Hiking Mount Cheaha, Alabama’s Highest Point

“Are you ready?”

My dad obviously didn’t think so. But in all fairness, I couldn’t blame him. We hadn’t hiked in over a year, and we were about to tackle one of the most difficult trails in the southernmost Appalachians. One that dropped more than a thousand feet in the first half a mile. My mom (smart woman, it turns out) decided not to join us.

man looking down at a valley from the top of Mount Cheaha

To begin with, we were brave. We planned to start at the top, hike down, take a break, and hike back up. We thought we’d finish the whole hike, two miles in total, by lunch.

rocky mountain

One mile, two hours, and the shakiest of shaky legs later, we reconsidered. Lucky for us, Mom had anticipated that we’d change our minds. While we were finding footholds between rocks and grabbing tree limbs for balance, she had driven our car down the mountain, parked at the trail head, and walked a few hundred, very flat feet down the trail. We found her reading a book by a stream when we reached the bottom.

creek from above

creek

A few days later, we set our eyes on waterfalls. For starters, we went looking for a classic–Cheaha Falls, named after the nearby mountain. The hike was flat but sunny, and when we reached the waterfall, I nearly cannon-balled into the pool below.

Waterfall

cliff from below

The most stunning was Devil’s Den, a three-tier waterfall nestled between two cliffs. We began at Lake Chinnabee and walked half a mile alongside Cheaha Creek to the falls. As we got closer, the trail rose with the cliff, giving us expansive views of the canyon and waterfalls below.

hiking trail beside a creek

creek

two-tier waterfall

whitewater rapids

whitewater rapids

waterfall from above

creek between two cliffs

three-tier waterfall

creek

Our final day at Cheaha, we took one last leisurely hike out to Pulpit Rock. The trail ended in one of most beautiful, sweeping views of the valley below. The day we went, there was no one in sight, and the wind was gusty, ruffling tree leaves and blowing our hair into our faces.

mountain overlook

mountain overlook

THE DETAILS

WHERE TO HIKE

Lake Trail: By far the most difficult, steep trail in the area, but a short, one-of-a-kind hike down the mountain. Feeling a challenge? Hike up!

Chinnabee Silent Trail: This six-mile, out-and-back trail passes both Cheaha Falls and Devil’s Den. Experienced hikers can easily hike the entire trail in one day, but I recommend a shorter route, starting at either the Lake Chinnabee Recreation Area (off County Road 12/Forest Service Road 650) or the Turnip Seed Parking Area (off Highway 281). This part of the trail is about three-and-a-half miles one-way. Cheaha Falls is about three quarters of a mile from Turnip Seed, and Devil’s Den is about half a mile from Lake Chinnabee. Hike the entire length for a nice stretch of the legs!

Pulpit Rock: Located inside Cheaha State Park, this trail isn’t quite a third of a mile but ends on a rocky ledge at the mountain’s edge. Don’t let the beginning of the trail scare you–it starts out rather steep but flattens out quickly. It’s my personal favorite because it’s easier than the Lake Trail but just as pretty as, and more rustic and secluded than, the more popular Bald Rock.

WHERE TO EAT

Cheaha Brewing Company: Highly, highly, HIGHLY recommend and well worth the 45-minute drive. Located in an old train station that was built in 1885, the atmosphere is one-of-a-kind, but I’d argue that the food and beer are even better. This small, local brewpub has some of the best craft beer around, and its food (equally delicious) is made using locally grown, organic produce and dairy products and all-natural meats. And with more than a dozen beers on tap at any given time, you’re sure to find something for everyone! Tip: Bring a growler. You might like the beer so much that you’ll want some to-go!

Cheaha Restaurant: We never ate here, but the convenient, in-park location and expansive views from the restaurant’s floor-to-ceiling windows are hard to beat. Described as “country cooking at its best.”

WHERE TO STAY

Cheaha State Park: For weekend and short trips, I highly recommend that you stay at Cheaha State Park unless you want to drive upwards of an hour to and from the nearest town each day. The best option, in my opinion, is a semi-primitive campsite (approximately $18 per night), where you can sleep in a tent under the stars but benefit from nearby bathhouses. Other options include hotel rooms, chalets, cabins, improved campsites, and primitive campsites.

Talladega National Forest: For adventurers seeking seclusion, camp in the nearby Talladega National Forest, which surrounds Cheaha State Park. According to the U.S. Forest Service, permits aren’t required except during gun deer hunting season, and primitive camping is allowed in most areas of the forest. Just be sure to follow the rules!

AREA HIGHLIGHTS

High Country Wine Cellars: Located just off the interstate a few miles east of Cheaha, you MUST visit this winery, even if only to stock up before heading home. High Country sells 50+ wines at any given time, including a mix of dry, semi-sweet, and sweet wines made from nearly every fruit imaginable–peach, strawberry, blackberry, raspberry. My personal favorite (which might be my all-time favorite wine of any variety) is the “sweet” Charred Peach. I’d say it’s about as sweet as your typical Riesling, and while I’m not typically a fan of sweet wines, the Charred Peach is phenomenal. Tastes like a fresh peach that’s just been taken off the grill. Not sure if that sounds like your cup of tea? High Country offers free tastings during business hours, which are Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

What are your favorite trails and places around Mount Cheaha?

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Farmhouse

Weekend at the Farm

Have you ever felt like you were in a book? I have, once, a few Saturdays ago.

