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The dry season allows Matthew Otwell of Birmingham to explore an empty cavern that in springtime directs water out of the Walls of Jericho, which Joe Copeland, president of Friends of Forever Wild and an amateur naturalist, calls 'the crown jewel of North Alabama.'
DAILY Photo by Emily Saunders
The dry season allows Matthew Otwell of Birmingham to explore an empty cavern that in springtime directs water out of the Walls of Jericho, which Joe Copeland, president of Friends of Forever Wild and an amateur naturalist, calls "the crown jewel of North Alabama."

Walls of Jericho
Famed rock formation with rare views open to hikers, nature lovers

By Paul Huggins
DAILY Staff Writer

phuggins@decaturdaily.com 340-2395

JACKSON COUNTY — Olivia Howard's nearly 30-year wait ended as she reached the beginning of the Paint Rock River.

The gray-haired Homewood resident gazed up at the semi-circle of limestone walls towering around her, forming what resembles an ancient Greek theater.

"I had heard about this for years," Howard said, noting she's a member of the Birmingham Sierra Club and has hiked nearly every trail in North Alabama.

But the club never hiked the Walls of Jericho. Until recently, it was on private property, and even 30 years ago when the public had permission to visit, Jericho had no trail and few people knew how to get to it.

By the time Howard found a guide in 1977, property ownership changed, and the new corporate owner denied public access.

Nearly two years ago, however, Forever Wild bought about 12,500 acres around it and opened it to the public with well-marked hiking and horseback riding trails.

I went along when Howard made the trip Thursday with friends, finding a nearly bone-dry Jericho, famed for gushing water that shoots out of holes and cracks when the water is up.

"Oh, I love it," she said. "The rock formations and riverbed are very interesting. I want to come back up and see the water."

The dry season allows Matthew Otwell of Birmingham to explore an empty cavern that in springtime directs water out of the Walls of Jericho, which Joe Copeland, president of Friends of Forever Wild and an amateur naturalist, calls 'the crown jewel of North Alabama.'
DAILY Photo by Emily Saunders
The dry season allows Matthew Otwell of Birmingham to explore an empty cavern that in springtime directs water out of the Walls of Jericho, which Joe Copeland, president of Friends of Forever Wild and an amateur naturalist, calls "the crown jewel of North Alabama."
Tough hike out

She vowed to return before she made the hike out, a reverse of a nearly two-hour hike in, almost all of it downhill for 3 miles, descending 1,000 feet.

"The hike out is not for the faint of heart, is what I've heard," Howard said.

She was right.

The hike out, with no stopping to admire autumn wildflowers and a few summer stragglers as we did going in, took an hour and 15 minutes. The last 55 minutes was uphill and moderately steep at times.

If you choose Walls of Jericho for a fall hike to enjoy the season's colors, plan to make a day of it — at least six hours. You not only need plenty of rest breaks hiking out, but you'll also want to admire what Friends of Forever Wild founder and president Joe Copeland calls "the crown jewel of North Alabama."

Natural bounty

Copeland, an amateur naturalist from Cullman who used to bushwhack his way to Jericho in the 1970s, said the hike reveals a bounty of rare wildlife. Alabamians will rarely find the wild columbine, seen popping out of cracks in the limestone rocks at Jericho, he said, noting Monte Sano Mountain and Desoto State Park as the other locations.

Lobelia, still in bloom, greets hikers on the trail that starts off Alabama 79, about 30 miles north of Scottsboro. The trail makes a steady descent along a canyon rim, and within the first 10 minutes Copeland points out maple-leaf viburnum, blooming snake root, horsemint and, perhaps the most spectacular vegetation of the day, strawberry bush, also called hearts bursting with love.

"It's not very pretty in the spring," he said, "but this is its time of year."

After about 20 minutes, the trail flattens for 100 yards where young tulip poplars crowd the scene.

New-growth trees

Except for large beechnut trees, which we came across 40 minutes into the descending hike, most of the trees appeared less than 30 years old due to harvesting of the old growth trees.

The land around Jericho once belonged to a Texas oil baron, Harry Lee Carter, whose land holdings included 60,000 acres in Alabama and Tennessee. He died in 1977, and the property was divided and sold. For the next 26 years, it was a wood source for a paper company and hunting preserve.

The Nature Conservancy bought 21,000 acres in 2003 and then sold 12,500 acres to Forever Wild for $9.4 million in 2004, so it could prepare it for public access.

It was Forever Wild's 40th acquisition since voters created it in 1992. The organization gets most of its funds from a percentage of the interest from offshore natural gas leases. It has now spent $74.5 million acquiring more than 110,000 acres statewide.

About 35 minutes into the hike, we came to a shag bark hickory, which marked the first of two sinkholes visible from the trail. The second, at least 50 feet in diameter and shaped like a perfect bowl, came about 20 minutes later. Between sinkholes we saw our first native magnolias, a vast area of sugar maples, as well as showy aster still in bloom.

We reached the bottom an hour and 25 minutes after starting and found a 2-foot-deep Hurricane Creek with a gentle flow. Copeland said it is probably two feet higher in spring.

A foot bridge made from a felled tree allowed us to cross into an area profuse with crown's beard, rosin weed and iron weed wildflowers, late summer bloomers, some of which still had colorful petals. It was also the first time we saw hackberry trees and even a few 70-foot-tall persimmon trees.

The Jericho acquisition protects one of the main headwaters of the Paint Rock River. It is home to 100 species of fish and about 45 mussel species. Two of the mussel species (pale lilliput and Alabama lampmussel) are found nowhere else in the world, and one fish species (palezone shiner) is confined to the Paint Rock River and one stream in Kentucky. This area is also the epicenter of the rare Tennessee cave salamander.

Water rare sight

We didn't see any fish because we rarely saw water. We heard the first ripples from Turkey Creek about 10 minutes from the walls, and it was about this time that we peered through the clearing and saw the northern side of the gorge. It's basically a limestone wall reaching 700 feet high.

The trail meets the stream near the base of Jericho, which is barely above the Tennessee state line. Copeland said some hikers mistakenly stop short where a 5-foot waterfall empties into a backyard-sized pool. Hikers can scale around the falls and then find the famed walls.

During the rainy season, water gushes out a hole the size of a door on the left side. Thursday, the water barely trickled, and if we had flashlights we could have explored the cavern back 30 or 40 yards to where it starts at the base of a 20-foot-deep bowl.

The 150-foot-wide natural amphitheater sits between 200-foot-tall walls. It gets its name from a traveling minister who found it in the late 1800s and the cathedral-like beauty so captivated him that he declared it needed a biblical name.

After lunch and inspecting the formations for an hour, I left Howard and her friends and headed back. With a tight schedule to keep, I stopped only for a couple minutes. At a grueling pace, I returned 45 minutes faster than the in hike. Regular rest breaks will make the hike out less exhausting, but Howard was right. It's not for the faint of heart.

When Copeland first agreed to lead the hike, he pointed out the best time to go is when the walls shoot water, basically anytime from winter to early summer. With the memory of the hike out still fresh and the legs still stiffly sore, I think I'll heed his advice and wait for fall colors to make their splash or some regular rainfall before returning.

The good news is I won't have to wait nearly 30 years like Howard did.

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