Andalusia’s Outdoor Learning Center

When the Flannery O’Connor-Andalusia Foundation decided it was time in 2002 to make the author’s farm home in Milledgeville, Georgia, available for public tours, we began exploring various ways we could attract visitors to return to the property after they had already seen the house and outbuildings. Of course, the almost-worshipful fans of O’Connor would travel great distances to make the pilgrimage multiple times and never tire of standing at the door of her bedroom/study, strolling around the farm complex, or sitting in the rockers on the wide front porch to read, chat, or simply gaze across the lawn at the line of trees in the distance. I wrote a post about these folks several years back. However, as the director of the organization, I was charged with developing activities, programs, and attractions that would bring less-devoted visitors back to Andalusia, including locals.

During the thirteen years I was at Andalusia, we developed an annual lecture series, brought authors to the farm, hosted an annual Bluegrass concert, and worked with other institutions and organizations to sponsor various programs on site and around town. We also opened a gift shop that would bring local residents out to the farm, especially near the holidays. We welcomed groups to the property for school field trips, college classes, book club meetings, and even a wedding. Our ongoing restoration projects attracted people from around the state interested in historic preservation.

Bluegrass concert at Andalusia
Bluegrass concert at Andalusia

All these efforts paid off and boosted the annual visitation numbers, which also increased revenue through sales, fees, and donations. The most ambitious project we undertook toward this end was designed to attract visitors who may not have much interest in O’Connor or her work at all – hard to imagine. Beginning in 2003, the Foundation applied for and received a series of grants from private organizations to develop an outdoor learning center. This long-term project helped us expand the interpretation of Andalusia by making the natural connection between O’Connor’s work and the landscape that inspired so much of it.

A good portion of Andalusia is covered in trees, with open fields interspersed across the property. In some areas, the forest is dense enough to act as a buffer from the encroaching development that surrounds Andalusia. A common image in many of O’Connor’s stories is a line of trees, which often serves as a metaphorical passageway to revelation. The woods can be an area of sanctuary or the place for terrifying encounters. At other times, trees are personified, like witnesses to the events unfolding in the story.

The first phase of the outdoor learning center was the renovation of a half-acre livestock pond located down the hill and in view from the front porch of the main house. The pond dated back to the 1950s when the farm was operating as a dairy. Understandably, when in 1976 the PBS producers were looking for a location to shoot their film adaptation of O’Connor’s short story, “The Displaced Person,” they selected Andalusia. Both the opening and closing scenes of that movie were filmed from the dam of the pond, looking back up the hill at the main house. We hired a local independent contractor who had retired from the U.S. Soil and Conservation Department. His team drained the old pond and completely rebuilt the dam with a new drainage pipe. It took several months for the spring fed pond to completely fill again. It was beautiful.

Restored pond and main house at Andalusia
Restored pond and main house at Andalusia

All visitors to O’Connor’s home could appreciate this easily accessible water feature, but for her readers, the pond may have taken on even greater significance. As a devout Roman Catholic, Flannery O’Connor understood the symbolic importance of water, especially the Sacrament of Baptism, and incorporated the theme in her fiction. To many of O’Connor’s characters, water represents purity, initiation, sanctuary, and salvation.  Water provides both literal and figurative cleansing. Some of the most climactic scenes in her fiction involve water.

Restored pond at Andalusia
Restored pond at Andalusia

The second phase of the project took several years to fully accomplish and consisted of two nature trails. The first was a short trail around the pond. The second was a much longer trail through the forest taking off on either side of the dam of the pond. Again, we hired our local pond builder to design the trail and cut the eight-foot wide path through the trees. In two places it crossed Tobler Creek, which runs through the middle of the 544-acre property. In the following years after the trail’s completion, we installed bridges over the creek, other foot bridges over wet areas, benches and picnic tables, and interpretive signs. We were fortunate to have plenty of volunteers from the community, from Georgia College in Milledgeville, and from boy scout troops to help with these enhancements to the trail.

Bridge over Tobler Creek at Andalusia
Bridge over Tobler Creek at Andalusia

Again, this feature of the property is attractive to a broad audience, including school groups and locals looking for a place to enjoy the outdoors and perhaps to get a glance at wildlife. Andalusia is home to a variety of birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians.  Natural stands of pine and hardwoods, along with the open field areas, are ideal habitats for deer, songbirds, dove, quail, turkey, and squirrels.  The undergrowth in the forest offers an environment suitable for smaller animals such as rabbits, chipmunks, armadillos, lizards, and snakes.  The waterways and floodplains provide food and shelter for beavers, frogs, turtles, and aquatic birds, including the great blue heron.  Natural predators on the property include foxes, coyotes, and birds of prey such as hawks and owls.

