Destinations

Victims of a shocking double-murder buried on a forgotten mountainside

A view of the valley at Bull Creek from the edge of the most recent logging operation. Clear-cutting has left extensive scars along the mountainsides, and these operations result in New River (and the Big South Fork further downstream) being muddy much of the summer months, but the valley floor beneath the clear cuts is beautiful.

The older I get, the more of a fan I become of old cemeteries. Not the well-kept and often-visited cemeteries so much as the forgotten cemeteries that have become lost in the forest.

“Forgotten cemeteries” is a bit of a misnomer, of course. These cemeteries usually aren’t forgotten at all. But they’re neglected, left to return to nature, and as the years go by fewer and fewer people know where they exist. Someday, if their stories aren’t told and preserved, they truly will be forgotten. I’ve written about many of these backwoods cemeteries in Scott County (see here and here and here for starters).

I enjoy finding the old cemeteries, then trying to discover the stories that they’re waiting to tell. All of these old cemeteries tell the stories of our past — some of them stories heretofore untold … or, at least, forgotten.

Take, for example, the Harness Cemetery near the base of Round Mountain above Scott County’s historic Bull Creek settlement. I ventured back to find this old cemetery today, after last visiting it more than 20 years ago. I was shocked to discover the story it tells — the story of one of the most gruesome murders in Scott County’s history.

Once I stumbled across old newspaper clippings of the 1889 double murder, I recalled reading them before — though I’m not sure when or where. Likely as not, someone shared them on Facebook. I had long forgotten them, though, until after visiting the graves of the murder victims today.

A little back story

In the spring, as the coronavirus pandemic gripped America and everything was shut down, there was little to do but stare at the walls and risk going crazy. So, like millions of other Americans, we started getting outside to shake off the cabin fever. We took a few Jeep rides up Bull Creek. It was my first time up Bull Creek — at least, my first time beyond the end of the gravel road — even though I’ve lived in Scott County for 41 years. It’s a beautiful place.

On one of those trips, we started up the mountains. Then, after reaching the right-of-way for the TVA transmission lines that run the length of the main ridge dividing the New River Valley through Norma from Brimstone Valley, I decided it was irresponsible to try to get my Jeep the rest of the way up the mountain. So, we followed a couple of unnamed trails through a series of clear-cuts until we finally reached a road leading off the mountain to Bull Creek United Baptist Church.

Things had changed so much since the last time I was in this part of the Cumberland Mountains that I couldn’t get my bearings until a return trip, when I realized that the trail we were on was actually traversing land I had hunted extensively when I was in my late teens. Back then, the area had been freshly clear-cut, and the old strip mines above Bull Creek were still in the early stages of nature’s reclamation.

Once I realized where we were, I remembered old gravestones that I used to visit while hunting in the area. Back then, they were nothing more than a couple of stones in a small grove of trees that had been left untouched by timber-cutters due to the presence of the graves. I decided to go back and search for them. As it turned out, finding them was easy; someone — presumably, descendants of those buried there — had built a fence around the graves, and there was a faint trail leading to them from the main ATV trail.

An 1889 double murder

Goldenrod grows alongside the Bull Creek Settlement Trail on the North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area.

I drove up the mountain from the Brimstone side, by way of Slick Rock, crossing over the “Four Lane” Trail #1) that runs from Brimstone Recreation onto the North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area and entering TWRA’s Bull Creek Settlement Trail. As the Bull Creek Settlement Trail (Trail #17) starts to drop off the ridge towards Bull Creek Baptist Church, Jerry Trail cuts off and leads to the Rob Sexton Cemetery a couple of miles up the ridge, at the base of Round Mountain.

The last time I was here, 20-plus years ago, Jerry Trail wasn’t an ATV trail at all; rather, it was an old road left by timber-cutters after they had finished their work. I stalked and shot at a nice whitetail buck from the road bed one October morning.

Anyway…

Just off the trail, hidden by 20 years of growth except for the faint trail leading to it, are a pair of graves. The headstones read, “Peter Harness,” and “Almiry Brown Harness – Born 1854.”

This picture, date unknown, was taken by Alonzo Lawson and posted online. It shows a fence that was built around the Harness graves in the early 2000s.
This picture, taken by me, shows how much things have changed in 20 years, as the Harness gravestones disappear into the new growth.
Peter Harness was a mentally-disabled teenager when he was murdered in 1889.
Almiry Brown Harness was apparently Talitha Brown Harness, the mother of Peter Harness, although she was not born in 1854.

The Almiry Harness headstone is confusing. There are no genealogical records of an Almiry Brown or an Almiry Harness. Apparently, the headstone belongs to Talitha Brown Harness, although she was born in 1824 — not 1854.

So who were Peter and Almiry or Talitha Harness?

Talitha Brown Harness was the wife of Rev. Thomas Harness. Peter Harness was the youngest of her seven children (some genealogical sources list nine children). He is described by newspaper articles from the day as being a “halfwit,” which in 19th century terms usually meant someone with a mental handicap.

There is a lot of mystery surrounding exactly who Rev. Thomas Harness and his wife were; little is known about their ancestors. Some genealogists list Thomas Harness as the son of John Harness and Mary Wilson Harness, who were descended from the Harnish family that migrated from Germany to America in the 18th century. However, this has been declared untrue. Other genealogists suggest that Rev. Thomas was the grandson of John and Mary Wilson Harness. Doubt has been cast on this, as well, by people who have conducted DNA research.

In any event, it would seem improbable to assume that the Thomas and Talitha Harness were not connected to the rest of the Harnesses of Bull Creek and Byrges Creek. The Harness family was one of the largest families in that part of Scott County, Tenn. at the time, along with the Lawson family and a handful of other families.

At some point in early June 1889, two men — identified by authorities and newspapers as Elias Reynolds and Thomas J. Lloyd — went to the home with intent to rob Thomas Harness, who they apparently believed had a lot of money.

As it turned out, Thomas Harness was away from home that night. His wife and the youngest of their children — 17-year-old Peter — were at home alone.

21-year-old Thomas Lloyd and his uncle, 45-year-old Elias Reynolds, were described in newspaper accounts of the time as “noted hard cases.” They allegedly reached the Harness home at midnight on a Wednesday night, where Mrs. Harness and her son were sleeping. Newspaper accounts indicate that Lloyd and Reynolds broke down the door and entered the home, shooting Talitha Harness without provocation.

Young Peter, awakened by the noise, rushed out another door and into the night, but the men chased him down and beat him to death with a garden hoe. They then dragged his body back to the house and set fire to the home. The grisly news accounts stated that neighbors came upon the scene the next morning and found nothing remaining except Peter’s legs (he had been dragged partially through the front door, with his legs sticking out of the home).

Nothing was ever written about what pointed authorities towards Lloyd and Reynolds. But they were named immediately as suspects, and a manhunt was started. They were later arrested at a saloon in Jellico and taken back to the Scott County Jail in Huntsville. That same night, a mob took the two men out of jail and lynched them — murdering them before they could stand trial.

It isn’t known exactly where the Harness home was located, though it was presumably nearby the gravesite. Nor is it known exactly where Lloyd and Reynolds were buried after they were hanged. It was written that Lloyd was buried six miles up the river from Huntsville, which likely means the Crowley Cemetery at Winona. There are some graves there marked only by fieldstone, and that’s where several members of his family are buried. (His parents, James Jonathan Lloyd and Elisabeth Reynolds Lloyd, were buried at Fairview Cemetery.)

