The Southern Cumberland Plateau is an incredibly scenic area. There's dozens of scenic gorges, full of waterfalls and rugged cliffs. North Chickamauga Creek Gorge is one of my ultimate favorites in this area after doing this hike. The rugged mountain streams in this gorge have beautiful waters, the gorge floor is incredibly beautiful, and the views of the upper section of the gorge are.... simply amazing. This hike occurred on Saturday, November 22nd, 2014. My plan was to start this hike from the gate at the end of the open Barker Camp Road, and follow Barker Camp Road on foot to the old turnaround. From there, I would follow an old jeep road to the Cumberland Trail, and take the Cumberland Trail south into North Chickamauga Creek Gorge. Before plunging into the gorge, I would stop at Panther Creek Overlook. Once in the gorge, I would ford Cooper Creek and reach the destination at Stevenson Branch Falls. My original destination was Boston Branch Overlook, but by seeing how much time it took to reach Stevenson Branch Falls, and seeing the deteriorating nature of the trail after Stevenson Branch Falls, I had to cut my plans by some.
R/T Length of Hike: 10 Miles
Duration of Hike: 5:20
Type of Hike: Out and Back
Difficulty Hike: 7 out of 10
Pros: Amazing views and beautiful scenery; very nice campsite; all climbing assisted with switchbacks and steps
Cons: Very rough and poorly-marked trail after Stevenson Branch Falls; lots of climbing on the way back
Scenic Views: Panther Creek Overlook - 10 stars
Water Features: Stevenson Branch Falls - 6 stars
Trail Blaze Color(s): Cumberland Trail - White; Panther Creek Overlook Spur - Yellow
Best Season(s) to Hike: Winter; Spring
Beginning Point: The turnaround at the gate at the end of Barker Camp Road
Directions: From Soddy-Daisy, TN: Take Montlake Road north from Dayton Pike for 4.9 miles to Poe Road on the left. Follow Poe Road for 6.3 miles, and then take a left onto Grant Road. Once on Grant Road, take the first left in 0.3 miles onto Barker Camp Road. In 1.8 miles, turn left to keep following Barker Camp Road. Drive for roughly 2 miles until you reach the turnaround at the gate. I parked right before (on the side of the road) the open yellow gate, just in case so I wouldn't get locked in for one reason or another, although when I came back a couple hours after dark, the gate is open, so I assume it is safe to park in the turnaround. Do not drive beyond the second, closed gate. Most cars can drive around it through a deep puddle of water (and I did see someone's car in the old turnaround farther down the road after the gate). I don't think it's a good idea to do that.
*Please zoom out on the above trail map to see the icons in the correct places. The default zoom puts them in slightly different places. Sorry for the inconvenience.*
This is a gem of a hike for the area. In fact, it is one of my favorites for the southern Cumberland Plateau, Especially if you continue past Stevenson Branch Falls to Boston Branch Overlook, then it can't get much better out there. Due to very rugged terrain, I was only able to get to just past Stevenson Branch Falls. I absolutely plan on making a return.
While you can start this hike from the lower trailhead on Montlake Road and work your way up to Panther Branch Overlook, I decided the best option would be to start at the more remote north end trailhead on Barker Camp Road. Much of the area beyond the last house on Barker Camp Road is closed to vehicles (although some still make it through). I am not sure what is the reason... there's none that are obvious. From the gate and turnaround, walk on foot along Barker Camp Road. First it passes through a pine forest, but after 0.3 miles, you exit into the wide open. For some reason, the huge field here, although overgrown, had barely any trees growing. Also, at 0.3 miles, keep right on the main branch of Barker Camp Road. The left branch eventually dead-ends near Redbird Point near Cooper Creek. Barker Camp Road stays flat as it traverses the field with some distant views into North Chickamauga Creek Gorge. At 0.6 miles, the road starts to descend. At 0.7 miles, another small road heads left. It dead-ends shortly. Keep right here as the descent steepens. While it may not seem so at the moment, this ascent does take a toll, when you are on your way back here, with over 9 miles on the legs already. At 0.9 miles, the steep descent suddenly ends in a large turnaround (and obviously an old parking). An old van was standing here. I did see car tracks around the gate back at the parking area - I guess locals just drive down the road to end up here? Somehow the van was still, when I returned, well past dark. Hmm...?
