Venturing more into the central part of Tennessee to the Cumberland Plateau has been a goal of mine for some time. The name “Walls of Jericho” kept cropping up, so that clinched the destination. So what is this hike with the biblical name? The place known as the Walls of Jericho is a narrow canyon, about a half-mile long, with 200-foot-high vertical limestone bluffs on each side. Exploring the headwaters of the Paint Rock River, this demanding trek straddles the Tennessee-Alabama state line as it delves deep into the gorge. The natural amphitheater is filled from its two main waterfalls and it’s a bit difficult to meander around, so be careful. We tackled the Walls of Jericho on Wednesday, March 18, 2015 from 8:30AM to 1:00PM. Our plan was to descend into the gorge from the Alabama trail, reach the South Rim Trail at Clark Cemetery, and continue to the Walls of Jericho amphitheater. The return would be along the same paths.
Hike Length: 7-8 miles Hike Duration: 4.5 hours
Hike Configuration: Down and back up Blaze: Red
Hike Rating: Difficult. The South Rim Trail is often muddy and slippery. Rock hopping Turkey Creek within the amphitheater is required to enable complete exploration. The climb back out of the gorge is extremely strenuous.
Elevation Change: 1,050 feet, gain 1,350 feet Elevation Start: 1,765 feet
Trail Condition: The Walls of Jericho Trail is very good with some exposed roots and rocks. The South Rim Trail is poor to fair at best, can be quite muddy and slippery, and has considerable erosion problems.
Starting Point: Trailhead along Alabama Hwy 79 on the Cumberland Plateau.
Trail Traffic: We encountered only two other hikers, a father and son.
How to Get There: Take I-24 to TN 64 and turn south on TN 16 (AL 79). Go 17 miles along the beautiful Cumberland Plateau to the Alabama state line, and the trailhead is a mile south of the border on the right. There are a total of four trailheads for the Walls of Jericho, two in Tennessee, two in Alabama. This report details the northernmost Alabama trail.
The Walls of Jericho area was originally owned by the Texas oil magnate Harry Lee Carter, who acquired 60,000 acres in Franklin County, Tenn., and Jackson County, Ala., in the 1940s. For years, up until 1977 when the Walls of Jericho were closed, the Tennessee property had been open to the public for recreational use and managed by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. Now this special place is once again open for recreation.
Alabama’s Forever Wild Program purchased the 12,500-acre Alabama section of the property from The Nature Conservancy. It is now known as the Skyline Wildlife Management Area and is open for public access. The protected area encompasses the headwaters of the globally significant Paint Rock River. In 2006, The Nature Conservancy also transferred the 8,900-acre Tennessee tract to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) to be the Bear Hollow Mountain Wildlife Management Area.
Legend has it, Davy Crockett explored the area in the late 1700s. The site was named by a preacher who performed baptisms there in the late 19th century. Located in the bottom land near the confluence of Hurricane and Turkey Creeks is Clark Cemetery. None of my relatives, as we originally came from New Jersey and settled in what is now West Virginia.
We were back together as the original crew of Meanderthals. The WNC contingent took a couple days to go visit our friend who had relocated to south-central Tennessee the previous year. So we were the initial threesome once again who started all the adventures that eventually became this Meanderthals blog.
We decided to take the northernmost Alabama trail down into the gorge. This trail has red blaze marks, and plenty of them. The trail options on the Tennessee side use white blaze. The path begins with a gradual descent and a series of very long switchbacks through a large boulder field and moss covered outcrops. The trail tread is in very good condition, but has to traverse the rocky terrain, so there is plenty of opportunity for stumbling or tripping over exposed rock and roots.
The forest isn’t particularly attractive (perhaps better during green season), consisting mostly of deciduous hardwoods. There is plenty of immature beech, and the usual oak, maple and walnut. I really had to search to find the occasional evergreen, but the low elevation has something to do with that. During the leafless season you will get periodic views across the gorge at the rim of Little Cumberland Mountain.
The trail down into the gorge never is exceptionally steep, but it is long, three miles in total to Hurricane Creek. I thought of this frequently on the way down, knowing that eventually I would have to climb back out. If you’ve been hanging around here awhile, you know by now that I’m not a big fan of hiking up. Unlike my companions, who prefer the strain of climbing to the wear-and-tear on the knees of the downhill sections, I tend to whine and complain whenever my lungs begin burning. I tried to put it out of mind and enjoy the moment, but the farther down we went, the more I was reminded that what goes down, must come back up.
