In my last post, I mentioned that Chet and I spent a weekend in a cabin at Norris Dam State Park. I have to admit that this Tennessee state park was not one I knew much, if anything, about. Based on the fact that it was at a dam, it was pretty safe to assume someplace on a river. Some hazy memory made me place it in the eastern part of the state as opposed to the western or central part, though the “on a river clue” could have put me in almost any part of the state. Turns out, this park is on the Clinch River just north and a little west of Knoxville. We picked the park for our weekend getaway because it had an available cabin in our price range, was not too terribly far away, and had the promise of some hiking trails in the area. That’s about all we actually knew before we started heading up there. As it turns out, there’s a little bit of something for everybody there!
First things first, the state park itself. Originally a “demonstration recreational project” owned by TVA, the more historic eastern half of the park features 19 rustic cabins, a campground, a Tea Room, and hiking trails. There is also easy access to the Norris Dam Visitor’s Center. The cabins were built by CCC Company 4493 starting around 1933 – at about the same time as Norris Dam was being built. They are all small one room affairs but “rustic” is kind of a misleading name. While they are old and small, all have a bathroom, air conditioning, television, and a kitchenette. The cabin we stayed in, cabin 20, sleeps two and had plenty of room. Granted, the bathroom was pretty tiny, but once you figured out where you needed to stand to close the door, it worked just fine. The cabin also came with a lovely screened in front porch, complete with rocking chairs and a bench swing. It also had an indoor fireplace and an outdoor fire pit that I can imagine are delightful when it’s not a million degrees outside. The cabins are arranged around a loop road around a wooded ridge top. There was a playground within walking distance, and a Little Free Library by the kiosk near the top of the loop. Many of the hiking trails on the eastern side of the park are reachable either directly from this area, or from a short spur trail. We checked out the Tea Room, which is a beautiful space used now mostly for events, and also drove to the campground to check it out. There’s much to like about the eastern side of the park, but I do have to say that campground is not included on that list. The campground on this side is pretty much just an open area in a power line cut. There are no trees, and while there are bathhouses and I think a playground area, it just didn’t look inviting at all. TVA sold the park to the State of Tennessee in 1953. The State turned it into a state park, also buying up and developing land on the west side. The final piece to the park was put in place in 1986 when they gained control of the marina close to the dam. The western part of the park is home to the park office, a public pool, 10 three bedroom cabins built in the 1970s, a very nice 50 spot, shady campground, and more hiking trails. If you’re looking to camp, I’d definitely recommend the western side.
Though we picked a spot where we could hike, we’ve already covered the hiking aspect of our trip in previous blog posts. So other than hiking, what else is there to do? Well, here’s a sampling of what we did or thought about doing:
- Being beer-lovers and beer-brewers, we always are on the lookout for local breweries to try out. Clinch River Brewing is the only craft brewery in Anderson County, and it just so happened to be about 8 minutes down the road from our cabin. This place has been open only since 2017 but boasts 16 taps – 15 featuring their own brews and 1 they use to rotate in Gypsy Circus cider or mead. They have an interesting space – it used to be the home of the TVA Aquatics Laboratory – with indoor and outdoor seating areas. They also have an onsite chef who prepares a selection of small bites, sandwiches, and a dessert or two. We greatly appreciated the fact that they brew all different styles of beer. We sampled a stout, a porter, a Belgian dark strong, an IPA, a hefeweizen, and a lager.
- You can’t really visit Norris Dam State Park without visiting Norris Dam itself, if only to pull into the overlooks and gawk. The first project ever started by TVA, Norris Dam was begun in 1933, just months after TVA was born. At its peak, 2,750 people worked on the dam, working in four shifts so that there was around the clock construction. It cost $32 million and took three years to complete. The resulting lake, Norris Lake, flooded 33, 840 acres of land, required the relocation of 2,899 families and the moving of more than 5,000 graves. Despite the relocations and the flooding, though, the dam also brought a whole new standard of living to what had been a very rural and even impoverished area of the country. We checked out the visitor’s center during our hike, then also drove to the overviews above the dam to the west, and below the dam on the Clinch River.
- Another local attraction is outside the park, but close by. The Museum of Appalachia is a living history museum begun in 1969 by John Rice Irwin. A native of the area, Mr. Irwin traveled the back roads collecting interesting artifacts of everyday life in Appalachia. His intent was to preserve the history of the area, but also to provide a place that would foster a sense of community. The museum is 65 acres filled with relocated cabins, barns, various farm outbuildings, a church, and a schoolhouse. Some of the more famous buildings include the cabin used during the filming of the “Dan’l Boone” TV series (despite being used for TV, the cabin was originally built in the 1800s in Anderson County) and the cabin where Mark Twain’s family lived before they moved to Missouri. There are also two large spaces – the Hall of Fame and the Display Barn – filled to the brim with exhibits. What I loved most about these exhibits was how they treated everything with equal respect. There were displays about the famous Sgt. Alvin York, hero of World War I, next to displays about the guy who raised his family in a hollow sycamore tree. Panels about Secretary of State Cordell Hull were given only a little more space than those for “Tater Hole Joe” – a guy who, well, lived in a hole. I was also delighted to see a display about Cas Walker – someone I remember seeing in commercials on TV when I was young. Lamar Alexander – former governor of Tennessee, current US Senator, and onetime presidential candidate from my hometown of Maryville, Tennessee also got a nice display. His momma Flo would have been proud. Chet especially enjoyed the musical instruments exhibit in the Hall of Fame. There, we found everything from a banjo made from the jawbone of a favorite mule, to instruments played by the famous Carter family. It’s a fascinating place, and deserved much more than the couple of hours we allotted to it.