Nature trail at Andalusia
Nature trail at Andalusia

In 2010, the Foundation decided to name the outdoor learning center after Dr. Bernard McHugh Cline, an uncle of Flannery O’Connor. Dr. Cline was a physician who practiced in Atlanta and acquired the Andalusia property in the early 1930s. He enjoyed raising and riding horses on the farm when he came down from Atlanta on the weekends. Dr. Cline also purchased wooded tracts to the north of the farm from other owners, which remained undeveloped for many years as a wildlife preserve.

Nature trail at Andalusia
Nature trail at Andalusia

The development of the outdoor learning center added to the aesthetic value of Andalusia, but it also provided funding opportunities from grants and donations that even extended beyond the outdoor resources. A major organization that supported the nature trail’s construction later made a significant gift toward the restoration of one of the outbuildings at the farm. Professors and students used the pond and trails to conduct various experiments and to identify and catalog the flora and fauna there. The Foundation hosted workshops, lectures, and other programs exploring the natural resources of the center. I was as pleased with the outcome of this project as I was with any of our accomplishments at Andalusia.

 

Celebrating Ten Years in Sedona

Ten years is a long time, or way too short, depending on the circumstances. In 2018, my wife and I celebrated our ten-year anniversary. A decade seems like a natural milestone in the course of a lifetime and a marriage, so we decided to do something special to commemorate the occasion. Traveling brings us a great deal of pleasure, so we decided to spend a few days in a place that would offer some of our favorite elements of “getting away:” rest, relaxation, beauty, hiking, sightseeing, and of course, good food. Shortly after we married, we made a trip to Phoenix, rented a car, drove up to the Grand Canyon, and came back through the mystical and magical town of Sedona, Arizona. We told ourselves that someday we would come back and spend more time wandering around and getting a closer look at the iconic red rocks there. This special anniversary turned out to be the perfect time for a return to Sedona.

Casa Sedona Inn
Casa Sedona Inn

My wife found the perfect spot for us to stay a couple of nights. The Casa Sedona Inn is a small inn located on the west side of town with luscious gardens, bubbling fountains, comfortable rooms, and stunning views of the red rocks nearby. We had a private balcony overlooking the small pool and the wilderness area just beyond the property boundaries. We were both impressed with the hospitality of the staff, the quaint restaurant, the fine collection of art throughout the building, and the irresistible southwestern charm. Not nearly as exciting to my bride but an added treat for me was the wildlife we could see from our balcony and windows, including a few deer and what I mistook for a wild pig. Having previously lived in the southwest, my wife identified the creature as a javelina. Unlike the European swine most often seen domesticated on farms or in the wild in the eastern United States, these mammals are native to the Americas. Admittedly, this photo of the critter may not exactly exemplify the romantic tone of this post, but how could I resist?!

 

Javelina
Javelina

For our anniversary hike we drove a short distance out of town to Devil’s Bridge Trail. We had grand ideas of actually making it all the way to the often-photographed natural sandstone arch, but the trail turns into more of a climb near the end. We were satisfied with the five-mile out and back trek we made, which afforded some amazing views of the red rocks and distant mountain peaks. I never get tired of turning a corner, coming out into a clearing, or cresting a hill on a hiking trail to be transported by a vista that simply defies description.

Sedona's red rocks from Devil's Bridge Trail
Sedona’s red rocks from Devil’s Bridge Trail

 

Scenic views from Devil's Bridge Trail in Sedona
Scenic views from Devil’s Bridge Trail in Sedona

Sedona is a tourist town in the best and perhaps the worst sense of the phrase. People from around the world come here because of the town’s reputation as a center of cosmic  energy that is conducive to healing, meditation, and self-exploration. Somehow the red rocks, with their high concentration of iron-oxide, are thought to create a gravitational field of exceptional force. I have my doubts, but I do know that the force of commerce is quite real in Sedona — there are plenty of retailers. It is a fine vacation spot for families, with plenty to see and do. We especially enjoyed spending time in Tlaquepaque Arts and Crafts Village, where we had an exquisite dinner at Rene Restaurant and Wine Bar. We were seated next to a table of twelve — a wedding party that had just finished up in the little village chapel around the corner. They were an entertaining bunch.

