An Insider's Guide to the Cumberland Trail

What could be better than hanging out in a hammock and taking in this view?
What could be better than hanging out in a hammock and taking in this view? Rodger Ling
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The Cumberland Trail is one of the best ways to see some of the most rugged and remote terrain that Tennessee has to offer. Running along the eastern side of the state, south from Cumberland Gap on the Kentucky line to within sight of Georgia, the Cumberland Trailitself is part of the even more ambitious Great Eastern Trail. Though not yet continuous, a dozen extensive segments encompassing more than 200 miles of the CT are complete, and each year volunteers make progress on closing the gaps.

Much of the current trail construction, coordinated through the nonprofit Cumberland Trail Conference (CTC) and the State of Tennessee, is funded through generous grants from private organizations and individuals. But from the very beginning, the backbone of the trail has always been volunteers. In fact, someone is probably working on the trail—scouting, digging with a pickaxe, or sawing through blowdowns—almost every day of the year. More than one hundred college students carry heavy tools and materials into the woods each year as part of the CTC-sponsored BreakAway, an Alternative Spring Break program.

The Rainbow Lake Trail is just one of several that connect with the Cumberland Trail.
    Rodger Ling
The Rainbow Lake Trail is just one of several that connect with the Cumberland Trail. Rodger Ling

The decades of knuckle-busting effort invested in the trail is easy to take for granted. We hike up a hill on stone steps and think about our lungs and legs, not the days of labor it took to place those rocks so carefully in the slope. Some of the bridges along the trail, especially the huge suspension bridges found at Big Soddy Creek and Suck Creek, are engineering marvels that required moving many tons of materials down sheer cliffs.

Here, we break down each segment of the Cumberland Trail and briefly describe what to expect in those segments. For maps and more information, check out the website.

Note: Many of the sections are in hunting areas, so be sure to wear orange if you are hiking or running during hunting season. Also, always bring your own water or a water purifier—you can’t depend on fresh water along the trail. Lastly, don’t always count on having a cell phone signal.

Tennessee Gorge Segment

Sections: 4

Total Mileage: 34.8 miles (some one-way, but also includes two loops)

From its start at an inspiring overlook of the Tennessee River near Chattanooga, the trail follows the edges of the Cumberland Plateau. With both dramatic overlooks and sections that plunge into steep, rocky gorges, it’s a place where you can truly connect to your senses. Much of the track follows the edge of Tennessee River Gorge, dipping into Middle and Suck Creeks where suspension bridges lead over rushing water. As you look out over Tennessee River, remember the thousands of dedicated visionaries and volunteers that have spent countless hours working on the trail.

The Julia Falls Overlook is one of the best views on the Cumberland Trail.
    Rodger Ling
The Julia Falls Overlook is one of the best views on the Cumberland Trail. Rodger Ling

One of the most iconic views on the entire trail is the Julia Falls Overlook near Signal Point. Sam Powell, one of the founders of the Cumberland Trail, was scouting the path with his daughter (Julia) when they looked across the gorge and saw a 100-foot tall waterfall. Sam and Julia weren’t the first humans to see this falls, but thanks to their efforts, countless people have enjoyed it since.

North Chickamauga Creek Segment

Sections: 1

Total Mileage: 8.3 miles one-way

More recently, Samuel Hammonds has been leading efforts on behalf of the Chattanooga-based nonprofit Wild Trails in North Chickamauga Creek, working upstream towards Sam Powell’s trails. The existing trail downstream traverses the side of a steep valley lined with huge bluffs and coal mines. Upstream, the North Chick follows a shallower, meandering path where Hammond’s crews are working. The new trail will extend to the top of the watershed and then go down the other side to connect with Suck Creek, Prentice Cooper State Forest, and the start of the trail at Signal Point.

Possum Creek is a challenging but super fun adventure.
    Rodger Ling
Possum Creek is a challenging but super fun adventure. Rodger Ling

Three Gorges Segment

Sections: 4

Total Mileage: 31.9 miles, one-way

Past North Chick is the rugged Soddy Sections and the infamous Possum Creek. Dreama Campbell, one of the most experienced and respected trail runners in the Southeast, has said that Possum Creek is perhaps her favorite place to run. It’s not an easy trail, even for hikers, but the rewards are almost constant: deep gorges of cascading water and sculpted sandstone boulders, evergreen hemlocks and rhododendron, and a constant feeling of being in the wilderness. Just five minutes from the trailhead feels like you’re a hundred miles away.

The Possum Creek Gorge section of this segment near Highway 111 is particularly difficult, dropping down the plateau to Possum Creek, climbing back to the top, then descending again and continuing to the beautiful Imodium Falls. Past the falls, the trail flattens and offers a beautiful path along the stream through a forest of rhododendron, climbing gradually through a pine forest near the northern trailhead.