Most of the excitement on this hike is down in the gorge. There isn’t a whole lot to look at on the way down, particularly with bare trees. There is the odd intermittent sink hole along the trail, and we did find one beech tree that looked like it had been around for at least a century, but mostly this is just a downward stroll through nondescript woods.
After about 90 minutes you get the first view of Hurricane Creek down below. It really looks more like a river, flowing slow and easy, passing through the rich bottom land that lines the west side. We reached the flat and paralleled the creek for awhile, eventually meeting the Tennessee trail coming down from the north. Near there is a footlog across Hurricane Creek, one with an extremely wobbly handrail. DO NOT put much weight on this rail. You are likely to go for an unintentional swim.
The west side of Hurricane Creek reveals evidence of settlers and farming over the years. There are open fields and meadows, even work by botanists to reestablish native tree species. After just a few minutes you will reach another foot bridge, this one over Turkey Creek. It is Turkey Creek that leads to the Walls of Jericho.
On the far side of Turkey Creek is a large primitive campsite with a fire ring and hitching post for horses. Equines cannot continue beyond this point into the gorge. Just north of the campsite is Clark Cemetery, a mostly 19th century graveyard. As you can imagine, my pals teased me that this would be an appropriate final resting place for me if I didn’t make it back from the Walls of Jericho.
Here at the cemetery, and beyond, we began to see the first wildflowers of Spring. There were multiple varieties of trillium, and the South Rim Trail was literally lined with trout lilies and various colors of hepatica. The photo at the top of this post is of a trillium in the cemetery that was just a day or two from blooming.
The trail continues beyond the cemetery in a northwesterly direction and you begin to enter the Walls of Jericho canyon. Be alert for the intersection with the South Rim Trail. Taking it to the left will bring you up near the top of the canyon, while staying to the right will follow Turkey Creek and reach the amphitheater in about half a mile. We chose the upper path. This is one of the more rugged sections of the trail. Watch for tripping on roots and rocks, and for erosion that makes the trail difficult to navigate. There is even one stretch with a rope along the canyon wall to aid your progress.
We could see the path on the other side of the lower waterfall continuing up canyon. With a scramble over a short but tricky climb up limestone terraces in the canyon floor, you arrive at a dead end, at the feature some call “The Hole.” The water in the plunge basin was deep enough on this day, however, to deter us from continuing. Maybe on a warm summer day, but we didn’t relish the frigid water in late winter. If you make it to “The Hole,” please come back here and leave a message in the comments below.
Instead, we pulled up a dry piece of canyon floor and settled in for lunch and pictures. It’s a little eerie in the Walls of Jericho. Consisting of primarily limestone, the face is quite soft, and you sit there wondering if today is the day it all comes tumbling down. The canyon walls are rimmed with beautiful cedar, and the face carries a yellowish tint as if maybe there is sulphur in there as well. I have to believe this to be even more scenic in the green seasons. It was mostly shades of earth tones on this mid-March day, not particularly colorful.
We stayed for about half an hour. While nourishing ourselves for the ascent, we made guesses how long it would take to get back up top. My buddies were a lot more optimistic than my 3+ hour estimate. It only took us a half hour to get back to the cemetery, cross Turkey and Hurricane Creeks, and begin clambering up out of the gorge. I even managed to last another half hour before needing my first breather, but resting came a lot more frequently for me after that.
My Meanderthals friends have always had a competitive nature, not so much against each other, but within themselves. They like to push their own bodies to see what they can accomplish. So I fell behind about a third of the way up the hill. When we were all back safely at the trailhead we compared notes. It had taken Ken 1:35 to climb back up to Cumberland Plateau. Eric made it in 1:45. I brought up the rear in 2:20, but even that was quite a bit less than what I had estimated down at the bottom. Ken even came back to meet me with a sandwich from the cooler in the car, helping considerably with my final push to the top.
OK, let’s summarize. They say you should allow six hours to take this hike, including two to spend at the amphitheater. It took us four and a half hours (my time), with only a half hour at the Walls of Jericho, so that sounds about right. I really can’t tell you exactly how long the hike is distance wise. Documentation online and at the trailhead indicates it is three miles to Hurricane Creek, then another half mile on the South Rim Trail to the amphitheater. That would come to seven miles total, but my iPhone GPS had it over eight miles.
This is a hard hike, potentially dangerous within the canyon, and quite strenuous on the way back out. I recommend you be in good shape, and that you have at least one experienced hiker in your group. You probably want to leave kids younger than eight home for this one. If all that is cool with you, the reward in the canyon is well worth the effort.
The trails from the Tennessee side of the border are longer, but not quite as steep. You may want to consider the trade off.