The chapel at Tlaquepaque Arts and Crafts Village
The chapel at Tlaquepaque Arts and Crafts Village

On our final day in Sedona, we visited the Chapel of the Holy Cross. One of the guides at the chapel informed us that the giant crucifix had only been installed a few months before we arrived. Regardless of one’s approach to Christian faith in general or the Catholic Church in particular, this is an impressive work of art. We both sat for a brief time on one of the modest wooden bench pews, and I felt a deep appreciation for how the design of this chapel so eloquently compliments its natural surroundings, tucked into the rocks that look almost blood-stained.

Crucifix in the Chapel of the Holy Cross
Crucifix in the Chapel of the Holy Cross

 

Blooming cacti near Sedona
Blooming cacti near Sedona

On our way out of town, we made a brief stop at Crescent Moon Picnic Area and Ranch, which was an ideal spot to walk along the banks of Oak Creek and stand in awe looking up at the peaks of Cathedral Rock. For those who think that Arizona is limited to dry desert sand and overwhelming heat, the Oak Creek Watershed is like a 50-mile elongated oasis of streams, falls, cascades, and pools in central Arizona that nourishes rich vegetation and wildlife. Somehow a metaphor about refreshing  water in the desert and a relationship that continues to run even deeper and stronger after ten years seems an appropriate way to end this post. Suffice it to say, the return to Sedona was an excellent way to celebrate the “mystical” union of two people who are well married and immersed in the inexplicable power of love.

Cathedral Rock reflected in Oak Creek
Cathedral Rock reflected in Oak Creek

 

Crescent Moon Picnic Area and Ranch
Crescent Moon Picnic Area and Ranch

My Favorite Hike . . . So Far

My wife and I have had the good fortune to walk and hike in some spectacular locations over the last ten years including England, France, and Italy. I have written a few posts about our treks in Montana, Arizona, New Mexico, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and California. I maintain that some of the best scenic walks or hikes in the United States are in California: around San Francisco, along the Pacific coast, and in the wine country, just to name a few. If pressed to choose my favorite hiking experience to date, that distinction would have to go to Yosemite in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California. Yosemite Valley is the most familiar destination in this region to so many visitors, but Yosemite National Park covers 1,200 square miles. First protected in 1864 by the federal government and the state of California, Yosemite is best known for its waterfalls, deep valleys, grand meadows, ancient giant sequoias, and vast wilderness.

We were at Yosemite for several days during July, 2013. A close friend who lives in California frequently visits Yosemite to relax, hike, and take fantastic photographs — a hobby that has in recent years almost become a vocation. She was generous enough to be our guide, taking us to some of her favorite places to hike and witness the beauty of this amazing place. We stayed in a comfortable cabin about 45 minutes south of the valley near the village of Mariposa. For our first outing, we explored the meadows around the Merced River between Sentinel Beach and Cathedral Beach, which offered stunning views of the rocky cliffs of El Capitan and Cathedral Spires. The meadows with their lush riverbanks are large enough to provide some privacy and a good place to escape the crowds that gather near the camping sites and the more popular attractions in the park. We spent the early afternoon taking photographs and wading in the cool waters of the Merced River where it pools in the numerous bends as it winds its way through the valley.

Wading after hiking at Yosemite
Wading after hiking at Yosemite

On our second day, we spent some time at two of the most familiar waterfalls in the valley. Bridalveil Fall is the thin, tall spray that is visible on the right from the famous Tunnel View, the place where Wawona Road exits the tunnel and the place where most visitors get their first glimpse and photographs of the breathtaking vista of Yosemite Valley. There is a trail that leads to the base of the fall, where the water crashes against gigantic boulders and disperses a fine mist over an area about an acre in size. The best time to view the falls at Yosemite is the spring, when the melting snow creates the largest volume of water spilling over the soaring rock cliffs. Even in July that year the water was still running enough to make for a spectacular performance. We also walked up to the base of Lower Yosemite Fall, and then treated ourselves to afternoon cocktails in the courtyard of the Ahwahnee Hotel, now called the Majestic Yosemite Hotel. While sipping our drinks under the umbrellas, my eyes were drawn upward to the cliffs rising from the valley floor. Our friend identified the peak as Glacier Point, and I asked, “Can we get up there?” She explained that Glacier Point Road takes off from Wawona Road and leads to an observation point with a picnic area and restrooms. We decided that we would have enough energy by the next morning to explore the hiking trails around Glacier Point.

