Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Stephens Gap Cave & Lula Lake Land Trust--Road Trip

Stephens Gap Cave & Lula Lake Land Trust--Road Trip 

Dana & Kenny Koogler
Mike Gourley
Mike Maples

Sunday April 30, 2017

Hike Distance 1.6 miles Round Trip --Stephens Gap Cave

Hike Distance Lula Lake 2 miles RT approx.

  Life can surprise us in some delightful ways at times.  I am a planner. I like to think ahead.
I am very Type B... laid back personality.  I plan, but I am flexible and have contingency plans for my contingency plans.  It prevents a lot of frustration and disappointment.   A few months back Kenny and I went camping and ventured out exploring those days.  A couple of the trip reports from that
camp out included waterfalls and caves.  I posted them on GoSmokies and Brian Reed commented
on them. He was intrigued and asked if I had been to Stephens Gap Cave in Alabama? I had not been. He suggested it as a trip and I had to admit it looked like it would be great.  I did not have any immediate intention to act upon it though.  I got an email later from Mike Gourley who had seen the photo Brian shared of Stephens Gap Cave. He had moved it up to the tip top of his To Do List and
was raring to go.  He had obtained a permit and asked if Kenny and I would be interested.  I told him of course!  So it was planned, but by our usual standards it was a bit impromptu.  It turned out to be
one of the all time grooviest trips ever.  He could only include six people on the permit max. He
wanted to keep the group size small anyway. The more people you involve the more complex the
logistics become.     Everything was worked out as to who would meet and where.  Sunday morning
we met up and began our adventure.

             One of the things we decided was to have several options for the other half of the day.
We figured since Stephens Gap was such a short hike and we knew little about the preserve we would
go with this idea in mind: We'd spend as much time there as we wanted, but have a few back up ideas
in case it ended up taking only half day to see.  Neither Mike Maples or Mike Gourley had been to Lula Lake Land Trust so that was one I mentioned as a possible half day add on.

      The drive down was three hours, but it was almost all interstate. Kenny was familiar with most of it so it went smoothly.   We had directions how to reach the place in the form of a map with the physical address on it.  We pulled up at this gravel lot and parked.  The trailhead was marked. We saw a Southeast Cave Conservancy sign.  We had no directions, but it was self explanatory.  We grabbed our gear and headed down the trail.   We left our lunch stuff in the jeep since we figured we'd
eat when we finished our hike back.  
  Spigelia marylandica .. Indian Pinks.  It is said to contain strychnine.. very poisonous.  Sure is pretty though.  Just don't eat it!  
   The trail was level or slightly uphill. It is through a cedar woods with lots of limestone rock jutting
out of the ground.  We passed some really pretty flowers.  Lots and lots of Indian pinkroot was blooming.  We also saw lots of some sort of skullcap in bloom.  We passed a cave of some sort that
went straight into the ground.  Near it was a spring flowing.

Lots of limestone rock in the forest. Many wildflowers love this kind of sweet soil around limestone rocks.

Skullcap of some variety. Lots of it in bloom. It looks almost glowing!

Spring running out of the ground near the start of the hike.

      The hike to Stephens Gap Cave is not long nor is it particularly hard to navigate. It is fairly
straight forward.  I won't call it an "Easy" hike though for the simple reason it has some narrow, muddy parts to it.  In places the trail is extremely narrow and rocky while being on the edge of a bluff with a drop below you.  The muddy, rocky areas you have to climb up in one spot would be dangerous during rainy weather.  You'd slide right down.   Better to tell folks the truth right up front.
We were there at the cave pretty quickly.   I did see a type of wild petunia blooming along the trail.
I could also tell that a few weeks earlier there would have been lots of larkspur, trilliums and wild geraniums.  I could see the remaining stalks of all of those.   The other few wildflowers blooming today were solomons seal and lots of jack in the pulpit.


