Over the years, we’ve had numerous occasions to make the drive from Huntsville, AL to Kimball, TN, to get to I-24. Toward the east end of that route, as you near South Pittsburg, the view to the northwest grows ever more mountainous, with a particularly prominent peak looming over the Cornbread City. I’ve often wondered about the hiking opportunities in the general area, so a little internet research led me to an interest in Franklin State Forest.
Tennessee has 15 state forests, all administered by the Tennessee Department of Agriculture. These managed forests are the source of timber harvests, but most are also multiple-use areas, with recreational facilities for hiking/horse/OHV trails, hunting, and fishing. They are often found contiguous to other public lands such as state parks, where they preserve environments and provide corridors for long distance trails such as the Cumberland Trail. We’ve not actually hiked in any of the Tennessee State Forests, and given its proximity to South Cumberland State Park, we figured that Franklin State Forest would be a good one to start with.
Official information on the state forests can be a bit slim, compared to the slicker websites used by the state parks. That’s not such a surprise — the state Department of Agriculture doesn’t have tourism as a primary focus. There’s a skimpy one-page website for Franklin State Forest, with a link to a road use map that also shows hiking trails. The map does a good job of showing the network of paved and dirt roads and hiking trails, but doesn’t include any trail names. There’s no description of the trails either, but fortunately the blogosphere has found the place and there are a few accounts of hikes in the forest. There’s this one from Hiking the Appalachians and Beyond, and another from The Outcasts Hike Again. Both blogs (check them out, they’re great!) make salient points about hiking in the Franklin State Forest. The first post is about three years old, and the second is about ten years old, but both are still fairly accurate.
The Franklin State Forest was acquired in 1936 from a coal company (coal and iron ore mining was a big thing in this area, before even better deposits were found in Birmingham). The 7,737-acre tract is heavily forested, almost exclusively by hardwoods, and straddles state highway 156 about half an hour’s drive north of South Pittsburg (or, you can travel south from Sewanee, TN if you prefer — the distance from Huntsville is about the same). The Forest is situated on the Cumberland Plateau, with most trails and roads offering views into mountain coves. By combining roads and trails, it’s possible to put together loop hikes of various distances.
I decided we’d try a 4.4 mile loop in the northern end of the Forest. One factor in that decision was the location of the Ranger station, straddling the Franklin-Marion County line on highway 156. It’s an easily located landmark, with a trailhead right across the road. There’s a sign marking the State Forest at the Ranger station, and a conglomeration of separate buildings and garages, including a cabin, but there’s no signage directing you to any particular place for parking or info. There is a kiosk in front of the cabin, and we followed another truck past it into a large field to the south of the cabin where a handful of horse and OHV trailers were parked. We didn’t observe any restrooms there, or a ranger, but we parked, donned our blaze vests (hunting is allowed in many state forests), and checked out the kiosk. It had a copy of trail map from the website and a few pages of regulations for the use of state forests.
We knew from the trail map there was a trail starting on the other side of the road from the kiosk, and we found the trailhead with relative ease. There was no signage marking this as a trailhead, other than the letter “A” affixed to a tree, and white blazes visible in the distance. I’ve seen references to this trail being called the “Fern Trail,” but I’ve not seen this notated in signage. The single track enters the woods, and heads southeast through a well-blazed corridor, with mostly paint blazes and the occasional white plastic strip mounted to a tree. There was a downed tree, easily skirted, and a little creek eased in on the left as we walked along the trail. I had had some reservations about the trails being well-marked, but they turned out to be unfounded. Throughout our hike, the footbed was always easy to follow, and frequent blazes were fresh and easily visible.
The first .35 miles were typical for a late fall hike around here — mostly bare trees, with leaves covering the footbed and concealing the occasional loose rock. There wasn’t much elevation change. This stretch of the trail had a few small wooden signposts at the base of some trees, perhaps a remnant of some signage for a nature trail. We came to our first trail junction at .35 miles, and the single biggest navigational shortcoming of hiking in the Forest became evident. Our little creek had widened, and our trail effectively teed into one of the unpaved roads. A plastic arrow at the base (huh?) of a tree directed us to a trail junction marked as “B,” in a sign on a tree. OK, we had gone from A to B, but our trail map didn’t include any of these markers, so we couldn’t align “B” with a particular point on the map. This is something the Outcasts had railed upon at some length in their post 10 years ago, but to their credit they had somehow laid their hands on a different trail map with the junctions marked. Here’s a link to their photo of that map. It’s pretty low-res, but it’s the only map I’ve found of its type. On the GPS track of our hike, we’ve marked waypoints for the “lettered” intersections that we traversed.
So there we were at “B” – wish I could tell you it was the intersection of the Fern Trail and the “XYZ” trail, but apparently trail names are for the unimaginative. We had to make a water crossing here. We were hiking the day after a heavy rain, and the creek was shallow but relatively wide here. The good news is that there was a wooden walkway over the creek. The bad news was that the second half of it was submerged. The water was only a few inches deep, so we kept our boots on and made a (mostly) dry crossing.
