Jewel in the Crown: Charit Creek Lodge

Have you ever wanted to get away from it all with a nice overnight hike, but you’re not really into sleeping on the cold hard ground and hauling and cooking your own food?  Well, there’s a hike for that — in fact, there are three of them within about a four hour drive from Huntsville.  You can have a scenic stroll or a more challenging walk, with a warm actual bed and delicious dinner and breakfast waiting for you, with flush toilets and hot showers — and all off the grid.   They are called hike-in lodges, and this is the first in a series of four posts on this special hiking experience.

Charit Creek Lodge isn’t as well known as other hike-in destinations, but this hidden gem is well worth the drive.  The lodge is in the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, which spans the Tennessee-Kentucky border on the northern part of the Cumberland Plateau.  01bsf_signBig South Fork is a relatively recent addition to the National Park Service, having had its 125,000 acres set aside in 1974.  It’s a big place, with rivers, gorges, waterfalls, and unusual rock formations such as natural bridges and hoodoos.  For comparison, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is around half a million acres, with around 10 million visitors last year.  Big South Fork is a little less than one-third of the size, with only 600,000 visitors.  And there’s plenty to do there, with paddling, hiking, backcountry camping, mountain biking, and trail riding opportunities galore, and with fewer restrictions than are found in a national park.  It’s all more concentrated than the Smokies, but with far fewer people.  I love the Smokies, but the Big South Fork is like its cooler younger brother, that favorite uncle who would occasionally slip you a sip of beer when your Dad wasn’t looking.

Charit Creek Lodge is a concessionaire of the National Park Service, which means it’s a private business allowed to operate within the park under strict conservation guidelines.  The lodge, situated at the confluence of Station Camp Creek and Charit Creek, started out as a hunting camp in the 1800s.  The property went through several transitions since then, becoming a base for logging and mining operations, then a hunting lodge, and eventually a youth hostel in 1989.  The lodge is under relatively new management and seems to be on the upswing, in case you’ve visited here before.

Ruth and I have never been to the BSF, and we were both in need of a break, so we took off on a Saturday morning in June and made our way up to middle Tennessee.  We timed and planned our route to swing us by McMinnville so we could stop by Collins River BBQ for lunch and a craft beer (BBQ sandwich, Cuban black beans, mac and cheese, and onion rings washed down with a couple of pint jars of Ole Shed Brewing Company‘s Pot Belly Porter).  Thus fortified, we finished the five-hour drive (counting the lunch stop) up to the parking lot at the end of Fork Ridge Road in Jamestown, TN.

There are two ways to get to Charit Creek Lodge — on foot and on horseback.  02route_signTechnically, there is also emergency access via a gravel road that is kept gated, which offers some opportunities to the lodge staff that aren’t realistic at other hike-in places, but more about that later.  The last few miles into the twin parking lots (one for equestrians, one for hikers) are on a well-maintained gravel road, with informational kiosks and port-a-potties in both parking lots in case you have any last-minute business before hitting the trail.  There’s easily parking for 20 or more in the hiker’s parking lot.  And before you’ve even gotten out of your car, you have been on a trail in the BSF — this section of the road is also a horse and wagon trail, as this signpost attests.

The first part of the hike is a continuation of the gravel road, which you follow past a bend to the left in the direction of Station Camp Crossing. 06road_start_trailAt 0.3 miles, you come to the Charit Creek trail’s trailhead, which splits to form a 1.5 mile ride for the horsey set and a more direct 0.8 mile descent for hikers only to Charit Creek.  Being equipped with only two legs, we took the trail to the right and entered the woods. This trail is considered a moderate one because it has some steep sections, which are well-engineered with steps and switchbacks.  We didn’t find it that difficult, though of course the hike in is completely downhill or level.  It will seem more moderate on the hike back to the car!

15staircaseThe trail promptly descends into the woods, going down a steep staircase before passing along a rock shelf just about 0.1 miles from the trailhead.  The trail is well-marked — perhaps to a fault, as there are three separate trail marker schemes on it.  The Charit Creek Trail is a short section of the Sheltowee Trace, a 319-mile multiuse National Recreation trail that starts just east of Rugby, TN in the BSF and continues through the Daniel Boone National Forest to end north of Morehead, Ky.  In addition, there are plastic markers that are color-coded to indicate the allowed uses for the trail — in this case, green for hiking.  And you’ll occasionally still see the old arrowhead paint blazes used in the BSF, though they are being phased out.

11sheltowee_trace20green_trailmarker 19bsf_trailmarker

We didn’t see many wildflowers on this part of the hike, though there were plenty of ferns and mosses.  The trail passes between a couple of large rocks, and shortly afterward you parallel a small branch as it winds its way down into the hollow.  24susp_bridgeIn about half an hour we came to the suspension bridge over Station Camp Creek, where the horse trail joins in from the left, and we turned right and followed a gravel road for the last quarter of a mile past some hitching posts and a bear trap to arrive at the lodge.

Architecturally, the place isn’t impressive at first glance — a handful of log buildings scattered in a flat where two creeks meet.  But a closer inspection reveals that you are going to be housed in historic lodging.  The lodge complex consists of the main lodge, which is a saddlebag cabin with the dining room and manager’s quarter’s attached, two free-standing field cabins, a corn crib, smokehouse converted to crew quarters, a barn, bathrooms, a showerhouse, and a stable toward the back of the property.  32lodgeThe right end of the main lodge originated as a cabin built by Jonathan Blevins prior to 1817 — it appears on an 1817 map as an “improved log structure.”  The cabin was enlarged by Blevins to add another cabin on the other side of the fireplace, which was used to house relatives.  The dining room was built to connect the cabin and a cabin from the 1800s moved to the site in the 20th century.  The original Blevins cabin and its annex are used for housing guests, which gives the original cabin the distinction of being the oldest building used to lodge guests in the entire U.S. Park Service.

