North Chickamauga Creek State Natural Area is a wild patch of public land surrounding a deep gorge that dives down and across the boundary between Sequatchie and Hamilton counties.
It features a rugged hike over about a 10-mile section of the Cumberland Trail, so named becuse it runs along the eastern escarpment of the Cumberland Plateau. The trail–a public park being developed by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation–currently spans more than 200 miles of its planned 300-mile length.
On the first Saturday in July, I was looking for a bit of a challenge in preparation for a big challenge upcoming in a hike I’ve planned to do on the second Saturday in July. The 10-mile North Chickamauga Creek Gorge hike promised a challenge. It delivered, and then some.
The Hamilton County end of the trail segment is in Soddy-Daisy, just about 15 minutes from my house. The other end is in Dunlap, in the central time zone and four-wheel drive zone.
Another reason I chose the location was that I had heard about “blue holes,” or natural swimming pools along that part of Chickamauga Creek. I was curious to see them, and the whole area would be new territory.
It was hot the day I went. I don’t just mean summer hot, I mean 90-degree heat and humidity that seemed just as high. I broke a sweat putting on my hiking boots in the trailhead parking lot. I had completely filled the three-liter water reservoir in my backpack, brought along bottled drinks for afterward in a cooler, and I had plenty of food, trail bars and Clif shots. The great majority of people I saw at the trailhead were there to find the blue holes. I think I was the only person heading onto the trail in something other than flip flops and swimming attire.
Bill was there to drop me off, venture up the trail a ways himself, and then pick me up at the other end in Dunlap.
Within the first half-mile of the trail, I saw a couple of concrete picnic tables and multiple paths worn down to the water at big rocks already decorated with beach towels and lawn chairs.
The trail is rated “difficult.” That may be an understatement.
Some combination of steepness of climb, roughness of trail, elevation change and water crossings is typically involved assessing degree of difficulty. In this case, all those elements were present at challenging levels.
The trail gains and loses 500 feet of elevation, twice. You climb up to the peak elevation, then descend into the gorge and the water. Then you climb back out again. There are steep slopes, and a lot of rugged rock scrambles. In a couple of places that would be virtually impassable otherwise, there are wooden stairs and a wooden ladder—built by hardworking trail volunteers. I went at a time when rain hadn’t been overly plentiful, and the creek crossing still was a handful.
More to come about that in a minute.
The trail passes remnants of former coal mines. It goes through the foundations of an old coal tipple, where mined coal once was hauled to that point, separated by size in the tipple, and then hauled away. I saw old concrete pillars, and they stood in what almost looked like black sand with the appearance of very small chips of coal.
Shortly after that, I found myself at the entrance to an abandoned mine in the face of an escarpment. It looks like a deep cave, but it’s an almost perfectly square opening maybe 30 feet high by 30 feet wide, right at ground level. Reportedly, it’s only about 35 feet deep, but I can’t tell you from experience. I stood there and looked at my reflection in the black, standing water, and that was plenty close enough. Not to mention entry is prohibited both for human safety concerns and for concerns about white-nose syndrome, a disease decimating native bat populations.
As I climbed, I got amazing aerial views of the gorge. Since it’s summer, the area also is heavily forested. By my guess, it’s also not heavily traveled. Where it plateaued, it’s covered in knee- to waist-high growth and grasses. I used my hiking poles to prod ahead of my feet to identify critters before stepping on them. Fortunately, I’m not aware of any that I disturbed.
The trail is marked with white blazes, but there was a fair amount of blow-down and, in a couple or so places where I had to look hard to find the blazes, I discovered them on fallen trees.
As if that wasn’t enough, there was also some really rocky terrain. The very rocky water crossing, I’m guessing, could be treacherous, if not impossible, in rainy weather.
Which brings me to that awful moment when I said to myself, “Oh, no. Not again.”
As in, “Oh no, not again have I climbed and descended a killer trail only to arrive at a water crossing where I cannot find where to pick up the trail on the other side of the water!”
Yeah, I got to have that experience on a rainy hike almost five years to the day in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Yeah, I was hiking solo then, too, and I went five miles down a gash in the mountains to a roiling creek that I managed to cross and then couldn’t find the trail. Yeah, I finally resigned myself to my only option being to back track up the steep slope to where I’d started. Yeah, my husband was waiting for me where I was supposed to emerge, a few miles away, and yeah, there was no cell signal so I had no way to let him know I’d had to change plan.
