The stars and planets aligned for us recently, as the combination of a holiday weekend and good weather opened up the possibility of some hiking a little farther afield from the Tennessee Valley. We had been looking for a good opportunity to take an ambitious hike (for us), and Labor Day weekend fit the bill for a trip to middle Tennessee to see some waterfalls up on the Cumberland Plateau. Ruth will be telling you about that hike on a future post. This week I’m the warmup act, here to tell you about a little curtain-raiser of a hike we took to get loosened up for the main event.
We loaded up the truck with our hiking gear, an overnight bag, and most important, Casey The Hound, and headed up to Crossville, Tennessee to visit Cumberland Mountain State Park. We had a big hike planned for Sunday, so I was looking for a nice hike for Saturday afternoon to set the tone. Cumberland Mountain State Park has over 13 miles of hiking trails, and after perusing the trail map, it looked like a big loop of the Pioneer Short Loop and Pioneer trails was just the ticket.
But first, a word about Cumberland Mountain State Park. This park has an interesting backstory, as it was established as a recreation area for the Cumberlands Homestead Project. In 1934 as part of the New Deal, unemployed and impoverished citizens on the Cumberland Plateau were invited to apply for one of 250 homesteads in the 10,000 acres purchased by the Federal government. The lucky homesteaders, selected through interviews, were granted property, homes, barns, and outbuildings, and were paid for their efforts to improve on their properties and for their work in building and running communal buildings such as stores and schools. Most repaid the government for their homesteads through sweat equity. When the program ended in the 1940s, families were given five years to finish paying off their properties, and most did. Of the 250 homestead houses built, over 200 remain standing in the area. One is maintained as a museum, along with the administration building and its scenic octagonal tower. I wish I had done this research before our trip, as we failed to look at any of this and drove straight to the trailhead. As a result, we didn’t see some of the best known features of the park, such as its well-reputed restaurant and the Bear Trace golf course, and tragically, we didn’t take a good look at its iconic stone bridge/dam, the largest masonry project built anywhere in the U.S. by the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Nope, we just blithely turned into the park, off U.S. Highway 127, drove over the bridge, and turned left and left again onto Cabin Drive, where we parked in a large paved lot. The trailhead for the Pioneer and Pioneer Short Loop trails is in the southeast corner of the parking lot, with a sign and a kiosk marking the start of the trail. Restrooms are located about 50 yards away to the northeast.
The Pioneer Short Loop and Pioneer trails are intersecting loop trails that skirt the borders of Byrd Lake and Byrd Creek. The Pioneer Short Loop is 1.8 miles, starting from the parking lot, heading west along the shore of Byrd Lake and a short bit of Byrd Creek, crossing the creek on a suspension bridge, returning east along the other side of the creek and lake, and finishing with a pedestrian bridge over the lake back to the starting point (and boat launch area). The Pioneer trail is tacked onto the western end of the Pioneer Short Loop, adding 2.55 miles along the banks of Byrd Creek.
Since it’s a loop trail, you can hike it in either direction. We chose to hike counter-clockwise, heading west along the northern shore of Byrd Lake. The lake was formed by damming Byrd Creek at that impressive masonry bridge. The first .35 miles of the trail flank the lakeshore, about 40 yards away with the lake usually visible through the trees. The natural trail surface is soft underfoot, cushioned by evergreen needles, with only occasional rocks and roots. For the first .2 miles, park cabins are visible to the right, with short side trails down to the lake. The trail is marked with white plastic trail markers and white paint blazes. (If you like the fancy plastic trail markers, I have good news for you — they’re for sale in the park office!)
This first .35 miles of the trail was home to a variety of wildflowers, most of which we’d see in multiple locations along the way. We spotted smooth aster, downy false foxglove, hearts-a-bustin, and the coral berries of false Solomon’s seal, along with other old favorites such as daisy fleabane, partridgeberry, and spotted wintergreen.
Downy false foxglove
False Solomon’s seal
At .35 miles, the trail takes a bend toward the shore, emerging onto a large flat rock that provides a nice unobstructed view of the lake. From this point, the trail narrows to single track, in one stretch passing through a rhododendron tunnel before opening up again toward the end of the northern leg of the Pioneer Short Loop. The lake has been gradually narrowing until it has become a wide, slow moving creek. The partridgeberry is particularly prominent in this segment of the trail, joined occasionally by small stands of downy lobelia.
At .9 miles, the Pioneer Short Loop and Pioneer trails intersect, with the Short Loop turning left and crossing Byrd Creek on a suspension bridge. Though our route was to take us straight to continue onto the Pioneer trail, we couldn’t resist walking across the bridge and having a look at Byrd Creek.
