Hiking Gilliam Loop Trail and Pogo Ridge (9 Miles) in DeSoto State Park During Christmas 2019

Christmas 2019 was extra special in that my nephew Matt (who is in the Air Force, stationed on Mississippi) and my niece Sara (who is a school teacher in California) were able to spend the holidays with my family in Alabama.

With all the Christmas cargo we had to take down from where we actually live in Tennessee and then bring back from Alabama, my wife and I decided to take both her Hyundai Elantra and my Jeep Wrangler for the nearly 3 hour drive there.

For me, it was just an excuse to be able to serve as a Jeep tour guide during Christmas vacation. I started out by taking Matt and Sara (and their mother Jeanene) on a 23 mile drive along Little River Canyon on Christmas Eve.

And for the day after Christmas, I announced I would be heading up a 9 mile hike in a “hidden gem” of a trail in DeSoto State Park, called Gilliam Loop (which begins at Cabin 21)- or at least, my version of it.

Matt and Sara agreed to join me, with zero hesitation.

Gilliam Loop is actually a mountain biking trail, but if you know where to veer off the path, you can connect to Pogo Ridge.

Back in 1934, the Civilian Conversation Corps (known as CCC) built culverts along the trail, which runs parallel to Little River.

So it is really cool to see these 86 year-old structures still in place.

Pogo Ridge leads a crossing point of Little River itself. However, we opted not to cross through the river, which would have meant we would have had to hike the rest of the day in wet clothes.

Therefore, we took Exit 4 of the trail back to the Road 12.

When it was all said and done, we had hiked 9.25 miles in 3 hours.

Before heading back to the house, I took them by Howard’s Chapel; the church built into a giant rock, where the founding pastor’s ashes are contained.

Oh, and I failed to mention:

Christmas Week 2019 contained perfect Fall Weather, which allowed us to have this much fun!

I had the top off the Jeep the entire time, as the temperate remained in the 60s for most of the time.

It will be a Christmas I never forget!

Jeep Family Road Trip Noccalula Falls in Gadsden, AL: Train Ride, Petting Zoo, and Nature Hike

I grew up on Lookout Mountain in Fort Payne, Alabama; which happens to be the midway point between Chattanooga and Gadsden- less than an hour from both cities.

A month ago, my wife and I took a scenic drive all the way down the mountain to downtown Chattanooga. But this past weekend for our son’s Fall Break, we simply drove in the other direction, which led to Gadsden -home of Noccalula Falls.

Despite visiting the place throughout my own childhood, somehow I had yet to take my own family there. I suppose our new Jeep serves as constant motivation to discover (or rediscover) nearby hidden gems!

Children ages 3 and under are free admission, so we only paid a total of $16 to enter the park. That granted us access to the petting zoo, the train ride around the park, and the trails that go down to the bottom of Noccalula Falls.

It was a great way to spend an Autumn morning…

So if you are looking for a fun affordable family road trip, I highly suggest Noccalula Falls in Gadsden, Alabama!

Cloudland Canyon State Park in Rising Fawn, Georgia: Hiking the Trails Down to Hemlock Falls and Cherokee Falls

I was born and raised in Fort Payne, Alabama in the 1980s and 90s. My dad’s side of the family lived just an hour on the other side of Lookout Mountain; near Chattanooga, Tennessee.

At least half a dozen times each year, we would drive to see that side of the family for get-togethers. A little past halfway of the trip, I would always notice a brown government sign advertising Cloudland Canyon State Park; just 3 miles to the left.

But being that we already lived next to the Little River Canyon Preserve and DeSoto State Park, we were already quite exposed to the Alabama side of Lookout Mountain’s natural wonders.

So as a kid, I never visited Cloudland Canyon State Park. It wasn’t until 3 years ago when I took my 5 year-old son (at the time), that I finally realized how awesome that place is.

Last weekend during Memorial Day Weekend, I decided to take a fun backroads Jeep ride with my now 8 year-old son and my dad.

We had heard you could hike down in the the canyon and check out some waterfalls.

And is exactly what we did.

It had the appeal of a theme park… except, it is an actual real park.

One of the highlights for my son is when we he was able to catch a crayfish at the bottom of one of the waterfalls.

Granted, this isn’t a hike for the faint of heart. It’s a 2 mile hike, but it’s straight down… and then you still have to hike back up.

But I am already looking forward to going back!

Dear Jack: The Crayfish You Caught at the Waterfall

8 years, 9 months.

