South Plateau / Rocky Nightmare Loop, Monte Sano State Park, AL 12/27/19

Trails: South Plateau Loop, McKay Hollow Trail, Rocky Nightmare Trail, Warpath Ridge, Bucca Family Trail, Fire Tower Trail

Photo Gallery:

Length: 4.75 miles

After a lazy morning and looking for something to do outdoors, I decided to tackle the Rocky Nightmare Trail, the one little trail (it clocks in at just under a mile) at Monte Sano State Park I’d yet to do. Known mostly as a mountain biking trail, and apparently a pain because of the rocks, it was a draw for me as a lot of the trails at Monte Sano State Park this time of year lack appeal this time of year. I’m too used to the mosses and ferns and bluffs and waterfalls for flat walks on a mountaintop to keep my interest long. Rocky Nightmare Trail has the advantage of being down in McKay Hollow, and briefly shares face with the McKay Hollow Trail. McKay Hollow is the stand out section at Monte Sano, and has all of those things that I’m generally interested in. As such, I made a return trip to an old favorite waterfall here I hadn’t seen in years along the way.

Starting at what’s known as the hiker’s trailhead, I set out on the South Plateau Loop, which runs along a section of a powerline cut and shares face with the disc golf trail for a bit. In the summer, this stretch is interesting with the wildflowers here that love the bright light and extra heat, but there’s not much to see during the winter time. As I approached the junction of where the North Plateau Loop ties into the South Plateau Loop, I found water running down the trail from some spring uphill. To my left I could see the feeder stream of McKay Branch flowing quite well, so I set off off trail downhill through slick leaves. Reaching the stream, it’s a narrow and easy enough crossing here. The water is shallow and the stream only about 3ft wide. The 6ft tall upper falls is visible from here, the width of the stream free falling from a rocky shelf. Just out of view here to the northwest is the second little falls about equal in size from a second little stream that joins just above the main falls. The first falls has a small shelter behind it, but not large enough for anything other than an animal to bed down in. It disappears back into the hillside pretty quickly.

Years ago there was almost a beaten path to the bottom of the large falls. The evidence of the old trail is still somewhat there, and it’s really kind of unfortunate the state park hasn’t made an official trail down to this falls. McKay Hollow is full of waterfalls, and I’d bet all except the one from the main trailhead remain largely unknown. It’s a slick slide in one part where the rock shelf drops down a few feet, and it being so slick kept me from hiking back uphill to see the second falls. That falls has a nice north facing shelter to it’s left, but if you’re this close to the trailhead seeking shelter your vehicle or the nearby lodge is probably a better option. These two streams join just above what I’ve always called Lodge Falls, though it technically has no name.

Lodge Falls is a 20-25ft cascading waterfall with the upper section consisting of two small freefalling waterfalls before bouncing down the layered rock to a small pool below. The pool looks mostly the same as it did years ago, though storm debris below at the edge is a bit thicker. Off to my left I could see another small falls trickling into a sinkhole or something along the same steep section of land. I visited it years ago during a trip to Monte Sano just after a snowstorm, but haven’t since. Today’s adventure really wasn’t about exploring the waterfalls here either. This was just a detour to see an “old friend”. If you do take the little social trail down, and go for the easy path that leads to a large tree, watch out for the multiflora rose that’s really thickened up here. From the tree it’s an easy little walk down to the base of the falls. Situated in a little half moon bowl, the rock layers are quite striated in appearance until they reach the north side. There they seem to become a bit more block shaped in nature. At the base of the falls a decent sized sandbar has formed on the north side as well, and you can almost reach the falls itself from there. Getting there from where I was would have required some rock hopping, and I wasn’t willing to do that this early in the adventure.

Back on the South Plateau Loop, it was the same easy level path as I remembered it, winding a little back and forth, the far ridge and valley somewhat visible with the leaves down. I spotted a little social trail leading out to a rock, and walked out to the edge on a rocky outcrop atop a bluff about 30 feet high. All of McKay Hollow was visible from here. This was just a short detour, and worth it for the view. Ahead on the trail, lots of wax myrtles border either side, and their bark at least adds some small interest to the landscape here. There’s never been a ton of fallen trees in the forest up top, and with the wildflowers dormant, it’s just different shades of brown and gray from the bark to the leaf litter. I stepped off trail again at the next little stream just briefly to get a photo of the creek here. During the winter season almost every little seasonal stream creates a falls here, though most are inaccessible. The bridge over the falls looked like it’d been replaced since the last time I visited, and someone had placed a turtle shell atop one of the tall posts.