When we arrived at around 9:00, the crowds had not yet started to gather at this famous lookout point, which offers one of the best views of Yosemite’s iconic Half Dome rock formation. We wandered around the site, experiencing the valley from a completely different perspective than the previous two days. Similar to standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon, words fail to describe the spectacle. Even explorers like John Muir had difficulty. Our friend, who is twelve years our senior, challenged us to take the hike from Glacier Point up to Sentinel Dome, which rises about 900 feet from the trail head and peaks out at over 8,100 feet above sea level. “I won’t be happy unless I’m at the top,” I said. We strapped on our backpacks, which included our lunches, and headed up the winding trail through the evergreens toward the summit. When there were breaks in the trees, the views along the way were fabulous. The last hundred feet of the trail opened up to bare rock and was fairly steep. The reward for making it to the top was well worth the effort. Sentinel Dome presented far-reaching vistas in all directions: to the west down the valley to the Merced River canyon and to the north the massive expanse of El Capitan and Yosemite Falls. At this elevation, the peak of Half Dome is in clear sight and is only 700 feet higher. I couldn’t resist hopping up on the large rock that crowns the dome for a selfie with Half Dome to commemorate the occasion.

On the peak of Sentinel Dome at Yosemite
On the peak of Sentinel Dome at Yosemite

To employ poor puns to the fullest extent, how do you top such an uplifting experience? On our way back down the trail, we stopped for lunch on some large rocks at an opening looking out to the east. We could just make out the remaining snow on the High Sierra peaks in the distance. Below our perch across a considerable expanse, we could see Nevada Fall making its contribution to the Merced River. At the brief intervals when there was no wind through the trees, we could just barely hear the distant roar of the water crashing down the crag to the huge rocks at the fall’s base. With tired legs and sore feet, we refueled on sandwiches and fruit, realizing that we were totally immersed in one of those wonderful moments where friendships, nature, and a deep appreciation of life converge to present memories that never fade. My wife and I continue to travel and look for opportunities to hike, especially at locations where we can enjoy beautiful scenery. Perhaps at some point I will have an outdoor encounter that impresses me even more than the morning at Sentinel Dome did. I truly look forward to it.

Nevada Fall at Yosemite
Nevada Fall at Yosemite

San Francisco Hiking

For those who enjoy hiking, perhaps the first places that come to mind for the activity are wilderness sanctuaries offered at national and state parks or through the U.S. Forestry Service.  Surprisingly, there are also some major metropolitan areas that provide hiking opportunities both inside the city and in the surrounding countryside.  Inner-city parks are great places to enjoy nature and leg-stretching.  Sometimes, just walking the streets can end up being a good cardio workout, especially when cities are built in hilly sections of the country.  One of the best destinations for hiking in the U.S. is the San Francisco Bay area.  The city is characterized by steep hills and valleys, and there is an abundance of parks and wilderness all around the bay.

Transamerica building in San Francisco
Transamerica building in San Francisco

The city of San Francisco is built on a peninsula in a grid pattern with a collection of over forty hills, some of which reach a height of nearly 1,000 feet.  There are plenty of books and websites devoted to urban hiking for San Francisco, and there are groups organized specifically for walking in the city for health, recreation, relaxation, social interaction, and learning about the history of the area.  There are even companies that offer guided walks, such as Urban Hiker San Francisco.  Most walks are a moderate challenge to people in fairly good health, and some of them have the added bonus of stellar views of the city.  For example, the 40-minute loop trails at Bernal Hill crisscross 26 acres of pathways, some of which lead to the summit with 360-degree views of San Francisco all the way to Daly City, Oakland, and Berkeley.

Once you get outside the city, there are loads of hiking options to the north, east, and south.  The California Coastal Trail is very popular and yields spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean and the rugged cliffs along the California Coast.  There are also nice trails with beautiful bay vistas and distant views of the Golden Gate Bridge in suburbs such as Point Richmond to the east.  Located along the rocky cliffs to the south and overlooking the ocean, Lands End is easily one of the most popular spots for a scenic walk.  The trails are accessible from a parking lot just north of the world-famous Cliff House and directly in front of another major San Francisco attraction — the ruins of the Sutro Baths, a former swim palace built in the 19th century which featured the world’s largest indoor swimming pool at the time of its opening.  The waves crashing against the giant rocks on the beach at Lands End is like something out of a movie!

