After last week’s zipline adventures, it was time to get our feet back on the ground. Once again, I thought we’d try to beat the heat with a trip to waterfall, and maybe by heading north we’d shave a degree or two off the thermometer. Sounds like a recipe for another waterfall hunting trip to Tennessee!
We had some time restraints, and more to the point, the weather was a bit iffy, with a 40% chance of storms in the area, particularly in the afternoon. It’s always nice to try a new place, so I did some research on one of my favorite sites for finding lesser-known hikes — the State of Tennessee’s List of Natural Areas. This site has descriptions and maps of several smaller nature preserves in the Volunteer State, many of which have hiking trails open to the public. After perusing the map and descriptions, we decided to do a Tennessee two-step and do two short, contrasting hikes, with a lunch stop at a local restaurant in the area.
Our first destination was Stillhouse Hollow Falls, a 90-acre preserve near Summertown, Tennessee. We got a fairly early start, heading up I-65 north across the state line to the Elkton exit, then made our way northwestern via various US highways. One of the most enjoyable aspects of these trips is seeing the countryside from the back roads. It seemed that the wildlife was in a cooperative mood, as we dodged a turtle crossing the road near Elkton and spotted a deer at the edge of the woods near (I swear this is the truth) Deer Hunter’s Lane in Prospect. Our route took us through Lawrenceburg and Ethridge, where we saw several horse-drawn buggies and wagons driven by the local Amish population.
The parking lot for Stillhouse Hollow Falls is about 3 miles north of Summertown on US Highway 43. The entrance is a gravel road with a steepish climb into a gravel parking lot that can accommodate around 10-15 cars. Note that on your way out, you exit on a different short, steepish gravel road that is somewhat eroded — drive with caution. The trail starts on the north end of the parking lot between two posts and turns to the left into the woods. A wooden sign points you to the left at a place where it looks like an old road continues straight, and almost immediately a kiosk is visible. It’s worth a visit, as it has a map and historical and geographical information about the recreation area. We noticed the kiosk had a sign that mentioned the Elk Ridge trail, which was news to us — the online map and the map on the kiosk showed only one trail on the preserve. Looks like we’ll need to do some exploring to get the ground truth!
Though there’s no specific signage, the trail is blazed white and continues mostly level or slightly downhill on a hard-packed dirt footbed. It was easy walking in the shade, with only occasional roots to avoid. There was a very light rain when we started the hike, but it was imperceptible once we were in the trees. This trail, like others we’ve seen in Tennessee, has double blazes on trees when the trail takes a sharp turn. Overall, the trail is very well marked, and has the unusual feature of using split rail fences in a couple of places to keep people on the trail instead of using shortcuts at switchbacks.
In about .2 miles, after a few gradual switchbacks, the trail descends to an unnamed creek spanned by a substantial wooden bridge. This creek is the source of Stillhouse Hollow Falls. On the other side of the bridge, the trail splits, with a boardwalk taking off to the right, along the bank of the creek. Though it’s not marked by signage, the trail that climbs uphill to the west must be the Elk Ridge trail. We opted to head for the falls, so we headed north along the creek, continuing on the Stillhouse Hollow Falls trail.
Less than 100 yards after the trail split, there’s a pretty little cascade in the creek. We stopped briefly to snap a few photos of this sneak preview. The trail is mostly straight at this point, following the creek for the next .1 mile, where a spur trail leads to the top of the waterfall. As is the case with most views from the top of a waterfall, there wasn’t much to see, so we rejoined the trail and continued our descent into Stillhouse Hollow.
The trail slowly makes its way along the slope, aided in a couple of places by short staircases. At about .45 miles from the trailhead, we reached the bottom of the hollow and crossed the creek on an even more impressive wooden bridge. The water was about ankle deep, so it was a bit of overkill. We noticed there were steppingstones available as an option and decided to take them on the way back.