Farmhouse Kitchen

We drove about two hours outside of town to our friends’ farmhouse, and although we’ve been there dozens of times, something about this time was different. I felt like I was being guided, almost pulled, by some crafty writer who kept making grasshoppers chirp and laughter bellow and who just couldn’t keep from  jumping and pointing and saying, “Did you know that a place like this could exist? Look! It does! Let me show you.”

Farmhouse Table

I started noticing it that night when I fell asleep to the smell of vanilla, wrapped in fleece and hand-sewn blankets in a room bound by wood and family heirlooms. Sunday morning, it felt like my writer was pleading, “Look! Look at the sunshine streaming through the windows! Look how it makes everything glow! Forget the vanilla. Smell the coffee, the leftover smoke of late-night cigars! Listen to the bacon hit the cast-iron and sizzle!”

Liquor Cabinet

It continued through breakfast. We gathered around the table and drank coffee, black, over 1920s jazz. We ate potatoes fried in bacon grease; cheddar melted over grits; and avocado, bacon, and egg atop toasted sourdough.

Pouring Coffee

I tell you, the farm really is like a house you find in books, the ones that most people dream about but wouldn’t know how to live in even if they had the chance. Our friends, however, have perfected the art, and they make a weekend in the country everything it should be. I’m crossing my fingers that it’ll be cold enough next time to light the stove.

Breakfast

(And, because I’m sure all that talk about bacon made you hungry, here’s  a recipe. It’s especially great served with hash browns, cheese grits, and fresh bananas.)

Avocado, Bacon, and Egg Breakfast Sandwich

Avocado, Bacon, and Egg Breakfast Sandwich

Start to finish: 20 minutes
Servings: 4

Ingredients

  • 2 sourdough buns, cut in half
  • 4 slices of thick-cut bacon
  • 4 large eggs
  • Spicy brown mustard
  • 2 avocados, peeled and sliced 1/4-inch thick

Preparation

  1. Heat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Toast sourdough halves 10-12 minutes or until lightly brown.
  2. In a large skillet over medium heat, cook bacon until crisp and brown.
  3. Meanwhile, fill a medium saucepan with cold water and eggs. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer 3-4 minutes. Immediately remove from heat, drain, and soak eggs in cold water and ice. Once cool, remove eggshells and slice eggs.
  4. Layer sourdough halves, spicy brown mustard, avocado slices, egg slices, and bacon.
Greensboro

A Transition

Well folks, that’s it. I’ve been living in the charming town of Greensboro, Alabama, for about a year now, and here I am, packing up and moving again. I am moving because I have accepted a job in Birmingham as a writer for a local newspaper, which means that, for various reasons, I will not be returning to teach a second year with Teach For America. After much distance – spending weeks agonizing over the decision, struggling between the idea of fulfilling a commitment and the idea of being happy – I have an incredible amount of peace about where I landed. As I look back at the reasons why I joined Teach For America, I realize that so much and yet so little has changed. My passion for education and my desire to be a leader haven’t changed; my career path and outlook on life have. I joined Teach For America as a way to jump-start a new career in teaching, something that, at the time, I thought I would want to do forever. Now, I realize that I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I have gained so much from my last year of teaching – a new appreciation for teachers, an even stronger passion and anger at the senseless lack of opportunity that exists in many of America’s schools, a greater understanding of my skills and how I may use them for the benefit of myself and others, a better understanding about where America’s education system fails and what needs to be done in order to fix it, and, most importantly, a new outlook on life that will make me forever grateful for each and every opportunity that I receive.

In many ways, it feels strange to be writing this post. I’m talking about leaving Teach For America, and I never even wrote anything about my experience as a corps member. Part of that stems from the fact that, frankly, I just didn’t have time. I worked, on average, 80 hours a week for an entire school year, and I still felt like I was drowning.

The other reason I never wrote anything is that I just didn’t know what to say. Even now, I’m at a complete loss for words, and I’m afraid to put words on paper – or even let words slip from my lips – for fear that any story I tell will not wholly represent my experience as a corps member. I’m afraid that any one story would either perpetuate the stereotypes that exist about America’s education system and the communities struggling within it, or it would misrepresent the work that corps members across the country are doing on a daily basis. How does one convey the gravity, the difficulty, the complexity of the situation through a story with a finite amount of words? I’m afraid such a task may only be accomplished with a book.

I’ll also be the first to admit that it’s much easier to block this past year from my memory rather than write or talk about it. It’s easy to forget about those mornings when I drove to work in tears and employed every bit of strength I had not to turn around, just like it’s easy to forget those afternoon tutoring sessions when three or four students would tell me, “This has been so helpful. You’re a really good teacher,” when I had heard the exact opposite message for nearly five hours earlier that day.

But as I think about how easy it would be to forget these things, it scares me. I think about everything I have learned this year – about my new home, about my country, about myself – and I know that I do not want to forget any of it. Not the funny moments, not the good moments, not the eye-opening moments, not even the breathtakingly bad moments, as these were the moments when I think I learned the most. I say all of this, yet I have done nothing to make these memories permanent. I’m sure other corps members would agree with me when I say, “I wanted to write about my experience as it happened, but I just didn’t have the time between lesson planning and attending meetings and (sometimes) eating and (sometimes) sleeping…”

This past year has been a whirlwind. A difficult whirlwind, but I will be forever grateful for it. In one-word answers, it has taught me patience, strength, faithfulness, gratitude, humility, and joy in ways I never would have imagined. As I sort through it all, bear with me. Some thoughts and stories I will share here. Others will only surface in conversations over coffee and in my own journal for safe-keeping. In the meantime, I would love to hear about yours. I would love for you to ask me more about mine. Like I said, there is so, so much to tell.