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Cumberland Trail : view of distant mountains


Cumberland Trail


Cumberland Trail : Waterfall seen from trail
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The best long distance backpacking trail within a day's drive of Lexington is going to be the Cumberland Trail in Tennessee. The trail will extend 300 miles from the western edge of Cumberland Gap National Park to Chickamauga National Park in Georgia. It's not done yet, but enough of it is complete that you can hike or even backpack long stretches. It winds through some of the most pristine scenery in the eastern half of the nation. It's easily accessible, being only two hours from Lexington on I-75. This brings you to Caryville and Cove Lake State Park, from which as of July 2012 you can hike westward to Frozen Head State Park, a 33 mile, four day trip. By 2015, you'l be able to hike eastward 40 miles to Cumberland Gap National Park at Middlesboro, a five day trip.

Cumberland Trail : scenic vista
Cumberland Trail : swinging bridge The terrain of the Cumberland Trail is very rhythmic once you adjust to it. The trailheads are almost all down in the valleys, locally called Gaps or Saddles, because that's where the roads run. So heading in either direction, you generally begin with a series of switchbacks, climbing several hundred feet in about a quarter of a mile. Once you get up there, the trail levels out on the ridge and you hike for miles with only slight undulations. Then you'll face a steep descent, usually via another series of switchbacks, to the next road access. These gaps or saddles have usually been carved out by large creeks or small rivers, so you can purify water and refill your bottles. Then it's another climb and another half a day long ridge. One strategy is to camp down along the streams and rivers and use them for lunch stops. That places your mid morning and mid afternoon breaks high on the ridges, with incredible views (like the one shown just above). If you don't like this approach, if you prefer to camp much further from roads, state parks and other campers, then you can camp up there with those great views, but you're going to have to haul several milk jugs filled with water because there are no streams on the ridgetops (you might have views of those scenic waterfalls but cliffs will separate you from the actual streams). And you'll be hauling those heavy water jugs up those switchbacks. Another advantage of stopping for the nights down at those state parks and roadside campsites is that they have picnic tables, purified water faucets, rest rooms, hot showers, electrical outlets and other amenities. Decadent? Maybe. But you'll be doing some rugged backpacking on those switchbacks and ridges so a little luxury feels awfully good each evening.
You're up high enough that, especially north of I-40, you're above the heat and humidity of a Tennessee Summer. Days will be very comfortable t shirt hiking and nights will be mild. A flannel bedroll can replace your down bag. Of course, the price you'll pay for this is at least one or two horrendous thunderstorms for each week on the trail. If you get caught up on the ridge in one of these, which usually hit between 3 and 5 in the afternoon, you need to get off that clearing and into the trees. These storms don't usually last long but they can be pretty violent. You may see marble sized hail, lightning all the way across the sky, and ear bursting thunder. Then the storm will be gone and you'll be hiking in bright sunlight. This means you need a very good rain shell, with either a stiff hood or a baseball cap to wear under it; a pair of durable rain pants, and a pair of gaiters (like the OR Ultras) to protect your hiking boots and socks. This also means you need to freshly waterproof your hiking boots before leaving home. We always pack our bedrolls in REI waterproof bags with the foldover top seals so these deluges don't get them wet. We also bring backpack rain covers. Cumberland Trail : Waterfall seen from trail
Cumberland Trail : scenic vista

Unlike its partner Pine Mountain Trail in Kentucky, the Cumberland Trail does not follow a straight line. You could lay a straight edge along the Pine Mountain Trail. But the Cumberland Trail is a graduated arc, starting out from Cumberland Gap at a 45 degree Southwestward angle, and finishing at Chickamauga actually curving back toward the Southeast. The accentuated part of the arc occurs between Wartburg and Chattanooga. The arc between Cumberland Gap and Wartburg is much less pronounced.


You won't have any stream wadings. Down in the gaps and saddles, there are old railroad trestles, swinging bridges, and 1800s road bridges like this classic. Up on the ridges or sometimes on the switchbacks, just after those sudden rains, torrents of runoff will cross the trail. Other than that, you'll have pretty dry hiking.

Camping privileges are still being worked out. This is a narrow linear state park. Easements have been purchased from landowners but do not extend far on either side of the trail. As construction nears completion, officials will be negotiating with landowners to allow primitive camping.

Cumberland Trail : arched concrete bridge
Cumberland Trail : river view down in valley

The trail drops down to wind along Watts Bar Lake for several miles below I-40. By late Summer drought, Watts Bar Lake is usually down, and your scene will look somewhat like this by late afternoon. The trail below I-40 spends a lot more time down in the valleys and much less time up on the ridges. You still have beautiful views, but you're looking up at the ridges instead of looking out across distant vistas.

The trail circumvents Chattanooga. It drops down from Signal Mountain to Prentice Cooper State Forest and heads north along the greenway corridor. There's an open greenway from Chickamauga to Lookout Mountain. How they're going to lay the trail from Lookout Mountain down to the river and up to Signal Mountain is still under discussion.


You'll see wildlife continuously. Raccoon are common everywhere, so you have to hoist your food between trees. Black Bear will be prowling around your campsites at night, especially up on the ridges. Porcupine like to gnaw on your hiking boots so you need to bring the boots into the tent with you. Possum will shuffle through after dark, rattling your pots and pans and sniffing along your tent edges. All of these visitors will rummage through your backpacks so you may wish to hoist the packs, too, but do it separately from the food. In the bottomlands, you'll see lots of deer and a few Elk browsing. Pheasant and Wild Turkey are a little more cautious but you can see them if you look carefully. Red Tailed Hawks will perch high in the trees at the edge of clearings, and from up on the ridges you can look down on Turkey Vultures riding the air currents. A few Golden Eagles are near every body of water and Osprey are up on the ridges. Rattlesnakes and Copperheads will sun themselves on rock outcroppings from noon until about 4 pm; they seem to know enough to keep away from the trail, but if you move off trail for a break or a potty stop, watch where you put your hands. Skinks and Fence Lizards are everywhere.

Cumberland Trail : deer grazing in field
Cumberland Trail : scenic view of river and mountains There is a problem along the Cumberland Trail with resupplying. This area has not yet bought into the Cumberland Trail like the communities further East have adopted the Appalachian Trail. There are not the backpacker oriented stores in small towns, and you won't have the post offices or hostels set up to hold packages for through hikers. So you either have to hike this trail in week or 10 day segments, or have someone continuously meet you at road access points with another week's supplies. Time may solve this problem. As the Cumberland Trail Conference completes construction below I-40 and backpackers come in to hike the entire length, demand will increase and local stores will probably adapt.

Because of its altitude, the Cumberland Trail is comfortable to hike in High Summer. When the other Ohio Valley long distance trails are much too hot and humid, the Cumberland is tolerable. That said, it is still best hiked in April, May, September and October. In the Spring, the wildflowers are in full bloom and create breathtaking displays across the meadows and hillsides of the ridges. In Autumn, hardwoods are in full color and create a backdrop of golds and reds all the way to the horizon. If you do hike it in Summer, you'll notice a definite rise in heat and humidity as you drop down into the valleys. The ridges are as much as 10 degrees cooler, with cool breezes continuously blowing across. Once the sun drops, the ridges cool down nicely, and the breezes make night time sleeping very pleasant. The valleys hold in the heat and humidity and don't have the breezes.

If you're planning a trip to the Cumberland Trail, we recommend the websites www.EdgeTrekker.com. and www.cumberlands.org. They include up to date information on lodging, restaurants, stores, and other attractions in the area like fishing, beaches, and and historical sites.

Cumberland Trail : trail atop high ridge
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