Saturday, October 25, 2014

TN State Parks Running Tour: Halloween Hunt, 5-Miler

Today my daughters and I participated in our first state parks run of the season in Hermitage. Warm and sunny with practically no wind, we couldn't have asked for a better day to be running the paved trail around Couchville Lake in Long Hunter State Park. The Halloween Hunt is well-known among tour participants for its charcoal-grilled hot dogs and the costume contest immediately following the race. I'm not much on dressing up, but my daughters pounced on the opportunity to run in disguise.

A boring dad, Robin, and Katniss prior to the race
This was our second consecutive year running the race, and, once again, it was masterfully organized. After receiving our race bibs, I took off to walk and jog around the lake in the direction opposite of what we would be running. I saw a doe with two of her fawns not 20 feet off the trail. One of the fawns was wanting to nurse, but momma was having none of that. That fawn is going to learn just how rough of a world it is out there. Then again, if you're a deer in a state park, how bad can it be?
The course followed the same path as last year, so we knew exactly what to expect. Though it's considered an easy course, for me nothing about running is easy. I had a pretty good first mile, but I slowed some thereafter. A couple of people passed me in the last mile. By that point, I was pretty much just treading water and incapable of doing anything to prevent it. So I waved goodbye and kept running to the best of my abilities.
Somewhere around the 2.75 mile mark
In training over the last nine weeks, I knew I was running faster than last year and had made it my goal to run the course in forty minutes or less. As the race progressed, I realized my expectations may have been too high. When the finish line came into view, I could see the race clock had passed forty minutes and was closing in on forty-one. I took off in an all-out sprint. Maybe I couldn't beat forty, but I could beat forty-one, by golly. As I crossed the line, the timer was so close I wasn't sure I'd done it, but the results confirmed my time of 40:59, more than three minutes faster than last year's time.
My 8:12 per mile pace is twelve seconds higher than where I would like it, so I'll just have to keep working at it, I guess. Of course in the grand scheme of things, it's not about the clock; it's simply about being active and enjoying a long, healthy life. Events such as these offer a great platform in helping to achieve this desirous goal, while meeting others who share similar aspirations for their lives. My gang had a lot of fun at this year's Halloween Hunt, and we're looking forward to when we link up again with our tour running comrades in November.        
Participants enjoy the free food & drinks post-race
A beautiful day for a run at Couchville Lake


Monday, October 20, 2014

Backpacking Report: South Rim Trail, Savage Gulf Natural Area

Originally scheduled for earlier in the week, our second backpacking trip of the year was pushed out to the weekend due to an extended period of rainy weather. I had been wanting to backpack the south rim at Savage Gulf for a couple of years now, as the 4.3 miles between Savage Falls and Stagecoach Road Campground was the only section of trail I had yet to hike at Savage Gulf. But then came the rain, and I began to think about all of the waterfalls in the Stone Door side of the park. We talked it over the day before leaving and called an audible, deciding instead to hike through Big Creek Gulf to the Alum Gap Campsite. In all, we would see five waterfalls.

My daughter and I arrived at the Stone Door Ranger Station at noon on Saturday but were too late. All of the interior campsites within range of the Stone Door trailhead were already full. Alum Gap, Saw Mill, and Hobbs Cabin, all were closed. Seems like a lot of people had the same idea we had. "What about Stagecoach?" I asked. As far as the Ranger knew, it was still open. So we walked back to our vehicle, and, after approximately forty minutes of drive time, we found ourselves on the opposite side of the park at the Savage Gulf Ranger Station. Fortunately, there were plenty of campsites available at Stagecoach. So Plan B, which had been Plan A up until about twenty-four hours earlier, was now in effect. As I was filling out the permit, I heard the Ranger say that Dinky Line Campground was now closed, the only other campground in the park requiring a somewhat significant hike to reach.