- We’re always on the looking for a good local place to eat, and the nearby town of Rocky Top (yes, that’s really the name) answered the call with Coal Creek Smokehouse. This family owned barbeque place served up the normal selection of BBQ items – sandwiches, pork plates, brisket, pork belly – but it also has a vegetarian option, turkey or ham BLTs, roast beef, stuffed potatoes, or their specialty “burnt ends.” The town of Coal Creek is an interesting place. Settled shortly after the area opened up for settlements in 1798, it started life as Coal Creek. In 1890, it was the site of a notorious armed labor uprising called the Coal Creek War, where local coal miners rioted because Tennessee was cutting deals with the mining company for cheap convict labor. In 1936, when Norris Dam was completed, creating Lake Norris, the town changed its name to Lake City. Most recently, in 2014 the town successfully petitioned to change its name to “Rocky Top” in a bid to gain some kind of commercial advantage off the UT fight song.
- Another park-related attraction is the Lenoir Museum Cultural Complex. I’ll be honest, we had a bit of museum overload with the Museum of Appalachia, so we skipped the actual Lenoir Museum, but we did visit the other two historic buildings in the complex. The Caleb Crosby Threshing Barn was built in the 1830s on the Holston River. When the land it was on was flooded by Cherokee Lake in the 1940s (another TVA dam project – this one the Cherokee Dam), the barn was disassembled and then donated to the National Park Service. The Park Service declined to move it to the closest National Park – Great Smoky Mountains National Park – because no barn like it had ever existed inside the park boundaries. The barn sat in storage until 1978, when somebody had the bright idea to donate to Norris Lake State Park. It was reassembled on Clear Creek just downstream from Norris Dam. Right next to the barn is the Rice Gristmill. Built in 1798 along Lost Creek in Union County, this mill was used by several generations of the Rice family until Norris Dam flooded the land it was on. It was moved to Clear Creek in 1935.
- We didn’t take advantage of the pool at Norris Lake State Park, but we did take a look at it as we were checking out. It is a nice large pool with what looked like a baby pool off to one side. For those who just want to keep an eye on the kiddos, there are plenty of tables and chaise lounges scattered around on multiple levels. It’s open to the public for $5 a person, and if you are a park guest (i.e. camping there or staying in one of the cabins) you can get in for $3 a person. It’s open Wednesday through Sunday from 10-6. Weirdly, the sign said that it closes for the season on August 2nd.
- Finally, besides all the amenities, the park has all sorts of planned activities to keep everybody busy. When we were there, the park was having a “40 on the 4th” special event. I don’t know if this is a yearly event or something special just for 2018, but when we checked in we got a 16 page booklet listing all the activities available between June 25th and July 1st. They had everything from ranger-guided hikes, to live snake demonstrations, to craft activities, to a lake cruise, to fireworks. It was very impressive.
We honestly hadn’t asked for much from the place we picked to spend the weekend. All we wanted was a reasonably priced cabin and some hiking trails. We got that, but we got so much more than we expected.
Every time Chet and I get the crazy notion to go out hiking – in the Deep South – in the heat of summer – without fail I spend at least part of the time while I’m walking thinking about how lucky we are to have air conditioning and wondering how on earth people survived a southern summer without it. This past weekend’s hike at Norris Dam State Park in East Tennessee was no exception to that rule, except that I was not just marveling at the idea of folks being able to sit around in the heat without air conditioning. No, I was marveling at the idea of men going out, every day, possibly during the heat of the summer (I can’t be sure about that part) and actually building the trails I was hiking on. I’ve done some trail building, and can speak from experience about what a labor-intensive, sweat-inducing job that is. And these men weren’t just building trails, but I’ll get to that later.
Chet and I had picked Norris Dam State Park for a spur-of-the-moment weekend trip away from home based on only a few criteria: it needed to be someplace we hadn’t been before, be no more than 4 hours drive away, have some interesting sounding hiking or other outdoor adventures available, and have available and reasonably priced cabins for the weekend. We made the decision to get out of town less than a week ahead of time, so this last requirement was actually the hardest one to fill. When I looked on Tennessee State Parks’ “Browse Cabins by Park” page, there were only 3 parks with an available cabin that fit the rest of our criteria. Norris Dam State Park had the added benefit of being right down the road from Big Ridge State Park, so we figured if Norris trails turned out to be a bust, we had a whole other park to explore right next door. Norris Dam it was.
