Sunday, November 23, 2014

Bigfoot Scramble and Day Hike: A Standing Stone Twofer

We were at Standing Stone State Park yesterday for our second stop on the Tennessee Running Tour. The Bigfoot Scramble 5-miler is a fun event, one which I had been looking forward to since crossing the finish line near the Overton Lodge last year. The weather for this year's race being more agreeable than last year, I was glad to have a short-sleeve shirt to change into before getting started. We were off to the races a couple of minutes past 11:00 a.m., and I quickly found myself running from side-to-side to find an opening I could penetrate. As I broke through lines, I tried to remain conscious of the energy I was expending to advance my position. I didn't want to give back any of these early gains later in the race, a tactical error which I have been guilty of on several previous occasions.

By the second half of the first mile, I was running in the open and trying to find my pace. The next mile would be a gradual ascent, and I fully anticipated being passed by some of those behind me who thrived on hills. Maybe it was just because I was already so far back in the pack, but nobody passed me on this hill; in fact, nobody passed me for the remainder of the run, which may be unprecedented. Coming back down the hill from the turnaround at 1.5 miles, I sought out each of my daughters to offer up some encouragement. I still felt good, and I was running hard (by my standards) as I passed the halfway point.

Before I made it to the end of the third mile, the leader came barreling down the road in the opposite direction, roughly a half-mile from the finish line. He would finish, incredibly, with a time of 26:55. I remained strong, now heading uphill again, to the second and final turnaround. My breathing was under control as I ran pain-free to begin the fifth and final mile. I must have been focused on the task at hand because, though I waved to my oldest daughter as she was pushing uphill to the turnaround, I never even saw my youngest. Nearing the finish line, I was met with some disappointment as the clock came into view. Though I beat my time from last year by 2:11, I was thinking I had run faster than I did. With a chip time of 41:18, I was far down the list, the 9th finisher out of 12 in the men's 40-44 year-old bracket.

Coming in for the finish
Whenever my daughters crossed the line, we could eat. There was no telling how far back my youngest was, so I backtracked to see if I could hurry her along. When I came upon her, she had nearly a mile to go. I was proud of her as she ran all the way back, though the pace was agonizingly glacial. Once we were finally back at the lodge, we helped ourselves to the complimentary post-race spaghetti. Our bellies full, we were now prepared to make the transformation from runners to hikers.
Refueling after the run
The Lake Trail is 4.7 miles long and encircles Kelly Lake. Because the trail passes right by the lodge, we decided to just pick up the trail here, rather than driving to the trailhead parking. We hiked clockwise a short distance on Beach Road, the same road which we had just ran, before the trail veered left into the woods.
Kelly Lake, as seen from Beach Road
Switchbacks quickly led us up into the hills high above the lake. With many of the leaves off the trees, we could see down into the hollows and over onto adjacent hills. The lake remained in sight for much of our hike, as well (duh, it is called Lake Trail). Saturday was the first day of rifle season here in Tennessee, and the hills were alive with the sound of gunfire. There were so many rounds going off at one point, I was afraid the Viet Cong were shooting back. The firing soon subsided, and, after dropping down to share with Beach Road a second time, the trail turned north in the direction of the Fisk House on Standing Stone Park Highway.
Leafless trees provide hikers with a good lay of the land
Wikipedia states that Moses Fisk was an early idealistic pioneer in the area who built the house in front of which we were now standing in the early 1800s. The house, which is badly deteriorating, proved to be a useful rendezvous point for us later in the day when my wife was forced to turn back after knee pain prevented her from descending a steep slope to the dam. While my older daughter headed back with her mom, the younger one and I stayed the course, as we were now about halfway through the loop.
Fisk House
Steep grade to the dam below
Below the Kelly Lake Dam
After checking out the dam, we continued on to pick up the trail on the other side. The only problem was that I picked up the wrong trail. Thinking more about how my wife would make it back to the Fisk House before we could make it back to our vehicle parked at the group lodge, I failed to check my map and inadvertently stepped onto the Tea Room Spur Trail. As we approached the top of the hill and observed the rental cabins, I sensed I had made a mistake. Now with map properly in hand, I pinpointed our location, and we strolled down East Cabin Drive to access the Cabin Spur Trail. This trail gently descended the slope to reunite us with the Lake Trail. A sign at the bottom informed us we were 2.5 miles from the Overton Lodge.
View from the Cabin Spur Trail
On the Lake Trail
We crossed a bridge along the Lake Trail and came to a junction with the Cooper Mountain Trail. This is an 8-mile loop trail, beginning and ending in the park, which I had totally forgotten existed. I filed this away in my memory to hike another day. At this moment, we were on a mission to retrieve the other two members of our party before sundown. Now on the east side of the lake, the trail became quite easy, and we made good time. There is one section along the trail here worth noting where the drop is precipitous, so take extra care. We enjoyed the sunshine and the pretty views of the lake as we winded along the water's edge before closing the loop at the group lodge. The race event now long over, ours was the only vehicle remaining at the site.
Looking south from the east side of Kelly Lake
Kelly Lake
I drove us back to the Fisk House, where the other half of our party waited. Passing this way on the trail earlier, I had noticed an overlook high above but saw no path leading to it. The map showed access to the overlook was by car only. With the access road just up from the Fisk House, we pulled in shortly before sunset to have a final look at the park. Our day of running and hiking complete, I told the girls we were like the drivers who sometimes compete in both NASCAR and IndyCar races in the same day. I believe at that point they, too, felt like those drivers must at the end of the day.    
View from overlook





Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Radnor Lake State Natural Area

This was a hiking homecoming of sorts for me. I cut my teeth on the trails at Radnor Lake years ago, and these remained the only trails I knew for quite a while. Today, after years of separation, I came back. And, much like the father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, Radnor Lake welcomed me back with open arms.

View from the Lake Trail
I set foot on the Spillway Trail at 9:30 a.m., prepared to hike just over 6.5 miles on a beautifully brisk morning. The weather report said it would be a bit breezy with afternoon highs staying under the freezing mark. Given the forecast - downright cold for Tennessee - and the fact that it was Tuesday, today would be the perfect time to visit Radnor, as this is an incredibly popular park. Radnor Lake is all about hiking; little else happens here. So if the parking lot is busy, you know the trails will be, too. With only five or six other cars in the parking lot, I was confident today would be a good day.
Ganier Ridge Trail
I saw my first rafter of turkeys near the junction of the Ganier Ridge Trail and the Access Trail. And, no, I did not know a group of turkeys was called a "rafter," until I sat down to write this. The turkeys were not much bothered by my presence, as long as I didn't get too close. With little more than a week until Thanksgiving, perhaps they should be slightly more suspicious of approaching humans.

The temperature was down in the mid-20s, and the wind was indeed kicking up at times, but I was still working up a sweat climbing the hills. I had passed only one person on the trail, but footprints in the dusting of snow on the terraced steps of the South Cove Trail revealed the presence of others. At Radnor, you may never truly be alone, but visitors are generally well-mannered and respectful, allowing for a decent sense of solitude even in the middle of a large metropolitan area.
Dusting of snow on the South Cove Trail
I observed another rafter of turkeys on the South Cove Trail, before joining with the South Lake Trail to begin my hike back. With most of the leaves off the trees, the lake on my left remained within view all along the South Lake Trail; the hike through here was simply beautiful.
View from the South Lake Trail
Across Otter Creek Road, I paused before rejoining the Lake Trail for a two-peanut butter sandwich lunch. No picnicking is allowed in the park, but I figured eating was acceptable. Though I had been warm enough as I traversed the trails, my fingers were now feeling cold as I worked through my second sandwich. With only about 1.5 miles remaining to hike, I quickly finished up, slipped my fingers back in my gloves, and started moving forward again.
Only a few minutes later, I saw my third and largest rafter of turkeys for the day. I paused here to observe their behavior for a good five or ten minutes. I was so close that I felt as if I was standing in front of a turkey exhibit. I finally left the turkeys behind and promptly walked right beside a herd of deer! Again, I felt as if I was viewing these creatures in a zoo-like setting. After spending another five or ten minutes at this exhibit, I was ready to press on. The trail was growing short.
Wildlife on display at Radnor Lake
Radnor Lake is a genuine hiking paradise in the middle of the busy city. The park is clean and well-maintained, peaceful (no boats are allowed), and conveniently located. Back at the parking lot, I wondered why I had stayed away from this place for so long. Believe me, not as much time will pass between visits again. This prodigal son has learned his lesson.
Radnor Lake, as seen from the dam