The Knoxville news called the Harness murders “one of the most brutal tragedies in the history of East Tennessee,” and it would’ve certainly been one of the most brutal crimes in Scott County’s history — an elderly woman shot to death, her teenage son hacked to death with a garden hoe, and their bodies burned in an effort to cover up the crime.

Back down the mountain

After finding the Harness graves, I headed back down the mountain to the Bull Creek church. This trail has become one of my favorites in all of the Cumberland Mountains, traveling through the old strip pits along a ridge that eventually peters out at the church. I’m not sure how much longer the trail will be in good enough shape for my Jeep to make the trip; it’s getting rough now, and with no gas wells in operation in the area and no timber left to cut, there’s no reason for it to be kept up. It may soon become impassible except for SXS vehicles and ATVs that are better suited for off-road jaunts than my old Jeep.

In the meantime, this is a beautiful area. But it seems somewhat depressing that two people who met such tragic ends on this mountainside have no one left to tend to their graves, far off the beaten path.

A field of asters bloom in a reclaimed strip mine above Bull Creek.
The trail leading off the mountain at Bull Creek passes through a unique forest in an old strip pit.
A view of the valley at Bull Creek from the edge of the most recent logging operation. Clear-cutting has left extensive scars along the mountainsides, and these operations result in New River (and the Big South Fork further downstream) being muddy much of the summer months, but the valley floor beneath the clear cuts is beautiful.

An old newspaper story from June 1889…

A HORRIBLE CRIME

Frightful Work of Two Scott County Desperadoes

A minister’s aged wife and son slain in cold blood

The purpose of the fiends was a pitiful robbery

KNOXVILLE, JUNE 7 — Particulars of one of the most brutal tragedies in the history of East Tennessee has just reached here from an out-of-the-way section of Scott County. E. R. Reynolds, aged 45, and Thos. J. Lloyd, aged 21, both noted hard cases, went to the house of Rev. Jacob Harness, a Baptist minister, believing him to have a large amount of money concealed in the house. They reached the house about midnight on Wednesday night and demanded admission.

Rev. Harness was away from home, and his wife and a half-witted son aged 16 were sleeping in the same room. Mrs. Harness, who was about 50 years of age, went to the door and told the drunken cutthroats that they must leave. They broke down the door and rushed in, shooting the old lady dead in her tracks the first thing. The boy, awakened by the noise, rushed out at another door. They followed him out and, overtaking him, beat him to death with a garden hoe. They then carried him back and threw him in the doorway, his legs protruding. They next ransacked the house, secured $74, and, to cover up their horrible crime, applied the torch. Neighbors next morning found the limbs of the young man and that was all.

The murderers were arrested in a saloon at Jellico last night and officers started to Huntsville, the county seat of Scott, with the prisoners. It is reported here tonight that they were taken from jail at an early hour this morning and lynched. The rumor has not been confirmed.

Destinations

The mountains are calling: Climbing to the top of Scott County, Tenn.

A panoramic view from an unnamed mountain peak that is the sixth-highest point in Scott County.

“The mountains are calling and I must go.”

Well over 100 years since John Muir’s death, that famous quote by the great American conservationist still rings true. For all who have the mountains in their blood, the mystique of these towering landforms still draws us.

The mountains have been calling me for a while, but it’s been nearly impossible to get away from work. On Wednesday, I decided, I would make time to get away. So after finishing up some chores before lunch, I jumped in my Jeep and hit the road for the mountains.

Climb to the top of the 10 highest mountain peaks in Scott County, Tenn. That’s what I want to do. I knew I couldn’t knock out all 10 in half a day; not even close. In fact, that’s a task that’s best reserved for the cold season, when there are no snakes out. I’m not especially afraid of snakes, but visiting Scott County’s tallest peaks involves wading through lots of reclaimed strip pits, where you can’t see your feet below you, and the depths of the Cumberland Mountains are home to the largest timber rattlers in Tennessee. (As an added bonus, this may be the worst year for seed ticks — those tiny satan’s spawn that emerge in early autumn — that I’ve ever seen.)

This was more of a scouting trip — an opportunity to gather general information about the best places to leave the road and start hoofing it near the base of each peak. And if I could knock a couple of them out, without getting snake-bitten or tick-eaten, all the better. Besides, there’s a little extra incentive for traveling into the mountains this time of year. While many folks will tell you that mid-to-late October is the best time to be in the mountains (and it’s certainly a good time; I’ll not argue that point), a month to six weeks earlier is pretty good, too. It’s this time of year that the mountains come alive with late-season wildflowers. And this summer — relatively cool and relatively wet — has made for an excellent early-autumn wildflower season. I could stand on some peaks on Wednesday and see swaths of color in power line rights-of-way and old surface mines near other peaks over a mile away. Most of the wildflowers were asters and ironweed, but there were also goldenrods and many others.

Ironweed blooms alongside Trail #1 along the tops of the mountains.

While most of my exploring is done in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area, I’ve had a growing fascination with the Cumberland Mountains, and especially with the communities surrounding them, for the past several years. I grew up hunting and roaming along the western slopes of the Cumberlands, primarily in places like Brimstone and Indian Fork. I have vague memories of my father driving us deeper into the mountain — places like Gobey — on leaf-peeping tours when I was a kid and he worked for West Coal Corporation, which mined a lot of the Cumberland Mountains. More recently, I’ve begun to familiarize myself with places like Smokey Creek and Bull Creek, and the peaks that tower over those places. Their beauty is incomprehensible.

The Appalachian Mountains, of course, pale to the Rockies. And, within the Appalachians, the Cumberland Mountains pale to the Smokies. But in mountains large or small, there’s mystique. Perhaps it’s because there is no taming a mountain. These giants have been stripped of their timber, stripped for their coal, left scarred and battered by generations of human activity, and still they stand — tall and proud. It’s little wonder John Muir was so infatuated by mountains.

A variety of wild sunflower blooms along the mountaintops.

Muir, who was so in love with America’s mountain ranges that he became known as “John of the Mountains,” first laid eyes on mountains right here in the Cumberlands, during his 1867 journey to the Gulf of Mexico, which he wrote about extensively in his diary. He called these mountains the “most sublime and comprehensive picture that ever entered my eyes.”

The tallest peaks in the Cumberlands stand only a little more than 3,500 ft. in elevation. Within Scott County, there are seven peaks that are above 3,000 ft. in elevation, ranging from 3,030 ft. to 3,250 ft. All seven — and the 10 highest peaks in the county overall — are located between Brimstone and Smokey Junction. They are, in order:

• Burge Mountain (elevation 3,250 ft.)
• Walnut Knob (elevation 3,250 ft.)
• Guinea Hill Knob (elevation 3,250 ft.)
• An unnamed peak close to Smoky Mountain (elevation 3,210 ft.)
• High Point (elevation 3,190 ft.)
• An unnamed peak above Mill Creek (elevation 3,110 ft.)
• Norman Pond Knob (elevation 3,030 ft.)
• Signal Mountain (elevation 2,914 ft.)
• An unnamed peak just north of the 3,110 ft. unnamed peak (elevation 2,910 ft.)
• Gibson Knob (elevation 2,904 ft.)

