Take a Bow: Sherwood Day Loop

About a year ago, Ruth and I spent a few hours volunteering with South Cumberland State Park Ranger Jason Reynolds on a new loop trail in the Lost Cove section of the park. I’ve been keeping an eye on the Friends of South Cumberland State Park website, and noticed to my delight that after almost three years of construction, the trail we worked on is now officially open. The trail, known as the Sherwood Day Loop, is an easy, feature-packed 2.7 miles that in my opinion is one of the two must-do dayhikes in the South Cumberland State Park. Simply put, this trail was a joy to walk.

We’ve blogged often about hiking in SCSP. It’s one of several parks on the Cumberland Plateau, but has the particular challenge of spanning four counties in nine separate, mostly non-contiguous, areas. All told, it covers nearly 31,000 acres and is the largest state park in Tennessee. The Sherwood Forest tract is around 4,000 acres, and is a relatively recent addition to the park (fall 2017). Most of the tract was added to the SCSP, though around 900 acres were added to the Franklin State Forest. The Sherwood Day Loop is the first developed trail on this tract.

To reach the trailhead from the Huntsville area, the two routes we’ve used are: (1) take U.S. Highway 72 east to South Pittsburg, TN, then take TN Highway 156 north; or (2) take Winchester Road north into Tennessee and cut over to U.S. Highway 64, then head east and take U.S. Highway 41A at Winchester and head into Sewanee, making your way south on Highway 156. For more detailed instructions, look at the Friends of SCSP site or search “South Cumberland State Park Sherwood Forest” in Google Maps. Whatever your approach, you’ll turn west off Highway 156 on Old CCC Road, a well-maintained gravel road that is fine for passenger cars. At about 2 miles, you’ll see the sign for Sherwood Forest, and quickly will come to a large gravel parking lot. Old CCC Road is gated off here, so you can’t overshoot.

The trailhead is in the northwest corner of the parking lot, where a kiosk contains a trail map and the usual park rules and safety information. The trail itself begins to the right of the kiosk, where a wide dirt footbed is flanked by a pair of stacked stone blocks. You’ll see these quarried stone blocks all along the trail, usually at the most opportune times. Ranger Jason told us on our trail construction day that volunteers had used wheeled carts to bring them into rough position, but of course it took a fair amount of wrestling to get them into place. Having worked several times on trail construction projects with rock work, I have to say I’m a big fan of using locally quarried stone for key features such as steps.

The trail is marked with white aluminum blazes, and heads straight into a hardwood forest for about 400 feet before coming to the start of the loop. About 300 feet from the trailhead, downed trees block off an earlier route on the left. Just stick to the main trail, and the sign marking the start of the loop is obvious. This being a loop trail, you can either take the left fork and hike clockwise, or the right fork and hike counterclockwise. You can’t make a bad choice here, but we strongly recommend hiking the loop clockwise, for reasons that will become evident.

We headed left at the loop sign and wound our way generally southwest on a wide, level, sun-dappled trail. We didn’t have high expectations for seeing many wildflowers, but our first identified specimen made the first of many appearances on this stretch — whorled coreopsis. This trail starts pretty much at the top of one lobe of the mountain, and as it winds around it hints at views of the Crow Creek Valley to the south. At about .65 miles, some stacked blocks appear on the side of the trail to form a quasi-bench. There’s a reason for this, as the trees are cut back to the south to finally deliver on that promised view.

At and after the overlook, the tree canopy opened up enough to allow a few more summer wildflowers to grow and bloom. We saw lesser daily fleabane, common St. John’s wort, large bluet, and downy skullcap on this stretch of the trail.

As the trail continued southwest past the overlook, we came to a familiar little piece of the trail — the one we worked on with Jason last year. All told, the three of us (mostly Jason) laid in about 50 feet of trail. It wasn’t much, but it looked as good as any piece of that trail, and we worked hard to make it that way. Now think about the effort that went in to building that entire 14,256 feet of trail — SCSP volunteers and rangers, you should be very proud of what you accomplished.

This next stretch of trail, roughly from about .8 to 1.2 miles from the trailhead, is really extraordinary. First, the wildflowers were putting on a modest but much appreciated show, with wideleaf spiderwort, little brown jug, and white-flowered leafcup in bloom. Not to be outdone, as the trail began to flank boulders on the left and small bluffs to the right, an oak tree made a statement of its own by growing on top of a rock.

While not as showy, the work of the trail designer and volunteers was also a highlight along this segment of the loop. Sometimes the work was subtle, such as the placing of a single block to ease the route up onto a rock shelf. Other times, the work was more obvious but equally necessary, with solid steps built to handle slope changes and eliminate slick spots. This is a magnificently engineered trail — sustainable, well-drained, well-routed, and well-executed.

After about .8 miles, the character of the trail begins to change as rock features become more prominent. Boulders rear up on the left side of the trail, with gaps and crevices that call out for exploration. A small bluff flanks the trail on the right.

As the trail reaches its southwest extent at about 1.2 miles, it rounds a point. Ashy hydrangea grows here, as well as hairy hawkweed. The rock wall on the right begins to crack, and the trail passes fissures and around tumbled-down blocks. There has been a gradual elevation change from the trailhead to the point, but after turning the corner and heading northeast, the trail rises slightly for about .2 miles before leveling off. Jason told us it was his goal to build a trail his grandma could walk. I’ve worked with him twice on trail building projects, and if genetics play any part in his stamina I’m willing to believe his grandma could probably carry me the length of this trail. Given the nice level footbed and the gradual elevation changes, I think most reasonably-mobile grandmas will do just fine on the Sherwood Day Loop.

