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Views worth the trip

The view from near Guinea Ridge Knob, where Scott, Anderson and Morgan counties all meet. (Ben Garrett/IH)

Sometimes the places hardest to reach are the places most worth the effort required to find them.

You could say that of the spine of the Cumberland Mountain range, where Scott, Morgan and Anderson counties all meet somewhere between the headwaters of Brimstone Creek and Smokey Creek.

Depending upon your starting point and your exact route of travel, it can be at least a half-day’s drive in and out of these mountains. And, yet, the best vantage points — the ones at the very top — are surprisingly close to places that dozens of Scott County families call home, like Lone Mountain, Smokey Junction and Norma.

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The complete story can be found in the Sept. 7, 2017 print edition of the Independent Herald.[/s2If]

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Getting to these places, atop (or near the peak of) such mountains as Guinea Hill Knob, Walnut Knob and Burge Mountain, may require a few miles and a few hours, but the trip itself is not especially difficult. Environmentalists routinely place the natural gas industry directly in their crosshairs, but natural gas explorational drilling in the Cumberlands does have one thing going for it: improved roads.

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Today, many of the roads in these mountains are much as they were 30 and 40 years ago, when coal was king around here: gravel-surfaced, and traversable. Rough, maybe, but traversable. That isn’t good for the ATV enthusiasts who have put the Cumberlands on the map over the past 10 or so years, but it’s good for everyone who doesn’t own a side-by-side and wants to journey to the top of the mountains without scratching or denting their daily driver.

Of course, the roads in these mountains are in a constant state of flux. Because the terrain is steep, erosion is a constant player. And because there are no families living this high up — the land is all state-owned or held by land use management firms anyway — there is no point in repairing those roads if they aren’t being used for logging operations or to access active mines or wells. The tens of thousands of tons of gravel that were spread along these roads in the 2000s as natural gas exploration reached its peak are already starting to give way to the forces of nature, as roads become rutted and, in some cases, overgrown.

One such example is the road to the top of Flower Mountain, south of the Lone Mountain community near the head of Brimstone. At various points over the past 20 years, the mountainside could be traversed by a typical sedan as the road was repaired for logging and drilling operations. These days, the road isn’t suited for much more than a side-by-side, thanks to the undergrowth that is crowding in from either side.

On the opposite side of the coin is Trail One — Brimstone Recreation’s thoroughfare from River Road near Huntsville to the very top of the mountains many miles south. Once the road leaves Brimstone’s privately-held lands and ventures onto the North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area, it was once impassible for most standard vehicles as it began climbing the side of Round Mountain just south of the headwaters of Franks Branch, near Rob Sexton Cemetery. Recent repairs have left the road in much better condition — though not nearly as good as some of its counterparts — all the way to Signal Mountain and beyond.

For the most part, the majority of Scott County residents who haven’t ventured to the head of places like Brimstone or Smokey Creek would be surprised to learn that the Cumberlands can be explored in a typical pickup truck or Jeep — often without locking in the hubs or switching to four-wheel-drive. As long as there’s enough ground clearance to make it over the occasional washed-out places along the gravel roads, a two-wheel-drive vehicle can make it in and out of these mountains with little trouble.

A trip into these mountains can be quite nostalgic for those who remember when coal was being extracted from the strip mines and deep mines, even though many of those lingering traces of the coal-mining days are disappearing into the landscape. The old powder bin above Slick Rock is gone. The West Coal Company washer near Bunch Gap is gone. The power lines that are still standing are quickly being rendered invisible by encroaching undergrowth. The communications tower above Guinea Hill Knob recently collapsed. Even the scars of the strip pits are fading.

There are many ways into the mountains, though the easiest from this side is by way of Flower Mountain, Slick Rock or Smokey Creek. The quickest route, for those who prefer to stay “on road” as much as possible, is Smokey Creek. Once civilization ends in the valley and the ascent begins, it’s a relatively short drive to an overlook providing an excellent view of the TVA’s wind farm at Buffalo Mountain. From there, it’s an even shorter drive to Guinea Hill Knob, the highest point in Scott County, which offers another fantastic vantage point of Asher Fork above the headwaters of Smokey Creek.

At that point, you’re straddling the Scott County line, which runs along the ridge line of Smoky Mountain, crossing such peaks as Guinea Ridge, Walnut Knob and Norman Pond Knob before turning northwest. From there, you can continue north towards Brimstone, take a west to the headwaters of the Emory River in Morgan County, or turn and head in the opposite direction, eventually emerging in either Petros, in Morgan County, to Rocky Top, in Anderson County, or into Campbell County.

One point to remember: Once you leave the public road, you’re required to have the appropriate state permits — a hunting license and an associated WMA permit will suffice. And, if you’re going to travel onto Brimstone property, you’re required to have a riding permit for those lands. Brimstone offers discounted permits for Scott County residents.

This story is the September 2017 installment of Our Back Yard, presented by First National Bank on the first week of each month as part of the Independent Herald’s Back Page Features series.[/s2If]

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