Nature’s Path: Secret Hideaway

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Buck’s Pocket State Park offers amazing beauty, but just as
important to many, it’s a place to get away from it all.

by RANDY GRIDER

Looking for a spot that’s simple, peaceful and offers some amazing views? Buck’s Pocket State Park could be the perfect sanctuary you’ve been seeking.

Situated along the boundaries of Alabama’s DeKalb, Marshall and Jackson counties, the 2,097-acre park is modest in amenities, rugged in canyon landscape and graced with natural beauty. Its feeling of remoteness is a calling card for many regulars who want to get back to the basics.

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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]Jason Mason of Gadsden, Ala., is one of those who keeps coming back. He and his family have been visiting Buck’s Pocket for the past 15 years.

“It’s very secluded,” Mason says. “If you don’t watch out, you’ll get lost trying to get here. Even though it’s not got a pool, it’s got a nice place for the kids to play. You can load up and go down to the primitive area and camp and fish and swim. We like it, just because it’s secluded and it’s not so crowded.”

I wholeheartedly concur with Mason’s sentiments. Growing up on Sand Mountain, Buck’s Pocket was a regular stop on my tour through adolescence and into young adulthood. It was where I spent many a day wandering around the overlook with friends, exploring crevices, fishing, camping and rappelling (well, more watching than actually joining in except on very rare occasions when I was goaded into participating. I had a healthy fear of heights, especially when it came to backing over a perfectly good cliff without a compelling reason).

Bucket’s Pocket wasn’t exactly my backyard, but being about 25 minutes from where I lived, it was close enough. Sauty Creek, which eventually runs through Buck’s Pocket, was barely 100 yards from my house, giving me a sense of kinship with places along its path. Sometimes when I needed some solace, I would drive up to Point Rock and gaze out over the pocket and collect my thoughts. The area offers a certain amount of therapy that anyone who has experienced it will tell you is good for the mind and soul.

The Pocket

Officially, Buck’s Pocket is located in the unincorporated community of Grove Oak. It’s just a few miles from heralded Guntersville State Park. The pocket is a narrow-butdeep gorge that gives way to Morgan’s Cove on Lake Guntersville just seven miles away.

Morgan’s Cove, also part of Buck’s Pocket State Park, is a popular fishing spot with a boat ramp and hiking and horse trails. The cove gives water enthusiasts and fishermen access to South Sauty, another well-known fishing location along Lake Guntersville.

Buck’s Pocket’s main attractions are the wide vista overlooks on top of the mountain and camping areas in the bottom of the canyon.

Park Manager Bruce Aldridge says Buck’s Pocket is unique in both formation and orientation. Unlike nearby Little River Canyon on Lookout Mountain, the canyon here wasn’t formed by the tributary that cuts through its bottom. “This was a big, underground cavern that sort of caved in,” Aldridge says. “It’s one of few canyons in the whole United States that runs east and west. Most of them run north and south and are on a main river that formed them.”

Another unusual aspect of the park is the campground, which boasts 24 modern campsites and modular cabins along with a playground and comfort station, as well as primitive camping and overnight camping with horses.

“The campground is unique,” Aldridge says. “It’s one of few in the country in the bottom of a canyon, and in the eastern United States, the only one at the bottom of a canyon.”

The canyon and the 20 miles of trails within the park’s borders sport a primitive feel and reality. The park has only one road running through the canyon, leaving the majority of the land untouched. There is plenty of flora and fauna to experience. Wildflowers native to the area include trilliums, rhododendrons and several pitcher plants that grow in few other places.

Foxes, deer, squirrels and bald eagles are just a few of the animals that make their home in the park.

As it has for thousands of years, nature rules. Sauty Creek is a wet-weather tributary that can change in a short period. The canyon is susceptible to flash flooding –especially in the spring. The bridges are called washover bridges, and cannot be washed out in the way pillar bridges can. (Never cross the bridges with water covering them as vehicles can be washed away.) “It can go from an empty creek bed to flooding covering up the roads in about an hour’s time,” Aldridge says.

The park’s busiest season is September to November as visitors flock to the area to enjoy the fall foliage. The other peak season runs from March through May. Alabama Great Outdoors Day, which is slated to become an annual event, was held at the park this past May. Aldridge says it will move to the fall in 2016.

History and Legends

Native Americans including the Creek and Cherokee inhabited Buck’s Pocket. It is thought that some Cherokees hid out in the canyon during the Trail of Tears to avoid being forced to move west. It is also rumored that French explorers in the 1700s grew coffee and olives in the area. In the 1940s, the park was logged for its timber.

It first became a tri-county park in 1966 before officially becoming a state park in 1971.

Buck’s Pocket gets its name from – well, you have your pick of theories or local legends. According to the Encyclopedia of Alabama: “There are various local tales about how Buck’s Pocket got its name. According to the most common legend, a group of Cherokee hunters cornered a buck deer on a high ledge, and the frightened animal leapt off the ledge into the deep rock pocket below. Another tale says the area was once a gathering place for buck deer that roamed the area by the hundreds. Yet another attributes the park’s name to a man named Buck who raised cattle there.

