Distance: 2.4 miles
Elevation Gain: 179 ft.
Trailhead: Pickett State Park
Last week, the Twenty Week Hiking Challenge headed west to Pogue Creek Canyon State Natural Area. This week, we’re heading west again, to visit Pogue Creek’s sister park, Pickett State Park.
We’re going to patchwork together several segments of trail to form a loop hike that visits two of the most popular features within Pickett State Park: Hazard Cave and Natural Bridge. The former is actually just a large rock shelter, but an impressive one; the latter is a natural arch.
At 2.4 miles, this week’s hike at Pickett State Park is the exact same length as last week’s hike at Pogue Creek Canyon. But it features less than half the elevation gain, and is rated “easy” in difficulty. In fact, this is one of the easier hikes of the entire hiking challenge.
Originally, the hiking challenge was scheduled to include the Hidden Passage Loop at Pickett State Park this week. That’s a very interesting loop — in some aspects it is a better hike than Hazard Cave and Natural Bridge — and should definitely be considered by participants of the hiking challenge who would like to return to Pickett State Park this fall or winter. But, at 8.0 miles, we felt the Hidden Passage might be a bit too much of a challenge in the summer heat. So, we chose the shorter and easier hike to Hazard Cave.
Pickett State Park is much older than the neighboring Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area. While the BSF was established in the 1970s, Pickett State Park was established by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. The original facilities there are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Many of the patchwork hiking trails in the state park are nearly as old as the park itself. The trails are all interconnected, giving hikers the opportunity to hike all day or for several days. But for the purpose of the hiking challenge, we’re going to stick to Hazard Cave and Natural Bridge.
From the trailhead on S.R. 154 just inside the park’s south entrance, hikers will begin their trip on the Hazard Cave Trail, which quickly descends from the highway to beneath the bluff line, entering the upper reaches of a feeder stream that eventually empties into Arch Lake, the park’s 12-acre lake.
The trails at Pickett State Park aren’t necessarily the best-signed trails you’ll find, and there are a lot of them. As a result, there are trail intersections that can sometimes be confusing. From the parking lot at the Hazard Cave trailhead, you’ll almost immediately encounter a narrow footpath that heads right. Ignore it, continuing on the gravel trail that descends down two flights of concrete steps. Just after the first set of steps, a second foot path turns right. Ignore that one, too; it is the trail that will return you to your car.
It doesn’t take long to reach Hazard Cave, which is an impressive rock shelter. The signage at the trailhead indicates that the cave is a quarter of a mile from the highway, but it isn’t actually that far.
Hazard Cave is best known for the glow worms that inhabit it. The area around the cave is protected by a boardwalk and wooden fences to encourage the growth of the rare Cumberland Sandwort and Lucy Braun’s Snakeroot.
The trail cuts right in front of Hazard Cave, continuing its descent into a small canyon. Rhododendron, which is nearing the end of its summer blooming season, grows in abundance on either side of the trail.
Eventaully, the trail leaves the stream and continues along the edge of the gorge-like sandstone walls that encase it. You’ll soon notice that the water in the stream is standing still. This is the upper reach of Arch Lake, which attracts canoeists and trout anglers to Pickett State Park.
There is an intersection with Ridge Trail, which departs to the left. Ignore that trail and continue straight until you reach a junction with the opportunity to go left or right.
Going left at the junction will lead you across a wooden footbridge and along the Lake View Trail, which follows Arch Lake. Go right at the trail junction, ignoring the left option.
At this point, the trail intersections will become more frequent, with several trails leading to the state park’s picnic area. Fortunately, the intersections are also better signed. Our destination is Natural Bridge, so those are the signs you’ll want to follow. The first intersection is located just up the hill from the junction where you turned right. You’ll almost enter the cleared picnic area before turning right again.
Continue to follow the signs in the direction of Natural Bridge, until you reach a fork in the trail with signs indicating an opportunity to walk over the bridge or under the bridge. Take a left, to walk under the bridge, and continue through another stream bottom until you finally reach Natural Bridge, which is actually a sandstone arch that is similar to (but smaller than) the Big South Fork’s Twin Arches.
While you can go unde the arch, the passageway ends at a rock wall. The trail itself turns right at the bridge and continues in the opposite direction. Look for a set of rock steps at the end of the bridge and climb up onto the bridge itself to continue your hike.
At the top of the steps, you’ll find that you’ve actually emerged at the highway and another trailhead. Continue to your right on yet another footpath.
At this point, you will begin following the signs that point the way towards Hazard Cave, until you eventually reconnect with the Hazard Cave Trail near the trailhead. The intersection is not marked. Instead of looking for a sign, be looking for the concrete steps that you descended just after leaving your vehicle. When you reach the intersection and see those steps, turn left and your vehicle will be waiting.
Getting There: Take S.R. 297 west from Oneida, through the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area, to its intersection with S.R. 154 in Fentress County. Turn north (right) on S.R. 154 and continue for 2.95 miles. Just after you pass the entrance sign at Pickett State Park, look for a small parking area on the left. This is the Hazard Cave Trailhead. (If you come to either the Natural Bridge Trailhead or the park headquarters and entrance to the picnic area and campground, you’ve gone too far.)
Fun Fact: The glow worm found inside Hazard Cave was first discovered in 1975. It is the larvae of the fungus gnat, and emits a blue, glowing light through the same biological process that creates a firefly’s light. The larvae are found most abundantly in June, but can be seen in July, as well. They are found in greater numbers inside Hazard Cave than just about anywhere else in North America.
Be Careful For: Two flights of concrete steps, and a set of rock steps at Natural Bridge that can be slippery when wet, are the only hazards.
Look For: There is a wooden bench inside Hazard Cave. Believe it or not, this bench is almost 100 years old! It was constructed by the CCC in the 1930s, using wood from the American Chestnut tree that once grew abundantly throughout the Cumberlands. The wood is known for its longevity.
Make it Better: When you reach the trail intersection at Lake View Trail, take a left-hand turn, cross the wooden bridge, and continue on Lake View Trail for views of Arch Lake. You can hike as far as you like; just remember that you have to backtrack to the trail intersection. Or, you can choose to complete the Ridge Trail, which is a 3.0-mile loop that will return you to near the trail junction. Another way to make it better is to pack a picnic lunch and either stop at the picnic area during your hike, or drive to the picnic area after your hike.
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!