Sunday, November 17, 2013

Cloudland Canyon State Park: West Rim Trail (Blog Hike #449)

Trail: West Rim Trail
Hike Location: Cloudland Canyon State Park
Geographic Location: southeast of Trenton, GA
Length: 4.9 miles
Difficulty: 7/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: October 2013
Overview: A lollipop loop featuring multiple overlooks of Sitton Gulch and Daniel Creek Gorge.

Directions to the trailhead: In extreme northwest Georgia, take I-59 to SR 136 (exit 11).  Exit and go east on SR 136.  Drive SR 136 for 6.6 miles, ascending Lookout Mountain in the process, to the state park entrance on the left.  Turn left to enter the park, pay the small entrance fee, and drive 1.4 miles on the main park road, continuing straight at each intersection.  Park in any of the parking lots near the Interpretive Center.

The hike: Established in 1938, 3488-acre Cloudland Canyon State Park is one of the crown jewels in Georgia’s state park system.  The park straddles 1100-foot deep Sitton Gulch, which forms in the center of the park at the confluence of Daniel Creek Gorge and Bear Creek Gorge.  Cloudland Canyon State Park has nice facilities, including 102 campsites, 16 cottages, and 5 picnic shelters, but the natural attractions take center stage.
Most of the land on the gulch’s rim belongs to the park, so the views into the gulch are fabulous.  Also, the park’s location on the western edge of Lookout Mountain ensures excellent views to the west as well.  In addition to the views from the rim, the gulch itself contains some goodies, namely two large waterfalls: Cherokee Falls and Hemlock Falls.
           All of the pleasantries Cloudland Canyon has to offer can be accessed by a fine network of hiking trails.  While points along the rim are rather easily accessed, the waterfalls can only be reached by descending several hundred feet via over 1000 wood/metal steps.  I hiked to the waterfalls back in 1998 (before I started writing this blog), so I decided to tour the rim on this visit.  In particular, I chose to hike the West Rim Trail, which is probably the park’s most famous trail.  The West Rim Trail is mostly moderate in difficulty with only a couple of rocky spots, and it tours all of the park’s major rim overlooks.
Carsonite post at trailhead
            From the Interpretive Center, take the paved trail that heads south along the rim with the canyon to your right and the park road to your left.  Immediately views open up over the metal railing on the right.  Daniel Creek Gorge falls immediately before you, and Sitton Gulch extends out behind you to the north.  Hemlock Falls lies deep in the gorge directly in front of you, but it can be neither seen nor heard from the rim.
View into Daniel Creek Gorge
            At 0.2 miles, the trail turns to gravel and heads behind some of the park’s cabins.  Soon the Waterfalls Trail exits right to begin its long descent into the gorge.  The yellow-blazed West Rim Trail descends slightly with Daniel Creek coming into view through dense shrubbery on the right.  At 0.4 miles, you cross Daniel Creek on a wooden footbridge.
            Now on the west side of Daniel Creek, you begin the steepest part of the hike as the trail climbs out of the upper reaches of Daniel Creek Gorge via switchbacks.  Some wild trails head straight up the hillside, but cutting the switchbacks makes the grade steeper and enhances trail erosion.  Thus, intelligent hikers will follow the yellow blazes and stay on the official trail.
Small cave near trail
            Near 0.6 miles, you pass a small cave on the left.  Just past the cave, you reach the west rim proper and the rear of the Yurt Village.  A yurt is a fabric-covered wood camping structure originally used by nomads in central Asia.  Yurts have gained popularity in this country over the past 20 years, and several yurt-making companies exist in America today.
            1 mile into the hike, the trail descends on a moderate but rather rocky grade to reach the first of many Daniel Creek Gorge overlooks.  Some large crevices exist between the rocks here, so take care where you step.  The gorge remains in view to the right as the trail curves left, following the rim.  Stunted pines grow along the rocky rim.  Railings appear when the trail gets extremely close to the gorge edge, so the exposure and the risk of falling are minimal.
Hiking along the west rim
            After some nice rim views, the trail descends somewhat steeply into a side draw as it heads away from the main canyon.  At 1.4 miles, the trail splits to form its loop.  To save the best scenery for the end, this description will continue straight here and use the trail going right across the wooden bridge as the return route, thus hiking the loop clockwise.
            The next 0.9 miles form the most unremarkable segment of the hike as the trail climbs on a gradual grade through the sunny forest that covers the park’s interior.  Just past the 2-mile marker, you cross the paved cabin road.  A little more climbing brings you to a trail intersection where the West Rim Trail’s yellow blazes turn right.  Note that turning left here would quickly take you to a secondary parking area.  Vehicles access that parking area via the cabin road, and it makes an alternate starting point for this hike.
            At 2.4 miles, you reach the finest west-facing overlook in the park.  This rocky bluff peers off the west side of Lookout Mountain.  You can see 3 states on a clear day: Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee.  Lookout Creek, the town of Trenton, and I-59 appear in the foreground, while Sand Mountain can be seen in the distance.  To your right lies the mouth of Sitton Gulch and the majority of Cloudland Canyon State Park.  This overlook is my favorite overlook on this hike, so spend some time here near the midpoint of the hike.
View to the west

View of mouth of Sitton Gulch
            For the remainder of its loop the trail stays within 30 feet of the rim, so nice views appear through gaps in the trees to the left.  Several spur trails exit right and lead to the cabin area.  At 3.2 miles, you reach the most dramatic overlook on this hike.  A rock outcrop protruding over Sitton Gulch allows views up, down, and across the impressive canyon.  A black iron fence ensures you do not fall over the edge of the outcrop.
Iron fence at rocky overlook
            In another 0.2 miles, you reach the last loop overlook.  This point overlooks the confluence of Bear and Daniel Creeks deep in the canyon.  Some rock ledges cross the trail here and may require you to use your hands to navigate them.  A final slightly steep descent leads to the wooden bridge you passed earlier, thus closing the loop.  A left turn and 1.2 miles of retracing your steps will return you to the trailhead and complete the hike.

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