An Out-of-Shape Man reviews The Walls of Jericho (North Alabama) Hiking Trail w/ 22 pics
The Walls of Jericho are a canyon (or gorge, if you prefer) shaped from stream erosion over a number of years. They are also a somewhat legendary hiking trail around these parts; often described as the roughest trail nearby (nearby=North Alabama). This, by my count, is true; I'll get to why. They get a fair amount of foot-traffic, but nothing on the order of a State Park, and so they seemed a good candidate for our 2009 (and third annual, sort of) Black Friday Hike. Sarah and I go hiking instead of shopping, and it is wonderful. The only stitch in our plans was finding out just how rough of a trail is it, which meant we had to hike it and find out. Thank God I am out of shape and Sarah had recently hurt her hip, huh? The personal experience was absolutely necessary. If you Google for them, about the only consistent things you'll find are the words "1000 feet of elevation change" and "strenuous", which is kind of like describing an indie movie as "quirky" and "character driven". It means nothing and all comes down to the specifics. Many of the websites describing the trail offers only faint descriptions, occasionally have conflicting reports, and the pictures range from inspiring to implying the trail is a giant mudbath not worth looking at. Most hikers who talk about it mention it with a sneer in their voice: "Oh, yeah, I hiked it, way too easy for my tastes...but you look at you, you lesser mortal...sneeeer..." It is downright confusing and maybe a little insulting.
By the way, you can consider this my all-in-one real review of the trail, and I plan on describing it in a way that let's people know what to expect. I don't pull any punches (in favor of the trail or in favor of myself) so this might be useful to you.
First, the directions. The trailhead on is on highway 79 right up near the stateline (I don't know, a few miles south). From Huntsville, you take 72 out and right past the Scottsboro city limits you turn up and go. You will go past Skyline and Hytop before you get to the trailhead. Make note that there are two. The southernmost is a horsing and ATV trail. The northernmost (by something like half a mile) is the hiking one. If you are heading North on 79, then skip the first sign—it has a picture of a horse, as something of clue that Sarah and I missed at first—and head a minute or so more down the road to the next. Maybe there are hikers on that sign. Frankly, I forget.
(In all cases, click on the smaller picture to bring up a larger version of it)
We set out bright and early, about 6am. Swung in and got some breakfast at Bojangles to go, and I picked up some extra food for the trip. It is reckoned to be a six hour hike. This does not mean a two hour hike with four hours of fun-times. If anything, it's a five hour hike with an hour of heavy breathing (*wink* *wink* say no more). I figured having something like a proper lunch would not hurt my chances of surviving.
Sarah and I were meeting our friend Kerry for the trip. She was there with us for the first annual Black Friday Hike (Monte Sano) and she is the one who brought the Walls of Jericho to our attention. When we whipped into the [wrong] parking lot, I could not help but notice that she was not there. We had been a little bit late, so I was sure she should be there. I wandered around, found a strange lady-bug graveyard in a box of hunting permits, and then realized that there were two trailheads. We got back in the car and pretty soon were meeting up with Kerry.
The hiking trail-head has enough parking for a dozen to a score of cars, and one of those standard trail-map and bulletin sort of things. It also has a pleasant, endearing sign that says something like "Look, fool, this trail is mean and will eat you. Abandon all hope, all ye [fatties] who enter here." I kid, of course, but not that much (the sign did warn that one should be in fair health and plan for a full day of hiking). Along the back of the bulletin board was a series of nice hiking sticks. I cannot help but imagine these are the ghosts of hiking past, as people came back up and go on their way to find hobbies more suited to a parlor-centric life.
The trail itself starts out pretty unassuming, just a tree-lined mudpath with red markers heading off into the woods. It stays pretty unassuming for a while. To give a general review of the main body of the trail...You head down a slight to moderate slope for a hundred yards or so, and then it evens out for a hundred yards. Then you go down a slight to mild slope for about quarter mile, and then it evens out for a quarter mile. Then you might head down a notable slope with rocks cut out into step-like shapes, and then go down a moderate slope for another eighth of a mile, and then it evens out for twenty yards. Whoever designed it clearly built in little rest-ways, where the mostly even angle would help the hiker to rest up just slightly before heading up a steeper slope. The thing is, going down, the rest-ways seem more plentiful. Coming back up, you realize that a good number of these seemingly even ways are actually at about 5° to 10°. They definitely help, but remember that your memory of the trail will not quite reflect the difficulty coming back up.
By the way, if you do have to bail, there are two early easy-to-note spots I can think of. There is a stone that looks something like the state of Alabama over beside the trail. This is kind of early on and before the trail enters into its second stage of difficulties. Later, there is a section about a mile in where there are stones set up like steps and at the bottom is a bench. This will come right after you cross a stream. If you have any doubts, I suggest one of those spots as a turn around. They also make nice places to rest and the second is near the ATV trail if you want a backup plan.
The only trouble you are going to have going down this section is a few spots of kind of sharp rocks at poor angles. Nothing much, just watch your ankles. The downside is, well, there is crap to look at [note: see update at the start of this article about the scenery]. If you are a visual sort of fellow (or fellowette) and you commune with nature in your hikes, you will be spending the first hour and a half mostly communing with grey rocks and sparse trees. Later on, a sort of small sinkhole cum vertical cave can be found near the trail, and it really does count as the king of the first half.
