Written By: Nancy A. Dalton, Tennessee Overhill Heritage Association
With every walk with Nature, one receives far more than he seeks.” -John Muir.
Visitors are drawn to the Southeast corner of Tennessee from all over the country to explore the beautiful natural landscapes of the Tennessee Overhill region, a three-county area that includes the southern half of the Cherokee National Forest (CNF). One of the major draws to the Overhill is the natural beauty of the mountains and rivers located throughout the area. There are hiking trails, four rivers, two blueways, numerous lakes and over 60 waterfalls. Hiking is one of the most popular sport activites.
It’s easy to pinpoint why hiking is such a popular pastime here and across the United States. There is the easy accessibility–there are so many trails and countless marked and unmarked offshoots to explore and capture your fascination. Getting started is as easy as putting one foot in front of the other. Our challenging treks will keep even the most expert hikers on their toes, and there are so many family–and dog–friendly trails. I believe the popularity is just the excitement of witnessing and experiencing the beauty and diversity of nature and feeling the land beneath your feet.
Whatever it is that drives you to lace up your boots and head out on the trail, our Tennessee trail system will not disappoint. There are over 400 miles of hiking trails in the Overhill alone to satisfy your imagination. So let’s take a hike!
With so many awe-inspiring trails in this area, where do we start? There are two National Recreation Trails in the Cherokee National Forest(CNF) – the John Muir Trail and the Warrior’s Trail. The newest distance trail is the Benton MacKaye Trail.
John Muir Trail - The John Muir National Recreation Trail is a 20.7-mile trail in eastern Tennessee along the north side of Hiwassee River in the Cherokee National Forest. It is named for naturalist John Muir. It was constructed in 1972 through the efforts of the Youth Conservation Corps and the Senior Community Service Employment Program. It is said to follow the path taken during Muir’s travels from Kentucky to Florida in his book A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf. In it, he wrote...“My path all to-day led me along the leafy banks of the Hiwassee, a most impressive mountain river. Its channel is very rough, as it crosses the edges of upturned rock strata, some of them standing at right angles, or glancing off obliquely to right and left. Thus a multitude of short, resounding cataracts are produced, and the river is restrained from the headlong speed due to its volume and the inclination of its bed.”
Warrior’s Trail - Warrior’s Passage Trail is an 8.5-mile moderately trafficked out and back trail located near Tellico Plains that offers the chance to see wildlife, and it is rated as moderate. The trail offers a number of activity options and is best used from March until October. I think this is a good trail for a peaceful walk; the trail is not worn down, and the turns are well marked.
Benton MacKaye Trail (BMT) –
The Tennessee position of the BMT runs though the Big Frog Wilderness to the Ocoee River and Hwy 64, for a distance of 92.8 miles. The complete trail begins on Springer Mountain, GA, and ends at Big Creek Campground at the northeast end of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. BMT was completed by volunteers between 1980 and 2005. It is largely a wilderness trail with few amenities or facilities. Although many sections of the BMT provide comfortable and scenic day hikes, their remoteness often makes access difficult to find, but its beauty is well worth it.
I highly recommend the following adventure hikes, each one with an amazing magical surprise at the end, a “Waterfall.”
Polk County -
Benton Falls Trail – From U.S. Hwy 64, follow the Ocoee Scenic Byway up FS (Forest Service) Road 77 approximately 7.5 miles to Chilhowee Recreation Area (McCamy Lake). The trailhead is located at McCamy Lake parking lot. It’s a 3-mile round trip, rated easy to moderate. The Fall is 65 feet high, making it a hikers’ favorite.
Rock Creek Gorge Trail – From the Ocoee Ranger Station, turn left onto U.S. Hwy 64 and travel 2.3 miles to TN Hwy 30. Turn left and go about 50 feet. The Trailhead will be on the left with roadside parking on the right. 3.4 miles round trip, moderate to difficult. It takes you into the Rock Creek Gorge Scenic area, known for its beautiful waterfalls.
