Taking off on the Cumberland Trail
Cumberland Trail State Park is going to be a work in progress for a while yet, but that hasn’t prevented hikers from enjoying what’s there now.
Cumberland Trail was approved as Tennessee’s 53rd state park in 1998. The grand vision of this linear park was to run a trail for 322 miles from Cumberland Gap National Historic Park on the Kentucky state line to the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Battlefield on the Georgia line.
Looking at the big picture, the Cumberland Trail would connect with Kentucky’s Pine Mountain Trail and form a link in the Great Eastern Trail, which will run 1,800 miles through nine states.
All the bits and pieces aren’t in place yet, but 185 miles of the trail are finished. The biggest stretch is from Tank Springs trailhead in LaFollette to Frozen Head State Park near Wartburg.
“Work on the trail is a community effort,” said James Brannon, park ranger at Justin P. Wilson Cumberland Trail State Park.
I stopped by his office to get directions and a map before I set off on the trail to reach the Devil’s Race Track. He suggested I take water and hiking poles.
I followed three miles of switchbacks up the mountain, where my reward is impressive views of the ridges of the Cumberland Plateau. The rounded shoulders of the Smoky Mountains line up in the distance. Other hikers reached the pinnacle too and a flurry of picture-taking commenced. People noticed the seemingly small houses and business of Caryville below us.
Marcianne O’Day, who also works out of the park’s Caryville office by Cove Lake State Park, told me later that trail completion could take a long time because work is contingent upon funding. The best case would be to obtain a big grant and get the whole trail completed in five years, but it’s more likely progress will go slowly as smaller grants and funding are obtained. Volunteers move forward with great determination during trail-building weekends.
The Cove Creek Trailhead by Bruce Creek Falls near her office sees lots of foot traffic.
The Cumberland Trail is meant to be a less crowded alternative to the famed Appalachian Trail, which runs in much the same direction but some miles east of the Cumberland Trail through Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Though both trails can be fairly rugged through East Tennessee, the Cumberland Trail lends itself more to walks along ridge tops of the Cumberland Plateau. The trail can be a little more challenging especially in the northern part, but it yields spectacular overlooks and deep gorges with cascading falls.
The Cumberland Trail crosses through 11 Tennessee counties, so you can one that suits your hiking style. This time of year, you may want to escape the heat and take a dip in the placid pools along Rock Creek Gorge section. At the bridge at Rock Creek, ledges and chutes empty water into swimming holes. This natural playground is located about 15 miles north of Chattanooga.
The Brady Mountain section just south of Crossville features three overlooks of Grassy Cove, a 5-mile long valley encircled by the Cumberland Mountains. From the Brady Bluff Overlook, the valley appears as a quilt of green pastures with farmhouses and barns as decorations. The trail also features one of the largest sinkholes in the United States.
The Soddy Creek Gorge section near Soddy-Daisy passes through the Little Soddy Historic Mining Area with much evidence of mining operations that used to flourish in the area.