most portion of the Appalachian trail with a summit that exceeds 1000 feet.  Unfortunately, I won’t have enough free time for such a journey anytime soon, so I decided to turn back towards the park after walking only a short distance on the Pinhoti.

Despite my earlier hesitance for the sake of safety, I found that I couldn’t completely suppress my sense of adventure after revisiting the marble mine.  Although technically off the trail, there were no signs barring visitors from walking up the hill next to the reflecting pool to the top of the cave.  So, after checking to ensure that the coast was clear, I decided to see how it looked from above.  The hill leading up and around the mine was fairly steep, and I found myself using some of the smaller trees for stability more than once.  I was surprised to discover just how small the creek feeding the waterfall was, given its width upon landing.

The top of Jame H Sloppy Floyd State Park's Marble Mine

I then set out to conclude my autumn hike, followed by some time relaxing near the lakes and enjoying what few fall colors were available.  Near the end of the trail, I took a moment to look back at the sheer distance between the trail head and the mountain’s peak.  It’s always an amazing feeling to know that you conquered something like that, not with the help of a car, ATV, or even bicycle, but completely of your own effort.

Taylor Ridge in the distance from James H. Floyd Sloppy State Park during Autumn

I took the opportunity to relax by the lake before ending my early-autumn adventure and heading out.

Foothill rising above autumn foilage in James H Sloppy Floyd State Park

This foothill rises just over the autumn foliage across the lake from Taylor Ridge.

James Floyd State Park provided a modestly refreshing start to my autumn hiking adventure, though granted one that also offered a surprising level of adventure.  It looks like my visit down south will continue through this region’s peak season, which could mean some rather bland hikes when I head up north.  Even so, I will make the best of it.

I would like to mention that while I did experience an enjoyable hike without it, I never recommend anyone else to hike in an unfamiliar area without a map.  This is especially true for autumn hiking excursions, as a large volume of leaves can easily cover across the trail and forest floor, making it difficult to tell if where the trail may be turning.  If you are not carefully, you could very easily veer off of the trail and become lost in an area with scarce cell phone reception.