The natural feature known as the Walls of Jericho, located along the Alabama-Tennessee border south of Winchester, has become a popular hiking destination.
In late March, I accompanied a group from the Chattanooga Hiking Club on a 6-mile round-trip hike to the walls from the Alabama trailhead. One of two trailheads from which to reach the Walls of Jericho, this one is located on Alabama Highway 79, about 2 miles south of the Tennessee trailhead, which is on the same road, known there as Tennessee Highway 16. The Tennessee trail is a bit longer with a more gradual elevation change. Though the Alabama trail drops about 1,000 feet in a little over 2 miles, it seems to be the preference of many, as it’s a shorter hike and the trail is in good condition.
From the large gravel parking lot, which is also the trailhead for the 4.7-mile Bear Den Point Loop across the road, the trail is relatively level for a short distance before dropping over the bluff line. From here, the trail winds back and forth as it drops steadily down the mountainside toward Hurricane Creek. Having experienced quite a bit of rain recently, there were several gurgling streams plunging down the hillsides, some of them emerging directly from depressions in the ground. This is one of my favorite times of the year for a hike because while vegetation is beginning to green up, you can still see out through the trees enough to get a view of the surrounding terrain. On this hike, I could still see the mountainsides on the opposite side of the valley, including the bluffs at the beginning of the Walls of Jericho. I also had a good view looking down on a stretch of Hurricane Creek as we neared the base of our descent.
Upon reaching the junction with the Tennessee trail, a short side trip to the right brought us to an area alongside the creek with a sizable population of Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) in bloom. Turning around and heading back downstream, we soon came to a footbridge across Hurricane Creek consisting of a single large log, flattened on top with a handrail on one side. After traversing a short distance through fairly level forest, we crossed another log bridge over Turkey Creek, which flows from the Walls of Jericho and soon joins Hurricane Creek. After turning right at the edge of a large open meadow, and passing a primitive backcountry campground and small cemetery, the trail enters the increasingly deep and narrow Walls of Jericho canyon. (Note: The 0.5-mile South Rim Trail diverges on the left in this area and follows a parallel route along the top of the canyon walls.)
This final half-mile or so of the trail, while following an overall consistent elevation, is probably the most rugged section of the hike, as it basically clings to the steep canyon side along Turkey Creek and can be a bit muddy and rocky. Shortly before reaching the large natural limestone amphitheater and the waterfall at the end of the trail, we crossed the line into Tennessee. The only clue is a small sign about Alabama hunting regulations in the area you just came from.
As we approached our destination, the trail crossed the creek again. In all my previous visits, I’ve never had a problem staying dry here, but this time, I was glad I had taken the precaution of bringing water shoes, because there was no way to cross without wading. At the amphitheater area, there was a massive amount of water gushing from the hole at the base of the cliff. Scrambling over the ledge to the upper level and the falls at the very end of the hike, I found the "hole" that the water from the falls disappears into to be holding more water than usual as well. After a lunch break here, we began the arduous climb back to the trailhead.
Though it’s only a 6-mile hike, you’ll feel like you’ve done more. Because of the climb and the fact that you’ll probably want to spend some extra time in the amphitheater area, I recommend allowing more time than you might normally need for a 6-mile hike.
When I first hiked to the walls back in the ‘90s, it was part of over 60,000 acres of land in the area owned by the Harry Lee Carter family, and getting there involved a 10-mile hike using jeep roads and rock hopping part of the way in the creek bed. Since then, The Nature Conservancy, Alabama Forever Wild Land Trust and other organizations have worked to preserve over 21,000 acres around the Walls of Jericho as public land. The end of the hike is within the 750 acres designated in 2006 as the Walls of Jericho State Natural Area. In turn, this is within an 8,943-acre unit of Bear Hollow Mountain Wildlife Management Area. In Alabama, the vast majority of this hike is within a 12,500-acre unit of the Skyline Wildlife Management Area, which is a site on the North Alabama Birding Trail and home of Alabama’s only population of ruffed grouse. These lands contain several rare plant species and are part of the biologically rich Paint Rock River watershed.
The trail is about a 1.5-hour drive from downtown Chattanooga.
Find directions and more information here.
Bob Butters explores nature and the outdoors, primarily in and near the South Cumberland region, and publishes the blog www.Nickajack-Naturalist.com. The opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.