Those are the peaks I want to visit. To determine the 10 tallest peaks, I used the definitions of the Union Internationale des Associations d’Alpinisme (UIAA, or the International Climbing & Mountaineering Federation), which defines a mountain peak as having a prominence of at least 30 meters (90 ft.). That is to say, the peak rises at least 90 ft. above the surrounding terrain. Several of the ridgelines in this part of the Cumberlands are tall enough to fall within the 10 highest elevations in Scott County, but they don’t classify as a mountain peak. For example, there’s a point on the ridgeline overlooking Smokey Creek where the elevation is 3,010 ft., the eighth-highest elevation in Scott County. But the knoll — Bear Knob — has a prominence of only 80 ft., which hardly makes it a peak.

By contrast, nearby Burge Mountain has a prominence of 390 ft., Walnut Knob has a prominence of 360 ft. and Guinea Hill Knob has a prominence of 340 ft. The large prominence of any of the peaks in this area is Signal Mountain. At 482 ft., this peak stands as high over the surrounding ridgeline as a typical overlook in the Big South Fork NRRA stands over the river.

(Fun fact: By UIAA definitions, a summit is required to have a prominence of 300 meters, or 980 ft. By this definition, Scott County has only one summit. That will be the subject of a future post.)

To get to the mountains, I headed south on Brimstone Road before exiting the main road at Chimney Hollow, where the old Brimstone Railroad siding and coal tipple used to be, and climbing to the top of the ridge about 1,000 ft. in elevation above Brimstone Creek.

The road emerges on the ridgetop near the base of Signal Mountain, one of the 10 highest mountain peaks in Scott County (elevation 2,914 ft.). It merges with Trail #1, the old coal haul road that runs the length of the ridge from near Huntsville into Anderson County, beginning on Brimstone Recreation and continuing onto the North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area.

My trip was 34 miles from the time I exited Brimstone Road until the time I arrived at U.S. Hwy. 27 north of Wartburg. I had planned to drive to the highest point in Scott County, before exiting the mountains by way of the Emory River Valley into Morgan County.

This is not a fun trip for hard-core off-road adventurers because the entire trip is on gravel — former coal haul roads that have since been maintained for hauling timber out of the mountains and also so that Atlas Energy Co. can keep check on its numerous natural gas wells in the mountains.

One of the many natural gas wells along the ridgetops.

There are several ways to enter and exit this part of the country and many of them are gravel roads: Slick Rock, via Brimstone Road; Chimney Hollow, via Brimstone Road; Lone Mountain, via Brimstone Road; Smokey Creek; Gobey; and S.R. 116 in Anderson County. There are plenty of technical and some not-so-technical ATV trails in the mountains, but the gravel roads traverse the entire range. To be sure, these aren’t roads you would want to take your daily-driver SUV on, but they also aren’t roads that require you to engage 4WD at any point most of the year. (An exception is around the base of Round Mountain if you’re taking Trail #1 south from closer to Huntsville. As the road climbs several hundred feet, it is usually quite rutted and 4WD is needed.) There is some mud, even during this time of year. Mainly, though, there are overhanging weeds and branches that can scratch the clear-coat, and plenty of ruts and potholes that will jar your nuts off their bolts.

It would be interesting to know how the various peaks in these mountains came by their names. The first one, Signal Mountain, is obvious. Even today, there is a radio transmission tower at the peak, making it easily identifiable from miles away.

Most of the peaks that are among Scott County’s 10 highest are situated along the main ridge that runs north-to-south from just south of Huntsville all the way to Beech Grove in Anderson County, along S.R. 116. Interestingly, New River borders this ridge on either end; its headwaters are located along S.R. 116 on the south end of the ridge and the river divides the ridge from Huntsville on the north end. There are several mountains that extend off this ridge to either the east or the west. The ridge itself stands between Brimstone and Norma/Smokey Junction, and it peters out just across the river from Huntsville. At Guinea Hill Knob, where Scott, Morgan and Anderson counties all meet, another ridge line heads northeast, eventually petering out at Smokey Junction. The remaining of Scott County’s 10 highest peaks are located along that ridgeline. To the south of Guinea Hill Knob, another ridge line extends through Frozen Head State Forest and deep into Morgan County before petering out near Petros and the old Brushy Mountain prison. The three ridges merge at Guinea Hill Knob, my destination for the day.

Signal Mountain is the second mountain peak along the main ridge south of Huntsville, as it starts to climb higher into the sky. The first is Round Mountain, above Bull Creek — which, with an elevation of 2,727 ft., is the 16th-highest peak in Scott County.

This picture doesn’t do justice to the size of this landslide, which took out the side of the mountain and left the natural gas pipeline exposed. It’s a gigantic slide that is hard to depict with a 2D picture.

Trail #1, this area’s original coal haul road, goes out of its way to curve around the extensive west slopes of Signal Mountain, which extend like a finger pointing directly at Lone Mountain in the valley below. There are occasional gaps where views of the valley below — and the mountains beyond — can be seen. Among the mountaintops that can be viewed in the distance are Lowe Mountain, Griffith Mountain and Flower Mountain.

Eventually, Trail #1 passes below the next peak: Gibson Knob (elevation 2,904, the 10th highest peak in Scott County). Gibson Knob is the mountain that towers over the headwaters of Bull Creek. In fact, Bull Creek is formed by the waters flowing off Gibson Knob’s north slopes.

It is surprising that the mountain on which Gibson Knob is situated doesn’t have a name; it is one of the most prominent mountains, in terms of overall land mass, in the area.

The Cumberland Mountains as seen from a TVA right-of-way just south of Signal Mountain.

In any event, south of Gibson Knob, Trail #1 continues along a saddle that becomes so narrow you can actually see off into the Smokey Creek Valley to the left and into the Brimstone Creek Valley to the right. It’s the narrowest the main ridge is at any point. The actual valley to the left is Little Brimstone Creek, which empties into Smokey Creek between Cave Branch and Shack’s Creek.

The next peak along the route is an unnamed peak that stands at 2,910 ft. in elevation, making it the ninth-highest peak in Scott County. Beyond that peak, the ridge again narrows between the headwaters of Shack’s Creek to the east and Second Laurel Branch to the right, which empties into Mill Creek above Lone Mountain.

For the entirety of the trip thus far, Trail #1 has stayed on the Brimstone side of the ridge. But beyond the headwaters of Shack’s Creek, Mill Creek Valley disappears to the right, as the road moves to the Smokey Creek side of the ridge to traverse the base of another unnamed peak. This one is part of a larger unnamed mountain (again, it’s somewhat surprising that it isn’t named) that stands at 3,110 ft. in elevation, making it the sixth-highest peak in Scott County.

Flower Mountain, as seen from an unnamed mountain peak across the valley.

It isn’t a name that’s ever going to appear on a topographical map, but I’m going to refer to this mountain as Beetle Mountain, named for some sort of noisy flying beetle that I encountered as I was hiking to the peak. I’ve never seen these bugs outside the mountains. They let out a scream of sorts when they take flight, and nearly scared the pants off me every time they burst out of a tree next to me. Standing near the peak of Beetle Mountain, you can see Sandy Gap Mountain to the south, Flower Mountain to the west and, beyond Flower Mountain, farmland in Morgan and Fentress counties is just visible through the late summer haze.

A panoramic view from an unnamed mountain peak that is the sixth-highest point in Scott County.