After crossing the creek, we shortly came to an interesting sight to the left of the trail. A crumbling brick chimney called out for exploration. Given that we were in Stillhouse Hollow, our first guess was that we had found the stillhouse. Upon examination, we noticed a cinder-block foundation that enclosed at least a 12×20 feet area, with rebar in at least one place. The fireplace looked like it was well-constructed at one time, and a large metal tube over 12 feet long and about 2 feet in diameter laid off to the side of the structure. I don’t know if this was a stillhouse or not — given the concrete blocks and brick, this was a fairly large, well-built structure. I always think of stillhouses as being flimsy, thrown-together affairs, but perhaps this was an exception.
I should mention that this trail offered more wildflowers than we were expecting, and the stretch of trail down into the bottom of the hollow and the hollow itself had several beauties, such as naked-flowered tick trefoil, tall bellflower, starry campion, false solomon’s seal, and asiatic dayflower.
At .7 miles, we reached the head of the hollow, where the unnamed creek spilled 75 feet over a series of small ledges and a longer drop into a shallow plunge pool. Stillhouse Hollow Falls was a beauty, framed in green. It wasn’t possible to get behind the falls, unless you were willing to crawl, but the shallow plunge pool and general setting makes it possible to get close enough to feel the cooling spray. We’re leery of leeches in plunge pools, so we stuck to the solid ground and navigated close enough to get a nice breeze off the falls.
There’s a set of stepping stones across the plunge pool, which I started to cross in search of yet another angle. As I stepped on one stone, a splash and a swirl of water made me think I had spooked a large fish. But nope, it was a snake, who quickly swam underwater and disappeared until another stepping stone ahead of me. I didn’t get a good look at it, but it was a pretty little banded specimen. Given its nonaggressiveness and markings, it was probably a southern water snake. I decided to take another route, just in case!
After enjoying the falls for a while, we retraced our route back toward the spur that overlooks the falls, but instead of following the creek, we turned uphill on what looked to be the other end of the Elk Ridge trail. The trail ascended about 100 feet in elevation to top out on a ridgetop, where the walking was pleasant and easy. When we reached the top, the trail was blazed as continuing to the left and right. We headed left, back in the general direction of the parking lot. This trail would probably be more scenic in the winter, as it didn’t offer any obvious views. Eventually the trail took a sharp double-blazed hairpin turn to the left and headed downhill, where it rejoined the Stillhouse Hollow Falls trail at the first footbridge.
This was a pleasant, short hike of around 1.8 miles. The trip to the falls is pretty easy, though the return trip is a gradual climb for most of its length. The trail was more used than I expected, as we met 14 people at one point or another along the way.
The rain that threatened us at the start of the hike had completely gone away, and we began to feel the heat on our way back to the truck. We were glad to get into the air conditioning, and our little walk had fired up our appetites, so the next destination was lunch. I had picked out Red 7 Pizza in Columbia based on its good reviews on Yelp, and it didn’t disappoint! We hit them at 12:30, which is apparently the peak for the lunch crowd on a Saturday, but were able to squeeze in at a table. Red 7 has a flat price for their personal pizzas, which you order at the counter. You select a crust, sauce, cheese, meats, and veggies, and they build the pizza on the spot and pop it into one of several nifty little mini-pizza ovens. It’s ready in about three minutes. Ruth went for the Garden 7, a veggie pizza, since her carnivorous husband never agrees to get one when we’re sharing a pizza. I made up my own combination, which I dubbed the “porkalicious,” with ham, bacon, pineapple, and black olives. Both pizzas were delicious, with crisp thin crusts and fresh ingredients. The sauces were particularly outstanding – I had a spicy red sauce, and Ruth’s pizza came with a garlic spread as its base – and there were no leftovers. The staff were efficient and friendly, and the place was spotless. Now if they’d only had craft beer…but nope, just bottled and fountain drinks. But we had more walking to do.
