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hiking the pinhoti.
The Talladega Daily Home
by David Atchison
Aug 28, 2010
The three hikers live to the north, south and west of where they all
gathered early on a Saturday morning, all attracted by the mountain’s beauty, solitude
and natural wonders.
They say it’s the love of the outdoors that continues to draw them to the 130-mile Pinhoti
Trail, nestled in east Alabama.
The Pinhoti is a hiking trail that ambles north to south through the Talladega National
Forest between Piedmont in Cleburne County and Sylacauga in southern Talladega County.
“People come from all over the country to hike this trail,” said Tom Coffield with the
Appalachian Trail Club of Alabama.
Coffield, who has hiked the entire trail about five times and certain sections more times
than he can remember, says the Pinhoti attracts hikers because it is off the main hiking
Unlike the well-known Appalachian Trial that stretches from Georgia to Maine, the Pinhoti
is something of a secret treasure, and hikers from across the country who travel to east
Alabama to walk it want to keep it that way.
Coffield, 62, of Birmingham said the Pinhoti is less traveled than the Appalachian Trail.
“If you blindfolded someone and put them in the middle of the Pinhoti Trail, they could not
tell you if they were on the Pinhoti or the Appalachian Trail,” Coffield said. “It’s every bit
as beautiful as the Appalachian Trail.”
He said hikers actually feel more like they’re in a remote wilderness when hiking the
“I’ve never been on the Appalachian Trail where I didn’t see someone every day that I
hiked,” Coffield said. “On the Pinhoti, you can hike for days without seeing someone.”
The Appalachian Trail Club of Alabama, of which Coffield is a member, is one of a handful
of organizations that helps maintain the Pinhoti Trail.
Howard Gilham, 56, of Winston County, president of the Appalachian Trail Club, said
members try to work on the trail once a month during the spring and fall months. The
group also works on the trail during some of the warmer winter days.
“Nobody from our group is forced to work on the trail,” Gilham said. “It’s an all-volunteer
thing. We have some members who never work on the trail and others who work on the
trail all the time. In our club, nobody judges. You have to want to do it.”
Coffield and Gilham say they donate their time and labor to the Pinhoti Trail because they
want to give back to the trail that has provided them with many wonderful memories.
Gilham said the Pinhoti is a natural resource that is worth any effort to keep.
The Pinhoti, he noted, joins the Benton MacKaye Trail in Georgia, which connects to the
During Gilham’s recent hike along the Pinhoti, he made mental notes as to where the club
needed to cut away trees that had fallen across the trail since spring, the last time the
club worked on the hiking path.
“We don’t work on the trail during the summer,” Gilham said. “It’s just too hot.”
The summer growth covered a portion of the trail, but that growth will become more
manageable as fall approaches.
Gilham said the Appalachian Trail Club of Alabama maintains about 55 miles of the Pinhoti
Trail in the Shoal Creek District of the Talladega National Forest.
The Talladega and Shoal Creek districts have 230 miles of hiking trails, said Lesley
Hodge, natural resource specialist for the U.S. Forest Service, Shoal Creek District. She
said it would be impossible for her agency to maintain the Pinhoti Trail without the help of
Not only do local hiking clubs and groups help maintain the trails within the Talladega and
Shoal Creek districts, but other civic groups, including local troops of Boy Scouts and Girl
Scouts, maintain certain sections of the national forest trail system.
Hodge said the trail system may get even bigger before long. The Pinhoti Trail currently
extends from Piedmont to Bulls Gap, just south of Talladega, but there are plans to
extend it another 10 miles, along Rebecca Mountain and through Hollins Wildlife
Gilham and the two other hikers unloaded their packs from the bed of a pickup truck.
The trio planned an overnight eight-mile trek from the Coleman Lake Trailhead to the
Pine Glen Recreation Area, which is in the Choccolocco Wildlife Management Area, part of
the Talladega National Forest.
The management area is known for its abundance of wildlife, including deer and turkey.
“Pinhoti” is derived from the Creek Indian language and translates as “turkey home.”
The three hikers were surrounded by tall longleaf pines as they began their hike. The
Coleman Lake Trailhead is in a designated area for the endangered red-cockaded
woodpecker, which needs old-growth timber.
