Nature’s Path: Simply Gorge’ous

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Pisgah Gorge offers breathtaking views, stunning waterfalls and an overall sense of enchantment.

Story by MEREDITH CUMMINGS, Photos by RALPH EDMONDS

“It’s like an enchanted forest from a German fairytale,” is the thought that pops into my head when I visit Pisgah Gorge for the first time. But unlike The Brothers Grimm’s oft dark and sometimes macabre tales, this enchanted forest is a calm, soothing place – pristine and seemingly undisturbed.[s2If !is_user_logged_in()]

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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]Ralph Edmonds, my guide for the day, agrees. “It’s a natural piece of land that you don’t find in our world anymore,” he says. “It is God’s handiwork and there for us to see if we will go experience it.” My moment of Zen is temporarily interrupted when Edmonds turns to me and asks, “So, do you run?” I tell him I do, yet this does not bode well for me, a novice hiker. “I just don’t want to wear you out,” he adds with a concerned look.

Edmonds is a former Pisgah, Ala., mayor – third in his family to serve in that position – and is past-president of the Pisgah Civitan Club, the group that owns this land. Pisgah Gorge, located in this northeast Alabama community, is a canyon that cuts a mile and a half swath through the western brow of Sand Mountain – dropping roughly 1,000 feet in elevation before ending at the Tennessee River.

Little Bryant Creek, Bryant Creek and Jones Creek all intersect at the gorge, Edmonds explains. We stop to take in an above view of the first waterfall from the Pisgah Civitan Park amphitheater located at the entrance to the gorge trail. I am glad I have on running shoes with good treads as I survey the landscape below. I do not own shoes actually made for hiking.

Edmonds’ grandparents lived nearby, and his uncle fished here often. His home, which he shares with wife Carole, is just up the trail from us, so I trust him and his knowledge of the terrain. I am glad he is with me, yet in the end I have no trouble hiking the trail, except for one part where a tree has fallen across the path. Edmonds assures me it wasn’t there the day before and promises to get it cleared.

As we walk, I imagine what it must have been like once upon a time. The current path was once a wagon trail. We come along an old dam – the remnants of a mill, with bolts still intact – just above the 60-foot-high falls we had seen from the amphitheater minutes earlier. It is one of two waterfalls within the park’s boundaries – the other drops 95 feet. There is also a smaller cascading water feature farther down Little Bryant Creek that some hikers refer to as the gorge’s third waterfall.

“There’s something different on this trail every day,” Edmonds tells me.

He would notice any differences along this path as he walks this trail every day, in any kind of weather, taking in new flowers and cataloging every type of flora and fauna in the gorge. Edmonds introduces me to so many new plants and flowers that, as an Alabama native, my head spins with how little I know about the state’s diverse ecosystem.

Edmonds points out rhododendron and talks about how sometimes people will take them away to try to replant them. He fiercely protects anything that naturally belongs here. He shows me where someone painted rocks along the trail with graffiti and he worked for days with a wire brush, scrubbing it off. It is a personal affront to him and people who love the gorge.

Along the way, I learn the name of a quirky, hot pink flower I have never seen called “bursting heart” or “hearts-a-bustin’” – which I proclaim my new favorite. I also eat partridge berries, which, Edmonds assures me, are safe and were used by Native Americans to help ease pain in childbirth and menstrual cramps. I hesitantly try some and, though they don’t have much taste, I am happy to try something new.

On our walk, Edmonds makes note of what my non-gardener’s heart would call a nondescript, green plant (along with many others I see), and he calls it an environmental marker, the trailing arbutus, which, he tells me, blooms in March.

“That’s good. It means we are OK here. The gorge is healthy,” he tells me, and the satisfaction and smile on his face is that of a parent whose child has brought home an A on a report card. In a way, his has.

History of the Gorge

In the late 1800s and early 1900s Dr. George Hayes (possibly Hayes because the spelling changed between the 1900 and 1910 census), generated the first electricity in this part of the country with a generator on a wheel for his sawmill and gristmill in the gorge. He had two light bulbs: one in his mill and one in his house. He built a dam and what locals call the baptismal creek where many of them grew up swimming and playing.

Like Edmonds, Ed Bain and his wife Linda are two of those locals. “He was evidently a quite learned man,” Ed says as he reflects on Dr. Hayes’ accomplishments.