The drive up turned out to be more like 5 hours than 4 – Chattanooga was a mess (as it often is, I’m afraid) and we hadn’t thought about the fact that with July 4th falling mid-week this year, lots of folks were adding a few extra vacation days on before-hand and were already out snarling up the highways. Also, apparently many of them can’t drive, since there seemed to be wrecks and traffic slowdowns way more often than normal. Luckily for us, the park office stayed open until 6:30. We squeaked in at 6:15. Whew!
The park itself is nice, but I’ll save my review of the cabins and the park itself for next time. This post is just going to be about the trails we explored on Saturday. As I may have mentioned before, I’m not really a morning person, so though an early start on the trail would have been cooler, there was no way I was getting up early on my vacation. Adding in time to sit on the porch rocking chairs and drink my morning coffee, we didn’t end up hitting the trails until around 10:00. I’d picked out a fairly easy sounding set of looping trails that would allow us to cover what looked to me to be the most interesting parts of the eastern section of the park. We started our hike out at a spot labeled as the “Historic CCC Tea Room.” I have to say that the idea that the CCC guys built a “tea room” makes me a little skeptical, but we wanted to check out the building anyway. It turns out to be a beautiful space which is now a favorite venue for weddings and company dinners. I can certainly see why.
After checking out the Tea Room, we headed down to our first trail. Christmas Fern Trail is a shady half-mile loop trail described in the park trail descriptions as a great spot for plant diversity. We didn’t see some of the plants described by the park, but that could be because I was distracted by all the wild red raspberries lining the trail. I’ve often seen blackberries on a trail, or blueberries. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a wild red raspberry and this trail had masses of them. (They were getting ripe too. Delicious.) The trail itself is short, but well maintained and besides the raspberries has some nice lake views. We opted to take the “high” part of the loop.
Soon we came to the intersection with the even shorter Lakeside Trail. This .4 mile trail also has a lollipop loop at the eastern end, and we opted for the “high” section of that one as well. It’s a very small loop and we’d barely started on it before we came to the “stick” part of the trail. This trail is wide and really soft underfoot. It had good views of the lake and one spot had a small side trail that led down towards the water with a lake-facing sign at the end. I just had to go see what the sign said. I was expecting “State Park Property” or “Don’t Anchor Here” or something like that, but what I got was “Caution: Oxygen Pipes.” Sure enough, down the bank there were a cluster of pipes running into the water. What the heck was that all about? Unable to see any other explanations, we just made a note of it and headed on down the trail.
Lakeside Trail comes out in a parking lot across from the visitor’s center for Norris Dam. Part of the reason I picked this trail was so that we could check out the visitor’s center too. We checked out a memorial plaque and admired the thoughtfully provided concrete bench shaded by a lovely tree, then crossed the road toward the center. Along the way I noticed a novel thing – a solar-paneled phone charging station complete with a variety of charger connections! Surely a marketing thing to tie in with TVA’s energy-providing vision, it was still pretty cool. Speaking of cool, the building was mercifully air conditioned. I was especially grateful for that because outside of the protective shade of the trees on the trail, the sun was blazing and the humidity was miserable. The center is small and provides air conditioning, bathrooms, and an exhibit chock full of information, photos, artifacts, and videos related to the the vision of TVA and the building of this dam. Construction on Norris Dam started in 1933, just months after the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority, and was completed in 1936. This and other dams on the Tennessee and its tributaries brought transformative change to an area hard-hit by the Great Depression. We also learned what the oxygen pipes were for – fish! Part of TVA’s mission is service, which includes the management of public lands and waterways to support recreation, including fishing. They enrich oxygen levels below some dams in order to provide fisherfolk with healthy and probably hefty fish.
After enjoying the displays (and the air conditioning) for awhile, we headed back out to complete our hike. We retraced our path on the Lakeside Trail until we got to the lollipop part, but this time we took the lower loop to the intersection with Christmas Fern Trail. This lower loop section was the only slightly challenging part of this section of the hike. The trail heads down to the edge of the lake to a spot where there were a couple of steps leading into the lake. The park discourages all swimming in the lake, I assume because they don’t have a developed beach area, but we did see a couple swimming from there. I’ll be honest – had the small spot not already been occupied, I might have been tempted to jump in to cool off. From there it was a fairly steep but short uphill climb to the trail intersection with Christmas Fern Trail, where we again took the lower loop.
Next up was Tall Timbers Trail – .4 mile trail that was part of the CCC trail system. This one connected the dam with the rustic cabins. It had lots of shade, nice lake views, and more raspberries. On this busy nearly-a-holiday weekend, it also had a pretty good soundtrack provided by all the boaters out enjoying themselves on the lake.
According to the park-provided map, this trail should have taken us straight up to one of the rustic cabins, where we would connect up with the Highpoint Trail. Either we missed a turn or there’s been a reroute because we ended up on the yellow blazed Lake View Trail instead. Lake View is a 4.5 mile trail that winds around a peninsula that juts out into Norris Lake. According to the trail description, it also has remnants of old homesteads. Interesting as that sounded, 4.5 miles was just not going to be in the cards for me on this hot and humid day, so we turned uphill towards High Point instead to connect with our final planned trail of the day, Camp Sam Trail.
