Saturday, November 21, 2015

Tims Ford State Park: Lost Creek Overlook and Marble Plains Trails (Blog Hike #552)

Trails: Lost Creek Overlook and Marble Plains Loop Trails
Hike Location: Tims Ford State Park
Geographic Location: west of Winchester, TN
Length: 3.5 miles
Difficulty: 5/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: November 2015
Overview: A double loop featuring two swinging bridges and nice lake views.

Directions to the trailhead: From Winchester, drive SR 50 west 5.3 miles to Mansford Road and turn right on Mansford Rd.  Drive Mansford Rd. north 4.8 miles to the signed park entrance on the left.  Turn left to enter the park and park in the large blacktop lot in front of the Visitors Center.

The hike: Completed by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in 1970, the Tims Ford Dam on the Elk River produces 36 megawatts of hydroelectric power for residents of south-central Tennessee.  The dam forms 10,700 acre Tims Ford Lake, which provides flood control and water recreation.  Although Tims Ford Dam stands a respectable 175 feet high and 1580 feet long, it is only medium-sized by TVA standards.
            As you would expect, Tennessee’s Tims Ford State Park sits on the shore of its namesake lake.  The rural 2200 acre park features many amenities, including a 52-site campground, 20 cabins, a marina, and a lakeside restaurant.  The park’s most famous attraction is Bear Trace at Tims Ford, one in the Tennessee State Parks’ collection of Jack Nicklaus designed signature golf courses.
            For hikers, the park offers several trails that total 27 miles, some of which are shared with mountain bikes.  Many of the trails make for excellent walks, but most experts appraise the Lost Cove Overlook Trail to be the park’s best trail.  The Lost Cove Overlook Trail leads 1.3 miles from the Visitors Center to its namesake lake overlook.  Combining this trail with the adjacent Marble Plains Loop and the paved ADA-accessible Overlook Trail forms the 3.5 mile double loop described here.
Trailhead: Lost Creek Overlook Trail
            From the Visitors Center, head west to find the signed Lost Cove Overlook Trail where the somewhat narrow dirt trail enters the woods.  The trail undulates slightly as it passes behind the old Visitors Center (now closed) and under a powerline.  In about 700 feet, you come to the first of two suspension bridges.  The long, high bridge takes you over one of the steep, narrow ravines that characterize this part of Tennessee.  The bridge sways quite a bit, but the metal cables holding it in place are sturdy, so persistent forward stepping will get you across.
First suspension bridge
            The young but nice forest that surrounds the trail features some maple, oak, and beech trees with some pine trees mixed in along the higher areas.  The lake remains a constant presence through the trees on the left, but no clear lake views emerge.  Red aluminum disks mark the trail, and they come in handy occasionally even though most of the trail is easy to follow.  Numerous small but occasionally steep ups and downs need to be negotiated.  The vertical elevation change between high and low points is less than 100 feet, but that vertical distance will be covered many times.
At 0.7 miles, you cross the second of the two suspension bridges.  This bridge seems to be a near-twin of the first.  More ups and downs bring you to the wooden overlook platform at 1.3 miles.  While the view from here was probably quite good at one time, trees have since grown up to almost completely block the view.  Use some nearby benches to enjoy what view there is.
Lost Creek Overlook
The overlook also serves as a major trail intersection.  The Lost Creek Overlook Trail you have been following ends here.  The asphalt ADA-accessible Overlook Trail leading away from the lake will be our eventual route back to the Visitors Center.  The two arms of the Marble Plains Loop Trail, which is marked by orange aluminum disks, continue further west.  This description will take the left (south) arm of the Marble Plains Loop Trail now and use the right arm as its return route, thus hiking the loop clockwise.
The Marble Plains Loop Trail is narrower and less-traveled than the Lost Creek Overlook Trail, as evidenced by the deeper cover of leaf-litter that I had to negotiate on my early November hike.  However, the terrain is generally flatter than the previous trail, and therefore the overall going is somewhat easier.  After a gradual descent, the trail curves right to head briefly uphill into younger, shrubbier forest before descending again. 
Tims Ford Lake
At 1.9 miles, you reach lake level where the best lake views of the hike emerge.  This point sits at the head of a narrow inlet that empties west into the main lake.  The trail next curves right to join an old dirt road as it climbs away from the lake.  2 miles into the hike, you reach another signed trail intersection just below the ridge crest.  The Ray Branch Shoreline Trail exits left and continues another 6 miles down the lake shore, so you need to turn right to stay on the Marble Plains Loop Trail.  More orange aluminum disks mark this turn.
The remainder of the Marble Plains Loop Trail stays in the young shrubby ridgetop forest.  The solid white building of Marble Plains Baptist Church sits through the trees to the left.  Minor undulations and a final left turn return you to the overlook area to close the Marble Plains Loop.  To begin the final leg back to the Visitors Center, turn left on the asphalt ADA-accessible Overlook Trail.

ADA-accessible Overlook Trail
Asphalt trails never make for the best hiking, but since this trail stays in the woods or prairie for its entire length, the scenery is better than you might expect.  The nearly flat Overlook Trail stays on the ridgetop, thus by-passing all of the up-and-down you did on the Lost Creek Overlook Trail.  Rest areas with benches appear roughly at 400 foot intervals.  First you pass Marble Plains Baptist Church again, then Marble Plains Road comes into view, then you pass the park entrance gate.  1 mile after leaving the overlook, you come out at the north end of the Visitors Center parking lot, thus completing the hike.

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