PINHOTI TRAIL — The three hikers live to the north, south and west of where they all gathered early on a Saturday morning, all attracted by the mountain’s beauty, solitude and natural wonders.
They say it’s the love of the outdoors that continues to draw them to the 130-mile Pinhoti Trail, nestled in east Alabama.
The Pinhoti is a hiking trail that ambles north to south through the Talladega National Forest between Piedmont in Cleburne County and Sylacauga in southern Talladega County.
“People come from all over the country to hike this trail,” said Tom Coffield with the Appalachian Trail Club of Alabama.
Coffield, who has hiked the entire trail about five times and certain sections more times than he can remember, says the Pinhoti attracts hikers because it is off the main hiking thoroughfare.
Unlike the well-known Appalachian Trial that stretches from Georgia to Maine, the Pinhoti is something of a secret treasure, and hikers from across the country who travel to east Alabama to walk it want to keep it that way.
Coffield, 62, of Birmingham said the Pinhoti is less traveled than the Appalachian Trail.
“If you blindfolded someone and put them in the middle of the Pinhoti Trail, they could not tell you if they were on the Pinhoti or the Appalachian Trail,” Coffield said. “It’s every bit as beautiful as the Appalachian Trail.”
He said hikers actually feel more like they’re in a remote wilderness when hiking the Pinhoti.
“I’ve never been on the Appalachian Trail where I didn’t see someone every day that I hiked,” Coffield said. “On the Pinhoti, you can hike for days without seeing someone.”
The Appalachian Trail Club of Alabama, of which Coffield is a member, is one of a handful of organizations that helps maintain the Pinhoti Trail.
Howard Gilham, 56, of Winston County, president of the Appalachian Trail Club, said members try to work on the trail once a month during the spring and fall months. The group also works on the trail during some of the warmer winter days.
“Nobody from our group is forced to work on the trail,” Gilham said. “It’s an all-volunteer thing. We have some members who never work on the trail and others who work on the trail all the time. In our club, nobody judges. You have to want to do it.”
Coffield and Gilham say they donate their time and labor to the Pinhoti Trail because they want to give back to the trail that has provided them with many wonderful memories.
Gilham said the Pinhoti is a natural resource that is worth any effort to keep.
The Pinhoti, he noted, joins the Benton MacKaye Trail in Georgia, which connects to the Appalachian Trail.
During Gilham’s recent hike along the Pinhoti, he made mental notes as to where the club needed to cut away trees that had fallen across the trail since spring, the last time the club worked on the hiking path.
“We don’t work on the trail during the summer,” Gilham said. “It’s just too hot.”
The summer growth covered a portion of the trail, but that growth will become more manageable as fall approaches.
Gilham said the Appalachian Trail Club of Alabama maintains about 55 miles of the Pinhoti Trail in the Shoal Creek District of the Talladega National Forest.
The Talladega and Shoal Creek districts have 230 miles of hiking trails, said Lesley Hodge, natural resource specialist for the U.S. Forest Service, Shoal Creek District. She said it would be impossible for her agency to maintain the Pinhoti Trail without the help of devoted volunteers.
Not only do local hiking clubs and groups help maintain the trails within the Talladega and Shoal Creek districts, but other civic groups, including local troops of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, maintain certain sections of the national forest trail system.
Hodge said the trail system may get even bigger before long. The Pinhoti Trail currently extends from Piedmont to Bulls Gap, just south of Talladega, but there are plans to extend it another 10 miles, along Rebecca Mountain and through Hollins Wildlife Management Area.
Gilham and the two other hikers unloaded their packs from the bed of a pickup truck.
The trio planned an overnight eight-mile trek from the Coleman Lake Trailhead to the Pine Glen Recreation Area, which is in the Choccolocco Wildlife Management Area, part of the Talladega National Forest.
The management area is known for its abundance of wildlife, including deer and turkey.
“Pinhoti” is derived from the Creek Indian language and translates as “turkey home.”
The three hikers were surrounded by tall longleaf pines as they began their hike. The Coleman Lake Trailhead is in a designated area for the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, which needs old-growth timber.
The Pinhoti is a “blue-blazed trail,” meaning trees along the way are marked with blue paint to help hikers stay on the trail. Certain areas of the trail also have turkey-track markers.
Some trees are marked with white paint; Hodge said these are not trail markers but trees with cavities where the red-cockaded woodpecker has or is setting up house.
“A lot of bird watchers travel this trail because of the variety of birds,” Hodge said.
She said the trail rambles through a variety of habitats.
“The trail goes through two wilderness areas and two wildlife-management areas,” Hodge said.
The three hikers sprayed themselves with insect repellent to shield against the likes of chiggers, mosquitoes and ticks, which can sometimes be a problem in the woods. They gave particular attention to legs and ankles, likely areas where red bugs could latch onto a hiker.
Lynn Odom, 51, of Gardendale and Patty Hackett, 47, of Prattville joked about who would lead the group through the woods, unwittingly clearing the path of spider webs.
It was overcast when the group left the trailhead, but the sun peeked through the clouds sporadically during their morning jaunt.
The hikers planned a four-mile hike to Laurel Shelter, one of seven shelters along the Pinhoti Trail.
Coffield said he was uncertain how Laurel Shelter got its name, but he guessed it was named after the abundance of mountain laurel alongside the creek that is only a stone’s throw away from the wooden shelter, a place where hikers can get out of a storm, sleep or eat.
Gilham said their plan was to set up camp there and cover the last four miles of their hike early Sunday.
