Homewood Forest Preserve, AL 11/04/19

Trails: Homewood Forest Preserve Trail

Length: 1.65 miles

I’d dropped off my brother at the airport after a weekend visit, and having some time to explore around, decided to hike this and two other smaller preserves in the suburbs of Birmingham. Located on the north-facing slope of Shades Mountain, Homewood Forest Preserve is a 65 acre tract of land owned by the City of Homewood but managed by the Freshwater Land Trust that oversees a number of other projects in the area. The land was originally owned by Samford University who sought to develop it, but it was saved through a grassroots effort led by the Friends of Shades Creek organization. You never actually see Shades Creek, which all these little tributaries that flow off the mountain connect into, at least not from the preserve, but there’s certainly a lot of other interesting things around. I knew the fall colors would be nice, and while I was curious as to the presence of waterfalls (there are some in this area), I secretly wanted to see what the preserve is known for: it’s black and yellow Spotted Salamander.

There’s nowhere to park here, really, though you can use the local high school’s parking lot just down the road. During the week this lot is completely full. I ended up parking on the shoulder the of the road across from the new entrance to the preserve. An officer passed me, and didn’t seem to care I was there. Originally the preserve led up through a powerline cut, but an eagle scout project by Homewood High School’s Cade Fowler led to a bit of a renovation. There’s a new bridge leading over a small ditch to start the trail. Fowler also installed QR codes on signs along the trail, which send you to sites that offer a wealth of information about the trees here. This was a great project! I’ve seen QR codes used in similar fashion at state parks and other areas, and it’s truly neat. The only thing that hinders these kind of projects are lack of cell service, but that’s no issue here.

Shortly after passing the first bridge there’s a path leading to the right blocked pretty heavily by fallen trees. I think this was likely part of the original path back to the school, but there’s no way to tell now. One thing I wish this preserve did have is a trail map on a board so you could get your bearings. There is a sign talking about the Homewood Forest Preserve Orienteering course, but it doesn’t map out the trail at all. The first point on the orienteering course is just a few feet from the sign, and a few feet from the second bridge over a slightly wider stream with some flow to it. Looking upstream from here there’s obvious storm damage, and another orienteering sign. I followed what looked like a managed trail on the north side of the creek to the damage and turned back after scoping out a large fallen beech tree for any carvings. There appeared to be a trail on the south side, but I wondered if this was a social trail or not. A map preloaded onto a tracking app I use suggested the loop trail came back to this spot, but it wasn’t that obvious to me. Back on the main trail, came across what looked like blue-stemmed goldenrod, but I need to check further to make sure the ID is correct. One thing that didn’t need an ID was hearts-a-bustin’, one of my favorite little fall shrubs, and one of the most dependable interesting things to find in bloom or in seed this time of year. Also dependable were the fall colors, which were already making a bit of an appearance, though most of the bright oranges were hidden way up on the ridge obscured by a lot of green foliage still. The trail felt a bit like an old road, wide and easy, while the actual road was still noisy, and still well within eyesight. Between here and there was a low wet area, though if those earlier streams fed it, you couldn’t tell it. What’s probably a deep pond in the spring is completely dry at the moment, despite all the rain we’ve had recently.

I crossed another bridge over a dry drainage as the trail ventured a bit uphill. The colors began to come alive now, and the bright oranges and yellows contrasted nicely with the tufts of white flowers from thoroughwort. These were in an area of somewhat newly fallen trees, where light has been more plentiful this year. Despite the number of trees down, including some across the trail, they were easy enough to step over or navigate around. The trail soon came to a head and made a switchback to the right. Sharply downhill was a noisy apartment complex where lots of kids were playing. There seems to be some kind of social trail access from there, but I didn’t explore it. Instead I kept on with the trail, taking in all of the fall colors as the path made two more quick switchbacks before heading back to the right again. Higher up form the road, the traffic was less noisy, but the sounds of distant sirens still carried far and loud. I’m not sure I can remark enough of the oaks and maples and how stunning the colors all were. I stopped to enjoy it all, and to take a look a rather large birdhouse on a fallen tree. The structure still looks in good shape, and at several feet in length, it’ll make a nice dwelling for some woodland creature now.