Monday, November 17, 2014

Hiking Edgar Evins State Park

Though I've had my eye on this park for over a year now, it was only this past Saturday when I finally executed my plan and explored approximately ten miles of hiking trails at Edgar Evins. The Millennium and Merritt Ridge Trails combine to create an eight-mile loop, and this is what we were prepared to hike. But knowing there were no facilities at the trailhead, our first stop would have to be the visitor's center. Having researched nothing about the park other than its eight-mile trail, I was pleasantly surprised to find both an observation tower and a two-mile loop trail here. The two-mile trail would have to wait for now, but a quick stride up the stairs of the tower to the observation deck overhead provided a nice warm-up, as well as an unobstructed view of Center Hill Dam.

Observation Tower at Visitor's Center
View from Observation Deck
From the visitor's center, we made the short drive to the Millennium and Merritt Ridge trailhead. We signed in at the kiosk and were on the trail by 9:50 a.m. The trail leads downhill to brush by Wolf Creek before it forks, creating the first of two loops. We stayed left at all trail junctions, though we could have just as easily stayed right. I chose to go left, as that would mean our return trip on the Millennium Trail would be shorter by a half-mile. The round-trip total is the same in either direction, of course, but I felt we would appreciate the short-cut on the way out more than on the hike in.
Wolf Creek
At 1.5 miles, we came to the junction with the Merritt Ridge Trail. On some maps, this section of the Merritt Ridge is listed as the Connector Trail. This trail stretches across the valley floor for just a short while before climbing the steep hillside all the way to the ridgeline via a series of switchbacks.
Down in the hollow, before the switchbacks
Switchbacks lead up to the ridge
Though our pace slowed somewhat while navigating the switchbacks, by approximately the two-mile mark we were at the top and making good time again cruising the ridgeline. A half-mile or so later, Center Hill Reservoir came into sight. The reservoir can be seen for much of the way along the Merritt Ridge Loop, though keep in mind we were hiking in mid-November, after many of the leaves had already fallen to the ground.
First glimpse of Center Hill Reservoir from the ridge
The trail itself is fairly narrow, which I like. The downside is that narrow trails can quickly become overgrown in warmer months, and this is how I imagine the Merritt Ridge Trail is in the summer, as trail maintenance appears to be lacking. Large trees blocking the trail in several places over an extended period of time have forced hikers to create diversions around the obstacles. I also observed many trees with trail blazes on the ground, compounding the problem of what are sometimes rather lengthy gaps between trail markers. In some locations the scarcity of blazes, combined with an abundance of leaves covering the trail, made the accurate determination of exactly where the trail was heading a real challenge. I would frequently turn my head, looking for blazes behind me marking the trail in the opposite direction, in order to verify I was still on the trail. But please don't let this discourage you from hiking this exceptional trail, as I mention this all for informational purposes only. The hike is an enjoyable one; it just demands hikers take extra care in spotting the white blazes.
Back on the ridge, we hiked to a flat rock shelf offering a glimpse down into the valley where the trail would take us next. A rock wall obviously built by human hands was to our right. A pamphlet we picked up at the visitor's center describes this feature as "a mysterious wall of massive stacked stones," and indicates that park historians are "not sure who put these stones there or what their significance was." We paused here to eat our cereal bars and bat around some outlandish theories behind the origin of the stone wall. I decided it was time to move on at the first mention of the possibility of alien spacecraft having been involved.
