Backpacking Tennessee's Cumberland Trail

If you're a backpacking purist, Tennessee's new Cumberland Trail was made for you.
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If you're a backpacking purist, Tennessee's new Cumberland Trail was made for you.

Not long after first setting foot on the Cumberland Trail (CT), I'm reminded of that snappy comeback, "It takes one to know one." The planning and construction of Tennessee's new long-distance path tell you that it was built by hikers for hikers.

This 13-mile section I'm hiking stretches from the historic Civil War site at Signal Point to Prentice Cooper State Forest. Along the way, the CT hugs the rim of a 1,000-foot-deep gorge that the Tennessee River carves as it meanders around Raccoon Mountain. The trail alternately offers edge-of-the-rim overlooks and bluffside views along the bases of massive cliffs.

When complete, the CT will stretch 282 miles from the Tennessee River Gorge north to Cumberland Gap National Historical Park at the Kentucky state line. Ten sections spanning 107 miles have been completed so far. I've come to Prentice Cooper to gape at the views from Edwards Point, high above the Tennessee River. During the 19th century, this section of river sported dangerous shoals, eddies, and the notorious "suck," where swirling waters from Suck Creek reputedly pulled boats to the bottom of the river.

Today, hikers cross North Suck Creek on a 200-foot-high swinging bridge. The traverse of Middle Creek is a similar high-wire act. Both bridges are architectural wonders guaranteed to test your courage and sea legs.

By combining the 13-mile segment of the CT that I hiked with 22 miles of Prentice Cooper State Forest trail, you can make a figure-eight loop that will keep you busy for a 3-day weekend. And while the drop-dead vistas from Signal Point and Edwards Point regularly attract gawkers, the trail beyond is nearly deserted. I share it only with a skittish deer and a traveler slower than me, a lonely box turtle.

That evening, in a quiet camp near a murmuring creek, I consider the remarkable transformation that has taken place at Signal Mountain since the Civil War. The thundering cannons and flashing signal flags have been replaced by the sounds of trail building and the rhythm of hiking boots.

EXPEDITION PLANNER: Tennessee's Cumberland Trail

Drive Time: The western and eastern trailheads are both about 30 minutes north of Chattanooga.

The Way: From I-24 in downtown Chattanooga, head north on US 27 (pay attention to highway numbers). For the eastern trailhead, take US 127 into the town of Signal Mountain and follow signs for the National Park Service's Signal Mountain site. For the western trailhead, take TN 27 north and follow the signs for Prentice Cooper State Forest. Once in the forest, drive south on the gravel Tower Road to the signed trailhead.

Trails: This section of the Cumberland Trail (CT) is 13 miles (one way). The western end connects with the Mullens Cove and Pot Point loops in Prentice Cooper State Forest, where you'll find an additional 22 miles of trail.

Elevation: The trail crosses North Suck Creek at 1,300 feet, then climbs to the western trailhead at 1,850 feet.

Can't miss: Eye-popping views from Signal Point and Edwards Point across the Grand Canyon of the Tennessee River.

Crowd Control: Prentice Cooper State Forest and the CT west of TN 27 are closed on designated fall weekends for deer hunting. Check with either of the contacts listed below for details.

Guides: Hiking Tennessee Trails, by Evan Means (Globe Pequot Press, 888-249-7586; www.backpacker.com/bookstore; $12.95). Download a trail map from the Cumberland Trail Conference Web site (see Contact below); the CT is not yet shown on U.S. Geological Survey topo maps.

Walk Softly: Camping along the CT is permitted at designated sites only. Indian Rock House (at the western end of the trail) is a protected archaeological site.

Contact: Prentice Cooper State Forest, (423) 658-9201. Cumberland Trail Conference, (931) 456-6259; www.cumberlandtrail.org.