Named “Camp Sam” after a boy scout leader who popularized the area for primitive camping, this almost mile long trail leads towards CCC Camp 494, also known as Camp Kinchen. When I’d planned to hike this set of trails, it appealed to me to see both Norris Dam and the ruins of Camp Kinchen. I had the mistaken idea that the guys who built the Dam were CCC recruits who stayed at the camp. I don’t know where I got that idea, but I was wrong about that. The Dam was built by folks hired by TVA. CCC Camp 494 was set up in 1936, after the dam was probably complete, and the men there took on projects like planting trees, setting up fish hatcheries, and putting in miles of fences. They were not, however, involved in building the cabins in the park. The rustic cabins, the tea room, the trails, an amphitheater and playgrounds were built by CCC Company 4493 starting around the same time as the dam was being built.
The camp is at about the midpoint of the trail, and is reached either along an old roadbed from a parking area off US Highway 441, or down the hill from High Point. We came from High Point and though this section was steeper, the gravel in the footpath gave it away as an old roadbed even here. After passing a spur trail up to the rustic cabins and a couple of other closed trails put in for fire control, we spotted a set of stone steps leading down into a clearing. Though not the official route to get to the camp, we opted to take this short cut and get straight to exploring the camp itself. A gravel loop road circles the clearing, lined with about half a dozen plaques describing camp life and the buildings that had once been there. Some foundations remain and it was interesting to look at the pictures from the era on the plaques and compare it to the tangle of trees and vines in front of us. I learned an interesting fact from one of these plaques – CCC’ers gained an average of 12 pounds in their first few months – in part due to getting actual meals, and probably in part due to building up muscle from the labor. We wandered around the camp and imagined what it might have been like to be there in the 1930s, when the camp had barracks, a blacksmith shop, kitchens, grease pits, an infirmary, a gas station, a recreation hall, a camp store, and much more. 200 unmarried men between the ages of 17 and 28 lived here, serving for between 6 months to two years. They earned $30 a month, $25 of which was sent home to their families. They were provided with housing, food, clothing, and medical care. In an era when jobs were scarce and scraping together 3 meals a day pretty tough to do, the CCC was a life-saving option for many young men. All that, plus they learned valuable skills that served them well after they left the Corps.
Since the final half mile out to the other end of the trail didn’t look like it had any other interesting sites, and frankly because it was so freaking hot, we decided just to head on back to camp. Originally, I was going to hike back up to High Point and follow that back to the cabins, but since we’d spotted the spur trail up to the cabins, we thought we’d give that a try. The trail climbed at an angle up the steep ridge topped by the cabins, with a couple of switchbacks to make the going a bit easier. We came out on a road leading away from the East Campground, and followed that back up to the cabin loop. Our hike had taken us a little more than 3 miles, which was plenty far enough on such a hot day. At our “rustic” cabin again, we reveled in the the fact that thanks to the TVA dam builders and the men of CCC Camp 4493, we could enjoy air conditioning and ice cold diet Dr. Pepper, all in the comfort of a snug and sturdy cabin.
Nearly three years ago now, Chet and I took our first trip down the Paint Rock River. We had seen the river from the shore while visiting the Nature Conservancy’s Whittaker Preserve, and thought it looked like a pretty river to kayak on. We quickly discovered, though, that the Paint Rock was sort of the “also ran” of North Alabama floatable rivers. No outfitters serviced it, like the NACK does the Flint, or Ft. Hampton Outfitters does on the Elk, and it wasn’t heavily enough used that there were established put in and take out points. In the end, we just googled until we thought we saw some likely put-in spots up the Paint Rock Valley and gave it a shot. It was a bit tricky to get on the river, but once we were there we enjoyed it very much.
Fast forward two years to 2017 and Paint Rock River Canoe and Kayak opened. This new outfitter provides boat rentals, shuttle services, and parking right next to the Paint Rock River. We’ve been meaning to give them a try, so fast forward another year (we’re slow that way) and last Saturday was finally the day for it. As is normal in Alabama in June, it was hot and the lure of paddling down a shady, cool river just could not be denied. About 10 minutes farther east on US Highway 72 from NACK, Paint Rock Canoe is just about as easy to find, though you do have to turn off of 72 onto Keel Road and go about 200 feet to get to the parking lot. There is a large and distinctive sign though and Google maps took us right to it with no problems.
