Ed. Note: Huntsville Outdoors is pleased to present its latest feature guest column by former Huntsville resident, and current Washington, D.C., attorney S. Cagle Juhan.
As the weather cools and summer turns to fall, now is a great time to enjoy one of Huntsville’s most underrated and accessible outdoor experiences: the trails of Monte Sano. Over the past year, my girlfriend, Melanie, and I hiked virtually every trail on the mountain and the surrounding area. We encountered an array of wildlife, stumbled upon several natural wonders, and forged lasting memories. And with a little effort, so can you!
The trails traverse three distinct properties: the North Alabama Land Trust, Monte Sano State Park, and private property (over which the owners permit trail access). The primary trail heads are off of Tollgate Road, via the Land Trust parking lot on Bankhead Parkway, and at the top of the mountain in the State Park. There is secondary access off of southern Monte Sano Drive, as well as Williams & Broad Drive, but the accompanying trails are largely isolated from the honeycomb of other paths. Also, be aware that some trails – namely, the northern and southern portions of the Flat Rock Trail – are closed seasonally for hunting. The City of Huntsville maintains an excellent map of all the trails on Monte Sano here.
So, what trails are best for the hardcore hiker? Natural Well Trail and Arrowhead Trail. Both include steep inclines and declines through McKay Hollow. The eponymous, 100-foot hole off of Natural Well Trail is impressive, as you can see in the Gallery below. I enjoyed tossing acorns into it while counting the seconds until they hit bottom. Engineering-types could probably calculate from that exercise the exact depth of Natural Well, but my liberal arts education foreclosed such efforts. You must also ford a rockslide that took out 50 or so yards of the trail. Finally, a family of armadillos resides in a rocky den by Arrowhead Trail. Although the creatures may let you get close, do not touch them: Armadillos can carry leprosy!
Those looking for a lighter hike should try the trails at the top of the mountain in the State Park, especially the Bocca Family (a/k/a Biker), Firetower, and South Plat Loop Trails. Plaques along the trails recount the history of Monte Sano, which includes the defunct luxury Hotel Monte Sano that hosted the elite of America’s Gilded Age, including the Vanderbilts. An outdoor classroom branches off of Firetower Trail and provides information about the area’s flora and fauna. These trails are great for biking or a casual stroll.
I strongly recommend the Keith, Stone Cuts, and Logan Point Trails. These paths are light to intermediate hikes, yet their primary draw comes from the “cuts”: natural passages, roughly the size of large doorways, through and between the rocks. The rock formations plateau toward both the northwest (“Logan Point”) and southeast (“Golan Heights”), providing a scenic view and a convenient resting place for a snack. The southeastern plateau is also home to wild goats! We first noticed their distinctive and ample scat before catching a glimpse of them scurrying down the hillside.
Although not an official trail, the dry creek bed leading to Neverseen Falls offers a moderate hike with a gratifying reward. Both Wildflower Trail and Alms House Trail intersect this bolder-filled former stream. Despite my personal quibble with Neverseen Falls’ self-defeating epithet (it obviously has been seen if someone found and named it), the Falls resonate with the serene trickle of water. Adventurous or venturesome sorts may navigate around and above the Falls to High Trail, but it is a difficult, mainly horizontal scamper requiring the use of all fours.
Other trails, sights, and activities abound. Waterline Trail is a steep but short journey that commences near the “Three Caves” area, which is actually an old mining site. Those less interested in the rigors of hiking can play frisbee golf in the State Park, enjoy a cookout, or camp on primitive or improved sites. But, as a wise man once remarked to me, “you don’t have to tell everything that you know.” Some things you’ll discover on your own Monte Sano adventure!
One final tip: Keep up with what you do and see out on the trails. In addition to sharing it with Huntsville Outdoors, your record will serve as a nice reminder of both your outings and the people with whom you shared them. Melanie and I tracked out progress using highlighters on a map, which we now have framed as a memento of our time together on the mountain.