Crossing more fallen trees, one had a large amount of interesting orange tinged mushrooms surrounding the base and popping up in large clumps elsewhere. I like to call fungi the wildflowers of winter. They add that pop of color when little else does. Ahead, I noticed two orange flags on a tree, indicative of a turn in the trail. The main path looked like it went straight ahead, while this indicated turn looked more like a very dry drainage. I venture up it anyway, as it appeared to be the outer leg of a loop, and I was wanting to find the bird viewing platform that was off on some spur trail. I made short work of the climb uphill, which quickly opened into a grassy powerline cut. To the left were townhomes and apartments within walking distance, some right up against the trail. To the right was a small area that led down to a cleared off section of the cut with benches and a great view of Samford University. I hung out here for a bit, as there was much variety in wildflowers. I was particularly interested in lobelia, something I haven’t photographed much of this year. Finding some mountain mint hanging on was a delightful surprise. Several other folks started to show up, and as I was leaving one inquired if they’d “run me off”. I assured them they hadn’t, that I was searching for the other section of trail, which was partly true. The lower loop I split off from earlier was supposed to cross somewhere in the thick brush down slope, and I had briefly looked for that.

I reentered the forest back uphill where once again the forest was a fiery wonderland. An odd stand of pines mixed in through here, something the rest of the hike was devoid of. Soon the trail descended again, cross a bubbling stream beneath a weird section where four hickory trees were planted almost in a square shape just above the stream and a rocky section to the south. The stream itself seemed to emerge from a spring here near the base of the one of the trees. The grade was gentle enough, pretty flat as the trail wove in and out of trees and a bit uphill. Here one really felt like being in deep woods. There were no noisy roads, no visible buildings, just nature. After a bit of this it ventured downhill and I could see a deep drainage ahead. There was another trail junction, and another tree marked with double tape indicating a hard turn, but several trees across it meant it was a path they were trying to eliminate. Uphill and to the left was another trail junction, with the spur to the left leading back to a parking lot. There was a beautiful stand of pines uphill too, and I took another break here to enjoy it.

From what I’d read, this trail I was on was supposed to lead to the birding blind/platform/overlook of some kind about half a mile in. I kept on it, going further downhill and across the best flowing stream I’d seen so far. Apartment buildings were visible to the south, and with that, traffic noise had returned. I searched a large old beech tree for carvings, which had a few, but all were too old and worn to discern. As much water was flowing, and considering how rocky the previous stream was, I couldn’t help but wonder if there were waterfalls hidden in this little preserve. I kept on trail though, hiking through arguably the best section of fall colors yet; just a stunning array of fiery red maples everywhere. Continuing downhill, I was beginning to wonder about the so called overlook, especially when the soccer field came into view. On the far side of the field up on the hill was a platform though, complete with a sort of pulpit like stand. There was no obvious trail or path from here on the forest side of things to reach it, so I simply backtracked.

At the last stream I did decided to get off trail and venture down a bit, finding lots of downed trees in the creek and a series of small cascades. I didn’t have the time the bushwhack further, but that may yet be another adventure. I made quick work back to the junction that seemed like it was blocked off, and followed that, as the trail on the phone app showed a small loop here. I was secretly hoping the bird blind was somewhere, but that never materialized. There were a few obscured views down into the stream area, all alive with fall colors, but my favorite part of this trail was the rock outcroppings. This is the only spot in the preserve I came across this, and while none were large enough to offer shelter from rain, it was fun to search them for fossils and what not. Crossing one large downed tree, the trail began to round off to the right and likely back uphill, but the tree damage was so bad through here the trail has been lost. Instead of going back the way I came, I ventured downhill into the next stream, which happened to be the one where I found the spring with the rocks and four trees earlier. I considered following this on downhill, knowing it would lead out at least somewhere close to the parking area. I could also see cascades downstream as well, some a big bigger than what I’d seen thus far.

Instead, I hiked uphill back to the trail and was soon at the powerline cut. I spotted a social trail off to the left I didn’t see earlier, and it lined up with the phone’s map, so I followed it until it hit the head high brush of the cut. There was really no discernible path, but I decided to plow on through it all anyway. This ended up one of the worst decisions I’d done in a while, as I got wrapped and tangled in both brier and multiflora rose at the same time. That hurt! Finally making it through to the other side, I was disheartened to find the supposed trail was non-existent here, at least according to the map. I hiking uphill, eventually finding it though, and traced it back to where it entered the powerline cut. It was just as grown over. It was an easy walk back to the next junction, and then on downhill through a switchback or two until I came across an outdoor classroom of sorts kind of hidden and tucked away. About half a dozen long bleacher style wooden seats facing a small stream and a rock pulpit. Hiking down to it, I noticed there was also a stone bridge and sign that read “Homewood Forest Preserve” screwed into some concrete on top of the pulpit. I’d eaten up more time here than I’d intended, though the fall colors were worth it. It was a short walk back downhill completing the loop that put me out on top of the fallen beech tree near the start. The way it was angled blocked the view of this trail leading up and out through the woods, which is why I didn’t see it earlier. I’d taken maybe a little longer than I’d planned at this preserve, but the walk to the car was almost as short as the drive to the next little destination on my trifecta hike list, and one of the neatest places in the Birmingham area in my opinion: The Library In The Forest.

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