We parked alongside several other vehicles and as we were walking to the office, the pickup van was heading out to pick some folks up. They stopped to let us know the office was empty for a few minutes while they got somebody started on the river, but that somebody would be there soon. We walked in and spotted the normal waiver forms on the desk and went ahead and filled them out while we waited. I think we’d barely finished by the time Rachel came back and quickly got us squared away. The normal float trip they provide starts from the back of the parking lot, which is right on the river, and takes you about 5 miles downriver to the bridge over 72. They also do a longer trip – an 8 hour one that starts north someplace in the Paint Rock Valley and ends at their office. We’d arrived around noon, so opted for the shorter trip. Rachel had us pull our truck right down to the river and offered to help us get underway. We declined her kind offer, but it’s a mark of what nice, helpful people these are – they really make you feel welcome and well taken care of. She told us that the river was flowing pretty well that day – the only spot we were likely to have issues with dragging was right at the beginning – and that we just needed to follow the main channel and bear to the right if we ever had any doubts. She also told us about how to find the Blue Spring, which they claim springs from water that comes out of Cathedral Caverns over in Grant.
Armed with this information and the phone number to call when we wanted to be picked up we soon were out floating down the river. Sure enough, the first little bit was shallow enough that our kayaks dragged on the bottom a bit, but we were soon past that and into the leafy green coolness. I think the last time we floated down the Paint Rock, I thought it was a lot like the Flint, just a bit less crowded. In this stretch, though, it seems calmer and shadier than its more well-known cousin. This day, anyway, the current was strong enough to move us without our having to put in much effort at all; it was a bit like floating on those lazy river rides popular at water parks, but with better scenery and fewer crying children.
It was, however, a bit noisier in some ways than the Flint. That river flows away from the highway and mostly between fields. Once you get away from 72, it’s really pretty quiet. The Paint Rock in this stretch winds roughly parallel to 72. You can’t see the highway from the water, but road noise rarely disappears entirely. It’s not overwhelming – it’s just there, humming in the background. You can’t pick the course of a river, though, and it wasn’t so distracting that it prevented me in any way from enjoying myself.
Continuing with our river comparisons, one thing Chet pointed out is that this river was the polar opposite of our last float down the Elk River. That trip was notable for strong headwinds that required much muscling of boats through the water, plus an absolute total lack of suitable beach spots. There was not a single place we found where we could pull over and get out of the kayaks. The Paint Rock, in addition to requiring almost no effort from my poor wimpy arms, had frequent and lovely beach spots. You had your pick of gravelly beaches, sandy/muddy beaches or grassy clearings. We took advantage of one of the sandy/muddy ones and had a nice lunch. I thought about diving in to the deeper spot, but opted to just wade out until the water was around mid-thigh. That cooled me off enough without making me smell quite as much like a river.
Another difference we noticed, this time with the Flint, is that though we were absolutely serenaded with birdsong the whole way, we didn’t actually spot much wildlife or even wildflowers. I spotted one turtle and a few common songbirds, but no great blue heron led us down the river, as usually happens on the Flint. We had seen one farther upriver last time, though, so maybe it’s just that this section is too close to civilization for them.
We had been keeping our eyes peeled for the Blue Spring since it was described as a can’t miss feature on the river. Rachel back in the office told us the water changed to a beautiful blue and the temperature dropped something like 20 degrees where the spring water flowed into the river. We came upon a large beach filled with kayaks and just downstream from a rope swing. There were probably 15 people hanging out there, testing their skills on the swing, splashing around in the water, and sitting on the beach. For a minute we wondered if this was the Blue Spring, but it didn’t quite match up to the description we’d been given so we paddled on. A couple of turns in the river later, and we heard a commotion. Remember when I said that this was “like a lazy river, but with fewer screaming children”? Notice I didn’t imply that there were none. A couple and their probably early elementary aged son were at the Blue Spring, and the lad had been traumatized by having his second snake of the trip drop in the water in front of his boat on their way up the flow from the spring. One snake was probably bad enough, but a second one just sent him right over the edge, poor kid. I do have to note that we saw zero snakes ourselves, so I think they just had really snaky luck. We actually ended up riding back in the van with them from the pick up spot and he seemed to have recovered, though I’m guessing it’ll be a while before Mom and Dad talk him into a a fun float down a river again!
After the three off them headed on down the river, Chet and I were able to pull our boats up on the small beach area next to where the spring water flows over what looks like a beaver dam and into the river proper. It is a beautiful spot. The water behind the dam is crystal clear and does look blue compared to the murky green of the Paint Rock. It’s pretty dang cold, too, though I can’t vouch for exactly 20 degrees colder. We opted not to portage our kayaks up over the beaver dam to explore the spring itself, having been told it didn’t actually go that far back before it dead ended. In hindsight, I sort of wish we had, but maybe next time. Just about the time we were leaving the spring, the large crowd from the rope swing showed up and it got to a bit difficult to negotiate around all the kayaks vying for space on the beach. This is a good place to point out that generally, Paint Rock Canoe and Kayak allows three or four people per trip, but obviously you can also make arrangements for larger groups.
Soon after we left the spring, we came to the railroad bridge and then almost immediately after that we spotted the beach on the left bank that is the takeout spot. Just beyond the beach, Highway 72 crosses over the river. As instructed, I’d called the office when I got to the railroad bridge, and they had a van already on the way. They arrived before we even got our kayaks beached and then took it from there – loading our kayaks on the trailer while we settled into the van for a chat with the Blue Spring family. The ride back is a short one and soon we were watching as our kayaks were unloaded and washed down (nice touch!). They also provided everybody with delicious ice pops and then helped us load our boats onto our truck.