The trail now loops its way back to the northeast, and is essentially flat for the next .5 miles or so. Rocky bluffs and boulders mark the right edge of the trail, and the mountain slopes downward sharply to the left of the trail, into Lost Cove. This part of the trail had a number of interesting wildflowers when we were here last May, including jack in the pulpit and green violet. We didn’t happen to catch any in bloom this time, but one tree had a pretty impressive shelf fungus growing on it. It’s bad news for the tree, though, as this type of fungus grows on rotting heartwood.

At about 1.8 miles into the loop, the trail begins to wind to cross drainages. They were dry at the time of our hike, but when running are unlikely to be more than a foot or two across. At about 2 miles, we arrived at an outstanding trail feature — the Sherwood natural bridge! This is why we walked the trail in this direction — we wanted to build up to this natural wonder. A short side trail allows you to cross the natural bridge, which I’d estimate is about 10 feet wide, about 20 feet long, and maybe 20 feet high. The footing is good on the bridge, though you’ll need to keep a sharp eye on children here as the drop to the bottom would be very bad indeed. This is the second large natural bridge in the area, and is only a little smaller than the better-known natural bridge near Sewanee. As if the bridge was not enough, we also spotted some fire pink and foxglove beardtongue growing near the bridge. If you’re not keen on crossing the bridge, the main trail bypasses it.

Immediately after passing the natural bridge, the trail winds uphill through some boulders to reach its high point in about .1 mile. Now on top of the rocks, the trail opens to the northwest for a magnificent view of Lost Cove. From here, the trail is essentially level for another .4 miles, where it closes the loop. We turned left to return to the parking area, having covered 2.714 miles according to our GPS track.

All things considered, Sherwood Day Loop is nearly a perfect trail for a dayhike. Its only drawbacks are its lack of restroom facilities and lack of water features, both of which you’ll find at the other must-do dayhike in the SCSP — the Grundy Day Loop. However, Sherwood is, at least for now, a hidden treasure. We saw only one group of six people on our hike, and the parking lot was empty when we returned. The Grundy Day Loop will be mobbed, pretty much at all times during the summer and fall.

So volunteers, rangers, and in particular Ranger Jason Reynolds — take a bow! The Sherwood Day Loop is a worthy addition to a park full of terrific trails (Fiery Gizzard, anyone?). This is a trail for everyone, with gorgeous views, wildflowers, cool rock formations, and a natural bridge on a relatively short, beautifully designed and constructed footpath.

Doorway to the Deep

Our last few hikes have been sort of on the wimpy side – mostly due to time or weather constraints – so this past weekend I told Chet I wanted to try a more challenging hike and boy did I get what I asked for! We’ve been wanting to get up to the Great Stone Door in South Cumberland State Park Tennessee for a while now.  The description of the Door itself sounds interesting. This quote from a Chattanooga based online newspaper sums it up better than I could.

“One of Savage Gulf State Natural Area’s primary geologic attractions, the Great Stone Door is a 10-foot-wide, over 100-feet-deep crack in the sandstone bluff that rims Big Creek Gulf. Along with Savage Gulf and Collins Gulf, Big Creek Gulf helps form a crow’s foot-shaped maze of canyons, or “gulfs” as they’re known in this part of the country, which drains into the Collins River. The Great Stone Door has been used for centuries as a means for people and animals to get up and down over the bluff. Native Americans used it before the arrival of European settlers. It’s also rumored that bison used it when they inhabited the Cumberland Plateau before the mid-18th century.”

Sounds pretty cool, right? Plus there are lots of hiking trail options in the area and a couple of waterfalls. My mind was made up – we were going. I was leaving my options open about exactly which set of trails we’d hike, but pretty much any loop we could take was going to require 8 or 9 miles of hiking.  I was trying to be back in Huntsville by 4:30 at the latest, and the drive there would take 2 hours so … 2 hours there, 2 hours back, maybe 6 hours of hiking…ugh. That meant I was up at 5:30 so we could get packed up and out of the house by 6:30.  Anybody who knows me knows I must have been pretty motivated to have suggested getting up this early and it was actually my idea. Crazy!

The drive up was uneventful. We worked our way over to Winchester Road, and then drove up through Huntland, TN, then over to Altamont, TN, and from there made our way to the Stone Door Ranger Station. The ranger station itself is set back in the woods off a nice-sized and shady parking lot. There’s a picnic pavilion off to one side in the trees, and beyond that a campground. While we didn’t explore the camping area, I did research a bit and found that campsites are primitive and are $8.00 a night. There are 14 of these at Stone Door Ranger Station. There are also 3 group sites, which cost $45.00 a night and sleep up to 60 people. While these are primitive sites, there are flush toilets right next to the ranger station. It looks like a beautiful spot, and I’m thinking maybe next time we come up this way we should camp out.

Right outside the ranger station, there is a kiosk and sign-in sheet. We signed ourselves in and then went to the left to check out the .3 mile Laurel Falls Loop trail. This leads behind the ranger station and to the falls right below. The trail is easy, with a set of stairs that take you down to the top of the falls. I didn’t see any way to get to the bottom of the falls, but they were pretty to look at from the overlook platform there. We took some pictures of the falls and some of the wildflowers blooming along the creek, then continued on the loop. We noticed a sign that pointed to the “mill site.” Of course we had to check it out, but I have to report that I don’t know if we actually found it. The path led back to the creek, and there were some stone walls and maybe a threshold, but very little remains of any other structures. In any case it isn’t far down the trail so we didn’t waste much time looking for it. We retraced our steps and then climbed back up to the kiosk and took off down the trail towards the famous Stone Door.



