My boyfriend and I kept hearing about how the Walls of Jericho hike on the Alabama/Tennessee border was all the rage, and we finally decided it was ridiculous that the trailhead was only one hours’ drive from us and we had never taken a day to go see what this hike was all about. On a Sunday afternoon in early October, we committed to making sure it happened.
Yep. From the hopefully accurate internet I learned that a priest gave the area this biblical name in the 1800s after seeing its beauty. The name “Walls of Jericho” refers to the destination point of this out and back hike – a group of mystical waterfalls surrounded by tall rock walls. I’ll cover some quick stats based on our experience.
There are actually two trailheads that lead to the canyon, in addition to various horseback trails. One starts in Tennessee and one starts in Alabama. The Alabama trailhead, where we started, is on AL 79 just south of the Tennessee border. It will come up in a google maps search as being near Estillfork, AL. There are well marked signs and the parking lot is right next to the road, so there isn’t much guesswork involved once you’re on AL 79.
Everything we read said to give it about six hours, and I would stand by this as an accurate statement after doing the hike. This allows for plenty of time to reach the destination and hang out for a little while before hiking out. However, you absolutely CAN do it in less than six hours if you’re crunched for time but are relatively in shape and still want to fit the hike in. Note that this is only in reference to the Alabama trailhead, as the Tennessee trail takes longer.
The internet sources I looked at rated this hike as difficult, but we felt that it was pretty comparable to other hikes we’ve done. My own way of describing the difficulty rating would be that if you’re relatively used to hiking and have spent time on trails before (such as the Appalachian Trail, in our case), you probably will not find this hike to be very difficult compared to anything you’ve done already and can probably get out and back in just a few hours, especially if you don’t spend much time hanging out at the waterfalls. If you are coming from a place of minimal physical activity in your life or with little hiking experience, this hike will likely be challenging and you’d want to give yourself plenty of time so that you can enjoy it rather than feel overexerted.`
It was warm enough for me to hike in leggings and a tank top on the way down, and I needed to switch to a long sleeved shirt and taller socks once the sun went down, with a light jacket any time I was just resting.
We heard that this was a popular trailhead, and while that was a great sign that this hike was going to lead to something pretty cool, a popular trail can mean lots of people. Rather than verifying that for ourselves, we made a plan ahead of time that is generally pretty failsafe when it comes to finding more solitude: night hiking! I have a few pointers based on this experience that I stand by as firsthand advice, should you be interested in taking on the hike in this way.
We arrived to the trailhead in the late afternoon. We were hoping that this would give us enough time to hike down to the waterfall in daylight, then do the return hike once the sun went down. It was a Sunday, and there were a lot of cars in the parking lot when we arrived. By showing up this late in the day, our plan worked. On our way down, we passed a fair number of people heading in the opposite direction of us, returning to their cars. About a mile in, we encountered one other couple heading in our same direction, but they turned back in concern of not finishing the hike before dark. After that, it was just us. We arrived at the waterfalls with about a half hour to spare before we lost daylight, and we relished in the fact that we had the place to ourselves. We even thought we might encounter some overnighters at one of the several campsites along the way, but the campsites were all empty.
This is where my night hiking advice for this trail comes in. We noticed that the stretch of trail leading up to the waterfalls became very rocky and slippery, with a lot of places just off to the right of the trailhead where one misstep and accidental trip could lead you sliding straight down to the riverbed below. Sukae (my boyfriend) who is usually the risk taker of the two of us, brought up that he really didn’t want us doing that portion of trail in the dark if we didn’t have to. Trust me, if he said this, it’s worth taking seriously. If you’re considering a night hike, I would encourage you to complete this portion of trail with some daylight left. We cut our hangout at the waterfalls a bit short just to salvage the last fifteen minutes of dim light, which was enough to get us past that rocky portion of trail that follows the river.
The trail was manageable after that, but my second piece of advice goes without saying: you must have a headlamp. Having headlamps ready to go and planning to hike in the dark vs. getting caught hiking after dark unplanned are two completely different things. This trail is very well groomed and marked, with the red blazes that lead the way on some of the trees seeming almost unnecessary in daylight. With that said, we were both humbled to realize how those red blazes were completely necessary at night. We followed them all the way out, one of us always directing our headlamp a few trees ahead to locate the next one. The well groomed trail from hours earlier seemed to blend right into the rest of the woods at night, as much of the woods were relatively sparse and rocky like the trail, rather than densely grown in. At one point, we both turned our headlamps off for a moment to see if we could catch a glimpse of any stars through the treetops, and what we got out of it was pitch blackness that prompted a twenty minute discussion of how there would be absolutely no way to follow this trail and find your way out at night without a light source. We vowed we would always take packing the essentials seriously so that we would hopefully never find ourselves in such a situation as not being able to hike out and not being prepared to spend the night at the same time.