Laurel-Snow Segment

Sections: 2

Total Mileage: 18.2 miles by piecing together other trails

The history and beauty of the trail at Laurel-Snow State Natural Area run as deep as the old coal mines buried under the rocky slopes. Named after two popular waterfalls in the area, Laurel Falls (80 feet) and Snow Falls (35 feet), the two sections here lead you into the wild, with soaring views on each side of the gorge. A century ago the mining in this area was a major economic engine for the area. Today, the natural beauty of the gorge with its waterfalls, swimming holes, and wildlife attracts a steady stream of visitors.

When this segment is complete, it will have three sections: Graysville Mountain, Laurel-Snow SNA, and Uplands.

Piney River and The Falls Segments

Sections: 1 each

Total Mileage: 9.6 miles one-way

Near the town of Spring City is the alluring Piney River Section. The main trail follows the small Piney River past waterfalls and evergreens, while a spur trail leads to a natural tower of sandstone where ladders take you up to treetop level for an overview of the gorge and valley. Much of the trail is easy walking, with the continuous serenade of the rushing water and few steep climbs or descents.

The Lower Piney River Section is the only part that is complete right now. Eventually, this segment will link up the Laurel-Snow and The Falls Segments, but currently, there is just a small, 1.1-mile portion in the SNA.

The largest rock house along the Cumberland Trail is 400 feet long and 60 feet deep.
    Rodger Ling
The largest rock house along the Cumberland Trail is 400 feet long and 60 feet deep. Rodger Ling

Grassy Cove and Crab Orchard Mountain Segment

Sections: 4 (Ozone Falls is currently a separate hike)

Total Mileage: 18.6 one-way

Further north is the Grassy Cove Segment, where the streams disappear into limestone and reappear miles later at a massive spring that is the head of the Sequatchie River. The short hike down to the 110-foot Ozone Falls is one of the best in the state, and will eventually connect to the Cumberland Trail (though it’s worth a side trip!).

As of October 2016, the 7.2-mile Daddys Creek Section is open, and leads to an overlook of Daddys Gorge. It can be found in the Crab Orchard Mountain Segment.

Obed Wild and Scenic River Segment

Sections: 2

Total Mileage: 15.4 miles one-way

In the Obed Wild and Scenic River Section, views of classic Tennessee whitewater once seen only by expert whitewater paddlers is now accessible to all thanks to the Cumberland Trail. "The rock formations and foliage are awe-inspiring on this section," writes Chris Pickering, who thru-hiked the entire Cumberland trail in November of 2016. This area of the trail has also been nicknamed the “trail of a thousand steps” by spring BreakAway students because of the many rock steps in and out of Daddys Creek and Obed River Gorges.

The south trailhead at the Devil’s Breakfast Table is in Central Time and the north trailhead at Nemo Bridge Trailhead is in Eastern Time, so make sure you have a wristwatch as the cell phone service is not always reliable.

Most sections of the trail are clearly marked.
    Rodger Ling
Most sections of the trail are clearly marked. Rodger Ling

Bird Mountain Segment

Sections: 2

Mileage: 11

The Bird Mountain Segment is not yet complete, but will eventually start in the town of Wartburg, allowing thru-hikers to resupply before taking on the ridge on Bird Mountain. By the time the trail crosses the plateau and meets the Cumberland Mountains near Frozen Head State Park and Natural Area, the mountains are almost as massive and weathered as the Smokies—but without the crowds. The existing trails are already at the highest elevations in Frozen Head State Park, and are steep and rugged.

New River Segment

Sections: 3

Mileage: 39.8 miles one-way

This is not the Appalachian Trail, worn by millions of passing feet, but is among the most remote and untouched terrain in the entire state. On many parts of the Cumberland Trail, especially the New River Segment, encountering another human is a special occasion, a meeting of kindred spirits.

The sections here are challenging, with creek crossings and quite a bit of elevation change as you traverse the ridges and valleys. Because this segment is one of the lesser traveled, it can be difficult to see the path at times, so make sure you have a map and a plan.

Cumberland Mountain Segment

Sections: 3

Mileage: 38

The northern end of the trail is at Cumberland Gap National Historic Park. The first gateway to the West was built here, by pioneers like Daniel Boone, creating a route into the Kentucky wilderness and beyond. In 1965, it was here that visionaries and politicians gathered at McLean Rock to announce the establishment of the trail. Ironically, due to a delay in land acquisition, the path here tends to be overgrown, littered, and eroded by ATVs, so the Tennessee Valley Divide Section 1 and 2 can be difficult to navigate.

But that will be remedied. Nearly all the land needed for the trail has been acquired, and it’s only a matter of time until crews find their way north to rebuild and reclaim. Every year, one foot at a time, new trail is constructed and gaps are closed. Volunteers hike with tools and chainsaws so that others may more easily follow this path into the wild.

Access and Camping

The Cumberland Trail Conference has detailed information about each completed section including maps and directions to each trailhead. Most sections offer options for everything from a dayhike to backpacking. Camping and overnight parking is free but you must have a permit, which is available on the website.

Originally written for BCBS of Tennessee.

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