Deep in the heart of Big South Fork Country lies a trail that is one of the most under-rated hiking trails not just in this 125,000-acre national park in the heart of the Cumberlands, but in all of Tennessee.
Middle Creek Nature Trail was designed to be a showcase for the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area — an easily-accessible trail near Jamestown that encompasses everything the BSF has to offer. But it was never as well-developed as other interpretive trails within the national park — such as Angel Falls Trail, Oscar Blevins Farm Loop Trail or even Sunset Overlook Trail.
Today, Middle Creek Trailhead is one of the most popular trailheads in the entire BSF, utilized often by backpackers making overnight forays into the heart of the national park. It links up many of the most-visited sites west of the Big South Fork River, between the river and Pickett State Forest to the west and Daniel Boone National Forest to the north. But Middle Creek Nature Trail (or Middle Creek Loop Trail) itself is under-utilized. As one former BSF interpretive employee told me, “It is used by almost no one.”
The first three-quarters of a mile or so are unspectacular. The trail — following in a clockwise direction from the Middle Creek Trailhead — simply meanders along the ridge top, through an open hardwood forest with occasional glimpses of Divide Road and Fork Ridge Road — the gravel routes that take motorists from S.R. 154 deeper into the heart of the Big South Fork backcountry. But the trail eventually dips off the ridge and into the edge of the gorge that houses Laurel Creek as it makes its way towards the Big South Fork River miles away, and that’s where the truly interesting part of the trail begins.
Step for step, there may be more rock formations along the Middle Creek trail than along any other hiking trail in the entire 125,000 acres of the BSF. And that’s a powerful testament to this trail’s magnificence, considering the fact that BSF is known more for its rock than for any other feature.
The first rock formation is little more than a big ditch along the base of the bluff line. Interesting, but nothing too spectacular. Over the next 2.5 miles, though, hikers will encounter a series of rock shelters and overhangs, each more spectacular than the last.
These sandstone rock shelters seep almost constantly with water, the result of both freshwater springs and rain runoff from along Fork Ridge. Even in the dry season, water can be found dripping and plopping from the rock walls. The result is a complete biosphere all its own beneath these rock shelters, where the sun can’t truly shine except for brief periods each day when the angle is just right.
Lush growth can be found in the damp, sandy soil beneath most of the shelters — from ferns and rhododendron on the forest floor to the lichens growing in the shallow soil that clings to the exposed rock faces.
Later this summer, when the rhododendron blooms, these rock shelters and overhangs will come alive with even more color.
A series of wet-weather waterfalls can be found along the trail as well. They’re only a trickle except after heavy rains, but they help supply the moisture that these diverse and rich “gardens” need to survive.
Among the plants is Lucy Braun’s snakeroot, a threatened, flowering herb that is found only on the Cumberland Plateau, and only beneath sandstone rock where water constantly seeps. With only 40 to 50 sites in Tennessee and Kentucky, the plant is scarce, and it is often trampled by unknowing hikers who venture off the trail. Along the Middle Creek trail, the trail ventures into the largest rock house and the snakeroot is protected by a wooden fence. It is important for hikers to stay on the trail and not disturb the plant.
Lucy Braun’s snakeroot is a member of the plant family that includes white snakeroot, the poisonous plant that was responsible for the fatal milk sickness that resulted from cows eating it. It killed a number of early settlers in the Midwest region — including Abraham Lincoln’s mother.
The Middle Creek Loop Trail has a difficulty rating of “moderate,” but much of the trail isn’t particularly difficult. In fact, it’s only the trail’s unbridged crossings of mucky areas along the seeping rock walls and a short, steep climb through a series of rocks and boulders that pose hazards for hikers.
One thing to keep an eye out for along the trail are American chestnut stumps. These rotting stumps are all that remain of the stately trees that once dominated the Cumberland Plateau and the Appalachians. These giant trees were once the most important tree in the region, but they were wiped out by a blight in the early 1900. The last of the mature trees had fallen by the start of World War II. While mature American chestnuts are nowhere to be found in the tree’s original range these days, the tree is not extinct; new shoots emerge from the roots of the fallen trees — such as from the stump pictured above. However, the trees do not live long before succumbing to the fungus, which still remains in the environment. True American chestnuts rarely reach reproduction age. The largest known American chestnut in Tennessee is found in Jackson County, and stands 23 ft. tall with a diameter of 2 ft.