Hike Location: Panther Creek State Park
Geographic Location: west of Morristown, TN (36.21517, -83.40575)
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.
Park Information: https://tnstateparks.com/parks/panther-creek
Hike Route Map: https://www.mappedometer.com/?maproute=720863
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.