The first part of Stone Door trail is a paved ADA accessible trail. The paved part goes about .3 mile to the absolutely stunning Laurel Gulf Overlook. From here, you can clearly see the “crow’s foot shaped maze of canyons” that the nooga.com site described spreading out below you. It is truly impressive. Right after the overlook, the trail turns to dirt but it remains an easy walk with a few wooden footbridges and occasional views off to your left into the canyons. At .7 mile after the overlook we came to an area with lots of signs. One to the right was for Big Creek Rim trail. One straight ahead was for Big Creek Gulf trail, with mileage to a Connector trail and Ranger Falls. Another little sign pointed left and right and said “Overlooks” with “Stone Door” pointing right only below that. We opted to check out the overlook to the left first before we sorted out which way we wanted to go.



The views from the overlook was in some ways similar to the ones from the first overlook, but since you had no railing in front of you I think it made a bigger impression. You could see the rock bluffs cantilevered over the void to either side of you, which was pretty to look at. Then I realized that I was standing on exactly that sort of thing right were I was – so there was probably air beneath me! Yikes! A hawk circled up above  while we took pictures and marveled at the views.

Now it was decision time – do we go 3.2 miles down Big Creek Rim trail, which was rated easy and would give us views out into the gulf, or 4 miles down Big Creek Gulf trail, which was rated difficult, but would take us past Ranger Falls? It was unclear to us which trail would take us past Stone Door, but the little sign that said “Stone Door” and pointed right looked to me like it was pointed down the Big Creek Rim trail, so we headed that way.  As we walked down this nice shady level trail, however, we started second guessing ourselves. It sure didn’t seem like this way would get us to the Stone Door. Luckily, we had brought along Kelley Roark’s Hiking Tennessee book that had additional details about this hike and it clearly said we should have gone down Big Creek Gulf trail. Oops. We’ll save Big Creek Rim trail for another trip.


And I’m very glad we didn’t miss it.  From the overlook area, the trail leads down to a slightly lower, but very similar overlook straight ahead, with the top of the Stone Door to the right. Stones have been laid down the floor of the crevasse to form a sort of steep stairway. We both had to watch our step very carefully because some of those stones were pretty narrow!  We had the place all to ourselves and it was easy to imagine what this area looked like when this was Indian territory.

From the bottom of the stairs, the trail started leading down. And down. And down. 800 feet down to be precise. It was steep and it was very rocky in that way that had us picking our way carefully over wobbly rocks. Most places there wasn’t really a footpath, per se, so we’d find a white blaze and then look ahead to find the next one to figure out what to aim for. We did spot a surprising number of wildflowers on this trail, though: wintergreen, spiderwort, daisy fleabane, tickseed, partridge berry – to name a few. After going down in this way for a little less than a mile, we came to a trail junction. To the left was the Connector trail – a 6.7 mile “strenuous” trail leading towards even more rugged sections of the gulf. To the right was the continuation of the Big Creek Gulf trail, with a sign that said the Ranger Falls spur trail was only 1.1 miles away.

At this point in our evolution as hikers, Chet and I feel like a mile is no big deal. Three years ago, we had notes about being worried about a 3 mile trail being too long. Now, 6 miles is normal, 10 is a little long, but doable, and 1 mile is nothing. So in my head, Ranger Falls was close! I have to tell you, that was one of the longest mile-and-a-bit stretches of trail I can remember! It wasn’t as steep as the first mile, but it was just as rocky, only now the rocks were glazed with a layer of moisture and mud that made them slippery as well as wobbly. It was slow, slow going. I got a little over-confident at one point and then slipped, managing  to slam both the top of my foot and my shin into the same rock and ending up in one of my yoga poses – virasana or hero pose. Only I didn’t feel much like a hero at the time. Ouch! No major damage was done and nothing was twisted so I was soon up and going again. Eventually, we came to the trail junction for Ranger Falls, which featured a sad little trail sign fallen over and leaning on rocks. We were both hot and drenched with sweat and the thought of splashing in a waterfall was very appealing so off we headed down the blue blazed spur trail to find the falls.

I should note at this point that though we were following what looked like a creek bed, it was an entirely dry jumble of boulders with no water in sight. At some point upstream, Big Creek disappears under the limestone bluffs and runs underground for several miles. A heavy rain has been known to fill the creek bed up with water, but that wasn’t the case when we were there. The trail to Ranger Falls crosses this creek bed and one other, so I imagine when there’s been a rain that section could be tricky. It was tricky for us for a different reason though. When we reached the creek crossing, we could not see anything to tell us what to aim for on the other side. To the left there looked like something that might have been a trail, straight ahead there was a jumble of rock that might have been a dry feeder creek, and to the right looked like another potential trail. Chet went one way and I went the other to try to sort it out. It turned out to be the section to the right. Once I got across the boulders to the other side I could see a blue blaze on a tree up the trail and almost around a bend. Not easy to spot from the other side, that’s for sure!

The short trail to the falls was a little easier to navigate, though perhaps I only felt that way because even at this distance from the falls, I felt (or imagined I felt) a coolness in the air.  I was dreaming of standing under the cold falls just to cool off! I was a little worried that after trudging all this way, we’d find the falls dry too since there was still no water to be seen in the creek bed we were following, but I needn’t have worried on that account. I’ve seen pictures of this fall with more water, but there was a very satisfying amount of water dropping down over the rocks above into a shallow plunge pool. Where the water goes I’m not sure, but honestly at this point I was less interested in the mystery of the water than I was in soaking up that cool air. It sure did feel great. We ate our lunch on the biggest rock in front of the falls and then Chet scrambled around taking a few pictures while I basked on the rock and enjoyed the sound of the rushing water. I was caught almost napping by a very nice young couple out for a hike with their sweet big black dog Sam. Sam, his male owner and I all picked our way across the very slippery rocks towards the water fall itself. Sam had second thoughts and headed back to the lunch rock, but I went on toward the falls and managed to get myself pretty thoroughly drenched. Boy, did that feel good. Chet was done with his pictures by then, so we left Sam and his family behind and headed back towards Big Creek Gulf trail.