Mysterious stone wall
Adhering to our pre-hike plan, we veered left at the Merritt Ridge loop junction and stayed within close proximity of the reservoir for better than a mile. With Saturday's high reaching only into the 40s, boating activity on Center Hill Lake was at a minimum. This further improved the trail ambiance, and is another reason I recommend visiting this park in cooler weather.
Center Hill Reservoir was serene on this cool day
Wildlife is in abundance at Edgar Evins, and I was lucky enough to observe an owl flying overhead. Shortly thereafter we hiked up a short, steep slope to pass through a small patch of yucca on the plateau. Stopping for lunch on some rocks near where we thought the trail was beginning its loop back, we noticed some people beneath us bank fishing but had yet to actually see anyone on the trail.
We'd see more stone walls and remnants of old homesteads on our return trip. There were more steep ascents and descents to come. Though this was hard on my wife and her bad knee, she reports it wasn't quite as difficult as the eight-mile trail at Mousetail Landing. We greeted our first hiker on the backside of the Merrit Ridge loop and would see only three other people and one dog before making it back to our car five hours after setting out on our journey. If you are injury-free, the Millennium and Merritt Ridge trails can be hiked in a much shorter period of time.
One of several stone walls observed near the trail
Having accomplished what we'd set out to do, my wife was done. Because we needed to stop at the visitor's center on the way out anyway, we agreed I would tour the two-mile Highland Rim Nature Trail we'd spotted on the way in, while my wife rested in the car. This trail took me deep down into a hollow and near the reservoir's edge in the direction of the dam. Because the trail never leaves the woods, the best view of the dam is from the observation tower at the visitor's center. Pulling away from the water, the trail utilizes numerous switchbacks as it steadily climbs the hill back to the visitor's center. I completed this loop in a mere 35 minutes and congratulated my wife for making the wise decision to sit out this short but somewhat vigorous trail. We had a good time on the trails at Edgar Evins and regret having waited so long to explore this public space on the Eastern Highland Rim. God willing, we shall return.
On the Highland Rim Nature Trail

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Backpacking Report: Big Creek Gulf Trail

Our third backpacking trip of the fall had us back in Savage Gulf. We had planned to do a leisurely overnighter at Long Hunter State Park, but the Cub Scouts beat us to the punch. On the weekends, because the park office is closed, there is no way to know if the campsites are full unless you have the park ranger's cell phone number, which of course I didn't. We decided to chance it and drive out to Long Hunter. When we pulled up to the park office and saw Cub Scouts running all over the place, I knew we were in trouble. I called the ranger's number listed on the information kiosk outside the office, and he informed me that both campsites were taken. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why I don't gamble. Scouts 1, KTF Blog 0.

We had a decision to make fast. Already mid-morning and more than an hour away from another overnight trail, my wife was calling the Stone Door Ranger Station from home while we sped down Hobson Pike towards I-24. The word came back that they had two sites open at Alum Gap and four at the Sawmill camp. That was good enough for me. Savage Gulf, here we come!

Pulling into the Stone Door overnight parking area, I noticed there were two trucks with trailers attached. The lady at the ranger station had told my wife they, too, had a scout group at Alum Gap, but that they seemed well-managed. We filled out our permit at the station, ate our lunch out of the back of the truck, and hit the Laurel Trail for a quick 2.9-mile hike to camp.