The Pinhoti is a “blue-blazed trail,” meaning trees along the way are marked with blue
paint to help hikers stay on the trail. Certain areas of the trail also have turkey-track
Some trees are marked with white paint; Hodge said these are not trail markers but
trees with cavities where the red-cockaded woodpecker has or is setting up house.
“A lot of bird watchers travel this trail because of the variety of birds,” Hodge said.
She said the trail rambles through a variety of habitats.
“The trail goes through two wilderness areas and two wildlife-management areas,” Hodge
The three hikers sprayed themselves with insect repellent to shield against the likes of
chiggers, mosquitoes and ticks, which can sometimes be a problem in the woods. They gave
particular attention to legs and ankles, likely areas where red bugs could latch onto a
Lynn Odom, 51, of Gardendale and Patty Hackett, 47, of Prattville joked about who would
lead the group through the woods, unwittingly clearing the path of spider webs.
It was overcast when the group left the trailhead, but the sun peeked through the clouds
sporadically during their morning jaunt.
The hikers planned a four-mile hike to Laurel Shelter, one of seven shelters along the
Coffield said he was uncertain how Laurel Shelter got its name, but he guessed it was
named after the abundance of mountain laurel alongside the creek that is only a stone’s
throw away from the wooden shelter, a place where hikers can get out of a storm, sleep
Gilham said their plan was to set up camp there and cover the last four miles of their hike
Hackett, who has a master’s degree in fine arts, is a unit director for the Boys and Girls
Club in Montgomery.
When she’s not taking her kids camping, she’s camping and hiking with her adult friends.
“I’m the only one who will take them camping,” Hackett said. “A lot of those kids never
She also enjoys fishing and introduces many of her children to that outdoor activity as
“Anything to get them into the environment,” she said.
Hackett, who has hiked for the past 14-15 years, led most of the way Saturday and
Sunday, but it’s obvious she is not on any timetable.
She wears no watch, at least not when she’s hiking.
“I don’t want to think about time when I’m out here,” she said. “I just want to enjoy
She has hiked the entire Pinhoti Trail. She has also hiked other well-known trails,
including the Appalachian Trial and trails in Yellow Stone National Park and the Grand
Teton National Park.
Hackett said the Pinhoti Trial is a good training ground for those who are considering
hiking the Appalachian Trail.
Her favorite part of the Pinhoti is along Dugger Mountain, near Piedmont. That part of the
Pinhoti and the Cheaha Mountain region of the trail are considered some of the most
challenging parts of the Pinhoti.
Odom, who works in the Radiology Department at Children’s Hospital in Birmingham, is a
relative newcomer to the hiking world.
“I found this group searching the Internet,” she said.
Odom went on a hike in early spring and has been hiking with members of the Appalachian
Trail Club of Alabama since.
“I’ve hiked with different groups,” she said. “I’ve been on three overnights, and I don’t
know how many day hikes I’ve been on.”
Odom said she hiked part of the Pinhoti Trail for the first time this past spring.
“I’m in it to enjoy the outdoors,” she said. “I would like to say that I have hiked the
entire (Pinhoti) trail, and I guess there is a desire to hike the Appalachian Trail. I’m 51, so
I don’t know if I will do the whole thing, but this is a good starting point for me.”
Gilham said he started hiking while stationed in Europe with the U.S. Army. He began his
hiking ventures in the Swiss Alps.
“I’ve been with the club for the past 15 years, but I’ve only been active in it for the last
10 years,” he said.
Gilham said his love of the outdoors, camping and hiking came from his stay at a children’s
home. A social worker, Frank Bailey, introduced him to the outdoors when he was 12 or 13
He drives by Bankhead National Forest in North Alabama to hike the Pinhoti Trail.
“Up there, you have to hike loop trails,” Gilham said. “(The Pinhoti) is a continuous walk-
shoal creek church.
After they had traveled about two miles, the group saw a large brown sign along the trail.
Behind the sign was a cemetery, and on the other side of the cemetery was a log cabin.