Just before we reached the intersection, we came across a pair of women hikers. We chatted with them a few minutes, gave them pointers about which way the trail was on the other side of the creek bed, and ended up giving them the map we had picked up at the kiosk. We had the same map in our book so we didn’t really need it. Then it was back to the junction to complete the rest of Big Creek Gulf trail. I was thinking that maybe this end of it was less steep than the other end, and therefore easier. I was only partially right. This end of the trail is less steep. But it is therefore relentlessly uphill for longer and at a still fairly steep grade! Probably because we were hot and tired, we miscalculated what mileage we’d need to reach to be at the end of the trail. We were thinking 5. At close to 5 I stopped at a big rock in the trail to get some water and wait for Chet, who had lagged behind a bit to take some pictures I think. When he caught up, we chatted a bit about how we must be close to the top by now, and then proceeded to hike another 2 miles straight uphill! It was seriously the most challenging stretch of trail I’ve been on.

When the sign for the trail to Greeter’s Falls finally appeared ahead, I hooted with joy, and then collapsed at the base of the sign waiting for my heart rate to slow back down, gulping water and gasping for breath. From the Greeter’s Falls trail sign, it’s only about a hundred yards to the Alum Gap campground. This is another primitive campsite that you can reserve through the park. There are 10 smaller sites there, plus at least 1 group site. The good news is, you don’t have to hike Big Creek Gulf trail to get there. The much easier, level Big Creek Rim trail will get you there in only 3.2 miles. At this point, though, even the promise of stunning views along the Rim trail wasn’t tempting enough to make us pass up the slightly shorter, if less scenic, Laurel trail. This 2.9 mile trail is also an easy one, but winds through the woods instead of along the bluffs. At this point in the hike, my knee was twinging from my enforced yoga pose on the rocks, I was tired, I was thirsty and I was literally counting my steps to keep myself moving forward. I remember that we passed a little sign that said “Moonshine Still” but all I noticed were a couple of piles of rocks – no metal still parts were visible. We trudged on through what I’m sure was a beautiful woodsy area until we came to a road crossing. It was the road into the park and we only had to cross it and go a short ways to complete the loop. I couldn’t wait to see the ranger station! As we walked up to the building, who did we meet coming up the trail from Laurel Falls but the women we’d given our map to down on the Ranger Falls spur trail. They had found the falls  with no problems, had a lovely time there and then had just retraced their steps out of the canyon back through the Great Stone Door. They’d beaten us back by quite a lot apparently, because they’d had time to get back and also go check out Laurel Falls. They looked a lot fresher than I felt, for sure. I don’t know if that means we were super slow hikers, or if the route they took back was really that much shorter. Maybe it was some of both.

In the end, our odometer said we’d hiked 9.9 miles. The maps had indicated it should have been closer to 9. We’d somehow added .9 miles  – probably from climbing around the overlooks plus that time we’d walked a little ways down Big Creek Rim trail before we turned around. It felt like a lot more. Our GPS track only credits us with 8.7 miles, but I’m blaming that on the fact that we lost signal several times while down in the gulf. Mileage alone doesn’t really give a good picture of the difficulty of this hike, though. Many people in the Huntsville area have hiked to the Walls of Jericho so here’s a comparison based on the percent grade of these trails: Walls of Jericho, 8.36%; Big Creek Gulf, 12.78%. Despite my grumbling about how hard this hike was (and it was hard, don’t get me wrong!) it was worth it all. This is some incredibly beautiful, if rugged, country and I’m already thinking about another trip up to see it. Only next time, I think I’ll plan to go in cooler weather.


Not What You Think It Is: Old Stone Fort

It was a lovely fall day in early October, with nothing on the calendar, so we thought that we’d venture a little bit afield of Huntsville and head up to Tennessee to see if there was any fall color just north of us.  After considering some options, we decided to check out Old Stone Fort State Park up near Manchester.

I’ve seen some descriptions of the park in which it’s called “Old Stone Fort State Archaeological Park,” which gives you some idea of what sets this park apart from others.  I gathered that it would be a mound site, like Alabama’s Moundville, in a scenic area, probably near water, and would be primarily of interest because of its history.  Like many others before me, I was wrong about Old Stone Fort.  Yes, the historical aspect is interesting, but it takes a back seat to the remarkable natural setting and the scenic trails that wind through the park.

We weren’t in any great rush to get there, so as a result we didn’t arrive in the parking lot for the museum and trails until almost 11:30 on a Sunday morning, after a roughly 90-minute drive.  44enclosureThere were a few cars there, but I wouldn’t call it overrun. I had looked at the park map on its website and knew that the most interesting trails would be in the peninsula between the Duck River and Little Duck River, but that map didn’t show how much the rivers had eroded around the limestone shelf nearly encircled by the rivers.  I was expecting an old village site maybe 20 or 30 feet above a bend in the river.  What we found instead was a partially enclosed area with a large, open field in the middle, soaring at least 70 feet above two shallow but sizeable rivers, partially enclosed by low mounded walls, with occasional historic ruins.