Somewhere in the neighborhood of 1:30 p.m., we were finally on the trail. Yes, another late start. This seems to be our standard operating procedure here lately. We moved quickly through the first 1.2 miles of the Savage Day Loop to join the South Rim Trail. A half-mile later we were standing above Savage Falls, which was flowing at a pretty good rate, thanks to all the rain we had in the first half of October. From here, we made the short climb to the rim where we would cover another 4.3 miles until reaching our campsite. The South Rim Trail has a number of spur trails leading to overlooks of the Savage Creek Gulf. Many of these had limited views due to foliage blocking the line of sight, but some were clear and offered magnificent views into the gulf.

View from Step Down Overlook
View from another overlook
The clouds started moving in and the wind picked up on the second half of our six-mile hike to camp. When we saw a couple of guys filtering water without backpacks, we knew we were very close to camp. Of the ten sites at the campground, only about half were occupied. When I noticed the site I camped in a couple of years back was not only available but was also away from most of the other campers, I jumped on it. It's a cozy site with room for little more than a tent and a small stone fire ring. Trees offer seclusion, but they're small enough so that the sky is open above. When the clouds cleared out shortly after supper, I could look up and see the stars. That's what makes all the effort which goes into backpacking worthwhile.
I was in no hurry to break camp
We loaded our packs and hit the trail around 9:30 a.m. Headed back the same way we came in, we decided we would hike the remainder of the Savage Day Loop before exiting the trail. Moving apace, we were enjoying a snack at Savage Falls by 11:00 a.m. A backpacking couple we caught up to on the trail was nice enough to let us pass, and that helped us with our time. It's a wonderful thing when people play nice on the trail. Trail etiquette isn't necessarily a given.
Savage Creek, just upstream from Savage Falls
Water rushing in Savage Creek

We crossed Savage Creek and turned left on the Savage Day Loop Trail to hike it clockwise. Up on the left a little way is a spur trail offering a clear view of Savage Falls. A half-mile later the trail passes through Rattlesnake Point Overlook, which provides a good look into Savage Gulf. The rest of the loop trail makes for an easy, wooded hike back to the ranger station. Upon exiting the trail, we dumped our packs in the truck and enjoyed tuna salad and crackers at a nearby picnic table. This was an enjoyable outing. Our total mileage for Day 2 was 8.8. Combined with the 6 miles from the previous day, our 2-day total was 14.8 miles. We were tired but not exhausted - a perfect way to introduce my 14 year-old daughter to the joys of backpacking in Savage Gulf.
Savage Falls, as seen from the Savage Day Loop Trail
Rattlesnake Point, three years after taking the picture which
serves as the backdrop to the blog title at the top of this page




Day Hiking Old Stone Fort State Archaeological Park

For whatever reason, Old Stone Fort never appeared on my radar. But my daughter's upcoming high school cross country meet in Bell Buckle had me scanning the map for outdoor activities close to the Bell Buckle community, and Old Stone Fort caught my eye. Rain had been falling on and off for days leading up to the event, but race day itself was gorgeous - a perfect day for both hiking and running. While my oldest daughter caught an early bus for an afternoon team outing prior to the run, the rest of us laced up our hiking shoes to test the trails at Old Stone Fort.

We pulled into the parking lot at the park's museum to pick up a map. The Ranger gave us a brief description of the park's trail system and we were off. Having only about 2.5 hours before we needed to leave for the meet at Bell Buckle, we hoped we could cover most of the trails. The trailhead for the Enclosure Wall Trail is at the museum, and so we immediately entered the enclosure, or fort, as settlers would typically call them. This particular piece of land was a ceremonial enclosure used by Native Americans at least through the fifth century, according to the park brochure. Interpretive panels found at various points along the trail provide more information on the history of the site.

Hiking clockwise toward the Little Duck River, we very quickly came across Step Falls. This came as a surprise to me, as I didn't even know there were waterfalls here. Turns out there are three sets of falls in the park: Step Falls, Big Falls, and Bluehole Falls. Chalk this one up to ignorance, I guess. And the icing on the cake was our timing. Several days of rain meant the falls were flowing freely. Chalk this one up to dumb luck. Hey, I'd rather be lucky than good!

