An Autumn Hike Through the Serpentine Barrens in Nottingham Park, PA

In the small town of Nottingham PA, there exists a unique park that offers visitors a chance to visit a rare ecosystem found only in this region: Nottingham Serpentine Barrens Park.  Rich in history and ecology, this Chester County attraction rests within a series of barrens that straddle the boundaries of Pennsylvania and Maryland.  The area is said to feature desert-like conditions due to the level of toxicity caused by unusually high amounts of metal in the soil, combined with a lack of nutrients.  As such, only a limited number of plants can grow in the area, some of which are found nowhere else in the world.  Due to the sunbaked nature of serpentine rock, such areas also typically boast warmer temperatures than the nearby region.

Upon entering, the park seemed anything but desert-like.  Tall trees, both pine and deciduous native throughout the area, were found in abundance just as they are across the northeast.  They also appeared to be at the peak of their fall colors, leading to anticipation for the coming autumn hike.  A small fenced area near the entrance offers visitors a preview of the serpentine grasses found throughout the area.

Entrance to Nottingham Park

After parking, a nearby map detailed the various trails found throughout Nottingham Park.  On the western side of the park, we discovered a little spot dubbed “The Mystery Hole.”  Unable to resist, we decided to begin our autumn hike at the Feldspar Trail leading to both it and the Buck Trail.

The trail system is surprisingly large for a county park.  We were led through forests and fields of serpentine grass with large creeks beside the trail.  Though the path occasionally featured large rocks or fairly deep (though easily avoided) holes, the trails were well maintained and easy to navigate.  The fall foliage seemed rather vibrant in some areas, but also very bare in others.  Along the way, various signs would provide information regarding the park’s history and ecology.  Apparently, some of the nearby areas were used for mining long before the importance of the local plant life was fully understood.  Remnants of old mining sites could still be found along the trails, the most impressive being the elusive mystery hole.

The mystery hole was actually a large pond area with rock walls rising above its banks.  Once a quarry, it now serves as a point of interest for visitors.  The area is surrounded by a fence, blocking access and inhibiting the ability to take pictures.  Some large rocks nearby could have provided relatively easy access over the fence, but I’m not one to risk jail time.  The fall colors reflecting from the lake still made for a serene setting, and I was able to catch a few shots through the fence of the area.

Nottingham Barrens Mystery Hole during Fall

Autumn leaves reaching over the Nottingham Park “mystery hole” quarry site.

Other than the quarry sites, the environment didn’t seem very different from those found throughout the northeast, though the fall colors still made for a great autumn hike.  The serpentine grass largely resembled overgrown grass found in any field, though I’m not sure how it would look during the spring or summer.  And, to be fair, we only covered a small section of the entire park.

Field of Serpentine Grass During Autumn

A field of serpentine grass with fall foliage rising in the distance.

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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. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.