10dam_near_museumWhen we stepped out of the car, we could immediately hear the sound of falling water off to our right, and on our walk toward the museum came across the first of many excellent interpretive signs scattered throughout this area of the park.  I assumed that the water I heard was from a waterfall on the Duck River, which flows past to the northwest side of the peninsula. As we neared the museum, we could see that the source of the sound was a old dam, over which the water was flowing and dropping around 10 feet.  It turns out that this river gorge was a popular place for mills, what with the natural force of the water dropping around the eroded channel.  There had been a gunpowder mill near this site during the Civil War, but I believe the dam dates to 1963.

02museum_entranceThe park has a small museum with exhibits and artifacts describing the native Americans from the middle Woodland period who lived in the area and developed the site.  Early European settlers assumed that the site had been fortified, given its strategic location and the low earthen walls that partially surrounded it.  They dubbed it the Old Stone Fort, but they were only partially right.  It was old (built around the 1st through 5th centuries AD) and the walls were actually built of stone but eventually became covered in earth, but it was never a fort.  Instead, archaeologists have determined it was a ceremonial site, since they found very little evidence of habitation, and the alignment of the entrance is within one degree of sunrise on the summer solstice.

09bear_right_at_signWe walked past the museum, which is mostly underground with a nice viewing patio on its roof, and looked over an exhibit of a dugout canoe before heading toward the hilltop enclosure.  18duck_riverThere is one main trail, the Old Stone Fort trail, which circles the enclosed area, but the more interesting hiking is to be found outside the walls, roughly parallel to the Old Stone Fort trail, so we ignored the hint offered by the sign and hung a right to slip through a gap in the wall to follow a trail that paralleled the Duck River.

12blue_hole_fallsAlmost immediately, we came to Blue Hole Falls, where you can clamber down the bank a bit to get a good look at the top of the fall.  It’s really a series of drops totaling around 25 feet, but the longest single drop is around 15 feet.  By this time, we were starting to encounter more people on the trail, so we didn’t tarry long.

Continuing downriver, we came upon some ruins off to the right of the trail, overlooking the bluff over the river.  This was the remains of the main paper mill, one of three that were in this general area.  Built in 1879, this mill supplied newsprint to newspapers throughout the Southeast.  We hiked down to the river at this point, where we had a good view of the mill’s foundations.



We could again hear the sound of falling water, and picked our way along a path downstream to Big Falls, a 30-foot fall that is preceded by another 8-foot drop over a shelf.  24big_fallsLike Blue Hole Falls, we had a pretty good view at the top of the falls, but the trail was impassable past Big Falls.  If you’re thinking of doing this hike, your best views of Big Falls would be from the river itself (if you’re willing to swim), or possibly taking the nature trail that runs past the park’s campground and bushwhacking down to the northern side of the river.

The Little Duck River (left) joins the Duck River.

29trail_markerWe climbed back up to the trail and shortly thereafter took off to the right at the sign to the Moat, Backbone, and Forks of the River trail.  The trail marking scheme was interesting here, with color coding and shapes to indicate which trail you were on.  The first part of the trail (marked as “Alternate Trail Access” on the park’s map) took us to the Forks of the River trail, an easy walk down to the confluence of the Duck and Little Duck rivers.  We then continued along the Little Duck River on the Little Duck River Loop trail (also known as the Backbone trail), following the river upstream along a wide, flat former roadbed until it took a sharp bend to the left away from the river and ascended a narrow ridge.  This turn isn’t very well marked.  The trail appears to follow an old stream bed for 100 yards or so before you spot a trail marker and begin a sharp climb.

thumb_IMG_2792_1024 34forks_trail_footbed

Once you top the ridge, after about 75 yards of climbing, you’ll be at my favorite part of the hike (not counting the waterfall views, of course).  Backbone Ridge is a narrow ridge between the Little Duck and the bluffs on which the walled enclosure was built.  It’s not quite a knife’s edge.  The footing is good, with a nice overlook to the left and our best hint of fall color toward the top.  It tops out in a tree tunnel, then descends sharply to rejoin the Forks of the River trail.  It’s a little confusing at this point, as we headed left after descending the ridge.  Instead, you’ll want to continue straight to join the Moat trail, which follows an old dry channel that early settlers, in keeping with their theory of the place being a fort, thought was a moat.  It’s actually a natural channel.  We headed eastward, then climbed sharply to rejoin the Old Stone Fort trail along the southern end of the walled enclosure.

37ridgetop 38ruth_ridgetop 39blush_of_color

In the last part of the hike, we followed the Old Stone Fort trail to the northeast, keeping an eye and ear out for Step Falls on the Little Duck River.  50step_fallsWe could hear falls and occasionally glimpsed them down below us, but eventually came to a place where we could again descend down to water level.  53step_falls_upstreamStep Falls is actually a series of four waterfalls, and we joined the party at fall number 3 (numbering from upstream to downstream).  The third fall is the most scenic, dropping around 20 feet in a couple of cascades.  The first two Step Falls, upstream, are much less dramatic.

We finished the hike proper of 3.7 miles around 2:30, then took a few minutes to look over the museum.  We had hoped to time things so that we could drop by the Dutch Maid Bakery in Tracy City on our way back, but alas, the lying Internet said they’d be open until 3:30.  We arrived at 3:40 only to find the place locked up, so no salt rise bread for us on this trip.

This was an enjoyable, scenic hike that was mostly easy except for a brief bit of scrambling on the Forks of the River trail and the steep ascent and descent of Backbone Ridge.  Portions of the outer Old Stone Fort trail pass some steep dropoffs, though the footing is good and the footbed is wide so there’s no danger if you pay attention.  So, the Old Stone Fort is not a fort, the Moat trail doesn’t go near a moat, and the waterfalls don’t have particularly imaginative names.  There are also paved trails, a picnic area, and camping if you’d like to stay a while.

