Continuing our series of pieces on easy, outdoorsy day trips from the Huntsville area, this week I’m having a mixed bag of feelings on sharing Stephens Gap. Somewhat like a teenager who thinks their favorite band is cooler the fewer people that know them, there can be a twinge of guilt letting people in on a place like this, and I suppose I could rationalize it by wondering if someone wound up going and leaving garbage on the trail because they heard about someplace from me.
But, it’s a bummer to feel that way and much nicer to excitedly urge the sure footed among you to check out the natural wonder of Jackson County’s Stephens Gap cave. Protected by the Southeastern Cave Conservancy, and located a little over half an hour from Huntsville, Stephens Gap is one of the most stunning caves in north America.
Before I go any further, ya gotta know that an 18 year old man died in this cave a few years back. For glory and photo ops, the adventurous love to rappel down to a tall formation known as “The Pedestal”, from which a deadly fall is all too easy. You need a permit to visit the cave, but they’re free and can be obtained here: scci.org/preserves/stephens-gap-callahan-cave-preserve/
After you get your permit, you’ll receive detailed directions to the trailhead parking lot. The out-and-back hike to the cave is two miles, round trip. It’s rocky and a bit on the wilder side, but to my memory the change of elevation isn’t too bad and overall it’s a light-to-moderate hike.
The day my wife and a friend of ours went, the only other visitors were setting up to rappel down into the 140 ft. pit. We took advantage of the short walk-in (well, it’s a scree, so you’re scramblin’) passage to get what amounts to the most spectacular view of a cave I’ve had, for the least cost, with the least other people around to spoil the experience (see, there’s that thing).
The permit is basically the Conservancy’s way of assuring no plausible deniability that you were warned not to attempt any sort of amateur hot dogging in a place so potentially unforgiving of careless mistakes. But really, if you’re in decent shape and have your wits about you, do take a few hours and go see one of Alabama’s most dramatic natural wonders, and a true underground jewel, under an hour from the Rocket City.
By: Stephen Locke
Stephen Locke grew up in north Alabama, and returned to find a beautiful wife and East Limestone mutt to call family, after years of toil and revelry afar, and having absorbed the lesson, "Don'tcha think, sometime's it's wise not to grow up?" His true loves include waterfalls, houseplants, architecture, photography, basketball, and whistling along to his favorite guitar solos.