Wandering along the Pinhoti Trail

The Pinhoti Trail is one of Alabama’s rarest gems.  How it has mostly remained under the radar, I do not know, but it is there, meandering over 300 miles from the base of Flagg Mountain, over the state’s highest peak- Cheaha Mountain, and making it’s way into Georgia where it connects with the Appalachian Trial via the Benton Mackaye Trail.  The Pinhoti has played a major role in my life, as well.  The memories it has given me, and the outlook I have gained from this trail cross my memories and ideals just as it crosses the Blueridge Mountains.  It passes by my old home, where I grew up, in one of its many twists and turns it makes as it winds its way up North.  Growing up, I “discovered” the trail on one of my many adventures off of my property on the Talladega National Forest.  After learning what the trail was and that I could literally walk from my front door all the way to Maine in the woods, a seed rooted deep inside that would change my whole stance on life.  The memories of my early years of backpacking still make me wince.  Armed with an old external frame North Face backpack, I would go on three mile hikes with a 60 lb load consisting of canned food, fire logs, and a gallon of water tied to the outside by a shoestring.  But no matter how much I abused myself on that trail, I fell deeply in love with it and what it represented.

This Christmas I came back to Alabama from Colorado for the first time in nearly five years.  I stayed for a whole month and I brought all of my gear.  One of the hikes I always wanted to do when I was growing up was from Cheaha Mountain to my home in White Plains.  Back then, in high school, I thought this was a ridiculous plan.  It was over 30 miles away!  And Cheaha Mountain is no joke.  At 2400 feet high and a 1300 foot prominence, there was no way that my friends and I had the resources and stamina to tackle such a feat (that was sarcasm, but in all fairness, we did have that mindset).  Fast forward to the present and I was really looking forward to knocking out my Cheaha to Home hike.

I got into Alabama on December the 15th.  The next week was a whirlwind of visiting relatives, catching up with my immediate family, and seeing old friends. On the Thursday before Christmas I was finally free to enjoy this simple, moderate, but very important hike.

Pinhoti Trail Adventures
The Pinhoti Trail section I hiked, going North
Thursday afternoon I had a bit of a late start.  When I left Colorado I forgot my jacket in my car.  Luckily a friend of mine was able to get it shipped out to me a few days later.  It arrived Thursday afternoon but unfortunately, after I got my jacket packed I realized my backpack had been rifled through.  My grandmother has Alzheimer’s disease and I suspected her involvement immediately.  After an hour of tracking my gear through the house I finally got to the trail head on Cheaha Mountain by 4:30 PM.  
Although not as stunning as Colorado’s landscapes, the Southern Appalachians have their own form of serene beauty to offer.

After I hit the trail I boogied as fast as I could go to cover as much ground as possible.  I really wanted to make it home on Christmas Eve around noon.  That night I covered over 7 miles, stopped by the Blue Mountain shelter, and made it to the bottom of Cheaha Mountain where I camped in a small holler next to a creek.  It was chilly and felt colder than Colorado, but I chalked that up to the higher humidity of the South.

The Blue Mountain Shelter looks creepy at night.
My tent was nice and warm in the morning, but it was chilly outside.
I spent the next morning cruising through hollows of old oaks and homestead sites, (the houses and buildings were long gone, but the root cellar pits, roadbeds, and irrigation ditches were still in place) and piney ridge tops populated by the endemic and endangered long leaf pine.  I meandered by streams and crossed a county road or two.  All in all I covered over 17 miles which is a record for me.  I suppose that all that Colorado exercise and weight loss gave me hand.  After crossing I-20, I walked a few more miles to get away from the interstate and chose camp in another, larger hollow, but one that was more open spaced and had several streams.  The night was balmy- in the 70’s- and my bag was too warm.  However my aching legs did not care one bit about that and I was out before my head hit my pillow!.
Even though this was a part of the trail I have never hiked, I did have a strong feeling that I had been here before.  Even though I had never set foot on this section of the trail, it felt as familiar as the back of my hand.  It is interesting to be able to go back to your old stomping grounds with a new perspective.  The Talladega National Forest, a place that seemed so large growing up, now seems somewhat small- but its still beautiful and chock-full of nostalgia.
An old road or firebreak that the trail piggybacks on for a while.