Coming out of that little cove the trail again crept up against the edge offering just a glimpse down into the Hampton Cove area. I stopped at another little bridge, mostly because the stream appeared to disappear about 20ft from the bridge upstream. The dirt was quite dry up until the the little sink the stream flowed into before turning a bit muddy. I was surprised at the flow coming from this stream, if only a few feet wide. Knowing it’d come back out somewhere downstream likely before the falls, I followed the dry drainage with moss covered rocks until it came rushing out again. Just before the main falls, a nice little three step cascade made for a good picture before another multi-step cascade dropped about 8ft down into McKay Hollow. One day it’d be fun to document all of the falls in this hollow.

The next stream on up the trail for once was completely dry, and I was more interested in an old dead tree with lots of oyster mushrooms around the base of it. As the trees thickened, they also were more mature here. At one point, a lot of this land was settled by the Fearn and later the O’Shaughnessy families. I imagine much of it was logged or farmed. After yet another stream crossing, the trail finally ventured well uphill with some obscured views into Hampton Cove. As the land leveled out, I passed one of the old trail shelters, of which only the rock portion of the back and sides remained original. Catching movement, I stood and watched a yellow-bellied sapsucker move up one of the far trees. These were the best photos I’ve ever taken of one of these birds! After he moved on, I picked up my pace a bit, passing the connector trail that leads to the bog, and a few benches that led out on a social trail to another rocky overlook. There was really nothing of much interest except to note the encroaching invasive bush honeysuckle offering some off green and yellow color to the landscape.

After briefly sharing face with the Fire Tower Trail, the path makes a hard bend before passing a second trail shelter. These are such great little spots to sit and read a book and to get out of the rain, though I’m not sure how much these west facing shelters protect if you add wind to that equation. The roof on this shelter seems to have been rebuilt as well, but the original timbers remain intact, which is great and a testament to it’s original construction. I believe all of these shelters date back to the CCC days. Finally, the next turn off was where I needed to be. There’s no sign marking the Rocky Nightmare Trail here, but one has to backtrack on the McKay Hollow Trail a bit before reaching it. A larger sign notating a third “Rest Shelter” is here as well marking the turn. Walking down to the shelter, the McKay Hollow Trail runs parallel to this little side trail to the shelter, which offers benches on both sides, and no rock retaining walls. From here, it’s a beautiful view down into McKay Hollow, my favorite section of the state park.

I turned to the right and headed north along the trail, well worn and easier than I remember it being. I’ve only ever done this portion before on the way out, so the hill was likely not as steep nor as demanding as I recall. I passed several rocky outcroppings, one with a kind of balanced rock atop it. From here one can see all the rock and boulders down in the valley, as many are covered in a layer of moss. It’s a quite striking contrast from the fallen leaves. Above and to my right the bluffline the South Plateau Loop had been following became visible. As the trail reached a lower shelf in the hollow, the last of the little streams falling off the mountain came into view. I couldn’t quite see that last waterfall from here, though. As the Mckay Hollow Trail continued downhill and to the right, the Rocky Nightmare Trail quickly juts off to the left, paralleling the upper McKay Hollow. I kind of had a laugh, as while there were large piles of jumbled rocks around, the first part of the Rocky Nightmare Trail looked neither rocky nor a nightmare.

As far as trails go down in McKay Hollow, this is about as easy as it gets. The trail was largely devoid of any rocks at all, save those marking the edges of the path. The grade here was slightly uphill, but nothing too hard. After passing through mostly open forest, the trail finally hit the top of a little knoll where it was quite rocky underfoot. I stopped here to explore, mostly to photograph the moss and lichen covered rocks and small boulders. The trail makes a hard turn to the left past here, leading closer to the base of the upper shelf The McKay Hollow Trail descended on. There’s great views uphill of both that trail and the bluff line above it. After winding back and forth a bit, I passed through another rocky area, this one with large piles of rock uphill. Spotting cranefly orchid growing, I got off trail to explore around more of the rocks here, but found little else. Just as quickly, the rocky areas disappeared, and a small vernal pond came into view on the east side of the trail. The pond is only about 15ft long, and hardly a foot or two deep in the center. I studied the mud and leaf litter around for animal tracks, but came up empty handed. I would suspect it’d be a great spot for photographing deer or whatever creatures use it here. Somewhere uphill from here is O’Shaughnessy Point, where years ago a group of wild goats were photographed. They seem to enjoy the point area, or the other side of the mountain near the stone cuts. It’s still a goal of mine to find and photograph this little herd. Now the trail started to take on more elevation, winding uphill at about the half mile mark to the top of a little hill that was quite rocky beneath the leaf litter. Down through the forest I could see this arm of land led well out to a point, and likely a great spot looking down onto McKay Branch, but I didn’t have the time to walk it. It was also starting to rain.

