Like Oscar Wilde, I’ve always been wary of enterprises that require new clothes. That’s probably why I never had any real hobbies as a young man. I felt kind of bad about thiseverybody I knew had some kind of hobbybut my only diversions were Jack Daniel’s, cigars and detective fiction. So, on the cusp of middle age, I began looking for an outdoor pastime that didn’t require augmenting my wardrobe. I didn’t get far, though. Everything seemed to require new stuffgolf and tennis were the worstand even hunting and fishing had a dress code.
So I remained hobbyless until my first year in law school, when a prospective employer asked me to go on a “day hike” in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Needing the job, I went along, but with a sense of foreboding. My years in the Army (spent mostly as an infantryman) had left me with a low regard for walking anywhereespecially up hills.
I found, however, that, if one is unencumbered by rifle, rucksack and helmet and not overseeing 150 bitching privates, a walk in the woods ain’t a bad way to spend the day. I also liked opening a beerinstead of a C rationat trail’s end, and I was delighted to learn that day hikers don’t sleep on the ground. In fact, it’s a very fastidious exercise. Some day hikers cover as much as 25 miles, but “day” is the operative word. When the sun sets, you’re done. Unlike their burdened-down, freeze-dried-food-eating, sleeping-on-the-ground cousins, day hikers repair to their cars at day’s end, and our version of roughing it is a hotel without a mini-bar. Best of all, day hikers don’t need any new clothes. If you want to style around, you can buy a fancy backpack and boots, but I went on that first hike with a book bag, my army boots and an old canteen, and I still hike that way.
Anyway, that was a seminal outing, and I burned with the zeal of the convert. By the time law school was over, I had climbed most of the peaks in the White Mountains and I returned to Tennessee anxious to keep up my perambulations in the Smoky Mountains. I soon encountered problemsspecifically, that the Smokies are far from Nashville. Worse, you can’t get to some of the peaks without going through Gatlinburg, and that’s almost as bad as sleeping on the ground. Thus, I began looking for places closer to home. I’ve found several, all within two-and-a-half hours of Nashville. Two are to the east on the Cumberland Plateau. The other is in West Tennessee on a neglected Civil War battlefield. None requires any great conditioning, although veteran hikers can construct a strenuous outing at any of the sites. I hope to see some of y’all there this fall and winter. I’ll be the one with the old book bag.
Savage Gulf Nature Area
Less than 100 miles east of Nashville lies the western fringe of the Appalachian Mountains: the Cumberland Plateau. The Plateau is a broad escarpment running from Georgia to Kentucky that serves as the boundary of Middle and East Tenn. The average Nashvillian encounters it only when he goes to Knoxville or Chattanooga, making the long interstate ascents at Cookeville and Monteagle. To the day hiker, however, the Plateau is a warren of trails.
My favorite is Savage Gulf, a 16,000-acre park near Altamont, Tenn. Essentially a vast, thousand-foot deep canyon, Savage Gulf has nearly 60 miles of trails running along the canyon edge and in the Gulf itself. The first-time visitor should begin his hike at the South Cumberland State Park Ranger Station on Highway 64 between Monteagle and Tracy City. The staff is knowledgeable and can guide the pilgrim to any of the three entrances to the park and recommend trails. Moreover, they have great maps. For epic scenery, I recommend the North Rim Trail, but other, less strenuous routes also offer some astounding views.
To get there, take I-24 to exit 134, head toward Monteagle and follow 64 toward Tracy City. The headquarters is on the left. From there, take the staff’s directions to one of three trailheads.
Prentice Cooper State Forest
Although Prentice Cooper State Forest ain’t the end of the earth, you can see it from there. I’ve been hiking Prentice Cooper for years, and I’ve never seen another human being. Prentice Cooper has no amenitiesno ranger station, no Coke machines, no nothingexcept a graveled parking lot. What is does have is 35 miles of some of the best trails in the eastern United States. Prentice Cooper is a bit like Savage Gulf in that most of its trails overlook a deep canyonin this case, the Tennessee River gorge, formed as the river cut its way through the Cumberland Plateau west of Chattanooga. The sheer walls of the gorge plunge 1000 feet to the river and afford the hiker simply majestic views.
There’s good news and bad news here. The good news is that, “in season,” the views of the gorge are almost uninterrupted; you can walk for hours without losing sight of the river and the canyon. The bad news is that the “season” is when the trees are bare. The editor of the Scene and I walked for hours one fall day without seeing more than an occasional glimpse of water. I like fall foliage and male bonding as much as the next guy, but that was a long afternoon.
Still, winter is the natural season for Prentice Cooper. You don’t have to be an artist to appreciate its austere beauty, especially the play of light on the canyon walls as the sun descends. Additional bad news is that maps are hard to come by. I use the one available at www.cumberlandtrail.org. It’s not great, but it will prevent you from becoming an overnight hiker.
As befits a place of solitude, Prentice Cooper is hard to find. Travel south on I-24 past the Monteagle and Jasper exits. Take the Highway 28 exit and proceed North to Whitwell. Turn right onto Highway 283/27 and follow it up the Plateau and take a right at the Prentice Cooper sign. (Caution: It’s a small sign.) Follow that road (Tower Road) to the parking lot. Cross the road and pick up the trail. I advise heading south (to the right), but great views abound in either direction.
Nathan Bedford Forrest State Park
Finally, to the west, are the trails of Nathan Bedford Forrest State Park near Camden, Tenn. The park is named for the Wizard of the Saddle and is the site of one of his greatest victorieswhen he destroyed a Federal supply depot in New Johnsonville, and, in the process, defeated a naval force with his cavalry, a feat unique in the annals of warfare. You don’t have to be interested in history to enjoy the trails here, however. The park encompasses the highest elevation in West Tennessee, and many of the trails parallel the Tennessee River. Though not as spectacularly scenic as the Plateau venues, Forrest Park offers some splendid vistas. A word of cautionthe trails here can be quite challenging.
Directions: I-40 west to exit 126. Continue north on Highway 641 for 15 miles into Camden. Turn right onto Highway 70 and follow the signs to the park.
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