Hackett, who has a master’s degree in fine arts, is a unit director for the Boys and Girls Club in Montgomery.
When she’s not taking her kids camping, she’s camping and hiking with her adult friends.
“I’m the only one who will take them camping,” Hackett said. “A lot of those kids never camped before.”
She also enjoys fishing and introduces many of her children to that outdoor activity as well.
“Anything to get them into the environment,” she said.
Hackett, who has hiked for the past 14-15 years, led most of the way Saturday and Sunday, but it’s obvious she is not on any timetable.
She wears no watch, at least not when she’s hiking.
“I don’t want to think about time when I’m out here,” she said. “I just want to enjoy myself.”
She has hiked the entire Pinhoti Trail. She has also hiked other well-known trails, including the Appalachian Trial and trails in Yellow Stone National Park and the Grand Teton National Park.
Hackett said the Pinhoti Trial is a good training ground for those who are considering hiking the Appalachian Trail.
Her favorite part of the Pinhoti is along Dugger Mountain, near Piedmont. That part of the Pinhoti and the Cheaha Mountain region of the trail are considered some of the most challenging parts of the Pinhoti.
Odom, who works in the Radiology Department at Children’s Hospital in Birmingham, is a relative newcomer to the hiking world.
“I found this group searching the Internet,” she said.
Odom went on a hike in early spring and has been hiking with members of the Appalachian Trail Club of Alabama since.
“I’ve hiked with different groups,” she said. “I’ve been on three overnights, and I don’t know how many day hikes I’ve been on.”
Odom said she hiked part of the Pinhoti Trail for the first time this past spring.
“I’m in it to enjoy the outdoors,” she said. “I would like to say that I have hiked the entire (Pinhoti) trail, and I guess there is a desire to hike the Appalachian Trail. I’m 51, so I don’t know if I will do the whole thing, but this is a good starting point for me.”
Gilham said he started hiking while stationed in Europe with the U.S. Army. He began his hiking ventures in the Swiss Alps.
“I’ve been with the club for the past 15 years, but I’ve only been active in it for the last 10 years,” he said.
Gilham said his love of the outdoors, camping and hiking came from his stay at a children’s home. A social worker, Frank Bailey, introduced him to the outdoors when he was 12 or 13 years old.
He drives by Bankhead National Forest in North Alabama to hike the Pinhoti Trail.
“Up there, you have to hike loop trails,” Gilham said. “(The Pinhoti) is a continuous walk-through trail.”
SHOAL CREEK CHURCH
After they had traveled about two miles, the group saw a large brown sign along the trail.
Behind the sign was a cemetery, and on the other side of the cemetery was a log cabin.
Actually, the log cabin was Shoal Creek Church, one of six hewn-log churches remaining in Alabama.
Gilham, Odom and Hackett removed their backpacks, sipped water and walked down to the century-old church, which gained a listing in the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.
“My granddaddy was one of the builders,” Joe Jones, 79, said later from his Huntsville residence. “My daddy was his oldest son, but he was too young to help build the church. He would carry water to the builders.”
Jones said the church was built in 1885-1890.
He said Shoal Creek Church is used for weddings and family reunions of descendants of the people who built the church.
“There are eight to 10 weddings held there every year,” Jones said. “It’s open to the public.”
Once a year, the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, people gather at the historic log church for Sacred Harp singing.
“We have a houseful,” said Jones, who is the secretary and treasurer of the Shoal Creek Church Preservation Society Board.
He said the area around the church, now surrounded by the Talladega National Forest, was once a thriving community but by the 1920s, “the population had pretty much moved out.”
He said the church congregation quit having regular Sunday services in 1914.
“It’s been without a congregation ever since,” Jones said.
Most of the graves in the church cemetery only have rock markers — no dates or names. But a couple of stone markers have names and dates from the 1800s and early 1900s.
The group of hikers headed back down the trail after their short visit to Shoal Creek Church. A boom of thunder in the distance told them a rain storm was moving closer.
When the hikers were still about a mile from Laurel Shelter, the clouds turned dark and rain began to pour from the sky.
Hackett stopped on the water-filled trail, turned and waited for her companions to catch up. Rainwater rolled from her cheeks.
“This is God’s air conditioner,” she said.
By the time the group reached Laurel Shelter, the rain had subsided.
The outdoor shelter provided a place to rest, eat and relax. It is next to a creek that provided fresh drinking water — after it was filtered and purified.
Although the shelter provides a place to sleep, the three hikers chose to set up their own tents to rest for the evening.
Clouds remained overhead throughout the night. Thunder rumbled in the far distance, but there was no overnight rain. It was pitch black in the deep hollow where the three hikers slept.
Gilham, Hackett and Odom were up and cooking breakfast shortly after daybreak Sunday. By midmorning, the three had packed up their belongings and begun the final leg of their journey, crossing creeks, streams and walking along the sides of mountains.
The hike took them around Sweetwater Lake, where they took a short break before the final two to three miles of their journey.
Only a few hundred yards away from the Pine Glen Recreation Area, the sun finally showed itself, ending what the three hikers considered a perfect overnight hiking venture.
Gilham admits hiking is not for everyone, but for him and others who travel the Pinhoti Trail, it’s an adventure they enjoy sharing. But the overnight hikes also provide enough quality time for themselves.
Gilham lagged far enough behind the two women that he walked alone. There were no phones, no cars, no people and no hurry. He only heard, saw and experienced what nature had to offer along the Pinhoti Trail that Sunday. He was at peace with himself and with the world.
“I like the solitude on top of the mountain,” Gilham said. “I call it my therapy.”