Anyway, at the old turnaround I just mentioned at 0.9 miles, turn right on the old jeep road. It is the only evident route from the turnaround, so I think it's easy to figure it out. The jeep road stays mainly flat, although it starts to descend towards the end on its way to the official Cumberland Trail beginning. You reach the Cumberland Trail at a small sign that simply says "CT"at 1.1 miles. Turn left here - the old jeep road just keeps descending towards Cain Creek. Once you turn left on the Cumberland Trail, the trail will follow an overgrown road and clearcut, although it leaves it soon and follows a more natural footpath starting 1.3 miles. The trail stays at the rim of the gorge until 1.5 miles, where a long and multi-tier descent into the gorge starts. Numerous rock steps ease this descent. The descent eases at 1.7 miles, shortly crossing several small creeks that are tributaries of North Chickamauga Creek. There are some views available on the cliffs here, but it can be dangerous to try to get closer to them, and the best views are ahead anyway. The trail stays just below the rim for now, and reaches the short spur trail to Panther Branch Overlook at 2.5 miles. The spur trail is yellow-blazed and marked with a simple sign "Overlook ---->". The view from the outcrop here is brilliant. The upstream view of the upper Chickamauga Creek Gorge is absolutely stunning. The downstream view is impressive as well - you can identify all the near-range cascades in the stream, especially after periods of rain.
Retrace your steps back to the Cumberland Trail and then make a short descent into the Panther Branch valley. This is an easy crossing in all but the wettest of times, although the rocks can be slippery during/after rain. After this, the trail gently acends to meet an old road at 3 miles. Looking at the map, it seems like turning left on the road would bring you to the west branch of Barker Camp Road. However, the Cumberland Trail keeps right here onto the roadbed. The trail leaves the roadbed by turning right at 3.3 miles. This turn is marked with tape and blazes, but it's still possible to miss it, so make sure you don't. The trail descends gently from here until you reach a sudden change in terrain at 3.6 miles. The main descent into the Cooper Creek Gorge and North Chickamauga Creek Gorge starts here. There are many switchbacks on the way down, which are very helpful! Along the way down, there are many big rock outcroppings worthy of interest. At 4 miles, the main descent finally ends, and there are some good views of cascades and small waterfalls on Cooper Creek, which are pretty healthy after periods of rain. The Cumberland Trail continues along Cooper Creek here, reaching the Cooper Creek ford at 4.2 miles. If you bushwhack just downstream, you reach the Cooper Creek of North Chickamauga Creek confluence, which offers astounding views both doth directions in the gorge. Back to the ford, I would like to note that fording Cooper Creek during periods of high water may be difficult, due to a fast current, lots of uneven, slippery rocks below water, and knee-deep water in some places. During normal water levels, though, this ford is not deep and can possibly be accomplished without getting wet.
On the other side of Cooper Creek, it gets confusing. The tail is very faint here, so just climb up the hill and go down through the trees and over a log, and somewhere around here, you should spot some blazes. Just beyond, there is a very nice campsite, Stevenson Branch campsite, at the base of a large sandstone cliff. Even though this campsite is near several large creeks (I don't like the wet, moist campsites), I think that this campsite is unusually dry, because of it's proximity to the cliff, so I liked it. A little down from the campsite, you reach the crossings of Stevenson Branch's several trickles. If you walk a bit upstream, you'll see the pool below the unusually-shaped Stevenson Branch Falls. It is not a large waterfall, but pretty, as it comes out behind a cliff, so it makes a turn while falling. As you may have noticed while reading the first part of this post, my original plan was to continue to Boston Branch Overlook, nearly 2 miles farther. I quickly figured out this was impossible, as soon as I started on the next section. Right after the crossing of Stevenson Branch, the trail becomes very rocky and follows the direct bank of North Chickamauga Creek. House-sized boulders line the beautiful mountain stream. The gorge is a sight not to be missed. After this, the trail climbs up a bit, and climbs a ladder without handrails onto a small ledge and a wet-weather trickle. I stopped around here, as the trail was confusing, rugged, and extremely slow. From here, the best option is to retrace your steps back to the trailhead. Whenever I come back here, I'll try to make it to Boston Branch Overlook, and I will make an updated post about it.
In summary, this is an amazing hike to acquaint you with the beauties of the southern Cumberland Plateau. It doesn't get much better than this. I rate this hike a "Best Hike". Below are my pictures.
Mark Oleg Ozboyd
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