Hike Location: Cherokee National Forest, Chilhowee Recreation Area
Geographic Location: east of Cleveland, TN (35.15066, -84.60711)
Length: 3 miles
Difficulty: 3/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: October 2018
Overview: A mostly flat out-and-back with one steep area to scenic Benton Falls.
Trail Information: https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/cherokee/recarea/?recid=35110
Hike Route Map: https://www.mappedometer.com/?maproute=718521
Directions to the trailhead: From the intersection of US 64 and US 411 east of Cleveland, take US 64 east 7.5 miles to Oswald Road (FR 77) and the signed turn-off for Benton Falls Trailhead. Turn left on Oswald Rd. Drive narrow, winding, and steep but paved Oswald Rd. 7.3 miles to the signed entrance for Chilhowee Recreation Area on the right, passing several roadside overlooks on the way. Turn right to enter the Recreation Area, and park in any of the day-use parking lots.
The hike: Rising 1200 feet above the eastern edge of Tennessee’s Great Valley, the Chilhowee Mountain east of Cleveland (not to be confused with the more famous Chilhowee Mountain near Great Smoky Mountains National Park) stretches for 12 miles between the Ocoee River and the Hiawassee River. The name Chilhowee comes from an 18th century Cherokee Indian village that was located in this area. The mountain’s location on the edge of the Great Valley means that the views from this ridge are fantastic, and the drive to this trailhead passes four roadside overlooks that offer excellent views.
The former Cherokee village also lends its name to Cherokee National Forest’s Chilhowee Recreation Area, a somewhat remote but popular area accessible only by driving 7 miles of narrow, winding road. The recreation area features small man-made McKamy Lake with its swimming beach and a 70-site developed campground. The campground is only open April through October, but the day-use area is open year-round. Also, Chilhowee Recreation Area offers 25 miles of hiking/biking trails, and the most popular destination in Chilhowee’s trail system, 65-foot Benton Falls, is also the destination of this hike. Although I did this hike as an out-and-back, some reasonable loop options are suggested at the end of this trail description.
|Trailhead for Benton Falls Trail|
Many trails start at the day-use parking lots, so the first and only real route-finding challenge is getting on the Benton Falls Trail (Cherokee National Forest Trail #131). From the parking lot closest to the swimming area’s bath house, the signed gravel trail heads southwest with the bath house to your right. After crossing the dam that forms McKamy Lake, turn left to begin the wide old dirt road that you will follow most of the way to Benton Falls. The first of the Benton Falls Trail’s blue i-shaped paint blazes is located here.
The wide dirt trail descends gradually as it traces around the north end of a small knob. A few areas with high erosion increase the difficulty slightly, but overall the old road makes for easy going. The road-like trail also makes the scenery less than ideal, so although Benton Falls is a scenic destination, the hike to get there is not particularly inspiring.
|Hiking on the old road|
Where signed narrower trails exit right or left, stay on the wider Benton Falls Trail. Be thankful for the new metal trail signs that have been installed here; the old small wooden posts are in poor shape and hard to read, as you will see if you happen to notice one. Oak and tulip poplar trees dominate the broadleaf forest, though a few pockets of pines grow beside the trail.
At 1.2 miles, the trail curves right as cascading Franklin Spring Branch comes within earshot from deep in the ravine to the left. After paralleling the branch for 0.2 miles, you reach the signed turnoff for Benton Falls. Turn sharply left to leave the wide old road and begin the descent to the falls.
|Descending toward Benton Falls|
The final 0.1 miles drop more than 80 vertical feet via two switchbacks and some wooden and stone steps. The steps are of excellent construction and appear to be less than 10 years old. Just past 1.5 miles, you reach the trail’s end at the base of Benton Falls. With sufficient water the falls are attractive both visually and audibly, as Franklin Spring Branch cascades for 65 feet over numerous tightly-spaced rock ledges. Some rocks at the base of the falls make for nice places to sit and enjoy the environment.
After you climb back up to the old road, several options present themselves to get back to the trailhead. If you continue south (left) on the old road, you can turn right on the Slick Rock Trail (designed by mountain bikers for mountain bikers but also open to hikers) to form a loop of nearly 4 miles that ends back at McKamy Lake’s dam. Alternatively, if you head back on the Benton Falls Trail, you can turn right on the signed Redleaf Trail, left on the Arbutus Trail, and then left on the Elderberry Trail to take a more eastern route back to the trailhead of about 3.5 miles. I came here late in the afternoon, so I took the shortest route by retracing my steps on the Benton Falls Trail in order to make sure I finished my hike before sunset, which I did.