Gregg the manager gave the guests a history tour of the site after dinner, pointing out many items of interest.  54dovetail_detailFor instance, the Blevins cabin has slopes on the top edge of the dovetails to help water drain, which is a feature found in European architecture of the time but is relatively uncommon over here.  All of the cabins show marks from the hand tools used in shaping the logs, most of which are from the sadly near-extinct American chestnut tree.  The Jonathan Blevins cabin has a particularly interesting feature.  One section of an exterior wall has crude drawings of various buildings on it.  55cabin_pictographGregg explained that this served as a sort of 19th century locator service for people in the community.  For instance, if you were at Jonathan Blevins’ cabin and were planning on popping down to Jake’s Place, you would lean your walking stick against the drawing of Jake’s Place.  So if a bear got into your pigpen, someone could take a look at the cabin wall to see where you were and send someone to find you.  Of course, when you got there you couldn’t beat the bear with your stick since you left it leaning on the cabin wall — maybe everyone carried an extra stick back in the day.

The field cabins are also historic.  The one we stayed in was built from logs from Jake’s Place, the nearby homestead of Jake Blevins from the 1800s. The other field cabin was built from logs from Elijah “Booger” Blevins’ house (son of Jake).  When we arrived, Gregg was in the midst of whipping up dinner for 13 but soon was able to show us to our cabin.  34field_cabinsBoth of the lodge cabins and the field cabins are private accommodations, and can sleep up to 12 people.  There are minimum occupancies for weekends, during peak season, and holiday weekends, but since we were there during the off season the two of us met the minimum and we had the cabin to ourselves.  So you won’t be sharing your sleeping quarters with strangers.

Our cabin was roomy and clean, with three sets of double bunk beds, a picnic table under a propane lantern, a wood stove, and two porches — a front porch with rockers where we could lounge and listen to Station Camp Creek, and a screened back porch with a picnic table and porch swing.  37cabin_interiorThe bed was very comfortable, though headroom on both the top and bottom bunks could be a little tricky if you’re on the taller side and you sit up unexpectedly during the night.  40cabin_frontporchGregg supplied us with a cooler to keep any items that might be of interest to mice, and we can attest that you should use it!  We accidentally left the lid open on our second night and were awakened by a tiny visitor.  By the way, there’s a cat with mousing experience on duty at the lodge and she has some kittens in training.  As is typical in backcountry off the grid lodging, the lighting level in the cabin is relatively dim, even with the propane lantern full on, so if you like to read in bed you’d better bring your headlamp.  On the plus side, the view of the stars and lightning bugs is amazing! 41cabin_backporch

As for other creature comforts, there is a bathroom with flush toilets and a separate showerhouse with solar-heated water.  Guests typically bring their own towels and toiletries, but you can rent a towel from the lodge and use their complimentary soap and shampoo if you wish.  The dining room also has a selection of books, games, and puzzles for your entertainment, and there’s a hammock out near the barn in the shade of a hemlock tree and access to Station Camp Creek if you’d like to play in the water.  thumb_IMG_2134_1024The creek was pretty shallow when we were there.  There’s also a small historic cemetery toward the back of the lodge with a handful of graves.

And now, time to move along to one of Charit Creek’s distinguishing features and a topic of much interest to the guests — the food!  Gregg is a former restaurateur, and the quality and variety of dinner and breakfast dishes is outstanding for a hike-in destination.  Compared to similar backcountry lodges in the east, Charit Creek has the advantage of limited road access so Gregg is able to drive into town for fresh ingredients.  Typically, backcountry lodges have to stock up at the beginning of the season, or make limited supply runs on occasion, and as a result the menus tend to rotate between two or three standard dishes, generally roast beef and chicken, and somewhat bland sides.  Our menu for our first dinner:  roasted pork loin, mashed potatoes, carrot souffle, asparagus casserole, collard greens, and blueberry cobbler with whipped cream — all served on antique china.  Carrot souffle at a hike-in lodge — are you kidding me?  Beverage choices included water, ice tea, and lemonade, with craft beer and wine available for purchase.  Our first breakfast: egg frittata, biscuits, gravy, sausage patties, delicious grits, apple butter, blueberry jam, coffee, and fresh squeezed orange juice.  During our second day at the lodge, we purchased a trail lunch to take on our hike, which consisted of a ham and cheese wrap, trail mix, a selection of chips, a candy bar, and an apple — delicious.  67dinner_june7Our second dinner:  chicken and dumplings, roasted Brussels sprouts, wheat yeast rolls, green bean casserole, and chocolate cake with chocolate sauce.  And before we headed out on our final day, a breakfast of pancakes with maple syrup, bacon, and scrambled eggs with cheese and garlic.  I should note that there is an option to stay at the lodge and opt out of meals and do your own cooking.  To paraphrase that well-known outdoor enthusiast Mr. T, I pity the fool who does this.

In summary, Charit Creek Lodge is an excellent base for exploring the Big South Fork.  There are hiking and horse/bike trails that pass by the lodge, with other trailheads nearby.  If you want to go farther afield, it’s a short hike back to your vehicle.  Summer is the off season due to heat, as the lodge sits at a lower elevation than similar backcountry lodges, but that’s about the only drawback to the place.  You get a lot of solitude for a short walk, terrific food, plenty of things to do, sleeping in a historic log cabin, and good company.  Oh, you can also bring your pets, subject to some reasonable restrictions.  It’s almost a crime that it’s so easy to get reservations, so get yours now before the word gets out.

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