Our trip took us almost exactly 3 hours from put-in to driving off with kayaks loaded, and covered a tad bit more than 4 river miles. Paint Rock Canoe and Kayak folks made all the logistics easy and were super friendly and helpful. The river itself was beautiful, peaceful, and most important in an Alabama summer, COOL. After that initial shallow spot, the river seemed to stay around 3 or more feet deep the whole way, with no rapids to speak of. If you’re looking for whitewater thrills, this is perhaps not the river for you. But if you’re looking for a calm peaceful float down a river lined with great picnic beach spots, this stretch of the Paint Rock just might be for you!
Trail Name: Buzzards Roost Trail
Location: Monte Sano
Length: .3 miles
Points of interest: Wet weather waterfall
Notes: With all the rain we’ve been having, surely there is water pouring over the Buzzards Roost rock outcropping
GPS Track: Flat Rock Try 3
As you might expect, I’m not really so much of a traditional “Mother’s Day” mother. I mean, sure, when the kids were little we did the whole “breakfast in bed, bouquet of flowers” thing, but these days I prefer to do things a little differently. Knowing me as he does, my husband’s suggestion for a Mother’s Day treat was (of course) a hike – one where instead of bouquets of cut flowers, we might just see Mother Nature’s living bouquets. It sounded perfect.
It was pretty hot for May in Huntsville, so his suggestion was to head for the hills. He picked out a lovely spring flower hike high up on the Cumberland Plateau near Sewanee. We left the house around 9am and it seemed like in no time we were climbing up to the plateau and heading for the parking lot at the east University Gates. The hike we’d planned was a loop hike consisting of a piece of the Perimeter Trail that goes through Shakerag Hollow, and the secondary Beckwith’s Point Trail that runs up on the plateau along the top of the hollow. All together it makes a 3.5 mile loop, beginning and ending at the gravel lot just west of the University Gates.
Maybe it was because it was so hot, or maybe it was because I might just look at every “wildflower hike” a lot more critically after the glories of Taylor Hollow, but I wasn’t really anticipating that we’d see many spring flowers. Shakerag Hollow is, however, most notable for its spring flower show, so we set off looking to see what we could find.
I opted to take the Beckwith’s Point Trail first, figuring that it would be the less interesting of the two, and I’d rather not be slogging through the least interesting bit when I was tired and hot at the end of the hike. The start of the trail certainly tried its best to prove me wrong, though. Right away, we dove into the cool deep shade of the trees on paths literally lined with Quaker Ladies. These delicate little spring wildflowers were all along the trail, almost like somebody had planted them as edging. We also spotted lots of mapleleaf viburnum, a few buttercups, roundleaf ragwort, a dewberry vine in bloom, and masses of deerberry with their sweet little white bell shaped flowers. A little further along, we started seeing tons of pink and white mountain laurel, one display of trumpet honeysuckle, and even a few wood violets sprinkled along the trail.
However, this trail had its issues. For one thing, it’s not terribly well marked, honestly. Though it’s a well-defined footpath, there were a couple of spots where a clear sign or even a blaze would have been nice. At one point there were two well-defined footpaths, one leading towards what might have been a view into the hollow and the other heading on into the woods to the left. It sort of looked like somebody had laid tree limbs lining the trail to indicate we should go left, and it turns out that was correct, but it did make us stop and wonder which way was right. At another point, the trail crosses a gravel jeepway. Since the footpath continued on the other side, it seemed pretty obvious that we should not turn down the gravel path, but again, we did stop to think about it. Another annoyance for me was the road noise. We hadn’t really picked up on the fact that the Beckwith’s Point Trail spends the first mile or so within earshot of Highway 41A. When I’m out on a hike, I would rather listen to the birds, the wind in the trees, or even the silence. Cars, trucks and motorcycles rumbling by is not what I want to be hearing. The slight trail confusions, the lack of any blazes, plus being so close to the road made us wonder if we were hiking the wrong trail entirely. In the end, we were able to pull up a trail map on our phone which clearly showed the trail close to the road. I still didn’t like the noise, but at least I wasn’t as worried about being on the wrong trail.
On the positive side again, being up on the edge of the plateau meant we got some great breezes, which were very welcome in the heat. I also enjoyed the section of the trail that took us along the edge of the golf course – not so much for the golf course (or the fear of getting whacked in the head with a ball), but because that section of trail was cleared enough at the edge that there were some really nice views out over Shakerag Hollow and into the fields on the plains below. We also had a momentary stare-off with a couple of deer that stopped their bounding through the trees to look us over. We did check out Beckwith’s Point, which is a nice rocky outcrop but surprisingly without really spectacular views.