We strolled into the camp shortly after 2:30 p.m. only to discover all the sites were occupied. Because you are not required to post your permit at your site, there is no way of knowing which campers are unauthorized and simply squatting. Another group of backpackers who had pulled into camp minutes behind us were also searching for a site. We eventually got together and decided we would just walk over to the other side of the campground and share the large group camp. Sometime after 4:00 p.m. the ranger came around for his evening visit. After checking on all the campers, he told us the Boy Scouts were responsible for the mishap. They were supposed to occupy the group camp, and he had told them this much when they registered. Instead, they took up three sites in the main campground. So much for being a well-managed group. Scouts 2, KTF Blog 0.

Ten of us shared the group camp Saturday night. My daughter and I ate our noodles while the others had soup to go along with their dehydrated entrees. Most of us retired to our sleeping bags around 9:00 p.m. You can probably guess who didn't: the Boy Scouts from across the way. They were hootin' and hollerin' like it was New Year's Eve. At some point they quieted down, and I slept on and off as best as I could on the hard ground.

My daughter and I were up early and headed for Greeter Trail before breakfast. We would hike 9.0 miles on this day: 5.7 with our packs and 3.3 without. The three miles up and down Greeter Trail was the perfect start to a great day at Savage Gulf. The recent rains had the waterfalls flowing fairly impressively, a nice contrast to some of the trickles I witnessed the last time I passed through here.

Boardtree Falls
Lower Greeter Falls
Upper Greeter Falls
Back at camp, we were relieved to see the scouts heading back via the Big Creek Rim Trail. The group sharing the site with us headed out a few minutes before we did along this same rim trail. We followed the Big Creek Gulf Trail and its steep descent into the gulf. The creek was moving swiftly and so were we, as we had yet to run into anybody else on the trail. We were near the creek when it appeared as if there was some kind of a trail leading to it. There were no markings, but we walked down to the creek anyway. When we noticed the creek terminated abruptly, we realized we were standing at the sinks of Big Creek, the point where the water begins to flow underground. Adjacent to the sinks, was a wet-weather waterfall. The unmarked trail, the sinks, and the waterfall are all mentioned in the book I have on hiking in the South Cumberland, but I hadn't consulted it before our hike, as I thought we'd be hiking at Long Hunter. A stroke of good fortune, for sure. Our day was only getting better!
The sinks of Big Creek
Wet-weather fall adjacent to the sinks
We hadn't gone much further down the main trail when we came to the junction with the 0.4-mile spur to Ranger Falls. My daughter was getting hungry so we decided the falls would be a good spot to enjoy a snack. She ate her chicken salad with crackers, and I took the opportunity to strip off a layer of clothing and bask in the sunshine. The most vigorous section of the trail was quickly approaching.
Ranger Falls
The climb out of the gulf up to the Stone Door is not for the faint of heart. I've done this several times with a backpack, and it just does not get any easier. When you see the wooden staircase leading to the Stone Door, you know you're nearly home free. Climb the rock stairs leading up through the Stone Door, and it's a 1-mile cakewalk back to the parking lot. But don't be in too much of a hurry to get back; be sure to check out the magnificent views of the gulf from one or more of the overlooks.
About halfway up the Stone Door
View from one of the overlooks at Stone Door

We off-loaded our packs at the vehicle, grabbed our lunch, and claimed the nearest picnic table in the sun. Only one more hike to go: the 0.3-mile Laurel Falls Loop. Beginning and ending at the Ranger Station, this proved to be a nice cool-down trail with a splendid view of Laurel Falls.
By the end of our trip, we were glad to have been shut out of Long Hunter. And those problems at camp the night before? They were but a distant memory. That's the magic of Savage Gulf; there's simply nothing else like it in Tennessee.
Laurel Falls


Monday, November 10, 2014

Day Hiking the Fiery Gizzard Trail to Raven Point Overlook

Anyone familiar with hiking in Tennessee has heard about the Fiery Gizzard Trail. Beginning with speculation over how the trail obtained its name, including the popular claim describing how Davy Crockett burned his tongue eating a hot gizzard in the gorge, to the recognition it receives today as one of Backpacker magazine's top 25 hiking trails in the U.S., the Fiery Gizzard stands apart among hiking aficionados in the Southeast.

