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April 2001

Backpacking Tennessee’s Cumberland Trail

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 The thundering cannons and flashing signal flags have been replaced by the sounds of trail building and the rhythm of hiking boots.

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