Sunday, April 11, 2010

Exploring the Pinhoti Trail – Rebecca Mtn / Flagg Mtn

Today’s adventure on the Pinhoti National Recreation Trail was all about seeing how we can up and over the planned Rebecca Mtn portion of the trail, hopefully slicing off a section of the road walk outside of Sylacauga. In addition, I got a chance to drive the entire current road walk section backward to Weogufka and Flagg Mtn before calling it a day and heading home. The bottom line is that on a gorgeous sunny day, I ran up out of Bulls Gap, along the spine of Rebecca Mtn being treated to great trail before descending to its SW base and onto FS603A/FS603…then turned around and got to do it all again! So part exploration, part training, and part recon for the upcoming Pinhoti FKT attempt.

Woke 0500, poured a thermos of coffee and made some breakfast, loaded up my gear and heading out about 0540. Drove down US-431 over Sand Mtn and through Talladega before arriving at the Bulls Gap TH parking area about 0830. Pulled on my gear, made some last-minute adjustments, and got moving about 0845. Just as Todd Henderson had described, the stairs up to the Rebecca Mtn were right across the road, so up I climbed and found some good, well-blazed trail and off I went. Of course, there is no published map of this section, so I let the blazes be my guide….at least for a while, then had to let common sense take over.

The trail swings around the eastern and southern slopes of the Hill 1523 before heading SW and generally getting onto the spine of Rebecca Mtn. It climbs up the Hill 1408 on the map, but from there the blazes go away and the Sweco-carved trails goes onto the right side of the spine for about a ½ mile. It turns left and then heads back up to the spine and intersects an old, abandoned 4WD trail that climbs to the northern radio tower on the mountain. But about a 1/4mi after getting onto the spine, with the old 4WD trail straight ahead (hell, ain’t no one gonna get anything up on two wheels anymore, this is all 2-footed trail now), the blazes for the Pinhoti suddenly veer off to the right and down onto one of the lower contours of the hill! WTF! I checked it out for about 300-400m, but there was no trail carved at all, just blue blazes every 20-25m. I had to bash through trees, leaves, and rocks; very little if any running. So while I’ll give folks credit for a well-marked ‘desired’ (or planned) path for the Pinhoti, screw that, I headed back up to the spine for some damn fine running.

The trail continues SW along the spine with great views back towards Horn Mtn and into the watershed basin outside of Sylacauga and to the south. After passing over several minor knolls and saddles, it passes right by the first radio tower on Hill 1523 and then makes a steep descent down the concrete driveway that allows maintenance crews. Down in the saddle you can see the blue blazes come back from the right, cross the saddle and then head into the woods with no trail, but the old, nasty, steep pig trail climbs right back up the spine so that’s where I’m going. After about a 1/2mi of tough climbing, you can see the blazes reappear again from the right, cross over the trail, and then head to the left side and into nowhere. (During the return trip I tracked them back a ways but seem to just die out after a ½mi). I just kept climbing and the ridgeline got relatively level for the next 20min or so, with steady, pleasant running. I passed over another knoll at 1523’ elevation, a few more rollers on the spine until coming to a gate and seeing a poor jeep trail off to the right. I explored down it for 10min or so, just to see if I could spot the blue trail blazes, but found nothing. Back past the gate, another concrete road comes up from the south and climbs up to the southern communications towers on Hill 1429. Past one more knoll at Hill 1525, then on the approach to Hill 1485 the old 4WD trail begins to veer off the spine to the right (north) and starts to look like a Sweco-cleared trail. Then after a 1/2mi or so into the stead, oblique descent, the blue blazes reappear and we are back on the Pinhoti once again! The trail makes two long switchbacks, winds around a bit and drops out FS675.

Turning south along the dirt road for about 1km, I was thinking it would follow some old forest service roads back to the Trammel Motorway (FS603). Instead, at the south end of FS675 the road just runs out, and the trail makes a hard left turn back into the woods with a healthy little climb. From there there is simply no trail at all, but a whole lot of blue trail blazes. So just follow the blazes and follow then no-trail, right? Well, I’ll again give the volunteers credit, for it is marked extremely well, never more than 10-15sec of running between blazes. But the darn trail meanders around like a drunken sailor for about the next 20min; I really had to pay attention as the directions changed and keep an eye on the blazes. Then all of the sudden the last blazes dropped me out on other dirt road…and I can’t find anymore. Am I at the south end? Having no earthly idea just how close I actually was to FS603A/FS603 (the intersection I wanted was about 1km away, and I was already standing on FS603A!). I searched around the woods another full ½ hour, a fruitless search for the blazes. Finally I just headed down the dirt road, and it improved a bit, turned a corner, then dropped out on FS603!

Took a solid break break, called Kirsten, talked with Rob Youngren (cell phone reception is good!), drained some fluids and a gel. After that, only one thing left to do on a sunny day during an out-and-back run…and that is to head back! I got going about 1300 and steadily re-traced my route. The first part went a bit faster since I now knew what to expect and soon popped out on FS675, turned north for a bit, then turned right and began the climb back up the trail to the ridgeline. The breeze was up a bit, and could see clouds of pollen blowing off trees. One check of my legs showed a growing coat of yellow pollen over the dirt, no idea how much I was breathing in.

I stopped to take more photos of the communications towers, send them out, and farting around some looking at the views. Running was pleasant and steady heading NE along the spine. As mentioned earlier I did peel off about 2/3 of the way back to see of the trail markings south off the ridge went anywhere, but no trail as before and just wasted my time thrashing around in the woods on the slope. Once I got past the northern communications tower and began heading down the old 4WD trail again, things got interesting for a bit. I picked up the blazed trail as it comes off the slope from the north side, continued down the old jeep trail, watched it head off the spine to the right just as on the map, and blue blue blazes guiding me straight down the finger. But the dang trail just died out! I crashed through a bunch of deadfall, sure that it wasn’t there as I climbed up that morning. A few minutes later I came out on a cleared trail again; where the heck did that come from? I re-traced it back up the hill to the spine, and sure enough, I somehow blew right past it coming down the finger; know when to trust the blazes and when not to! I took 15min to set up some logs and rock cairns as a half-assed markers to guide others to the left and onto the real trail, before looking at my watch and realizing I needed to wrap this up.

So got on the run again, grinding out the final few miles and getting back to my XTerra around 1630. Took a few minutes to completely rinse off, change my clothes, get a recovery drink prepped. This photo doesn’t quite do it justice, but my lower legs were far more yellow in color from pollen than brown from dirt (or even red from blood).

After climbing back in the truck, I spent the next hour going southbound along the official road-walk directions from Bulls Gap to Flagg Mtn. No issues following the route, it’s even relatively pleasant in the lowlands (minus the dogs that will inevitably chase runners and hikers). I passed through Weogufka, found the unmarked entrance to Flagg Mtn and headed up. Thank goodness for a 4WD XTerra, because I needed it in several places where the road had very deep ruts filled with mud; a car would have gotten stuck for sure. I ahd to stop at the gate near the top, but walked the final 200m and took some photos of the tower on the peak, and took in some wonderful panoramic views of east-central Alabama on a clear day.

And now it’s nearly 1800 and I’ve got a long drive back! Got back down Flagg Mtn, put the truck back in 2WD and headed for Sylacauga. Grabbed some Quizno’s for the road, blasted some rock-n-roll, and headed for home in the fading sunset. Got to the house about 2120 where the boys were coming down from attending an evening birthday party at Pump It Up! So brushed their teeth, tucked ‘em into bed, cleaned myself up, and read a book until past midnight when my body finally settled down and let me sleep. Heckuva fine day.