Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Cumberland Trail to Devil's Racetrack Overlook (Blog Hike #518)

Trail: Cumberland Trail (to Devil’s Racetrack Overlook)
Hike Location: Cove Lake State Park
Geographic Location: north side of Caryville, TN
Length: 6.6 miles
Difficulty: 10/10 (Difficult)
Last Hiked: May 2015
Overview: A long, sometimes steep, sometimes rocky out-and-back to a fabulous viewpoint.

Directions to the trailhead: In Caryville, take I-75 to US 25W/SR 63 (exit 134).  Exit, but instead of heading east on SR 63, go the opposite direction, which is west on Royal Blue Road or old SR 63.  0.6 miles from the exit, turn right on Bruce Gap Road.  The signed, paved, and fenced trailhead parking area is located 0.3 miles ahead on the left just after passing under I-75.

The hike: Stretching for more than 300 miles from Cumberland Gap National Historic Park in the northeast to Chattanooga-Chickamauga National Military Park in the southeast, the Cumberland Trail (CT) is to eastern Tennessee what the Appalachian Trail is to the eastern United States.  Unlike some other major trail organizations, the Cumberland Trail Conference has done an excellent job of developing and organizing work crews to build and maintain the CT.  Parts of the trail are still under construction, so check their website at http://cumberlandtrail.org/website/ for current information on trail construction or to volunteer for a work crew.
            For dayhikers, one of the better hikes on the CT is the out-and-back to Devil’s Racetrack Overlook described here.  Devil’s Racetrack is better known as the vertical rock slabs you see along I-75 as you drive north up the mountain out of Caryville.  Many CT experts rank Devil’s Racetrack Overlook as one of the best viewpoints on the entire CT.  After one trip to the overlook, you will likely agree.
The hike to Devil’s Racetrack Overlook used to be an almost vertical climb directly up the south side of Cumberland Mountain, but in the mid 2000’s a Cumberland Trail Conference work crew completed the current more gradual route up the north side.  The new route makes an excellent dayhike, and all trail users should be thankful for the time and sweat that went into building this trail.  Also, the Cumberland Trail Conference provides an excellent, detailed, free trail description on their website.  To be honest, their trail description is at least as good if not better than the one I offer here.
Bruce Gap Road trailhead for CT
            From the rear of the parking area, pick up the wide dirt CT access trail that immediately enters the forest.  In less than 0.1 miles, you reach a large trail mileage sign at the CT proper, which goes left and right.  The New River segment of the CT goes southbound to the left and leads 17 difficult miles to the next trailhead, which is located in a remote area near Norma, TN.  As indicated by the trail mileage sign, this hike turns right to head northbound for Devil’s Racetrack.
            The trail climbs a small knob on a moderate grade using several switchbacks.  You started 30 feet below I-75, but the top of the knob is more than 80 feet above I-75.  Vehicle sounds from the noisy interstate will be your constant companion on this hike, and the road noise represents the only downside to the CT’s new route.
            At 0.3 miles, the trail splits with the Volunteer Loop descending right and the CT climbing left.  These two trails come back together in 0.4 miles, so the choice is yours.  I chose the easier route, which is to angle left and stay with the CT.  The CT is marked with white rectangular paint blazes, and they come in handy at points such as this one.
Climbing on the CT
            The CT climbs a little more before passing over the double top of the small knob.  I saw a lot of poison ivy along this section of the trail, so take care where you step.  Using a pair of switchbacks, the trail descends the north side of the knob where the other end of the Volunteer Loop enters from the right at an unsigned intersection.
            At 0.8 miles, you pass through a brushy power line clearing.  A narrow but deep water run-off channel will require a single hop to cross.  After re-entering the forest on the other side of the power line, a couple more switchbacks descend the trail into a lowland ravine area.  Perhaps to your dismay, you have now lost almost all of the elevation you gained in the initial climb.
            After a short distance of easy, level hiking in the ravine, the trail climbs using switchbacks to once again ascend above interstate level.  The second half of this climb is somewhat rocky, a prelude of what is to come.  The next segment of trail stays so close to the interstate that it actually lies within the federally designated I-75 corridor.  Cars zoom along the highway below you less than 300 feet to your left.
Starting to get rocky
