Thursday, November 8, 2018

Panther Creek State Park: Seven Sinkholes and Point Lookout Trails (Blog Hike #724)

Trails: Seven Sinkholes, Lost Road, and Point Lookout Trails
Hike Location: Panther Creek State Park
Geographic Location: west of Morristown, TN
Length: 3.5 miles
Difficulty: 6/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: October 2018
Overview: A double loop featuring views of Cherokee Lake from up-close and from high-above.

Directions to the trailhead: From points south and west, take I-81 north to SR 32 (exit 8).  Exit and go north on SR 32.  Drive SR 32 north 4.3 miles to SR 160 and enter westbound on SR 160.  From points north and east, reach this same intersection by taking I-81 south to SR 160 (exit 12) and driving west 3.7 miles.  Continue west on SR 160 another 5.8 miles to US 11E and turn right on US 11E.  Drive US 11E north 1 mile to SR 342 and turn left on SR 342.  Drive SR 342 2.4 miles to the park entrance on the right.  Turn right to enter the park, and drive the main park road past the campground to the signed Spoon Recreation Area.  Park near the back of this asphalt parking lot.

The hike: Located on the Holston River in east Tennessee’s Grainger and Jefferson Counties, the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Cherokee Dam stands 175 feet high and creates 28,780 acre Cherokee Lake.  The hydroelectric dam was built in quick fashion between August 1940 and December 1941.  The urgency in the construction was due to the imminency of World War II: the region needed power for its aluminum production facilities, a necessary raw material for the forthcoming war.  The extra power generating capacity came at a price: 875 families were displaced, 51 cemeteries were relocated, and 14 new bridges had to be built.
            One of the best ways to see and experience Cherokee Lake is by visiting 1435 acre Panther Creek State Park, which is located on its south shore.  The park offers many amenities, including a 50-site developed campground, a boat ramp on Cherokee Lake, a seasonal swimming pool, and more than 30 miles of trails for hikers, mountain bikers, and horseback riders.  Many good hiking routes are possible, but I like the route suggested here because it passes both impressive lake views and large sinkholes, thus giving you a taste of both the man-made and natural attractions the park has to offer.
Trailhead at Spoon Recreation Area
            The hike starts at the signed trailhead on the left (west) side of the parking lot near the restroom building.  Both the Seven Sinkholes Trail and the Lost Road Trail start here, but almost immediately they part ways to form the first of this hike’s two loops.  Angle left here to stay on the Seven Sinkholes Trail.
            True to its name, the 0.6 mile Seven Sinkholes Trail passes seven signed sinkholes, which are above-ground evidence of the caves that lie underground.  Some of the sinkholes are as large as a small ravine, and although the Seven Sinkholes Trail is fairly flat, this area’s rockiness will impede your progress.  Large numbers of white metal diamonds bearing black arrows keep you on the official trail.
Sinkhole #2 of 7
            At 0.3 miles, the trail curves sharply right to pass through a particularly rocky area as you round the end of the low ridge that contains the sinkholes.  The horse trail you will be on in a few minutes comes into view through the trees downhill to the left, but stick with the Seven Sinkholes Trail until it officially comes back together with the Lost Road Trail at a signed intersection.  Turn sharply left here to leave the Seven Sinkholes Trail and head for the second loop.  In only 300 feet, turn left again to descend into a saddle and reach the major intersection that forms the second loop.  Turn left to hike the second loop clockwise.
            The trail follows a wide old road as it descends from the saddle.  Horses also use this trail, but it does not show signs of heavy horse usage.  At 0.7 miles, you reach an information sign just before arriving at the main park road; no parking is available here.  Turn right to begin the signed hiker-only Point Lookout Trail.
Climbing toward Point Lookout
            The Point Lookout Trail climbs through a ravine on a grade that is gradual at first but later becomes moderate with steep areas.  Overall, the trail gains almost 400 feet of elevation in just over 0.5 miles.  After climbing a single switchback, a spur trail exits left to quickly reach the park road.  Angle right to continue the Point Lookout Trail.
            The understory becomes sparse as you approach the top of the hill, and a nice forest with lots of oak, hickory, and maple trees welcomes you to the top.  Cherokee Lake, now some 400 feet below you, comes into view through the trees on your left as you reach the highest elevation on this hike.  At 1.5 miles, you reach the Cherokee Lake overlook for which this trail is named.  The green tree-covered islands with light orange dirt banks contrast with the sparkling blue water, and the low ridges to the north stand in the background over the entire scene.  A bench here makes a nice place to sit and rest near this hike’s highest point.
Cherokee Lake, as seen from Point Lookout
            The trail leaves the overlook by switching back to the right and heading southeast out a finger ridge.  The descent along the finger ridge is gradual, but a couple of short steep rocky sections will need to be negotiated when the trail rolls off the end of the ridge.  I passed a pair of whitetail deer grazing on shrubs in the understory as I approached the bottom of the hill.
            After tracing around a shallow ravine on a fairly level grade, you reach a trail intersection at 2.4 miles.  The Point Lookout Trail’s main loop continues straight, and we will eventually head that way.  To add a lake-level Cherokee Lake view to the high-above lookout view you got earlier, turn sharply left to begin the 0.45 mile spur trail that leads to the lake-level viewpoint.
Hiking out the finger ridge
            The spur trail heads north along the spine of a narrow finger ridge.  Large numbers of red cedar trees grow on this ridge, and the lake can be seen through the trees downhill to the left and right.  A gradual to moderate descent brings you to lake level at the end of the ridge.  The lake is in view in three directions from here, making this point a very scenic spot.
Cherokee Lake, up-close
            Retrace your steps to the main loop, then angle left to continue the loop.  Some maple trees offered nice fall color as I descended to intersect the horse trail in the saddle I was in before, thus closing the loop.  Continue straight to get back to the Lost Road Trail, then turn right to head back to the parking area.  0.2 miles of fairly level walking on the Lost Road Trail return you to the parking lot to complete the hike.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Fall Creek Falls State Park: Overlook, Base of the Falls, and Woodland Trails (Blog Hike #723)