You eventually reach a 1.5-mile marker. It comes right at what counts for the first piddly action sequence, a mild scrambling over small rocks. This is also the first time you will feel a sense of accomplishment, so ride that wave. In our party, we had a slight "lenscap" malfunction here, in which the aforementioned object decided it wanted to head off its own way down the rocks. After a short scramble to rescue it, we were back on our way.
The trail changes character just a little bit, around here. A tad rocker in places, muddier in others. The downhill slope feels a bit steeper, and the trail leans more. Another half hour or so and you find a sign that says "footbridge" and it confirms that the Walls are coming up. A stream (more accurate: Hurricane Creek) is off to your left down a drop. You go through a couple of switchbacks (including a sign saying to not cut across them, despite it being the clearly easy way) and, after coming along the shore of Hurricane Creek itself (which is charming in that way of most Alabama creeks), you head downstream shortly until you get to the footbridge they are talking about, and see what the fuss is. By "footbridge", they mean "log across the creek with a jerry-rigged railing that kind of forces you to lean out". As a bigger man, I definitely incited some creaking and swaying, but not too bad (in good news, since I am most likely bigger than you, it can hold you). I make this sound horrible, but honestly, it was fun. One of my favorite parts of the whole thing.
After the first footbridge, you get a place you can rest before heading on. Heading on, for the next quarter-to-half hour, largely means snaking around a small flat area before going over a small rise and then coming around to another, sturdier but same basic technology, footbridge. Shortly after this, you get to the Clark Cemetery (which is surrounded by barbed wire) and nearby that is the camping area. A couple of campers were set up when we went by, and more were coming down as we were leaving. I have no idea of the traffic here, but there is a fair amount of space in this area and so as many as half-dozen to a full dozen tents could probably be maintained as long as everyone played along (and the tents were smaller ones).
From now on, you head down along Turkey Creek (there is a muddy trail that goes along the Southwest bank) for another quarter hour or so until you get to the Walls themselves. If by Walls you mean the towering sides of the gorge, we did see that, but we did not see the bowl-shaped section with the large waterfall that most consider the true "Walls" (Turkey Creek was fairly low when we came, so what we would have seen as far as actual waterfalls, I don't know, in some places it barely made it over the rocks). One of the reasons we stopped was because we were already tired, naturally. What's more, there were more than a couple of wardrobe malfunctions. I had proper hiking boots, but was the only one, and the water was too cold for the women to get their feet wet for long. I, like an idiot, had worn shorts thinking it would get warm enough to justify them, which it kind of did, on the way back out. My jacket was sopping wet but taking it off led to me freezing. We had not really researched the trail enough to know exactly what awaited us, so we made the decision to call it a day and start back up.
This is your three big pieces of advice when it comes to the trail (and any trail you don't know), all three learned in good measure my day on the Walls:
- Do some research and be prepared. Then do some more. Find out where you are actually hiking and what the actual terrain is like, or you might bail early or find yourself at a fork at the road that you had not found out about.
- Overdress rather than underdress. It is easy, push come to shove, to leave stuff behind if you absolutely have to but the only way to get more is to leave and come back or call in a favor. [or, loot other hikers walking by, but this is frowned upon]
- Some days you need lots of rest, some days you need none. Give yourself time to rest because at worst you get done early. Like leaving things behind, it is much easier to shed extra than make up a lack when it comes down to it.
If you have heard anything about the Walls, it is about the trip back up. Let me put it this way: you will feel it. I do not care if you are a 16-year-old sports star or a 35-year-old super model: it is long enough and tiring enough that even fit people are going to at least acknowledge it. It is like hiking down the stairs from the top floor of the Sears Tower (or whatever it is called now) and then heading back up. Sort of. This is not a trip up to take lightly. Bring lunch. Prepare to rest. Take Ibuprofen. Whatever you need to do. Also, factor in time. Even more regular hikers than us report trips-out of over two-hours. It took us about three hours, give or take, including slightly over half-an-hour of total breaks (several micro-breaks, three or so 10 minute style ones). You will be almost continuously going uphill once you cross the footbridge over Hurricane Creek.
Don't panic, though. If you made it down and had fun playing around near the bottom, then you'll make it back up. Just give yourself time and allow for a bit of tiredness and exertion, that is all.
I am over 300lbs and the most strenuous thing I have done lately has been walked a mile and a half to work a couple of times a week. Sarah has run some distance races and regularly works out, but she is not used to hills. Kerry exercises kind of often, but has recently been sick. All three of us made it out. Sore, tired, and ready to eat; but we made it out. And, as I said, it only took us about three hours with the breaks we needed. We consumed several bottles of water, and we did get a little cranky, but we did just fine. Along with us were a couple of older women who were equally tired and hard-breathing, but they were also fine. There are a couple of points where it feels like it will never end, and then it does.
I do not plan on hitting the trail again any-time soon. It will be at least six months before I do, and I will be better prepared (all around). Hell, I might rent an ATV and cheat a little. Heh, I kid. Sort of. Haven't played with those in a while and it might be a fun to get down to the creeks and Walls without wanting to die.
If you like hiking around the area, don't miss it. It is free, and tough, and something you will get to brag about. Too much of the trail is pretty bland and more about a self-challenge than being really worth it; but the bottom has a few fun spots and a couple of really pretty shots. My overall ranking for the trail is probably Meh since it seems more for sweating than interesting hiking, but once I finish the trip upstream to the water-falls, I might change that.
Si Vales, Valeo