The next .3 miles of the hike were along an unpaved road. It was easy walking, except that this section of the trail is also used by horses, and some had been by earlier that morning. What with the heavy rain of the night before, the trail was often muddy, particularly when it narrowed. Our choices, as Ruth pointed out, were mud or briars, which seemed to line just about every trail we traveled that day. The blazes along this stretch were white, though there were some occasional black ones as well, and one rogue blue blaze. At the end of this segment, another larger creek flowed north to south, with two crossings evident, and the white blazed trail continuing along the creek without crossing. This was intersection “C,” and the creek is Sweden Creek, or a tributary of it, depending on which map you consult (the Forest’s trail map doesn’t show bodies of water at all). We were properly confused at this point. We thought we knew where we were, but not certain. The trail on the far side of the creek was also blazed white. Finally, I had the brainstorm of checking Google maps, and bless them! they had all of the trails marked on the map. Our little current location dot finally helped us correlate where “C” was on the map, and we were in business.
Now that we knew where we were, we had to cross Sweden Creek. (By the way, “Sweden Creek” is the official name of the creek, but this is a corruption of a settler’s family name, “Sweeten” — oddly enough, Sweden Creek drains into Sweeten Cove.) There are two crossings close to each other at intersection “C,” but both required some slightly ambitious rock hopping. We went downstream about 30 yards and found a narrower, easier crossing. The next .3 miles were much nicer hiking, as we were now on a horse-free path that turned south and climbed slightly as it approached the rim of Main Cove. Based on other blog posts and information we discovered later in the hike, it’s safe to say we were on the North Rim trail at this point. Our next intersection skipped a few letters, as now “X” marked the spot where another trail merged in from the north. A blue blazed spur trail from this clearing leads to a small rock outcrop with a hint of the views to come.
The next .85 miles are the highlight of the North Rim trail, as the footpath parallels the bluffline with views into Main Cove. At first the views are occluded, but as the trail approaches some relatively rare pine groves at about .65 miles from “X,” there are two blue-blazed short spur trails to the edge of the bluff, where the views to the south and southeast are quite spectacular. There are a couple of easy creek crossings in this segment, easily managed by rock hopping.
After the soaring views, the trail turns north away from the bluffline and tees into a blue blazed road at intersection “Y.” The blue blazed road continues to the northeast, where it apparently ends at Collins Falls. We didn’t know that at the time, and turned west instead to complete our loop. We almost immediately met two folks on horses, with two friendly accompanying dogs, and exchanged pleasantries. Those were the only people we saw on our hike, not counting the kids zooming around on OHVs in the parking area. The trail passed a sizeable pond and recrossed a creek or two as it meandered generally westward toward Sweden Creek. There was an obvious trail split in about .2 miles, but we stuck to the left at the fork and after about .65 miles we stayed to the left at another intersection. About half a mile after that intersection, we were back at intersection “C” by Sweden Creek.
At this point we could either retrace our steps back to the trailhead, or we could tack on a little more mileage. We were feeling pretty good, it was a beautiful day, so we decided to turn our hike into a figure-8 loop, with Sweden Creek being the middle point. We turned south at “C” and continued along the North Rim trail. We knew that Sweden Cove falls was in the general area, and hoped that by following Sweden Creek downstream a bit we’d get a look at the falls. The trail was narrow and muddy, churned up by horses, and though we could hear rushing water below us the trail began to loop away from the cove without there being any obvious route down the steep bank to our left. We came to the remains of a signpost next to an abandoned trail, and thought aha! here was a manway down to the falls. It turned out be badly overgrown (not quite a rhododendron hell, but at least a rhododendron heck) and after bushwhacking a little we clambered out onto an outcrop where we could see Sweden Cove falls very far below us. Our pictures from there were horrible so I’m not going to post them, but apparently it’s a 25-foot fall. We didn’t see an easy way down to the fall, so we retraced our route back to the trail.
The trail meandered generally westward, at one point crossing a creek on an actual footbridge before coming to intersection “D” about half a mile from intersection “C.” For the first and only time on this hike, there were trail signs, informing us that we had been hiking on the North Rim trail, that the West Rim trail apparently begins here, and the Sweden Cove trail leads .9 miles to the Ranger station. Well done, Eagle Scout J. Davis!
Our last segment was on the blue blazed Sweden Cove trail, an old roadbed that climbed generally to the northwest before teeing into another trail in about .2 miles that had a few of the blank placard-type signs we had seen at the base of some trees at the beginning of our hike. We stayed left at the intersection so we wouldn’t end up back at the “A” trailhead, and instead emerged on highway 156 between Lake Road and the Ranger station, both of which were easily visible. This trailhead didn’t have any signage. From here it was an easy walk along the road shoulder back to the parking area, about .6 miles from “D.”
All in all, Franklin State Forest was a pleasant surprise. There are three or four other short loop hikes that we’re considering as future excursions, so we’ll be back! Now that we’ve somewhat cracked the code of the trail map and the intersections, we’ll be a little more confident. This is one place where you should definitely do your homework before setting out, but as long as you know which side of highway 156 you’re on, just head east or west (as appropriate) until you find the highway and you won’t get lost. Of course, you might be miles from where you parked.