Old Stone Fort might not be what you expect — but you might find that it’s better than you expected!

Here’s a link to the GPS track for this hike.

South Cumberland State Park: Every leaf speaks bliss to me

I just love hiking in the fall, and yes, I know it’s not quite fall yet, but a girl can daydream, right? The crisp air, trees dressed in reds and oranges and yellows as far as the eye can see — well OK, it’s not like I’m going to be hiking in New England so how about we go with just cooler and not-so-humid air and a scattering of gorgeous fall-colored leaves. It’s still lovely. And I can’t wait for it, so I’m going to go back in time to October last year when Chet and I had a wonderful fall hike in the South Cumberland State Park near Tracy City, Tennessee.

South Cumberland State Park is 23,386 acres of land spread over 4 counties in south central Tennessee only an hour and half or so northeast of Huntsville. It’s a bit different from many other state parks that I’ve been to because it is actually 9 separate areas instead of being one big chunk of land. It does make it a little more challenging to find the trailheads I think, but we didn’t really have much trouble so don’t let that scare you off. This area is an absolute delight. It is home to the Fiery Gizzard Trail, which connects Grundy Forest to Foster Falls and was rated by Backpacker magazine as one of the Top 25 trails in the country; the Savage Gulf; the Great Stone Door; Lost Cove; Buggytop Cave; and Sewanee Natural Bridge. Even the names are cool! As an added bonus, right in the center of all this is Tracy City, home of Dutch Maid Bakery and Cafe. This bakery is the oldest family owned bakery in the state of Tennessee and puts out some delicious cookies, pies, breads, salt-rise breads, and cakes. Any time we come up to this area, we stop in to load up on post-hike treats plus some goodies to take home. I highly recommend them.

04savgulfdayloop_suspbridge1Enough about the area, lovely though it is. Time to get to the main attraction – the hike! First up, Savage Day Loop. This hike begins at the hiker’s registration stand to the right of the Savage Gulf Ranger Station on State Hwy 111 near Palmer, TN and is a 4.2 mile loop trail if you hike the whole thing. I had slightly injured my hip hiking the day before and we were in a bit of a time crunch so we choose to just do a shorter out and back hike of 3.2 miles. The first section of trail takes you through a bit of forest and crosses several small branches on stepping stones. At .4 miles, there is the first of a couple of suspension bridges, this one crossing Boyd Branch. Chet was quite impressed with the construction of these suspension bridges. They’re much fancier than the “log over a creek” variety bridge we usually see and high enough that a rising creek would probably not take them out. I see some trail maintenance mega-projects in his future….


After crossing the branch, the trail goes through the forest for  a little more than .5 mile before it comes to the place where the trail splits to form a loop. We went left here, and then in about .25 of a mile we went left again at the intersection with the South Rim Trail. The Loop trail actually continues to the right, but here is where I admit that our goal that day was not really to hike the Savage Day Loop Trail at all, although it sounds like a great hike we’ll have to do soon. We had another plan.

30chetruthsavage_falls_cascadeSouth Rim Trail follows along beside Savage Creek, crossing over it on a footbridge at one point and passing by the site of an old moonshine still. Then in another .25 mile we arrived at a set of cascades. These were beautiful, so we stopped here to admire them for a little while. You might recognize these cascades  – we use a different one of Chet’s pictures of them as our main photo for this blog.

Beautiful as they are, they aren’t the main attraction. Just past the cascades the creek drops 30 feet into a boulder-strewn plunge pool to form Savage Falls. A sturdy set of stairs leads down to the basin where you get a great view of the falls. We had to scramble over rocks and boulders to get to the spot with the best view but it was worth it!



After sitting and soaking up the beauty for a bit, we just retraced our steps back to the car. To see exactly where we went, check out our GPS track here.

32collins_west_trailheadNext we drove to Coalmont, and then headed to Gruetli-Laager (isn’t that a cool name, too?) to the Collins West trailhead. This is still in the Savage Gulf State Natural Area and South Cumberland State Park, but is west and a little south of the Savage Gulf Ranger Station. The parking lot here is a small one and the only trail is the Collins Gulf Connector Trail that takes off next to the kiosk.

35suterfalls_railsThis trail starts out on an old roadbed and is an easy walk at first. At .2 miles, the trail leaves the roadbed and heads off through the woods to the left. The trail after it leaves the roadbed is honestly a little more challenging that I thought it would be. Its only about .5 mile long but there are some steep sections, sometimes with rails to hang on to, and one pretty long rock “staircase” that made my thighs burn!

36suterfalls_cascadesAfter .5 mile, the Collins Gulf Connector Trail meets the Collins Gulf Trail. Here we went left (north) and picked our way through boulders, topped the ridge, then headed down the slope towards Rocky Mountain Creek. Just as the creek comes into view, there is a nice stairstep cascade.

Nice as those are, though, the main attraction is still ahead. The trail passes under, or maybe it’s through, a rock overhang where the ceiling and the floor form a sort of clamshell. At the far end of the overhang Suter Falls drops 30 feet from the top down into the boulders at the base. It’s a beautiful setting, and the reason we picked this short trail. We climbed all around to get good views and pictures of the falls, and I have to say the footing can be a little bit precarious. Unless you’re a much more laid-back parent than I was, I wouldn’t suggest taking young children to this particular waterfall.


We spent quite a while enjoying this unique spot, but then just retraced our steps back to the car. You can check out the GPS track of this trail here.