On the south side of Beetle Mountain, Trail #1 switches back twice as it drops in elevation and meets the old road that climbs up the mountain from the head of Mill Creek, above Lone Mountain. A short distance beyond this, the road meets the Scott-Morgan county line for the first time. It is at this location that surveyors back in 1849 — when Scott County was formed by act of the Tennessee General Assembly — for reasons unknown made a straight line northwest from the ridge on which we’re driving, across Mill Creek and across Brimstone Creek, to the southern tip of Griffith Mountain.

This is the largest snake skin I’ve ever seen. I’m not disappointed that I didn’t run into the dude who outgrew it. Located near the top of Beetle Mountain.

For the duration of this trip, the road will roughly follow the Scott County line. When surveyors drew the county line in 1849, they stayed atop the ridge lines, generally traveling along the peak of each mountain. At Guinea Hill Knob, which is the highest point in Scott County, they turned to the east and began following another ridge line that towers over Smokey Creek to the south as it heads back to New River above Smokey Junction.

An elk rub near the top of Beetle Mountain.

Jehu Phillips (1821-1910) was part of the surveying team. He described their efforts this way: “We began at a point on the east bank of New River and about two miles from the mouth of Beech Fork then ran southwest crossing Smokey Creek in all about eight miles to the Morgan County line on the mountain between Smokey and Brimstone then Northwest about ten miles crossing Clear Fork just below the mouth of Skull Creek then on to New River at the mouth of Hone Creek, then down New River (or Big South Fork of the Cumberland River) about six miles to the mouth of Anderson’s Branch, thence northwest about nineteen miles to the Kentucky line.”

Bear poop near the top of Beetle Mountain.

Just to the south of where the road meets the county line, Sandy Gap Mountain towers to the right. The mountain is easily recognizable by the mostly treeless east-facing slope. The elevation of the peak is 3,170 ft. It would be one of the tallest peaks in Scott County, but it is actually located in Morgan County.

At the base of Sandy Gap Mountain’s peak is where West Coal Company’s Brimstone coal washer once stood. This general area was the site of some of the most extensive strip mining in the Cumberlands — around the slopes of Sandy Gap, Smoky Mountain, and the ridgelines in between.

Beyond Sandy Gap, the road begins traveling around the headwaters of the Emory River. There was once a railroad that ran along the Emory, and cable cars were used to transport coal off the mountain near Norman Pond Knob (elevation 3,030 ft., the seventh-highest peak in Scott County), which is the next peak along the way. It is Norman Pond Knob that towers over the headwaters of Smokey Creek.

From Norman Pond Knob, the road continues along Ligias Ridge, the highest point of this ridgetop aside from the mountain peaks. At 2,970 ft. in elevation, Ligias Ridge would stand as the ninth-highest peak in Scott County if it could be defined as a mountain peak. However, the highest point of Ligias Ridge has a prominence of only 80 ft. and therefore isn’t actually a mountain peak according to UIAA standards.

Next along the route is Walnut Knob (elevation 3,250 ft.). As was the case at Norman Pond Knob and Guinea Hill Knob, the surveyors in 1849 walked to the top of the peak instead of going around the base of the peaks.

Flowers bloom along the mountaintop.

At 3,250 ft., Walnut Knob (and Burge Mountain between Smokey Creek and New River) are tied with Guinea Hill Knob for the highest point in Scott County. Burge Mountain is usually listed first because it has the largest prominence (390 ft.), followed by Walnut Knob (360 ft.) and Guinea Hill Knob (340 ft.). But Guinea Hill Knob is the most interesting of the peaks because it’s one of the few spots in the Cumberlands where you can stand in three counties at the same time. Scott, Morgan and Anderson counties all come together on this peak.

Just past Walnut Knob, the elevation dips ever so slightly. This is Guinea Gap, the saddle that divides the headwaters of Asher Fork, which empties into Smokey Creek, from the headwaters of the Emory River. And, rising just beyond Guinea Gap, is Guinea Ridge Knob.

The boundary line of the North Cumberland WMA.

Leaving my Jeep in an old strip pit on the west side of Guinea Hill Knob, I begin the 340 ft. climb to the peak. It isn’t the first time I’ve visited Guinea Hill, nor will it be the last. There’s too much vegetation at the top to say that the view from here is stunning. But by picking and choosing your vantage points, you can see the Emory River headwaters to the southwest (and on the ridge on the opposite side of the valley is the Frozen Head State Forest), the Buffalo Mountain Wind Farm to the south, and the headwaters of Smokey Creek to the east.

Bluffs line the peak at Guinea Hill Knob.
This picture is from my last visit to Guinea Hill Knob, four years ago.
Old power lines that once supplied electricity to a radio transmission tower atop Guinea Hill Knob.
The concrete base for an old radio transmission tower, which I would imagine was installed by West Coal Company.
The TVA windmills at Buffalo Mountain are visible from Guinea Ridge Knob.
More ironweed blooming along the mountaintop.

From Guinea Ridge Knob, I retrace my route for a short distance until I meet the old coal haul road that climbs the mountain from the headwaters of the Emory River above Gobey. Lyme Timber, the company that originally purchased Brimstone before much of it was incorporated into the North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area, is cutting the last of the available timber from the Emory River tract on the mountains’ west slopes. As I made my way towards the valley below, I bumped into Lyme’s night watchman — an old friend who I hadn’t seen in nearly 20 years, who isn’t even from this area and, last I knew, lived in McMinn County. These mountains hold surprises in more ways than one.

The first time I can recall coming off the mountain here was in October 1988. In fact, I can tell you the exact date: October 22, 1988. The University of Tennessee football team was playing at Memphis State that day. The Vols were 0-6, almost unthinkable. Someone named Joe had climbed onto the roof of a Wartburg convenience store and was threatening to not come down until Tennessee won a game (it was a spinoff stunt that was being done elsewhere, too). Tennessee beat Memphis that day, 38-25, to start a 5-game winning streak to end the season and set the stage for the greatest decade in the history of the Vols’ football program. That day was the first time I can recall listening to John Ward and Bill Anderson, Tennessee’s legendary broadcast team, as their voices wafted into the car from WECO Radio in the valley as we traveled through the mountains.

This part of Morgan County is one of the most beautiful places in East Tennessee. In fact, the Emory River was the first mountain stream that John Muir encountered, and it inspired him to write this passage:

“Its banks are luxuriantly peopled with rare and lovely flowers and overreaching trees, making one of nature’s coolest and most hospitable places. Every tree, every flower, every ripple and eddy of this lovely stream seemed solemnly to feel the presence of the great Creator. Lingered in this sanctuary a long time thanking the Lord with all my heart for his goodness in allowing me to enter and enjoy it.”

Asters bloom along the Cumberland Trail, just to the south of Guinea Ridge Knob.
Destinations, Outdoors

The Chimney Rocks fire fundamentally changed ‘The Leaners’ at Station Camp

Flames illuminate the famed Chimney Rocks at Station Camp in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area during the 2016 wildfire named for the landform. (National Park Service photo; all others on this page taken by the author.)

It has been four years since the devastating 2016 wildfire season that left an indelible impact on much of East Tennessee. The deadly Chimney Tops Fire that began in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Gatlinburg and eventually spread into Gatlinburg was the most famous example, and the damage from the fire can still be seen simply by driving along the parkway through downtown Gatlinburg and looking at the mountains that tower over the town. But there were plenty of others with long-lasting impacts, like the fire that charred the area around the Devils Racetrack on the North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area near Caryville, and, closer to home, the Chimney Rocks Fire that burned several thousand acres of the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area.