Our second hike was in the Cheeks Bend State Natural Area, just to the east of Columbia. Cheeks Bend is one of six protected non-contiguous pockets that form the Duck River Complex State Natural Area, and at over 800 acres is the largest one. It was only a 20-minute drive from Red 7, during which Tennessee backroads again treated us with the sight of a house with two peacocks in the yard. The last bit of the road navigation is a bit tricky. The turn from Sowell Mill Pike onto the unpaved Cheeks Bend Road is easy enough, but the parking area is not explicitly marked. We drove the length of the road, which is a loop, before arriving back at the sign for the Cheeks Bend Natural Area. It seems obvious now, but at the time we saw the sign we didn’t see an obvious parking area. On the plus side, we saw a wild turkey scoot across the road ahead of us on our circuit.
I selected Cheeks Bend Bluff View trail as a contrast to the Stillhouse Hollow Falls hike. The Cheeks Bend Bluff View trail is pretty much level, along the top of a bluff overlooking the Duck River. It’s more arid (we saw prickly pear and yucca there), with more of a mixed deciduous/evergreen forest and rocky footbed. We parked next to the sign for the Duck River Complex State Natural Area (there’s space for about 5-6 vehicles). The trail begins across the road to the right of the sign. There’s an informative kiosk that gives an overview of the area. One useful tidbit from the kiosk — this trail is in a wildlife management area, so it would be a good idea to wear blaze. It was about 1000 degrees by this time, and we weren’t about to add another layer. Everyone else that we met on this trail was either shirtless or in a swimsuit, so it seemed to be a common sentiment.
The trail is well-marked with blue blazes and quickly plunges into an open forest on a rocky but mostly level footbed. As we finished a slight downhill stretch into an open area, the ape remnants of my evolved brain involuntarily made me hoot, “Snake! Big snake!” Yep, it was our second snake of the day, a lovely big black kingsnake. It was completely calm, lounging just off the side of the trail and catching a few rays. I’d estimate it to be around five feet long. We could hear someone running down the trail, and soon a young man pounded into view. The snake must have felt him running, as it slowly headed for a hole under a pine tree. We warned our fellow hiker, and he stopped for a look. He said he didn’t like snakes, and we piped up in defense of kingsnakes and told him how to identify non-venomous snakes. I don’t know if we changed his mind, but I’d like to think we might have saved an innocent reptilian life at some point in the future.
We continued on down the trail. There are a few places where the trail crosses open areas, but the blazes are generally easy to spot. We did make a wrong turn at one point in the trail when it took an abrupt jog to the left. We kept going straight, but quickly figured out that we were on an unmaintained trail and turned around. This was our fault — the sharp turn was marked with a double blue blaze. We crossed a tiny creek and soon the footbed became increasingly rocky, as we had reached the edge of the bluff overlooking the Duck River. We paused for a bit to look down at the brown, wide, slow-moving river. There were a few folks canoeing and kayaking. We had passed Higher Pursuits, a watercraft rental place on Cheeks Bend Road on the way to the trailhead, so if you’re in the mood to float you should check them out.
After spending a few minutes watching the boaters and some large birds catching thermals, we moved on. Shortly afterwards, the trail splits to form a loop at the end. We chose the path to the right and did the loop counterclockwise. This part of the hike was much shadier away from the bluff, with a little bit of elevation change, but otherwise it wasn’t particularly memorable. As it turns out, it would have been more memorable if we had done a little more research. On the loop, as you are returning toward the bluff, apparently there is a tree with blue and red blazes, and a red-blazed side trail that leads to a sizeable cave. Johnny Molloy describes it in his 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: Nashville. A nice cool cave would have been much appreciated.
We didn’t see many wildflowers/interesting flora on this hike, but there were three notable ones: rose pink, nodding wild onion, and purple cliff-brake fern.
The lollipop portion of the trail (the loop at the end) had the only tricky footing of the hike, as there were a couple of places where we had to pick our route through some eroded spots in the footbed. At about 1 mile into the hike, we returned to the bluffs overlooking the river, and made our way back to close the loop. Unfortunately, there weren’t any decent views of the river from overlooks at this time of year. This trail would definitely be better in the winter. We retraced our route back to the parking area, having covered another 1.8 miles on this trip.
We enjoyed our little Tennessee two-step, though I don’t think we caught either trail at its best. That’s okay — we’ll be back, Tennessee, and we’ll try another dance step. Perhaps a waltz?