The Big & Little Coon


Alabama Wildlife Management Areas (WMA)


Alabama has thousands of acres of public land set aside for recreational and conservation purposes. These lands include state parks, national wildlife refuges, and national forests. Another category of public land is the wildlife management area (WMA). Such tracts are managed primarily for hunting but are also open to the public for fishing and other outdoor activities such as hiking, photography and caving. The WMA designation was established by statute by the Alabama legislature in 1975 to provide additional hunting and recreational opportunities for Alabama citizens. Alabama now contains 36 wildlife management areas encompassing more than 768,000 acres open for hunting and recreation. These WMAs cover all areas of the state and range in size from the 6,700-acre Autauga Community Hunting area to the huge Black Warrior WMA that is more than 98,000 acres. The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Wildlife Resources Division manages these WMAs, overseeing programs to enhance wildlife populations and the hunting experience and enforcing usage regulations. Funding for the staffing and management of WMAs comes primarily from revenues generated by the purchase of special WMA hunting licenses.


Although some acreage in the WMAs is publicly owned, much of the land is made available to the public through partnerships with private and corporate landowners. These entities have signed agreements with the state of Alabama to provide Alabama hunters with access to hundreds of thousands of acres. Additionally, government agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), and U.S. Corps of Engineers own and allow access to a significant portion of the lands in the WMAs. Land purchases for additional acreage are supported by funds received from the Forever Wild Land Trust.


Each of the WMAs offer large areas where hunters can pursue small game such as squirrels, rabbits, doves, wild turkey, and quail and large game such as white-tail deer, coyote, bobcat, and fox. The diversity of habitats contained within the boundaries of the WMAs offers a wide variety of hunting experiences. The Crow Creek, Seven Mile Island, and Raccoon Creek WMAs, which are located on Alabama waterways or encompass large lakes and wetlands, provide fertile hunting areas for waterfowl, whereas WMAs in the state's upland and mid-state regions are popular for deer and turkey hunting. Additionally, 17 of the WMAs now have increasing resident populations of feral hogs; they have become a nuisance in some areas because they are very destructive to habitat. Hunting of feral hogs is allowed on many WMAs, although seasons and regulations may vary by individual WMA.


Organizations such as Ducks Unlimited, the Alabama Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation, and other non-profit conservation organizations have partnered with the state to provide additional funding for habitat enhancement, land purchases, and other projects as well as providing expertise and additional staffing to assist with land purchases and with projects on WMAs. The WMAs are open to the public for general recreation use year round. Hunting seasons are set by the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and vary by WMA and by type of game being hunted.


One of the best things for cavers about Alabama WMAs is they are open to the public for general recreation which includes CAVING. This article will feature some of the more well known caves in the Big & Little Coon Valley areas which are a part of the James D. Martin Skyline Wildlife Management Area. There are literally hundreds of caves in these two coves that are open year round for our exploration and recreation. However if you do visit during the hunting seasons, make sure to wear your orange!


Established in 1959, Skyline Wildlife Management Area was originally comprised of small parcels of leased lands from private landowners. On August 7, 1998, the area was formally dedicated as the James D. Martin-Skyline Wildlife Management Area (JDM-Skyline WMA). Today, through land acquisitions carried out by the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, the Forever Wild Land Trust, the State Lands Division, assistance from The Nature Conservancy, and a lease agreement with Alabama Power Company, JDM-Skyline WMA now consists of approximately 60,000 acres. The Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries and the Forever Wild Land Trust own and operate about 75 percent of the total WMA acreage.


The Big and Little Coon Valleys, often referred to as the “Coon”, are a hot spot for TAG cavers. Stretching loosely from Low Gap in the south to the Tennessee state line, and from the plateau west of State Road 117 above Stevenson to the Walls of Jericho in the Hurricane Creek Valley in the west, a large chunk of The Coon consists of the James D Martin Skyline Wildlife management area, which is wide open to caving and ridge walking.

Cavers frequent The Coon because of the openness. There is opportunity to go there anytime to cave or ridge walk. The karst in this area is very well known to TAG Cavers. The mountain and ridges here are not only very scenic they are hollow as well. Most cavers have heard of many of these cave but have not visited. Some names that might ring a bell are: Elmo’s Canyon, Odyssey and Iliad, Iron Hoop, Thunder hole, Holiday Hole, Mandy’s and 67 Dollar Pit trio and the list goes on. Whether you like to vertical cave or just horizontal cave, like multi drops or blind pits, there is something for every type of caver in The Coon.


