When most of us think of overlooks, we think of the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area — of long hikes along switchbacks and through jumbled boulders from the edge of the river that snakes its way along the Cumberland Plateau to the rim of the gorge that encases it, where stunning vistas await.
And there are plenty of beautiful overlooks in the Big South Fork, available via hikes just like those and, sometimes, available by short, easy strolls from the nearest parking lot.
But overlooks aren’t exclusive to the Big South Fork. There are some stunning viewscapes in the Cumberland Mountains, as well … and few of them are better than the easiest one of all to reach: the “windmill overlook” high above the headwaters of Smokey Creek.
The view is of the New River headwaters — though you can’t actually see the river from up here — and TVA’s Buffalo Mountain Wind Park that is situated atop the ridgeline separating the upper New River Valley from Oak Ridge and Oliver Springs.
Yet, aside from the ATV riders and other off-road enthusiasts, few people in Scott County have ever been here … and most would be surprised to know just how accessible this particular vantagepoint actually is.
You aren’t going to hop in the family sedan and drive to the top of Smokey Mountain, of course; but, by the same token, you don’t need a side-by-side or a modified Jeep to get up here. Any 4×4 vehicle will do. In fact, you’ll likely make it from the county road along Smokey Creek to the top of the mountain without ever kicking it into four-wheel-drive.
The drive along the public roads to the head of Smokey Creek is half the adventure of a trip to the overlook. Simply because of how far off the main highway it is, many people who live outside the Norma-Smokey Junction area spend their entire lives in Scott County without ever venturing far enough up New River to see the site of the former Roach’s Creek mining camp, or Hembree’s Store at the junction, or the former coal washer.
It’s a shame, because there is a ton of history in these foothills of the Cumberland Mountains. Dating back to the late 1700s, this valley was the place where white men first settled in what would become Scott County, farming the fertile soils of the New River Valley. Later, it was where the first big-time logging industry got its start, as the New River Lumber Co. began cutting the virgin timber in what was known as the Bird Lands in the river valley. Still later, there was extensive coal-mining that took place both in the foothills and along the peaks that tower high above.
Today, the mining has ended. The timber-cutting continues, and likely always will, to some degree. But, for the most part, the sound of heavy trucks rumbling along Norma Road and Smokey Creek Road has ceased, as has the sound of locomotives rumbling along the tracks of the Tennessee Railroad that follow the river south into Anderson County. What’s left in the valleys are the open farmlands, where the descendants of many of the early settlers of this area still live — with surnames like Jeffers and Byrd and Gibson and Hembree and, of course, Lowe.
Towering over the valleys are the mountains. As time passed, the commercial operations moved further up the ridgelines. Strip mining replaced deep mining; clear cutting replaced select cutting. And, still later, natural gas exploration visited. As a result, the scars of those exploits are easily seen throughout these mountains. Some would say these hills — which are among the oldest mountains in North America — have been used and abused. And there’s plenty of truth to that. But, at the same time, the commercial activities here provided jobs and a way of life for generations of Scott Countians.
And, today, the roads that were left behind by the timber-cutters, the coal-miners and the well-drillers have left us with ways to trek through these mountains, exploring them in ways that our forefathers would’ve never dreamed possible.
Near the head of the beautiful Smokey Creek Valley, motorists will leave behind the public road and begin the long, winding drive up the mountain. It’s not hard to figure out where the county’s maintenance of the road ends, but — for now, at least — the route up the mountain is in good condition. It ebbs and flows, of course; maintaining these roads is expensive, so their condition tends to slide at times.
After climbing more than 2,000 ft., the road levels out. The peak that rises just above is Burge Mountain. A couple of miles to the east is Guinea Hill Knob. And, just a stone’s throw north of Guinea Hill is Walnut Knob. Together, this triangle of peaks tie for the highest peaks in all of Scott County, each of them standing 3,250 ft. in elevation.
It is on Guinea Hill Knob that Scott, Morgan and Anderson counties all come together in a point. The ridgeline heading north, towards Walnut Knob, serves as the dividing line between Scott and Morgan counties. The ridgeline between Guinea Hill Knob and Burge Mountain is the dividing line between Scott and Anderson counties. In 1849, surveyors walked these ridge tops as they carved Scott County out of the surrounding counties.
Today, the road that climbs high above Smokey Creek follows the same route those surveyors took more than a century and a half ago, once it reaches the top of the mountain. It doesn’t actually climb to the top of Burge Mountain, nor does it climb to the top of Guinea Hill Knob. Instead, it follows the ridge line between those two peaks. And, about halfway in between the peaks — give or take — is the breathtaking view of Buffalo Mountain and the wind farm that is situated above it.
If you could see far enough into the valley, you’d be looking at Indian Fork Creek (not the same Indian Fork Creek that empties into Brimstone Creek, or the Indian Creek that empties into Smokey Creek). You would also see S.R. 116 — New River Highway — and the now-abandoned Tennessee Railroad line.
You can’t see any of that from up here, but you can see the massive wind turbines at Buffalo Mountain. Even from this distance, there is something almost spooky about the massive turbines, as they slowly turn in the breezes that waft along these mountaintops.
Built by the Tennessee Valley Authority in 2000, Buffalo Mountain is the only wind farm in the Southeast. The original three turbines that were built by TVA now stand idle. But there are 15 more, owned by Invenergy, which sells power produced by the wind to TVA.
Today, Buffalo Mountain Wind Farm produces 40 percent of the power used by TVA’s Green Switch program, which allows customers to purchase $4 blocks that ensures part of the electricity they’re using is generated by renewable resources like solar or biomass, in addition to wind. The Buffalo Mountain turbines create enough kilowatt hours of electricity to power 3,400 homes each year.
It is often said of the most remote locations that you “can’t get there from here.” And nowhere feels more remote than standing on the ridgetop between Burge Mountain and Guinea Hill Knob. And, yet, standing here is a testament to just how small the world is, after all. You can get here from almost anywhere — from S.R. 116 by way of either Lake City or Petros; from the Emory River Valley north of Wartburg; or from several roads leading to the top of the mountain up and down Brimstone Valley — including routes from Slick Rock, the old coal tipple site further up the creek, from Wolfpen Hollow or Mill Creek, or from Flower Mountain. You can also get here from Huntsville, following the long and rocky road originally known as the Four Lane — now Trail #1 — from the very base of Sheep Rock Mountain along the ridge line to the highest peaks in Scott County. Each of the roads leading up here vary in condition; some are fit for nothing more than a four-wheeler or a side-by-side, while the way up from the head of Smokey Creek is suitable for just about any vehicle with a little ground clearance.
By car, it would take you a long while to get from Smokey Junction or Norma to Frozen Head State Park east of Wartburg. From here, the boundary of the state forest surrounding the park is no more than a hop, skip and a jump away. By car, it would take you a long while to get to Oak Ridge. From here, it’s just over the next ridge and out of sight.
From the Buffalo Mountain overlook, it’s just a short drive to the west before the road forks. The right fork leads northwest, along the Scott-Morgan county line towards Brimstone and Huntsville. The left fork leads southwest, winding around the rim of the giant basin that can be seen from the overlook before eventually emerging along S.R. 116 at Gum Branch west of Devonia — site of the region’s largest coal washer and the southern terminus of the Tennessee Railroad.
Note: The overlook and many of the other places referenced in this story are located on the North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area. Entering the WMA by vehicle requires the driver or one of the vehicle’s occupants to have either a combination of a Tennessee hunting license and a WMA permit, or a WMA special use permit. Located nearby are Brimstone Recreation lands, which require a separate special use permit unless you are on a shared trail between the WMA and Brimstone.