That was it for South Cumberland State Park and Savage Gulf State Natural Area for that day, but there’s so much to explore here we’ll be back soon I’m sure. For one thing, Chet and I want to hike the famous Fiery Gizzard trail this fall before it’s too late. That trail goes through a section of privately owned land that has recently changed hands. The new owner is planning on closing off access through his property before the end of the year. We’d better get a move on!

Oh and to explain the title of this post, it’s taken from a poem by Emily Bronte called “Fall, leaves, fall,” the first part of which resonated with me:

Fall, leaves, fall; die, flowers, away;
Lengthen night and shorten day;
Every leaf speaks bliss to me
Fluttering from the autumn tree.

Big South Fork, the adventure continues

Having spent the night at Charit Creek Lodge and mostly recovered from the food-coma induced by Gregg’s delicious breakfast, Chet and I set out to explore a couple of trails in Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area. First stop though was the lodge kitchen where we picked up a lunch for the trail and got a good tip from Gregg about which direction we should go on the loop trail we’d plotted out. For those of you who read my last blog entry, you might not be surprised to hear that his suggestion was to go the opposite way from what we had planned. Go figure. Armed with good advice, plenty of water, and a yummy lunch we set off on a hike that would take us past Jake’s Place and out to Slave Falls, and then back to complete the loop up to the Twin Arches and back down to the lodge.
02road_toward_jakesThe first part of the hike was back along the gravel road we had walked in on the afternoon before to the suspension bridge that crossed Station Camp Creek, then on about a tenth of a mile to the Tackett Homesite. During the Civil War, the area around Charit Creek was strongly unionist and often harassed by rogue bands of rebels looking for young men to fill the ranks of their army. At the Tackett place there were two young teenaged boys living with an older female relative. One day, the woman saw Confederate sympathizers approaching and needed to hide the boys so they wouldn’t be forced into the army. She had them hide under a feather bed while she laid on top of it pretending to be sick. This ruse worked as far as hiding the boys from the Confederates, but when they had gone on their way and the woman lifted the feather bed to release the boys she discovered that they had smothered to death. Their graves are just across the gravel road and up the hill a bit from the remains of the cabin.


05deerDown the road just a bit further, the trail splits off from the gravel road towards Jake’s Place. We hadn’t gone far at all before we came upon a deer on the trail. We’ve come across deer before while hiking, but generally they are gone in a flash and about all we can get a picture of is their white backsides bounding away from us. Deer booty as we call it. This one must have been very used to humans because she stood right next to the trail chomping on leaves and looking at us for several minutes. I still didn’t get a good picture, but Chet got a decent one.

The trail rises gently through the woods and along pretty 11middle_creekMiddle Creek for about 1.2 miles until you get to a trail intersection near the confluence of Mill Creek, Middle Creek, and Andy Creek. It is here that Jake Blevins and his son Elijah “Booger” Blevins had cabins in the early 1800s. The cabins are no longer here but the area still looks like it had once been cleared and there is a nice fire ring off to the side of the trail. Logs from these two cabins are at Charit Creek in the two field cabins. Chet and I stayed in the field cabin made from Jake’s Place logs. We waved “hello and thank you” to Jake, then turned left and took the trail to Slave Falls.

17mill_creek32ruth_dropoffThe trail to Slave Falls follows along Mill Creek for a ways before turning and winding up the hillside away from the creek. When we were there, there were several places where trees had come down across the trail requiring climbing over or ducking under big logs, but nothing that was too difficult to get by. We did meet a group of about 20 very nice mountain bikers on the trail; I’m sure they had lots of fun getting over those spots! They seemed pretty cheerful about it though. One spot on the trail had a pretty good drop off to one side – though really there was plenty of room and hardly any danger of slipping off the edge. Right about 1.5 miles from Jake’s Place, there is a spur trail off to right that takes you to Slave Falls.

According to local oral history, Slave Falls was named because the farmers in the region helped hide runaway slaves in the rock shelter behind the waterfall. It is a beautiful and peaceful spot and we spent a long time here taking pictures, soaking up sun, and eating our packed lunch.

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After lunch, we retraced our steps as far as Jake’s Place then headed up the 2 miles to the Twin Arches. According to our GPS we’d hiked about 6 miles by this point, and the trail up to Twin Arches was pretty much just uphill for at least a mile. It wasn’t steep, but it was unrelenting.


IMG_2166We did see some fantastic sights along the way, though.  After about 3/4 of a mile, the trail turned sharply right at a rock house or rock overhang. I almost walked right past it, but luckily Chet spotted this chimney feature up through the overhang and I got this lovely picture.

This part of the trail takes you past towering sandstone cliffs sculpted by erosion and weathering.


As impressive as these cliffs are, the real highlight is the Twin Arches. By some accounts these natural bridges are the largest in the eastern United States.

We came to the North Arch first. It has a clearance of 51 feet, a span of 93 feet and its deck is 62 feet high.53north_arch

After taking in the North Arch, we continued on the trail to a set of steps. These lead steeply up to the top of the arches. You can walk around up there, but honestly the view is more impressive from below. We dutifully climbed the stairs and looked around up top anyway though.


The South Arch is even more impressive, with a clearance of 70 feet, a span of 135 feet and its deck is 103 feet high.


South Arch also has a fat man’s squeeze, which of course we had to explore.


No problem.

From the Twin Arches, the trail back to the lodge is an easy 1.1 miles downhill, following Charit Creek itself back to the lodge.