We finally came to another rock outcropping with a pretty impressive drop-off into the hollow below. Just past this, there’s a trail sign pointing straight on to Green’s View, and sharply down and to the right for the return loop taking us through Shakerag Hollow itself. We met another family there coming back from Green’s View. They strongly encouraged us to hike the .1 mile to see it so we opted to do that and then come back to this junction to finish the loop. Green’s View was worth the extra (very minimal) mileage. It can be reached by car as well, and has several benches from which you can sit and enjoy the view.
After enjoying our lunch on a bench at Green’s View, we retraced our steps back to the Perimeter Trail split and started our descent into Shakerag Hollow. The trail goes down steeply, using some well-placed rocks for stairs to lead down below that rock outcropping we stood on just before lunch. It’s a drop of a couple hundred feet pretty quickly and it’s marked as “difficult” on some maps of the area, but don’t let that scare you off. The hollow is well worth the hike.
Despite having missed peak spring wildflower season, we still found ourselves walking down a lush green trail where we seemed to spot some new flower every few steps: purple phacelia, mountain saxifrage, fire pink, masses of mayapples, a tall white violet we later identified as Canada violet, the flower explosion that is largeleaf waterleaf, a few trillium hanging in there – both toad shade and wake robin varieties, skullcaps, celandine poppy, foamflower, star chickweed, and my most exciting find from this hike – not one but two large jack-in-the-pulpits! All told, Chet and I identified more than 20 different wildflowers this hike, most of them in the hollow itself, and most of those in that first stretch near Green’s View.
If you’re not into the flowers as much as I am, you’ll still enjoy this trail for the towering tulip poplars, rock formations, the burble of Mud Creek below, and a small waterfall. There are some caves along some of the side trails as well as, someplace, an old mine. It’s a beautiful spot and well worth the steep climb down.
I suppose I should be fair and mention that there was one slightly confusing intersection on this trail, too. As we climbed up out of the hollow and back towards the University Gates parking area, we came to a place where the trail seemed to tee into another trail. There was no indication of which way to go, and since we knew that at some point we should be coming to an intersection with the Piney Point trail, we wondered if this was it. If so, we should be heading right because Piney Point would be off to the left. There was a light blue blaze visible to our left, though, and no blaze to our right, which seemed to indicate we should stay left. Hmmmm. We explored a bit to the right and quickly came to a place where there was a small slit of an opening in the mountainside. It might have been a cave, or maybe even a mine but we didn’t explore it. At any rate, the trail seemed less distinct and unblazed this way, plus it just felt like a wildcat trail to the cave, so we backtracked and took the marked way. In the end, we were right because after a bit more uphill climbing that took us past more bluffline and another pretty little water seep, we came to the well-marked actual intersection with Piney Point Trail. From there it was a short .1 mile back to the parking lot. Our total mileage for the loop was 3.5 miles, as you can see from our GPS track.
I always hate to be negative about a trail without good reason, but really, if I were to do this hike again, I might skip Beckwith’s Point Trail entirely. It’s not that it’s bad, really. I’ve certainly been on much worse (I believe one trail I was on last year I started talking about taking a flamethrower to), but to me a better option would be to park at Green’s View, hike down into Shakerag Hollow until you get to the waterfall and creek crossing, then just turn around. That would get you the most interesting bits of this hike, without all the road noise. However you get to it though, Shakerag Hollow is a can’t miss destination near Sewanee, and one I’m going to try to get to a bit earlier in the season next time.
Trail Name: Bee Ridge Trail #204
Location: Sipsey Wilderness
Length: 2.5 miles, one way
Points of interest: Mostly interesting because it leads to an access trail to East Bee Branch canyon, this is a nice trail through hardwood forest. When the dogwoods are in bloom, it’s a nice springtime hike.
Blog Post: Buckeye, Bird Song, and the Big Tree
Notes: Take East Bee Branch Trail #204A to get to the famous Big Tree and East Bee Branch Falls.
GPS Track: Bee Ridge Trail #204
During the spring, I’m always on the hunt for the very best spring wildflower trails. We have some lovely ones close to Huntsville, but Chet and I have hiked most of them at this point so I’m always on the lookout for a new place to go. One night a few weeks ago, I was half-heartedly typing in Google searches for “wildflower trails near me” or something along those lines, and I came across a reference to a place I’d never heard of: Taylor Hollow. The online trail reviews made it sound like a wildflower heaven on earth so I immediately started trying to figure out where this place was. Surprisingly in this day and age of “online everything,” it’s a little tricky. By going to the Nature Conservancy website, I discovered that this gem is a 163 acre preserve run by the Nature Conservancy in middle Tennessee. There’s a map with a general area there, but they strongly encourage you to email them for directions, because the place is not marked and is difficult to find. I sent off my email on a Saturday night and got a response the next Monday. After a few emails back and forth to set up some ground rules, I came away with directions to the trailhead, plus permission to blog about their preserve as long as we didn’t give out directions or an address. If you want to go (and I would encourage everybody to do so!) just contact them via email or the phone number listed on the website. Trust me – it’s worth it.
