Benton Falls in Fall
East Tennessee is at its best during a fall walk in the woods.
To get an early jump on the seasonal colors I went to Benton Falls near Ocoee. The falls are atop Chilhowee Mountain in Polk County and, at about 1,200 to 1,300 feet higher than the valley, the temperature is about 10 degrees cooler. So, fall starts earlier.
A real fringe benefit is the ride to Chilhowee Recreational Area, where the Benton Falls Trail begins. The drive takes you up Forest Road 77, a seven-mile part of the Ocoee Scenic Byway. From the overlooks along the mountain crest, you have spectacular views of the valley, Cumberland Plateau, the Blue Ridge and, if the day is particularly clear, North Carolina and Georgia. From high adventure, to scenic views, to rich history, there is something for everyone on the Ocoee Scenic Byway.
Benton Falls Trail is one of several hiking and biking trails that depart from the Chilhowee campground. It is about 1.5 miles to the falls, mostly flat and sand-covered; it is rated as easy and is well marked with blue blazes. The trailhead is at the edge of Lake McCamy, where I watch a fisherman pull out a smallmouth bass as his young daughter squeals with joy.
Then the trail moves into the woods where the colors show the splendor of the season. Reds and purples mix with bright yellows and oranges. Late-blooming mountain flowers compete for attention. Signs warn of black bears and deer abound on the mountain but neither makes an appearance during my hike.
The hike gets a little challenging at the end with a series of rock steps descending to the base of the falls. But, the payoff is worth it. Water drops 65 feet over a tiered rock cliff. A mild drought has diminished the water to a trickle, but the scene still has its beauty because sparkling spray drifts from the ledges.
Hikers, especially the children, scramble over the rocks and find the best vantage point. It was great to see families, especially those with smaller children, enjoying nature and being together.
Sherry Sparks of the U.S. Forest Service says summer is the busiest season because of the sandy beach and swim area at Lake McCamy, but it’s hard to top the brilliant display of foliage this time of year.
Plan your visit: Nine hiking and biking trails are located in the Chilhowee Recreation Area. In addition, picnicking, camping, fishing and swimming are popular pastimes. A $3 fee is requested at the parking lot.
To reach the trail, the best way is to follow the Ocoee Scenic Byway, shown on maps as Highway 64 and FR 77. (An electronic map search may direct you to Benton Falls Road/Oswald Road, but this involves driving over rough gravel.) In addition to the ridge top vistas, the Ocoee Scenic Byway features the spectacular bluffs of the Ocoee River Gorge. This stretch of two-lane highway was once known as the Old Copper Road because of copper mining operations in the region.
Fall is beautiful just about everywhere in East Tennessee, and I’m wondering if you have a favorite place you go to enjoy that you’d like to share. Let me hear from you.