Trails: Woodland, Overlook, and Base of the Falls Trails
Hike Location: Fall Creek Falls State Park
Geographic Location: southeast of Spencer, TN
Length: 3 miles
Difficulty: 8/10 (Moderate/Difficult)
Last Hiked: October 2018
Overview: A semiloop, sometimes rocky and sometimes steep, to Cane Creek Falls and Fall Creek Falls.

Directions to the trailhead: From Spencer, take SR 30 east 11.6 miles to SR 284 and turn right on SR 284.  Drive SR 284 south 3.1 miles to the state park’s Nature Center, where this hike begins.

The hike: The crown jewel of Tennessee’s state park system, Fall Creek Falls State Park is the largest and most visited state park in Tennessee.  Originally operated by the National Park Service, the park’s origins date to 1937 when the federal government began buying up badly eroded farm land around Fall Creek Falls.  In 1938, the depression-era Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps began stabilizing the soil and building park facilities.  The National Park Service transferred the park to the State of Tennessee in 1944.
            True to its crown jewel status, Fall Creek Falls State Park offers nearly every amenity imaginable.  Those activities include fishing, swimming, and boating on Fall Creek Lake, 222 campsites spread among 5 camping areas, 6 cabins, an inn, a golf course, and 56 miles of hiking trails.  Yet the park’s main attractions remain its 3 major waterfalls, all of which can be easily seen even without doing any real hiking.  I have actually come here three times (in May 1998, November 2001, and October 2018), but I only did significant hiking on my most recent visit.  Nevertheless, I had a great day here all three times.
The park offers two long hiking trails: the 12 mile Lower Loop that visits the area below Fall Creek Falls and the 13 mile Upper Loop that explores the upland area above the falls.  If these options sound too long for a comfortable day hike, the park offers many shorter trails as well.  The hike described here may be the park’s best short hike, as it takes you to two of the major waterfalls and passes several other scenic overlooks along the way.  Be warned that this hike and the entire park are very popular, so I recommend planning a weekday or off-season visit to Fall Creek Falls State Park to avoid congestion on the park’s trails and roads.
            The hike starts by crossing the suspension bridge behind the Nature Center, but before you cross the bridge look to the right for the Nature Center’s overlook of Cane Creek Falls.  At this ledge-type waterfall, water in Cane Creek falls 85 feet in a single drop.  This waterfall would be the featured waterfall in most parks, but at Fall Creek Falls it is only a warm-up act.
Temporary trailhead
            To complicate matters slightly, when I came here in October 2018 the Nature Center was closed for renovation, so I had to start at a temporary trailhead to the left, descend steeply to Cane Creek, and then climb steeply to reach the east end of the suspension bridge.  If the Nature Center construction is finished when you arrive, you will be able to walk out the back door of the Nature Center and immediately reach the suspension bridge’s east end.  The suspension bridge has a wooden deck suspended from steel cables, and it sways enough to give someone with a fear of heights such as myself a white-knuckled crossing.  The bridge’s location just upstream from Cane Creek Falls makes the bridge look higher than it is.
Suspension bridge
            After crossing the bridge, you pass another nice view of Cane Creek Falls before climbing some concrete steps to reach a trail intersection.  The option going left leads to Loop C of the park’s campground, so you want to angle right to head for Fall Creek Falls.  The trail climbs at a moderate rate via two switchbacks to reach another signed trail intersection at 0.25 miles.  This intersection forms the loop portion of this hike.  To get to the overlooks quickly, this description turns right here to begin the Overlook Trail and uses the Woodland Trail going left as our eventual return route.
            The trail descends gradually to reach the first of three spur trails that exit right to overlooks.  Each of the spur trails are rocky and steep, but they all lead to interesting views.  This spur leads to another nice view of Cane Creek Falls, but this angle also allows you to see another tall but low-volume waterfall and the Nature Center overlook you stood at a few minutes ago across the gulf.  Only a wire cable keeps you back from the sheer cliff edge here, so be careful where you step at this overlook.
Cane Creek Falls; Nature Center overlook across gorge
            Back on the main loop, the wide dirt trail climbs gradually and curves left to reach the second spur trail.  The second spur trail descends slightly to reach a rocky outcrop, but trees blocked any view on my visit.  Continuing around the loop brings you to the third and final spur trail, the one leading to Rocky Point Overlook.  This overlook is a nice north-facing viewpoint of narrow and rocky Cane Creek Gulf, which at this point is nearly 300 feet deep.  Take a few minutes and enjoy the rocky scenery this overlook has to offer.
Rocky Point Overlook
            Keep going around the main loop until, 1.2 miles into the hike, the Woodland Trail exits left to continue the loop.  We will go that way eventually, but to also visit Fall Creek Falls, continue straight for now.  The trail dips to cross two tributaries of Fall Creek, one of which has very high iron content, then reaches an overlook of the gulf into which Fall Creek flows.  The signed Lower Loop exits left near this point.
            At 1.5 miles, you reach the park’s signature overlook of Fall Creek Falls.  At a height of 256 feet, Fall Creek Falls has the tallest single drop of any waterfall east of the Rocky Mountains.  Although the park’s Fall Creek Lake is located less than 1 mile upstream, Fall Creek’s water volume varies greatly by season.  This waterfall was very impressive when I came here in May 1998, but it will be barely a trickle during a drought.  Time your visit accordingly.  A long bench makes a great place to sit, but the large parking lot a couple hundred feet behind you ensures that you will not be alone at this overlook.
Fall Creek Falls in May 1998

