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.
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.