Step Falls
At the southern edge of the enclosure we joined the Little Duck River Loop Trail. This path led us along the bank of the river before turning back through the forest to rejoin the main trail.
Trail along the Little Duck River
Path leads hikers through a vegetation tunnel
The trails were pretty easy to traverse; I can think of only one climb of any significance and it really wasn't that difficult. There are, however, steep bluffs above which the trail leads right to the edge on multiple occasions so be careful. To see the waterfalls up close you must do some rockhopping - watch your step! The remainder of the trail is standard-issue Tennessee hiking: roots and rocks. Don't rush it. Be safe so you can come back to hike it again.
Standard-issue Tennessee hiking trail
Now back on the Enclosure Wall Trail adjacent to Duck River, we soon came upon Big Falls. Had we had more time, this would have been a great place to stop for a while to eat, drink, and be merry. But we had a cross country meet to attend, so we took our pictures and turned back to the trail.

Big Falls
We had one more set of falls to see before exiting the trail. My wife, in a hurry to get to Bell Buckle, stayed above, but my youngest daughter and I walked below the enclosure wall to have a look.
Bluehole Falls
The trail led us back to the museum, perched just above the dam, and the parking lot where our vehicle waited. I figure we only hiked three miles or so, but it was some of finest hiking I've done in Middle Tennessee. This park is a true gem, a perfect setting for both nature lovers and history buffs. We toured these trails in a little more than 2.5 hours but found ourselves wishing we had more time to study the interpretive panels and more fully absorb the natural setting and the significance of what was once here so many centuries ago. If you're in the area, don't miss out on the Old Stone Fort experience.
Dam behind the museum



Sunday, October 5, 2014

Day Hiking in Cedars of Lebanon State Park

The KTF Blog rolled into Wilson County on Saturday to check out the trails at Cedars of Lebanon. After a quick lunch at the picnicking area, we crossed the road to find the Hidden Springs trailhead, which the park bills as an easy, 5-mile loop trail. Actually a 4.4-mile trail, according to a reputable source in the hiking community, the Hidden Springs trail does offer a connection to the 0.5-mile Limestone Sink Trail (also a loop trail) which, when combined, creates a 4.9-mile hike.

Along the Limestone Sink Trail
The Limestone Sink Trail, like all of the trails at Cedars of Lebanon, is very easy to navigate. In fact, all of us were in walking shoes, and we had no problems whatsoever. We did have one slip, but that can happen when traversing any natural surface trail. The terrain is basically flat, but that doesn't detract from the scenery. We spotted many sinks and rock outcroppings as we moved through the forest. Unfortunately, Hidden Springs itself was dry, which was no surprise due to the dry weather we've been experiencing lately.
Dry now, but creek water will again flow into Hidden Springs
Eastern Red Cedar forest

The Cedar Forest Trail was next. This is advertised as a 2-mile trail, but the aforementioned local hiking authority found it to be 1.75 miles in length. Similar in terrain to the longer Hidden Springs Trail, this trail passes through natural rock gardens, which are known as cedar glades. Never far from the hum of the road, this is nevertheless quite an enjoyably peaceful trail.
Trail cutting through a rock garden
Although the trails were, in my opinion, very easy, after 6.65 of hiking one of the junior members of our team was just about done for the day. Because we'd hiked what we'd set out to hike, we decided to point the KTF Blogmobile toward the exit. But first we needed to find a restroom. We not only found the restrooms but, as an additional bonus, yet another trail to explore! Our junior member was not impressed with this discovery, particularly after she saw this warning posted at the trailhead:
Cave may be closed, but trail is open
After we agreed the trail was open, we proceeded to have a peek at Jackson Cave from a safe distance. The cave is a very short walk from the sign, which is located behind the nature center. Having had our looksee at the closed cave, we turned around and toured the nature center's butterfly garden. Of course it's no longer butterfly season, so we didn't actually see any butterflies. Our timing for this park was totally off: insufficient precipitation for the many sinks and Hidden Springs, White-Nose Syndrome at the cave, and no butterflies at the butterfly garden. But this did not diminish our experience at Cedars of Lebanon. Only our first visit to the park, we were impressed with its beauty and hope to come back again, maybe for a short camping trip. And while we didn't witness any butterflies at the garden, we were fortunate enough to spy this pelican:

Jackson Cave
Until next time . . . happy trails!


Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Backpacking Report: Cumberland Trail (Signal Point to North Suck Creek Bridge and Campsite)

My 14 year-old daughter and I traveled this past weekend to Signal Mountain to hike the southern terminus of the Cumberland Trail. Nearly a year had passed since we last backpacked, and we were ripe with anticipation. The drive was enjoyable enough, and as Interstate 24 eastbound dips into Georgia and back into Tennessee, before entering Chattanooga, my daughter pointed out a pyramid-shaped welcome center. I told her I was pretty sure the ancient Egyptians had built those many years ago.

We found there to be no parking spaces available at the trailhead upon our arrival. Fortunately, a space opened up while we were making our first pass through the lot, and so we didn't have to resort to Plan B, which I didn't have anyway. I checked all the signage in the park to verify overnight parking was allowed here. Though I saw nothing confirming this, I neither saw anything indicating otherwise and, based on a blog post I read covering this section of the trail, assumed there was no problem with overnight parking. Only later did I read on the Cumberland Trail Conference website, "there is no overnight parking at Signal Point; cars must be out by dark or they will be towed." Blissfully ignorant, we took in the views at the Signal Point overlook before starting down the trail on our 7-mile hike to the campground.
View from Signal Point Park
Southern Terminus
The first attraction listed on the menu board was Julia Falls, but we never heard or saw this feature. Turns out, this is a wet-weather falls, and because it has been unusually dry this September there was no waterfall. There is another, smaller waterfall along the trail at Middle Creek. An unofficial trail has been cut here leading to what I believe is known as Rainbow Falls, but it is a very steep and treacherous decent from the main trail above. A rope offers some assistance, and we decided to give it a try, as we could hear people below apparently having the time of their lives. But after my daughter's feet slipped out from underneath her about four steps into the descent, I decided we would just stay on the real trail and try our best to get to camp in one piece.
There is a considerable amount of rocky terrain to navigate before reaching Edwards Point, and this was keeping our pace slower than what I had estimated. Already late getting on the trail, thanks to a missed turn in construction-riddled Chattanooga, we now found ourselves standing in the middle of the woods looking for a trail marker. Maybe there was one right up ahead. Or maybe there wasn't. Eventually we had to turn around and retrace our steps until we found where we veered off course and try it again. I figured we were about an hour behind schedule.
Tennessee River Gorge
We passed Lockhart Arch and some rather large rock shelves before pulling into Edwards Point. Only 4.1 miles to go. This would ordinarily be a great spot to stop for a snack, but not today, not for us. We were late, and so the packs didn't even come off our backs. Instead, we steamed ahead. Thankfully, the trail became easier - now we encountered rocks mainly just at the bottom of the creek beds we crossed - though some fairly steep climbs and descents remained along the way. There were a few more overlooks to take in, as well as a couple of bridge crossings.
The view from Edwards Point
There are many rock shelves and outcroppings to see here
One of three bridge crossings
I knew my daughter was tired because she was no longer complaining about being tired. I was ready to find camp, too. Not so much because of fatigue, but because daylight was soon to become scarce. We passed a small, rocky overlook where someone had made camp recently, and I made a mental note of it in case we had to suspend our hike because of darkness. When we came upon Mushroom Rock, also known as Umbrella Rock, I knew we had it made, as the camp was now only 0.4 miles away, via a series of switchbacks, at the bottom of the gorge.
Mushroom Rock
We spotted four campsites at the North Suck Creek campground and no other campers. We took the site in which there were 2x4 sticks of lumber arranged in such a way to use as a table. The 2x4s were evidently there for the bridge repair which was either complete or in process, I couldn't tell for sure. Either way, a table in this environment is a cherished luxury, the likes of which I may never come across again. And so the race was on to complete everything which needed to be done before nightfall. All I can say is, thank goodness for flashlights.
My daughter hit the sack early, as I expected. I remained by the fire in my camp chair and listened to the frogs and the sound of the creek until I was ready for bed. We ate our breakfast and checked out the bridge and the creek before strapping on our packs to make the return trip to Signal Point.
Bridge across North Suck Creek at Campsite
North Suck Creek Bridge
North Suck Creek
Our path was the same as the day before. Only my feet, ankles, legs, and knees weren't the same as the day before. We took our packs off to take a break and have a snack on this second day. We passed some trail runners and numerous day hikers. We heard the frolicking voices again at Rainbow Falls but remained focused on the task at hand. Once past all the rockhopping, it's a short distance to the series of staircases which lead up to Signal Point Park.
We came off the trail and walked straight up to my vehicle, which was right where I had parked it one day earlier. Of course at the time I wouldn't have expected anything else. I'm just glad I didn't read the Cumberland Trail Conference warning about cars being towed before we took this excursion. But for the record, there is a Plan B available - an overnight lot is located a short distance away. This was a fantastic hike with many sights to behold. The trail took us about four hours each way, and I would consider it to be somewhat difficult due to the terrain and the sometimes steep ascents and descents. I am certain our next backpacking trip will be a little easier than this one.
Happy Trails!






Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Day Hike: Nathan Bedford Forrest State Park

For the final day of summer, I traveled to the west side of the Kentucky Lake impoundment of the Tennessee River and the trails of Nathan Bedford Forrest State Park. At 9:30 a.m. I pulled into an empty parking lot by the park museum and observation deck. First one here! Heck, I even beat the park's employees who, according to the clock hanging on the door, were supposed to have been there at 8 a.m. Like Clark Griswold, I parked far enough away so that when it was time to leave, I would be the first one out.

Today I would be hiking solo. Unencumbered, I could smoke through the trails by stopping only when I wanted, which would not be very often. There were two loops I was contemplating: the 5.1-mile and the 10-mile. They shared the same path for the first two or three miles, so I wouldn't make my final determination until after getting started. I was able to decide pretty quickly once I realized I was heading down a completely different trail. For me, the "Aha" moment was when the trail abruptly terminated at an access road near the shore of Kentucky Lake. So much for smoking through the trails. Instead, I was forced to retrace my steps straight back up the hill to where I began thirty minutes ago. I felt like Burt Reynolds in Deliverance: "We'll find it. We'll find it." Back at the top of the hill, only the highest point in West Tennessee, I found the loop trailhead tucked away behind the museum.

It's all downhill from here
Access for the loop trails located behind the museum
Heading downhill again, I found the trail to be in pretty good condition. I was glad to have my hiking stick. Not so much for assistance with the terrain, but more for use as a machete against the continual onslaught of spider webs. Make no mistake about it: this time of year, the spiders own the trail. Seriously, I was doing the Tomahawk Chop with my hiking stick for the majority of the day.
Due to my false start, I getting hungry early on the trail. The overnight shelter is the best place to stop for lunch, and I knew it was at the top of a very steep climb. Now, I usually don't get very excited about steep inclines, but, knowing I would be rewarded with not just one but two peanut butter sandwiches at the top of this one, I beamed with anticipation as the trail turned skyward.
Overnight shelter makes for perfect lunch spot
I finished off the last of my water with lunch, so any lingering notions of hiking the ten-mile loop were now officially eliminated. Much of the return trail was along a service road. Along this road was a single log cabin, which is presumably available to rent. Perched above Kentucky Lake, the cabin has an inviting rear porch, complete with rocking chairs and a nice view of . . . the TVA power plant across the river in New Johnsonville.
Rear porch provides an old-timey feel and a clear view of . . .
. . . a TVA power plant
I startled a few deer before emerging from the woods near the still-empty parking lot. Good planning on my part - I would be the first one out! Back at the museum, I took some pictures of the obelisk erected in memory of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest and his successful 1864 attack on the Union supply depot positioned on the opposite bank of the river, which is now Kentucky Lake.