Streams flowing off the north slopes of Unaka Mountain feature many of Northeast Tennessee's finest waterfalls. Particularly notable is a stream called Dick Creek, which features four stunning waterfalls in the Unaka Mountain Wilderness, including a unique 25-foot quadruple-flow falls and a spectacular 60-foot part-free-falling waterfall. All four waterfalls can be accessed out of Rock Creek Recreation Area via the Rattlesnake Ridge Trail, Dick Creek Trail/Road, and an unofficial pathway along Dick Creek. Additionally, a more popular waterfall - Rock Creek Falls - can be included on this hike, as it's also accessed out of Rock Creek Recreation Area along the Rock Creek Falls Trail, a very scenic trail with numerous stream views and even a bonus waterfall. This hike occurred on Thursday, April 26th, 2018. My plan was to hike out and back along the Rattlesnake Ridge Trail and Dick Creek Trail/Road to the waterfalls on Dick Creek. I would then return to the Rock Creek Recreation Area and hike the Rock Creek Trail out and back to Rock Creek Falls.
Cherokee National Forest: Rock Creek Gorge Scenic Area Waterfalls (includes Rock Creek Falls, Chestnut Mountain Falls, Thornburg Ridge Falls, Oasis Falls, Rim Rock Falls, Benton Falls, and many others), Benton, Tennessee
The 244-acre Rock Creek Gorge Scenic Area in Polk County is one of Southeast Tennessee's most spectacular natural areas. The Rock Creek Gorge is home to a jaw-dropping sixteen named waterfalls, spread across Rock Creek and several of its tributaries flowing off Chilhowee Mountain. All are scenic and many are tall. The only easily-accessible waterfalls are Rock Creek Falls, Benton Falls, and arguably Chestnut Mountain Falls. All of the others involve various degrees of creek-walking and/or bushwhacking. While one could visit all sixteen falls in one day, it will require a high level of physical capability and off-trail experience. Folks who chose to visit the waterfalls in several different trips will still be well-rewarded. The best time of year to visit the waterfalls of the Rock Creek Gorge Scenic Area is winter or spring, when the waterfalls are flowing more boldly and when the area is less overgrown. This hike occurred on Saturday, April 14th, 2018. My plan was to hike the Scenic Spur Trail from Highway 30 to Rock Creek Falls. I would follow a scramble path to Chestnut Mountain Falls. From there, I would begin the off-trail section of the hike by first visiting the waterfalls on Laurel Branch and then walking up Rock Creek past several waterfalls to the Slickrock Branch confluence. Next, I would bushwhack alongside Slickrock Branch out to the Rim Rock Trail, visiting more waterfalls along the way. I would then follow the Clemmer Trail to Benton Falls, also bushwhacking to Elora Falls and Silvermine Branch Falls. Finally, I would return to Highway 30 along the Clemmer Trail.
The Iron Mountain Loop is one of the less-used trails in the Cohutta Mountains. Most folks who visit the Conasauga River choose to hike the Conasauga River Trail #11 in the Cohutta Wilderness proper, well above the Jacks River confluence. On the other hand, the Iron Mountain Trail combines with Cherokee National Forest's Conasauga River Trail #61 to showcase a much broader and equally pristine section of the Conasauga River below the Jacks River confluence, where two mighty mountain rivers join into one. Although much of the Iron Mountain Trail is just a peaceful wooded walk across the slopes of Iron Mountain, a small vista at the halfway point offers a welcome break with a view of the West Cowpen Ridge that forms the Cohutta Wilderness boundary. The Iron Mountain Loop has only one downside: it gets a fair amount of equestrian traffic. This hike occurred on Saturday, September 23rd, 2017. My plan was to hike the Iron Mountain Loop clockwise by first following the Iron Mountain Trail from Cottonwood Patch Campground and then hiking the Conasauga River Trail to FS 221. The loop would be concluded with a short roadwalk along FS 221 and FS 16.
Appalachian Trail: US 321 (Hampton Blueline) Trailhead to Laurel Falls to Potato Top Vista to Dennis Cove Trailhead, Elizabethton, Tennessee
The 55-foot Laurel Falls is one of Northeast Tennessee's most breathtaking waterfalls. Located just outside of the community of Hampton and off the Appalachian Trail in Pond Mountain Wilderness, access to Laurel Falls is fairly easy, making it a destination that can often be crowded, but the falls and the whole hike is still worthwhile - for there is a lot more to see along this stretch of the AT. Above Laurel Falls, an unofficial side trail makes a steep scramble to the pointy summit of Potato Top, where there are several excellent views of the Laurel Fork Gorge and surrounding wilderness. In addition, the Appalachian Trail between US 321 and Dennis Cove Road passes a lot of pretty creekside scenery and several spectacular cliffs that rise along Laurel Fork Creek. This hike occurred on Sunday, July 9th, 2017. My plan was to hike out and back along the Hampton Blueline Trail and then Appalachian Trail from the trailhead off US 321 near Hampton to the Dennis Cove Trailhead. Along the way, I would take the side trails to Potato Top and Laurel Falls, and on my way back, I would take the high-water bypass route past Laurel Fork Shelter above Laurel Falls for a bit of variation. This hike was the eighth of ten hikes that I did during a seven-day trip to the mountains of northwest North Carolina.
