Into the Woods: Rock Creek Gorge

We’ve had a fine stretch of weather in the Tennessee Valley of late. Between soaking rains from the remnants of hurricanes Harvey and Irma, it was much cooler than normal for late summer. Like all good Southerners, whenever the calendar says, “hot,” and the thermometer says, “not,” I’m overcome with a weight of guilt for every moment spent indoors.

With that in mind, I took the opportunity to get out for a hike on Labor Day. Wanting to spend more time in the woods than in the car, I opted for a section of the Cumberland Trail in the northern part of our county. I’ve done short stretches of the CT before (Edwards’ Point, North Chick, Laurel-Snow), but never really explored it much. I’d heard good things about the Leggett Road access of the Rock Creek Gorge segment, so headed to check it out. It was easy enough to find (though parking is very limited), and only about a 40 minute drive from home.

The still-under-construction CT is known for being a rigorous hiking challenge, steep and rocky, with minimal funding from government agencies (and correspondingly minimal maintenance done by volunteers). You don’t go to the CT expecting wide, manicured pathways. What I found at Leggett, however, left some maintenance to be desired. I had intended to do a 5.6 mile out-and-back to the Rock Creek bridge, but scaled back to the Rock Creek Loop (with a 0.6 mile round-trip spur to Rock Creek overlook) for reasons described below.

First, the good. As advertised, this section of the trail leads through lush, undisturbed woods. There has not been much logging (at least recently) here; large trees abound and there is an impressive diversity of understory plants. I saw several late summer standards in bloom (Appalachian bellflower, white wood aster, several species of goldenrod and sunflower, hearts-a-bustin-with-love, blazing star, flowering spurge, great lobelia, etc.). There were a few species I’ve never seen in this part of the country (northern maidenhair fern and stinging nettles), plenty of fungi, and a couple of plants I still can’t ID.

I didn’t see many animals, but the array of birdsongs echoing through the valley and the frequency of, ahem, “scat” on tIMG_20170904_112658466he trail, seems to indicate that animal life is equally well-represented here. The loop trail (3.4 miles total) is a good stretch of the legs without being overly strenuous, and signage and blazes are quite clear throughout. It was also very quiet. It’s rare, living in a mid-sized metro area, for any of our regional trails to be empty on weekend or holiday, but I passed nary a soul on the whole route.

IMG_20170904_100801954Now to the less-than-good. It did not take long before the trail narrowed to the point of being overgrown. A bridge over a wet-weather stream branch had collapsed (though the website warned of this in advance). Several of the rock steps descending and ascending the pitched sides of the gorge were a bit less stable than expected, leading to some near-falls.

In some of my other hiking posts, I often include a caveat ambuletor (faux-Latin for “the hiker beware) warning of the undesirable effects of out-of-season jaunts in certain places. This would be a case in point. Much of the overgrowth of the trail that I unavoidably brushed against was poison ivy. Likewise, the rocks and crevices would be ideal habitat for copperheads and timber rattlers. I saw none on this trip, but kept a sharp eye and a slower-than-normal pace to be on the lookout.

The crowning shame, though, were the spiders. Hundreds of spiders. Spiders of every shape and size. I lost count very quickly, but I must’ve walked through nearly 300 spider webs. With eyes down at the rocks ahead for snakes, I put my face and chest into several webs (and their owners) before wising up and walking the rest of the trail waving a stick in front of me. Because of the the overgrowth on the trail and aforementioned lack of hiking traffic, I kicked my way through the rest at ankle-height, stopping every few dozen yards to brush a no-doubt-equally-frustrated arachnid from my shins. I even managed to disturb a four-inch (!!!) dark fishing spider while reaching for a replacement web-whacking stick down be the creek. Thanks to the incessant nature of these encounters (each requiring clean-up and deep breaths to reign in the blood-pressure spike), I barely averaged one mile per hour. I’m convinced that fully 40% of biomass in the Cumberland Plateau eco-region is spiders. IMG_20170904_114607303

I’ve never truly regretted any hike, but this one came close. I’m including for comparison multiple trips through driving rain, deep snow, encounters with snakes, bears, and angry wild ponies, near lightning strikes, injuries, darkness, and dehydration. I don’t think my heart could’ve taken any more startling. I am to our eight-legged “friends” as Indiana Jones is to snakes.

This is a worthwhile place, I’m sure, but I’ll save any future trips here for winter or early spring. Maybe this segment is designed by the Cumberland Trail Conference to lure in unsuspecting adventurers as a full-immersion recruiting effort for maintenance volunteers? We may never know….

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2 thoughts on “Into the Woods: Rock Creek Gorge

  1. What a great idea to blog your hikes! Such interesting and useful information for a fellow hiker. I’ve thought about doing something similar, but I never remember to take pictures, so it may be a bit more boring :/
    And FYI, should you ever be up here in late August-September, you may want to avoid the hiking in dense woods (I call it spider season).

  2. It is a good habit to keep me writing – Ethan even made it into one last summer. I don’t always take a nice camera, but usually at least drag my phone along for the ride. May all the spiders rest in peace in their own season. I will leave them to it.

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