After recrossing the bridge, we continued past the kiosk onto the green-blazed Pioneer trail. The northern segment of the Pioneer trail runs 1.05 miles to South Old Mail Road, for the most part staying within sight of ever-narrowing Byrd Creek. The trail crosses a couple of tributaries, bending briefly away from the main creek. After the second one, about .3 miles from the suspension bridge, an unmarked side trail takes off to the left to emerge on the northern bank of the creek, to face an impressive rock overhang on the south bank.
The weather had been a little overcast, as we had timed our hike to barely follow the remnants of Hurricane Harvey as it swept northeastward. The overcast finally gave way to a light rain as we strolled along the narrow trail. There was some compensation, though, as we started seeing the distinctive foliage of Indian cucumber root, with its whorled leaves with a pink or red center and dark purple berries at the center of the whorl. The rhizome is edible, and reportedly tastes like, you guessed it, cucumber. We didn’t try any, since we don’t forage on public lands.
Indian cucumber root
At 1.05 miles from the suspension bridge, the Pioneer trail briefly emerges from the woods onto South Old Mail Road. We turned left on the road, crossed the bridge over the creek, and plunged into the woods again on the left side of the road just past a clump of jewelweed. The trail entrance can be a little difficult to spot, but a green plastic trail marker is visible on a tree.
We were at the return point on our super-loop, now heading back east along the southern bank of Byrd Creek. The terrain is similar to the north bank, but this was our favorite part of the hike due to several rock overhangs and narrow passages. This side of the creek is rockier than the north side, but only a few places required paying much attention to footing. The overhangs were a good place to get a break from the rain, and the trailside boulders turned some segments of the trail into passages. We identified two more wildflowers in the next half mile: the showy cardinal flower and the less showy downy rattlesnake plantain. The downy rattlesnake plantain is another easy-to-spot wildflower, with its distinctive basal evergreen leaves with prominent white veins.
Downy rattlesnake plantain
Downy rattlesnake plantain (leaves)
The southern leg of the Pioneer trail veers away from Byrd Creek three times to cross tributaries on bridges. The second and third bridges have striking features. The second bridge is a narrow log bridge with small limbs for the treadway. It looks like something the three little pigs might have put together, but it’s sturdy enough. Casey, however, preferred to cross the creek on foot, which is unusual for him since he’s not usually bridge averse. The next .8 mile, between the second and third tributary crossings, was notable for a small stand of mistflower, a narrow “fat man’s squeeze,” a fairway of the Bear Trace golf course off to the right of the trail, and an odd shingle-covered bridge over the third tributary.
At 1.5 miles from South Old Mail Road, we came to the southern intersection of the Pioneer/Pioneer Short Loop trail, with the suspension bridge off to the left and another kiosk straight ahead. The trail blazes and markers changed back to white, as we had completed the Pioneer trail and were now closing the southern leg of the Pioneer Short Loop. Byrd Creek continued its transition into Byrd Lake along this stretch, with several nice views of the water off to the left.
At .9 miles from the suspension bridge, the Pioneer Short Loop trail crosses a small tributary on a plank bridge and the final pedestrian bridge is visible ahead. We strolled across and made our way past the boat rental area up some steps past the restroom, back to the parking lot. After a short rest, we followed the sound of music over to the patio near the restaurant, where the Foxfire Newgrass Band was playing 60s and 70s pop songs, bluegrass-style, with some classic bluegrass and spirituals thrown in. They were great crowd-pleasers, canvassing the audience between songs to find out where we were from and taking a request from a gentleman who was celebrating his birthday. My favorite moment occurred during a rendition of “Rocky Top,” when a band member interjected a “Roll Tide” between a chorus and a verse. This was, of course, a nod intended for Ruth and me, though as former Tennessee residents we both internally cringed at the blasphemy of tossing an Alabama cheer into the iconic University of Tennessee song. (No offense intended, Alabama fans — imagine how you’d feel if someone improvised a line from “Rocky Top” into “Sweet Home Alabama.”) The lead singer started the next verse, but accidentally started repeating the previous verse. He stopped singing in confusion while the rest of the band played on, laughing at him. He recovered nicely, starting the next verse correctly after observing, “That Roll Tide threw me off.”
All in all, it was a very nice 4.4 mile warmup hike. The terrain is mostly flat and the trail surface is mostly level. This would be a good trail for beginning trail runners, and the two interlocking loops make it possible to tailor the hike to a shorter 1.8 miles if you just do the Pioneer Short Loop. The hike took us a little under 3 hours, and we even had enough energy left to catch a show at the Cumberland County Playhouse that evening after checking in with our friends Cindy and Dale, who had graciously offered to house us and dog-sit Casey during our more challenging hike planned for the next day. Our Labor Day weekend was off to a great start!