The Elk River is best known for its spectacular upper waterfall, Elk River Falls. But as the Elk River enters Tennessee, it encounters a twisting passage with a series of waterfalls collectively known as Twisting Falls that is even more jaw-dropping. The 35-foot lowermost drop of Twisting Falls, locally known as Compression Falls, creates one of the area's most impressive sights as it crashes with a deafening roar into a deep pool flanked by tall cliffs. The trail to the base of the falls is no joke though - the unofficial path descends over 400 feet to the Elk River in just a quarter-mile! The destination waterfall is well worth it, but be prepared to huff and puff on the way back up. This hike occurred on Wednesday, July 5th, 2017. My plan was to hike out and back to the base of the lowermost drop of Twisting Falls (aka Compression Falls). This hike was the second of ten hikes that I did during a seven-day trip to the mountains of northwest North Carolina.
If you're looking for the perfect combination of beauty and ease of access to a waterfall in North Carolina, Elk River Falls has to be at the top of your list. A well-used relaxing trail leads along the banks of the mighty Elk River to the base of Elk River Falls, a tight sheer 50-foot drop into a huge plunge pool that is known for its swimming opportunities. Most folks who hike to Elk River Falls don't know that another excellent waterfall can be reached fairly easily from the same trailhead. 100-foot Jones Falls is on a small tributary of the Elk River and during the wetter months is a sight no less impressive than Elk River Falls. A signed spur trail from the Appalachian Trail facilitates access to this gorgeous spot. Hikers will be able to see both waterfalls with a hike of fewer than four miles. This hike occurred on Wednesday, July 5th, 2017. My plan was to hike out and back to Elk River Falls and then to follow a forest road and unofficial connector path to the Appalachian Trail, which I would use to reach Jones Falls. I would return the same way. This hike was the first of ten hikes that I did during a seven-day trip to the mountains of northwest North Carolina.
Citico Creek Wilderness: Forest Road 217H and Bob Bald Connector Trail to Bob Bald, Tellico Plains, Tennessee
The Unicoi Mountains straddle the Tennessee/North Carolina border in the Cherohala Skyway area. Bob Bald is one of the higher mountains in the range. At an elevation of 5294 feet, Bob Bald provides extensive views of the Citico Creek Wilderness and Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness. There are several different ways to reach Bob Bald, but the easiest one is from Beech Gap on the Cherohala Skyway. You will first follow an abandoned forest road along the State Line Ridge, before taking off onto a singletrack trail that leads straight to Bob Bald. This hike occurred on Saturday, February 27, 2016. My plan was to hike closed Forest Road 217H from Beech Gap to the Bob Bald Connector Trail. From there, I would take the Bob Bald Connector Trail to the summit of Bob Bald. After visiting Bob Bald, I would return the same way.
The Citico Creek Wilderness is one of the wildest areas in southeast Tennessee. A network of trails provides foot access into the pristine watershed. Falls Branch Falls, located at the head of a remote valley on a tributary of South Fork Citico Creek, is the tallest waterfall in the Citico Creek Wilderness. From the Cherohala Skyway, take a short trail into the Falls Branch Scenic Area and through an old-growth forest to Falls Branch and the 80-foot falls. This hike occurred on Saturday, February 27, 2016. My plan was to hike the Falls Branch Falls Trail out and back from the Cherohala Skyway to Falls Branch Falls. After this short hike, I would drive to nearby Beech Gap on the Cherohala Skyway and complete a longer hike, detailed in a separate trail report.
The Warriors Passage Trail is one of two National Recreational Trails in Cherokee National Forest. This seldom-traveled pathway traverses a couple of low-elevation stream valleys before climbing up to Waucheesi Mountain, a small bald summit with views across the Tellico Ranger District. This hike occurred on Saturday, November 14th, 2015. My plan was to hike the entire Warriors Passage Trail out and back from Lyons Creek Trailhead to Waucheesi Mountain.
Two large rivers are the highlights of southern Cherokee National Forest's Ocoee/Hiwassee Ranger District: the Ocoee River and the Hiwassee River. Both rivers run through gorgeous canyons and are full of whitewater rapids. The John Muir Trail (and partially in conjunction with the Benton Mackaye Trail) runs along the northern shores of the Hiwassee River for a distance of nearly 20 miles, presenting opportunities to see the river's rapids and rock formations up close. This hike occurred on October 24th, 2015. My plan was to hike the John Muir Trail/Benton Mackaye Trail from the Big Bend Recreation Area to the Coker Creek footbridge at Duckett Ridge Trailhead. I would return almost the same way, although on the return trip, I would attempt to follow the old route of the John Muir Trail past Apalachia Powerhouse.
