Jackson County, AL has the highest concentration of caves, springs and sinkholes of any county in the United States. Tucked in among the Paint Rock River watershed’s underground splendor is one of Appalachia’s most magnificent canyons, a 150-foot-wide bowl-shaped natural amphitheater that sits between 200-foot-tall limestone walls.
The “Walls of Jericho” gets its name, according to local legend, from a traveling minister who found it in the late 1800s and declared it needed a biblical name to properly describe its splendor.
John Robert Kennamer, Sr. (1873-1952), whose father owned most of the land upon which the town of Paint Rock, AL was built, does mention the presence of Methodist and Baptist circuit riders in the area in his 1935 “History of Jackson County, Alabama,” but he doesn’t comment at all on the naming of the Walls.
“It is said David Crockett left his name on a tree in upper Paint Rock Valley,” Kennamer goes on to note, “but he has left no record of his impression as he stood upon some lofty hill-top in the wilds that later became Jackson County.”
Crockett briefly mentions his hunting activities in the area in his “A narrative of the life of David Crockett” (1834), but is silent on whether he encountered the Walls formation:
“We worked on for some years, renting ground, and paying high rent, until I found it wan’t the thing it was cracked up to be ; and that I couldn’t make a fortune at it just at all. So I concluded to quit it, and cut out for some new country.
“In this time we had two sons, and I found I was better at increasing my family than my fortune. It was therefore the more necessary that I should hunt some better place to get along; and as I knowed I would have to move at some time, I thought it was better to do it before my family got too large, that I might have less to carry.
“The Duck and Elk River country was just beginning to settle, and I determined to try that.
“I had now one old horse, and a couple of two year old colts. They were both broke to the halter, and my father-in-law proposed, that, if I went, he would go with me, and take one horse to help me move.
“So we all fixed up, and I packed my two colts with as many of my things as they could bear ; and away we went across the mountains.
“We got on well enough, and arrived safely in Lincoln County, on the head of the Mulberry fork of Elk River. I found this a very rich country, and so new, that game, of different sorts, was very plenty. It was here that I began to distinguish myself as a hunter, and to lay the foundation for all my future greatness ; but mighty little did I know of what sort it was going to be.
“Of deer and smaller game I killed abundance; but the bear had been much hunted in those parts before, and were not so plenty as I could have wished. I lived here in the years 1809 and ‘10, to the best of my recollection, and then I moved to Franklin County, and settled on Bean’s Creek, where I remained till after the close of the last war.”
The upper Paint Rock River watershed, including the Walls of Jericho area, is part of a 60,000-acre tract once owned by Texas oil baron Henry Lee Carter. When he died in 1977, the Walls of Jericho were sold and closed to visitors. For the next 26 years, it was a wood source for a paper company, and a hunting preserve.
The area is one of the few intact large functional landscapes remaining in the Southeast, with the highest diversity of subterranean invertebrates in the world. It is home to 100 species of fish and about 45 mussel species. Two of the mussel species (pale lilliput and Alabama lampmussel) are found nowhere else in the world, and one fish species (palezone shiner) is confined to the Paint Rock River and one stream in Kentucky.
Three globally imperiled fish (sawfin shiner, blotchside logperch and snail darter) occur in the Paint Rock River.
This area is also the epicenter of the rare Tennessee cave salamander and is an important habitat for migratory songbirds such as the endangered Cerulean Warbler.
Plant loving hikers who decide to tackle the descent along the canyon rim into the Walls of Jericho will be rewarded with the sight of lobelia, maple-leaf viburnum, snake root, horsemint and strawberry bush, more colorfully called hearts bursting with love.
Alabamians will rarely encounter the wild columbine, seen popping out of cracks in the limestone rocks at Jericho– Monte Sano Mountain and Desoto State Park are the only other locations it can be found in the state.
The Nature Conservancy bought 21,000 acres of the Paint Rock River watershed in 2003, and then sold 12,500 acres to State of Alabama’s Forever Wild Land Trust for $9.4 million in 2004, so it could prepare it for public access, as part of its mandate to acquire land for public use.
The entire tract of land is comprised of 21,453 acres-12,510 acres in Alabama and 8,943 acres in Tennessee. The only public access to the land is in Jackson County, AL. A new 12 mile trail is tentatively schedule to open in the fall of 2013, expanding future opportunities to enjoy the tract’s many features.