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Saturday, December 4, 2021
Outdoors Bonus Hike: Enjoy the numerous rock houses at Middle Creek

Bonus Hike: Enjoy the numerous rock houses at Middle Creek

Distance: 3.5 miles Elevation Gain: 388 ft. Difficulty: Moderate Trailhead: Middle Creek Features: Geology “One of my favorite trails in East Tennessee outside the Smokies.” That’s how Gemma Nash describes the Middle Creek Nature Loop in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area on AllTrails. “A hidden gem if you like cool rock formations […]

Large rock shelters highlight the Middle Creek Nature Loop Trail in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area | Ben Garrett/IH

Distance: 3.5 miles
Elevation Gain: 388 ft.
Difficulty: Moderate
Trailhead: Middle Creek
Features: Geology

“One of my favorite trails in East Tennessee outside the Smokies.” That’s how Gemma Nash describes the Middle Creek Nature Loop in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area on AllTrails.

“A hidden gem if you like cool rock formations and don’t like crowds.” That’s how Laura Lyle describes it.

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The bottom line: Middle Creek Loop doesn’t get negative reviews. It’s one of the most highly-rated trails in the entirety of the Big South Fork, and for good reason. It’s relatively easy, it features a ton of rock formations, and a lot of recent rainfall just makes the trail even better because the wet-weather waterfalls will be showing off.

The Twenty Week Hiking Challenge is offering the Middle Creek Loop as a bonus hike. This past weekend was a complete washout and, while we usually say our hikes are rain-or-shine events, this past week was an exception. Not only was hiking impossible on Saturday due to the numerous thunderstorms that passed through the region, but hiking to the JD Burke Cabin on Sunday remained an impossibility because the trailhead and much of the trail were under water.

So, we are putting the hiking challenge on hold for a week. Rather than introducing the fourth trail this week, as scheduled, we’re going to give hikers an opportunity to play catch-up. If you’ve already hiked to the JD Burke Cabin and want to take advantage of what looks like an awesome weekend, weather-wise, enjoy the hike at Middle Creek.

We’ll even do one better than that: Simply because the Big Island Loop Trail to the Burke Cabin is likely to still be very muddy for the next little while due to the recent flooding, we’ll allow hiking challenge participants to substitute a hike on the Middle Creek Trail this week for the Burke Cabin hike. In other words, if you didn’t make it to the Burke Cabin, you can hike at Middle Creek this week instead and stay on track to complete the challenge and compete for prizes.

We think the hike to the Burke Cabin is well worth the effort, but we want to be good hosts, and the hike along the river from Station Camp is quite muddy even under the best of conditions. So if the mud has you leery about the hike, substitute the Middle Creek hike instead and save a trip to the Burke Cabin for later in the spring or early summer, when things dry out.

The weather this weekend looks stunningly gorgeous, with sunny skies and temperatures that aren’t too hot but not too cool, in the 60s. Throw in all the recent rain, and that should make this weekend a perfect time to hike Middle Creek.

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The wet-weather waterfalls along the 3.5-mile loop trail won’t be at their peak; they quickly dry up after a day or two of rainfall. But there should be plenty of water seeping out of the rocks, and this trail isn’t so much about the waterfalls as the rock formations; the waterfalls are simply an added bonus.

Step-for-step, there are more rock shelters and small caves along the Middle Creek Nature Loop than any other hiking trail in the Big South Fork. The trail features 388 ft. of elevation gain, but it’s spread out over 3.5 miles, so no part of the trail is too steep.

From the trailhead on Divide Road, you’ll find that the trail forks just off the road from the vehicles. Take a left and hike the trail in a clockwise direction for the best experience. After a nine-tenths of a mile stroll along the ridge top, the trail dips beneath the bluff line, and that’s where it becomes spectacular.

For most of the rest of the route, the Middle Creek trail meanders along the base of the bluff line, past and through numerous rock shelters and past several wet-weather falls. This trail is perfect for dogs (leashes are required) and younger children that might not be able to keep up on more strenuous hikes. And, as an added bonus, it is a virtual science lesson, with plenty of geology and botany rolled into one great hike through the Big South Fork backcountry.

Each of the rock shelters hikers encounter on Middle Creek Loop is seemingly more magnificent than the one before. Some can be explored, while others are best left alone to avoid damaging the sensitive plant life that thrives in these sheltered areas. One of the rock shelters actually includes a wooden fence to keep hikers away from the endangered Lucy Braun’s Snakeroot that grows inside. This rare plant is limited to the Cumberland Plateau, and it is believed that there are fewer than 50 instances of it, with many of them consisting of only a few plants. It is named for Dr. Emma Lucy Braun (1889-1971), the University of Cincinnati botanist who first described it in 1940.

Eventually, the trail begins a gradual ascent back to the top of the plateau, and follows an old log road back to the trailhead.

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Getting There: Take S.R. 297 west to its intersection with S.R. 154 in Fentress County. Take S.R. 154 north to Divide Road. A right turn will place you on Divide Road (if you come to Pickett State Park you’ve driven too far on S.R. 154). It’s less than a mile along Divide Road to Middle Creek Trailhead.

Fun Fact: A cavity in the rock is considered a rock shelter if it is wider than it is deep, and a cave if it is deeper than it is wide. Most of the rock shelters along the Middle Creek Nature Loop are just that: rock shelters. There are an estimated 1,600 rock shelters in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area, and many of them were first occupied by Native Americans before the first European settlers showed up on the scene.

Be Careful For: Late in the hike, the trail scrambles up rock steps through a series of boulders that have broken away from the main rock wall. The kids will enjoy this boulder scramble, but parents should use caution to be sure they don’t fall. Many of the rock shelters seep water year-round and contain marshy areas, and there are footbridges that can be slick when wet. Avoid disturbing plant life in these sensitive areas beneath rock shelters.

Look For: A century ago, American hemlock trees were prominent in this area and throughout much of the rest of the Big South Fork and Appalachia. The majestic tree was wiped out by a fungal disease in the first half of the 20th century. Today, a few large, decaying stumps remain, some of them containing young shoots of live chestnuts, with will die before they reach maturity due to the fungus still being present in the atmosphere. Several of these large stumps can be seen along the Middle Creek Loop Trail.

Make It Better: After you’ve completed Middle Creek Loop, hop in your car and make the short drive up the road to the Sawmill Trailhead and complete the Slave Falls Loop. This 4.2-mile loop features 377 ft. in elevation gain and is rated easy. It features Slave Falls — where runaway slaves were once hidden — and spectacular rock formations, such as the Needle Arch and one of the largest rock shelters in the entire national park.

Share the Adventure: Tag your photos on Facebook and Instagram, #20WeekHikingChallenge, for an opportunity to win prizes (please be sure your post privacy is set to public in order to be eligible for a drawing; otherwise, we may not be able to see the pictures). 

Remember To: Please remember to take your trash with you when you leave the trail, and consider packing out anyone else’s trash you might come across. Remember the adventurer’s creed: “Leave only footprints; take only memories.”

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Independent Herald
Contact the Independent Herald at newsroom@ihoneida.com. Follow us on Twitter, @indherald.
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