Deep in the mountains of northwestern North Carolina and northeastern Tennessee lie the Highlands of Roan. This widely-known name represents one of the most beautiful spots in the Southeast, and perhaps the entire Appalachian Mountains. This series of mountain balds lies on the route of the Appalachian Trail, and quite a scenic of a hike it is. Whether you're coming here for the spring wildflowers, the autumn foliage show, or after a winter snowstorm, you're not likely to be disappointed (except it may be a little too cold in winter). Although only the most seasoned hiker will be able to do this physically difficult and tiring trek in a single day, there are several variations that can split this hike into several, and then, there's always the backpacking option. This hike occurred on Saturday, June 13th, 2015. My plan was to hike the Appalachian Trail from Carvers Gap over Round Bald, Jane Bald, and Little Hump Mountain, finishing at Big Hump Mountain. I would return the same way. I would also take the spur trails to Grassy Ridge Bald and Overmountain Shelter.
Citico Creek Wilderness: North Fork Trail to Headwaters of North Fork Citico Creek, Tellico Plains, Tennessee
Located to the north of the Cherohala Skyway in southeastern Tennessee, the Citico Creek watershed offers rugged, wilderness hiking opportunities for true hiking enthusiasts. On this hike, you'll have a chance to see three waterfalls in the beautiful setting of the headwaters of North Fork Citico Creek. In addition, you have an option of continuing past the waterfalls and attempting to return down Brushy Mountain Trail - maybe your luck will be better than mine. This hike occurred on Saturday, March 21st, 2015. My plan was to hike the South Fork Trail to the place where North Fork Trail starts, and then to follow the North Fork Trail to Cold Springs Gap Trail or perhaps to Cherry Log Gap. I would either take the Benton Mackaye Trail or Cold Springs Gap Trail to Brushy Mountain Trail. Then, I would start down the Brushy Mountain Trail and hopefully make it down back to South Fork Trail without any major problems. My plan didn't materialize, and I ended up backtracking from about 1 mile down the Brushy Mountain Trail.
The Tellico River watershed is home to some of the most pristine and beautiful streams in Tennessee. Two wilderness areas, Bald River Gorge Wlderness and Citico Creek Wilderness, protect some of its major tributaries, and many hiking trails pass through the region. One of the more notable trails is the Benton Mackaye Trail, a nearly 300-mile trail that start in northern Georgia and ends in the Smoky Mountains. The section of the Benton Mackaye Trail described here is long and hard, but the view at the end is stunning. However, if you go, don't be like me and end up hiking nearly 30 miles instead of no more than 17 from one mistake. This hike occurred on January 31st, 2015. My plan was to hike the Benton Mackaye Trail from Tellico Trout Hatchery at the Tellico River to Whiggs Meadow. Much of this hike would also be along Sycamore Creek Trail. From Whiggs Meadow, I opted for a shorter return route, along Whiggs Ridge Trail... except I didn't find the trail. I will explain more on this later.
The Jacks River is the second largest waterway in the combined Cohutta-Big Frog Wilderness. While maybe not the largest, it is probably the most turbulent, with a large gorge and a waterfall along its course. Jacks River Falls is the highest and most powerful waterfall in the combined wilderness. Most routes require at least one deep ford of Jacks River to reach the falls. However, Beech Bottoms Trail is a good winter alternative, being the only relatively "dry" route to the falls. The only crossings will be over Beech Bottoms Creek, which may still be problematic in high water levels. This hike occurred on January 3rd, 2015. My plan was to hike the Beech Bottoms Trail southward to Jacks River Trail. Then, I would take the Jacks River Trail west to Jacks River Falls. I would return the same way.
Little Frog Wilderness: Rock Creek Trail, Dry Pond Lead Trail, and Tanasi Trail System, Ducktown, Tennessee
Big Frog Mountain is the highest mountain in southeastern Tennessee, topping out at over 4000 feet. The mountain and surrounding areas are protected by the combined Cohutta - Big Frog Wilderness. The newest addition to the area, though, is the Little Frog Wilderness, a smaller tract of land across from Big Frog Wilderness and US Highway 64. This tract protects the Panther Knob area, the better portion of Dry Pond Lead, and Rock Creek/Pressley Cove. Two trails, the Dry Pond Lead Trail and the Rock Creek Trail, provide access to the wilderness area, and you won't regret hiking them. This hike occurred on November 15th, 2014. My plan was to hike through most of the Little Frog Wilderness by starting at the Rock Creek Trailhead and hiking the entire Rock Creek Trail to the junction with the Dry Pond Lead Trail/Benton Mackaye Trail. Here, I would turn south onto the Dry Pond Lead Trail and follow it to US-64 and Ocoee Powerhouse No. 3. Then, I would enter the Tanasi Trail System, and take the Thunder Rock Express Trail to the Chestnut Mountain Trail. Next, I would follow the Chestnut Mountain Trail east, before exiting onto the Bear Paw Paw Trail that would lead down to Ocoee Whitewater Center. I would close the loop by hitchhiking 0.8 miles of US-64 to Rock Creek Trailhead (something I wouldn't recommend you to do!).
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Year 1: 540.0 Miles
Year 2: 552.3 Miles
Year 3: 518.4 Miles
Year 4: 482.4 Miles
Year 5: 81.7 Miles