Coker Creek Falls Trail – From TN 68 in Coker Creek, turn right onto Ironsburg Road (C.R. 628) and continue 0.25 mile. Turn left onto Duckett Ridge Road for 3.5 miles. Turn left onto FS (Forest Service) Road 2138 for 0.9 miles to the Trailhead parking lot. 3 miles round trip, rated easy to moderate.
Lowery Falls Trail – From U.S. Hwy 411/TN Hwy 30 junction near Reliance, travel east 2.2 miles on Hwy 30. Park at Taylor’s Island parking lot on the left side of the road. Walk on Hwy 30 about 0.15 mile. Sign for the Trailhead (Trail 168) is located on the right. This area provides the hiker views of the waterfalls, rock bluffs and rhododendron thickets. Short hike, 0.4 miles round trip, moderate to difficult.
Gee Creek Falls – From U.S. Hwy 411 in Delano, turn onto Gee Creek Road (mountain side of highway). Cross over railroad tracks and bear right. Travel 2 miles; the paved road becomes a dirt road ending at FS Trail 191 Trailhead in parking area. Round trip 2.0 miles, hike rated easy. Spring flowers dot the path.
Monroe County -
Conasauga Creek Fall Trail – From Tellico Plains, travel south on TN Hwy 68 2.9 miles. Turn right onto FS Road 341 and go about 2.3 miles and turn right onto FS Road 341A for 0.5 mile to the Trailhead of CNF Trail 170. Trail 170 is 1-mile round trip, moderate difficulty. The waterfall is 35 feet. What a glorious view awaits!
Fall Branch Fall Trail – Approximately 1.5 miles from the Cherohala Skyway on CNF Trail 87. Travel onto TN Hwy 165 E (Cherohala Skyway) 20.9 miles. Park at the Rattlesnake Rock West pull-off, on your left. Take Trailhead FS Trail 87. 2.6 miles round trip, moderate to difficult. This trail starts on an old road bed, then it cuts right, down a very steep hill. Not difficult to get down, but tough to get back up. But it is so worth the magnificent 70-footfalls. This is many hikers’ favorite.
Holder Cove Trail –
From Tellico Plains, take Cherohala Skyway (TN Hwy 165) about 5.5 miles. Turn right onto FS Road 210 (Tellico River Road) and go about 13 miles, arriving at Holder Cove Campground. Trailhead to falls is at the west end of the campground on the right-hand side of the road across from the camp restrooms. This is an easy trail and only 0.25 miles, but it is not normally marked. You must look for the worn trail between the trees.
Torino Falls Trail –
From Tellico Plains, take Cherohala Skyway (TN Hwy 165) approximately 5.5 miles. Turn right onto FS Road 210 (Tellico River Road) and go 9.8 miles. Turn right onto FS Road 126 (Bald River Road) and go approximately 6.4 miles to the south Trailhead of FS Trail 88. Cross the bridge over Little Cove branch, and the parking area is on the right. FS Trail 88 Trailhead is on the right side of the road before the bridge. The waterfall is about 2.2 miles up Trail 88, and it is an easy hike.
Trail Safety: Most of these trails have no cell service. Ensure you have enough time to get to your destination and then your return trip before dark. Let someone know where you are going and when you will return. Situational Awareness of your current and future weather is essential. Wear appropriate footwear. Do not wade streams to get to a waterfall. Be prepared. Bring water, food, appropriate clothing, bug repellent, flashlight, etc. Do not disregard “No Trespassing” signs.
All the waterfall hikes listed above are in the Cherokee National Forest.
Check out a few of our area Hiking Clubs. They have many organized hikes that you could join. They also have volunteer groups for trail maintenance and upkeep. Cherokee Hiking Club, Benton, TN: http://www.cherokeehikingclub.org/ Sequoyah Hiking Club, Madisonville, TN: http://wwwsequoyahhikingclub.org/
There are so many more hiking trails in the Tennessee Overhill and throughout East Tennessee, and I have only mentioned a few. For more information, contact the Tennessee Overhill office 423-263-7232 or visit our office at the L&N Depot Station in Etowah, TN. Ask for our newly updated Waterfall brochure and Visitor’s Guide.