When our girls were young and we’d take them hiking with us the deal was if we could identify 10 wildflowers we’d stop for ice cream on the way home. This worked wonders when hiking with sometimes grouchy kids in the heat of an Alabama summer. Now when it’s just the two of us hiking, we still challenge ourselves to identify as many plants as we can. We only sometimes stop for ice cream on the way home. I discovered on the next part of this trip that if we identify enough things, ice cream turns into pie and there’s a whole hierarchy of pies I had had no clue about! But that’s a story for another day.  While June isn’t really the height of wildflower season, we did find quite a few things in bloom along the trail, including Two Flowered Cynthia, Large Houstonia, Black Snakeroot, Mountain Laurel, Rhododendron, Blue Eyed Grass, Spotted Wintergreen, Squaw Root, Rattlesnake Plantain, and Solomons Seal.



Finally, I tried something new to share with you folks. When we hike we’ve long been in the habit of clipping a GPS to the backpack and turning on the tracking feature. Then when we get home, we can download the track to the computer and using Garmin software lay it over terrain maps and really see where we were. Up until now these tracks have just sat on my computer, but I decided to try something new this time and publish my “Adventure” to the web. It’s my first published one, and I know I can do so much more with it, but if you want to see the GPS trail for this hike, check out this link.

The Two Beer Road Trip

I had a Friday off on an absolutely gorgeous day, so Chet and I decided to road trip up into Tennessee to check out some waterfalls. First up, well, lunch. Hey it was my day off and I slept in!  I like finding local places to eat so I took to Yelp and found Collins River BBQ & Cafe in McMinnville, Tn.  According to its Facebook page they recently won “Best of the Best BBQ in Warren County,” plus they have  local micro-brewed beer on draft. Sounds like a place not to be missed, and we were not disappointed. It’s an old building, full of character and decorated with odds and ends like old potato sacks, a guitar made of license plates, and an old canoe hanging from the ceiling.

The front window of Collins River BBQ
The front window of Collins River BBQ

The barWall ArtIMG_1844


Chet had a pulled pork sandwich, homemade onion rings with a dipping sauce, and black beans with a bit of a cinnamon kick. I had just the sandwich, plus stolen bites off Chet’s plate. It was all yummy. They carry beer from Calfkiller Brewing Company which is about 30 miles down the road in Sparta, Tennessee. I tried to Fire Roasted Coffee Stout while Chet sampled an ale called Smokey Treat. Of course, I thought mine was the best but they were both really good.

Well fueled up, it was time to actually go find those waterfalls. Our first stop was Rock Island State Park in Rock Island, Tn. This lovely park is located along the Caney Fork River Gorge, where the Caney Fork, Collins, and Rocky rivers come together.

Great Falls

Great Falls is a 30 foot horseshoe fall, directly accessible from the parking lot of a picnic area.  When we were there, there was only water coming over a part of it. There is a dam upstream, though, and when TVA releases water from the dam, the whole fall disappears under water!


Next to Great Falls is an old 19th century textile mill once powered by the falls, and across the street is the charming “Spring Castle.” Basically it is a fancy spring house built while the textile mill was in operation. The water behind the wall in the reservoir served the mill and local houses, plus provided fire protection which was very important since fires at textile mills were common.

Next we walked down a short, steep path to a point downstream of the falls but at river level.  As I mentioned before, TVA will sometimes flood the gorge, creating a raging river with dangerous currents. They really want you to be careful!

09rockisland_youll_dieFairly warned, we continued on down the path to the river bed. You could tell the rocks we were walking on were usually underwater and it made it sort of eerie, but beautiful.


After climbing back up out of the gorge, we drove around to the other side of the park to see Twin Falls. This 80 foot tall, 200 foot wide waterfall is visible from a parking area, but we opted to take a short gently sloping trail down to river level and then walked along a level path next to the river to get good views of the falls.


Next up was Burgess Falls State Park and Natural Area, a small park about 20 miles down the road. There, the Falling Waters River flows through a steep gorge, dropping 250 feet in less than a mile. Leaving from the parking area at the nature center, the River Trail is a gentle, shady path along the river giving you views of three waterfalls, the remains of an old bridge, numerous seeps, and if you’re lucky a wildflower or two.

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The first fall is Little Falls, some places called Upper Falls, a 30 foot cascade.


As the river flows on downstream, it cuts further into the gorge and picks up intensity until it drops another 80 feet at Middle Falls.

28burgess_middlefallsFinally, the river spills over Burgess Falls into a large limestone gorge with sheer 200 foot walls.


It’s hard to tell much about scale from a photo,but if you zoom up on the one on the left, you might be able to make out a group of 4 guys fishing from the rocks. A couple of guys had strung up hammocks in the trees facing the waterfall – what a beautiful spot to relax in, huh? I had no hammock, so I had to make do with a perfectly sloped boulder.


The final waterfall for the day was Ozone Falls, about an hour’s drive down I-40 just past Crossville, Tennessee. This one was a short walk from the parking area to the top of the falls, but the best view comes from a short rocky trail down to the plunge pool.


At this point, it was getting close to 5:30, we were both starving, and we still had a 2 and half or 3 hour drive before we’d get home. Chet had the brilliant idea of taking a route home that would take us through Chattanooga, where we could stop and have dinner at one of the many brewpubs there. Great idea!  Off we went down US 27 to Chattanooga.

41terminal_brewhouse After some quick internet research, we picked The Terminal Brewhouse, a locally owned brewpub located right next door to the Chattanooga Choo Choo. This building was built in 1910 as the Terminal Hotel to provide lodging for travelers.  The location turned out to be a great thing for us, because we had about a 30 minute wait for our table. We just walked next door and explored the old train station.

42choochoo_ceiling IMG_1903 IMG_1904

We ended the day with good food and another sampling of craft beer. I tried their oatmeal stout and Chet had their witbier.


It was a great ending to a wonderful day!