Land's End waves crashing on the beach
Lands End waves crashing on the beach

Looking for a more traditional hiking experience?  Just a short drive north of the city is Muir Woods National Monument.  Named for the adventurous naturalist who devoted so much of his life to preserving the wonderful natural resources of the west, this National Park Service property is home to a primeval forest of old growth coast redwoods, cooling their roots in the fresh water of Redwood Creek and lifting their crowns to reach the sun and fog.  The diversity of flora and fauna at Muir Woods is incredible.  The redwoods themselves dominate the scene, but the humble Steller’s jay, ladybugs, ancient horsetail ferns, and the banana slug hold their own beneath the canopy.  Plants adapt to low light levels on the forest floor, while whole plant and animal communities bustle in the canopy.

Muir Woods
Muir Woods

Of course, the bay is the true centerpiece of this portion of the Pacific Coast.  With an average depth of only 12-15 feet, this large body of water looks more like a massive inland lake than a gateway to the ocean.  The main body of the bay covers about 400 square miles.  Approximately 40% of California’s water systems drains into the bay.  Most visitors to the area probably take in the view of the bay from Golden Gate Bridge, but to truly appreciate its size, the perspective from the surrounding hillsides is best.  My personal favorite vantage points are along the east side at Richmond and from the north at Muir Woods.  Hiking is a great form of exercise, but what we see along the way makes the experience so memorable.  With that objective in mind, San Francisco is a hiker’s dream.

San Francisco Bay from Muir Woods
San Francisco Bay from Muir Woods

Walasi-yi on the Appalachian Trail

Near a place called Blood Mountain in the Chattahoochee National Forest in north Georgia, the Appalachian Trail makes a steep descent south towards a place called Neels Gap.  The Trail crosses Highway 19/129 just a few miles south of Vogel State Park at a historic site called Walasi-Yi Interpretive Center.  The stone façade of the Center has been standing at Neels Gap since 1937. Originally a log structure, the building took its present form when it was rebuilt by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and was a living quarters for corpsman working to reforest the Chattahoochee National Forest. It later served as a restaurant and inn until 1965, when it was abandoned.  By the mid-1970s the building was slated for demolition, but a group of conservation-minded locals lobbied successfully for its inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977. Spared from destruction, the building served as an irregular store to hikers and tourists until 1983 when Jeff and Dorothy Hansen took over management of what became known as Mountain Crossings at Walasi-Yi. Although the store has changed hands several times, it still operates as a premiere full service outfitter on the Trail for thru hikers offering gear, large resupply options, lodging,  and an array of gifts.

View from Neel Gap
View from Neel Gap

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Walasi-Yi Interpretive Center boasts a couple of interesting features.  It is the only place where the Appalachian Trail passes through a man-made structure.  It is also the home of what I call the tree of blown-out hiking shoes.  For years, hikers have been slinging their badly-worn shoes up into the branches of a tree located just outside the store’s entrance.  It caught me by surprise the first time I looked up and noticed what was hanging from the limbs.  I’m sure the tree stands as a monument to those who have passed through this section of the Appalachian Trail, whether they started in Georgia, Maine, or a thousand points in between.  Having one’s shoes included in the tree must surely be a badge of honor.  It almost serves as a footwear mausoleum, and perhaps a warning to those who think hiking the Trail is not so difficult.

Walasi-Yi Shoe Tree
Walasi-Yi Shoe Tree

Little Rock Creek Falls

My wife loves adventures, and she has had quite a few.  My life is all the more richer because of the adventures we have shared in the eight years we have been married.  There have been times when I have “caused” adventures for which we didn’t necessarily make plans, but she has usually faced the challenges with enthusiasm and determination.  She is a gracious soul.  One such occasion happened about five years ago when I decided to search for a hiking trail that terminated at a waterfall — one of my favorite outdoor experiences.  I searched through a trail guide and selected one in north central Georgia in the Chattahoochee National Forest.  Little Rock Creek Falls looked beautiful in all the photographs I saw, which perhaps encouraged me to be a bit too dismissive about the descriptions of the trail leading to the falls that described it as being difficult and dangerous with thick underbrush.