Planning to hike part of this trail in the dark worked out so well for us when it came to avoiding crowds that I want to encourage others to have the same experience, but I know I can’t do that without emphasizing how important it is to be properly prepared to do so. In addition to having headlamps with plenty of battery life left, we were prepared with some items that would help us get through an overnight in the dark if something were to get in our way of completing the hike that night. We had a few extra snacks and a water filter, should we run out of the water we brought. We each had extra layers of clothing, and I had an emergency space blanket folded up in my first aid kit, should extra warmth be necessary, as well as fire starters and a lighter. I don’t recall there being much cell reception on this hike, but I always bring my inreach in case of an emergency. An emergency communication device such as an inreach isn’t cheap, but in my opinion, it’s worth it if you hike often as it could mean the difference between life and death in an emergency. Really, you should carry the ten essentials on any hike. But knowing you’re playing with darkness makes having these items even more imperative.
If you’ve never hiked in the dark before and are weary about trying it, my suggestion is to ease in! The darkness in the woods doesn’t have to be something scary, but it sure is easier to get spooked or psych yourself out more than in daylight. My theory is that it’s better to make myself comfortable with the woods at night gradually and on my own time, so should a day ever come where I find myself on an unplanned night hike, I’ll know I can handle it. Start with short trails or paths close to home, and plan so that just the last ten minutes of the walk or hike are in the darkness, close to your destination. Do this in a place that you’ve become familiar with in daylight first. Gradually increase the amount of time spent in the dark, and hike with at least one other person if being alone is too much. If I’m going to be walking on any trail or path alone, I’m especially adamant about making sure I have pepper spray, a whistle, a knife, and either my cell phone or inreach on me. I’ve noticed that being prepared for unlikely situations can have a huge effect on how calm I feel in my surroundings.
Rather than check this hike off of the list now that I’ve done it, I only want to go back again to experience this place in different ways! We succeeded in having a nice hike down to the falls. The trail descends through the woods for a while until coming to a river crossing, after which it crosses through more woods until the final portion follows a riverbed until arriving at the waterfalls. There are many nice looking campsites along the river before arriving at the falls in addition to the Clark Cemetery campsite that is marked on the map. Many of these campsites looked more ideal than the Clark Cemetery campsite, as they were more secluded next to the river, and I’d love to camp down there for a couple nights in warm weather while spending time during the day in a swimsuit hanging out in some of the pools formed by the waterfall at the end! As a side note, I also enjoy campsites more when they aren’t adjacent to a few old gravestones tucked into the trees that border said campsite. But that’s just me.
The Walls of Jericho themselves, at the end of the trail, are truly mystical. I noticed that the riverbeds we hiked along, as well as part of the waterfall at the end, were mostly dry, but I can only imagine other times of year when the waterfall is in full force. Even with some of it running dry, small waterfalls were flowing along smooth rocks forming various pools that gave the place the enchanted look of a fairy land. After climbing up the rocks as far as we could to some of the different areas carved out by the waterfall, we sat on a smooth rock in the middle of the scenery and ate our dinner while the sky dimmed.
Our hike back out in the dark was relatively uneventful, until the last 20 minutes or so. I have this trend lately of nearly running into snakes on trails, which is pretty ridiculous considering this is something that isn’t actually that common in the scheme of normal hikes. Low and behold, I walked right up on a snake again as I was chatting and trudging forward full force up the trail by light of our headlamps, and the thing that spared me this time was the little guy’s size. It wasn’t one of those tiny little baby snakes, but, I don’t know, a teenager snake? Picture a snake big enough to cause a startle and cause us to wait for it to finally move, but small enough that me, a person who is scared of snakes, could actually refer to it as “cute” as it tried to take a little jab at me but looked like it didn’t really know what it was supposed to do and didn’t try all the way.
Considering the snake’s mid-size, Sukae and I proceeded to get into a rather typical couples argument. You know the one I’m talking about – “should we or should we not force the snake to move”. Right up there with our disagreements about the acceptable amount of leftovers needed to justify saving them for later, I found Sukae trying to prod the snake with the end of his trekking pole to nudge it off the trail while I screamed my head off to leave it alone while we would go around it, at which point he informed me that there was another snake just to the right of the trail where I wanted to take a detour. This is the stuff that someone who has never taken a hike before will ask you about with great concern – what if there are snakes out there??? To which you chuckle and reply “that’s really the least of anyones’ concerns.” I’m not sure what kind of weird joke I’m living in from the universe, by this being the fourth time in a few months that I’ve encountered a snake, but let’s focus on the important part that the snake eventually moved and we completed the remainder of the hike still loving each other with the disagreement behind us, arrived at our lone car in the parking lot and took a few minutes to lay on top of it gazing at the stars above before heading home.
*Disclaimer – just never try to move a snake, period. Sorry Sukae, I declare winner on this one even though I know you’re braver when it comes to snakes :). Credit to Sukae for all of the pictures, as I didn’t take a single picture on this hike.