Dear Jack,

Last Saturday morning, you and I went hiking with Papa at Cloudland Canyon State Park in Georgia; which is only 30 miles from Nana and Papa’s house.

We took a long hike down into the canyon, where we were able to check out some waterfalls.

It was in a puddle formed in conjunction to one of the waterfalls that you had a hunch that there might be a creature to catch.

Unbeknownst to me, you had proactively brought a bug container with you on our hike.

You were so proud of the crayfish you caught.

As we hiked back up to the top of the park, several of the hikers making their way down said to one another, “Look at one that boy caught… some kind of fish?”

That was pretty cool.

Love,

Daddy

Dear Jack: Our Hike at Little River Canyon with Uncle Joe and Aunt Rebecca

7 years.

Dear Jack,

This Thanksgiving was extra special because your Uncle Joe (one of Mommy’s 7 brothers) and Aunt Rebecca drove up from Pensacola, Florida to spend the holiday weekend with us; even though they knew there would be no turkey at our vegan Thanksgiving feast…

They must have really wanted to visit us!

We made sure to show them a good time; Northern Alabama style! That means participating in mandatory fun by hiking some of the many awesome trails that I grew up near.

Just 5 miles from Nonna and Papa’s house, where lived during my high school years, is the epic Little River Canyon.

We started out my taking an up-close look at the waterfall, by standing on the deck. But you weren’t too impressed. You were ready to hike the trail that traverses along the side of the mountain, making its way down to the river.

Amazingly, this is a trail that I had never hiked once, in all my years of growing up in Fort Payne, Alabama. Somehow I never knew about this one.

As we started hiking it and I realized not only how beautiful it is, but also how challenging, it made me wish I had known about it much sooner; like in high school.

I will admit, the hike was much more challenging that I had anticipated, but we all safely made our way down to the river… and back up!

It was so cool once we got to the water; like showing up in the middle of a white water rapids course. When I think of Alabama, this is the kind of thing I think of.

I grew up on a mountain with a river running through it. This is what I think of when I think of growing up in Alabama. These trails are just a well kept secret.

It was so cool that your Uncle Joe and Aunt Rebecca drove all the way up to see us for Thanksgiving. Had they not been there, I’m not sure we would have embarked on such a special trail.

Love,

Daddy

Manhood in the Making: Hiking with My Son and My Dad, On His 61st Birthday (at DeSoto State Park in Fort Payne, Alabama)

I could think of no better way to spend the morning of my dad’s 61st birthday than to go on a hike with him and my son, near the woods I grew up in.

Growing up just 5 miles miles from DeSoto State Park (connected to Fort Payne, Alabama), I joined the Cub Scouts when I was in 1st grade, which helped me realize back then in 1987 it wasn’t sports that got me excited; but instead, the great wooded outdoors.

Hiking and exploring nature became my sport. It became a crucial part of my masculine identity; not baseball or basketball, though I did end up (unsuccessfully) playing both.

My dad served as the Scout Leader for our Cub Scout troop, which only reinforced what it meant to be a “Shell man” in our family. (Our last name is Shell.)

So it’s no surprise that, 30 years later, with my own son being in 1st grade himself now, this hike symbolized as a right of passage. Granted, I’ve been taking my son on hikes where we live in Tennessee for years.

But this hike was special: It connected us together as the three Shell men of our family.

And we just couldn’t have planned for it to be as perfect and adventurous and it ended up.

It was just chilly enough for my son and I to get to wear our slightly silly hats, but the sun shone on us the whole time.

All I had really remembered about the trail from when I was my son’s age was at the end, there was a dam. But there was much more than that.

Much of the trail made its way along the side of cliff, with the river down below. It was like every step of the way was a picture worth taking and putting on Instagram.

We encountered some man-made structures along the way that were apparently built around a hundred years ago. They only added the mystery aspect of our adventure.

Because that’s an important part of going out for a hike in the woods: Secretly hoping to make some kind of cool discovery.

My son made a few discoveries of his own, with no help thanks to me.

He was truly fascinated by all the moss growing along the side of the mountain…

But he surprised me when he showed me the baby snake he found as well. We’re still at least pretty sure that snake wasn’t actually poisonous.

As we made our way closer to the dam, which served as our arbitrary motive along the way, we accidentally found a cave in the rocks.

My son showed zero ounces of fear as we entered it; only eagerness to explore!

We imagined how, surely, Native Americans must have slept there; and how even now, it was likely a retreat for forest animals as well.

As we exited the cavern, alongside the waterfall from the river, I showed my dad and my son a shortcut to the dam, so we wouldn’t have to backtrack because of our cave detour.

