Roadside Respite: Little Cedar Mountain

These days, when I have to travel by car long distances I have a tendency to just get in and drive single-mindedly as long as I can stand it. I’m sure part of that is my nerdy engineer tendencies that drive me to find the quickest and most efficient way to get from point A to point B. Walking or driving, I’ll analyze the route, looking for obstacles to avoid and shortcuts to take. Just ask my kids sometime about my patented power walk through a crowded airport.

Still, you’d think that as much as I enjoy the outdoors I’d heed all those road trip advice articles which tell you to stop frequently to stretch your legs. That’s certainly how we did it when I was growing up. My mom always packed a picnic in the car for any long trip. We’d drive awhile, then find a nice spot someplace for a picnic lunch or dinner. This worked out because my parents also didn’t enjoy driving on highways. They preferred to patch together a route using little country roads, which often had little lay-bys with picnic tables tucked into a wooded area along the way. Now, it sounds a bit idyllic. Then, of course, I chafed at the time it took to get anyplace. I didn’t enjoy the journey – I just wanted to get to the destination.

All of this came to mind this past weekend when we decided to check out Little Cedar Mountain Trail in Tennessee. I was looking for someplace new but relatively close by  that would give us 4-6 miles of hiking. Little Cedar Mountain fit the bill perfectly. Only about an hour and a half from Huntsville, this trail is in the 320 acre Little Cedar Mountain Small Wild Area managed by TVA.  It is a 3 mile lollypop loop trail that promised views of Nickajack Lake. There’s also an optional 1 mile connector trail that goes past a unique ridgetop wetland pond. To get there, we took US 72 east up to I-24, then went east on I-24 for two exits. At the bottom of the exit ramp, we turned right and found the entrance to the parking area almost immediately to the left. (Well OK, we actually turned left off the ramp, drove about 5 minutes in the wrong direction, turned around and then found the parking lot, but do as I say, not as I did… ).

The parking area is right next to the interstate – kind of like those lay-bys on the country roads of my youth. There is space for about 6 cars, a nice kiosk with a good trail map and information about the wildlife to be found on the trail, and a couple of bear-proof trash cans. There are no restroom facilities. As we stood there listening to the roar of the semis passing just over our heads I was thinking this might not have been a great plan after all. Hiking along listening to traffic is not really what I yearn to do when I’m wanting to get away from it all. Nonetheless, we set out on the trail which takes off from the east end of the parking area. It immediately crosses a footbridge over a small stream and then heads away from the interstate and into the woods. It was amazing how quickly the noise from the interstate faded! We followed along the creek for a short ways then turned away from it and through the woods. I saw my first wildflower in this stretch – a daisy fleabane. At the .3 mile mark, the trail splits. Left would take you towards the lake. Right takes you along the back side and then up to the top of Little Cedar Mountain. It’s a loop so either way will work, but we opted to go right first. Maybe it’s that Puritan delayed-gratification thing, but I figured the views of the lake would be the highlight of the trail so I wanted to save the best for last.

The “back side” doesn’t disappoint, though. It starts off as a level, sometimes wide, soft footbed through the trees. We saw lots of wildflowers in this section: Mayapples, purple phacelia, hairy skullcap, and the star of the day – Indian Pink. There were tons of these vivid red and yellow flowers! After a bit, the trail starts to climb. There were a couple of downed trees to climb over or under, and a few that required making our own path through the brush to get around, but none of it was terribly difficult. Higher up we saw trumpet honeysuckle in bloom, St. Johns Wort almost in bloom, and trillium just after the blooms had dropped.

At almost exactly the 1 mile mark, the connector trail (also called the Pond Trail) splits off to the left. We passed this up for now and continued on up to the top of the ridge. Soon we were at the top and could start to see bits of the lake in the distance. At about 1.5 miles, we came to a fantastic lake overview, then the trail turned and headed along the top of the ridge, with lake views the whole way off to our right.  After a short stretch we came to the other end of the connector trail, but once again passed it up to continue on the loop. We spotted false garlic, squaw root, and fire pink on this side of the mountain.

The trail headed down, sometimes pretty steeply, through boulder fields until we reached the lakeside. There was this perfect boulder right at the edge of the lake that was calling my name, so we took a little side trail over to it and rested there for a bit. Whenever I see a large, slightly sloping boulder in a sunny spot I just have to use it for basking – lying down and just soaking up the sun. This was the most perfect basking rock I’ve ever found! It was comfortable, warm and sunny and yet still a bit shaded by trees, and I had the sound of waves lapping on the lake right next to me. All this and we spotted a large bird flying to and from a giant nest on an island just across from us. We watched it for a while hoping Chet could get a good enough photo with his telephoto lens to help us identify it. Eagle? Osprey? It was big, and the nest was huge. The wings looked coppery to me and it might have had a white or at least lighter colored head. Once we got home and zoomed in on the pictures, we decided it was an osprey.

After reluctantly leaving my basking rock, we headed on up the trail which looked like it might have been an old roadbed at one time. There was a stone wall along the trail here from when this area was a farm – before Nickajack Dam flooded the area. The trail soon turned up hill and climbed back over a lower end of Little Cedar Mountain to get us back to the lollypop junction. This section had dramatic rock boulders and even more interestingly, is one of only two areas in the world where a flower called John Beck’s leafcup grows. Sadly, it blooms June – October so we were too early for flowers and didn’t know to look for its leaves. Maybe next time.

At the lollypop junction, we had a decision to make. Did we want to call it a day or do another loop to check out the connector trail? We’d have to retrace our steps quite a bit and figured we’d have to put in another 3 miles to complete the connector and get back to the car. It was only 2:15 and we figured we had plenty of time before it got dark, so we went for it. Besides I’d only spotted 9 wildflowers that I could identify on the trail, and if I could just find 1 more I’d get ice cream!

We opted to go counter-clockwise again, mainly because we felt that way was a little less steep. The plan was to hike to the connector, walk the length of it, then turn around and retrace that part too instead of taking the steeper route back down to the lake. Since we’d already hiked a good bit of this, there was a lot less stopping to admire things so we made really good time. I have to say, though, the connector trail was a bit of a disappointment. It was nice enough I suppose and maybe when the dogwoods are in bloom it would be prettier, but it was basically an easy trail through the woods. There were no views of the lake until it connected up with the main trail, and the pond, while biologically interesting, I suppose, was not very scenic. Maybe I was just tired, but it looked like a glorified mud puddle to me. Luckily, the advertised 1 mile trail length was a bit off, at least according to our GPS which had it at .7 mile. We finished the connector, admired a good sized sinkhole right before the end, then turned around and booked it back to the car.

Despite seeing cars in the parking lot, we’d had the trail entirely to ourselves most of the day. We passed maybe ten people total, so while this place isn’t totally unknown it’s not crowded either, but Chet and I enjoy getting out and finding these lesser known places. We ended up hiking 6.7 miles, but for travelers wanting a shorter break, I’d recommend taking a left at the lollypop junction and heading straight for the lake.

Little Cedar Mountain might not be a traditional hikers’ destination, but having found it, I’m now inspired to look for other roadside hikes. This summer I’ll be driving from Alabama to Washington DC, and you’d better believe I’m going to look for opportunities like this one to take a break from the road, stretch my legs, and enjoy what nature has to offer.



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