April showers bring May flowers — so what do January showers bring? Challenges in finding a good hike nearby on a rainy weekend, that’s what. With a near-washout in the forecast this past weekend, I was keeping a close eye on the weather radar and rain chances on Saturday, and it looked like there would be a six-hour window or so with little to no rain during daylight hours. I had some options in mind, and after talking it over in the morning, we timed our departure to get us to the visitor’s center at Tim’s Ford State Park shortly after the rain cleared.
This wasn’t our first trip to Tim’s Ford. Last spring, we joined a guided group hike to look at wildflowers and view the park’s only waterfall. At the time, we noted there were other trails that looked interesting and decided we’d be back for at least one followup visit. Most of the trails in the park hug hillsides next to Tim’s Ford Reservoir, so I thought there might be some nice lake views on a winter hike.
We took our now familiar route up through New Market up to US Highway 64 in Huntland, Tennessee, and continued east toward Belvidere. Ruth had a brilliant idea about that time. On our trips on this stretch of road, we’ve noticed an intriguing business on the north side of the road in Belvidere — namely, The Swiss Pantry. We’ve been meaning to check it out, but were usually driving past on Sunday morning or early Sunday evening. But this was a Saturday, and according to their sign, it wasn’t just any Saturday — it was donut Saturday! We took a few minutes to grab a dozen assorted and a loaf of Mennonite-baked bacon cheese bread, and looked over the bulk foods and deli counter. The place was hopping. There was quite a line of folks getting Virginia ham, on sale that day. They were very enthusiastic about that ham! We were waved to the head of the line since we weren’t getting anything from the deli, so we were back on our way relatively quickly, fortifying ourselves with a chocolate (Ruth) or maple (Chet) glazed donut.
By the time we got to the visitor’s center at Tim’s Ford, the clouds had mostly cleared out and a brilliant blue sky was shining through. We stopped in at the visitor’s center to get a free trail map and some recommendations for a hike from the friendly staff. The park has 12.5 miles of unpaved hiking trails, along with another 22 miles of paved and unpaved trails for hiking and biking. Most of the unpaved hiking trails start at the visitor’s center, as does a paved ADA-compliant trail and the paved bicycle trail. We decided to fashion a loop hike on trails on the western side of the park, starting with the Overlook Trail, continuing on the Marble Plains Loop Trail, and taking the ADA trail back to the visitor’s center for a total of around 3.6 miles. Before heading out, though, we took a few minutes to admire the live great horned owl, turkey vulture, and red-tailed hawk on display in a building near the visitor’s center. The park is the permanent residence for these birds, which have been injured and are unable to return to the wild.
Our hike started to the right of the visitor’s center, on a slender dirt track next to a well-marked trailhead. Trails at Tim’s Ford are marked with color-coded metal arrows affixed to trees, and the Overlook Trail is marked with red arrows. The trail immediately passes the cinder-block foundation of an older building on the left, then turns right and descends behind a park administration building. The surface is dirt, and despite our hiking only a couple of hours after a heavy rain, the trail was wet but not boggy — a testament to its good drainage. The path is narrow here and a bit rooty, but footing is good. Only a couple of minutes into the hike, the first lake view is visible through the trees — a hint of things to come.
At about .1 mile, we came to one of the highlights of the hike: the first of two long swinging bridges on the Overlook Trail. The bridge is suspended between well-anchored cables on either end, with a sturdy plank deck. Still, like the best swinging bridges, it has plenty of flex and sway to it, which makes for some fun walking. I shot some video to give you a sense of it.
After crossing the bridge, the trail turns left and climbs a hill, with views of one of the numerous coves around Tim’s Ford Reservoir. The Reservoir was created when the Tennessee Valley Authority built a dam on the Elk River between 1966-1970. The dam provides flood control and hydroelectric power generation, with 241 miles of shoreline.
The trail winds along the shoreline, well above the waterline, climbing to the top of the hills flanking the lake. At around .25 miles, we took a spur trail down toward the shore. The trail ended at about a six-foot dropoff down to the actual shore, but we were happy to stay where we were to get nice views of the cove. We retraced our steps back to the Overlook Trail and continued on our way. The trail climbed slowly, eventually climbing to the top of the hills overlooking the lake. The trail widens along this stretch, with plenty of room to hike side by side.
