Kleio’s Trip Report
Where: Little River Canyon from Powell Trail to Eberhardt Point
Mileage: 6 ish
Little River Canyon National Preserve in North East Alabama is known for its spectacular waterfalls, wonderful geological formations, amazing fall colors and exciting whitewater kayaking opportunities. Locals have been exploring the river and the canyon for years. There are a few trails that lead down into the canyon at various points, but there are no designated trails in the canyon itself. Camping within the canyon is not allowed due to the danger of flash flooding and other natural hazards. From what I understand, certain adventure companies in the area are allowed to lead day hikes and possibly overnight expeditions into the canyon. But, I am not a large group hiker, and I cannot afford to pay someone to be my escort. Even if I could afford it, I doubt I would enjoy it because I am just really NOT a large group kind of hiker. If you are, then by all means – go and enjoy!
That is not to say that you cannot explore this beautiful place on your own. You can and you definitely should. It just takes a bit more planning and effort than your average day hike. First of all, please do not even consider attempting this hike if you are not in very good physical condition, AND if you are not accustomed to hiking (1) where there is no trail and (2) where the only trail may in fact be the river. Also, do not attempt this hike without consulting the water level and the weather. If the water is too high, this hike is simply not possible. You will be swept away in the current and you may die. Seriously. It has happened more than once. If there is a chance of rain or storms, please choose another day. Flash flooding and being struck by lightning are only two really bad things that could ruin your day – or your life. Finally, please do not undertake this excursion alone. If something were to go wrong, no one would ever know until it was much too late – if then even.
With that said, a small group including myself and Barbie as well as our new friend – Firefly, a Forest Service employee and our guide for the day, set out on a beautiful May day. Our goal was to walk down the Powell Trail and find whatever remnants of a long abandoned trail we could find at the bottom that would lead us along the river’s edge and eventually to our take out spot – Eberhardt Point.
The Powell Trail was a lovely hike down into the canyon all by itself. Kayakers use this trail as a put in and/or take out. I would not want to lug a kayak either in or out on this trail, but I can see why some do. The wildflowers were really gorgeous as we made our way down. I do not recall the mileage, but I would guess a mile or less will get you to the canyon floor.
Once we reached the river, it looked very calm and inviting and we were charmed by the lush greenery and the smooth flowing waters.
As we looked around for any semblance of a trail along the river heading North to Eberhardt, we quickly realized that the only “trail’ was little more than a pig trail and it was completely covered in poison ivy. I am severely allergic to the dreaded weed. I have had my share of pink calamine lotion and cortisone shots after particularly nasty bouts with the plant. After a brief discussion and the decision to place my faith in my dear
friend Tecnu outdoor skin cleanser, we all chose to head into the poison ivy. I was certain that if I didn’t drown, break a leg or get snake bitten, I was sure to be hospitalized for poison ivy exposure. Oh well. You only live once.
More glorious flowers awaited us at various points along the river bank.
Traipsing through poison ivy is seriously not photo worthy. I walked with my hands up as much as possible and prayed a lot. That was the first and most boring part of our adventure.
However, within a short time, we rounded a corner and could see the river once again. We also saw boulders that had to be climbed in order to reach our lunch spot, Scary Cliff. Although I call this spot Scary Cliff in my notes. I can’t remember if that is what is called on the map or not. I didn’t get to keep a copy of the map. Our new friend and guide, Firefly, had it and she wasn’t allowed to share. 😦 It is a very scenic spot complete with a high cliff face along which you walk right along the river’s edge until the end when you have to get your feet wet to go to the next section of the “trail”.
The “trail” is actually the rocks and cliff bottom in the left of the picture. It is very wet at times and could well be under water during periods of high water. This would also be an area in which you could easily get swept up in the current if the water is high.
The swallows make a home in the cliffs, and they gave us an aerial demonstration of their skills as we ate a leisurely lunch in this spot. It was idyllic for sure with the sound of the rushing water and the sunlight beaming down over tall cliff behind us.