On the rim of the gorge encasing the Big South Fork River, just above the Station Camp crossing (as the crow flies), is a feature called “The Leaners.” Essentially, this is a rock formation where years of erosion left pieces of the sandstone cap rock exposed and jutting out above the ridge-top surrounding it, creating a maze of free-standing rocks pockmarked with natural passageways of varying sizes.

The Leaners is easily a Top 10 landform (in my book, at least) in a national park that is jam-packed with spectacular landforms. I used to visit the rock formation every year about this time — around Labor Day, when pawpaws are ripe and ready to be harvested. There was a reason for my visit: On the east edge of The Leaners was a pawpaw tree. It was a bit unusual; pawpaws are usually found near water — 500 ft. below, along the riverbank, not up here, on the edge of the plateau. But there it was, and the novelty of it made it an enticing visit.

Pawpaws were an important native fruit for our Appalachian ancestors. A soft fruit with tropical qualities, chilled pawpaws were said to be George Washington’s favorite dessert, and Thomas Jefferson had a grove of pawpaw trees planted at his Monticello estate. Their fragile nature make them unsuitable for commercial marketing, so most people have never gotten to experience the unique taste of a pawpaw fruit. But they’re good — as long as you take care to not eat the seeds, which contain toxins.

A pawpaw from a tree growing among The Leaners, a rock formation near Station Camp in the Big South Fork NRRA.

Sunday afternoon marked my first trip to The Leaners since the Chimney Rocks Fire. It never occurred to me that the area may have been damaged by the fire, until I was making the drive down Station Camp Road. Then it dawned on me that, in fact, the fire had probably scorched the forest around the rock formation, because it was within the containment zone that was established by National Park Service firefighters.

Most wildfires in this part of the country quickly burn themselves out, or are quickly contained. They usually burn only the available fuel (leaf matter and dead trees) in the understory, their flames seldom crowning and creating the sort of raging infernos that can easily claim lives and property, like we see on an annual basis in the western U.S.

But 2016 was far from a typical year — as the Gatlinburg fire showed us. Like so many of the other fires in East Tennessee that year, including the one at Chimney Tops and the Devils Racetrack, the Chimney Rocks fire in the Big South Fork destroyed large stands of mature timber, either because the flames crowned, or because they burned hot enough and long enough to kill the trees at their base.

Old Station Road — the roadbed that marked the original route into the old Station Camp community along the Big South Fork River — was used by the NPS as a firebreak.

Old Station Road, the original road that transported horses and buggies — and, later, automobiles — from the top of the plateau into the river gorge and the Station Camp community along the river itself, was used by the National Park Service firefighters as a firebreak. It had been decades since the roadbed had seen vehicular traffic, but was used by local horseback riders as a shortcut to get from the Station Camp Trailhead to the river crossing. Firefighters used a dozer to build a containment line along the roadbed, which traverses the ridge-tops south of the modern road before entering the gorge along its eastern escarpment.

Old Station Road is being left to return to nature since it was used as a containment line for the Chimney Rocks Fire in 2016.

There is no equestrian traffic on Old Station Road these days. Following its use as a containment line for the Chimney Rocks Fire, the National Park Service gated the roadbed on either end to prevent access by trail riders. As the forest canopy has died out since the fire, the unshaded roadbed has become a wild tangle of weeds in places; in other places, it’s covered in grasses (as seen above). It’s still usable as a footpath, despite the many fallen trees that block the route, but that will change in the years ahead as nature continues to take its course.

The forest within the Chimney Rocks Fire containment zone looks like a logging area, with much of its mature timber now gone.

I had seen the impacts of the Chimney Rocks Fire from vehicle on my many trips along Station Camp Road in the past four years, but that didn’t necessarily prepare me for what I saw as I strolled along the edge of the fire containment zone. The roadbed, used as a firebreak, offered a sharp contrast for the forest surrounding it. The forests on its east and south sides were as they’ve always been: deep and lush, a mix of the oaks and pines that are typical of the upland forests within the Big South Fork region, their understory comprised of stands of laurel and berry bushes like huckleberry and blueberry. The forests on its north and west sides more closely resembled the clear-cuts I’m accustomed to in my old stomping grounds of the Cumberland Mountains, devoid of much of the mature timber that once covered the ridge tops.

I’m used to seeing wildfires wipe out the forest understory; I’m not used to seeing them take the forest canopy, as well. But by the time the Chimney Rocks Fire began in 2016, we were well into the worst drought this region had seen in a decade. The forests were tinderboxes, where wildfires could burn fast and hot. And the rugged terrain hampered efforts to combat the fire at Station Camp. Air support was utilized to some extent, but for the most part firefighters were forced to build a containment line, set backfires, and then let the fire simply burn itself out. It was the best approach to prevent the fire from scorching even more territory than it did, but the collateral damage within the containment zone was substantial.

The charred remains of dead timber along a ridge top above the Big South Fork River, with the understory already being reclaimed with weeds and thorns.

Even as the Big South Fork NRRA — established by Congress in 1974, its lands acquired and facilities constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers over the next decade-plus — continues to recover from years of mining and timber-cutting that depleted most of its natural resources, there have been several events of the past generation that have helped shape this geologically-rich and biologically-diverse wilderness area.

The first was the major — and completely unpredicted — winter storm of February 1998, when nearly 20 inches of wet, heavy snow accumulated after a phenomenon known as dynamic cooling caused what was expected to be more than an inch of rain into an extremely damaging snowstorm. It was the most damaging winter storm in the history of the northern Cumberland Plateau, taking out virtually every power line and blocking every roadway in the region. Within the Big South Fork, it toppled countless shortleaf pines and caused extensive tree damage in other species, as well.

Less than 18 months later, the Southern pine beetle infestation was well underway in the region, killing all of the mature loblolly pines that hadn’t been taken out by the previous year’s winter storm. Together, the winter storm and the pine beetle created impenetrable thickets on many of the ridge tops within the BSF that hamper free movement within the backcountry to this very day, more than two decades later. Most of the backcountry roads that remained open outside the gorge, up until that point, were rendered impassible by the deadfall and were never reopened. The result, on most ridge tops where trails haven’t been cleared, is huge thickets where pine forests once dominated, tangles of mountain laurel with jumbled, rotting pine logs littering the forest floor, that can be as dangerous as they are inconvenient. Most hikers never leave the trails to experience these thickets, but hunters and off-trail wanderers will be quick to tell you that they’re enough to make preachers cuss, and that there are places where even black bears and wild hogs won’t venture.

More recently, the hemlock woolly adelgid infestation began. It continues to this day and, except for areas around trails and points of interest that are being protected by NPS botanists, this event is also transforming the forests in an extremely unfortunate way.

And, then, in 2016, the Chimney Rocks Fire fundamentally changed the forest as far as it could reach, completely wiping out the understory and killing much of the mature timber, as well. What has resulted as the dead trees have begun to fall and the new growth has created a tangle of unforgiving briars and brambles are impenetrable thickets much the same as those created by the events of 1998 and 1999, except on a broader scale within the impacted area.

Areas scorched by the Chimney Rocks Fire in 2016 are mostly impenetrable today.
Old Station Road dips into a drainage and crosses a small stream about halfway between Station Camp Road and the rim of the river gorge.