Actually, the log cabin was Shoal Creek Church, one of six hewn-log churches remaining in
Gilham, Odom and Hackett removed their backpacks, sipped water and walked down to
the century-old church, which gained a listing in the National Register of Historic Places in
“My granddaddy was one of the builders,” Joe Jones, 79, said later from his Huntsville
residence. “My daddy was his oldest son, but he was too young to help build the church. He
would carry water to the builders.”
Jones said the church was built in 1885-1890.
He said Shoal Creek Church is used for weddings and family reunions of descendants of
the people who built the church.
“There are eight to 10 weddings held there every year,” Jones said. “It’s open to the
Once a year, the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, people gather at the historic log church
for Sacred Harp singing.
“We have a houseful,” said Jones, who is the secretary and treasurer of the Shoal Creek
Church Preservation Society Board.
He said the area around the church, now surrounded by the Talladega National Forest,
was once a thriving community but by the 1920s, “the population had pretty much moved
He said the church congregation quit having regular Sunday services in 1914.
“It’s been without a congregation ever since,” Jones said.
Most of the graves in the church cemetery only have rock markers — no dates or names.
But a couple of stone markers have names and dates from the 1800s and early 1900s.
The group of hikers headed back down the trail after their short visit to Shoal Creek
Church. A boom of thunder in the distance told them a rain storm was moving closer.
When the hikers were still about a mile from Laurel Shelter, the clouds turned dark and
rain began to pour from the sky.
Hackett stopped on the water-filled trail, turned and waited for her companions to catch
up. Rainwater rolled from her cheeks.
“This is God’s air conditioner,” she said.
By the time the group reached Laurel Shelter, the rain had subsided.
The outdoor shelter provided a place to rest, eat and relax. It is next to a creek that
provided fresh drinking water — after it was filtered and purified.
Although the shelter provides a place to sleep, the three hikers chose to set up their own
tents to rest for the evening.
Clouds remained overhead throughout the night. Thunder rumbled in the far distance, but
there was no overnight rain. It was pitch black in the deep hollow where the three hikers
Gilham, Hackett and Odom were up and cooking breakfast shortly after daybreak Sunday.
By midmorning, the three had packed up their belongings and begun the final leg of their
journey, crossing creeks, streams and walking along the sides of mountains.
The hike took them around Sweetwater Lake, where they took a short break before the
final two to three miles of their journey.
Only a few hundred yards away from the Pine Glen Recreation Area, the sun finally
showed itself, ending what the three hikers considered a perfect overnight hiking
Gilham admits hiking is not for everyone, but for him and others who travel the Pinhoti
Trail, it’s an adventure they enjoy sharing. But the overnight hikes also provide enough
quality time for themselves.
Gilham lagged far enough behind the two women that he walked alone. There were no
phones, no cars, no people and no hurry. He only heard, saw and experienced what nature
had to offer along the Pinhoti Trail that Sunday. He was at peace with himself and with
“I like the solitude on top of the mountain,” Gilham said. “I call it my therapy.”
think light when hiking.
A good read by David Atchison
Aug 28, 2010
The three backpackers removed food from their packs, sat down on the
Laurel Shelter’s wooden floor and began talking while eating lunch.
Inevitably, their conversation turned to hiking, camping and backpacking equipment —
“thinking light,” they called it.
When backpackers plan a hike, their thoughts always turn to the pounds and ounces they
carry on their backs.
“You learn to keep your weight down,” said Lynn Odom, 51, of Birmingham, who only
started backpacking last spring.
The heaviest item found in a backpacker’s pack usually is water.
“Water is a lot of weight to carry,” Odom said.
A small container of water could weigh up to three pounds, while a three-liter container of
water weighs about seven pounds.
That’s why backpackers only carry enough water to drink along the trail they travel. When
they reach their camping destination, water to cook and drink usually comes from nearby
creeks or rivers. And, of course, the water is filtered or purified before use.
Hikers think “light” with every piece of gear they place inside their light-weight packs.
From sleeping bags to tents to stoves to food, weight is a contributing factor as to what
stays home and what is carried along the trail.
Gear — or the weight of that gear — is crucial to a hiker’s enjoyment.