It’s been a pretty rainy stretch recently – I can’t remember the last time we had a totally rain-free weekend – so we waited a bit until we got some cooperation from the weather gods and headed up into Tennessee one rare beautiful clear Sunday morning. It is a bit of a drive from Huntsville, but with directions in hand, we had no trouble finding where we were supposed to park. I was sure that, difficult as this spot was to find, we’d be the only people there, but when we drove up there were a couple of other cars parked already. So far so good, but the next challenge would be finding the trailhead. Actually, I should correct myself there – the next challenge turned out to be getting past the “guard rooster.” This guy came strutting down the gravel drive towards us, fluffy white companion-hen in tow. I was amazed that he was so bold! Farm-boy Chet was immediately a little concerned. He knows roosters, and has tangled with some pretty mean ones in his time growing up on a farm. He recognized this guy as not just bold, but aggressive. Sure enough, as we tried to calmly head up the driveway without riling him up, he tried to block our path, then crowd us off to one side. We got past him without incident, but he followed us all the way up the drive and made me very nervous!
Once past the rooster, our next task was to find the kiosk that marks the beginning of the actual trail. This did not go terribly smoothly, to be honest. I’m not sure how much I can say without breaking my agreement with the Nature Conservancy, but I think I can say that if you see a lovely old tree-lined roadbed leading up past a barn and a pond, that’s NOT the way to go. That way did lead us to some beautiful wild blue phlox, periwinkle, pennywort, and a stand of shooting stars, though. We figured out we were wrong pretty quickly once we headed towards another farmhouse, and with just a little backtracking we found the right path. It led to a meadow and through the trees on the other side we could see the kiosk.
Up to this point on the correct trail, we hadn’t actually seen many wildflowers. We passed a stand of running cedar, but that was about it. However, under the kiosk sign was a beautiful little stand of Sweet Betsy trilliums, so things were looking up. The trail here is mostly level with just a little gentle up and down as it heads through the trees along a ridge line. The forest on either side is simply covered with Mayapples. They aren’t the showiest of flowers when they’re in bloom, and these weren’t in bloom yet, but it was still pretty amazing to me to see so many of them spreading up and down the hillside.
We soon spotted a bunch of fineleaf toothwort mixed with cutleaf toothwort, an Allegheny spurge, a couple of star chickweed, some patches of rue anemone, a swath of twinleaf, and a few more stands of trillium – both the toadshade kind and the wake-robin kind. At a spot where the trail dipped down across a tiny wet-weather streamlet I spotted one of the flowers we’d most been hoping to see – the blue eyed mary. This little plant is native to an area that goes from Tennessee north into Canada, west as far as Oklahoma, and east into New York. It is so beautiful, but it is now endangered in Tennessee. We felt very lucky to have found a small stand of them!
We kept heading down the trail and started seeing some more patches of phlox, a couple of celandine poppies, and then a big patch of dutchmen’s breeches. I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen them in the wild before, so I was really excited about these! Mixed in with the dutchmen’s breeches there was also a nice stand of squirrel corn, but I’ll be honest – I didn’t even realize until we’d gotten home and looked at the pictures. The leaves and flowers are really similar! Next up were the deep, vivid purple of larkspur and more purple phlox and bent wake robin trillium. Below us, we could see a creekbed lined with green. I wondered if maybe that green could be trout lily, like that patch we’d found when we hiked Cutchenmine Trail recently.
The trail took a sharp turn to the left and headed down a set of stairs where the trail cuts between boulders. To my left, I saw a little stand of “my” Virginia bluebells that I had to stop and admire, and then, as I got to the bottom of the stairs, I was stunned to realize that all of that green we’d seen from above wasn’t trout lilies after all – it was an absolute carpet of the endangered blue eyed marys! As far as the eye could see, up and down the trail, on both sides of the creek were blue eyed marys. Acres of them! And not just blue eyed mary, but also bent wake-robin, and dwarf larkspur, and Virginia bluebells, and yellow woodland violets, and wild blue phlox, and mayapples, and twinleaf, and dutchmen’s breeches, and wood spurge, and squirrel corn, and … more blooming flowers packed into each square foot than I could have ever imagined.
The trail tees into a path that leads both ways along a creek. We wandered downstream and across the creek, admiring the lush beauty of the forest around us until we got to a road and another stand of shooting stars. We then turned around, retraced our steps back to the tee and went the other way until the trail ends next to a small bluff. It was almost funny how we’d walk along and say, “Oh here’s just some more trillium,” or “hmm more larkspur,” or “oh, back to the bluebells again,” when just 30 minutes earlier we’d been fawning over a single tiny handful of blue eyed mary and marveling over each and every trillium. It was an embarrassment of floral riches.
The only thing that could have made this trail better would have been benches so that you could safely sit someplace and absorb all the beauty. The ground was so covered with flowers, there was no place off the narrow trail where you could step without tromping on something beautiful. Taylor Hollow is the most magical place I think I’ve ever been. It might be a bit out of the way, and it might require a bit more planning to visit, but boy is it worth it.