Soon, it was time to move on as we were under strict orders (I later learned) to get out of the canyon by dusk. It’s funny because the actual hike in the canyon is only 3 miles or so ( I did not measure it so I don’t want to give a specific), so it is easy to assume that it can be completed within 8 hours or so without issue. The missing piece of that equation is the fact that you are often bushwhacking or climbing over huge boulders or walking in the river (and trying not to fall), and this considerably slows down your forward progress. Seriously. Please do not be fooled by the mileage on hikes such as these. 3 miles by river is so much slower going than 3 miles on a well-maintained (and existing) trail. This simple fact may be obvious to seasoned hikers, but may not be quite so obvious to the new adventure hiker. Please allow plenty of time!
Past the Scary Cliff, we saw more towering cliffs as well as lots of beautiful lichens, mosses and other greenery growing in the most unusual places.
Along this section, we passed Chinkapin Creek, a feeder stream for the river and one which was easily navigable on this day. I can imagine that it would not be so after a heavy rain. This is also the spot where our guide told a story about a group of older hikers who decided to attempt this outing and got stuck right in this particular spot. Night was coming and they could not go any further as one member of their party had suffered a leg injury. Somehow, they managed to call for help. Rescuers actually had to bushwhack down this creek to reach the stranded hikers and get them all out safely. Of course, I am saying a silent prayer at this point that this does not become us!
This was a really neat area that I wish I could have explored more. There were tons (literally) of rocks to search through. Fossils were probably everywhere. We did spot deer tracks and a snake skin here, but thankfully no owner for the latter.
Not too far up the river, our youngest and most observant member did manage to spot a fossil embedded in a giant boulder!
I was constantly wishing we could stay here all day and then some just to satisfy the fossil hunter and rock hound nut inside of me! But, we had to press on, and we soon came to one of the most spectacular areas of the hike. When I mentioned big boulders before, I meant your average person size boulder that one can just bound up and over and be off. This next section contained boulders as big as cars or small houses!!
The photos cannot do the size and scope of this boulder field justice. It must be seen to be believed. Just amazing! Of course, we all had to stay here for a while because it was just so darn pretty and the sound of the water was delightful – until Barbie heard thunder. Now, you may remember from previous posts that Barbie is absolutely positively petrified of thunderstorms. So, when she heard thunder in the bottom of a canyon with nowhere to go, you could almost feel the panic set in from the sound of her voice. So, we all start looking around for thunderclouds with our minds racing to figure an escape route once we determine from which direction the storm is coming. But, we couldn’t find a cloud in the sky. Was it merely hidden by the huge canyon walls on either side of us? In a few more minutes, we got our answer. The youngest and apparently brightest (I’ve already said he was the most observant) member of our group noticed that the sound was coming from the river! It turns out that a giant rock was actually being pummeled about by the river to such an extent that it literally and quite regularly sounded like thunder!! Phew! Panic attack averted. At that point, we just went right back to enjoying this special place.
We were not the only ones to take a liking to this place. Gar were congregating in the small pools and eddies near the rocks.
Taking photos of gar is not easy, but I tried. They were everywhere!
If only the rocks along the river could talk. Oh the stories that they would tell!
After the giant boulders, we came upon a fantastic place to swim – if you have time. This area is called Waterfall Pool and maybe you can see why in the photos. We did not have time for a swim, but we did have time for a snack followed by a wonderful rock skipping contest.
About this time, we started feeling really pressured about the time constraints. The sun was still beaming, but the toughest part of our journey – aptly named “Tough Going” lie directly ahead of us.
The area before tough going was special for a whole boatload of reasons. First, it was a geologist’s dream with so many beautiful rock formations to admire and drool over. Second, it was filled with rushing water and more giant boulders. Third, it was the first place I actually saw a snake sunning on the rocks. He quickly disappeared when I came along to his sunning spot. Finally, it was the first place where we had absolutely no choice but to wade in the water.