Above--wild petunia
Below Jack in the pulpit


     The north east corner of Alabama, north west corner of Georgia,and
southern border of Tennessee around South Pittsburgh is known for having lots of pit caves.
They are vertical shafts and unless you are qualified to bounce pits you aren't going to see these
places most of the time.  Stephens Gap Cave is different because it has both a vertical shaft entrance
as well as a horizontal entrance.  It gives weenies like me a chance to see it without getting hurt.
The morning we got there we did not see another soul until we were about ready to leave.

     We took time to check out the area outside first. We could view the upper portion of the vertical shaft where a waterfall flows out of the ground and disappears from view.  You have to go into the cave's entrance to see the rest.


Outside portion of Stephens Gap Cave vertical entrance.
You can see the mist that fills the pit and the cave here a little bit. 

   I turned and stopped to look at the outer portion of the horizontal entrance. More mist hung in the air around it.  It was surreal.  The photo below shows a glimpse of the mist and fog. IMG_2130

      I really wanted to get to see inside the cave before the trampling herds arrived.  I climbed down and went on in.   Looking around at all the formations in the cave and the way the rock has been carved out by water is something to see.  It was beautiful inside the cave and looking out of the large entrance at all the green leaves.  IMG_2134

Looking back out of the horizontal entrance of the cave.

  Once inside the roar of water was not deafening, but you had to stand very near someone to hear a word they said.  It was not a bad sound to listen to though.  It was one of those places you have to 
be there to experience fully. The roar of the water. The cool, moist air of the cave.  The dark. The light filtering down.  Gradations of shadow all between.  Salamanders on rocks.  No less than five separate source of water entering the cave.  Anything from the large stream waterfall to tiny rivulets coming down from the cave ceiling to middle sized cascades.  We climbed all around taking in the views of all these wonders.  I had always seen photos of this cave taken by others and wondered if what I was seeing was a shaft of light coming down or water. It is both!  

You can see that the bottom left corner of the photo has a stream flowing down. The central shaft of more solid white is the falls. the rest of the white is sunbeams.  What a spectacular sight!
It is a real challenge to take photos inside a cave. This cave presented a new set of challenges because of the wide variety of light and dark in there!  You'd get set up for one condition and then have to change up.  It was one of the coolest things I've seen.  I was very glad Mike wanted to go. 
I did not realize how special this would be.  I can say that with surety because it seemed like we were in there for 30 minutes.  We were in the cave for 2 HOURS and 30 minutes.  
It seemed that time stood still or slowed to a crawl in there.  So much to see and absorb.  

    We climbed to the back portion of the pit to see the furthest cascade. It was pitch black and made for very difficult photography conditions.  Still glad to have had the experience.    

Below is an image of the furthest back falls coming out of the cave wall. 
I finally got my camera set up to get a decent photo of it.  It is heck getting old and trying to see in good light much less darkness with my readers! 
Below is a photo of the middle cascade. It was the one that flows down to the bast of the main pit.

inner stephens gap cave smaller cascade


The above photo shows the vertical shaft on the left and the horizontal opening on the right.
Mike Maples between them for scale.  The glittering drops of water toward the middle are a small
shower of falls coming from the cave ceiling.  

 Salamander on the cave floor.
Looking out at the tones of rock inside the cave.  The horizontal entrance has water coming down over it.  Beside me is a pretty shower type falls that glitters like diamonds.   

I found myself captivated by the play of light and shadow inside this cave. 
Hard to leave.  

 Yet we finally did pull ourselves away.  I was shocked when Kenny told me how long we'd been down there.   Here I was worried it would not be enough to fill the day.  We were coming out right as other hikers and cavers began to arrive.  Unbelievably we had the place to ourselves nearly the whole time we were there!  We got lucky!  We started to see numerous people hiking in as we left. 