And yeah, as 6 p.m. was approaching and sunlight was beginning to depart, there I was at the bottom of the North Chick with no other option but to retrace my steps. All five miles of them. Oh well, the elevation gain was going to be no more than I would have had if I’d been able to finish the trail on the Dunlap end. Where Bill was waiting. At least–at the very least–I had discovered, cell signal was still present up to about two miles from the trail head. I should be able to call Bill when I was about 40-50 minutes from finishing, so he might have enough time to drive BACK FROM DUNLAP to be at the place where I’d started about noon.
Yes, I had a trail map on my phone. Yes, I had a written description of the turns and landmarks. Yes, I had a compass that I used to try to orient myself at the creek bed to figure out which way was south to the junction with another creek, and which way was east, to proceed past that junction and then go upstream where the trail continued, where I was supposed to see a waterfall adjacent to an “exceptional campsite.” But no, after almost an hour of walking and compassing and looking, I could not find where to pick up the trail across the water.
If you’re ever there, you might find it surprisingly free of insects. That might be from the contribution of my almost-full bottle of Deep Woods Off with Ebola Protector to the River Gods. It fell from my pack as I bent down to survey the width of a gap between boulders and wondered if I could jump across them without breaking my hiking poles or my legs. I went a different way, after saying aloud, “Well, I guess I’ve held the vampires off as long as I can. Gonna be a fun five miles straight up outta here in the woods as dark comes and I have nothing on my skin but sweat.”
Was I lost? No, I was not lost.
Lost is when you don’t know where you are. I just couldn’t figure out how to get where I’d planned to go.
Between the heat and the elevation gain I’d already climbed, it was sheer will, an apple and a packet of Clif gel that got me back out of there. Just as I reached the plateau–seeing spots from either low blood sugar or mosquito-induced blood loss–my phone rang. It rang before I could finish texting Bill that I’d had to turn back and he needed to pick me up where he’d dropped me off. It was Bill calling and the first words out of his mouth where, “Where are you?!” Because, you know, by then it was about 8 p.m.
That’s probably not the kindest, most tender conversation we’ve ever had, but Bill was on his way from Dunlap after we finished. I fumbled in my pack for another energy snack, and I noticed the water I drank from the tube to wash it down was getting toward the end of my supply. But I couldn’t stand still long and ponder that, lest the twin-engine bloodsuckers pick me up and haul me away.
I pushed myself to move as fast as I could, but dark was coming just as fast. So were all those chunky rocks and roots I’d crossed earlier in the day when I was fresh. If not for high-top hiking boots, I’d have rolled my ankles at least seven times.
Yes, I had a light. Yes, I was using it.
Then, I noticed more light. The kind made by cars driving on the twisting road uphill from me–which told me I was within reach of the paved road that led to the trailhead where Bill would have been parked. I called him and told him–at 9 pm and near-complete darkness–I was bailing on the ankle-buster and scrambling up the embankment leading to the road to the trail. He was going to get in the car and start driving my way. I planned to be walking on asphalt and waiting for him.
Ditching the trail to climb through brush and bramble to reach the road shoulder, I was very glad to have my handy-dandy little super-duper light. It worked great–I know, because of how perfectly it illuminated the poison ivy I was splitting wide open. Oh, well, I’ve never been allergic before, and I was willing to take my chances.
Bill, of course, had intended on being helpful and had actually walked a good bit up the trail hoping to meet me and help me if I needed carrying or shooting by the time he found me. Which meant that I actually reached the car before he did, but not by much. Maybe only 100 yards.
I was bleeding from a shin (briers), sooty-bottomed (old coal mine country, remember) and limping a little from getting a foot trapped in rocks at the water crossing. Bill was bleeding from both knees and a forearm–his short jaunt up the trail intending to meet me, without a light to carry, had already cost him a tumble at a root/stump/rock. Seems we’d both gotten kicked by the North Chick.
I had worn 100 percent synthetic, tech fabric clothing, and it was still 100 percent drenched in sweat.
FitBit said I logged 13 miles and burned 3,500 calories.
After our 15-minute drive home and a shower at least that long, I emerged dressed and Bill commented on the “sunburn” I must have gotten on my face. I went back to look in the mirror.
Nope, I told him, my rosy jaws were just evidence of red-faced exertion. I still hadn’t cooled off. But I caught a lucky break on the poison ivy.
Still not allergic. So you didn’t completely beat me, North Chick.
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