Noteworthy Hike in TAG: Walls of Jericho
Activities: Hiking, Photography, Caving, Nature Appreciation, Camping
Rating: Moderate to Difficult
Located in the upper Paint Rock River watershed straddling the Tennessee-Alabama border is the Walls of Jericho, also referred to as the Grand Canyon of the South. It consists of 21,453 acres: 12,510 in Alabama and 8,943 in Tennessee. It has been protected as a wilderness and recreation area for many generations to come.
In the late 1700s, Davy Crockett explored the area since his family owned land there. In the 1800s a traveling minister came upon the Walls of Jericho and was so captivated by the cathedral-like beauty that he declared it needed a biblical name and thus the name stuck.
In the 1940’s, Texas oil baron Harry Lee Carter acquired approximately 60,000 acres in Franklin County, TN and Jackson County, AL which included the Walls of Jericho. Mr. Carter graciously allowed public access to his land however there were no trails so very few actually knew how to get to the Walls of Jericho. In 1977 when he died the land was sold and closed to visitors. For the next 26 years it would remain as a wood source for a paper company and serve as a hunting preserve.
The Nature Conservancy recognized the Walls of Jericho as one of six national hot spots for biodiversity and purchased the Tennessee and Alabama Walls of Jericho properties totaling 21,453 acres in December 2003 from the Stevenson Land Company. In 2004 they then sold a 12,500 acre tract which included the Walls to the State of Alabama’s Forever Wild Land Trust for $9.4 million. The Alabama Forever Wild Land Trust then began preparing the land for public access as part of its mandate to acquire land for public use and it reopened in August 2004. Alabama Governor, Bob Riley officially dedicated the area in April 2005. The Walls of Jericho became the 40th acquisition since voters created the Forever Wild Land Trust in 1992. The organization gets most of its funds from a percentage of the interest from offshore natural gas leases. It has spent over $74 million acquiring more than 110,000 acres statewide.
The Tennessee portion of the Nature Conservancy’s purchase, 8,943 acres, was presented as the Walls of Jericho project for consideration under the 2005 Forest Legacy Program funding cycle. Tennessee’s Forest Legacy Committee ranked the project as its number one State priority and in 2006 the Forest Legacy program provided the majority of funding to purchase from the Nature Conservancy the 8,943-acre Tennessee “Walls” tract that contains the signature amphitheater. The Nature Conservancy matched Forest Legacy Program funding by donating the nearby 5,100 acre David Carter Tract. Both tracts in Tennessee are currently managed by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency as the Bear Hollow Mountain Wildlife Management Area. The 750 acres surrounding the prominent gorge and amphitheater are managed by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, Division of Natural Areas as the Walls of Jericho State Natural Area.
The Walls of Jericho Project also abuts Alabama’s 27,000 acre Skyline Wildlife Management Area and between the two states, over 48,000 contiguous acres of upland hardwood forests have now been protected on the Southern Cumberland Plateau.
Over 10 miles of trails have been built to provide access to the Walls of Jericho and its waterfalls. Access is available thru both the Alabama and Tennessee tracts. The Alabama red blazed trail is a 2.5-mile hike one way, downhill to Clarke Cemetery, with an additional half mile remaining to travel into the Walls. The Tennessee white blazed trail is approximately 3.2 miles one way, downhill to Clarke Cemetery. After passing a field clearing (which is also popular campsite area for overnighters) the trail continues on the south side of Turkey Creek on an often muddy and slippery path. At mile 3 or 3.7 (depending on which route you chose), you'll reach the Walls of Jericho natural amphitheater, which is a 50-yard-wide limestone bowl with 200-foot-tall cliffs on each side. In wet months, the amphitheater is filled with water from its two main falls and it's a bit harder to meander around. After enjoying the sights and sounds, return to the Mill Creek log bridge and begin the 1,000-foot ascent through rock outcroppings back up to the Alabama trailhead. The walk back will be mostly uphill and strenuous. Hikers should wear comfortable shoes and bring plenty of water. The trail is a well marked and hikers have to cross several shallow streams. However, stream levels rise quickly during thunderstorms and crossing them can be hazardous due to swift currents. After a rain shower, the trail can be muddy for days. On dry days, hikers should plan on a minimum of six hours to make the round-trip, which includes a two-hour stay in the gorge.
A separate 8.3-mile-long horse trail leading into the gorge is also available. Primitive camping is allowed in designated areas, including the parking area for the horse trail.
The Southern Cumberlands of Tennessee, the greater area surrounding the Walls of Jericho, is home to the highest known concentration of cave ecosystems known in the world. This area is also home to the highest diversity of subterranean invertebrates in the world. The temperate hardwood forests in the area are extremely important for the long-term conservation of priority neotropical migratory birds in the Central Hardwoods and Appalachian Regions. The headwaters of Paint Rock River can also be found in the Walls of Jericho, which is one of the few remaining high quality free-flowing rivers in the entire Tennessee River Basin. The Paint Rock River watershed also supports a diverse array of wildlife, including salamanders, 100 species of fish, 45 species of mussel and a wide variety of birds. Some of the most notable are: The rare Tennessee cave salamander (which can be found only in Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia), five globally imperiled mussels and 12 globally rare mussels (which are found in the Paint Rock River and its tributaries), the Pale Lilliput and Alabama lampshell mussel as this is the only place in the world where they exist, the federally endangered palezone shiner which is a fish confined to the Paint Rock River and one stream in Kentucky, and three globally imperiled fish – the sawfin shiner, blotchside logperch and the federally threatened snail darter.
Plant loving hikers will also be rewarded with the sight of lobelia, maple-leaf viburnum (an endangered rare species), snake root, horsemint and strawberry bush (more colorfully called hearts bursting with love). Visitors will also encounter the rare wild columbine, seen popping out of cracks in the limestone rocks. Monte Sano Mountain and Desoto State Park are the only other locations in the State where it can be found.
Directions: The Walls of Jericho are located off of Highway 79 about 25 miles north of Scottsboro, Alabama. There are two trail heads for hikers: one in Alabama and the other 2 miles north in Tennessee. To experience the entire trail, it is recommended to enter the Alabama red blazed trail head and hike out via the Tennessee white blazed trail. In order to do this you would need to leave a vehicle at both trail heads. You could also of course hike out the same entrance you entered and if you choose just one, I’d highly recommend the Tennessee side. Plan on a minimum of 6 hours to enjoy the hike.