Fall Creek Falls in October 2018
            If you are getting tired or running out of time, this overlook is a good place to turn around and head back to the Nature Center.  For people with the time and energy, the 0.4 mile one way Base of the Falls Trail leads to its namesake location, which is a very scenic spot with a great view of Fall Creek Falls and the surrounding rock walls.  This trail is steeper and rockier than any trail you have hiked so far, but it is manageable for people in decent physical condition if you take your time.
The rocky Base of the Falls Trail
            The Base of the Falls Trail departs the left (north) side of the overlook at a signed trailhead.  After heading down some wooden waterbars, the trail surface becomes rocky as the descent begins in earnest.  Numerous scenic rock outcrops stand beside the trail, and although some people were climbing them on my visit, such an endeavor is too risky for my taste.
Descending past a rock outcrop
            After descending three switchbacks and a single-flight wooden staircase, the sound of rushing Cane Creek comes within earshot on the left.  The trail passes under a large rock shelter where some boulders will have to be scrambled over just before you reach the trail’s end at the base of Fall Creek Falls.  The plunge pool is surprisingly small given the waterfall’s size, but the imposing vertical rock walls make this place special.
Base of Fall Creek Falls
            The trail ends at the base of the falls, so next comes the arduous task of climbing back up to the Fall Creek Falls overlook at 2.3 miles.  Upon reaching the overlook, continue retracing your steps to where the Woodland and Overlook Trails split to form the loop portion of this hike.  Turn right to begin the Woodland Trail and continue the loop you left earlier.
Hiking the Woodland Trail
            True to its name, the wide dirt Woodland Trail offers only a hike through nice oak forest with no waterfalls or overlooks to distract you.  Thus, what this trail lacks in scenery it makes up for in ease.  After climbing gradually to top the ridge and reach the highest elevation on this hike, the Turkey Pen Ridge Trail exits right to head for the park’s campground.  A short gradual descent closes the loop.  Continue straight and re-cross the suspension bridge to return to the Nature Center and complete the hike.  If you are up for more hiking while you are here, the 2.5 mile Paw Paw Trail offers a nice but somewhat uneventful loop north of the Nature Center, while the asphalt Lake and Piney Falls Trails connect the park’s inn with Piney Creek Falls, the third major waterfall at Fall Creek Falls State Park.