Generally, hikers limit their pack weight to 30-45 pounds. Some hikers carry less, others
carry more, depending on the length of the trip and where they are hiking.
“During the summer months, I carry between 30 and 35 pounds,” said Howard Gilham, 56,
of Winston County. “In the winter, you’re carrying more clothes and the weight could go up
to 40 pounds, but I’m comfortable with 35 pounds.”
Gilham is president of the Appalachian Trail Club of Alabama, which helps maintain about
55 miles of the Pinhoti Trail, stretching from Piedmont in Cleburne County to Sylacauga in
southern Talladega County.
Gilham said he won’t skimp on equipment to the point where there are safety concerns,
adding that he always carries extra food and a first-aid kit on his hikes.
But before rushing to the local outdoors store to purchase ultra-light backpacking
equipment for an overnight hike along the Pinhoti Trail, there are a few things to know.
“Don’t spend the money until you are sure this is what you want to do,” Gilham said.
He said people can rent some backbacking equipment from outfitters, but hiking groups
are a valuable resource to those new to the sport.
The Appalachian Trail Club introduces people to the world of hiking and backpacking. The
group meets the first Monday of each month at the Alabama Outdoors store, 3054
Independence Drive, Homewood, just off U.S. 31, and the second Sunday if the first
Sunday falls on a holiday.
“Not everybody is cut out for hiking,” Gilham said. “They sometimes underestimate the
trail and overestimate their ability.”
He said there is a wide variety of backpacking gear to choose from, so a piece of
equipment that might be ideal for one person is not necessarily right for another.
Gilham said everyone is different, so it’s best to actually see the various types of
equipment for yourself and to learn what other experienced hikers have to say about
their own equipment.
For example, some hikers swear by the goose-down sleeping bag. It’s extremely
lightweight, and some down sleeping bags can compact smaller than the size of a football,
which means the sleeping bag doesn’t take up much space inside a backpack.
However, “if it gets wet, it loses every bit of its heating capabilities,” Gilham said.
Other hikers prefer synthetic sleeping bags, which can withstand wet weather better
than down sleeping bags. Synthetic sleeping bags can keep a person warm even when the
bag is damp, but synthetic bags pack larger and generally weigh more than down sleeping
bags with similar temperature ratings.
Gilham said members of the Appalachian Trail Club of Alabama can help backpacking
novices decide what equipment is best by providing information on the pros and cons of
He suggests that novices wait until after actually going on at least one overnight
backpacking trip with experienced backpackers before purchasing their own equipment.
“We can loan them equipment to get them through their first hike,” Gilham said. “You’re
either going to love it or hate it.”
Patty Hackett, 47, of Prattville, also a member of the Appalachian Trial Club of Alabama,
said it’s best to hike the Pinhoti Trail with more experienced backpackers.
She said it’s easy to wander off certain areas of the Pinhoti. Some areas of the trail are
not as clearly marked as the portion of the trail they were hiking on this trip.
Hackett said if someone does attempt to hike a trail alone, hike the most popular, well-
marked portion of the trail. That way if an accident happens, it’s more likely someone
would come along who could offer assistance.
A good map and compass are important, as well as knowing how to use the two together.
Lesley Hodge, natural resource specialist for the U.S. Forest Service, said maps of the
Pinhoti Trail are available at district offices. Five maps are available, each showing a
different section of the trail.
Hodge also offered some safety tips for anyone hiking the Pinhoti or any other trail:
“Make sure you take water anytime you’re out in the woods,” she said.
It’s also important to inform someone where you are hiking and camping before you leave
home and when to expect your return, Hodge said.
“Take a buddy hiking with you,” she said, adding that hikers must have a permit to camp
overnight along the Pinhoti Trail during the hunting season.
Hikers are asked to camp at designated shelters or at least 200 feet away from the
actual trail or any water source.
“We encourage, ‘Leave no trace,’” Hodge said.
For more information about the Pinhoti Trail, contact the local district office of the U.S.
For more information about hiking and backpacking or joining the Appalachian Trail Club of
Alabama, contact Tom Coffield at email@example.com.
The Appalachian Trail Club of Alabama also has a website at www.pinhoti.org.