About halfway along the 1.6-mile length of Old Station Road between Station Camp Road and where it turns down the steep escarpment of the river gorge, the roadbed dips into a drainage and crosses a small stream. As the elevation drops, the damage caused by the fire becomes less evident. In fact, with four years of new leaf litter covering the forest floor, the forest looks largely unchanged, except for an occasional charred stump. The fire burned through the forest understory here, but didn’t impact the canopy. If not for the mountain laurel — it still grows lush and green on the south side of the firebreak; it is dead and resembles tangled wooden skeletons on the north side — the fire’s impact would hardly be visible at all.

As the road dips further into the drainage, the fire damage becomes less obvious. Within a few years, it won’t be visible at all. And one hopes that the stream below served as a natural firebreak; that there wasn’t enough wind or that the fire wasn’t hot enough to jump the branch and continue burning on the opposite side.

But then, as the early evening sun beats down, a south-facing slope comes into view, like a hiker who is venturing upon a clear-cut area in a mountain forest. This is where the hottest part of the fire swept through the landscape as it burned from north to south four years ago.

Old Station Road climbs back to the top of the plateau, passing beneath a bluff wall that was once a beautiful, lush opening filled with ferns but is now a thorny, charred mess.

Near where Old Station Road dips into the BSF river gorge, the fire broke containment and the roadbed today is impassible through that area.

As Old Station Road nears the eastern rim of the river gorge, the roadbed disappears into a wild growth of weeds and tangles. It is here that the Chimney Rocks Fire broke containment, leaping across the firebreak and continuing south the ridge tops that stand sentry over the river below.

The charred remain of a hemlock tree is proof that the fire burned through the understory within the gorge area, but the forest canopy in the background is proof that the fire wasn’t as hot at this elevation.

As I left the roadway and wandered beneath the first bluff line that signifies the rim of the gorge, I notice that the fire damage is far less apparent off the ridge tops than it is on it. For whatever reason, the fire didn’t burn as hot at these lower elevations. That gives me hope that The Leaners might have been spared. They’re technically still on the ridge top, but separated from the main ridge by a bluff line; they’re at the same elevation that I’m standing now. Besides, I’m reminded that even if the fire burned right up to the edge of the bluff above, the breaks in the rock might have served as a natural firebreak and spared the trees on top of the freestanding rocks.

Then I round a bend in the bluff, The Leaners come into view, and it’s immediately apparent that the fire didn’t spare this incredible landform, after all.

Before the fire: A picture from The Leaners in 2013.
After the fire: A picture from The Leaners in 2020.

I’m not sure what I expected, but I sure didn’t expect what I saw. The Leaners were still there, of course; rocks don’t just melt from the heat of fire. But the landform is fundamentally, characteristically changed. Before, this was a maze of rocks that was shaded by hemlocks growing inside the maze and the mixed oak forest that grew atop the massive, free-standing sandstone. Those trees are almost entirely gone. In the absence of the shade that the forest canopy once provided, new growth is prevalent. The forest floor inside The Leaners was once open and clean; now it is being taken over by weeds and brambles and thorny thickets.

Before the fire: The Leaners in 2013.
After the fire: The Leaners in 2020.
Before the fire: The Leaners in 2013.
After the fire: The Leaners in 2020.

I can name on one hand the places within the Big South Fork that I enjoy exploring as much as The Leaners. So I was almost physically sick when I discovered how much the fire had changed this point overlooking the river gorge below.

And the pawpaw tree, where I used to race to beat the raccoons and bears for the tender fruit that it produced around the end of August or the first of September each year, was gone, of course. It fell victim to the fire like so many of the other trees that once grew in these woods.

Overlooking the Big South Fork River gorge from the south side of The Leaners. The terrain beyond would once have been invisible during the summer months, but now most of the mature forest is dead or dying as a result of the 2016 wildfire.
New growth: A bigleaf magnolia grows where wildfire once scorched the forest understory.

Nature is resilient, of course. The forests have already begun to regrow, which is why the thorny and weedy tangles exist. Just outside The Leaners is a young bigleaf magnolia — the tree with the largest leaf and largest flower of any tree in North America, and found only in the Big South Fork and limited other areas in the Southeast and parts of Mexico. There’s also a massive hemlock and massive white oak growing side-by-side on the edge of the deeper forest where the fire didn’t impact the canopy. These trees somehow managed to escape the timber-cutters saws in the early 20th century, and also escaped the Chimney Rocks Fire in 2016.

A massive hemlock and massive white oak grow side by side on the fringe of the deeper forest where the canopy wasn’t impacted by the 2016 wildfire.

On the ground, small, newly-fallen acorns are scattered about from the oak tree that towers overhead. Some of these acorns will take root, become seedlings, and grow into oak trees that will help replenish the forest as it continues to regrow and reshape in the aftermath of the fire.

At some point, years from now, The Leaners will look exactly as they did when I last visited them in 2016, just weeks before the destructive wildfire. The rocks will be shaded by massive stands of timber that grow overhead, the hemlocks that benefit from their shade will grow between them, and the areas between the rocks will more closely resemble a picnic area than a wild thicket.

But that change will take decades, and won’t be completed until well after I’ve left this earth — and perhaps my kids, as well.

As for the pawpaw tree that once drew me here, the renegade tree so out of place away from the groves of his brethren that grow along the swampy and marshy bottomland areas, will a passing bird or bear ever drop another seed here that grows into a fruit-producing pawpaw much like the ones once enjoyed by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson?

The odds are against it. But the new forest that results from the Chimney Rocks Fire will hold its own secrets that await discovery. Maybe someday my grandkids will happen through here and wonder — much like I did the first time I was here — if they’re the first person to ever step foot on this place.

A lush stand of ferns grows where there was only black, charred ground just four years ago.
Destinations

The ins and outs of St. George Island

The sun sets over the Apalachicola Bay at low tide. If you stay on the bay side of the island's east end, where the waters are shallower, low tide will reveal countless hermit crabs.
The lighthouse at St. George Island dates back to 1833. It can be visited today, and there’s a museum adjacent to it.

A few years ago, I wrote an in-depth guide on St. George Island. It was the most popular article ever posted on this blog. Each year, when I post vacation photos on Facebook, people ask for info on St. George Island. That was the inspiration for this rewrite.

Looking for a reclusive vacation, away from the crowds and the hustle-and-bustle of resort towns? Florida has some coastal vacation spots that are well off the beaten path, but they usually don’t include pristine beaches. Then there is St. George Island.

A 28-mile barrier island located off the coast of historic Apalachicola, St. George Island is one-of-a-kind: an inhabited, yet largely unspoiled island. It’s not the Caribbean, and Jimmy Buffet never sang about it, but it still has a lot of the stereotypical island feel to it — where time slows down (island time) and everything is a little more laid back.

When someone asks me about St. George Island, I always start by telling them what SGI isn’t. There is no Walmart or McDonald’s anywhere close; no miniature golf*, no water parks, no movie theaters, no ritzy shopping developments.

The sun sets over the Apalachicola Bay, as seen from St. George Island.

All of that is, of course, the allure of St. George Island. But it’s not for everyone. If you’re a 20-something (or an any-something) who loves the night life, you’re probably not going to like SGI. If your family likes to always be on the go, you probably aren’t going to like SGI. If you have to have a Walmart or a Target or a Five Guys burger joint or a shopping mall close at hand, you probably aren’t going to like SGI. If your idea of a beach vacation is more about great food than natural surroundings, you probably aren’t going to like SGI. I can’t imagine being one of those people and stumbling onto SGI expecting a Destin-style vacation. I would be sorely disappointed.

