The upper falls at the Walls of Jericho. (Photo: Bob Butters)

Reader’s Digest recently named the Walls of Jericho trail, located on the Cumberland Plateau along the Tennessee–Alabama line, one of the top 20 hikes in America.

There are two trails that converge on the way to the Walls, one starting in Tennessee and one in Alabama, and it’s the Alabama trail that’s referred to in the Reader’s Digest article.

The trail passes through part of the 60,000-acre Skyline Wildlife Management Area, which contains rocky bluffs, upland hardwood forests and the headwaters of the ecologically sensitive Paint Rock River, home to rare species of mollusks, amphibians and fish.

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The area was formerly owned by the family of Texas oilman Harry Lee Carter. Further back in the past, frontiersman Davy Crockett is said to have hunted in the area.

About 12,500 acres that included the Walls of Jericho were acquired by The Nature Conservancy in 2003 and later transferred to the Forever Wild Land Trust.

According to The Nature Conservancy, the Paint Rock River is home to 100 species of fish and about 45 mussel species, two that are found nowhere else in the world. Three globally imperiled fish species, the sawfin shiner, blotchside logperch and snail darter, live in the Paint Rock River. In addition, one fish, the palezone shiner, is known to exist only in the Paint Rock River and a stream in Kentucky.

“The Walls of Jericho tracts play an important role in protecting the headwaters of those sensitive areas,” according to Doug Deaton, state lands manager with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources State Lands Division. “It’s one of the last free-flowing rivers in the Southeast. The area is definitely a biological hotspot.”

Brandon Hunnicutt, land stewardship officer with the State Lands Division in North Alabama, said:

A few of the creeks … have come together and gone underground and carved out the limestone rock into interesting formations. It has sheer rock walls, just straight up and down, hence the name of the place. There are a few caves, some so small that a person can’t enter. What happens is the water goes underground and comes out of some holes in the side of the mountain.

Hunnicutt considers the area known as the amphitheater to be the most interesting natural feature of the Walls of Jericho.

“There’s a big overhang where, evidently, thousands of years ago, water pooled and created what looks to be an amphitheater,” he said. “Apparently, it was a circular area where the water ponded, and it carved out the almost perfect semicircle in the side of the mountain.”

Though only about 6 miles round-trip, the hike can be a bit strenuous, especially on the return.

“The hike in is easy because it’s essentially all downhill,” Deaton said. “But the hike out is what takes time. The trail has several switchbacks, and you’ll have to take several breaks coming back out.”

The Walls of Jericho trail was designated as a National Recreation Trail under the National Trails System Act of 1968, which established recreation and scenic trails.

Deaton said the Reader’s Digest designation gives national exposure to one treasured aspect of Alabama’s diverse geographical features.

According to Outdoor Alabama writer David Rainer, “When an iconic publication like Reader’s Digest recognizes the natural beauty and recreational opportunities in Alabama’s great outdoors, it provides confirmation of what we Alabamians have been saying for a long, long time.”

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