While The Coon continues to be a fully open caving area in TAG with access any time and no permission needed there are still a few rules that visitors should keep in mind when visiting. There are gates on the area which are only open for vehicle traffic from October 1 – May 1. However, the gates are subject to closures during this time for special events during hunting season. It is always best to check the WMA website prior to visiting otherwise you may find yourself going with a back up plan. Also note while the area is closed to vehicular traffic when the gates are closed, it is not closed to foot traffic. So you may just have a longer walk to get to the cave of your choice. Camping in the wma is also permitted but only in designated camping areas. It is also a good idea to know where the boundaries are and to carry a map with you while in the area. If you have a topo program on your smart phone you can download a GPX file from the WMA web site that shows the boundaries of the area. To download the boundaries of the James D Martin Skyline WMA go to: http://www.outdooralabama.com/sites/default/files/Skyline2016_17.gpx.


In 2012, the state of Alabama added an additional 11,364 acres to the Skyline Tract which included the Jacobs Mountain area. This property was part of the WMA in the 1970s and 1980s, but had been under private control since 1988.


When visiting the Skyline areas, please keep in mind that cavers are not the only ones in the woods. During hunting seasons it is advised that you wear your orange.


Some popular caves in the Big & Little Coon Valleys


Blunder Hole: The entrance is an obscure hole below a low rock ledge on the contact bench and the cave has 9 drops. The deepest drop in the cave is the entrance pit at 107”. The cave is 453’ deep and 3,802’ long. The entrance pit is mostly dry but can be wet during time of high water. In the winter a wetsuit is recommended. At the bottom of the entrance drop is the infamous flowstone blockage known as the Scuba Squeeze. The water goes under this blockage which is about a body length then opens up again to a mostly hands and knees crawl. Pit depths are: 107, 34, 12, 14, 41, 2, 26, 25, 17.


Lacy Pot: An elusive 197 foot pit! The entrance WAS in a shallow sink but the entrance collapsed around 1983. It might be possible to re-open however in the recent years cavers have been unsuccessful. **UPDATE - in the spring of 2018, cavers announced they were able to re open Lacy Pot by doing a lot of modification.


Thunderhole: Thunder Hole is another wetsuit multi-drop cave. It is 460’ deep and 1,704’ long. The deepest drop is 95’. Make sure you park as discreetly as possible and remember that even though the cave is on State land, you are extremely close to private landowners who will not appreciate hordes of cars or lots of noise at night.


Teddy Bear Cave: Named after Tommy “Teddy Bear” Thurman, who helped find the cave. It has a 107 foot entrance pit and 2,698 feet of cave however It appears the 40’ pit leading to Tenth Street Junction has collapsed.


Elmo’s Canyon: Another deep cave in the area at 512’ deep and 4,910’ long. E.T. Davis helped discover and explore this cave. Cavers used to joke about what the initials in his name stood for and someone suggested, “Elmo.” (John Stapelton) The entrance is located on the far side of a large impressive (50' diameter) sink. There are only 5 pits (151, 12, 105, 40, 130) in this cave with the deepest being the entrance at 151’. However the cave is not as easy as it may seem and route finding can be an issue. It is suggested that if you want to see the bottom of this cave that you go with someone who has been there before.


Dog Collar Pit: If you are a “pit collector” this one should be on your list as it is 106’ deep and is very decorated. Jason Hardy proposed to Kelly Smallwood in the bottom in 2013! She said YES of course!


A TRIO of Pits that are commonly visited on the same trip: Holiday Hole, Mandy’s Pit & Sixty Seven Dollar Pit. All three are located along a 4x4 road in close proximity.

Holiday Hole: The entrance is a 20’ diameter sinkhole with a 106’ free pit. The cave is only listed as being 94’ long so again if you are a “pit collector” this one is probably on your list.


Mandy’s Pit: At 210” deep, it has 2 drops (161’ & 18’) and is 831’ long. The 161’ pit is reached by climbing down 25’ to a ledge that can accommodate 2-3 people. Bolts are on the ceiling for rigging.