There was only a small possibility of rain in the forecast, and I started the trail not noticing the small bands of rain much further south racing northward. It didn’t deter me from stopping and photographing all of the interesting little rock outcroppings here. The area seemed familiar in a way. Years ago when I first hiked McKay Hollow, I got off trail somehow and bushwhacked most of this area before stumbling on a trail called Red Lizard. I’ve never been able to figure out what I was actually following that day. I remember it mostly because I ended up almost 3 miles from the trailhead, and not even an hour of daylight left that day. In those days, especially uphill, it didn’t make me a happy person. I still don’t like hills. The rocky outcroppings of Warpath Ridge came into view soon, and I resisted the urge to sniff out what looked like small cave openings (but probably weren’t). Still heading uphill, I was high enough now to see the views of Hampton Cove return a bit. Past this area is the one big spot the trail gets confusing. After hanging right where it almost looks like it’s going straight, it makes an extremely sharp hair pin turn back on itself and appears to lead downhill a bit. It does, but soon a little dip over a dry stream through a thicket of cedar trees reaches the junction with the Warpath Ridge Trail. It’s further south that the Red Lizard Trail joins in somewhere.

The last time I hiked Warpath Ridge, I remembered there being a number of sinkholes or pit style caves. On the way up to the top here I peeked over into one depression, but it was just that, a mild dip. The ones I’m thinking of must be further down the trail to the south. Just before reaching the ridge, the trail follows just below a long rocky outcrop much like that at the stone cuts on the east side of the mountain, leading out to a point. As time wasn’t on my side, I opted to not hike that part, but one day when I revisit the southernmost trails I probably will.

The short section leading up to the ridge itself from this trail is the steepest portion of this entire loop. There’s a nice flat area once above the rocky outcropping to rest for a second before tackling the second half that leads to the top of the ridge. The the west just a hint of the sunset was peeking through the scattered rain showers moving in, a small slit of orange burning in the distance. Reaching the next little ridge out of this saddle, I stopped to peer down into Mill Hollow to the east. There’s an old CCC pumphouse I’ve been wanting to see for years but never managed to get to it. Outside of an extremely long hike, I think one day it’ll require cutting across country off trail downhill maybe from the Goat Trail to reach it.

On the west side of the trail here is an old foundation of some kind, too. It’s stacked stone, square in shape, about 5ft in diameter with a hollow center. I’ve never found information as to what this was. Once back on the flat ground atop Monte Sano Mountain, I picked up my pace. I took a little side trip to O’Shaughnessy Point to catch a little more of the sunset before taking the Bucca Family Trail where it, the Goat Trail and South Plateau Loop all converge into one really inconvenient bottleneck of a spot. I always like to hike out a little different than the way I came, and taking this to the Fire Tower Trail would allow me to see a few things I haven’t seen in a while. The Bucca Trail is uneventful except for all the zigs and zags that would make it fun on a bike. It’s barely wide enough for one person, or the worn section anyway. Eventually the trail begins to pass a few rock outcroppings, though they’re nothing to write home about.

Just before joining the Fire Tower Trail, the old fire tower itself comes into view. With the cloudy skies it was nothing more than a silhouette mixed in with the barren trees. I’d love for this to be reopened someday, but the degradation of the structure continues. Now it seems the lookout part itself is almost completely without a floor. The old fence surrounding it and the garage has been toppled over in places, and multi-colored graffiti sprayed all over the back of one of the buildings inside the compound.

I continued on north as the rain picked up, joining the Fire Tower Trail, lined with dark green ferns of some kind. At this point I was stopping for little, trying to beat the heaviest rain back to the car. I passed the short section that the South Plateau Loop shared with the Fire Tower Trail, continuing straight on the latter. I’d forgotten the O’Shaugnessy and Fearn homesites were along this trail, so there I did stop to photograph the historical markers and old photos of the homes. I wanted to veer off and see the bog here again, but the rain continued to get worse. Attached to both of the historical markers was a little sign with a QR code that read Madison County Marker Challenge. I know nothing of this, and will look it up later. Each QR symbol also had it’s own unique three letter code I’m guessing must be entered onto the web address provided.

I eventually did take a little connector trail off to the side to see the lower end of the bog, as black from tannic acid as I remember it, and no change in size. I could see what appeared to be a new bridge across the middle of it, but pressed for time and with the rain, again I didn’t make a stop for it. I didn’t even stop to get off trail to see the Native American marker tree along the stretch between the bog and where the Fire Tower Trail joins the South Plateau Loop back toward the start. I did make time for the sunset peeking out just a bit more casting sun rays through the woods. I was able to watch it for much of the way back to the car, a nice end to a fun little adventure, and for now, the last of the trails I hadn’t seen finally explored at Monte Sano State Park.

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