         We stopped at the jeep and ate lunch. I put on a dry shirt.  We had watermelon! It was so good.
A great thirst quencher on a hot day.   We had a nice sunny day with blue skies and relatively mild temperatures.   We had heard from other hikers of nearby caves we could have visited but we did not have permits for those or any information or directions. We decided that would have to wait for another time.  We'd drive back past Lula Lake and see the falls there.   It would be about the right amount of hiking to wrap up our day. We did not want to be dragging in real late. I had made Mike Maples promise to stay at our house if we got in late. I did not want to worry about him dozing off on the way back to Gatlinburg.   

      We took a little time to figure the best route from where we were to get to Lula Lake.
It was about 63 miles from point to point.  It took us about an hour and a half to get there.   We stopped once to fuel up and stretch our legs.  We saw people hang gliding off the brow of Lookout
Mountain.  Lots of them!  They looked tiny up there.   We had not map or directions as to the trails
or trailhead, but we found it just the same.  We parked near the exit and started our hike.  That made it shorter.  It had been a good many years since we were there so we got turned around and spent about 1/4 mile hiking the wrong direction.   We turned and got going the right way.  It was a pretty hike.
Lots of people here today.  Rock Creek was flowing by fast and clear. It was way more water in the stream than when we visited before.   The catawba rhododendrons were in bloom as was the mountain laurel.    We hit this just right.  

     We first came to Lula Lake at the metal bridge.  Lula Lake Falls gets its name because it empties into the lake.   I'm not sure why, but they do not allow swimming here. It may be a liability thing.
 Closeup of Catawba rhodo blooms
 Mountain laurel on the left Catawba rhododendron on the right

Lula Lake Falls

         Once we took time to visit and view Lula Lake Falls we mosied on down the short distance to Lula Falls.  It is not far. The hike along til now was flat and easy.  The hike down to the big, main falls is down all the way and a steep hike back up the steps.   We could hear the roar of the falls long before we ever approached it.  We could not get anywhere near it today for the spray reached all the way back to the steps.   I could get a clear shot of it, but when the wind would shift I'd be wiping my lens off again.   
           This is Lula Falls. It is 80 feet high.  We had been here once before but today the water volume was triple what it was that day.  Down in this hole the sun is not reaching and everything took on a blue cast.   The place closes at sundown so we knew better than to tarry too long.  We enjoyed the sight of the powerful waterfall and then began the steep trudge back up.   It was mercifully short.
We caught our breath at the top and started our hike back to the exit gate.   The only uphill from then on was the little pull up to the road.   

           The evening was warm and a breeze was stirring.  I hiked along in the quiet. The men were behind me talking among themselves.  I could barely hear the murmur of their conversation.  I was
just enjoying being in the moment.    Rock creek flowed by on my left.  I walked through a tunnel of green interspersed with warm patches of golden evening sun.  I was with my husband and good friends.   Today was a good day.   

        Back at the jeep we loaded up and decided we'd stop somewhere on the way home to eat.
I voted for barbecue.  Everyone seemed to like that idea. We had worked up at appetite.  Now all we had to do was find a BBQ joint.   The drive down through Chattanooga was easy and pretty.  We had views off the mountain as we went through beautiful neighborhoods on Lookout Mountain.  
We came out at St. Elmos district.   One turn and we were heading toward home. We came upon a place that said Mike's Smokehouse!  We figured seeing as we had two Mike's in the car it was a divine appointment.  And boys howdy....... was it ever!   We went in and got seated immediately. We chose to eat outdoors under a red umbrella table.  The evening air started off just soft and mild but later grew cool.  We all got something good to eat. This place has wonderful barbecue and the best friend okra I've ever eaten!  Definitely go here if you get the chance. I know we'll go again if we're in the area.    The service was friendly.  The atmosphere very relaxed. It was the perfect end to the perfect day.    I love my friends. I"m proud of my hubby. I am blessed.   Today was a much needed 
change of pace.  We traveled home with good conversation and company.  No problems with traffic.  
I look forward to the next road trip with these dudes!  



A short video of Stephens Gap Cave

Here is a short video of Lula Lake Falls and Lula Falls.

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