Ed goes on to discuss his childhood, and recalls playing nude in the baptismal creek in the gorge. “It came as a great disappointment when I had to put on a swimsuit to go swimming,” he jokes. The Bains’ house is just down the road from the trailhead.

Ed is the president-elect of the Pisgah Civitan Club and, along with Edmonds, I am treated to great stories about the area. It’s quickly evident that the gorge is not just a place for people to hike and experience Alabama’s beauty, but for locals it is a connection to the past.

Family and relatives connected through generations to the gorge come up again and again. It’s as if this place holds a family tree that runs through time, its roots reaching out to the surrounding community.

The Pisgah Civitan Club was founded in 1957 through the sponsorship of Scottsboro Civitan member John William Gant. Through some deft bartering, the Civitan Club acquired the 40-acre park in 1967 by trading 80 acres with a family estate that owned the gorge property.

Local members are proud to be one of only two Civitan clubs in Alabama that own property. Even in dark times in the 1990s, when the Civitan building burned to the ground (on a night that saw not one, but three fires in the city), morale stayed high and it was quickly rebuilt.

Since then, the Civitan has been instrumental in adding amenities to the park, such as the amphitheater – completed in 2010 on the gorge rim – where weddings and other events are held at the very modest rate of $50 to reserve the facility.

Proud Gatekeeper

Civitan members work hard to make sure the land is kept in good shape by picking up litter, clearing trails when needed and generally serving as keepers of the gorge. Since the early years, they have worked to improve the community as a whole. In the 1960s, the first bleachers for Pisgah High School were bought with help from the Civitan holding a chuck-wagon dinner on the football field and inviting then-Chattanooga TV personality Bob Bandy to emcee. The effort raised $1,800.

“That was the first big impact that the Civitan Club had on the community,” Ed says. “This was done out of a café and people’s houses. Scottsboro, Fort Payne, Huntsville and other Civitan Clubs; they were so generous.”

Linda says first-time visitors tend to have two reactions when they visit the gorge. The first is to be surprised such a place exists in Alabama. The second is to underestimate the gorge and its power. “It is a wondrous place to live,” Linda says. Then, she pauses and has a thoughtful, faraway look. “It’s also a dangerous place.”

This comment brings the three to a conversation about the worst experiences they’ve witnessed in the gorge – a reminder to visitors that the gorge, while beautiful, is a primitive place that demands extreme caution along the trails and overlooks. Linda talks about rules she learned as a child, growing up near the gorge. “Find some rope and tie yourself to a tree because the water is going to gush through here,” Linda says, with a big, sweeping motion of her hands when talking about flooding. “My mother always taught me to respect the gorge.”

The day I visit, Civitan members, along with the Masonic Lodge, are holding a barbecue fundraiser. It is one of several events held each year at the gorge – the largest being the annual “Gorge”ous Festival that takes place in May.

The residents along Jackson County Road 374 – the gateway to the gorge – also host a Thanksgiving block party each year, careful to finish up before the Iron Bowl football game as they are a neighborhood divided on the Alabama vs. Auburn topic. Yet they all agree about one thing: The gorge is theirs to protect and serve.

And it will be there for their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren as well, as long as they take care of it.

“The gorge itself is so very important for future generations as these places of such natural beauty are gradually disappearing,” Edmonds syas. “The gorge is also unique in that it represents two USDA growing zones. Our area is normally classified as a 5, but the gorge has plants from 4 (like the Smoky Mountains) and 5, which is the area in northeast Alabama. This microclimate is created in part due to the direction the gorge runs. An example is the hemlock trees growing there. They are in the gorge, but don’t move out to the surrounding area. When we take the Junior Civitans down in the gorge, we also teach them about protecting what they are seeing and to not trash it with their water bottles, candy wrappers, etc. The old motto, ‘take nothing but pictures and leave nothing but footprints.’”

If You Go

GETTING THERE: Pisgah Civitan Park and Gorge is at 650 County Road 374, Pisgah, AL 35765. The trailhead can be accessed inside the park as well as on a spur off Jackson County Road 374 behind the adjacent Pisgah City Park baseball field.

NEARBY ATTRACTIONS: Gorham’s Bluff, a planned community with lodging and a
restaurant, is minutes away.

MORE INFORMATION: pisgahcivitanpark.webs.com; 256-451-2254[/s2If]