Not What You Think It Is: Old Stone Fort

It was a lovely fall day in early October, with nothing on the calendar, so we thought that we’d venture a little bit afield of Huntsville and head up to Tennessee to see if there was any fall color just north of us.  After considering some options, we decided to check out Old Stone Fort State Park up near Manchester.

I’ve seen some descriptions of the park in which it’s called “Old Stone Fort State Archaeological Park,” which gives you some idea of what sets this park apart from others.  I gathered that it would be a mound site, like Alabama’s Moundville, in a scenic area, probably near water, and would be primarily of interest because of its history.  Like many others before me, I was wrong about Old Stone Fort.  Yes, the historical aspect is interesting, but it takes a back seat to the remarkable natural setting and the scenic trails that wind through the park.

We weren’t in any great rush to get there, so as a result we didn’t arrive in the parking lot for the museum and trails until almost 11:30 on a Sunday morning, after a roughly 90-minute drive.  44enclosureThere were a few cars there, but I wouldn’t call it overrun. I had looked at the park map on its website and knew that the most interesting trails would be in the peninsula between the Duck River and Little Duck River, but that map didn’t show how much the rivers had eroded around the limestone shelf nearly encircled by the rivers.  I was expecting an old village site maybe 20 or 30 feet above a bend in the river.  What we found instead was a partially enclosed area with a large, open field in the middle, soaring at least 70 feet above two shallow but sizeable rivers, partially enclosed by low mounded walls, with occasional historic ruins.

10dam_near_museumWhen we stepped out of the car, we could immediately hear the sound of falling water off to our right, and on our walk toward the museum came across the first of many excellent interpretive signs scattered throughout this area of the park.  I assumed that the water I heard was from a waterfall on the Duck River, which flows past to the northwest side of the peninsula. As we neared the museum, we could see that the source of the sound was a old dam, over which the water was flowing and dropping around 10 feet.  It turns out that this river gorge was a popular place for mills, what with the natural force of the water dropping around the eroded channel.  There had been a gunpowder mill near this site during the Civil War, but I believe the dam dates to 1963.

02museum_entranceThe park has a small museum with exhibits and artifacts describing the native Americans from the middle Woodland period who lived in the area and developed the site.  Early European settlers assumed that the site had been fortified, given its strategic location and the low earthen walls that partially surrounded it.  They dubbed it the Old Stone Fort, but they were only partially right.  It was old (built around the 1st through 5th centuries AD) and the walls were actually built of stone but eventually became covered in earth, but it was never a fort.  Instead, archaeologists have determined it was a ceremonial site, since they found very little evidence of habitation, and the alignment of the entrance is within one degree of sunrise on the summer solstice.

09bear_right_at_signWe walked past the museum, which is mostly underground with a nice viewing patio on its roof, and looked over an exhibit of a dugout canoe before heading toward the hilltop enclosure.  18duck_riverThere is one main trail, the Old Stone Fort trail, which circles the enclosed area, but the more interesting hiking is to be found outside the walls, roughly parallel to the Old Stone Fort trail, so we ignored the hint offered by the sign and hung a right to slip through a gap in the wall to follow a trail that paralleled the Duck River.

12blue_hole_fallsAlmost immediately, we came to Blue Hole Falls, where you can clamber down the bank a bit to get a good look at the top of the fall.  It’s really a series of drops totaling around 25 feet, but the longest single drop is around 15 feet.  By this time, we were starting to encounter more people on the trail, so we didn’t tarry long.

Continuing downriver, we came upon some ruins off to the right of the trail, overlooking the bluff over the river.  This was the remains of the main paper mill, one of three that were in this general area.  Built in 1879, this mill supplied newsprint to newspapers throughout the Southeast.  We hiked down to the river at this point, where we had a good view of the mill’s foundations.

16ruth_main_mill19main_mill_ruins_from_river

25big_falls

We could again hear the sound of falling water, and picked our way along a path downstream to Big Falls, a 30-foot fall that is preceded by another 8-foot drop over a shelf.  24big_fallsLike Blue Hole Falls, we had a pretty good view at the top of the falls, but the trail was impassable past Big Falls.  If you’re thinking of doing this hike, your best views of Big Falls would be from the river itself (if you’re willing to swim), or possibly taking the nature trail that runs past the park’s campground and bushwhacking down to the northern side of the river.

32duck_little_duck
The Little Duck River (left) joins the Duck River.

29trail_markerWe climbed back up to the trail and shortly thereafter took off to the right at the sign to the Moat, Backbone, and Forks of the River trail.  The trail marking scheme was interesting here, with color coding and shapes to indicate which trail you were on.  The first part of the trail (marked as “Alternate Trail Access” on the park’s map) took us to the Forks of the River trail, an easy walk down to the confluence of the Duck and Little Duck rivers.  We then continued along the Little Duck River on the Little Duck River Loop trail (also known as the Backbone trail), following the river upstream along a wide, flat former roadbed until it took a sharp bend to the left away from the river and ascended a narrow ridge.  This turn isn’t very well marked.  The trail appears to follow an old stream bed for 100 yards or so before you spot a trail marker and begin a sharp climb.

thumb_IMG_2792_1024 34forks_trail_footbed

Once you top the ridge, after about 75 yards of climbing, you’ll be at my favorite part of the hike (not counting the waterfall views, of course).  Backbone Ridge is a narrow ridge between the Little Duck and the bluffs on which the walled enclosure was built.  It’s not quite a knife’s edge.  The footing is good, with a nice overlook to the left and our best hint of fall color toward the top.  It tops out in a tree tunnel, then descends sharply to rejoin the Forks of the River trail.  It’s a little confusing at this point, as we headed left after descending the ridge.  Instead, you’ll want to continue straight to join the Moat trail, which follows an old dry channel that early settlers, in keeping with their theory of the place being a fort, thought was a moat.  It’s actually a natural channel.  We headed eastward, then climbed sharply to rejoin the Old Stone Fort trail along the southern end of the walled enclosure.

37ridgetop 38ruth_ridgetop 39blush_of_color

In the last part of the hike, we followed the Old Stone Fort trail to the northeast, keeping an eye and ear out for Step Falls on the Little Duck River.  50step_fallsWe could hear falls and occasionally glimpsed them down below us, but eventually came to a place where we could again descend down to water level.  53step_falls_upstreamStep Falls is actually a series of four waterfalls, and we joined the party at fall number 3 (numbering from upstream to downstream).  The third fall is the most scenic, dropping around 20 feet in a couple of cascades.  The first two Step Falls, upstream, are much less dramatic.

We finished the hike proper of 3.7 miles around 2:30, then took a few minutes to look over the museum.  We had hoped to time things so that we could drop by the Dutch Maid Bakery in Tracy City on our way back, but alas, the lying Internet said they’d be open until 3:30.  We arrived at 3:40 only to find the place locked up, so no salt rise bread for us on this trip.

This was an enjoyable, scenic hike that was mostly easy except for a brief bit of scrambling on the Forks of the River trail and the steep ascent and descent of Backbone Ridge.  Portions of the outer Old Stone Fort trail pass some steep dropoffs, though the footing is good and the footbed is wide so there’s no danger if you pay attention.  So, the Old Stone Fort is not a fort, the Moat trail doesn’t go near a moat, and the waterfalls don’t have particularly imaginative names.  There are also paved trails, a picnic area, and camping if you’d like to stay a while.

Old Stone Fort might not be what you expect — but you might find that it’s better than you expected!

Here’s a link to the GPS track for this hike.

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