But the name isn’t the only piece of folklore concerning the park. It’s also known across the state as a place where defeated politicians go to lick their wounds after losing an election. One story says the Buck’s Pocket legend started with former Alabama Gov. Big Jim Folsom in his concession speech after losing his bid for the state’s highest office. “Somebody asked him what he was going to do next, and he said, well he’d go to Buck’s Pocket and eat poke salad, and he invited all the other defeated politicians to join him,” Aldridge says. “Whether that ever happened or not, I don’t know.” Still, a television station or newspaper reporter brings up Buck’s Pocket in relation to losing office-seekers every election year. The legend lives on.

Closing Threat

It was with great consternation that many people, myself included, heard that Buck’s Pocket, along with a handful of others state parks including nearby Desoto, faced the threat of closure due to Alabama’s current budget crisis.

The state parks as a whole are about 90 percent self-sufficient, and a plan floated by Alabama lawmakers is to take the profits from profitable parks and put it into the state’s general fund. “I am totally against the closing of the parks,” Aldridge says. “I do not see where there is a monetary gain for the state government. Buck’s Pocket doesn’t make a profit, as it lacks the facilities such as lodges and cabins necessary to turn a profit. There has to be a line somewhere. The outdoors is a place to enjoy; running it like a business takes away from the peoples’ enjoyment.” While many have voiced their support for keeping all state parks open – and several state politicians have vowed to find the necessary funding to make sure that happens – some uncertainty lingers as my family visits Buck’s Pocket and Morgan’s Cove in late summer.

My daughter, Ansley, and I decide to take in a little fishing in the cove while my wife, Olivia, and son, Caden, hike a trail.

Truthfully, Ansley’s approach to fishing was sitting in a folding chair behind me with a book, reading. I spent more than two hours not catching anything (very hot, humid weather with high pressure is my explanation as I have caught several nice fish in the same spot in the recent past), but I couldn’t have asked for a more enjoyable way to spend an evening.

Olivia and Caden, on the other hand, obviously opting for a more strenuous endeavor, take the car and start their 4-mile journey. Read about their adventure on page 32.

As we pull away from Morgan’s Cove a little after dark, we are all in agreement that Buck’s Pocket is a true gem for anyone who loves the outdoors. Closing it would be a travesty in every sense of the word. We hope that day will never come.

 On the Trails

After driving the switchback road into Buck’s Pocket, my son and I resolve to travel the two-mile Point Rock Trail – the most popular of the park’s five trails – back to the top and the scenic canyon-rim views at Jim Lynn Overlook. This is the opposite approach visitors to many canyons take (you have to hike into them first as there are no roads to the canyon floor), but the one recommended by staff at the park office. The return trip is easier, they say, if you’re going downhill on the way back. Makes sense to me.

Some advice on logistics: Don’t expect to find trailheads without guidance. On a previous trip, even though we were armed with a trail map – and my grown nephew, who had spent much time in Buck’s Pocket as a Boy Scout – we had difficulty. Stopping by the office for directions saves a lot of time.

Because both the Point Rock Trail description and the park staff say the trail is easy to moderate and not steep – yet I know it climbs 800 feet to the overlook – I’m curious and a little skeptical as we get started. The trail is surprisingly level, with gradual ascents and even descents as we crisscross the rock- and boulderstrewn Little Sauty Creek bed. We lose our way at one crossing, not noticing where the trail picks up on the other side (mainly because we haven’t realized orange markings on trees and other vegetation denote the path). “It’s like ‘The Goonies,’” my son, Caden, says as we leave our failed wanderings and head back to the known path.

The tall forest is aglow in green from the leaves, thick mosses and ferns, and at 6 p.m., the light is already dim. Boulders spilling down a hillside seem surreally like a paused rockslide – or an active one, depending on one’s perspective of time. Geologic formations along the trail are estimated to be between 200 and 250 million years old, according to the park website.

We see butterflies and frogs that blend in so well with the fallen foliage that leaves seem to be hopping suddenly across our route.

Just as we begin to think maybe we aren’t on the right trail after all, the path begins a more definitive ascent and we’re soon walking along the canyon rim, in sunlight again. We emerge into the overlook’s parking lot and take the boardwalk to several viewing points. The soft, sunset view across the canyon’s gulf is spectacular – partly because of the startling contrast with the equally beautiful woodland we travelled through to get here.

Remembering the deepening dusk of the forest, we head back to the trail. The filtered light has taken on a yellow hue among the growing shadows, and we’re appreciative of the advice from the park staff. While the trip to the top certainly wasn’t strenuous (except maybe in a few brief stretches), the return trip is faster and easier.

We arrive at our car as darkness swallows the canyon floor and make plans to return to Buck’s Pocket State Park and its trails this fall.

To learn about other trails in the park, see alapark.com/hiking-trails-0.
– Olivia Grider

If You Go

GETTING THERE:
Buck’s Pocket State Park is at 393 County Road 174, Grove Oak, AL 35975

OFFICE HOURS: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day. Campers who arrive after hours can set up at a
campsite and register the next morning.

CAMPGROUND RATES: $24.10 – campsite with water/electrical/sewage; $23.10 – campsite with water and electricity; $16.05 – primitive campsite; $80 – cabin rental; $50 – pavilion rental

MORE INFORMATION: alapark.com/bucks-pocket-state-park; 256-659-2000

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