Beginning in the Grundy Forest State Natural Area, I would walk the Grundy Forest Day Loop clockwise to the Fiery Gizzard, hiking this challenging trail to Raven Point Overlook where I'd stop for lunch. The Dog Hole Trail would be my path back to the Fiery Gizzard, from which I'd retrace my steps to the day loop. Continuing clockwise along this loop trail, I would return to the parking area having hiked a total of 10.2 miles.

Blue Hole Falls
From the moment you step foot on the trail, the scenery is nothing short of spectacular. From giant boulders and amazing rock formations to the beauty and sound of the Big and Little Fiery Gizzard Creeks, this tour through the gorge is a ruggedly unique experience that lives up to its legendary reputation.
Black Canyon

The hike through the gorge is treacherous at times. There are several rock fields you must cross and many of these rocks will wobble when you step on them. I can't imagine carrying a backpack down through here, though I know people do this. Even without the burden of a backpack, I soon grew weary of traversing the rocky landscape.
One of the many rocky sections of the trail
The rocks notwithstanding, I was moving quickly. The park locks it gates at sundown, and I wanted to make sure I was finished before then. This didn't keep me from stopping quite frequently for pictures, however. In the days before digital photography, I would have needed an additional roll of film for this hike. At 1.2 miles, I was standing in front of Chimney Rock and out came my camera yet again.
Chimney Rock
A tenth of a mile later, I arrived at a short spur trail leading to Sycamore Falls. I reached for my camera, beginning to wonder if the zipper on my camera case would make it through the day.
Sycamore Falls
Back on the main trail, the junction with the Dog Hole Trail is passed on the left. If you're looking for an easier path to Raven Point, this is the trail to take. I continued straight on the Fiery Gizzard and a half-mile later entered the "Fruit Bowl." These are giant boulders piled along the bottom of the gorge.
The Fruit Bowl
The trail reconnects with the creek and 1.7 miles later begins its very steep ascent out of the gorge. This is another section of trail upon which I can't see myself carrying a backpack. I believe I would have been on all fours climbing out of here if I had been shouldering an overnight pack. Somewhere about halfway up the face of the gorge, before the steepest part of the climb, I stopped for a box of raisins and admired the beauty which enveloped me. The sun was out, the trees were clinging to some fall color, and with nobody else around, the majestic wonder of my surroundings was truly tranquilizing.
Wet-weather falls just off the trail in the gorge
Now out of the gorge and on top of the Cumberland Plateau, it was 0.4 miles to Raven Point Overlook. With the sun shining brightly, this was the perfect place for lunch, as it was now 11:00 o'clock. I had been on the trail for three hours and, with the hardest part of the hike behind me, could finally relax in the comfort of knowing the Dog Hole Trail would lead me gently back to the tamer section of the Fiery Gizzard. My sandwich at the overlook attracted the attention of two buzzards. One of them skirted by at eye-level maybe 30 feet off the overlook before thankfully losing interest.
Lunch time at Raven Point
The Dog Hole Trail was piece of cake, and before long I was at the spur trail leading to Werner Point Overlook, 1.3 trail miles northwest of Raven Point.
View from Werner Point Overlook
A spur trail to Yellow Pine Falls is encountered 0.7 miles later and from there it's another 1.2 miles before rejoining the Fiery Gizzard Trail down in the gorge. Hike along this relatively easy section of the trail for 0.8 miles and reach the junction with the day loop trail. I finished out the remaining 1.3 miles of the day loop and emerged from the woods just after 1:30 p.m. for a total trail time of just over 5.5 hours. Another great hike in Tennessee's South Cumberland!
The ruggedness of the gorge is a sight to behold, but take care