It involved us having to hold on the side of the rock cave while walking across a narrow ledge with the river below. Was it dangerous? Well, that’s sort of the whole point.

I see so much value in a young boy receiving guidance and confirmation from the older men in his life. He learns firsthand how we can tackle a challenge like this, with our help, and overcome it.

That’s got to be good not only for his growing self-esteem, but also his identity as a confident 1st grader.

To me, this is what being a dad is all about. This is the most important stuff; everything else is just details.

So truly, there was no better way to spend last Saturday morning, on my dad’s 61st birthday, than to hike an old trail across the side of a mountain and a river in Alabama.

Fathers pass on certain values and less to their sons that no one else can, in the same way. That’s something I am very aware of.

This was no leisurely hike. No, this was manhood in the making, for my son.

And I would like to believe that 30 years from now, he’ll look back on our hike and realize how it served as an expression of his dad for his son.

Sometimes as a father, it takes a hike in the woods to supplement “I love you” and “I’m so proud of you”.

Looking back, I can see that with my own dad when he took me on those hikes. And now I continue that cycle for my own son.

Dear Jack: Our Water Treks of Manliness in February 2017 (Harvey Park/McCutcheon Creek)

6 years, 3 months.

Dear Jack: Our Water Treks of Manliness in February 2017 (Harvey Park/McCutcheon Creek)

Dear Jack,

No monster truck or motorcross shows for February, but with this winter being so mild, we definitely took advantage of being able to trek through the waterways of Spring Hill, Tennessee. That’s how we stayed in touch with our masculine side, despite living in a house with two girly girls.

Dear Jack: Our Water Treks of Manliness in February 2017 (Harvey Park/McCutcheon Creek) c5

Our multiple trips over the month of February to McCutcheon Creek led to adventure, as expected.They also led to finding treasures, perhaps a little unexpected…

Dear Jack: Our Water Treks of Manliness in February 2017 (Harvey Park/McCutcheon Creek) m6

Your Spiderman boots are must when we are sneaking through McCutcheon Creek, which snakes through the middle of Spring Hill; including Harvey Park, which also has a playground.

Dear Jack: Our Water Treks of Manliness in February 2017 (Harvey Park/McCutcheon Creek) c3

At one point we had to construct a bridge from an abandoned piece of sheet metal we found nearby. It was the only practical way to us to cross the deeper part of water.

Dear Jack: Our Water Treks of Manliness in February 2017 (Harvey Park/McCutcheon Creek) c8

Shortly afterwards, we found an old pair of wire cutters sticking out of the dirt. You swiftly adopted them as your own, as you joyfully began clipping the briers in our path.

Dear Jack: Our Water Treks of Manliness in February 2017 (Harvey Park/McCutcheon Creek) c9

I could tell you felt so proud to be entrusted with such a powerful (and potentially dangerous) tool. It was so the opposite of the caution you have to use back at the house with your baby sister.

Dear Jack: Our Water Treks of Manliness in February 2017 (Harvey Park/McCutcheon Creek) m3

The weekend before that, you had found a wooden stake, which you officially become your sword. I didn’t realize how useful a wooden sword can be while exploring the waterways of Spring Hill, Tennessee.

Dear Jack: Our Water Treks of Manliness in February 2017 (Harvey Park/McCutcheon Creek) t4

One of our favorite places to go is a tunnel underneath the road, which allows McCutcheon Creek to flow underneath. Maybe we could call it our man cave.

Dear Jack: Our Water Treks of Manliness in February 2017 (Harvey Park/McCutcheon Creek) t3

You continually demonstrate your bravery in our adventures.

Dear Jack: Our Water Treks of Manliness in February 2017 (Harvey Park/McCutcheon Creek)

Perhaps the most impressive thing I saw you do was when you climbed up, and then back down, the 7th foot cliff; alongside the creek. It’s hard enough for me to do it, but you do it with ease.

Of course, in between your bouts with treachery and bravery, you would ask, “Hey Daddy, can we go back to the playground?

Dear Jack: Our Water Treks of Manliness in February 2017 (Harvey Park/McCutcheon Creek) p2

On the surface, it might appear the playground served as a place for leisure.

Dear Jack: Our Water Treks of Manliness in February 2017 (Harvey Park/McCutcheon Creek) p4

But I know better- you simply used the playground as your training facility to build your strength and endurance for our next expedition.

Dear Jack: Our Water Treks of Manliness in February 2017 (Harvey Park/McCutcheon Creek)

Good times.

Love,

Daddy