Little Rock Creek
Little Rock Creek

For young folks or very athletic, experienced hikers, this trail would not be a problem.  My wife and I are casual hikers.  We are occasional hikers.  We are quite often paved-trail hikers.  Little Rock Creek trail has no pavement.  The length of the trail from the road to the falls is a little less than a mile, and the elevation is consistent; however, the terrain is quite steep and rocky as the trail makes its way along a sharp embankment following the creek.  The understory is beautiful and thick with mountain laurel and rhododendron.  At this stage of our hiking careers, we were not yet using sticks of any kind (we each have two now).  Under normal conditions, we would have considered this to be a moderately difficult hike, but alas, I had the audacity to take my dear wife on this excursion not too long after she had broken her shoulder, which she guarded carefully along the way.  I was nervous the whole time, fearing that she would slip and reinjure her shoulder or break something else trying to protect it as she fell.

Although we should have waited until she was in better shape to make this hike, I can state with certainty that neither of us was disappointed with the terminus of this trail.  It was one of the most secluded and enchanting waterfalls I have ever seen in Georgia.  We did the obligatory selfie shot with the falls behind us, which became profile pictures for both of us on social media for several months.  I apologized to her profusely for selecting such a treacherous trail, especially considering that she was still recovering from an injury.  As usual, she simply said, “I’m fine.”  She is indeed.

Little Rock Creek big falls
Little Rock Creek big falls

Panther Creek Falls

I have expressed my appreciation for waterfalls in previous posts, and we are fortunate to live in an area of the country where creeks, lakes, and waterfalls are abundant.  Even better, many of these features are freely accessible at state parks, national forests, and recreational areas.  One of the most popular waterfalls close to our home is Panther Creek Falls, located a few miles south of Tallulah Gorge in northeast Georgia.  This waterfall is located in the Panther Creek Recreation Area at the end of a 3.5-mile moderate walk along Panther Creek. The National Forest parking area is located on old U.S. Highway 441 north of Clarkesville.

Panther Creek Falls Trail is 5.5 miles long and follows Panther Creek through stands of hemlock and white pine along steep, rocky bluffs of the creek. The trails passes a series of cascades as well as Panther Creek Falls. It terminates where Davidson Creek joins Panther Creek.  When my younger son and I explored the trail last February, we decided to take the 3.5-mile hike to the falls and return to the parking area for a 7-mile excursion.  We had plenty of company on that mild winter day, with other hikers and campers all along the path.  The trail is noted for its beautiful variety of wildflowers and ferns. The stream offers excellent opportunities for trout fishermen too.  Some rock scrambling is required, and there are some steep sections, but much of the hike is relatively flat.  Erosion has caused several trail sections to drop sharply and suddenly to the creek below, demanding extra caution.  I was amazed at how many families with small children were there when we hiked the trail — some were even carrying strollers with them!

Panther Creek Falls
Panther Creek Falls

I was so enamored with the trail that I took my wife back at a later date, and while we only hiked in and out about a mile or so, she could appreciate the beauty of the forest and the creek without seeing the falls.  A large, shallow pool forms at the base of the falls, which is a wonderful destination for families and hiking groups.  The setting is beautiful, surrounded by hills covered in trees and laurel.  For those who like seclusion and privacy when they commune with nature, this recreation area is probably not a good choice.  In the warmer parts of the year, I’m sure it gets quite crowded.

Panther Creek Falls
View from the top of Panther Creek Falls

The naming of the creek is a source of curiosity for me.  I have not read anything official that links the name to animals that may have inhabited the area in the past.  According to some sources, a subspecies of the puma, the Florida panther, survives in a small, isolated and precarious population at the rapidly urbanizing southern tip of Florida. However, these animals were once widespread, even inhabiting portions of Georgia.  Another subspecies, the eastern puma (also known as cougar or mountain lion) may have once occupied regions of north Georgia.  Although in recent years there have been claims of sightings in north Georgia and South Carolina, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has declared the eastern puma extinct and removed it from the list of protected wildlife and plants under the Endangered Species Act.  Regardless of nomenclature of the falls, this trail offers a great opportunity to get outside and enjoy the natural resources that are so abundant in the hills and mountains of north Georgia.  We will definitely return.

