Noteworthy Hike in TAG: Bethel Spring Nature Preserve, Madison County, Alabama
Activities: Hiking, Nature Appreciation, Waterfalls, Springs, Caving
Moderate to Strenuous
I had the day off, the weather was going to be great out and I wanted to go hiking. I was interested in going somewhere near Jackson County, Alabama so last night, I started looking over google maps. I came across the Bethel Spring Nature Preserve in nearby Madison County and had recalled of the announcement earlier this year about it. The Land Trust of Alabama acquired 360 acres, of which 200 acres are open for outdoor recreation. They have built a nice loop trail leading up the mountain to what they are calling Falling Sink. The trail is just under two miles long with the waterfall being the main attraction of the hike. There is also a significant cave nearby but we are not going to talk about that.
I arrived at the parking lot around 8:45am. I changed into my hiking boots, put on my backpack and phoned Jason before I set off on the trail. Depending on the time of year, I am always thoughtful as to what I put in my backpack. Being that it is December and even though it was going to be warm out, I had packed a long sleeve shirt, a pair of gloves, a hat, a headlamp, lighter, water and some snacks. I also always keep a knife in my pocket, you know just in case I come across some wild mushrooms! Taking my time, I made my way along the Bethel Creek Loop Trail to the Carpenter Trail. The Carpenter Trail is 0.4 miles and it takes you to the Falling Sink and Mill Trails where these two trails form a loop up to the waterfall. I suggest taking the Falling Sink trail for a half a mile up to the waterfall and then follow the Mill Trail for 0.4 back down to the Carpenter Trail. The Mill Trail is a 0.1 shorter, but it is steeper so it makes it easier going down that side. It took me about an hour each way, which is what I had expected.
From the Land Trust website
Please do not park on the roadway or in the church parking lot next door.
Bethel Creek Loop Trail: (0.3 mile) This .3 mile crushed gravel loop trail welcomes hikers at the start of the trail system and makes natural exploration accessible to visitors of varying abilities. An easy stroll, the trail passes alongside working farmland and Bethel Creek before returning to the trailhead and parking area. Enjoy a picturesque valley view looking up toward Keel Mountain.
Carpenter Trail (0.4 mile) | Falling Sink Trail (0.5 mile) | Mill Trail (0.4 mile): Together, these three trails create a 1.3 mile loop hike that winds up and back down the side of Keel Mountain leading to the spectacular waterfall. We recommend following this route as the climb up Mill Trail may be more difficult. This hike is difficult due to change in elevation (an increase of approximately 400 feet) and some slippery and/or rocky areas.
What You’ll Find
Bethel Spring’s pristine natural land provides habitat and a reliable water source for native wildlife. It also serves as an important potential roosting habitat for federally endangered Indiana and Northern Long Eared Bats. There are two major hibernaculums for these species found within five miles of the property. The spring feeds Bethel Creek from there, generating an ideal habitat for a variety of aquatic species. The Land Trust is currently working with local biologists to identify fish and mussels found in the spring and creek. A fish count conducted by UAH in 2017 identified Bethel Creek as having a particularly healthy population of Flame Chub (Hemitremia flammea) and Blackfin Darters (Etheostoma nigripinne).
The preserve’s main attraction is the waterfall – one of Madison County’s largest. It is impressive enough above ground but continues its descent into a cave below, flows downhill underground, and exits through a spring at the base of the mountain. The cave below the falls – Paul’s Cave, one of three known to exist on the property, is listed on the Alabama Cave Survey as 1,338 feet in length and 334 feet in depth. These and other limestone features are common to Keel Mountain due to its significant karst geology. Due to safety concerns and the vulnerability of these unique ecosystems, caves on all Land Trust nature preserves are not open to the public without a permit acquired through the National Speleological Society.
This nature preserve is possible because of two sisters – Doris McGee and Marcell Dean – who generously donated their land to the Land Trust. This property, part of their family for over 132 years, is noted in historical accounts as a picturesque landscape and a community gathering site for nearby residents. A History of Madison County and Incidentally of North Alabama 1732-1840 paints a picture of this area in the early 1800’s saying “a mill and cotton gin…ran all winter by the waters of the falling spring that during the large part of the season forms a romantic and beautiful little waterfall in the heart of the mountain above Bethel.” Both sisters knew they wanted to preserve the mountain, farm, and magnificent natural features just as they were. In 2014, at the time of Marcell’s passing, the Land Trust took over as future stewards of this special place. The preserve’s trailhead and parking area are located adjacent to the sisters’ former homesite. The house unfortunately had to be torn down due to significant damage incurred as the ground below it slowly sank into one of the property’s cave sites. Where the creek meanders past the homesite there are two benches as a memorial and quiet spot for visitors to gather and appreciate Doris and Marcell’s extraordinary gift to the community.