Taking to the Trails at the Hiwassee

Randy Whorton
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The Cherokee National Forest’s Starr Mountain and Hiwassee River are a little over an hour from Chattanooga and chock full of trail running, hiking, and camping opportunities. If you’re out for a day of trail running, plan for a variety of distances and options. You may wish to do a shuttle and leave a car at the end of the John Muir National Recreation Trail or stop at TN 68. Another option is to stop at the top of Coker Creek Falls at FS 138 (accessed off of TN 68). You may also wish to do an out and back which will save you a great deal of time as the travel time to the various trailheads can add hours to your trip. Whatever you choose, you won't be disappointed with what this pristine area has to offer. 

Option one — John Muir Point to Point

Randy Whorton

The John Muir National Recreation Trail affords a memorable 20.7 mile point-to-point. So memorable, in fact, that John Muir once left detailed descriptions about this area in his book A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf, after hiking through these woods on his way from Kentucky through Tennessee to Florida in 1867_._ You can cover the same ground he did and enjoy it in any season. In the spring and summer, it is replete with bloodroot, fire pink, trillium, trout lily, squaw root, bishop's cap, and wild ginger. The abundance of trees, hard and softwood, as well as evergreen provide a canopy from the sun, while in fall, the colors will stun you. The winter is no less beautiful when the textures of the tree bark and the wide open sky can make keeping your eyes on the trail incredibly difficult.

You can start at either end, but this description is from the trailhead where Childers Creek empties into the Hiwassee River. Access this trailhead by crossing the bridge over the Hiwassee at Reliance and turning onto Childers Creek Road. There is a parking area at the trailhead and you’ll potentially encounter fishermen, hikers, and other runners. For three miles, the trail is essentially flat and has good footing.

You’ll pass through a meadow and then past a section with high bluffs on one side and the river on the other. The trail then leads away from the river into a marshy area at the Big Bend Recreation Area 3 miles in. You’ll find water and facilities here. Afterward, the trail continues, mostly staying along the river another 3 miles to the Appalachia Powerhouse, which has drinking water and sanitary facilities.

Randy Whorton

You’ll pass through a few parking areas, so keep a look out for the trail markers. About six miles up, there’s a suspension foot bridge crossing the river at the Apalachia Power Plant. The trail goes under the bridge and continues upriver on the north side. The trail is narrower here and it becomes more technical; and after a few miles, the trail makes a hard left and climbs a bluff. Another trail continues through the underbrush to the river. This is the 'Narrows' section, and it features amazing boulders shaped by the river. When the water is low, it is possible to get across to the other side. Regardless of the water level, this area is a perfect place for a rest and a snack, as there are countless photo opportunities.

The Hiwassee River
The Hiwassee River LookoutBelle

The trail climbs and descends a few more times before descending into a wide, low area at 11.7  miles. From here, you can continue on the John Muir Trail or take the Coker Creek Trail.

If you continue on the John Muir Trail (to do so, cross the bridge as you head out of the low camping area). The remaining 7 miles run along the river and through the forest of flame azalea, mountain laurel, and rhododendron which bloom in early summer.

This last section can be overgrown and flooded depending on use and water levels, but it is no less beautiful than earlier portions of the trail and certainly worth the adventure.

Option 2 — Coker Creek Falls Trail #183

Lost Creek Trail
Lost Creek Trail Randy Whorton

For a real treat, leave the flat camping area at mile 11.7 and continue your outing on the Coker Creek Falls Trail. Just 2.7 miles one way, and guaranteed to offer great photo ops regardless of the season. The trail goes along the creek, zigzagging up hills and descending again, passing through rhododendron and hemlock. There’s a spur path that leads south to Hidden Falls, as well as a series of falls that await you on Coker Creek as you make your way upstream. They range from 8’ to about 35’ and offer straight and tiered drops.

Coker Falls
Coker Falls Randy Whorton

If you plan this outing as a run, it can be as hard or leisurely as you like. You shouldn't have any problem completing it in the time it would normally take you to trail run the same distance. Many of the sections are extremely runnable and the beauty of the trail will carry you forward. The Hiwassee to Coker Falls option is about 14.5 miles one way. You can also shorten it by parking just below the Apalachia power plant. This will cut the run to 7.5 miles one way. If interested, you can even camp along the Hiwassee—some areas or previous campsites are evident. You can also camp at mile 11.7 or farther up either trail option.

Lost Creek
Lost Creek Randy Whorton

As with any outing into a remote area, plan accordingly. Cell coverage can be spotty at best and you probably won't be able to make a call. Tell people where you and your group are going and when you plan to be out. Dress accordingly and plan for changing weather as temperatures can drop quickly. A hat, gloves, and a windbreaker are a must. Also be sure to take water, a filtering system, and food in case you end up out on the trail longer than you expect to.

The closest town of any size to this section of the Hiwassee River is Etowah. There are a few restaurant options such as the Farmhouse, Castillos Mexican, and Micheal’s of Etowah which are all great for refueling after a long day on the trail.

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