At about .65 miles, the second swinging bridge spans a drainage between one of the folds of the hills. The trail continues to wind up and down a little before leveling out, all the while offering views of the lake. At 1.3 miles (about 1.2 on our GPS), we reached the end of the Overlook Trail, which is, predictably, an overlook. Three trails converge here — the Overlook, Marble Plains Loop, and ADA trail. We took a break at the wooden platform, which has a nice open view of the main part of the lake to the south, and exchanged pleasantries with a runner who came puffing up the ADA trail.
This trail routing is well thought out. At this point, we could retrace our steps to make a roughly 2.6 mile hike over the same ground, or return via the ADA trail to make a 2.4 mile loop, or tack on the Marble Plains Loop to add another 1.2 miles to the hike. The weather was gorgeous, the sky and lake were brilliant blue, and we were making good time, so we decided to make it a clean sweep and hike all three trails. We took the left fork of the Marble Plains Loop Trail, to traverse the loop in clockwise fashion.
Marble Plains Loop Trail, marked with orange arrows, is similar to the Overlook Trail for about its first .3 miles. It slowly descends along a hillside above the lake, with more views to the south, before bending back to the east and skirting a cove. This trail seemed a little less traveled than the Overlook Trail, though the trail surface was similar, albeit a little more rocky than rooty. We noticed as the trail turned more to the northwest and back to the east that the footbed became mossy, with a few trailside glades of running cedar fern. The trail passed close enough to the cove to allow for a quick side trip to the lakeshore. At this point, at about .5 miles, the trail turns uphill and continues along an old roadbed to the intersection with the Ray Branch Trail off to the left. Marble Plains Baptist Church and its cemetery are visible straight ahead up the road. However, to continue the Marble Plains Loop, we turned right (look for the orange arrow) and took the trail for a mostly level walk back toward the lake. Once the lake became visible again, at about 1 mile into the loop, we were almost back at the beginning point of the loop, and only a couple of minutes later we were back at the three-way intersection.
Just to cover new ground, we took the ADA trail back to the visitors center. The ADA trail is paved, about eight feet wide, with a gentle grade for the length of its 1.1 miles. There are benches at regular intervals, with signs advising you of the “rest area” coming up in 200 feet. The trail winds north and passes Marble Plains Baptist Church, then briefly parallels Marble Plains Road before turning away to re-enter the woods for about the last half of the trail. We saw a handful of runners on the trail, and also a family with some “just out of the stroller” kids out enjoying the fine weather. At the end of the trail, at a small parking lot just north of the visitors center, there’s a sign that identifies the ADA trail as the Marble Plains Trail. It’s labeled as the ADA Trail on the trail map, just in case there is any confusion.
Once we got back to the visitor’s center, we had one more short trip to make. Tim’s Ford has an iconic bridge, the Travis Hollow Bridge, about half a mile from the visitor’s center along one of the park’s paved bicycle trails. We joined the bicycle trail at the Overlook Trail’s trailhead, and followed the pavement as it crossed a couple of park roads then headed southeast at the edge of some woods. The bike trail passes the short Highland Rim Wildflower Trail, which is a loop that partially descends into a hollow, but we stuck to the paved trail since wildflowers were not particularly in season. At just short of .6 miles we arrived at the bridge, a red metal truss-type bicycle bridge with a wooden deck that spans yet another arm of the lake. We walked across to the other side, had a look around, and retraced our steps back to the visitors center.
As it turned out, we timed things well since we arrived at feeding time for the birds. A ranger clad in a thick leather glove dished out dinner (or in the case of the owl, a midnight snack) to the birds, and facts to the assembled onlookers. The red tailed hawk wasn’t in the mood to dine, but the owl and the turkey vulture obligingly snapped up their mice. Fun facts: great horned owls are often called “hoot owls” because of their distinctive call, and females are almost twice the size of males.
It was time to head back, so we returned to the car and I snapped up a donut or two on the way home. All in all, it was a lovely 4.9 mile hike on paved and unpaved trails, with blue skies above and blue skies reflected in the lake. Though the day started off gloomy and gray, weather radar and satellite imagery is a beautiful thing!