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Home Outdoors Hike of the Week: Pogue Creek Canyon

Hike of the Week: Pogue Creek Canyon

Killdeer Arch is a highlight of the Upper Canyon Trail in Pogue Creek Canyon State Natural Area | Photo: HikingProject.com

Distance: 2.4 miles
Elevation Gain: 443 ft.
Difficulty: Moderate
Trailhead: Black House Mtn.
Features: Geology

As the Twenty Week Hiking Challenge nears its end, we’re visiting Pogue Creek Canyon State Natural Area this week, on the outskirts of Pickett State Forest.

It’s a 35-minute drive from Oneida to Pogue Creek Canyon, but the short drive is well worth it to see one of Tennessee’s most unique geological oasis. 

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Consisting of 3,000 acres that was recently entered into Tennessee’s public land coffers, Pogue Creek Canyon is situated along the western escarpment of the Cumberland Plateau and features literally miles of sheer cliffs, overlooks, natural arches and many other interesting rock formations.

One of those arches, Killdeer Arch, is the destination for this week’s hike. Actually, this short hike is a two-for-one feature, because you’ll also get to visit Mesa Top, a spectacular overlook that offers views of the Wolf River Valley from the edge of the plateau.

The trail is the Mesa Top Trail, and rather than beginning at Pogue Creek Canyon’s primary trailhead off S.R. 154, we’re going to venture a bit further northwest onto Black House Mountain Road and start the hike there. That will shave a little of the distance off the hike, leaving only a 2.4-mile hike that is mostly easy, except for a few spots that offer a bit more of a challenge. At one point on the east side of the loop, the hiking trail passes through Killdeer Arch. 

This particular hike actually links portions of the Mesa Top Trail and the Upper Canyon Trail to form a loop trail. From the small parking area on Black House Mountain Road, you’ll find the Moccasin Rock Trail leading north towards Pickett State Park. It’s a two-mile hike from Black House Mountain Road to Pickett State Park, but we’re looking for the old roadbed on the opposite side of Black House Mountain Road that leads along the ridge top to Mesa Top.

About a quarter of a mile from Black House Mountain Road, you’ll come to a fork in the trail. Stay right to continue along the Mesa Top Trail towards the overlook. About four-tenths of a mile from the roadway, there will be a spur trail leading right. Stay left to remain on the main trail towards Mesa Top.

It is almost exactly one mile from Black House Mountain Road to the overlook at Mesa Top. The hike in is rather unspectacular, featuring an easy stroll along the ridgetop with very little elevation change.

Things get more interesting, however, when you leave the overlook and complete the loop.

A little less than a quarter of a mile back along the ridge towards the trailhead, there is a trail interesection where the Upper Canyon Trail meets Mesa Top Trail. Take a right here to take the Upper Canyon Trail and begin the second part of the loop.

The Upper Canyon Trail will wind beneath the rim of the gorge, but will basically follow the same ridge you hiked in on. Along the way, it will pass through Killdeer Arch, a large natural sandstone arch.

After a little more than half a mile, the trail reaches another intersection. At this point, the Upper Canyon Trail continues back towards S.R. 154, while a short connector trail to the left leads back towards Black House Mountain Road. Take the left-hand trail to head back towards Black House Mountain and the Mesa Top Trail. It’s only about three-tenths of a mile back to Mesa Top, and a little less than a quarter of a mile from Mesa Top back to the parking area.

Getting There: Take S.R. 297 west from Oneida, through the Big South Fork River gorge, and to its terminus at S.R. 154 in Fentress County. Turn right to head north on S.R. 154 towards Pickett State Park. After just over a mile, and just beyond the main trailhead and astronomy field at Pogue Creek Canyon, Black House Mountain Road will turn left. Take this turn and head northwest along Black House Mountain Road for almost 1.5 miles until you reach the small trailhead at Moccasin Rock. Look for the Mesa Top Trail on the left side of the road.

Fun Fact: The many rock houses of Pogue Creek Canyon provide a perfect growing environment for rare plant species such as Cumberland sandwort and Lucy Braun’s snakeroot. The snakeroot is known to grow in only four counties in Tennessee, all in the Big South Fork area, and it is found in abundance within the rock houses of Pogue Creek Canyon. It is one of 600 plant species documented within Pogue Creek Canyon State Natural Area.

Be Careful For: The Mesa Top Overlook is unprotected. Use caution with pets and small children.

Look For: Notice the forest type differences as the terrain changes. The forests of Pogue Creek Canyon are very similar to the forests of the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area. Deep in the gorge, the forests are dominated by eastern hemlock, magnolia and red maple, with rhododendron and mountain laurel growing in the understory. Further up the sides of the gorge, the forests become a mix of tulip poplar, beech, sycamore, yellow birch, maples, American basswood, yellow buckeye, oaks and hickories. Sugar maple and beech trees are more common closer to the streams, while oaks and hickories become more predominant higher up the slopes. Towards the top, where the soil is dry and sunshine is abundant, red maple and pine become the most dominant tree types.

Make it Better: Instead of driving to Black House Mountain Road, begin and end your hike at the primary trailhead for Pogue Creek Canyon, which is located on S.R. 154 at the astronomy field just north of the S.R. 297-S.R. 154 intersection. From here, you will take the Upper Canyon Trail all the way to Mesa Top. It’s almost three miles to the overlook. Coming back, you simply retrace your steps along the Upper Canyon Trail, though there is an option for a small inner loop near the trailhead. The entire hike would be 5.9 miles, featuring 1,400 ft. of elevation gain and a difficulty rating of strenuous.

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.

Don’t Forget: Obey the Leave No Trace ethic by “taking only memories, leaving only footprints.” If you pack it in, please pack it out!

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