            At 1.6 miles, the trail dips to cross a steep drainage from the interstate on a high wooden bridge.  After climbing back to interstate level, you cross a wire fence using a wooden ladder.  The forest past the fence is much younger and shrubbier with plenty of poison ivy and briars to get in your way.  The dead end of Shelton Farm Lane appears downhill and to your right.  In the leafless months the vertical rock slabs of Devil’s Racetrack can also be seen ahead and to the right.
            2.2 miles into the hike, the trail enters a sequence of boulder fields that were built here to stabilize the interstate embankment.  Some of the boulders rock when you step on them, so you have to be very careful where you step.  Navigating the boulder fields is the only really hard part of this hike, and it is the only reason I ranked this hike’s difficulty at 10/10.  The CT ultimately intersects a dirt road at the base of the boulder fields, so one strategy is to pick the most feasible line down to the dirt road.
Entering the boulder field
            At 2.4 miles, the CT officially intersects the dirt road, where you need to angle left to continue heading toward Devil’s Racetrack.  The next 0.5 miles parallel scenic Bruce Creek, which features many pleasant cascades and waterfalls.  Like everything else in this area, the creek was affected by the interstate construction.  A new creekbed was built, and the waterfalls were added to create plunge pools that capture eroded soil.  On the bright side, the interstate is sufficiently far above you and the cascades sufficiently loud that they almost drown out the highway noise.  Some rocks beside the creek allow you to sit, rest, and extend your time away from the interstate.
Bruce Creek
            2.7 miles into the hike, the dirt road ends, and you have to climb a steep rocky section of trail around the highest cascade in Bruce Creek.  An established campsite sits at the top of this climb beside the base of the interstate boulder field.  A little more creekside hiking brings you to the wooden CT footbridge across Bruce Creek at 2.9 miles.  A couple of planks were missing from this bridge on my visit, but it got me across without incident.
            Now on the east side of Bruce Creek, you begin the final assault on Cumberland Mountain.  Over the next 0.3 miles the trail gains over 400 feet of elevation using 11 switchbacks.  Do not succumb to the temptation of cutting the switchbacks as some other people have done.  Ironically the “trail” created by cutting the switchbacks gives you some idea of what the old route to this overlook was like.
Climbing the switchbacks
After the fourth switchback, you reach a rare small flat area on the side of Cumberland Mountain that contains a cabin-sized boulder fallen from the cliffline above.  More switchbacks bring you above that cliffline.  At 3.2 miles, you reach the narrow rocky spine that is the summit of Cumberland Mountain.  The CT angles left here to continue its northeastward journey toward Cumberland Gap, but you need to turn right to hike the unblazed and unsigned 0.1 mile spur trail to the overlook.
After scrambling over some white sandstone rock outcrops, you reach the ridge’s end and the unmarked overlook.  What a view this is!  The towns of LaFollette and Jacksboro appear below you to the south, as does Cove Lake.  I-75 appears snaking off in the distance to the southwest.  To the northeast you can look up the ridgeline of Cumberland Mountain.  Best of all, I was all alone up here in the early afternoon, but I passed 3 other groups coming up as I was coming back down.  Thus, you should plan an early start if you want this view to yourself.
View southwest from Devil's Racetrack

LaFollette and Jacksboro

View northeast up Cumberland Mountain
The trail does not loop from the overlook, so the only trail option is to retrace your steps back to the parking area to complete the out-and-back.  However, if you do not mind some road walking, there is a way to form a semi-loop.  When you get back to the dirt road beside Bruce Creek, instead of turning right on the CT and following it up into the boulder field, keep heading downstream on the dirt road.  In 0.1 miles, the dirt road comes out at Sleepy Hollow Lane.  From this point, a soft left on Sleepy Hollow Ln. followed by a right on Loop Road and a right on Bruce Gap Road will return you to the parking area via 1.5 miles of road walking.  Be advised that part of this route passes through a residential area, and every house in that neighborhood seemed to have at least 2 dogs.  Also, while the CT does not have an official trailhead on Sleepy Hollow Lane, I noticed several cars parked along the lane near the dirt road that leads to the CT.  Starting from Sleepy Hollow Lane would reduce this hike’s round-trip distance to less than 2 miles while also substantially reducing the difficulty.


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