Phoenix Mountains Preserve

I have written several blog entries about hiking, an activity that my wife and I so enjoy and one that I am missing terribly since I broke my ankle last month.  I have also written about some of our favorite places to hike, which are often located in areas that offer distant vistas, most particularly mountains and valleys.  Truly one of the most spectacular places we have hiked is in Phoenix, Arizona, the city where my wife lived for nineteen years, before we met.  She has told me about how, when she lived in the area, she regularly drove to the Phoenix Mountains Preserve to hike the trails on over 6,000 acres of land owned by the city and managed by the Phoenix Mountains Preservation Council.  The network of trails in the Preserve winds up through small mountains and hills that reach about 2,000 feet above the desert floor and about 3,000 feet above sea level.  These elevations, combined with the mostly treeless landscape, provide hikers with incredible views of the enormous valley below and the vast sprawl of the metropolitan city and suburbs.

View from one of the trails
View from one of the trails

I traveled to Arizona for the first time in 2008 with my wife, and while we were there, she took me to the Preserve.  We hiked up one of the hills, not to the top but far enough to take some great photos that I have used on occasion as computer wallpaper, like the one above.  Somehow the mountains in the distance look so much higher than they are because they soar up from the flat, desert floor.  There is a very definite contrast between earth and sky in many portions of the west, and this is one of those places.  The diversity of plant life in the desert is far greater than most people who have not seen it can imagine.  The terrain is rocky and sandy but not too difficult to maneuver.  The Preserve is well used and a wonderful recreational asset for the people of Phoenix.

I Love Waterfalls

As I have mentioned before on this blog, I enjoy hiking.  I am also attracted to water – mostly water that is moving fast enough to make sound.  I have hiked along the coast, through the mountains, in the desert, in deep forests, along rocky peaks, and in suburban areas.  More often than not, I select a place to hike that is either in sight of water or has running water as a destination.  My family takes advantage of state park trails which are frequently near the shoreline of a lake or wind along a creek or river.

The ultimate culmination of a hike to me is a waterfall — the bigger and louder the better.  One of the tallest I have seen recently is just outside Cherokee, North Carolina.  Mingo Falls is on the Cherokee Indian Reservation (Qualla Boundary), just outside Great Smoky Mountains National Park.   At 120 feet tall, the waterfall is one of the tallest and most spectacular in the southern Appalachians.  The hike on Pigeon Creek Trail to the waterfall is only 0.4 miles in length, but is considered moderate in difficulty because it is largely composed of steps and a fairly steep climb up to the falls.

2014-12-27 14.40.15

I took this photograph in December, just after Christmas.  It was a great time to get a shot because the foliage was gone from most of the trees, which revealed a good portion of the width of the falls as well as the vertical expanse.  I was standing on the small bridge at the base of the falls where the creek continues cascading down the hillside.  The sound is mighty but not deafening.  I love waterfalls, and this is one of my favorites.  In fact, it is currently the home-screen photo on my iPhone.

God’s Cathedral

There are still plenty of outdoor places in America you can visit that are protected enough to offer a glimpse at how the landscape on this continent may have appeared to early native inhabitants and explorers.  A prime example are some of the national parks.  I think the National Park Service is one of the best government programs of all, and I wish our federal leaders would find some other areas to cut funding and leave this division alone.  We have some incredible treasures around the country, several of which I have visited.  I have never been disappointed.

One of the best parks to visit to experience what I am describing is Yosemite National Park in the High Sierra region of California.  First protected in 1864, Yosemite is best known for its waterfalls, but within its nearly 1,200 square miles, you can find deep valleys, grand meadows, ancient giant sequoias, a vast wilderness area, and much more.  There are so many places in this park where you can stand, and for as far as the eye can see, there is no sign of civilization.  The vistas are absolutely breathtaking, including perhaps the most photographed view of all from just beyond the tunnel on Wawona Road, where the valley opens up and welcomes you to what many people refer to as God’s Cathedral.  Indeed, the scene is like a place of worship on a monumental scale, and for those who have any appreciation at all for the beauty of the natural world, it invokes a sense of reverence and awe.

Yosemite Valley
Yosemite Valley from Tunnel View on Wawona Road

My wife and I joined up with a good friend of ours there in July, 2013, staying several nights in a cabin and spending our days hiking along the valley floor and up to one of the high spots overlooking the valley.  Yosemite is another one of those places that reminds me just how small I am and how magnificent this planet is.  John Muir, the famous naturalist who helped draw up the proposed boundaries of the park in 1889, described Yosemite as being “full of God’s thoughts, a place of peace and safety amid the most exalted grandeur and enthusiastic action, a new song, a place of beginnings abounding in first lessons of life, mountain building, eternal, invincible, unbreakable order; with sermons in stone, storms, trees, flowers, and animals brimful with humanity.”