Here, we had to make a decision. We could either walk up the river until we could find a good take out spot. Or, we could wade in the water for a short time and then climb up a really steep bank. Or, we could cross the river to see if the going was any better on the other side. The last option was tried first, but we quickly realized that it would be too risky to pursue. Risks included getting really really wet by falling into the water and falling from rocks towering 5 feet or more over the river. It was just too easy to get injured if we chose this route. Now, I personally wanted to just walk up the river. But, that option had its drawbacks as well. If you have ever walked in a river, you know that the rocks are very, very slippery. It’s really not as simple as putting one foot in front of the other and motoring on no matter how easy and fun it looks. Even with grippy water shoes, your odds of falling and getting soaked (and cold) are very good. So, that left option #2: wade a bit and then climb up the steep bank because damn it – there is a trail there somewhere – a remnant of the old amusement park that used to be there in the 70s.
I am not gonna lie. This was the toughest and and most unpleasant part of the hike. It earns its name “Tough Going”. The bank is so steep and there is literally nothing to hold onto for leverage – much less balance. If you lose either, you slide right back down and have to start all over again. Of course, snakes are awake and around as we just saw moments before so that’s always fun to think about as you are trying desperately not to fall backwards or put your hand or foot or any other body part somewhere that is already occupied by anything with teeth or fangs or venom. Finally, after much effort and some cursing, we all made it to a relatively flat area where we could walk upright through the brush. At this point, it is getting darker by the minute, especially in the canyon, and we are all ready to be done. And amazingly, before too very long, we actually stumbled upon a trail – a surely to goodness 3-4 foot wide non-brushy, free of poison ivy trail! Next, we began seeing ghostly concrete picnic tables with moss and vines growing in and around them. Then, we saw what was left of the old chair lift ride that went down into the canyon. (Safety concerns were REALLY different back then – yikes!). I have no idea why I do not have photos of these things but I don’t. All I do have is a really blurry photo of the beach and river at Eberhardt Point. Maybe I was tired. Maybe my camera phone was tired. Anyhoo, I think more swimming spots can be found up river from here, but as I said – we were done. DONE.
Except that we weren’t. We still had to climb almost a mile to get out of the canyon. No matter how many jokes you tell along the way, it’s hard. Really hard. Especially after you spent an entire adventuresome fabulous but tiring day in the canyon. But, there is no other respectable way out so – we started climbing.
Another blurry photo, I know. It does not do justice to the vertical climb. Trust me.
Then, we reached the summit of the Eberhardt Trail with the overlook spur. Again, my photography skills had taken a nose dive, but we had survived AND made it out before dark. WIN. WIN.
This hike took us all of 7 – 8 hours, including stops for lunch and a snack and a rock skipping contest. As I said many times, I would love to have stayed much much longer. Little River Canyon is a magnificent and amazing place. This will always be remembered as one of my all time favorite excursions. I would do it again and again anytime.
If you go, please take your personal safety very seriously and plan really really well. It is a strenuous but rewarding outing, but it is definitely not for the faint of heart!
POISON IVY FOOTNOTE
You may be wondering how I fared with the poison ivy exposure. I took a quick Tecnu rubdown “bath” in the parking lot and changed clothes – putting all contaminated gear including backpacks – in a trash bag. When I got home 3 hours later, I lathered myself in Tecnu and showered in warm – not hot!!! – water (Hot water opens pores. You do not want to open your pores as this allows the urushiol to sink in and bond on the skin even better!) Then, I repeated this process. The next day, I bought some Fels Naptha soap,
and used it directly on my skin by taking another warm shower. I repeated this every day for about a week. I also cleaned all my gear, including backpack and hiking poles with Tecnu and/or Fels Naptha. Within 2 weeks, I had sustained a small rash on my shin, but I was otherwise completely and totally free of poison ivy after effects. This is nothing short of a small miracle! I seriously believed that I would be waking up with my eyes swollen shut, and also that I would be written about in medical journals for having the worst case of contact dermatitis from poison ivy exposure in human history. I am so very grateful that Tecnu and Fels Naptha worked! I would highly recommend both products if you spend any time outdoors and are allergic to poison ivy. Tecnu is the real deal! Fels Naptha cleans anything! Thank you thank you both!!