But if you like to go to the beach simply to relax, to get away from the people and traffic, SGI may be exactly what you’re looking for. If you’re a middle-aged or older couple, SGI is perfect. If you have young kids, SGI may or may not be a suitable vacation destination. It’s definitely family-friendly, and lots of families vacation on the island with their kids; families with small children probably make up a majority of the island’s visitors at any given time during the summer tourism season. We’ve been vacationing at SGI since my kids were eight years old, and they’ve always loved it … but, then, they’ve never been accustomed to vacations that include laser tag, mini golf, parasailing, water parks, go karts, and etc.

A large sign welcomes visitors to St. George Island as they come off the 4-mile bridge connecting the island to the mainland at Eastpoint.

I searched out St. George Island when I got tired of the crowds of people at Panama City Beach. I love PCB … and I like Destin and the other beaches of the Florida panhandle and the Alabama coast. But I don’t like the crowds of people that accompany them. A few years ago, I got caught up in a traffic jam during my first night in PCB and angrily swore that I was going somewhere else the next year. The next year, we vacationed on the bay side of St. George Island. A year after that, I stupidly decided to go back to PCB. On Day 1, I was reminded why SGI was worlds better. And I’ve never been back.

So now that we’ve talked about what St. George Island isn’t, let’s talk about what it is.

SGI has low-density zoning and strict building codes, which preserves the low-key, laid-back feel. There are no high-rise hotels or condominium complexes, no chain restaurants or high-profile retail shops. (There isn’t even an Alvin’s Island, if you can believe it!) As a result, the entire island feels like a village instead of a resort town.

St. George Island’s most famous resident is country music star Billy Dean, who resides with his wife in a humble home in the center of the island.

There are “drawbacks,” of course. Without them, SGI would lose its allure. One of the drawbacks is that most of the lodging options are vacation rentals. Some of them are independently owned and managed and available through rental services like VRBO, AirBNB and a regional service, Emerald Coast By Owner. Others are owned or managed by rental companies like Collins Vacation Rentals and Fickling & Co. There are only two exceptions: a small motel on the beach — which is dated and frills-free, to say the least — and a small inn that is located off the beach.

Vacation rentals tend to be pricey. The best approach is to join forces with friends or family and split the cost, especially since many of the homes are larger and luxurious. There are some smaller cottages that are suitable for single family units and will fit more modest budgets, but they’re often located away from the beach.

Not all of the homes at St. George Island are luxurious. There are lots of nondescript homes, lots of homes in various states of disrepair, and million-dollar homes — often located side-by-side, both on the beach and away from the beach.
Not all of the homes at St. George Island are luxurious. There are lots of nondescript homes, lots of homes in various states of disrepair, and million-dollar homes — often located side-by-side, both on the beach and away from the beach.
A new, large home is being built on the beach at St. George Island.

There is no entertainment to speak of on the beach. Instead of parasailing and jet ski rentals, you’ll find bicycle, paddleboard and kayak rentals. There are a handful of the typical beach souvenir shops (we prefer Island Dog, a family-owned and -operated shop that is tucked away off the main street). There is a miniature golf course just across the SGI bridge on the mainland at Eastport, but none on the island. There are no theaters, no water parks, no go-kart tracks.

There are two small grocery stores on the island: a Piggly Wiggly Express and a newer, independently-owned grocery. Both are convenient, but have little in the way of selection. Most people prefer to make the 20-minute drive to the mainland and into Apalachicola to purchase groceries.

The first sight you see upon arriving on the island is a Piggly Wiggly Express. Your first impression of St. George Island may be that it appears run-down and dated. But it’s part of the charm and the allure. Time moves slower and things are laid-back here.

As for restaurants, there are a few — but they’re limited. There’s only one beach-front, open-air-dining restaurant, the Blue Parrot. It’s good, but it’s also hit-or-miss. Otherwise, the quality, prices and atmosphere are about what you’d expect from a typical beach-front restaurant just up the road at PCB. Other popular restaurants on the island include Harry A’s Bar & Grill, Paddy’s Raw Bar and Doc Myers Island Pub & Raw Bar. The latter is probably the closest to a typical beach-town nightlife establishment that you’ll find on SGI. You’ll find live music and crowds of people playing corn hole and enjoying their favorite beverages at Doc Myers on any given night.

Other restaurants on the island include the Beach Pit, which is a BBQ joint, and BJ’s, a pizza and sub place. There’s also a Subway sandwich shop (the only chain restaurant you’ll find on SGI or in either of the neighboring towns of Apalachicola and Eastpoint), an ice cream shop and a donut shop.

To be completely blunt and perfectly honest, I can’t highly recommend any of them. The food is okay at several of them, but none of them will knock your socks off. Our trips to SGI usually include at least a couple of trips to the Blue Parrot, mainly because we like the beachfront, open-air dining style, and a trip or two to Aunt Edy’s (the ice cream shop). They serve Blue Bell, which is a plus. BJ’s is incredibly over-priced for the quality of the pies, but they have an appetizer — crab bites — that will be as good as any crab cakes you can find anywhere on the island or the neighboring mainland.

Restaurants on the mainland include Lynn’s Quality Oysters — a bayfront combination fresh seafood market and seafood restaurant. It looks shabby, but then the best ones usually do, it seems. In any event, it comes well-rated and highly-recommended. There’s the Pesky Pelican Grille (which is okay but not great), the Red Pirate (which always seems to be packed), the Family Coastal Restaurant (bayfront) and Eastpoint Beer Company (a bar/pub) in Eastpoint. Across the bay in Apalachicola, there is Hole in the Wall (a tiny establishment that has a pub feel with decent food), the Owl Cafe (upscale dining), The Station Raw Bar (a popular place with food that is good but not great) and the Up the Creek Raw Bar (bayfront). It’s not an exhaustive list, but you get the point.

Inside the 13 Mile Seafood Market in Apalachicola. There, you can watch the fishing boats come in and unload their catch.

The best option? Visit one of the two fresh seafood trucks that set up on the island almost daily, and fix it to your liking. You’ll find Doug’s truck on one side of the lighthouse and Dail’s truck on the other. Their prices are fair and their fish is excellent. If the trucks aren’t there, head across the bridge to the mainland and you’ll find several seafood markets. The nearest option is Lynn’s Oysters. A cheaper option, if you want to drive a bit further into downtown Apalachicola, is the 13 Mile SeaFood Market. There, you can watch the fishing boats come in and unload their catch, then head inside and pick out what you want to take home with you.

St. George Island is a 28-mile barrier island on the Gulf of Mexico. It is separated from the mainland by a 4-mile bridge that crosses the Apalachicola Bay. The island is no wider than a mile, and is usually narrower than that. It was originally settled by the Muscogee, and later the Creek Indians after disease killed off the Muscogee, beginning in the 10th century, before European settlers arrived and eventually took control of the island. Until 1965, the resort town that was developing on the island was accessible only by ferry. Two bridges were constructed that year, connected by a tiny island in the middle of the bay, to reach the island. In 2002, the much larger and current bridge was built after the original buildings were deemed unsafe.

The rising sun shines through the palms and the pines on St. George Island. Forested areas are rare overall, and the island is by no means picturesque with its sea oats and scrub growth. But the sunrises and sunsets are magical.