Sixty Seven Dollar Pit: This one was named by Doug Strait and ET Davis. They had brought along a case of beer and were pulled over. Since it was a dry county they soon found themselves at the jailhouse/ police station, which at that time was above the five and dime store in Stevenson. It seemed that $67.75 was necessary to rectify the situation, which turned out to be $2 and change less than the total money between them. The entrance is a small slot which opens slightly to allow a free 82 foot rappel. At the bottom of the drop is a nicely decorated flowstone wall and it is only listed as 27’ long.


Jess Elliot / Iron Hoop Cave: The length of the two caves combined is listed as 23,064 feet. There is extreme flood potential in the lower connecting crawls between the two and should not be attempted during times of high water or rain in the forecast. The depth of the cave is 147’, but the vertical extent is 285’. The two caves were connected on 1/28/89, Z survey to K survey, Station K6. The length of 23064’ does not include all explored passage. The Iron Hoop entrance is small, less than 2 feet in diameter and the Jess Elliot entrance is quite large and impressive. If you want to see both caves it is recommended to visit them individually.


Big Coon Blue Hole: Also worth mentioning is the resurgence for the Jess Elliot / Iron Hoop which is known as the Big Coon Blue Hole. During times of wet weather the hole is a green color and is approx. 25’ deep. In the dryer times the pool does not flow and is reduced to a small clear pool under a limestone ledge.


Rocky Horror Hole: Another one for the “pit collectors”. This one is not far from the Iron Hoop entrance and is a 121’ pit with 71’ of passage.


Illiad / Odyssey: Another popular deep multi drop cave in TAG. After the third drop and traversing 2000 feet of cave or so the Odyssey route intersects Illiad. The overall cave depth is 493’. The Odyssey entrance is located in a large 40 foot diameter sinkhole and 0.2 miles from it is the Illiad entrance, which is in a large ravine with a small natural bridge over the top of it. During the wet season and high water a wet suit is recommended. Illiad also has the very popular passage under a flowstone drapery called The Nozzle.


Guys Cave: Access to Guy’s Cave was previously on private land and the landowners are no longer allowing access. However the cave itself is on State land so it is still open. The cave is listed as 4,331 long, 467’ deep and has 7 drops with the deepest drop being 79’.


Mother’s Finest Cave: Another deep multi drop in this area. Listed as 6,562’ foot long, 366’ deep and six pits with the deepest being 72”.


Some popular caves in the Jacobs Mountain Area:


Williams Saltpeter Cave: A very short cave, only 1,035’ feet long but the main feature is the 140’ pit.


Hurt Tree Pit: Named after a small thorny tree, Aralia spinose, which is also simply called “Hurt Tree”. It was discovered on November 14, 1982 by Pam Duncan and Jim Smith. The cave consists of three drops with the deepest being the entrance series at 142’. It is 323’ dee[ and 808’ long.


Halley’s Hole: Another one for the “pit collectors”. This one is listed as 218’ deep, three drops with the deepest being 174’ and only 50’ long. In 2013, Halley’s Hole was mapped by Ben Miller and friends as a part of his project mapping the deep pits in TAG.


Torode Pit: A classic of all classic TAG pits. Discovered by Bill Torode in June of 1961. The entrance pit is 161’ and there is approximately 500’ of giant borehole in the bottom. Originally mapped by Bill in 1961 and re mapped by Jason Hardy as part of Ben Miller’s project to map the deep pits in TAG.


Paint Rock River Cave: Named after the nearby Paint Rock River it is noted as 529’ deep and 9,596’ long. There are two routes in this cave. One leads you to Whispering Well which is 186’ deep and the other leads you to Crack in the Earth which is 237’ deep. Don’t let this cave fool you. It has a classic death hike up to the entrance and you immediately get wet at the entrance.


Norsemans Well: Yet another classic multi drop cave in TAG! This cave has three entrances and was first turned in as James Harry Smith Cave. However when the map was complete it was turned in as Norsemans Well. The cave is 3,892’ long, 391’ deep and has 5 drops with the deepest being 97’.

To download a map of the Skyline Wildlife Management Area go to:

http://www.outdooralabama.com/sites/default/files/d2-2016-final-Skyline1.pdf

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