Unfortunately, this was a somewhat common sight on the trail.  I packed out as much as I could.

After 17 miles, I decided it was high time I set up my tent and called it a night!  I quickly pitched my tent, threw out my bag, and made a meal of mac and cheese ( a trail staple!) before falling asleep around 6.  In the night coyotes woke me up continuously.  At one point I heard one sniffing and walking around my campsite.  I told him to leave me alone and I went back to sleep.  In the morning I was awoken by a group of trail runners. It was the Pinhoti Trail Runners group training for some upcoming marathons.  I talked briefly to a few of them as I packed up camp.

Soon after, I was on the trail again.  I only had about seven miles to go today so I wasn’t hoofing it as intensely as the day before.Shortly after starting the trail I crossed a buried pipeline and entered into a tornado scar from about 2008.  It was neat to see how the land had recovered.  It was an excellent example of secondary succession in action.  The scar was filled with brambles and bushes with a lot of shrubby long leaf pine trying to grow in.  Eventually, through fire and competition, the long leaf will slowly take over and grow into a more mature stand, and perhaps, one day the stand will be replaced with hardwoods.

The rest of the day was a casual hike through the mountains where I grew up.  Eventually, the trail turned from a familiar old acquaintance to a friend I have known for years.  Sections of the trail were familiar- there was the old campsite my dad took me on my first ever camping trip, there was the old dead stump where I carved my name (now illegible by moss and time), and eventually I came across a little stream that lead all they way to my home.That little stream flows right under the railroad tracks and feeds the pond where I grew up.  I paused for a minute.  I haven’t seen my home, the very epicenter from which all my love for the outdoors sprang up, in 6 years.  It was sold after my parents divorce.  I could have followed the stream to the tracks and looked at my home from afar, but I pondered a moment longer.  I will always cherish the nurturing growth my home had on my lifestyle and appreciation for the outdoors and conservation.  Every adventure I have ever had or ever will could be linked, in all honesty, to the adventures I had every day growing up on that little 80 acre plot of land.  I have been fortunate.  Life is a narrow, undulating ribbon in the wind.  It flits and flutters so quickly that half the time I don’t think anyone knows exactly where we’re going.  Time is so fleeting, though, that we need to embrace the change. There is no time to fight it. We need to feel and welcome the visceral touch of pain, laughter, bonds, and all of the other infinite attachments that come with life.  We need to be okay with everything that life throws at us and we need to keep moving forward.So that is what I did.  I turned my back to that little stream and trekked on to a Forest Service road crossing about three miles up the trail.  I called my mom and she picked me up.  Scratch another off the bucket list.

Pinhoti Trail Adventures
The campsite my father took me to on my first backpacking trip.
Pinhoti Trail Adventures
It seems no one has used it in a while. The fire pit has grown over.
A very familiar sight.  The Southern Appalachians as seen from behind my old home, on the Pinhoti Trail.
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6 thoughts on “Wandering along the Pinhoti Trail

  1. I enjoyed your story I didn’t know the trail came that close to your house . I never have met you but your grandfather Sam and my grandfather Grady were brothers

    1. Oh, wow, it’s a pleasure to (virtually) meet you. That is really cool. I didn’t know that my grandpa Sam had a brother. I really need to get in touch with the Turner side of the family. There are just so many!

  2. Really enjoyed this, Skyler! Hope you continue your adventures and share them with us!

  3. Young, healthy, ANd enjoying THE beautiful world around you. Blessed!!!

  4. Gonna try the Pinhoti trail someday.

    1. Well, it’s in your backyard. A great, easy day hike is from the Shoal Creek Shelter to Pine Glenn. You can even camp out at the shelter the night before. It is a gorgeous walk.

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