SGI has a colorful history. It was used as a practice range for Air Force bombers during World War II and a cut was later made between the island and nearby Little St. George to provide access to the Gulf of Mexico from the bayside. Today, that cut is used by fishing fleets from Apalachicola. A lighthouse was constructed on the island in 1833, and was later destroyed by hurricane. It was rebuilt and, except for during the Civil War, when it was decommissioned, it served the island until the 1960s, when it was decommissioned. It was later damaged by two more hurricanes and collapsed, before being rebuilt in the middle of the island several years ago.

St. George Island is not fully inhabited; fewer than 10 miles of the island are inhabited. The eastern end of the island is St. George Island State Park, which includes pristine beaches, protected dunes and a campground. The west end of the island is a large, gated community called The Plantation. Although it is an upscale, gated community, rental homes are available inside. This is the widest part of the island, and also the most forested. Trees become sparser on the east end and central parts of the island, where only palm trees, sea oats and scrub grows along the gulf side of the island and slab pine and other trees grow on the bay side of the island.

The beach at St. George Island at sunset.

When choosing where to stay on SGI, there are generally a few options:

• Gulf-side: The east-end beaches are generally a bit less congested than the west-end beaches. The Plantation is the least congested of all and does include some beach-front homes, but they’re very pricey. Across-the-street beaches still provide beach views for cheaper prices. In the center of the island, there are a number of town houses along the beach. There’s also a large town house community on the beach along the east end, just before the entrance to the state park.

• Bay-side: Staying on the bay provides its own advantages. It’s further from the beach, and you lose the sea breeze (which means it’s going to feel hotter, and be “buggier” — the mosquitoes are merciless). But you are sometimes still close enough to walk to the beach. If not, you can drive to the nearest public beach access (or rent a golf cart of a bicycle). Most bay-front homes have private fishing piers, and many are a bit more secluded than beach-front homes. You’ll encounter more wildlife on the bay side, including pelicans (rarely seen on the beach except for in the surf), lizards, frogs, snakes and scorpions (I’ve learned my lesson the hard way — don’t leave your shoes on the porch if you’re staying on the bay side of the island).

A crab plays in the surf at St. George Island. Crabs are plentiful, both on the bay side and the gulf side. Set a trap and catch some for yourself.

SGI is widely known as a loggerhead turtle nesting area. Locals are strict about beachfront outside lights being left off at night and belongings being removed from the beach in the evenings. It’s also requested that holes not be left on the beach.

You’ll see dolphins on the gulf side just about any day during the summer months, and they’re commonly seen within a hundred yards of the beach. It’s also not uncommon to see them in the bay.

SGI is a dog-friendly beach.

A pelican eats a shrimp from a dock on the bay off St. George Island.

The “worst” part of St. George Island is getting there. It isn’t an easy drive from anywhere. It is an hour-long drive through the aptly-named Tate’s Hell State Forest to reach the coast at Eastpoint. But Apalachicola is quaint and worthy of exploration. PCB is about a two-hour drive along the coast to the west; Alligator Point is an hour drive along the coast to the east. Tallahassee is the nearest major city, about 90 minutes away. The nearest Walmart is about that far away. The nearest McDonald’s is a 30-minute drive.

Because there are no high-rises, the beaches at St. George Island are never crowded. They were a bit more crowded in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has more people seeking vacationing opportunities on the island to avoid the Covid-19 hotspots elsewhere in Florida (there had only been two cases of Covid-19 in all of Franklin County as of June 21, 2020). When the beaches do start to fill up, head to the east end of the island and pay the small fee to enter the state park. The island’s most beautiful beaches are inside the state park, and you’re guaranteed to find a section of beach where you won’t have any neighbors within shouting distance — literally — if you want to walk far enough.

Fishing from a dock on the bay side of St. George Island. Fishing is excellent at SGI, both in the surf and in the Apalachicola Bay. On the bay side, fish with shrimp (live are best, but good luck finding them) or live minnows.

The best thing about SGI besides the beaches and the lack of people is the fishing. The Apalachicola Bay is a rich estuary. The Apalachicola River — formed when the Flint River and Chattahoochee merge — dumps into the sea at Apalachicola, creating a bay that is teeming with life. More than 300 species of birds, 186 species of fish and 57 species of mammals call the Apalachicola Bay home. Sadly, the town of Apalachicola is in decline as the seafood industry diminishes. The Apalachicola Bay once produced 90% of Florida’s oysters, but climate change is causing the oyster populations to diminish rapidly.

The sun sets over the Apalachicola Bay at low tide. If you stay on the bay side of the island’s east end, where the waters are shallower, low tide will reveal countless hermit crabs.

The bottom line: The sands at St. George Island aren’t as white as they are at Destin and Panama City Beach, the Florida panhandle’s most famous beaches. And the water at SGI isn’t nearly as clear. But there isn’t a single stoplight on the island; a pair of 3-way stops in the center of the island are the closest you come to it. Most of the streets are not paved and are dirt roads — the main exceptions are Gulf Beach Drive, the main street through the island; Bay Shore Drive, which parallels the bay; and Gorrie Drive, which parallels the gulf. Residents and visitors alike toil about on golf carts, which are permitted on all streets except Bay Shore Drive. If you stay close enough to the center of the island, you can walk to any destination and will not even need your vehicle for a week. And unlike most beach resort towns, the neighborhoods smell of dinner cooking as the sun sets, which underscores the family-friendly and laid-back nature of the island. Things truly do move at a slower pace on St. George Island. And while the island is slowly becoming more commercialized and congested — I’ve noticed a difference just in the past five years — it’s because more and more people are discovering just how magical a place it is.

Shells litter the beach at St. George Island. The sand isn’t as white here and the water isn’t as clear as it is at other panhandle beaches like Panama City Beach and Destin. But if you like shelling, you’ll love SGI. Some exceptional shells can be found along the island.
The beach is nearly deserted at 10 a.m. on a Saturday morning. Saturdays are turn day for most vacationers, but the beach is seldom crowded at SGI — and if it is, you can head to the state park, where there are even fewer people.
A 4-way stop on St. George Island, and all the streets are dirt roads. Most of the streets on the island aren’t paved.
A 4-mile bridge separates St. George Island from Eastpoint.
A paved biking and hiking trail runs the length of the length of St. George Island from The Plantation to the state park.
The sun sets behind a vacation rental overlooking the Apalachicola Bay at St. George Island.
A Saharan dust cloud shrouds the sky over the Apalachicola Bay during the Summer of 2020.
A pelican awaits its meal at St. George Island.
A view of the lighthouse at St. George Island, which dates back to 1833.
The sun sets over the Apalachicola Bay at St. George Island.
Historic downtown Apalachicola.
You can watch the fishing boats come in and unload their catch at the 13 Mile Seafood Market in Apalachicola.
City hall is in an old warehouse in historic downtown Apalachicola.
Sadly, the seafood industry in Apalachicola is in decline. The Apalachicola Bay provides 90% of Florida’s oysters, but the oysters are being reduced by climate change.
The almost vacant beach at St. George Island State Park.
The almost vacant beach at St. George Island State Park.
The grass flats in the Apalachicola Bay just off the coast at Apalachicola.
The historic cemetery in downtown Apalachicola is worth exploring.
The historic cemetery in downtown Apalachicola is worth exploring.