Field Excursions: Natural wonders of Sand Mountain (part 1)

Authored By bobbutters

You may not associate thoughts of wild canyons and scenic waterfalls with Northeast Alabama’s Sand Mountain, but such features can be found if you know where to look. On a recent summer day, my wife and I, along with our two dogs, set out to explore two such places on the mountain a short distance northeast of Guntersville and about 80 miles southwest of Chattanooga.

Our first destination was the 2,000-acre Bucks Pocket State Park, located where Jackson, DeKalb and Marshall counties meet. We have camped and hiked there in years past. Recently, because of serious budget cuts in the Alabama State Park System, the campground and park office have been closed and the park is basically unmanned. But the public is still allowed entry for hiking, picnicking, etc.

The park contains a canyon, or “pocket,” through which South Sauty Creek, a tributary of Lake Guntersville, flows. (Or, in the case of our visit, doesn’t flow, being quite dry.) Bucks Pocket State Park, along with South Sauty Creek and Morgan’s Cove, is site No. 49 on the North Alabama Birding Trail.  

Arriving at the park from the north, I found the only road that crosses the canyon gated just after crossing South Sauty Creek. As the road appeared to be open as far as the gate from the other direction, my guess is that the closure to through traffic is to help the road last longer without being maintained.

We parked at the gate and walked a short distance to the closed campground, which didn’t look totally abandoned, but certainly seemed lacking in maintenance. Driving around the several miles to the other side, we stopped by Point Rock Overlook, one of the park’s main features, from which you can look down on the campground area as part of a great view of the canyon. Although the large picnic area here is also mostly unmaintained, we did find a decent table to eat our lunch at.

From here, we drove to the boat ramp at Morgan’s Cove, a backwater of Lake Guntersville, 7 miles downstream from the campground. From the aforementioned gate, a jeep road, also known as the Primitive Campground Trail, follows the creek for 2.5 miles to the Primitive Campground, then continues on another 3.5 miles to Morgan’s Cove. When I hiked it years ago, I thought I remembered coming out at the boat ramp, but on this visit, I couldn’t locate a connection on that end. I’m told this trail is currently closed because of flood damage, but I saw people on horses and ATVs using it. From the Morgan’s Cove boat ramp, a similar TVA access trail continues downstream along the shore, but I’m unsure as to how far.

Hiking trails
Depending on the source, Bucks Pocket State Park is said to have 15 or 20 miles of hiking trails. The trails described on the park’s website add up to 8 miles. Three of these I don’t recall having hiked, but in addition to the Primitive Campground Trail, I’ve hiked the 2-mile, one-way Point Rock Trail from the campground area to the overlook 800 feet above on more than one occasion. From the bottom, it starts on the right just before reaching the campground; and while there isn’t a sign, the trail is marked by bright orange blazes. From the top, it starts on the left as you approach the overlook. I didn’t hike the trail on this recent visit, but both ends appeared to be in good condition.

Click here for more information about the trails.

ATV trail planned
In spite of the dire appearance of things at Bucks Pocket, the park has recently been awarded a $526,000 federal grant through the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs, with an additional 20 percent match from the state’s park system for the purpose of developing an ATV trail network in the park. Creation of the trail is expected to take about a year and a half. The trail would also be available for use by hikers and mountain bikers. See a WHNT Channel 19 report here. 

Some of you may have reservations about having an ATV trail in the park. The park’s drastic cuts in funding are because of its relatively low number of visitors. So I suspect the thinking is that this project will bring in more visitors and thus more funding.

A move to restore funding for parks
In the past four years, the Alabama Legislature has transferred $15 million from the state parks to the state general fund. Five parks have been closed. Others have cut their hours, are closed seasonally or (like Bucks Pocket) are partially shut down.

Citizens of Alabama will have an opportunity Nov. 8 to vote for a constitutional amendment to ban such transfers. Learn more at ALParkPartners.com.      

Directions
GPS coordinates for the campground area are 34.4648, -86.0918. Or you can search for County Road 174 (it’s the road to the campground), Grove Oak, Alabama, on Google Maps. There are also directions on the park’s website.   

A word of caution: Study the map carefully, because directions on Google, etc., don’t necessarily correspond with road numbers on the map in this area.

The park is closed after dark.

Watch for part two, when we will explore the nearby High Falls Park.

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 column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.